Show Up

By Andrew S. Eristoff

Let's face it: City Council is not exactly the Senate of the Roman Republic. Debate in the council is limited and banal. Hearings can be lengthy exercises in frustration, listening to council members opine on complicated matters about which they haven't a clue. The mayor dominates city government and gets most of the press attention. And when the cameras and the reporters do show up, the posturing is nauseating.

But those fortunate enough to get elected and take office in the new City Council on January 1, 2002, will have the privilege of helping to govern the largest and most complex city in America. It is a "job" unlike any other.

For those you who do take office, you no doubt already have a good idea of what to expect, but perhaps the following bits of insight will prove helpful as you transition into your new role.

GENERAL ADVICE

1. TWO NEW JOBS, NOT ONE.
The 1990 Charter Revision turned what had been a neo-Classical gathering place for part-time community ombudsmen into something approaching a real legislative body with important land use and budget powers. As a consequence, you need to know that you will in fact have two distinct jobs: community ombudsman and quasi-legislator. You will discover a surprising lack of overlap between your two roles. How you apportion your time will be a function of your interests, your political needs, and your community's expectations. Some successful council members focus exclusively on their communities and never play a major role at City Hall. Others spend almost all their time focused on matters at City Hall and let their staff deal with constituent services and community events.

2. NEW YORK IS A BIG PLACE.
One of the wonderful things about serving in the council is that it forces you to appreciate the breathtaking size and diversity of New York City. You and your 50 colleagues will constitute a remarkably accurate cross-section of the strengths, weaknesses, hopes, biases, and priorities of New York's many communities. My advice: get out and see the rest of New York. Join a colleague for a meal in his or her district and reciprocate. The experience will make you a more informed participant in the council's business, especially as you deal with land use matters and set budget priorities.

3. ENJOY YOUR COLLEAGUES WHILE YOU CAN.
Take a good look around. Just as some of your new colleagues will go on to serve in Congress and become internationally prominent figures, there's a reasonable chance that one or more will eventually face scandal or indictment and perhaps even go to jail. Either way, most are interesting people you'll want to get to know before you part ways.

4. MAINTAIN A BALANCED LIFE.
Some politicians feel that they must attend every political or community event in their district. Ridiculous. You should protect your private time, especially if you have a family. Early on in my term I decided that I would generally not be available for weekend events. It worked out; no one in my community complained. Your district may have a different set of expectations, so make and stick to your own rules accordingly.

4. SHOW UP.
A lot of your record as a council member will depend on luck, chance, and forces beyond your control. Making the effort to show up for work, however, is within your control. No one loses votes by saying, "I have a 100 percent attendance record." It's easy. Do it.

AN EFFECTIVE CONSTITUENT OPERATION

As a council member, you will receive enough money to hire a small staff and maintain a district office. Make creating an effective constituent operation a priority. It is not just good political insurance. Whether you represent the richest or the poorest district in the city, you will have vulnerable constituents who deserve and need your help.

5. CHOOSE A GOOD CHIEF OF STAFF.
Your choice of chief of staff will be absolutely critical. A good chief of staff does more than simply manage a small office. He or she should have the ability to represent you in public and manage sensitive political issues on your behalf. A chief of staff should be able to "read" developing issues before they explode in your face, assess whether they pose political risks or opportunities, and coordinate your response. Another consideration: do you want your chief of staff to be your primary policy and budget aide, or will you hire another person to help cover the City Hall stuff?

6. YOUR CONSTITUENT CASE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM.
After choosing a chief of staff, waste no time in organizing your constituent case management system. Although some council members use custom or commercial constituent case tracking software that includes a database and word processing capabilities complete with supervisory review and "tickler" functions, most use a basic database and traditional paper-based files. You can start a basic database by obtaining a copy of your district's voter file from the Board of Elections (expensive, but worth it) and importing it into a desktop database program such as Microsoft Access. As constituents contact your office, your staff should add information such as issue codes. This is tedious, but important. In a surprisingly short period of time, you will develop excellent mini-mailing lists on key local issues. In addition to the constituent database, you should take the extra time to develop office procedures for managing constituent cases. For instance, decide early on whether you or your chief of staff will review all inbound and outbound correspondence, or whether you will insist on signing all outbound letters in your name. For what it's worth, I reviewed all inbound correspondence and trusted my staff to sign routine referral letters over my name.

7. WHAT TO EXPECT IN YOUR CONSTITUENT OFFICE.
Your district office will perform two related functions: first, your staff will perform constituent "casework," i.e. helping individuals with problems deal with a specific bureaucracy and, second, your office will deal with larger community issues, such as zoning disputes. Although every district is different, a high proportion of your constituent casework will likely involve social services and housing. At a minimum, you and your staff will need to know the basics of how the relevant programs work. For instance, in the housing area you must be familiar with the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) Program, the School Tax Relief (STAR) property tax exemption and how the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) administers the Emergency Tenant Protection Act. DHCR will soon become the bane of your poor staff members' existence. Similarly, you will probably find that a majority of community issues somehow touch upon land use, transportation or (lack of) code enforcement. It is important that you take the time to understand City Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) well. Also, become familiar with the names of the beleaguered Department of Transportation staff members who will help you respond to hundreds of problems each year. Similarly, as a pattern of complaints emerges you should become familiar with the basic state or local laws that apply, whether it is rodent infestation, noisy bars, illegal vending, building code violations, noise, or dumping. I found that getting a subscription to a copy of the Administrative Code and the Rules of the City of New York on CD-ROM was useful, but then I am the kind of person who likes such things.

8. SUPER CONSTITUENTS.
After a few months, you will begin to notice that the same 200 or so people run the various organizations, serve on the Community Boards or Precinct Community Councils, and attend most of the meetings in your district. These individuals are your "super constituents," and you should regard them as a resource. Most give of their time because they truly care about the community. You may have been one of them, so you should know. Chances are, if you treat them with respect, they will help you serve the community by providing advice and useful intelligence regarding sensitive issues. They can also help you reach out to others.

9. DON'T TAKE A POSITION ON EVERY ISSUE.
Don't make the common mistake of feeling compelled to take a position on every controversial community issue. It may sound too calculating, but remember: every time you take a firm public position on a bitter local issue, you will please some people and anger some others. The former will remain pleased until you disappoint them with some other decision; the latter are likely lost to you forever. So choose your battles.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

10. DEALING WITH AUTHORITY.
Although term limits has radically altered the internal dynamics of the City Council, as a new member the chances are that you will not immediately rise to a senior chairmanship. You will need to work with "the leadership" --- manifest in a traditional Speaker's Office or perhaps, now, in a collection of political mandarins --- to obtain favorable committee assignments, obtain budget funds for personal priorities, and pass legislation. Strong leadership is arguably essential if the city council as an institution is to deal equally with the mayor and his administration. Trouble is, thanks to his vast institutional powers, the mayor will always dominate city government, and you'll need the administration's cooperation to be responsive to your constituents' day-to-day concerns. That being said, I've never heard of the voters tossing a council member for fighting with the mayor. Even if the same political party controls the city council and the mayoralty, the institutional rivalry will be a constant feature of your political life. So you have choices: (a) stick with the leadership, and risk the administration's lack of cooperation from time to time, (b) support the administration, and risk becoming a pariah among your colleagues, (c) play the principled iconoclast and earn a place on everyone's enemies list, or (d) try to find a happy median. Think twice before picking (d), as there are plenty of examples of iconoclasts and others who went on to very successful political careers.

11. TREAT THE STAFF WELL.
Trust me, they know more than you do. Although the arrogance of some will be truly annoying, the better tactic is to treat them with respect. They will reciprocate in kind.

12. UNDERSTAND THE LAND USE PROCESS.
I said it before, and I'll say it again: LEARN ULURP. Fight to get on the Land Use Committee. Ask for a briefing with the council's excellent Land Use Division staff to review pending issues in your district. This is the meat of your job.

13. UNDERSTAND THE WITNESS.
When I was in the city council, I had no idea of just how little we knew about the real operations of the agencies that appeared before us. Yes, we had briefing papers and staff-prepared questions, but in reality we rarely did more than skate along the surface. The result, I must now confirm, is that commissioners (and other witnesses) tend to regard council members as both laughably uninformed and quite unpredictable, in that some regularly waste their limited questioning time to focus on extraneous or obscure matters that have little to do with an agency's primary functions. Although some members thrive on verbal judo with hostile witnesses, I believe you may actually learn, and ultimately accomplish, more by inviting the witness to share information or insights on a program or issue. If you are inclined to go for the kill, try giving the witnesses enough rope to hang themselves.

14. CONSIDER AN ISSUE FOCUS.
One way to make a distinction is to become something of an expert on a particular issue: animal rights, child health, mass transit, technology, education --- whatever. By "expert" I mean simply more knowledgeable than most of your colleagues, which on many issues is not going to be a very high bar. Pick an issue that truly interests you. You will find it an enormous help in maintaining your enthusiasm for the process, even in the face of endless and excruciatingly boring committee hearings.

15. USE LOBBYISTS AS RESEARCH RESOURCES.

The popular press tends to characterize lobbyists as the corrupting tools of special interests. In fact, "public affairs professionals" come in all flavors, from poverty advocates to major real estate developers, and the good ones will be among your best sources of information. As a council member, you and your staff will simply not be able to perform independent research on every important issue. You will have to rely on trusted outsiders. An effective lobbyist is not afraid to explain both sides of an issue, or to describe the larger context, because he or she knows that credibility is the currency that counts in the long run.

In closing, please know that you are about to embark on a wonderful experience unlike any ordinary "job". Yes, there will be many frustrations and difficult challenges. But serving in elective office is a rare privilege that carries with it an opportunity to make a real contribution to the city and your community. You've only got two terms, at most --- make the most of them!

Andrew S. Eristoff is Commissioner of the New York City Department of Finance. From 1993 until 1999, he represented district 4 on the Upper East Side in the New York City Council.

###

Read Ed Koch's Be A Cheerleader

Check out the Feature Archives!