Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/146 Mon, 18 Jun 2018 17:22:19 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Johnson Makes Series of City Council Changes, But Sidelines Formal Rules Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7726:johnson-makes-series-of-city-council-changes-but-sidelines-formal-rules-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7726:johnson-makes-series-of-city-council-changes-but-sidelines-formal-rules-reforms cojo cm team

Speaker Johnson, middle, and Council members (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


In December, several City Council members jostling to become the powerful next speaker of the 51-member legislative body signed on to a broad platform of reforms to the Council’s rules and procedures, which can have a significant impact on city law-making and funding for communities. Both returning and newly-elected Council members, 33 of them in total, backed the proposals, which would make legislative drafting procedures more transparent, bolster staffing for prominent divisions such as land use, and tweak the Council’s internal culture in significant ways, among other more minor adjustments.

But a deadline set in that platform for convening a public hearing on the proposals came and went as new Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was among the signatories, has chosen instead to implement administrative changes in lieu of more formal reforms through the Council’s Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges. Several Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette largely praised those measures but others expressed concern that important promises have been left unfulfilled.

In a process somewhat similar to four years prior when Council members proposed changes ahead of the election of a new speaker, the document signed by the Council members in December of last year laid out broad areas where the Council could improve its functions, including in bill drafting, the role and operations of the 40-plus issue committees, the body’s oversight and investigations capacity, its budget negotiation process, its land use powers, and the quality of working life for members and their staff.

“A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018,” states the letter, signed by both Speaker Johnson and Council Member Karen Koslowitz, whom he appointed as chair of the rules committee. “The reforms should then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later than June 2018.”

By this time in 2014, then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had ushered in transformative rules changes that made the body more democratic, diluting some of the traditional powers of the speaker and empowering individual members. The changes were spearheaded along with Council Member Brad Lander, who she appointed to chair the rules committee and was instrumental in drafting the reforms.

Discretionary funding -- also known as “member items” that are usually awarded by Council members to local nonprofits in their districts -- was equalized across Council districts, with additional resources allocated to poorer districts, and could no longer be a tool to punish members who might oppose the speaker, as Mark-Viverito’s predecessors had used it. A new bill drafting unit was created to aid Council members and speed up the legislative process, and other changes were made to how bills are introduced and heard in committees.

Johnson has taken a different tack, making significant administrative changes that cover large parts of the rules reform package and were key pledges he made as he ran for speaker.

The Council voted to significantly increase its own annual budget to $81.3 million, up from $64 million, with the new funds pegged for staffing increases in the land use, legislative, and finance divisions. A dedicated 15-member oversight and investigations unit was created to conduct systemic analyses of city agencies and their functioning. According to a Council spokesperson, the central staff has also internally overseen improvements in bill drafting, no longer allowing indefinite delays on bill introductions and impressing on members to move their bills or release them for others. Members can now also electronically access the status of their bills in real time and there is a timely process for staff to express legal concerns with bill language. Members are provided legal memos on their bills on request, which is apparently rare. All moves meant to address major areas of frustration for some members, though key pieces of proposed changes to bill-drafting have not been implemented.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Council also moved rapidly to change its rules to mandate anti-sexual harassment trainings.

“I am proud to have taken important steps on necessary reforms in my first months as speaker, including the creation of the new Oversight and Investigations Unit that will strengthen our capacity for monitoring city agencies as mandated by the charter,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I will continue to discuss with members what reforms should be made in the future to help better serve the people of New York.”

photobyemilyWhen asked for comment, a spokesperson for Council Member Koslowitz (pictured), chair of the rules committee, initially said the Council member was unfamiliar with the rules reform package that she had signed. When presented with the full list of proposals, the spokesperson declined to comment.

By and large, Council members are appreciative of the steps Johnson has taken. Several members said their bills are moving faster and, without making any comparisons with Mark-Viverito, that Johnson is openly seeking member input on the budget and larger strategy.  

“The rules reform this time around, there were a lot of legitimate questions about whether or not these reforms needed to be put into the Council’s rules or they could just be effected,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a member of the rules committee. “A lot of them had to do with resource allocation. So I don’t know if once Corey’s done with putting his administrative imprint on the body, how much of the rules reforms still need to get done. Maybe that’ll be something to assess once we get through the city budget.”

At the same time, some members declined to comment, taking a wait-and-see approach before they evaluate Johnson’s commitment to rules reform. Others only agreed to speak anonymously, fearing what they say is increased scrutiny of public comments by the speaker’s office.

Those members pointed out, for instance, that though there have been changes to bill drafting, the process still falls largely to the discretion of the speaker’s central staff. Under a long-standing process, Council members who made “first-in-time” legislative services requests -- Council speak for when a member asks for a bill to be drafted -- were given priority even if other members may have similar bill requests. Having a “first-in-time” request meant that members could sit on bills indefinitely, which the rules reforms would have amended with an official time-bound process.

A Council spokesperson said that practice has ended and that members have offered positive feedback for the changes that have been made. Members are no longer allowed to sit on bills, and lose them to other members, the spokesperson said, without providing the details of how the new protocols work.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, said that is perhaps the most significant item in the rules reform package. “There’s no known criteria by which they’re making that decision and that needs to change,” he said in a phone interview. “At the very least, the speaker’s office ought to declare the criteria by which they decide which bills are moved.”

Council members who spoke to Gotham Gazette seemed to be in the dark about whether rules reforms were even being discussed. The overarching platform hasn’t been discussed in hearings though some of the issues have been raised in the Democratic conference meetings, said one member who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.  

“The first-in-time issues have not been changed,” the member said. “They did update the database -- truthfully, this was mostly done last term -- you can find out more quickly whether you’re first-in-time or not, but the process itself is still exactly as it was. And the legal concerns issue,” about getting legal opinions on bills in a timely manner, “is still as it was...And some of the disability and accessibility investments [for Council hearings] still need to be advanced.”

Though the Council allocated more money for pay raises for staffers, it hasn’t implemented pay parity with other city agencies where benefits are better and salaries are higher, despite that being a priority outlined in the draft of reforms. “Yeah, I would add that to the list,” the Council member said. Nor is childcare provided to members or staffers, as called for in the reform proposal.

The Council spokesperson noted that audio induction loops for those with hearing impairments were added last year and that language accessibility can be requested. The spokesperson also said that pay parity has been discussed with members when the Council was deciding its own budget, and ultimately members get to decide how they will use the increased funds budgeted for their offices and staff. The spokesperson also acknowledged that the Council does not currently provide childcare options but insisted that the Council is always looking at ways to expand it for all New Yorkers.

Council Member Mark Levine, one of Johnson’s chief rivals for the speakership, said the Council has made major improvements. “[The Speaker] has made progress on a lot of fronts,” he said, pointing to the uptick in the budget, the staffing increases, and more transparency and faster timelines on bill introductions. “It helps tremendously in managing your LS [legislative service] requests to have real-time access to that information. They’ve also staffed up pretty dramatically in the bill-drafting unit,” he said. “And it’s more equitable now. Everybody gets to identify 10 priority LSs which we want staff to work on and that evens it out a little bit more.”

Echoing Lancman, Levine said a formal hearing wasn’t absolutely necessary. “These changes have been possible through a combination of changing internal procedure, through allocation of resources, and that really is a very big deal,” he said.  

Some members are waiting until after budget negotiations have concluded with the administration to see more changes go into effect, particularly with new funding at the Council’s disposal.

“To date, the specifics of the rules reform stuff that we signed on to hasn’t been evidenced,” said Council Member Robert Cornegy, another current rules committee member and speaker candidate of last year. “There has been some efforts, especially in bill drafting, to make sure that bills move faster. But we’re so deep in the budget and I’m on the budget negotiation team, I can’t really see anything. I almost don’t know what’s going on around me as it relates to the legislation or the rules reform because we’re so deep in the budget.”

Cornegy said he wants to see “a bit more latitude” for members in the drafting process so bills can move more quickly.

Council Member Adrienne Adams, also a rules committee member, said very briefly before a Council hearing, “We’re still waiting. It’s been a while. We’re still waiting. I really don’t have anything to add right now.”

Among other items that remain unfinished are changes to the functioning of the Council committees, which hear bills and hold oversight hearings.

Despite being included in the proposed agenda, there’s still no protocol for committee hearing scheduling; there isn’t a standard process for members who want to switch committees midway through the term; hearings are not automatically triggered for bills with popular support; and committee staff aren’t publishing recaps of hearings that summarize testimony, requests made by members and promises made by the administration (though the full testimony from hearings continues to be readily available online.)

It’s likely once the budget is decided, which could be as soon as the coming week, that the Council will ramp up some of the changes put in motion by Johnson and get to other delayed reforms. Yet, Council members and government reform groups say that needs to happen in a public, transparent way. “If the speaker and 32 members made a commitment to pass rules reforms,” said Camarda of Reinvent Albany, “they should honor that commitment and hold public hearings to solicit input and pass meaningful rules changes.”

Camarda also pointed to a New York Post report from May that highlighted Johnson’s partial reversal on a promise to regularly publish his full public schedule and details of his contact with lobbyists. “We hope this isn’t the beginning of a trend that the speaker’s promises on good government issues go unfulfilled,” Camarda said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Inset Koslowitz photo by Emil Cohen

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Johnson Makes Series of City Council Changes, But Sidelines Formal Rules Reforms Fri, 08 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7414:initial-johnson-move-signifies-changing-of-the-guard-at-the-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7414:initial-johnson-move-signifies-changing-of-the-guard-at-the-city-council Speaker Corey Johnson press conference

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, at podium (photos: William Alatriste)


Just after he was elected Speaker of the City Council on January 3, Corey Johnson had some initial business to take care of: naming a temporary rules committee, including a chairperson. And in this first official decision in his new role, Johnson made a relatively small but important move that is emblematic of the broad shift in the City Council and larger city political dynamics at play in Johnson’s election.

Toward the end of an emotional and intense initial meeting of the new City Council class, at which Johnson, a Democrat, won 48 of 49 votes to lead the 51-seat legislative body for the next four years, the new speaker nominated an interim rules committee, including himself, as is customary, to be led by Queens Council Member Rory Lancman.

Johnson had just been elected speaker with the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party and the Queens County Democratic Party, which is led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley, whom he thanked profusely from the floor of the Council chambers as Crowley looked down from the balcony. The situation was unlike that of Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who became speaker in 2014 after winning the support of a unified Council Progressive Caucus, powerful labor unions, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and members of the Brooklyn Democratic County Party. Four years ago, Mark-Viverito named Brooklyn Council Member and Progressive Caucus co-founder Brad Lander as rules chair.

The shift from Mark-Viverito to Johnson can also be seen in the change from Lander to Lancman, a former member of the state Assembly and stalwart player in the Queens County Party. While all four Democrats share political dispositions and most policy positions, the changing of the guard is evident, and other top committee posts appear likely to go to representatives of the county parties and individual members who backed Johnson’s ascension. It appears this will include the Bronx’s Rafael Salamanca as chair of the land use committee and a Queens Council member, possibly Danny Dromm, as chair of the finance committee, according to sources familiar with the process. Last time around Brooklyn's David Greenfield was named land use chair and Progressive Caucus member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens became chair of finance.

Johnson, himself a member of the Progressive Caucus, has been meeting with his 50 Council member constituents and hearing from other stakeholders like the county party leaders, and is expected to outline committee chair and member nominations within the next ten days.

The rules committee will then take up those nominations, approving the chairs and committee members of all of the Council’s 40-plus committees and subcommittees, including the permanent rules committee, before the full Council gives it approval. It is unclear if Lancman will remain rules chair, or whether he requested the position even on a temporary basis. A request to speak with the Council member was declined by a spokesperson.

City Council Rory LancmanAfter approving committee assignments, the rules committee will then be responsible for considering and passing any changes to the Council’s internal rules -- there is a long proposed rules reform agenda that 33 members, including Johnson and Lancman (pictured), signed on to last month -- and vetting and approving nominees to about a dozen city boards and commissions, like the Board of Corrections and the City Planning Commission.

"The Speaker has already met with almost all of his colleagues and is in active conversations with Council Members, stakeholders, city leaders and advocates to ensure the committee chairs best reflect the priorities of this Council and the diversity of our City," said City Council spokesperson Robin Levine, in an emailed statement. Levine did not directly respond to the question of how Lancman was selected as the initial rules chair. During the prior term Lancman, an attorney and regular critic of Mayor de Blasio, chaired the newly created Committee on Courts and Legal Services.

Four years ago, Lander and Mark-Viverito ushered through landmark rules reforms that significantly altered how the Council functions, including how discretionary funding is allocated to individual members, bringing equity and transparency to a system that had been used by prior speakers to reward and punish.

As he ran for speaker and since being elected, Johnson has championed additional reforms, including to the Council’s bill-drafting protocols. He wants to see changes so that members can no longer put indefinite holds on certain legislation and so that there is more information and awareness around who is working on what bills.

The rules reform package that has the backing of 33 members includes changes to the bill-drafting process but also a beefing up of the Council’s Oversight and Investigation Committee, “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary.” It also includes increasing the Council’s budget and staff and staff salaries; and beefing up the land use division specifically, something Johnson has talked about a good deal during his bid for speaker and since being elected.

At one speaker candidate forum Johnson said that he thinks there is room for possibly eliminating some Council committees while also possibly creating new ones -- he said, for example, that the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee should be broken into two. He did not give any examples of committees that should be eliminated. The Council did delete one committee last term, the Committee on Community Development, when its chair resigned from the Council, but most Council members, including Lander, said at the time that there were no plans to look at eliminating any others.

Along with Lancman as chair and Johnson, the other members of the initial rules committee are Council Members Adrienne Adams, Margaret Chin, Robert Cornegy, Jr., Rafael Espinal, Karen Koslowitz, Steven Matteo, Ritchie Torres, and Mark Treyger.

The package of reforms says toward the end that "A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018. The reforms should then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later than June 2018."

[Related: City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council Tue, 09 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Rules Reform Package Supported by 33 Current and Incoming City Council Members http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7378:rules-reform-package-supported-by-33-current-and-incoming-city-council-members http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7378:rules-reform-package-supported-by-33-current-and-incoming-city-council-members 27078525624 90910e7fa8 z

City Council chambers (photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)


A majority of the incoming class of the New York City Council, including newly elected and returning members, has signed on to a newly-released package of internal rules reforms for the next four-year session, which begins in January. The agenda is intended to improve the Council’s budgeting and legislative drafting processes, strengthen the role of committees, bolster internal budgets, and enhance workplace conditions for Council staff, among other measures.

Of the 51-member legislative body, 33 members have expressed support for the reforms, which would have to be first heard through the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections before being incorporated into a rules resolution to be adopted by the full Council, which will elect a new speaker at its first meeting, on January 3. The members, in a draft document released Tuesday, called on the next speaker to support the reforms and ensure their passage by March, and not later than June.

Seven of the eight speaker candidates back the proposals, including Council Members Robert Cornegy, Mark Levine, Corey Johnson, Jumaane Williams, Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Donovan Richards. Council Member Ritchie Torres was the only speaker candidate not to signal support. “The [Council Member] is still considering and deliberating each proposed reform, and their potential impact, before making a decision to sign on,” explained Raymond Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Torres, in a text message.

The proposals included in the package deal broadly with the Council internal culture and processes, seeking to further empower members and provide more transparency and representation in internal decision making. While they are inwardly focused, the reforms could have significant impact on how the Council operates and the work it does on behalf of New Yorkers.

Although the current Council instituted new rules in 2014 that created an independent bill drafting unit for members, legislation continues to be delayed in the drafting process with “first-in-time” bill requests delaying subsequent ones. It is a particularly frustrating issue for members that bills often get stuck in the "legislative services blackhole," said Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, insisting it was not meant that way by design. "Things have evolved over time in a way that has become problematic," he said. The new proposals call for bolstering drafting capacity, setting new rules for drafting requests by prohibiting indefinite delays and creating formalized rules for “first-in-time” requests. 

The reforms also propose seeking more input from members on the Council’s policy priorities and for the speaker’s annual State of the City address, which current and outgoing Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has often used as an avenue to announce sweeping policy proposals. 

The Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations has been called to action over the last four years to scrutinize Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and for high-profile failures of city agencies such as the Administration for Children Services and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. But, the committee did not exercise its subpoena power in any of those cases. The new proposals call for strengthening the oversight committee “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary,” to conduct more regular oversight of city agencies.

The proposals also emphasize improvements in appointment of members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees, and reforming how the Council’s committees function, including giving committee chairs more discretion in hiring committee staff.

The scheduling of committee hearings would also be reformed to ensure more regularly scheduled hearings, adequate disability and language access, and automatically triggering a hearing for a bill with strong support. They would also require committees to publish summaries of testimony from hearings, including the promises made by the administration and requests made by Council members.

"Over the past term, we have made the Council a dramatically more accountable, fair, and democratic body by bringing fairness to discretionary funding, eliminating lulus and outside income, expanding participatory budgeting, and significantly increasing transparency,” Lander said, in a statement accompanying the release. “The new proposals will take us even further.”

The package also deals with the Council’s internal budget, and the process by which members negotiate the city’s now-$86 billion budget with the administration. It calls for expanded Council support for participatory budgeting and community engagement, and increased capital funding given to each member for their districts. It also exhorts the next speaker to ensure that the Council’s budget negotiating team is fully representative of the Council’s composition, with borough and caucus representation and a few rotating seats to allow members to experience the process. “Council Members who chair committees that oversee 10% or more of the budget should automatically be on BNT,” the document states.  

The 33 council members also appeal for an increase in the Council’s budget, bringing it to the same level as the Comptroller’s office, offering salaries to staff in parity with similar positions at city agencies and training and educational scholarships for staff.

The package also proposes reinforcing the prominent and powerful land use division, which is tasked with evaluating and approving land use applications across the city. The reforms seek to provide urban planners and attorneys to assist Council members navigating related issues and also propose allowing individual members and groups on the Council to sponsor land use applications themselves.

Finally, the reforms also advance quality-of-life improvements at City Hall, including sliding scale child care for members and improvements in air and noise quality. A minor proposal also calls for filling gaps in cell-phone and wireless internet service.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with additional comment from Council Member Brad Lander. 

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Rules Reform Package Supported by 33 Current and Incoming City Council Members Tue, 19 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Questioning Importance, Council Members Spend Limited Time at Hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6246:questioning-importance-council-members-spend-limited-time-at-hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6246:questioning-importance-council-members-spend-limited-time-at-hearings van bramer alone hearing

Council Member Van Bramer starts a hearing (photo: @JimmyVanBramer)


On March 1, at perhaps the most important City Council hearing of the year, just three of the finance committee’s eleven members were present when the session began. The Council’s first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion fiscal year 2017 preliminary budget began nine minutes after its scheduled time, at 10:09 a.m., more prompt than typical Council hearings. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, arrived three minutes later, just after the finance chair, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, wondered aloud whether the speaker would be joining in as expected.

Mark-Viverito, the key figure in negotiating budget matters with the mayor, left about 50 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another five hours after her departure. Over the course of those hours, the rest of the finance committee’s members arrived at some point, staying for different amounts of time, as did six Council members not on the committee. By the time city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony began, at 4:05 p.m., Ferreras-Copeland was the only Council member there to hear him speak.

This scene is typical of City Council hearings, which regularly start more than 15 minutes later than scheduled and see limited attendance by Council members, who are tasked with writing legislation, negotiating the city budget, overseeing city agencies, and tending to a wide variety of issues in their home districts.

Gotham Gazette monitored 13 City Council hearings over a ten-day period, from late February into early March, collecting data that shows more often than not, the committee chair is the only Council member that remains to hear testimony from members of the public at the end of a hearing (7 of 13); more often than not, at least one Council member had two committee hearings scheduled for the same time (8 of 13); and committee hearings never start at their scheduled time, with the earliest start time nine minutes after the scheduled time and the latest start time 54 minutes after. The average start time of the 13 hearings was 23 minutes past scheduled start.

“We actually have multiple members who stayed for the entire hearing,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a nearly four-hour Feb. 3 hearing he chaired on a package of legislation to raise the salaries of city elected officials, including Council members. “That is incredibly rare.”

It can be frustrating for members of the public to miss work and spend hours at committee hearings waiting for their turn to testify, only to find that most Council members have left before they’ve had a chance to speak. Yet to Council members, leaving hearings early or arriving late is often seen as necessary, either due to conflicting hearings or meetings, or to take care of something in their home districts.

“If I were to stay the whole time for every hearing…hours and hours of time would be diverted away from district meetings and staff meetings,” Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette, capturing a theme touched upon in several conversations with Council members about hearings.

“What substantive cross examination can you conduct in the span of two or three minutes?” Torres asked, referring to the fact that committee members are allotted a short amount of time to ask questions during hearings (multiple rounds of questions are usually allowed by the chair, though). “If I want to question a commissioner in detail, I might as well meet with them in private.”

The “real oversight” happens when a Council member runs a hearing as committee chair, Torres added. It as a sentiment voiced by multiple members Gotham Gazette spoke with about the value of hearings and hearing attendance. Many say that they rely upon the chair to conduct strong hearings and are able to be briefed by committee staff, their own staff members, and others.

The oversight that comes with conducting and attending hearings “is perhaps the key element” of Council members’ jobs, said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Yet because the City Council has “a huge amount of hearings and committees,” Russianoff says, Council members often have multiple hearings they must attend that are scheduled at the same time.

Both good government experts like Russianoff and Council members themselves say they believe the large number of committees is related to the recently-banned practice of distributing stipends, or lulus, for chairing committees, and that the number of committees should be examined and potentially reduced. “I think [the large number of committees] was a result of all the Council members wanting to get these lulus,” Russianoff said of the typically $5,000-$10,000 bonuses Council members received for their work as chairs.

“I think that with the elimination of lulus, we’ll hopefully see a reduction in the number of committees,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. The 51-seat Council has 36 committees and six subcommittees.

With all those committees and members sitting on an average of six committees each, avoiding scheduling conflicts can be a near impossible task, particularly when hearings go on for four or five hours. Council hearings typically begin at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.

On March 9, Council members on the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved a resolution to "delete" the Committee on Community Development, but Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, said “there is not a more comprehensive look [at the number of committees] underway.” Lander believes that the number of Council committees helps the Council do its legislative and oversight work better.

While the Council’s move to do away with lulus - which came in conjunction with the pay raises and other reforms - may potentially reduce the number of committees, Russianoff says that in the meantime, he “still believes” Council members’ attendance at committee hearings and the scheduling conflicts created by having so many committee hearings “is a key thing and it is something that they should deal with. It should be a top priority. It’s where they hear from and interact with city officials.”

For Council members, fulfilling their obligations to attend committee hearings, press conferences, public events, other meetings (such as leadership meetings or policy meetings), and addressing the concerns of constituents in their districts is a balancing act. The decision to miss part of a committee hearing is often the result of prioritizing time in their districts above spending hours listening to testimony.

“Most days feel like a sprint,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who represents portions of upper Manhattan. “But there’s no substitute for showing up in person, whether it’s a public event, meeting with a local leader or commissioner, a press conference, or a hearing; so as much as possible, we try to be in two places at once.” 

Levine, a member of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, was able to spend just five minutes at the committee’s March 3 preliminary budget hearing. This was due to the fact that he had to chair the Committee on Parks and Recreation preliminary budget hearing held at the same time.

Generally, when Council members are unable to remain for the duration of a hearing, they have a member of their staff attend, take notes, and fill them in on key information they may have missed, or they get briefed by committee staff. Others, like Council Members Torres and Levine, catch up on what they missed by watching videos of hearings that are posted on the Council’s website, they said, or by reading through parts of written testimony.

Council members question whether spending several hours at a committee hearing is the best use of their time.

“I will confess that it’s not necessarily worthwhile to remain throughout the duration, and here’s why: I often tell people there are no committees, there are only committee chairs. When you’re a committee chair, there’s no limit to the duration or depth of your questioning,” said Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Committee on Public Housing.

“Whereas if I go to another committee, I have to wait two hours to get five minutes of questioning,” Torres continued, adding that oftentimes, committee members don’t even get five minutes, because agency heads or members of the administration who testify “filibuster for three minutes…Waiting two hours for a few minutes of questioning seems like a squander of time.”

Yet it seems some Council members find there is value in spending time at committee hearings even if they’re not the chair. Council Member Kallos remained for the duration of a 40-minute Subcommittee on Landmarks hearing on Feb. 25, and showed up for an hour or more to three other hearings monitored by Gotham Gazette, though he is not a member of the committees holding those hearings.

“In fairness, those are hearings on my legislation,” Kallos said. Council members do not always attend hearings on their bills, but, Kallos says, “when my bill is being heard, a lot of the time those are people I’ve invited. It would be impolite for me to not be there.”

As Torres admits, it “can be deeply demoralizing” for members of the public to wait several hours for their chance to testify, only to find that just one or two Council members have stayed to listen to them. As almost all City Council hearings take place during normal work hours, it can be difficult for members of the public to attend hearings. Often, those who wish to testify take time off from work in order to speak before the Council.

matteo hearing - william alatriste photoWhile Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents part of Staten Island, believes attendance at hearings is important and stressed his excellent attendance record, he also said that remaining for the duration of a hearing is not usually the best use of time. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the priority that day?’ Sometime’s it’s spending time in a hearing,” Matteo told Gotham Gazette, “sometimes, I need to be in my district…it’s extremely important to be in the district.”

“I’m always asking myself what’s the most efficient use of my time, I can’t be in two or three places at once,” said Matteo (pictured), echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the Council members contacted for this story. Gotham Gazette presented about a dozen Council members or their representatives with detailed instances of their attendance during the 13 monitored hearings and those who responded typically explained their limited hearing presence with specific responsibilities they were attending to.

Remaining at hearings for the entire time “takes away from being in the district, but is a big part of what we do,” Council Member Daneek Miller explained. “The hearing part is something that I’ve committed to. I do hearings that are outside of my committees, I did consumer affairs and public safety [budget hearings] because those are issues that impact the community and you need access [to agency commissioners].”

Council Members Matteo, Levine, and Rafael Espinal all told Gotham Gazette that when there’s a hearing held on something that has a meaningful impact in their districts, they make sure to attend.

Miller did spend about an hour and a half at a March 3 housing and buildings hearing, though he is not a member of that committee. At the March 1 finance committee budget hearing, Miller arrived two and a half hours late, stayed for two hours, and then left about an hour and a half before the hearing concluded. Miller explained that he arrived around 11:30 a.m. because he was with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery for a site visit to a daycare center to promote the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion, and left early because he had meetings scheduled in his legislative office.

Matteo, Minority Leader of the Council’s three-member Republican minority, arrived 21 minutes late to the 10 a.m. Feb. 23 Committee on Health hearing because he was attending a leadership meeting elsewhere in City Hall, he said, and left before the hearing ended because he had a budget negotiating team meeting to attend.

Matteo arrived early for the 10 a.m. March 1 preliminary budget hearing held by the finance committee, and left an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing began in order to attend an 11:30 meeting with Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, he said.

Espinal arrived almost two hours after the start of the March 3 housing and buildings hearing on the preliminary budget, and left less than 20 minutes later. Espinal said he had meetings at 250 Broadway on the proposed East New York rezoning to attend. Earlier, Espinal arrived 50 minutes after the 11 a.m. Feb. 22 Committee on Housing and Buildings hearing began because he had to chair a consumer affairs committee hearing which began at 10 a.m.

“I sit on seven committees,” Espinal said. “There are many conflicting committee hearings and we have to make a decision. It’s sometimes impossible to do both.”

While Council members may come and go when they want or need to during hearings, members of the public are often left waiting hours for their chance to speak for a few minutes.

“It’s difficult for members of the public, particularly the moderate- and low-income tenants we work with,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), a coalition group that often testifies before the Council on housing issues. “If they want to attend, often they have to take off work and find childcare and go to great lengths,” added Goldstein, who testified at the Feb. 22 hearing held by the Committee on Housing and Buildings.

Kallos agreed that “for members of the public, it’s often frustrating to be at a multi-hour hearing with only one Council Member, while other Council members show up and leave.”

Typically at City Council hearings, representatives of the mayoral administration testify first, often giving opening remarks that run at least 10 minutes, and then are questioned by Council members, regularly for multiple hours. “It really would be good practice if we could get members of the public in more at the front, so they can participate with less disruption to their daily lives, and with more ability to be heard by their elected officials,” Goldstein said.

Council members said that they often get briefed by advocacy groups, are able to read materials sent to them, and have aides who can provide essential information to help them make decisions, craft legislation, or follow-up with an agency official.

Council Member Mark Treyger agreed the length of time mayoral administration officials spend testifying could be improved. “We ask the public to condense their statements. But some opening statements [from administration officials] run 10-, 15-, 25-minutes long, which is unnecessary…It’s sometimes redundant to hear information we’ve already been briefed on.”

Allowing the public to testify sooner or limiting the amount of time administration officials spend on their opening remarks could make testifying less difficult for regular citizens and potentially cut down on the length of committee hearings, but would do little in the way of improving Council members’ ability to attend.

The Council has actually made some strides toward reducing the number of hearings in recent years. As part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, the number of times committees are required to meet per year was halved from ten to five. Some committees, like the Committee on Government Operations, need to meet more frequently than others because they have oversight of many city agencies.

But, the City Council has become busier in recent years. As Mark-Viverito wrote in a December letter submitted to the quadrennial advisory commission on elected officials’ compensation, “Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session.” With more legislation being put forth, more hearings to introduce, consider, and vote on those bills have been needed.

Provided with information gathered by Gotham Gazette about hearing start-times and hearing attendance, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito said that the Council is pleased with the way it is doing its business. “The City Council holds hundreds of hearings a year on issues which matter to New Yorkers and we’re very proud of our strong record,” said Eric Koch in an emailed statement. “Council Members take hearings very seriously, which is why our substantive hearings have led to countless pieces of legislation, land use and budget items being passed. The City Council looks forward to our continued work on behalf of all New Yorkers.”

Council members and good government groups alike say more can be done to improve the scheduling constraints Council members face because they are members of so many different committees. For example, Council Member Treyger needed to leave the Feb. 29 government operations hearing for about 20 minutes in order to vote in a Land Use hearing held at the same time. “Treyger has to vote for land use,” Kallos, who chairs government operations, said at the time, “we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time.”

“Part of the problem is that there's too many committees,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform group, told Gotham Gazette. “It’s a complex issue. From the public’s point of view, they want Council members to be present when they testify. “

The recent deletion of the Committee on Community Development was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee and resigned last year. After the resolution to delete the committee was approved, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation had “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by other committees that’s really important there?’”

Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly because the committee did not have direct oversight of any specific city agency, Lander said. While several Council members told Gotham Gazette they believe the number of committees should be reduced and that some committees could be combined, Lander says further examination of the number of committees is not happening.

“I think there should be an examination of which committees are worth preserving. There are some committees where the oversight is too broad,” Torres said.

“We should probably combine committees that have overlapping jurisdiction,” Council Member Joe Borelli told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we don’t have lulus, and lulus were the reason we have so many committees, why don’t we eliminate some of them?”

lander hearing - william alatriste photoYet Lander believes the large number of committees is actually beneficial for New Yorkers, because it allows the Council to take on a wider variety of important issues, and allows Council members to hold more focused hearings that “drill down” into the details of a subject.

“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” said Lander (pictured). Lander rejected the notion of combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, because he believes it would reduce the amount of time and attention issues and stakeholders get.

Kallos is not in agreement with that point, saying “I continue to support reduction of committees and the elimination of lulus will make that easier.” To Kallos, who currently sits on eight committees, fewer committees may not necessarily result in fewer committee hearings, but fewer committee hearings would allow Council members to spend more time on constituent services.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a former City Council member who works with members in her new role and at times testifies at the City Council. "I think it might help if there weren't quite as many Council committees," Brewer said in a statement. "There are always too many demands on a member's time – especially when committees are often scheduled concurrently – yet hearings are the best way to learn more about the government that's serving the people we represent. In my opinion, stopping by and signing in just isn't enough, yet that's what too many members are reduced to."

Of the dozen Council members that Gotham Gazette reached out to, two were not made available for comment, and did not provide an explanation for their attendance at committee hearings monitored for this story.

Council Member Laurie Cumbo arrived 50 minutes after the scheduled start time of the Feb. 25 Committee on Youth Services hearing, and departed 16 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another two hours after her departure.

Council Member Vincent Gentile arrived on time for a 9:30 a.m. Feb. 25 Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing, though the hearing did not actually begin until 50 minutes later. By that time, Gentile had already left to attend a 10 a.m. health committee hearing on a bill of his.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s spokesperson, Russell Murphy, provided a statement saying “while attending hearings is a major part of the job, members often face competing hearings at the same time, meetings with constituents facing issues or non-profits seeking discretionary funding, district related work such as land-use meetings and more.”

Neither Murphy nor Rodriguez specified Rodriguez’s scheduling conflicts for the hearings in question. Rodriguez stepped out twice for a total of nearly four hours during the finance committee’s March 1 hearing on the preliminary budget, though he did not leave the hearing for good until 3:46, half an hour before the hearing officially ended.

It is possible that Rodriguez remained in the building and watched the hearing as it was livestreamed, as Council Member Corey Johnson said he was doing for that hearing, though Rodriguez did not clarify this when asked by Gotham Gazette. At 3:41 p.m., while the Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction was testifying, Johnson rushed back into the Council chambers to question the commissioner, apologized, and said that he was watching the testimony downstairs.

Yet “what is unseen is the hours of deliberation,” Torres warns, “Did I remain at the hearing for ten hours? No. But I wrote four memos and was deeply engaged on the issue. If you’re judging members by the lengths of attendance of the hearing, you’re developing an incomplete picture of productivity.”

Other issues, like the hours-long commute to and from City Hall for some Council members, and hearings occasionally being scheduled far apart from each other, affect Council members’ ability to attend. Sometimes, Council members are not given much advance notice of when hearings are scheduled or rescheduled, they say, hindering their ability to plan ahead as far as other meetings they have scheduled.

“One thing that I’ve noticed is different from past years is the way the schedules get done,” Council Member Miller said of recent developments. “In terms of hearings, we always knew two weeks in advance and had the calendar come out, and now sometimes, there are hearings that are on Monday morning and you get told about it on Friday.”

A number of other city officials and advocates who regularly interact with the City Council did not want to comment on the subject of Council members’ attendance at committee hearings. Asked for comment about his giving his preliminary budget testimony in front of a near-empty chamber, Comptroller Stringer declined to comment through a spokesperson.

When Gotham Gazette contacted the Department of Design and Construction’s spokesperson for a comment from Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office sent a statement via email that was unrelated to the question. Both Stringer and Peña-Mora testified at the Mar. 1 preliminary budget hearing. Six advocates who testified at some of the City Council hearings Gotham Gazette monitored also declined or ignored requests for comments.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Samar Khurshid, Maggie Calmes, and Ben Max contributed reporting to this article. Two inset photos by William Alatriste for The City Council.

Note: The committees Council members are on may have changed since Gotham Gazette monitored the hearings accounted for in this article. As noted, one committee was deleted, members’ committee assignments shifted around slightly, and Rafael Salamanca was sworn in to fill a vacant seat and assigned to several committees on March 9.

Note: this article has been updated with comment from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

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Questioning Importance, Council Members Spend Limited Time at Hearings Mon, 28 Mar 2016 02:40:25 +0000
City Council ‘Deletes’ One Committee, But No Further Reforms Planned http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6216:city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6216:city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned council hearing

A scene at the City Council (photo: William Alatriste)


At one of the shortest City Council hearings ever held, Council members from the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved on Wednesday morning a resolution to “delete” the Committee on Community Development.

The decision to eliminate one committee relates to questions regarding the number of Council committees, how many committees each member sits on, and member attendance at committee hearings. Regularly, by the time members of the public testify at City Council hearings, the chair of the committee holding the hearing is the only Council member remaining to listen. At many hearings, committee members leave after testimony from the first panel, usually made up of representatives from the mayor’s administration, sometimes to attend a hearing for another committee scheduled at the same time.

The elimination of the community development committee was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee. Arroyo resigned in December and has since been replaced by Rafael Salamanca, Jr., who was sworn in on Wednesday.

Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by the other committees that’s really important there?’”

Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly given the fact, Lander said, that it did not have direct oversight over any specific city agency. Now that it’s gone, 36 standing committees and six subcommittees remain, with the 51 City Council Members sitting on an average of six committees. Critics have said that the Council has too many committees, a byproduct of the fact that chairing a committee has long come with an additional stipend, a practice the Council voted to end last month.

Speaking with Gotham Gazette on Wednesday, Council Member Lander said he doesn’t intend to do any further examination of the number of Council committees and said that he thinks the large number actually does a service to New Yorkers whereby the Council takes on a wider variety of important issues.

Part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, reduced the number of times committees are required to meet per year from ten to five. Still, Council members are often unable to fully attend one committee hearing because another is scheduled at the same time.  

“Council Member Treyger has to vote for land use, we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a Feb. 29 hearing held by the Committee on Government Operations.

Dick Dadey, executive director of the government reform group Citizens Union, believes there was a correlation between the number of Council committees and lulus, which were awarded to Council members for chairing committees until Feb 19., when Mayor de Blasio signed a package of bills reforming the City Council and raising the salaries of all New York City’s elected officials.

“Committees are created not because of a need, but for maybe the need to give someone a lulu and increase their compensation,” Dadey said at a Nov. 23, 2015 public hearing held by the quadrennial advisory commission on elected official compensation. “I mean, take a look at that list, and some of those can be consolidated.”

To Lander, however, having a large number of committees is important, because it allows Council members to hold a more focused hearing and “drill down” into the details of an issue.

“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” Lander said on Wednesday.

Fritz Schwarz, chief counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and chair of the 2015 quadrennial advisory commission tasked with reviewing the compensation levels of elected officials, seemed to indicate that he agreed with Dadey’s point that eliminating lulus may have an effect on the number of committees.

When asked by Gotham Gazette why he choose not to address the number of committees in the commission’s report, Schwarz said, “Essentially, I didn’t think we knew enough to jump on that. And it wasn’t necessary to deal with, because we want to get rid of the lulus, and what consequence that would have beyond getting rid of them wasn’t necessary to address.”

Even without lulus, Lander says he doesn’t “really see the harm” in having a large number of committees. Combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, would shrink the amount of attention stakeholders get, Lander says. Lander also rejected the idea of combining the Committee on Economic Development and the Committee on Small Businesses, citing the work that Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. has done as small business chair - work that may not be done if small business was subsumed by economic development, he said.

Though he conceded that Council members’ attendance at hearings “is a tension,” Lander believes “it’s outweighed” by being able to “bring more attention to the issues New Yorkers care about.”

“It’s a challenge,” Lander added, “one challenge is that each of those committees needs to have enough members on it. And then every member is on a lot of committees and it is a challenge to go to beginning to end for all of them and still do all the other things in the job.”

Lander said that each committee chair is able to become an expert on their issue and that there are Council aides who also attend hearings on behalf of Council members. Attendance at committee hearings could be better, Lander acknowledged, if there were fewer committees, but he said that it wasn’t a trade-off he thought would benefit New Yorkers.

Former City Council Member and current Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer believes it would be wise to examine the number of committees Council members sit on, and their ability to attend the hearings held by those committees.

“I think we should look to see how many committees a person is on, and they should show up at them. And there's always an issue of signing in for five minutes, getting counted, and leaving,” Brewer said during a Nov. 24, 2015 public hearing held by the quadrennial advisory commission. “I think that would be something to look at more carefully. This has never been monitored.”

Yet, as Lander said, the decision to delete the community development committee is simply a response to Arroyo’s resignation, and “there is not a more comprehensive look underway.”

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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City Council ‘Deletes’ One Committee, But No Further Reforms Planned Wed, 09 Mar 2016 23:57:37 +0000