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The City Council Votes Itself A Raise

by Joshua Brustein, Nov 20, 2006
 

Every two weeks the New York City Council holds its "Stated Meeting" to introduce and pass legislation. As a regular feature, Gotham Gazette covers these meetings.

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Quote of the Day: "I am proud to be a member of the City Council, and if I could and I had to, I would do it for nothing. But I can't get Ithaca College to give my son room and board for nothing, I can't get Sunoco to give me free gas, and I can't get my mortgage company to waive my mortgage." – Lew Fiddler

PAY RAISES FOR PUBLIC OFFICIALS

The City Council approved a bill that would give its members a raise at its meeting on November 15. The legislation was based on recommendations recently made by a mayoral commission that considers pay raises for public officials every four years. It would also grant raises to the mayor, public advocate, city comptroller, district attorneys and borough presidents.

Mayor Bloomberg must still approve the measure; if he does, the raises will be retroactive to November 1, 2006.

The council chambers were spirited as many members argued that a pay increase was overdue.

"I am proud to be a member of the City Council, and if I could and I had to, I would do it for nothing," said Councilmember Lew Fiddler. "But I can't get Ithaca College to give my son room and board for nothing, I can't get Sunoco to give me free gas, and I can't get my mortgage company to waive my mortgage."

Public officials have not gotten a raise in seven years. The mayor did not convene a commission to recommend adjustments in pay in 2003, when he was last required to, citing of the weak financial state the city was in at that time. The council's base pay will rise 25 percent from $90,000 to $112,000. (Click here for an article giving details on the specific raises for various public officials).

Many agree that public officials should get a raise. Others think that public officials should not be able to give themselves raises without the explicit approval of the voters, and good government groups (including Citizens Union, whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette) wanted to tie pay raises to reform measures.

The Daily News argued that "serious legislatures respect the principle that lawmakers should hike salaries for future officeholders, not their own salaries."

The idea also had its opponents within the council itself.

Councilmember Tony Avella took the rare step of proposing an amendment for the entire council to consider, proposing the attachment of what he described as reform measures.

First off, Avella proposed eliminating so-called lulus, stipends given to members of the council who serve as chairs of committees. Avella says these stipends are a mechanism through which the council leadership can control the individual members, and already refuses to accept extra payment for his role as head of the subcommittee on zoning and franchises.

Avella also wanted to restrict council members from holding outside jobs, arguing that serving on the council is a full time position. At least 17 members of the council earn outside income, some of them making hundreds of thousands of dollars in addition to their $90,000 council salary.

To a certain extent, these proposals mirrored recommendations by the mayor's commission calling for council jobs to be officially designated as full-time, and describing committee stipends as an area that is "ripe for reform."

Avella's amendment also called for a measure not mentioned in the commission's report: moving the effective date of the legislation to 2010, so that the council would not be voting on its own raises.

"I firmly believe that it is unethical for this body to vote itself a raise, and no excuse, no reasoning can make it so," he said. "The only legitimate way to do this is to vote it for the next class of council members."

Avella's amendment was voted down, with 43 no votes, two yes votes (himself and Councilmember Diane Mealy), and one abstention (Councilmember Hiram Monserrate). The council then approved the original bill by a vote of 41 to 5, with Councilmembers Avella, Andrew Lanza, Michael McMahon, Mealy, and Monserrate voting no. Councilmembers Maria Baez, Annabel Palma, Yvette Clarke, Inez Dickens and Kendall Stewart were absent and did not vote.

Quinn said the issues raised by the mayor's commission and Councilmember Avella would be considered in the future, although she said she supported stipends for committee chairs and did not think it was unethical for the council to give itself a raise.

Quinn plans to spend some, but not all, of her newfound income on charity. Decisions about changes to her spending, she added, will come only after "complete and full consultation with [her] domestic partner."

ILLEGAL DEMOLITION

The council also passed two bills intended to toughen the city's response to illegal demolition work. Speaker Quinn argued that such action was needed to protect worker safety, especially after several high profile deaths at construction sites. The new bills will also protect the city from "willy nilly development" that destroys historic neighborhoods, she said. During the meeting, the bills' sponsors stressed their utility as enforcement measures to prevent illegal overdevelopment.

Councilmember Dominec Recchia of Brooklyn, who sponsored one of the bills, believes that the Buildings Department currently does not have the power to stop demolition companies from acting illegally. The fines the city can levy are far smaller than the profit to be had by ignoring the laws and proceeding without the proper permits, he said. Because of this, Recchia complained, he had no good course of action even in cases when he could show that demolition companies were taking down buildings illegally.

"The demolition companies were laughing in my face," said Recchia. "They just have a total disregard for the citizens of this city."

Recchia's bill would make it a misdemeanor to demolish a house with a proper permit; currently it is only a violation. If convicted, violators would face a fine of $5,000 to $10,000, six months in jail, or both. The current fine is $250.

The other bill, sponsored by Vincent Gentile, would take similar action against contractors who violate stop work orders. Both have to be signed by the mayor.

During the meeting, Councilmember James Vacca said that action should also be taken to tighten restrictions on people who improperly use alteration permits, claiming that developers in his Bronx district are filing for such permits and then illegally demolishing entire buildings.

"They often file for alterations when they can't meet new zoning [regulations]…. in order to be grandfathered in under old zoning that we successfully altered to change," he said.

 




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