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How Your Council Member Voted

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Aug 26, 2002
 

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When Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed eliminating the city's recycling program earlier this year, the City Council responded with outrage -- threatening to sue, pushing for an independent authority to take over recycling, and even postponing the budget deadline while they fought it.

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However, for all that, the City Council voted 49 to 1 to go along with the mayor and suspend the city's glass and plastic recycling program. Only Lower East Side Councilmember Margarita Lopez voted "No."

The law changing to the city's recycling is just one of about two dozen laws passed since the mayor and the members of the City Council took office in January, and nowhere near the oddest one. These laws offer one of the few ways voters can assess their representatives, if only for what is missing.

Now, it is easier to look at the laws and the votes. The City Council has put this information on its web site for the first time. And Searchlight's voting records make sense of these bills and laws by sorting through them and selecting the most important, controversial, and absurd legislation. (Also read "It's 10 am - Do You Know Where Your Council Member Is?" by Lenore Chester to learn more about how to evaluate your representative's performance.)

Besides the trashing of recycling, the most publicized new law was the tax increase on cigarettes that made a pack in New York the most expensive in the nation. There were also laws:

When term limits brought in the much-anticipated turnover in city government, including 38 of 51 new council members, legislators promised to "reinvent city government." Yet much remains the same.

Some of the most significant and controversial bills have NOT yet been voted on, including ones that:

The new council has also chosen to continue its tradition of changing street names, arguing foreign politics, and introducing some wacky legislation, such as requiring the city to print materials using only vegetable oil ink, increasing the number of American flags at parades, and providing mini-parachutes for people to escape from skyscrapers.

And as was the case in the old City Council, nearly every vote is unanimous.

WHAT HAVE THEY DONE?

Since taking office in January, the City Council has introduced nearly a thousand new bills and resolutions. But they have only passed two dozen into law.

The majority of these new laws change street names or make minor adjustments to the cityÕs codes. Some of the most significant, which are tied to the budget, originated in the mayorÕs office, not in the City Council. To date, there have been no close votes.

The new council and mayor are off to a slow start compared to previous administrations. As the New York Times reported, the Giuliani and Dinkins administrations put more than 30 new laws on the books by the same time in their first years and none of those were street name changes.

Some question if the new City Council and Speaker Gifford Miller, looking ahead to the election of 2003, are playing it safe.

One bill to make the city's lead paint law more stringent has the support of 31 members, but has gone nowhere. The real estate lobby opposes it, and the speaker has kept his distance.

COUNCIL'S REBUILDING PLAN

The City Council has added its voice to the rebuilding debate and called on the Port Authority to relinquish control of the World Trade Center site. "The Port Authority should find a way to give this land back to the city," said Speaker Gifford Miller.

The council's rebuilding plan calls for affordable housing, a memorial on the twin towers footprints, and buildings that meet strict environmental and safety standards. The plan was released nearly a month after the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation unveiled its initial six plans and reiterated what had already been voiced by civic groups, the press, and by New Yorkers who attended various public forums.

The one unique element is a public market, similar to the Pike Place Market in Seattle, where food vendors, crafts people, and artists would sell a variety of goods. "A public market would create a street feel that is different from other places in the city," Miller said.

The council also wants all new construction to meet city building codes. The World Trade Center violated numerous city standards, including housing a 6,000-gallon fuel tank under the buildings, which some say may have contributed to the collapse of the twin towers.

Since September 11, the council has struggled to find a role in the rebuilding process.

It had no say in the make-up of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, whose members were appointed by the governor, former Mayor Giuliani, and Mayor Bloomberg. Despite holding more than a dozen hearings on how the attacks affected small businesses, residents, and schools, the council has had trouble getting the attention of decision-makers. And Speaker Miller said that even the council's role in the Uniform Land Use Review Process, the system of approving construction and zoning changes, will likely be cir cumvented.

"I think the lead bill is going to be an interesting test of the new council," said Dave Palmer of the New York Public Interest Research Group who is lobbying in favor of the legislation. "But there is no date for a hearing and so far it does not look like much has changed on this issue."

However, the council has shown that it can act on its own behalf.

Just a few months after taking office, the council passed a bill to amend the term limits law that would have forced eight senior members of the council, including Speaker Miller, out of office after serving just six years. Despite objections from the mayor, the council floated the idea in the press, introduced the measure, held a public hearing, and passed itÑall in less than a month.

Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the measure.

"I believe it is simply inappropriate for those members elected in 1997, who were aware of the rules under which they were elected, to seek to change those rules in a manner that may work to their own advantage," the mayor said in a statement.

Council leaders said they would override the mayor's veto. The measure was passed in July by a vote of 46 to 2; the council needs 34 votes to override.

USELESS BUDGET?

The annual budget is the most important piece of legislation that the City Council considers and passes.

Yet just 18 days after the 2003 budget went into effect, the fiscal plan that the mayor and the council spent months wrangling over to bridge a $5 billion budget gap was called into question. The New York State Financial Control Board, which monitors the city's financial budget, said the plan was "fundamentally out of alignment."

What changed in those 18 days? Nothing. The mayor and the council agreed to a budget plan that they knew was a short-term solution. It depends largely on $1.5 billion in borrowing, small taxes and fees, and labor agreements that have not been negotiated. Facing a nearly $3.7 billion budget deficit next year, both sides are now back to the drawing board.

Mayor Bloomberg has told city agencies to look for ways to cut an additional 7.5 percent from their budgets, said a subway fare hike may be imminent, and raised the possibility of employee lay-offs.

The council wants to reinstate the commuter tax, a measure that the body does not have the power to institute and, since the tax would only affect people who live outside of the city, poses no political risk to the individual members.

THEATER OF THE ABSURD

The City Council has a long history of reaching into areas where it has no jurisdiction. This year, the council has debated Middle East policy, the plight of political prisoners arrested in the 1960's, and whether capital punishment should be abolished.

The council has also lived up to its history of introducing strange legislation that has little chance of ever becoming a law.

Speaker Gifford Miller would like the city to print paper materials using only ink made from environmentally friendly vegetable oil. Bay Ridge Councilmember Martin Golden wants to require the American flag to be displayed at every parade. And Sheepshead Bay Councilmember Michael Nelson wants to make graffiti a felony.

The most puzzling piece of legislation introduced this year comes from Fort Green Councilmember James Davis, who drafted a resolution calling for skyscrapers to provide non-traditional ways of escape, including the use of small parachutes, safety slides, and something called a "landing and aerial rescue platform." Davis said the idea, which he hopes will calm post 9/11 fears, struck him while visiting a 36-story building. He wondered if a low-altitude parachute might be a possible alternative to using the stairs.

IT'S UNANIMOUS!

In 1989, the city rewrote its official constitution with one aim being to make the City Council a more equal partner with the mayor. The council was given more power over the budget and issues involving land use, and oversight over city agencies. But in many ways the mayor still sets the agenda at City Hall.

For example, the council tried repeatedly to insert itself into Mayor Bloomberg's successful bid to take control of city schools, suggesting that the council should have played some role in approving the new schools chancellor or the members of the education panel, the body that replaced the Board of Education. The mayor ignored these suggestions.

The individual council members are also kept in check by the Speaker of the City Council, who likes to keep the 51-member body speaking with one voice.

One of the ways to do this is to control the votes on legislation and make each vote a show of unity and strength. And since the speaker gets the most praise or takes the most blame for the council's action, he is careful to allow votes that are only in his best interest, which leads to a lopsided vote on nearly every bill. The speaker also names the chairs of the committees who decide whether to hold a hearing on legislation and whether or not to call for a vote on a potential law.

Speaker Gifford Miller has promised to allow the council members more freedom than they had in the past. "I don't have to win every vote, but I should win most of them," Miller said at a public forum before he was elected speaker.

In January, one of the first things the City Council did after electing a speaker was to amend its own rules. The members said the changes would make the council more like Congress and allow them to introduce bills, have more debate, and make individual members and committees more independent. The changes gave the individual members the power to bring a bill to a vote, they said, and to publicly oppose the speaker.

So far, no one has taken full advantage of the rule changes.

ONLINE VOTING RECORDS

In the past, it was nearly impossible for the public to get access to the council voting records. Those ambitious few who did seek them out (like Searchlight on the City Council, which has kept track of voting records for more than a decade) found themselves thumbing through stacks of dusty encyclopedia-sized books in the Municipal Library.

At a public forum last December, Councilmember Gifford Miller was asked if as the next speaker he would be willing to make the council procedures and votes available online. Miller responded that an electronic database to do just that already existed, but even the council members and their staff were not allowed to use it.

"This is not rocket science," Miller said at the event. "It's easy. In fact it's already been done, we just have to give the public and council members access to it."

To his credit, the speaker delivered on his promise and the City Council now posts copies of legislation, the status of bills, and the voting records dating back to 1990 on the council's web site.

Will this information make the public better informed?

Even Councilmember Margarita Lopez, the lone dissenter in the law to curb the city's recycling program, who said voting with everybody else would have been "morally wrong," is not sure voting records will give constituents the information they really need.

"I don't think that my voting record speaks for who I am or what I have done," said Lopez. "It only shows if you have voted 'yes' or 'no.' It does not show if a person is honest and open, or if they are always double-talking, saying one thing and then doing another."

See also: "It's 10 am - Do You Know Where Your Council Member Is?" by Lenore Chester

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