The Mayor, Speaker, & Council members (Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)
Attendance was notably sparse at the first public hearing of the commission charged with making recommendations around compensation for city elected officials.
Fewer than fifteen people, about half of whom were journalists, went to Brooklyn Law School on November 23 for the Quadrennial Advisory Commission hearing to collect input from the public. Four people testified to urge the commission to make compensation-related reforms in their recommendations: two leaders from good government groups and two other concerned citizens. No elected officials were present, though Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified at the second public hearing held at CUNY Law School in Queens the next night. City district attorneys had previously sent a letter to the commission arguing for an increase in pay.
None of the three citywide elected officials, other four borough presidents, or 51 City Council members have publicly expressed an opinion about compensation levels.
In September, in a move required by law, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a three-person commission to review the compensation levels of elected officials. Those salaries are supposed to be reviewed by a commission comprised of private citizens generally recognized for their knowledge of management and compensation every four years, but out of reluctance by mayors to make a move that is generally perceived by the public as an attempt to give themselves and their colleagues a raise, the salaries of New York City’s elected officials have gone unchanged since 2006.
At the hearing, Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, reiterated the good government group’s support for salary increases for the city’s elected officials provided that they are accompanied by other reforms. Dadey’s testimony was well-received by the commission and its chair, Fritz Schwarz, Jr., who asked Dadey several questions. Citizens Union argues that salary increases should be prospective, only taking hold in 2018 - after the next city elections; come with elimination of “lulus” (stipends) for chairing City Council committees; and with a cap on outside income to no more than 25 percent of one’s city salary, with full disclosure.
Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, echoed Dadey’s calls for reforms, saying that any compensation increase must also be tied to meaningful restrictions on outside income, ending the practice of awarding lulus to Council committee chairs, and prohibiting retrospective salary increases.
The commission includes Schwarz, Jr., the Chief Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice; Jill Bright, Chief Administrative Officer at Condé Nast; and Paul Quintero, Chief Executive Office at ACCION EAST, Inc. It will likely release its recommendations around compensation levels for the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, City Council members, and district attorneys by the end of the year, though the commission is already passing the initial timeline set in the mayor’s announcement. Public comment is open until December 3.
The mayor may accept, reject, or amend the findings of the commission, sending recommendations to the City Council for a vote on any new salaries before they head back to the mayor for approval into law.
At the hearing, Dadey pointed out that a large majority of Council members said that they think the raises should be prospective in their earlier responses to a Citizens Union questionnaire - a change which Mayor de Blasio also supports.
“37 out of 51 Council members said they support our proposal that any future increase in Council Member salary should only apply prospectively to the next elected class,” Dadey said (there has been some fluctuation in Council membership, but the numbers largely apply to the current Council).
Also noting that no Council members were there to testify and none have publicly voiced an opinion about raiss, Dadey said, “So why give them something that they haven’t asked for, and why give them something that they oppose?”
Schwarz confirmed that no Council member testimony had been received by the commission.
“You have this opportunity to actually come out with your recommendations and change a process that has been flawed for 28 years,” Dadey told the commission regarding the notion that raises should only be for the next class of elected officials. Many current officials will be heavily-favored incumbents running for re-election in 2017, but the point is one of principle and appeared to resonate with the commission.
Though some have said that issues with Council members and the mayor voting on their own salary increases could be avoided by simply pegging salary adjustments to one of a couple of economic measures, like the cost of living, Schwarz expressed dismay with the idea of proposing automatic COLA increases.
“What worries me about that concept are two things: one, ordinary citizens are not guaranteed COLA increase; and two, if a government official’s future raises are automatic, it removes any democratic accountability - so they get their extra pay but they don’t have to go through the rigor and sometimes hard public position of saying there should be more pay for my office,” Schwarz said. (COLA increases were not recommended by Citizens Union or NYPIRG.)
At the second hearing, Borough President Brewer also supported making any salary increase prospective. In the testimony she submitted to the commission, Brewer said, “I believe this commission should strongly urge the Mayor to do two things: First, commit now to empanel another pay raise commission in 2019; and second, to introduce legislation that contains an effective date of January 1, 2018 -- the first day of the next term of office for all New York City elected offices.”
In his testimony, Dadey pointed out that eliminating stipends for Council committee chairs is supported by 31 members of the Council. These stipends, known as lulus, currently range from $5,000 to $25,000 and, Dadey says, have contributed to the creation of unnecessary committees. With 38 committees, six subcommittees, and two task forces, nearly every Council member receives a stipend in addition to their $112,500 salary.
The large number of committees, Dadey said, allows “the speaker to use the lulus as a way in which to extract loyalty on particular issues which they would not otherwise do.” Only truly senior leadership positions like the Speaker and Majority Leader should receive stipends, Dadey added.
“We have more committees in the City Council than in the House of Representatives in the US Congress,” Dadey said, adding that the number of committees Council members serve on restricts their ability to focus on certain issues. These points raised Schwarz’s eyebrows.
In her testimony, Brewer, who was a Council member before being elected borough president, also expressed support for eliminating stipends. “Lulus should be abolished,” she wrote. “I think lulus have become a way of giving all but the least favored Council Members added compensation.”
Schwarz agreed that the lulus “can completely mislead people.” Due to public pressure, eleven Council members have refused to accept lulus this year, according to the Daily News editorial board.
During her testimony, Bronx resident Roxane Delgado pointed out that “City Council members voted against an amendment eliminating lulus as recommended by the commission in 2006.”
Since being a member of the City Council is only considered a part-time job, Council members are permitted to earn outside income. Citizens Union recommends outside income should be capped to no more than 25 percent of the elected official’s salary, with full disclosure, since eliminating outside income altogether would detract from the goal of attracting candidates with varied private sector experience, the good government group says.
Currently, fewer City Council members earn income from an outside job than at any time before.
Russianoff also supported meaningful restrictions on outside income, testifying that NYPIRG “strongly favors a congressional model which allows members of the federal government to devote 15% of their time to outside activities.”
Brewer, however, suggested that the job of a City Council member should be considered a full-time job.
At the first commission hearing, Schwarz pointed out the merit in keeping the position part-time, saying “A lawyer who joins the government brings something valuable, as does a community organizer, as does a businessman or woman - it’s important to have people in the Council who have varied life experiences.”
During the hearing, Commissioners Schwarz and Bright gave some insight into their process.
“We’re looking at the benefits, pensions, and compensation relative to the citizens that elected officials represent,” Bright said. “We are looking at the cost of living as a factor, not only the consumer price index, but also how much it costs - rent, food, utilities - what it actually costs to live here for the average citizen.”
“We are considering median household income,” Schwarz said, but added, “I don’t think we are likely to look at the percentage increases for the city’s regular workers in collective bargaining as” a target, referring to new union contracts signed between the de Blasio administration and city workers.
“If we went beyond those for the elected officials, I think we would be in trouble. To me, what they’re relevant to, is to make sure that we’re not going beyond them,” Schwarz clarified of the union contract increases.
According to New York City code, in making its recommendations, the commission must consider the duties and responsibilities of each position, the current salary of the position and the length of time since the last change, and any change in the cost of living, as well as a number of other factors.
The salaries of New York’s 64 elected officials has gone unchanged since 2006, though only 27 have held office for more than one term, and 22 were first elected to their posts just two years ago.
The 2006 commission’s recommendations resulted in a 25 percent salary increase for Council members (up to the current $112,500 per year base) and a 15.4 percent increase for the mayor, from $195,000 to $225,000.
This year, Brewer has called for a 15 percent increase for all offices. Dadey and Citizens Union also support salary increases, given the demanding responsibilities placed on New York City’s elected officials, and the fact that they have not received a salary increase since 2006.
“The offices of the city’s elected officials need to be well compensated in order to attract individuals to public life who are talented, committed, and well qualified to carry out their jobs as successfully as they can,” Dadey said in his written testimony.
Some elected officials, however, have been seeking raises much higher than what good government groups support. According to the Daily News, a handful of Council members have been discreetly supporting a 71 percent increase. It’s something Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called “ridiculous” and that Dadey, among others, have also panned. Mark-Viverito has not expressed an opinion about raises and says she wants to see the results of the commission's work.
Earlier this November, the Daily News also reported the city’s five district attorneys - who currently make $190,000 annually - wrote a letter to the Quadrennial Advisory Commission requesting a 32 percent increase to their salaries, up to $250,000.
For his part, Mayor de Blasio has indicated through a spokesperson that he would “decline” accepting any pay hike “for the duration” of his current term.
Though the Council and the mayor have approved the commission’s recommended salary increases in the past, recommendations for reforms have gone unheeded.
In its report, the 2006 quadrennial advisory commission suggested “limiting the ability of government officials to raise their own salaries and receive them immediately would improve the integrity of the government and public confidence in it.”
The same commission also called lulus “ripe for reform,” and recommended that either a future Charter Revision Commission or the Council should consider reforming the practice of awarding extra stipends to Council members.
Yet no changes have been made in nearly the decade since, and as a result, good government groups are demanding that any recommendations for salary increases this year hinge upon the Council’s agreement to enact relevant reforms.
As Russianoff of NYPIRG points out, “the Council has unfettered discretion to act. The Council’s unfettered power remains to pass local laws dictating compensation for City officials."
Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.