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Measuring Miller’s City Council

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Nov 28, 2005
 

Three years ago, the New York Times Magazine plastered City Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s boyish face across its pages with an article entitled “The Kid and His Council.” It described the 32-year-old speaker as “ambitious” and “savvy” and even predicted that he had a “good shot at becoming the second youngest mayor in city history.”

Today, Miller is a few weeks away from being unemployed, coming in last place in the Democratic Primary for mayor and term limited out of office.

But if the kid did not live up to expectations, what about his council? And is it fair to call it Miller’s council?

The New York City Council is an oft-ignored branch of city government. The mayor ridicules it. The press largely ignores it. And the public (subjected to millions of dollars in relentless campaign commercials for the mayoralty) does not understand its role in the day-to-day life of the city.

But over the last four years the City Council -- the first of the term limit era -- has built a record for New Yorkers to consider. And while the City Council Speaker is endowed with much of the power –- in charge of negotiating the budget, controlling the legislative agenda, and hiring the staff that works behind the scenes -– the council is comprised of 50 other members, who push their own ideas and agendas.

There are differing views on the council’s accomplishments.

It passed four on-time balanced budgets, some more fiscally responsible than others.

It has been praised for passing new laws to help the poor and rethinking how affordable housing is built, but criticized for spending too much time debating issues beyond its control.

It has been both lauded and condemned for its role in big-ticket development projects across the city.

There is only one thing on which there seems universal condemnation: Allan Jennings.

FACING THE BUDGET CRISIS

When Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council took office four years ago, they faced the worst fiscal crisis since the 1970’s, with a $3.8 billion budget gap in 2002, and another $3.2 billion in 2003.

In the first two years, the mayor and the council agreed to cut billions from the budget, eliminating 4,000 city jobs and reducing library days, and also raised a slew of new taxes, including hiking the property taxes by 18.5 percent.

The council fought some of the mayor’s most severe cuts, such as eliminating senior citizen meal programs, closing zoos, and slashing City University scholarships. But the council relented on many others, even unpopular measures like agreeing to close six firehouses.

“When you have a $7 billion budget gap… you are choosing between unpalatable and disastrous,” Miller said at the time.

Four years later, the city’s economy has stabilized. Many of the services that were cut have been restored. And homeowners, who saw their property taxes go up, now receive a $400 rebate.

Still, many of the underlying fiscal issues remain.

The annual “budget dance” between the mayor and the council continues: the mayor calls for cuts and the City Council restores its favorite programs. Critics argue that the mayor and the council really only haggle over a small portion of the $50 billion budget.

“We are still engaged in a budget dance where we negotiate over $200 to $300 million,” said Councilmember Charles Barron. “It is the council that passes the budget, not the mayor. We should do more.”

To its credit, the City Council did present some innovative ideas during the budget negotiations, such as taxing insurance companies that are exempt from business taxes or setting up a “rainy day” fund to prepare for future deficits. But the council lacked the political power to make these ideas a reality.

And in an election year, the speaker was criticized for using the budget to dole out goodies to his supporters. "There is so much pork you can almost hear it oink," said Bronx Councilmember Madeline Provenzano.

Critics say that both the mayor and the speaker should have done more to prepare for the future. Next year, the city expects to have a $2.3 billion deficit. The following year, experts project a $4 billion deficit.

KEY LEGISLATION

Over the last four years, the City Council has passed hundreds of new bills, most of which Mayor Bloomberg signed into laws. The council’s legislative agenda is most evident in the more than two dozen bills that the mayor vetoed and council overrode with more than a two-thirds majority.

The council members are most proud of legislation that:
- Instituted more stringent regulations on the removal of lead paint
- Barred the city from doing business with so-call “predatory lenders
- Enabled people on public assistance to count education toward work requirements.
- And provided emergency contraception in hospitals and pharmacies.

All of these laws were passed against the mayor’s wishes.

However, some observers are troubled by the lack of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches.

“Vetoes paralyze government,” said former Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr. “A veto should be the exception and not the rule.”

Critics of the City Council also point out that the lawmakers still debate resolutions about international relations, draft meaningless legislation, and hold hearings on matters over which they have no authority.

RESHAPING THE CITY’S LANDSCAPE

Another power of the City Council is its role in land use issues, deciding what kind of buildings can be built in an area, what historic landmarks should be preserved, how tall buildings can be, and where new industries can set up business in New York.

Over the past four years, the council has used its power to try to jump start economic development in area’s like Red Hook, Brooklyn by approving a new IKEA store while at the same time, slowing overdevelopment in some residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

Observers say that one of the council’s biggest victories was the rezoning of a 175-block area of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

In negotiations with the mayor’s administration, the council was able to require that a third of the apartments built – approximately 3,500 of 10,800 slated for the area - will be affordable. The plan will also create parkland, a public waterfront esplanade, and funding to help displaced businesses find new headquarters in the city.

But critics say that the council gave up too much of its authority in another rezoning matter, the rezoning of the West Side of Manhattan.

The agreement provides for about 28 percent of housing built to be affordable, a significant increase from what the mayor had proposed, but it gave up the one tool the council could have used to block the proposed West Side stadium.

And the City Council also agreed to commit billions in taxpayer money to help finance improvements to the area’s infrastructure.

"There is no real estate in the free world that is more developable than the West Side of Manhattan,” said Councilmember Lew Fidler. “To dedicate $1.3 billion of tax money in this city to this project is outrageous."

THE DISTRACTIONS

The council also faced its share of scandals, tragedy, and distractions over the last four years -– some self inflicted, others beyond its control.

In March 2002, Brooklyn Councilmember Angel Rodriguez, one of the senior members and a candidate for speaker, was charged with bribery and extortion. He pled guilty, resigned from his seat, and is currently serving a five-year prison sentence.

In the summer of 2003, tragedy struck City Hall when Councilmember James Davis was shot in the council chambers prior to a meeting.

And this year, the council spent nine months investigating charges that Councilmember Allan Jennings, had sexually harassed his staff. (He was the only incumbent defeated for re-election.)

But Miller’s critics say that that the speaker’s run for mayor was one of the biggest distractions of the last four years. At a recent forum, two of the candidates vying for the position of speaker made it clear they will not use the post as a step toward higher office.

“I am not running for speaker of the council because I want to be something else someday,” said Lew Fidler. “I think that that is important that my colleagues on the council understand. It is about the ideas of 51 members; not the ideas of one.”

MILLER’S LEADERSHIP STYLE

When he was elected speaker, Miller vowed to make the City Council more democratic, allowing individual members a more active role than had been the case in the past. This was a break from the practices of his predecessor, Peter F. Vallone, who several times stripped members of their committee chairs if they voted against his budgets.

“It was not a question of punishment, but rather the removal of a reward,” Vallone wrote in his recent book Learning to Govern. “A member who could not vote yes on crucial leadership issues was violating a consensus agreement that was a condition of that reward.”

Miller allowed committee chairs to hire some of their own staff members, made voting records accessible, and gave some members leeway to vote “no” on many items.

However, some council members say that the speaker still controls too much of the agenda.

Bills do not come up for a vote unless the speaker supports them. Most votes are unanimous. Some council members even have a difficult time getting their bills drafted, because the speaker controls the office that puts the bills into the proper legal language.

“If you submit a legislative request, you should know you will be getting a bill,” said Councilmember Christine Quinn.

In four years, the City Council only failed to override one mayoral veto.

Speaker Miller, who represents the Upper East Side, opposed Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to put a garbage marine transfer station in his district. The council voted 29 to 19 to reject the mayor’s plan, but Miller could not get the 34 votes he needed to override the mayor’s veto.

In the most recent budget, the speaker cut funding for projects of those council members who voted against him.

“We need rule changes so that the next speaker is not in a position to be vindictive,” said Councilmember Letitia James.

THE FUTURE OF THE COUNCIL

As Miller prepares to leave office, the returning members are already jockeying for power. Some are pushing for changes that would take power away from the speaker.

Various rule changes currently being discussed include:
- Allowing bills to be voted out of committee even if the speaker is not in favor of it.
- Permitting more debate on the floor of the council
- Creating the ability to amend bills once they come up for a vote
- And giving individual members more say in the budget process.

Some argue that such changes will strengthen the City Council and make it a more dynamic balance to the mayor.

“If members are allowed to take on the issues that are important to them and given the tools to advance those issues,” said Councilmember David Yassky, “then it is more likely that their constituencies will drive the public agenda, involving more people in the process, and, therefore making the council stronger.”

Others wonder with an already powerful mayor, term limits, and new speakers every four years, if the changes will weaken the institution.

“On one hand, as a matter of good government and transparency, it sounds wonderful,” said Andrew White of Center for NYC Affairs at the Milano Graduate School. “On pure politics, the most effective and influential legislatures are often ones with a strong leader.”

Whoever is elected as the next speaker hopes to hold the position for more than four years. Each of the seven candidates vying for the seat said at the recent forum that they are open to amending term limits – either by repealing them entirely or giving council members 12 years in office rather than eight years.

“If we do that… we can be a good partner to the mayor when he is right," said Bill deBlasio, "and be a stronger check and balance when he is wrong."

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Book Club Meets with Peter Vallone
This Wednesday from 6 pm to 7 pm former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Miller's predecessor, will join the Gotham Gazette Reading New York book club to discuss Learning To Govern, his new memoir of his career in city government. The meeting will take place at the Jefferson Market branch of the public library, on 6th Avenue at 10th Street in Manhattan. Everyone is welcome. If you plan on attending, please RSVP to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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RELATED LINKS:

- Term Limits Revisited
- Transcript of a Forum with Speaker Candidates
- Gotham Gazette’s online database of laws passed since 2002
- New York City Council Official Web site
- Backroom Deal Breaker – a blog on the Speaker’s race  


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