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A One in Five Shot: Passing City Council Bills

by Courtney Gross, Oct 01, 2007
 

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Under the dim lights of the City Council's chamber, council members stand up twice a month to pitch legislative proposals. Some, however, do this more often than others -- and no one has done it more frequently in the last 21 months than Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr.

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From regulating voyeurism (thought to be a preposterous proposal by the New York Times) to protecting the patrons of the city's nightclubs, the Queens councilmember has introduced more bills than any of his colleagues since Council Speaker Christine Quinn took her position at the front of the chamber in January 2006.

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Not far behind him are Vallone’s fellow members from Queens, council members David Weprin and James Gennaro. All three men are second-term council members who happen to chair some of the body's most influential committees. Other council members, like Albert Vann and Larry Seabrook, also in their second terms, have not been as successful legislatively.

Hundreds of bills are introduced every year on the council floor. Many of them do not get any further than that. According to an analysis by Gotham Gazette of City Council legislation, 622 bills have been introduced since Quinn took the council's top position. The vast majority of introductions –68.3 percent – have never been heard of again. Approximately 17 percent, or 104 bills, have passed. Nearly a hundred, or 15 percent, have had hearings, but have not – at least yet – gone to the chamber floor for a vote.

The fate of a piece of legislation, according to city officials and political observers, may not depend on its merit or even its popularity. Instead it can hinge on a sponsor's seniority or position in the leadership. As just one member of the 51-person council, Quinn introduced 27 percent of the bills that have become law.

What’s The Process?

Member
Total Bills
Number of Bills that Passed
Number of Bills that Received a Hearing
Number of Bills Sent to Committee
Peter F. Vallone, Jr.
54
14
4
36
David I. Weprin
48
20
4
24
James F. Gennaro
47
13
15
19
David Yassky
47
11
10
26
Michael E. McMahon
46
11
9
26
Alan Gerson
42
7
10
25
Gale A. Brewer
39
6
7
26
Tony Avella
39
4
9
26
Christine C. Quinn
37
28
5
4
Vincent Gentile
35
10
5
20

Click here to see the complete list.

To calculate the amount of introductions per council member from January 2006 through September 10, 2007, Gotham Gazette counted a bill's sponsors at the time of its introduction using the council's stated meeting agendas.

The analysis includes all bills introduced at the City Council and does not include resolutions or land use items.

When a bill is introduced during the council's biweekly stated meetings, it usually has only one sponsor. That bill is then sent to a committee, the committee holds a hearing and, if the measure is approved in committee, it returns to the council floor for a final vote. During this process, as the legislation is debated and discussed, a bill can often accumulate more sponsors.

(To learn how a bill becomes a law click here.)

Legislation that has a major impact, such as the recently approved campaign finance reform, often is introduced with dozens of sponsors – meaning a consensus has been established before the legislative and public hearing process begins. Those bills are usually destined to become law.

For consistency, Gotham Gazette included this legislation in its calculations, giving each member an introduction "point." For example, 29 council members introduced the latest street naming bill (Intro 556). All of them received an introduction point in our tally.

One caveat: Our calculations do not gauge the impact or importance of legislation; therefore they provide at best an incomplete way to judge a council member's record.

Seniority Rules

Members Who Have Introduced the Most

1.Peter Vallone

2. David Weprin

3.James Gennaro

4. David Yassky

5. Michael McMahon

More than two-thirds of all the legislation proposed on the council floor disappears in the committee process. Some council members attribute the lack of movement to politics, while others say it can reflect the proposal's value. "I think a lot of it has to do with the merit of the laws that are introduced," said Vallone.

By and large, though, members who have introduced the most legislation chair the council's influential committees: Vallone oversees the Public Safety Committee, Weprin chairs the Finance Committee and Gennaro handles the Environmental Protection Committee.

These members recognize that they have a legislative advantage – if they introduce something under their purview of their respective committees, it at least gets a hearing.

" Seniority helps, (as does) knowing the process, and obviously if you're a head of the committee with jurisdictional measure," said Weprin. Part of that advantage, especially for Weprin, includes requests from the Bloomberg administration to introduce legislation on its behalf. Within the last 21 months, the mayor requested Weprin introduce 11 out of his 48 introductions.

But, Weprin added, "I don’t think we look at bills differently if it's sponsored by a freshman or somebody new."

For the most part, rookie members who joined the City Council in 2006, like Darlene Mealy, Melissa Mark Viverito and Daniel Garodnick, fall in the bottom half of our introduction chart.

Being a new member of council, Mealy said, involves becoming accustomed to City Hall's legislative ropes, even as she continues immersing herself in her community. "Being the new kid on the block," Mealy said, "I just learned how to (submit) the new legislation properly."

The Speaker's Influence

The bulk of the legislative control rests with the council's speaker. If the speaker does not support legislation, political observers said, it will never see the chamber floor. On the other hand, 76 percent of the legislation introduced by Quinn since she became speaker have passed.

To some council members, this is where politics comes into play.

Councilmember Tony Avella, a councilmember since 2002, introduced 39 bills since January 2006. But only four have become law, and all of those were introduced with council colleagues, not solely by Avella.

When asked why, the Queens councilmember has one answer: He is not in the favor of the council speaker.

" There are members of the City Council that fall in line no matter what," said Avella, who has established himself as a maverick of the council and is a declared mayoral candidate for 2009. Quinn, though not official yet, is expected to be one of his many opponents. "If you're independent and you speak your mind you get punished," Avella added.

Avella has accused Quinn of intentionally blocking his legislation, such as a 2006 bill that would have required the replacement of damaged stop signs within 48 hours. The council last week adopted similar legislation, which requires the replacement of all missing and damaged street signs within three days. The sponsor of that bill was Joseph Addabbo.

Avella is not alone. Many City Council members seem to have trouble getting their legislation passed, or even getting it a hearing. Civil rights advocates contend Quinn has stalled a bill mandating that co-op boards reveal reasons for an applicant's rejection, despite widespread support throughout the council.

Although Avella had the lowest record for percentage of bills passed – hovering at 10 percent – some of his veteran colleagues were not far behind. Councilmember Michael Nelson, who took office in 1999, has introduced 21 bills during Quinn's tenure, and only 14 percent have become law.

Unlike Avella, some members find it difficult to even introduce legislation. Mealy said she has attempted to submit several bills to the council's legislative office, which reviews and drafts all introductions. Some were rejected, including one that, Mealy said, would have made gun shop owners liable for crimes committed with weapons from their establishment. The response Mealy received: The Bloomberg administration was pursuing that issue.

" The City Council staff will let you know whether it's good legislation or bad legislation," said Mealy. "All I'm going to say is it's not what you know, it's who you know."

According to a City Council spokesman, Anthony Hogrebe, the council's legislative office – whose staff is hired by the speaker - drafts legislation and reviews requests for legal and jurisdictional issues. Some proposals lend themselves to legislation, like sanitation or public safety issues, while others, like education, can be a state matter.

Members Who Introduced the Least

1. Darlene Mealy

2. Dennis Gallagher

3. Larry B. Seabrook

4. Maria del Carmen Arroyo

5. Albert Vann

Reforming the Process

When Quinn took over as speaker, she promised to open up the legislative process. With that pledge, she implemented several regulations to ensure members had an opportunity to introduce legislation. One rule mandated a 60-day time limit for the council's legislative office to draft legislation after receiving a proposal from a member. Another reduced the number of members, from nine to seven, needed to bring a bill to the floor without the speaker's consent.

The rules were meant to do away with a longstanding perception that the speaker had complete control over what legislation went to the floor, strong arming members into supporting certain measures. This practice often resulted in unanimous votes, little debate and stalled legislation. Critics blamed Quinn's immediate predecessor, Gifford Miller, for holding up a lead paint initiative supported by the majority of the council because he hoped to avoid dealing with such a controversial issue while running for mayor.

Political observers and some members of council said that Quinn’s reforms have not made much difference.

" The bill doesn’t come to the floor without the speaker’s consent," said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. "Whatever you're finding under Quinn, you're likely to find, if not the very same thing, something close under Gifford or Vallone’s tenure," he added, referring to former Speaker Peter Vallone Sr.

Councilmember Gale Brewer, who has been in office since 2002 and signed onto 39 bill introductions since Quinn took over as speaker, said she could not tell the difference between Quinn and Miller, who was speaker from 2002 to 2006, when it comes to allowing certain bills to come to the floor. A member has to "push hard" and brainstorm innovative ideas for legislation to move, Brewer said.

Although Brewer was within the top tier of council introductions, she has only seen six of her bills become law.

Getting legislation to the floor, according to Councilmember Vallone, is ultimately a combination of good ideas, not veering away from controversy and playing along with other members and the speaker. Out of the 54 bills Vallone has introduced, he has seen 26 percent become law.

" I think Christine (Quinn) and her staff take a more hands on approach to the crafting of legislation than Gifford's did," said Vallone, alluding to the speaker’s control of the legislative process.

Getting Credit

A number of the bills may serve their purpose as soon as they are proposed. "Some of them are introduced never with the purpose of having a hearing,” said Vallone. “They are introduced to have a message."

Although introducing bills with no intent of seeing them passed may seem pointless, some observers said the practice helps council members establish legislative records. Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group said some members propose legislation to put pressure on the city administration or the state, hoping the idea will eventually be incorporated into a departmental policy change.

For example, Councilmember James Vacca said he introduced legislation, which has been in committee since March, calling for stronger safety standards to protect children with disabilities riding school buses. Vacca said he is participating in discussions on this very issue with legislators in Albany.

Other introductions, City Hall observers said, are proposed with their constituents or the media in mind. In the era of term limits, where it may seem like an election for higher office is always on the horizon, members can show their constituents they at least tried to get something done downtown.

" The council members want their names on bills so they can then go back to their constituents and their institutions and other types of supporters and say they got this bill in," said Muzzio.

Council critics have often targeted members for introducing legislation for politics sake. Interestingly, many New Yorkers criticized the council's proposal to guarantee a student's right to carry a cell phone to and from school, calling it unenforceable and pointless. That same legislation, passed over a mayoral veto, may now spark a courtroom duel between the council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Council members like Vacca say that it isn’t about getting credit, but that the problem – from the replacement of street signs to the regulation of city waste – gets resolved. After all, the City Council may be the city’s legislative body, but it’s also helping people in their districts.

“ Council members have two distinct functions,” said Muzzio. “One is the legislative function, is the passage of laws and the passage of resolutions as well.... The other is constituent service.” But, he added, “Those that get the bills passed, clearly, it’s kudos for them.” 


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