Coming to you from your councilmember's office is a barrage of holiday greetings, congratulatory remarks and well wishes sprinkled throughout your local newspaper.
But would you have known that that thumbs up for your son's or daughter's high school diploma or that "Have a Happy and Healthy New Year" appeared at the taxpayer's expense?
According to a report released today by Citizens Union - the good government group and sister organization of Citizens Union Foundation, which is Gotham Gazette's publisher - members of the City Council spent more than $780,000 on paid advertisements in local media from July 2002 through June 2006. More than half of that was racked up by just 10 members, with Michael Nelson of Brooklyn leading the pack.
The advertisements, according to Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey, raise serious ethical questions about the use of public funds especially during an election year. While the City Charter prohibits the use of taxpayer money for campaign advertisements on radio, television or in the print media during an election year, several exceptions seem to allow these advertisements to slip through the campaign finance cracks.
Although the ads are not prohibited, the report argues they give already advantaged incumbents greater leverage by increasing their visibility at the taxpayer's expense. Some members, though, contend the ads are merely part of City Council's commitment to constituent service, letting New Yorkers know they are there, willing and ready to help with any issue or problem. The council advertisements are paid for out of a member's discretionary budget, which is approximately $300,000 annually, according to the Citizens Union report.
The report, which is available here, has set off a debate in City Hall over whether colloquial messages of good will to constituents should be prohibited. As a result, Council Speaker Christine Quinn with the Rules Reform Working Group is recommending to strictly limit the use of public funds for council advertisements, including banning holiday and congratulatory ads.
The records compiled by Citizen Union are from a Freedom of Information Law request, which did not take into account the content of the advertisements. Thus one member may have purchased an ad to wish his constituents happy holidays, while another may want to notify residents of a job fair or a free mammography exam.
The report takes issue with the use of advertisements for promotional or congratulatory purposes. These notices, which increase visibility, seem to get little oversight from the speaker's office and might create a questionable relationship between council members and the local media in their districts.
"Given these ads are largely self promotional and congratulatory in nature, we feel like that taxpayers' dollars should not be spent for this purpose," said Dadey. "These ads are part of an incumbent protection effort that amount to campaigning. This is less about providing a public service and more about promoting the visibility of the elected official. Many of them are considering running for higher office."
While the City Charter prohibits the use of public funds for advertising from January of an election year until the day after voters go to the polls, several vague exemptions leave room for members to spend their independent budgets on advertising that could presumably boost their visibility. The charter allows "ordinary communications between elected officials and their constituents" and "communications necessary to safeguard public health and safety."
Citizens Union is calling for full disclosure on the nature of the ads, for the council to consider legislation that would ban ads that do not have a public service and for it to guarantee that elected officials adhere to the City Charter as many 2009 citywide campaigns quickly gain momentum.
In the two most recent city elections, council members spent nearly $180,000 from January through October in 2003 on advertising, while they spent almost $165,000 in the 10-month span before the 2005 citywide elections, according to the report.
Spending on ads did not increase, though, during the 10 months prior to an election. Over the four-year period analyzed with more scrutiny, spending hovered around $196,000 a year, regardless of whether any member was up for re-election.
Advertising purchases do spike, though, surrounding celebratory occasions. In September, December and June, which coincide with back to school and primary election season, graduations and ethnic parades as well as the holiday season, council advertisements flood local newspapers and journals.
Brooklyn-based Nelson said the advertisements provide a service to constituents, from applauding residents for a job well done to supporting nonprofits or charitable organizations in his district. For example, he said, an ad in the annual Lunar New Year banquet journal of Homecrest Community Services reminds his constituents where his office is.
"I get my name recognition of course with it," said Nelson. But, he added, "Whether you vote or you don't, you read this. If you got a problem with a city agency... come in."
Nelson's ads, though, have added up and are more than double what any other member has spent. Nelson said 90 percent of his ads were directed toward public service announcements in journals. From July 2002 through June 2006, Nelson spent $82,099.
The other top five spenders doled out far less cash for advertising than Nelson. During the same four-year span, Dominic Recchia spent $50,899, James Gennaro $49,130, Joseph Addabbo $41,222 and Leroy Comrie $40,552.
While some members, like Nelson, rely on the ads to keep so-called communication up with their constituents, several current council members, including John Liu and Helen Foster, spent nothing out of public funds, while several others spent very little.
Although he may not use his City Hall discretionary funds, which he said go to pay staff, Liu said he uses approximately $4,000 to $5,000 a year from his campaign fund for advertisements in the local media. Because the ads include a member's contact information, Liu said he could see how they would fall into a public service category. But, he added, he sees the ads as more "promotional related."
"To the extent that it's making the contact information more widely available, I think there is a legitimate public purpose," sad Liu. "I treat that advertising as promotional related."
Nelson said if he wanted to attract voters, he would have sent out mailings to his primary voting block instead of putting advertisements in local media. Others agreed that their ads were not political.
"Besides conveying greetings, the main purpose of the ad is to inform people and make people aware of our district office contact information, so we can be of assistance to our constituents and deal with any issues they might have," Gennaro said.
A Gennaro staffer said the ads the office takes out are for community outreach and advocacy and not political in nature. A spokesperson for David Weprin, who fell into Citizen Union's top 10 ad spenders at $39,799 from July 2002 through June 2006, said ads taken by the councilmember show constituents that his door is always open - that alone is a public service.
"It does provide a public service in terms of letting people know who their council members are in a given area," said spokesperson Pat Barrientos, who noted the majority of Weprin's ads are greetings. "I'm sure it will refresh people's memoryâ€¦ They happen to open the paper and boom that's him."
Other members also hesitated to say the ads had any influence in an election year.
"I think we're more visible given the nature of our job... whether we're there in person or we're there in a journal ad," said Addabbo. "We're not saying, "Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, by the way vote for us,'" he added.
Helping Local Business
Some members, like Comrie, said taking out ads in local papers and journals helps boost the community's economy by contributing to advertising revenues and by indirectly supporting area charities. Some charitable journals, members said, receive a portion of their funding from selling advertising and contributing can be a way to give back to the community.
According to the report, some council members allege they were contacted by local media advertising departments, and in certain cases reporters, and encouraged to purchase ads. Comrie said his council office receives phone calls from advertising representatives from local media on a weekly basis. But, he added, he enjoys supporting local publications, which can often provide community coverage that New York City's dailies do not.
Liu said, "Publications can be aggressive in pursuing the business."
Several publishers said the ads from politicians are treated just like ads from any other individual or business and have become routine - one said it sends out annual reminders of the ads local legislators placed in the past. For a local politician, advertising can be a very effective way to reach out to constituents and less expensive than doing a district-wide mailing, representatives said.
Changing the Rules
Councilmember Tony Avella of Queens, who spent just over $2,000 from July 2002 through June 2006 on advertisements, introduced legislation last year that would prohibit the use of public funding on congratulatory advertisements - whether for Hanukah, Christmas or New Years. That legislation has yet to receive a hearing.
But since the members began digesting the Citizen's Union report, which was thrust into City Hall's rumor mill late last week, Quinn has proposed several rule changes. From July 2002 to June 2006, Quinn spent $12,655 on advertising.
Along with prohibiting holiday and congratulatory ads, Quinn is putting forth several internal rule changes, such as requiring ads to be informational or educational, prohibiting ads in fundraising journals and mandating a copy of an advertisement be accompanied by its invoice.
“The Citizens Union report has led to a discussion within the council on advertising spending,” said Quinn in a prepared statement. “Today, together with the Rules Reform Working Group, I am recommending several internal rules changes that will strictly limit council members use of taxpayer dollars to advertising which informs about a public service or event.”
Nelson, on the other hand, said he would not support any sort of policy change for council advertisements. If one did occur, he would follow the rules, but find another outlet, possibly his campaign fund, to continue putting his message out there.
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," said Nelson. "Here's an example I don't agree with the pejorative."
Some members, like Addabbo said, they would be happy to participate in a discussion on reforming the council's advertising rules, such as limiting the ads to staff openings and town hall meetings. But for now, he sees the ads as good will.
"It gives an opportunity for a council member to extend best wishes," said Addabbo, "because we are the City Council and we are the frontline of defense to address certain quality of life issues." By putting members' names, addresses and phone numbers in advertisements, constituents will be better informed on where to turn, members said.
"It's taxpayer dollars going right back to the taxpayer," Addabbo said.