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A City Council Scorecard: Who's Engaged and Who's Not?

by Courtney Gross, Mar 09, 2009
 
Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

The meeting was running more than three hours late and in rolled Councilmember Eric Gioia. The time: After 5 o'clock and 40 minutes into the council's stated meeting.

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The public advocate candidate slid into his high-backed, crimson leather chair perched at the front of the City Council's chamber, leaned back and started thumbing through his Blackberry.

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The roll call vote was already midway through the alphabet. Gioia made eye contact with the council's majority leader.

His name was called. "I ask permission to vote 'yes' on all land use call ups," Gioia asked -- referring to a vote that happened nearly a half hour earlier. The majority leader nodded: "So ordered."

"Thank you," Gioia said, then voted on the rest of the day's agenda.

Finished, he turned back to his Blackberry. Ten minutes later, the meeting adjourned.

This scenario is routine at City Hall, and Gioia is not the only member who is guilty. Without fail, council members miss meetings, arrive late or slip out early. Those that do attend talk to aides, joke with colleagues, fidget and scroll through their Blackberries -- all with one eye impatiently on the council chamber's swinging wooden door.

We may not be able to administer an IQ test or grade representatives on their loyalty to their districts, but we can see if they show up for the mandated semimonthly council meetings, the scores of hearings they are assigned to and check on how often they call their own committees to City Hall -- all of which is part of their job description. Council members earn a $112,500 (many make more since almost all members chair a committee) salary for a reason.

So, Gotham Gazette looked at the City Council's voting and attendance records, among other data, to see which representatives deserve a passing grade.

Who shows up? Who votes independently? Who votes at all?

Like any class, there are valedictorians and there are slackers. Here is what we found.

"Present"

Take your seats. It's time for roll call.

Chart: Who Shows Up At City Hall

Click to view the interactive graph.
In the graph, roll over each bar for more information, and select other categories to view in the Legend.

This chart shows attendance records for the City Council between January 2006 and January 2009. Excused absences include medical leave, jury duty, maternity leave and when meetings are held simultaneously. Only current members were included, with the exception of Elizabeth Crowley, who just joined the council in January.

In three years, Councilmember Maria Baez has missed 186 meetings, according to council records. Crowned for habitually playing hooky, Baez has a 61.66 attendance record -- the lowest of any member.

On average, council members attend 86.4 percent of meetings.

Al Vann comes in second on our chronically absent list with a record of 70.91 percent. James Sanders Jr. follows at 71.96 percent, then Darlene Mealy at 72 percent and Thomas White Jr. at 72.72 percent.

Excluding Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who attends and leads every stated meeting, Councilmember Tony Avella, according to his attendance record, can be considered perennially present. He hasn't missed a single meeting this term, including committee meetings.

The rest of the honor roll includes council members Simcha Felder (98.66 percent), Helen Sears (98 percent), Peter Vallone Jr. (96.35 percent) and Daniel Garodnick (96.34 percent).

Baez attributed her low attendance rate to an illness she had over the last year and a half. She declined to give further details.

Like other places of employment, the council excuses some absences -- for medical reasons, maternity leave and jury duty. Since 2006, Baez has had an average of 3.07 percent of her absences excused annually. But she does not have a doctor's note for nearly 35 percent of her no-shows.

If City Council members were graded on their attendance records, at least half a dozen would be on the verge of failing. Political consultant Joseph Mercurio attributes these low rates to our electoral process. Because incumbents are practically guaranteed re-election (three quarters of the City Council will seek re-election this fall), some City Council members get too comfortable and slack off on the job.

"Because there is no ability to challenge people, you have people that have low attendance records that just go along," said Mercurio. "You have people that deal with special interests."

At least one City Hall insider disagrees, saying: "Spending less time at City Hall can be an indication of solving problems in the neighborhood and less time being influenced by and hanging out with lobbyists."

Granted, the position of City Council member is part time and many members have obligations outside of their Broadway offices. But when it comes to accountability, advocates and even council members themselves say attendance can be a good way to measure commitment.

"Constituents want an active member," said Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Obviously being there is a critical part of being a council member. Hearings, in particular, are a chance to ask agencies publicly about policy."

It can prove difficult, though, to balance between consecutive and simultaneous hearings, community meetings back in the district and a sometimes irrelevant agenda, members contend. Especially when it's an election year.

"I make the judgment at every hearing how much I can get done on (my constituents) behalf," said Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan, while exiting a recent parks oversight hearing where no legislation was on the agenda. He had made a brief appearance -- 27 minutes -- and was moving on.

An Aggressive Schedule

Councilmember Helen Foster sits on seven committees. Her district is more than 13 miles from City Hall, which, according to Google, can be a 40-minute drive in traffic.

Sometimes, she says, she needs to assess whether to stay in her district and attend to constituent complaints or attend a committee meeting on an issue irrelevant to her Bronx neighborhoods.

"Am I going to stay in the Bronx and handle constituent issues or am I going to sit here through committee meetings?" Foster asked.

She chooses her district, she said.

Foster, by the way, has one of the worst attendance records in the City Council at 73.14 percent -- fifth from the bottom.

Some members, like Foster, say only half of a City Council member's job is on the east side of City Hall. Therefore attendance cannot be the only way to gauge one's commitment to their jobs. Committee schedules overlap. Community meetings can run simultaneously.

Take Gioia, who many City Hall insiders characterize as chronically tardy. Gioia's spokesman said he has other obligations in Queens -- and his record proves it.

"The true test of an elected official is the measurable impact they've had on peoples lives -- and from spearheading investigations that have exposed defective bullet proof vests, to reducing the red tape that prevented hungry people from getting food stamps, to starting little leagues and bringing a bank to a neighborhood that had never had one, Councilman Gioia is proud of his record of achievement," spokesman Eric Koch said in an emailed statement.

One member, Alan Gerson, has suggested paring down the membership of every committee to reduce the conflict.

Independence or Ignorance

Rewind back to that full council meeting. Pan the room. Members fiddle with their Blackberries, whisper (or gossip) into each other's ears and step out in search of privacy to take a call.

Close up on Councilmember Sara Gonzalez of Brooklyn.

"Yes on all, with the exception of," she says, preparing to vote with the rest of her borough against the nominee for City Clerk. She gets a look from a colleague.

That's not what they are voting on yet.

"Oh, land use," she says. "Yes on all."

The meeting moves on. The humming (a side effect of having scores of politicians in one room) continues.

During this term, most council members have cast more than 4,000 votes, including the votes they make in committee. The vast majority of council votes are completely or nearly unanimous with 49 or more members voting "Aye." Those votes coincide with the agenda of the speaker -- who never lets anything come to the floor unless she approves of it first.

Leading the council in the fewest no votes is Baez. She has voted "no" four times since January 2006. About a dozen members vote in lockstep with the speaker in what could be an attempt to court the council's leadership and keep the political peace. Those casting the fewest no votes, behind Baez, are Alan Gerson at six and Bill de Blasio and Gale Brewer both at seven.

Is it an affinity for uniformity or are they not paying close enough attention?

"Most council members are aware of the content of any issue of controversy," said Gerson. Sometimes, he added, "You have to rely on certain matters on the integrity and thoroughness of your colleagues."

Though Gerson said he evaluates bills on their own merits, it can occasionally come down to strategy. "One needs to be strategic to get work done here. I try to maintain a healthy balance: Policy first and strategy second," he explained.

On average, according to a review of voting records between January 2006 and February 2009, members have voted no 25 times since 2006.

Chart: The Naysayers

Council members cast thousands of votes a year, but rarely vote "no." Here are council members' negative votes between January 2006 and mid-February 2009.

Voting For or Against

The City Council's agenda is in the hands of the speaker. So to some, voting no is a vote against the council leadership. According to council records, that's a rare occurrence. The majority of members have cast no more than 20 no votes since 2006.

"Obviously members who vote no infrequently have cast their lot with the leadership," said Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "What do they get in exchange?"

On the other hand, some have used practically vigilante voting to establish themselves as anti-establishment. Councilmember Charles Barron (a notorious foe of the speaker) has voted no 180 times. Avella follows with 119 negatives.

Two members following Avella represent the council's more conservative end: Republican members, Jimmy Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, who voted no 74 and 89 times respectively. Foster, a Democrat, follows them with 46 negative votes.

"I have never been much of a 'yes' person," said Foster on her record.

With a hint of idealism, several council members, including Foster, said they vote issue by issue, and their voting record is indicative of their independence.

"The no votes would suggest your degree of independence and your familiarity with the issue," said Councilmember Letitia James, who has voted no 33 times. James leads the council in abstentions with 43.

Chart: Staying Silent

Do these council members really have no opinion? Or are they just trying to stay out of it? Here are the abstentions on legislation approved by the City Council between January 2006 and mid-February 2009.

Worth The Pay

At any council committee hearing, the dais -- the pseudo stage where members roost -- serves as a revolving door. In comes one member, taking one of the dozen or so seats, and moments later he or she is gone, having made one swift pass at being noticed. As long as member make an appearance, whether for a minute or an hour, they are marked as present.

It's hard enough for the council's sergeant of arms to keep up with, constantly changing the metal name placards in front of each seat.

In comes Councilmember Dilan. Moments later, he's gone. The name plate is dutifully put back on the shelf. He's marked as here.

In comes Councilmember Domenic Recchia, Dunkin Donuts cup in hand, red scarf around his neck. A 20-minute stay, a shout out from the council chair that he joined the hearing. Then he's out the door.

But if there is any vote a councilmember is guaranteed to show up for, it's the committee he or she chairs.

Because of the abundance of council committees, nearly every member (all except two currently) have been assigned a chair position. The vast majority of those positions come with a $10,000 stipend -- and they vary in the amount of work.

A look into the frequency of council committee meetings show members can make the same stipend (lulu as it's known) on top of their $112,500 salary for holding 82 meetings or for holding six.

Gioia, who chairs the council's Oversight and Investigations Committee, has held six meetings since 2006. Councilmember John Liu, chair of the Transportation Committee, has held 82 meetings. They both make an extra $10,000 for their chairmanships.

Most committees are required to meet once monthly, excluding the summer months. The investigations committee is not held to any quota, and Gioia's spokesman says it has put out a number of reports since 2006.

The committee schedule is determined by the speaker's office in coordination with the chairs.

According to council records, all of the council's committees have met the mandated amount, except for the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Committee, chaired by Gerson, and the Waterfronts Committee, chaired by Michael Nelson. They have met 24 and 29 times respectively. They should have both met 31 times between January 2006 and February 2009 .

Chart: Hearings, Hearings Everywhere

MEMBER: STIPEND: COMMITTEE: NUMBER OF MEETINGS
SINCE JAN. 06:
LEAST MEETINGS
Eric N. Gioia $10,000 Investigations*** 6
Albert Vann $4,000 Community Development* 7
Inez E. Dickens $10,000 Standards and Ethics*** 7
Maria Baez $10,000 State and Federal Leg.*** 16
Alan J. Gerson $10,000 Lower Manhattan Redevelopment 24
Michael C. Nelson $10,000 Waterfronts 29
MOST MEETINGS
Peter F. Vallone Jr. $10,000 Public Safety 61
Leroy G. Comrie Jr. $10,000 Consumer Affairs 62
Erik Martin Dilan $10,000 Housing and buildings 71
John C. Liu $10,000 Transportation 82
Melinda R. Katz $18,000 Land Use 105
David I. Weprin $18,000 Finance 121
* New Committee or New Chair
*** Does not have a meeting quota.

All other committees must meet every month, besides July and August. As of February, a committee would have been required to meet 31 times.

Most members, except two, chair a committee. Here are the council's standing committees, the chairs and their stipends. For some, doing half the work gets the same amount of cash. The council's subcommittees, which do not have a meeting quota, were not included here. View the full chart

Grades Are Out

About seven months to go.

That's how long until September's primary. And you can bet members are already following their campaign schedules and not City Hall's.

If last year's campaign season is any indication, as soon as races start to roll, council members pay more attention to their campaigns (logically) than to the meeting agendas.

They say half of their job is downtown, but what happens at City Hall will indefinitely trickle into their districts -- most likely at the polls.




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