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Getting Paid: Debating the Council's Outside Income and Salaries

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Dec 10, 2007
 

Everyone's got to pay the bills, right? And politicians are no different.

So the City Council's annual salary of $112,500 may seem appropriate given the cost of living in New York City. That is the argument recited, of course, if you ask a member of the New York City Council.

But some good government groups and City Hall observers disagree. Factor in the unrestricted outside income that council members can earn and the stipends they get from serving in leadership positions or as committee chairs, and that income can add up.

Councilmember Lewis Fidler, for instance, works as an attorney as well, ratcheting up at least an additional $140,000 on top of his council salary.

Some question whether moonlighting as an attorney or an investment banker will not conflict with policies decided later on the Council Chamber floor.

Members of the City Council have promised to mull over these issues, but have yet to specify what limitations, if any, will be considered next year. At a hearing before the Governmental Operations Committee last week, some proposals were floated and many got mixed reviews.

What's At Stake

Last year, City Council members voted 41 to 5 to increase their salaries by 25 percent, from $90,000 to $112,500 following a recommendation from a mayoral appointed commission.

At the time, and at the behest of good government groups and Councilmember Tony Avella, who voted against the pay increase, the council promised to revisit several issues attached to their raise and covered in the commission's report. These included whether council member is a full time position, whether chairs or other leadership positions should be awarded additional pay and whether the council should be allowed to vote itself a raise.

And as promised, said Councilmember Simcha Felder, chair of the body's Governmental Operations Committee, several members sat down to revisit those questions a year later - and a couple grand richer.

Felder said he would not take a position on any of the issues until legislation was drafted and all interested parties had spoken. What that legislation would address - whether it would ban the controversial stipend, better known as lulus - he also would not say. Felder did say the council would likely take up the issues next year.

The Issues

The City Council was repeatedly criticized for voting itself its own pay raise in 2006. The United States Congress and other state legislatures across the country can only enact raises for future terms of office. New York City Council members can enact an increase that takes effect immediately.

Some media outlets and good government groups, even the mayoral commission which recommended the pay increases last year, contend the integrity of government would be improved if the same class of legislators did not vote itself a fat raise.

The outside income and stipends for council leadership positions are far more controversial.

On top of their $112,500 salary, 46 members out of a 51-member body receive some sort of stipend (click here to see our lulu chart). City Council Speaker Christine Quinn reins in the highest yearly check at $28,500, while members who chair smaller, select committees receive only $4,000.

The majority of members, nearly 55 percent, receive an extra $10,000 for chairing committees from education to veterans.

Those stipends, some good government groups contend, are merely a way for the City Council speaker to control members.

"In reality, it is a way for the speaker to exert influence over individual members, and reward those who either are loyal or need incentives to become faithful, by providing them with greater responsibilities or loftier titles that come with additional income," said Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, the sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher.

Though Citizens Union and other advocacy groups, like the New York Public Interest Research Group, say banning all or some of the lulus would create more independence among City Council members, some members argue that their jobs as chairs demand much more time and legwork.

"I happen to think that's the type of dedication that deserves some money," said Councilmember Peter Vallone of chairs who hold several hearings a month and put in extra effort. "It's more of a behavior issue."

Members also said that because the large majority of them receive stipends, it is unlikely any undue influence by the speaker is exerted. Even so, advocates claim most government bodies, including the U.S. Congress, do not award legislators who chair committees.

Some good government advocates are more concerned about the influence a member's outside job can have on his or her City Council work.

The Numbers

With a council seat currently considered a part-time position, the members are unrestricted in the amount of money they can make outside of City Hall. For most, it's a nominal amount if anything at all, but several members have raked in a significant amount of outside cash - some more than $100,000 a year.

According to the most recent financial disclosure reports filed with the city's Conflict of Interest Board for fiscal year 2007, members who have a private legal practice are particularly adept at upping their annual income. Fidler makes a minimum of $252,500 and he could make as much as approximately $457,500, including his council salary.

(Because members are required to file their financial disclosure forms in ranges, such as from $5,000 to $35,000, the exact amount of outside income a member accumulates is not a matter of public record).

Councilmember Domenic Recchia also has a significant amount of outside income from his private law practice - between $100,000 and $250,000. Finance Committee Chairman David Weprin works as an attorney and as an investment banker when not in City Hall and makes between $105,000 and $285,000 on top of his council pay.

Most advocates and members agree the job of City Council member already is a full-time position, no matter what compensation he or she receives. But, good government groups say limiting council members outside income could ensure legislators are not influenced by their outside employment.

The majority of members who earn outside income are attorneys, and for them starting, stopping or even limiting their practice could make business rough when their eight-year term is over, said Vallone, who is an attorney. Vallone earned between $1,000 and $5,000 from his law practice, according to the financial disclosure documents, and earned between $5,000 and $34,999 from a realty partnership.

To address those concerns, Dadey of Citizens Union suggested mandating a more detailed disclosure form which would require more specific reporting on how many hours members are at their other jobs, and that lawyers disclose the number of clients they have and in what areas they practice.

What's Next

It is unclear whether any of these issues will resurface in 2008 at City Hall. Last year, Quinn said she supported the speaker's stipends and did not think it was unethical for a sitting council to vote itself a raise.

And, like most politicians, some members of the City Council never really clock in or clock out of their position. Whether at church or the local coffee shop, most are always on the job, regardless of the hourly rate.

"We don't work five days a week," said Councilmember Larry Seabrook. "You go to church and you still deal with constituent service. We took an oath of office to serve, not an oath of poverty."  

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