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Disclosure Bill's Uncertain Future

by Courtney Gross, Sep 22, 2008
 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's disclosure bill went pretty much unnoticed when it was introduced in June.

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A measure meant to ease financial reporting requirements for citizens who volunteer on city-affiliated nonprofits, the legislation was supposed to move smoothly from committee hearing to City Council approval so those volunteers would no longer have to fill out a weighty 32-page form.

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That scenario shifted quickly last week, when good government groups lashed out against elements of the legislation that they argued weakened disclosure requirements for public officials.

Now, some involved say, their best hope is for a compromise on the less controversial elements of the bill. Others question whether the legislation will come back to the City Council at all.

The bill had been on the agenda of the Conflicts of Interest Board, the regulatory body overseeing financial disclosure -- outside of campaign finance-- in the city for more than a decade.

Weakening or Not?

Unlike other municipalities and cities in New York State, New York City has not been able to come up with its own disclosure forms since 1990. Because of this, about 8,000 public officials are subject to a 32-page state document, which requires individuals reveal investment holdings, real estate, ranges of outside income and gifts.

Earlier this year, the state legislature passed legislation requiring those who serve with city-affiliated nonprofits to also disclose some of their financial interests.

As a result, the city was given the go-ahead to create a three-tiered disclosure system, requiring an extensive form for public officials and employees; another form for those who sit on influential boards and commissions, like the Landmarks Preservation Commission; and a final one for unpaid volunteers at city-affiliated nonprofits, such as the Gracie Mansion Conservancy. The amount of information a filer would need would depend on his or her influence in city government.

The Conflicts of Interest Board drafted a bill and sent it to the City Council. Some officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, expressed support for the bill, saying it would help the nonprofits attract more skilled volunteers, who might have previously declined because of the financial disclosure requirements.

"I had people that I tried to get to be on different committees and boards, and they didn’t want to fill out the paperwork," said Councilmember Leroy Comrie, one of the sponsors of the bill in the City Council. "They felt like it was too intrusive."

Most agree it is unfair for unpaid members of commissions or city nonprofits to disclose the same information as the speaker of the City Council.

"If we rule out every potential conflict, then we are going to keep the best and the brightest out of government and not get their services," Bloomberg said at a seminar at New York Law School earlier this year. "So it’s finding that right balance."

Balance, according to some good government groups, was not reached.

Part of the legislation -- say groups like Citizens Union, the sister organization to Gotham Gazette’s publisher -- rolls back financial disclosure requirements for public officials. Under the bill, councilmembers would no longer have to disclose property they had outside of the city or the range of income they make outside of City Hall (being on the council is a part-time job, and many members make outside income).

After these groups voiced their opposition , a public hearing on the legislation was canceled and reports emerged that the administration was taking a second look at the proposal.

A spokesman for the administration said revisions to the bill are not a response to criticism from good government groups.

What is A Conflict?

Mark Davies, the executive director of the Conflicts of Interest Board, says the bill is meant to identify what really is a conflict of interest. It is far more important to know the connections than to know how much money someone made at another job, he says.

Many of the amounts currently required for disclosure have been deleted in the new bill. For instance, an official would not have to disclose the value of investments, just the names of the holdings.

"The categories or amounts, they tell you nothing," said Davies. "The connections are the critical thing for the Conflicts of Interest Board."

That is why, he added, the board added family disclosure in the bill. The legislation, as currently drafted, would require filers to identify the employers of siblings, parents and adult children in addition to their spouses.

Others argue, when it comes to an elected official, the public has a right to know how much he or she made as an attorney in Brooklyn outside of his or her district office or how the market treated him or her.

Next Steps

If legislation is not approved by the City Council, those civic volunteers will have to reveal far more than their name and address. They would be held to the same scrutiny elected officials currently have under the state law.

Because of that, some think the council will vote on a bill sometime soon. How far reaching that legislation will be has not yet been determined.

"My hope is that they do pass a comprehensive bill, but I wouldn’t be shocked in the current climate if they settled in with dealing with the unpaid boards and commissions," said Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group . "There is a general agreement that people that are uncompensated should have disclosure, but not have anywhere near the 32-page form."

 




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