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City Council Stated Meeting -- February 1, 2006

by Hilary Russ, Feb 01, 2006
 Every two weeks the New York City Council meets for its Stated Meeting to introduce and pass legislation. As a regular feature, Searchlight covers these meetings and posts a summary of the bills passed.

QUOTES OF THE DAY

“I believe that these five changes will make the proceedings and business of the council more transparent, more democratic and more open and accessible to the public.” – City Council Speaker Christine Quinn

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“It is history in the making.” – Joel Rivera, on Bronx Terminal Market

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MEETING SUMMARY

The New York City Council passed two packets of legislation. One, which aims to make local government more transparent, changed several of the operating rules of the city council. Another, reached after difficult negotiations between private developers and community groups, gave city council approval for the Bronx Terminal Market development to proceed.

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CITY COUNCIL RULE CHANGES

With little fuss and no dissent, the city council members unanimously approved changes to the way they do some of their work. The set of resolutions is supposed to reform the council.

“I believe that these five changes will make the proceedings and business of the council more transparent, more democratic and more open and accessible to the public,” said Speaker Christine Quinn. She added that the council will establish a working group on rules reform to study and propose more rules changes throughout the year.

One major change, for instance, affects the way bills are drafted in the council. In the past, there were times when a member would submit a bill that never actually got drafted. Now, the speaker has to make sure that the “central staff provides legislative drafting services to all members on an equitable and confidential basis.” Instead of languishing, bills introduced by any member, popular or not, will be drafted on a first-come, first-served basis and within 60 days.

During the meeting, several members said they welcomed the changes as a way to make what they do more transparent to the public. Councilmember David Yassky said the new rules were “a meaningful set of changes” that would allow taxpayers ultimately to get a “better product” for their money.

Councilmember Albert Vann called the changes “progressive and member-friendly.” Even Charles Barron, perhaps the council member most likely to disagree with the rest of the legislative body, said the changes were “a step in the right direction.”

Another new rule requires council committees to be quicker about spreading the word when they hold meetings. Now, a committee must give at least 72 hours advanced notice, “where practical,” of a meeting by sending press releases to news media and by posting notices inside public areas of City Hall and on the internet.

Also, amendments to bills will be read off and voted on separately after debate on the floor of the city council chambers. And the entire process for amending legislation was clarified.

One new rule changes how laws are changed. The new regulation requires alterations to drafts of legislation that seeks to amend or repeal an existing law: now, the legislation must be stamped with time and date, any repealed text should be printed between brackets and any insertions of new material should be underlined.

Finally, the number of council members needed to bring a piece of stalled legislation out of committee to the full council was reduced from nine to seven.

For more explanation, go to Gotham Gazette's Voting topic page article, Five First Steps At The City Council, by Doug Israel.

BRONX TERMINAL MARKET

More contentious than reforms to the council’s operating procedures were changes that will allow the Bronx Terminal Market development to keep pushing ahead. It was a big city thumbs up for the Related Companies’ $400 million mall – and a slap in the face for Walmart.

Technically, the council approved six uniform land use review procedure applications for 965,000 square feet of land in the Bronx. But because months of negotiating between developers, the city and community groups resulted in a “community benefits agreement” and the explicit banning of Walmart, the city council also set a precedent.

“It is history in the making,” said Joel Rivera, the council’s majority leader and strong Bronx councilmember, during the meeting.

The negotiations resulted in “a community benefits agreement that’s going to serve as a model, not just for the city but for our nation,” said Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who represents District 17, where the market, which will be renamed Gateway Center when it becomes a mall, will be built. “Developers in the city, I hope you’re paying attention. Because it’s only going to get better.”

The retail project will raze and replace about two-dozen wholesale merchants, who together comprise what is reportedly the largest seller of ethnic and tropical food on the East Coast.

Some officials and community members have raised concerns about how the project originated – and indeed, about how often development projects in the city are spawned not by government or the public but by private developers.

But many praised the community benefits agreement. Some of its stipulations, as Arroyo noted during the stated meeting, are:

-$3 million from Related Companies for a referral system to coordinate job training and placement, with special emphasis on local residents. The goal, Arroyo said, is to fill 75 percent of the jobs with Bronx residents. It is similar to a hiring plan devised to appease locals in the construction of the Time Warner Center.
-A preference toward local contractors. The goal here, she said, is to get half of all contractor and development work going to local, Bronx-based firms (though published reports have said Related Companies only agreed to 30 percent).
-A promised “green roof” and affordable child care program and facility.
-“No Walmart, of any kind,” said Arroyo. Any big box store that moves in must accept food stamps and WIC and must reduce or eliminate membership fees for those who cannot afford them. Related Companies agreed to pay 50 percent of membership fees for 2,000 families from the community for five years.

While many members praised the community benefits agreement, as well as the Bronx delegation, community groups and Related Companies for persisting through difficult negotiations, some members raised concerns about the path the project has taken. “We can’t forget about process,” said Councilmember Charles Barron. “We can’t forget about displacement.” He was the only member to vote against the Bronx Terminal Market measures. Councilmember Hiram Monserrate abstained from voting for the same reasons.

 




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