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How City Council Expresses Its Opinions

by Courtney Gross, Dec 31, 2007
 

Most of us make New Year's resolutions or at least we attempt to.

We hear them recited over and over by friends, family and in our own heads:

"I will lose 30 pounds."

"I will quit smoking."

"I will stop introducing frivolous resolutions."

Wait, what?

Just like the personal pledges we make every year, the City Council has its own resolutions. Some, like those approving the budget, have clout. But many opine on state or federal policy or take a stand on a controversial issue outside the council's jurisdiction and are completely nonbinding. The 51 members of the New York City Council introduced 507 resolutions in 2007, and some City Hall observers and prospective candidates argue they should cut back for 2008.

"I think often my gut instinct is they are symbolic expressions of sentiment by the City Council or perhaps groups that are pressuring the City Council or exerting pressure on the legislature," said Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, of resolutions.

Contending the measures are merely symbolic or for political gain, some critics claim that resolutions waste the council's time and should be eliminated completely or capped at a "reasonable" level.

While you may agree or disagree with a resolution's purpose - whether it's your own promise or one from the New York City Council - at least one similarity is difficult to ignore: Like the more than 90 percent of individuals who will fail to meet their goals in 2008, most City Council resolutions will likely fail to fulfill the aspirations of their sponsors, observers said.

The Purpose

What exactly does a resolution do? Technically - for a large number of them - nothing.

While resolutions are used to formally approve the budget and financial transfers and to confirm any uniform land use review procedure, many merely express the views of the council - after all, they call them nonbinding for a reason.

Thanks to the City Charter, the City Council really can't do that much. It may have sole power over the budget's approval and land use review procedures, but much of the "sexy" issues, as one lobbyists put it, are the responsibility of the mayor or the state government. Resolutions provide a means for council members to get involved, said City Hall observers.

From urging the state legislature to adopt a real estate tax rebate for veterans to creating a symbolic moratorium on the pejorative use of the word bitch, policy-related resolutions have no teeth and no requirement that any New Yorker comply.

Though nonbinding resolutions lack the power of enforcement, some members can't get enough of them.

Out of the 507 resolutions introduced in 2007, 66 percent were procedural in nature, usually a land use resolution memorializing a rezoning or redevelopment approval. About 170 were policy oriented, nonbinding resolutions, and of those 17 percent were approved.

Not surprisingly, of the 51 City Council members, chairs of committees affiliated with the land use review procedure or finance, like Melinda Katz, who chairs land use, or David Weprin, who heads the Finance Committee, have sponsored or co-sponsored the largest portion of resolutions - 268 and 147 respectively.

While the majority of members have sponsored or co-sponsored about 50 items, a few, including Dennis Gallagher and David Yassky, signed on far more sparingly.

Beyond the City's Borders and the City Charter

Policy-based resolutions often express opposition or support for state or federal legislation and can even take a stand on foreign policy - from the distribution of resources in China to the plight of democracy in Myanmar. Even council members admit that their efforts to weigh in on such distant matters has made the body the target of ridicule.

But the introduction and subsequent approval of these resolutions can send a meaningful message to one's constituents, some council members say. While the People's Republic of China may not notice if a City Council thousands of miles away votes to condemn its labor practices, residents of Bed-Stuy, Jackson Heights and Harlem could appreciate that their representatives took a stand.

"I think its good idea for us to come out and condemn genocide in Darfur," said Councilmember Michael Nelson. Overall, he added, a resolution's impact can depend on its scope. "It can definitely have an effect. In some cases it can be questionable."

Knowing that internationally focused resolutions are unlikely to affect uprisings in Asia or Africa, some say the intentions behind this type of measure are entirely political.

"Is it just something they are going to trot out in their end-of-year newsletter or are they trying to educate the public?" asked Haven of New York Public Interest Research Group. "It's very hard to separate the just self promotional aspects to the genuine advancement of policy."

Even some council members admit that these resolutions are to draw attention to the sponsors. Councilmember Tony Avella said as the 2009 elections approach, he expects many more symbolic gestures to be introduced on the council floor.

Influencing U.S. and State Policy

In the 2007 legislative session, council members introduced 30 resolutions calling on the federal government to pass legislation or change policy. Of those, four were approved, including a resolution (Res. 842) urging Congress to adopt a comprehensive immigration policy that protects the civil liberties of undocumented immigrants and fully incorporate them into society.

As you recall, Congress was not swayed by the New York City Council.

Whether this legislation can make an impact on a smaller scale is a greater question. More than 50 resolutions introduced in 2007 were aimed at the state government in Albany - though the full council approved only seven of them. Given the size of the city's delegation in the legislature, the council's resolutions on state issues could have some influence, some political observers suggest.

Weprin, for example, introduced a resolution in 2004 urging the state Legislature to approve Timothy's Law -- a bill that expanded medical coverage for the mentally ill and people with substance abuse problems.

Once the council held a widely publicized hearing and passed the resolution, Weprin said Albany finally acted. He couldn't attribute the bill's passage entirely to his resolution, but the councilman said it helped.

"I think it's part of your responsibility as the council to use that bully pulpit for the greater good, and part of that is trying to influence state and federal policy makers, whether it's legislators, governors, presidents," Weprin said.

But many of the state-targeted nonbinding resolutions passed in the 2007 legislative session were not so successful.

For instance, when the City Council approved a resolution urging the state legislature to approve a recycling center on the Gansevoort peninsula that would enable the city to follow through with its Solid Waste Management Plan, Albany turned a deaf ear.

It's even difficult to get city's agencies to pay attention. When the council approved a resolution in March urging the Department of Education to reassess its milk offerings in school cafeterias, the department did not change its policy to offer only low-fat or 2 percent milk in schools. A department spokesperson said the current arangement helps keep kids healthy.

"The effect of resolutions being introduced is to mobilize interest groups," said Norman Adler, president of lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns. "Given the substantive number of them that are introduced, I would say their impact is minor."

Banning Resolutions

Some, including Bob Zuckerman, who plans to run for the City Council in 2009, want to do away with the nonbinding measures all together.

"What is the purpose of a council resolution saying that we think the state legislature should pass this?" asked Zuckerman. "That's why we have state legislature."

Others argue a resolution can have an impact if an individual council member follows through. When a council member can get a resolution to the floor and get it passed, Avella said, the individual member must then work to see it become successful upstate, in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere.

"Even when you just succeed at getting it passed, the council doesn't do anything with it," said Avella. "It sits on a shelf. It's up to the author of the resolution to move it."

The Labor of a Lobbyist

Most of the nonbinding resolutions never make it to the full council (Some council members contend whether a resolution gets a hearing depends on his or her relationship with Council Speaker Christine Quinn).

But even if a resolution doesn't make it to the floor, it can still cause ripple effects throughout City Hall.

It may, for example, mobilize interest groups for and against the measure. More than a decade ago, the then-sitting City Council introduced a resolution condemning the Anheuser-Busch Companies for alleged discriminatory policies against minority and independent business owners.

Adler, who was hired by the beer company as a lobbyist, recalled the company paid thousands of dollars in a successful effort to quash the resolution. While the symbolic legislation never threatened Anheuser-Busch financially, it still thought it had to fight the nonbinding measure.

"In my experience in lobbying at City Hall over the years, resolutions very frequently annoy or frighten corporations," said Adler. "It puts meat and potatoes on the table of many a lobbyist."

A Resolutionary Recap

Here is a sample of some of the resolutions that were introduced during the 2007 legislative session:

Limiting Homework: As Councilmember Peter Vallone prepares to introduce a resolution to limit homework for New York City public schools students to two hours a night, he has his kids in mind. The resolution, which calls on the Department of Education to reform its homework policy, also landed him on a plethora of national broadcasts and made headlines in many city papers.

Obama's Bill: Sometimes it's not the premise of the resolution that sparks controversy, but its lack of movement. Councilmember Darlene Mealy introduced a resolution earlier this year endorsing a bill on voting rights sponsored by presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama. Another councilmember, Charles Barron, claimed Quinn buried the resolution because she supports Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. He also called Quinn a racist. Barron and Quinn often clash over legislative matters.

Iran Divestment: City Council Minority Leader James Oddo introduced a resolution in August urging the city and the state to divest their pension funds in companies who invested in Iran's energy sector. The resolution hasn't received a hearing but did get some press.

Curbing Curses: Twice this year, members introduced resolutions symbolically banning the use of certain words. First was one on the n-word, introduced by Councilmember Leroy Comrie, which passed in February. The b-word measure introduced by Mealy followed. That resolution, introduced in July, has yet to receive a hearing.

Sorry for Slavery: Following the example of some states in the South, several black members of the City Council introduced a resolution in April expressing profound regret for slavery. That resolution also has not received a hearing.

Caffeine Count: Councilmember Simcha Felder introduced a measure in February urging the federal government to require food companies to include caffeine counts on nutrition labels. The council never moved on it and neither did the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A Common and Necessary Practice?

Faced with the opportunity to take on issues like these, the City Council is unlikely to abandon such resolutions anytime soon. Members like resolutions: The number of them introduced on the Council Chamber floor in 2007 outnumbers the number of bills, or introductions, during the same time period by nearly 3 to 1.

"Every resolution has its place," said Councilmember Letitia James. "Some of them are more influential than others. Some of them are not worth the paper they are written on."  

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