GOVERNMENT ON THE WEB
The council was flush with ideas about using the Internet to improve city government at its most recent Stated Meeting on March 14. Council members introduced several bills that would use the Internet to make it easier for New Yorkers to get information about city government and participate in civic life.
All public meetings of city agencies and the City Council would be Webcast under a new bill introduced by Councilmember Gale Brewer (Intro 533), head of the City Council's technology in government committee.
"Important budget discussions, agency testifying, that should be available for the public," said Gale Brewer. " Very few people come to City Hall."
Currently, public meetings are taped and broadcast on NYC-TV. Some are also Webcast, although this coverage is inconsistent. Recording and Webcasting all meetings would require an investment from city government. Brewer said she would develop a price tag for her bill as it goes forward.
This bill mirrors an executive order issued by Governor Eliot Spitzer on his first day in office that requires all public meetings of state agencies be Webcast by July 1, 2007.
Simply putting meetings online is probably not enough, said Brewer, a confessed NYC-TV addict. She acknowledges that the station's coverage is often "unwatchable" because those testifying are not identified on the screen, and there is often a significant amount of dead airtime. Eventually, she says, Webcasts of meetings should be productions that include important information, like the names of those speaking and instructions on finding written testimony online. They would also be archived on the city government's Web site.
"If we're going to Webcast," she said, "we have to think about how to make it more interesting."
Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduced another bill (Intro 531) that would require agencies to give the council electronic copies of all documents they have to submit in hard copy, such as oversight reports. A bill already requires these agencies to submit such documents to the Department of Records and Information Services, which then makes it available to the council, said a council spokesperson. (In theory, at least. Gotham Gazette ran an article that found that this isn't always happening.) This bill would streamline that process.
John Liu also introduced a bill that would require the city's Department of Transportation to post the city's parking regulations online, block-by-block.
The bill would serve two purposes, said John Choe, Liu's chief of staff.
Currently, the public does not have access to such information, even though administrative judges who preside over parking court do. Such information should be made easily available to the public online, said Choe.
But Choe says the bill is also seen as a step towards the possibility of more fundamental changes in the city's parking policy. In certain circles, parking policy inspires intense emotions. (Liu's bill is not the only parking bill introduced at the meeting, in fact. James Vacca introduced one (Intro 544) that would increase fines for truckers who park illegally on residential streets).
Some think that parking regulations should be overhauled to reflect a transportation policy that seeks to reduce driving and encourage mass transit. By beginning to compile parking information online, this bill seeks to be the beginning of a discussion about larger changes, like the possibility of raising the price of online parking to reflect the actual demand for spaces.
"It would open up the possibility for more innovative policies," said Choe. "Maybe there's a way to price these parking spaces differently so it maximizes public good."
ILLEGAL HOTEL CONVERSIONS
Gale Brewer also introduced a bill (Intro 534) intended to cut down on landlords who convert apartments into illegal hotels.
Brewer and other officials have been fielding an increasing number of complaints from constituents who say their apartment buildings are being turned into hotels. They say that their landlords harass them or withhold services, hoping to force them out and replace their apartments with more lucrative hotel rooms. Some also voice security concerns about a steady flow of strangers in and out of their buildings. In a city where the scarcity of affordable housing has reached emergency levels, Brewer and others see taking apartments off the market illegally as a serious offense.
In January 2006 Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, and State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried formed a working group on illegal hotel conversions. The task force has received complaints from about 100 buildings, concentrated primarily in Manhattan.
Gottfried and Krueger have introduced legislation at the state level that would give city officials more enforcement power and close some loopholes allowing landlords to run illegal hotels. That bill is being considered in Albany.
Brewer's bill, seen as a compliment, would increase the fines on violators.
According to Brewer's office, it makes financial sense for landlords to violate the law, because an average fine is only about $800, while illegal hotels are immensely profitable. Her bill would change the fine structure significantly. Fines would range from $1,000 for first time offenders to $20,000 for repeat offenders. It would also add a civil penalty that would be assessed daily until the landlord could prove that he or she is no longer using apartments for hotel use.
Other officials and city agencies have also joined the effort. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has added a full-time staff member to the Office of Midtown Enforcement to confront illegal conversions. The mayor's office is working on its own package of legislation regarding illegal hotel conversions.Â