Angry pedicab drivers booed and hissed from the balcony at the city council's biweekly stated meeting on February 28th. What was being voted on was important to them. Other actions were important to nightclubs, and to tax preparers and their clients, and to those who care about civil rights. Indeed, in the end, the council passed eight new bills and two resolutions, including one that Councilmember Lew Fidler described as the most important resolution he had ever voted on, and Councilmember Albert Van described as "the beginning of a movement."
Over the last four years, the number of pedicabs on the street has more than tripled, to about 350 on any given night, according to the New York Pedicab Drivers Association. These oversized tricycles carry a driver in front and up to three passengers, and are most common in Midtown, the Village, and areas between. Increasingly, tourists and residents alike are seeing the vehicles as a novel and speedy way to get around - Councilmember Rosie Mendez says she regularly rides one because a knee problem makes it uncomfortable to walk. But others complain that pedicabs add to traffic congestion, and need to be regulated because of safety concerns.
"Every other vehicle that transports people for hire on the streets of New York -- cabs, black cars, carriage horse drivers -- all of those vehicles and their drivers operate in a regulatory structure," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "The pedicab drivers have no structure at all."
With the mayor's blessing, the council passed a bill ( Intro 331-A) that would regulate this industry for the first time. This bill would cap the number of pedicabs allowed to operate in the city at 325, and make drivers disclose the methods by which they determine fares. Drivers would be required to obtain licenses and purchase insurance. The pedicabs themselves would have to meet certain safety standards such as having lights, seatbelts, and brakes that met certain requirements. The bill would also ban the use of motors on pedicabs, such as the small "electric assist" motors that some drivers now use to get an additional push.
Pedicab drivers themselves have said they want some rules governing their industry because its recent growth requires quality control. But drivers attending the stated meeting did not like the regulations they got. A loud group voiced their discontent on the steps of City Hall before the meeting, then moved to the balcony of the chamber, where they cheered for council members who agreed with them and booed and hissed at those who didn't.
The critics took issue with the idea capping the number of pedicabs in the city. The drivers present estimate their numbers at about 500 citywide, meaning that many would lose their right to operate under the new regulations. A cap would unnecessarily distort the market, they said. Some also argued that the city is asking for pedicab drivers to spend an unreasonably large amount on insurance. That, coupled with the cost of the other improvements, will make their businesses unprofitable, argued Mega Martinez, a pedicab driver in attendance.
Several council members had harsh words for the bill, echoing the criticisms made by the drivers.
"This is supposed to be a capitalist society --- even though I am a socialist -- and there is supposed to be free enterprise and competition," said Charles Barron, to the delight of the crowd in the balcony. "The taxi and limousine businesses want to put the pedicabs out of business."
Supporters of the bill responded by noting that the cap will be reconsidered in 18 months. The council will have to renew the bill six months after that.
"Is 325 the right cap? I have no idea," said Councilmember Oliver Koppell, who voted for the legislation. He said the cap would actually help the complaining pedicab drivers by cutting down on their competition, allowing them to increase their income and offset the increased costs associated with regulation.
The bill passed by a vote of 38 to 7. Council members Tony Avella, Charles Barron, Letitia James, Rosie Mendez, Hiram Monserrate, Annabel Palma, and Albert Vann voted against it. Four more council members abstained - Gale Brewer, Alan Gerson, Diane Mealy, and James Sanders.
The council also passed three laws and a resolution related to nightlife safety, a focus of the council since Imette St. Guillen was abducted and murdered while she was having a night on the town about a year ago.
Intro 442-a- would require clubs with cabaret licenses to install security cameras at all entrances and exits. Speaker Quinn said this was intended to serve as a deterrent and also would provide evidence in the case of a crime. Several council members expressed their concern over privacy issues, particularly for gay and lesbian patrons who may be especially wary of being captured on film at certain establishments. Still, the bill passed unanimously.
Intro 440-a require establishments with multiple or serious violations to hire safety monitors instead of being shut down. These monitors would cooperate with police to try to improve the clubs' behavior. Critics of this bill worried that it would be used to harass legitimate social clubs in minority neighborhoods. The bill passed by a vote of 46 to 3, with council members Charles Barron, Letitia James, and Diane Mealy voting no.
Intro 484-a would give the city the power to shut down stores that sell fake IDs under the city's nuisance abatement law. Another bill, Intro 515-a, would have also used the noise abatement law to close down bars or clubs where multiple violent crimes have taken place, but the council couldn't reach an agreement on the shape of the bill, and the vote was delayed.
Finally, Councilmember Melinda Katz sponsored a resolution calling on the state to address clubs that require patrons to buy entire bottles in order to enter. So-called bottle service, Katz argues, means leaving an unattended bottle of alcohol at a table, making it easier for underage patrons to drink and encouraging customers to drink excessively. She introduced a resolution that would have asked the state to ban bottle service altogether, but it never made it to a full council vote. Instead, the council passed a resolution on February 28 asking the state to require a waiter to oversee bottle service, rather than just plunking the bottle on the table.
"Clearly we don't have the power to pass these things in the city council, so we need the state legislature to step up," said Katz. The resolution passed unanimously.
Speaker Quinn stressed that these laws will be followed by additional measures concerning nightlife. Members of the council said they would continue to push for tougher restrictions on fake IDs, and would consider the industry's request that City Hall establish a mayor's office of nightlife, based on the office of film and broadcasting.
Another measure mentioned was paid detail -- when off-duty police officers are posted outside clubs at the owners' expense, armed and in uniform. Industry representatives are in favor of such a plan, saying it will improve security. The police department, however, is resisting, arguing that it may create a conflict of interest for the officers involved.
On the last day of Black History Month, the council unanimously passed a symbolic moratorium on the "n-word."
The effort was spearheaded by Councilmember Leroy Comrie, who was distressed at the casual use of the word by teenagers in his Queens district as they gathered after school. He hooked into a movement to ban the slur that his staff found on the Internet. Over the last month, Comrie has written letters to the Grammies and BET asking them not to feature hip hop artists who use the word (he has not heard back). Over 30 middle schools in the city participated in an essay contest where students described what the word meant to them; the 17 winners were given free tickets to the Universal Soul Circus.
Comrie's original intent was simply to introduce the legislation as a way to spark discussion at a time that people are talking about black history. The council has been mocked for its resolutions in the past, and council members now say they are reticent to pass what are essentially statements of official opinion. But the momentum that has built up around Comrie's campaign warranted an exception, said numerous council members. Councilmember John Liu called the slur "the vilest word in the English language," and Councilmember Lew Fidler said the resolution was the most important one the council has considered in his five-year tenure.
Comrie takes pains to note the symbolic nature of the resolution. Some others have called for the word to be removed from the dictionary, but he believes it should stay there for historical purposes.
"I'm not interested in creating an opportunity to eliminate words," he said. "That's a slippery slope to go down."
WETLANDS, TAX SCHEMERS, AND $1.9 BILLION
Several other pieces of legislation also passed the council by unanimous votes.
Intro 505 extends the life of the city's Wetlands Task Force, which is examining the feasibility of transferring city-owned wetlands to the Parks Department for preservation.
The Tax Preparation Consumer Bill of Rights (Intro 81-a) would require tax preparers to give their customers information on fees, interest rates, and other "unfavorable charges." Last year, Earned Income Tax Credit recipients - workers whose income is so low that they qualify for tax relief - spent $325 million last year for tax preparation, according to Councilmember Eric Gioia, the bill's primary sponsor.
The council also passed a resolution (Resolution 729) known as a budget modification, which officially acknowledges that the city has $1.9 billion in unexpected tax revenue this year. Speaker Quinn said that City Hall would use the money to prepay expenses in fiscal 2008, which starts July 1. But she also called for the state to change the law that prohibits city officials from putting money away for lean years in the future.
"We would be in a more thoughtful place right now in city government if we could make a decision whether to prepay expenses or to take those funds and put them aside in a long term rainy day account," she said.
Other members said that the extra surplus indicated that it was time to re-examine the city's tax code. A recent report by the Independent Budget Office showed that New Yorkers carry a much heavier tax burden than residents of any other large city in the country. Councilmember Fidler called for a further reworking of the city's property tax system. Republican Minority Leader James Oddo said officials should look at income taxes, the major reason for the disparity.
"Let's bring in experts" to examine the fiscal implications of a cut, said Oddo. "They can pooh-pooh it, they can praise it, they can say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. I think it's incumbent on us to analyze it."