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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
headlines in many city papers.
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
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
measure introduced by Mealy followed. That
resolution, introduced in July, has yet to receive a hearing.
Sorry for Slavery: Following the example of
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."
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.