Issue of the Week

The City Council's First 100 Days

By Mark Berkey-Gerard

15 April 02

Some say it started with Napoleon. In 1815, the exiled ruler snuck back into Paris and ruled for 100 days. During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt put thousands of people to work in his first 100 days in office. The first 100 days of John F. Kennedy's presidency included the mettle-testing fiasco of the Bay of Pigs.

But nowadays, a public official need not actually have done much to get The First Hundred Days treatment. Take Michael Bloomberg. The mayor himself listed as his major accomplishments during the first three months, one week and four days of his administration that he has hired some good people and set a good "tone." Yet that has not stopped him from being the subject of dozens upon dozens of First Hundred Days stories in newspapers and magazines and even on national television.

So what about the first hundred days of the New York City Council?

This has less of a tradition -- indeed, there is none. Some council members were not even sure when 100 days would be since they took office on New Years Day, but did not officially meet until the second week of January. "There's no cake cutting or band if that's what you are asking," said a council spokesman, setting a tone of his own.

True, the City Council does not fly helicopters or jet off to Bermuda on the weekend; it is not a billionaire bachelor. Certainly, it is easier to focus on one person than 51. Perhaps, many people still do not take the council seriously enough to assess it.

However, just 100 days since the new New York City Council took office -- 38 of 51 members for the first time -- there are some things worth noting.

In the first days, the council navigated a tricky transition, elected a new Speaker, and approved a new set of rules aimed at making the council more democratic. The council's preliminary budget plan announced on April 8 -- which proposes nearly $1 billion in new taxes -- showed that the council may finally be willing to stand up to the mayor. Under its new rules, controversial legislation such as a new lead poisoning bill actually has a chance of being debated and approved.

"This is an impatient City Council that is rejecting the way things have been done in the past," said Queens Councilmember Eric Gioia.

At the same time, there have also been considerable setbacks in the first few months -- some of the council's own making and some out of its control -- that suggest that the City Council still has a long way to go.

Though the city is facing the worst fiscal crunch in a quarter of a century, the council could still hand out nearly half a million dollars in bonuses to itself for no other reason than that it had been done in the past. Political paybacks played a big role in the election of the Speaker. And for all of their efforts, the City Council is still shut out of many discussions by the mayor and by Albany.

Certainly the biggest blow came when Brooklyn Councilmember Angel Rodriguez was indicted for allegedly soliciting bribes in return for his support of a Fairway Supermarket in Red Hook. Instead of being able to drum up support for his budget, Speaker Miller found himself defending the council for having approved the plan just weeks before.

So has the City Council really changed since term limits replaced so many members? Is the legislative body on its way to being an equal partner to the mayor as the members promised? And can they tackle difficult issues of schools, affordable housing, and rebuilding lower Manhattan?

"I think people should take notice that we are not a part-time City Council; we are an overtime City Council," said Queens Councilmember Hiram Monserrate.

"I give them a B," says Doug Muzzio of the Baruch School of Public Affairs, noting that even the youthful City Council has exceeded expectations. "But the real test will be if they can articulate a unified vision for the budget and public policy -- and make it stick."

FILLING A $4.8 BILLION HOLE
The City Council is proposing a personal income tax surcharge that would generate $400 million a year to be used for school construction and improvements.
Income
Level

$0 - 30,000
$30,000 - 40,000
$40,000 - 50,000
$50,000 - 60,000
$60,000 - 70,000
$70,000 - 80,000
$80,000 - 90,000
$90,000 - 100,000
$100,000 - 150,000
$150,000 - 250,000
$250,000 - 500,000
$500,000 - 1 million
$1 million and up
Average/
Taxpayer

$5
$7
$25
$47
$71
$96
$116
$142
$263
$608
$1,280
$2,843
$14,490

For the last eight years and during better economic times, the mayor and council practiced a fairly simple budget process: the mayor proposed cuts and the council put much of it back. This year, facing a $4.8 billion deficit and substantial cuts to every city service, the council faced pressure to produce some bold and imaginative ideas.

On April 8, the council not only put back many of the mayor's cuts, including $344 million for education, but called for an increase in the personal income tax that would generate an additional $400 million a year for schools. The new tax would also enable $5 billion in borrowing to build new schools and libraries, buy textbooks, and install computers.

The council also called for the restoration of the commuter tax to deal with the city's growing debt, a property tax on absentee landlords, and a $30 million alcohol tax. To raise more revenue, the council has proposed selling 500 new taxi medallions to raise $100 million for the city. And in an attempt to save the city's glass, plastic, aluminum, and plastic recycling program, it wants to collect unused 5-cent bottle deposits from distributors.

These are only preliminary ideas, however, that must be hashed out over the next few months.

And nearly every one of the council's new tax proposals -- including the one to provide funding for schools -- must be approved by the State Legislature, who will be more than reluctant to do so during an election year.

But to some budget watchers, the council's preliminary budget was a marked improvement from the past.

"The speaker and the council have made a very serious effort to address the budget deficit, which is a big step forward," said Ronnie Lowenstein of the Independent Budget Office. She also noted that the past council never gave such detailed explanations of where the money was going to come from for its programs.

The other big change from the past was the tone of the negotiations. While the council's proposals present a real challenge to the mayor's cuts, both sides have said they are willing to work together. During the Giuliani era, the City Council spent much of their time blasting the mayor for his cuts.

"We're prepared to disagree with the mayor," Speaker Miller said. "But I think we can do it without crossing swords."

NEW COUNCIL, NEW LEGISLATION

Hundreds of new resolutions, laws, and land use decisions have been introduced in the first couple of months of the council. As usual, the scope of bills ranges from the specific (approving a sidewalk cafe in Washington Heights) to the redundant (a Republican bill requiring the American Flag to be displayed at parades) to the wildly ambitious (setting up a council committee to consider reparations for slavery).

But the real measure of the new City Council may not be what the laws aim to do, but how they are being handled within the council.

In the last City Council, it was Speaker Vallone alone who determined whether legislation would pass or die. If Vallone did not want to pass a bill, it was sent to a committee where it would languish indefinitely and never come up for a vote. And since the speaker also selects the chairs of each committee, members were at risk of being shut out -- or even being removed from their positions -- if they opposed the speaker's wishes.

But under the new rules of the council, negotiated by many of the new freshman in their first days in office, individual members now have more power to bring their bills to a vote of the full council, even without support of the committees or of the speaker.

The bill that may test these new rules is a new lead poisoning prevention law that would make it easier for parents of children with lead poisoning to sue their landlords. In the last council, the current lead paint bill produced a rare show of dissention from the leadership of Speaker Vallone. Calling the law a "land-lord protection act," 15 of 51 members voted against it.

Now Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins has been able to get 29 of his colleagues to co-sponsor the bill, even though it does not yet have the support of Speaker Miller or Councilmember Madeline Provenzano who chairs the Housing and Building Committee where it will be debated.

Other significant legislation that actually has enough support to produce lively debate includes:

  • a living-wage bill that would require city contractors to pay workers at least $8.10 an hour
  • legislation that would bar the city from doing business with companies that issue high-interest loans
  • and a bill requiring the nonprofit group Rudolph W. Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs to return over 2,000 boxes of mayoral archives to the municipal library.

In the first 100 days, only two bills went to the mayor and have been signed into law.

One, sponsored by East Harlem Councilmember Phil Reed, gave newsstand owners the right to sell items worth up to $5, a measure aimed to help small businesses by raising the maximum price for non-print materials for the first time since 1979. The other, from East Side Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, requires the Department of Public Health to better publicize information describing public health insurance program in multiple languages.

Veteran members introduced both measures and neither was controversial.

TRIMMING THE FAT?

Like every city agency, the City Council has also been asked to cut its budget. To comply, Speaker Gifford Miller cut 90 people from the central staff at City Council, which now employs about 270 people.

At the same time, the new council had to shell out over $60,000 for new chairs in the first few days in office, just so the members could have a place to sit. Under a law passed by the previous council, departing member could buy their old leather chairs for $35 each when they left office. So many departing members wanted them that the new council had to purchase 65 new ones at $932.45 each.

To make sure it does not happen again in two years when more members are term-limited, Miller introduced a bill that would require the term-limited members to pay fair market value if they want to take their chairs with them. The council praised itself for ending the "days of wine and roses" and passed the measure unanimously.

In another effort to make the council more efficient, Minority Leader James Oddo, a Republican from Staten Island introduced legislation that would hand the responsibility for changing street names to the Department of Transportation and the local community boards.

"For years people have joked that the City Council does little more than change street names," said Oddo. "We know that is not true, but this bill takes that line away from them."

However his plan to get rid of less significant legislation does not necessarily extend beyond the street. Oddo himself recently sponsored legislation praising Rudolph Giuliani as "one of the greatest mayors in the history of the city."

ADDRESSING EDUCATION WOES

The new City Council wants to be known for putting education first. Yet the two main issues -- who controls the schools and where the money comes from -- are largely out of their control.

That has not stopped them from trying to be a key player in the discussion.

On the issue of mayoral control of the schools, the council's education committee held four days of public hearings where elected officials, experts, teachers, and parents weighed in on the issue. In the past, such a hearing might have been the end of the discussion -- with lots of testimony, but no specific plan. This time around, chair Eva Moskowitz pushed the Education Committee to come up with something to show the mayor and those in Albany who will ultimately make the decision.

Under the council proposal, the mayor would appoint a chancellor with the council's approval and the current Board of Education would be replaced by an 11-member body that would make policy. The mayor would appoint six members and the borough presidents would appoint five. Mayor Bloomberg, who seems to be softening on issue of total control of the schools, said that the council's plan was a step in the right direction, but made no commitment to it.

The other, and more crucial concern, is funding.

A recent report by the Independent Budget Office, which tried to put a price tag on fixing the city's schools. The report found that in order to match funding levels of other New York schools where 80 percent of the students passed their Regents tests, the state and city would need to increase spending by $3,029 per pupil -- or a total of $3.3 billion more a year.

No one has come up with an idea for getting that kind of money. But following up on its promise to come up with some kind of plan, the council put out the idea of a personal income tax surcharge. The new tax would produce $400 million over the next year for school funding that would help the city borrow $5 billion to build new schools and upgrade classrooms.

About 85 percent of all households -- who make less than $80,000 annually -- would pay less than $100 a year in new taxes. Those making less than $30,000 a year would pay a flat tax of $5 a year.

Even this proposal, which will have a difficult winning support from the mayor and Albany, falls far short of what some have said is needed.

TOUGH DECISIONS

The new City Council members have already demonstrated that they are willing to disagree with the mayor, but it may be more difficult to disagree with each other on tough issues.

This dilemma recently played out over the city's plan to rehabilitate 40 apartments on 320 Sterling Street in Brooklyn. Brooklyn Councilmember Yvette Clarke opposed the transfer of the apartments in her district to a nonprofit developer because she said tenants who lived there had not been part of the decision making process. Mayor Bloomberg said affordable housing was badly needed in the area.

The actual merits of the project were further confused by a Daily News editorial that said anti-Semitism might have been a factor in the community's opposition. Clarke said there was no validity to the editorial. "I deplore any expression of bigotry, racism or anti-Semitism," she said.

Despite lobbying by the mayor's staff, the council sided with Clarke and nixed the plan by a vote of 43-0 with six abstentions. West Side Councilmember Gale Brewer, one of the two Democrats who abstained, said she voted out of respect for Clarke, but also said the project had received the stamp of approval from non-profit developers that she greatly respected.

In the end, it was difficult to tell whether the council had really voted against the proposal in a show support a colleague or because they thought it was really a bad idea for the neighborhood and the city.

LEFT OUT OF REBUILDING

Although the New York City Council can conduct investigations of city agencies, has power over land-use, and City Hall is only a block from Ground Zero, it council has been largely left out of the efforts to rebuild lower Manhattan.

The council had no say in the make-up of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, whose members were appointed by Pataki, Giuliani, and Bloomberg. The City Council has already been informed that the city's land use process is likely to be circumvented in order to speed development.

Yet certain members have continued to make noise in the hope that someone will pay attention.

Councilmember James Sanders, Jr., who oversees the Economic Development committee, has continued to call for more information to be shared with local officials and residents and has held hearings to look into who is making key decisions.

Lower Manhattan Councilmember Alan Gerson asked city officials to improve the clean-up of dust and fibers, to provide consultants to help local residents interrupt conflicting reports about air quality, and to move the barge where debris is shipped out of Manhattan further up West Street, away from a large housing complex and several schools.

The City Council also called on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to distribute grants to businesses with fewer than ten employees. Until now, most of the relief money has been geared towards larger companies, with smaller mom-and-pop businesses, which make up 70 percent of all business in Lower Manhattan, left ineligible to receive much of the aid.

But so far many people in power still see the council as having only an advisory role in the rebuilding process.

THE INDICTMENT

On March 28, Brooklyn Councilmember Angel Rodriguez was arrested and charged with a 15-count federal indictment for extortion, conspiracy, and fraud.

Rodriguez allegedly told a real estate developer seeking to build a Fairway supermarket and retail stores in Red Hook that he would support his project in exchange for cash and valuable real estate properties. The developer, in cooperation with federal and city authorities and using wiretaps and recordings, allegedly agreed to give Rodriguez $50,000 in cash and three apartment buildings in Cobble Hill at $1.5 million below their market value. Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is out on $500,000 bond.

Rodriguez, who was elected in 1998, has resigned from all of his committee posts, but will remain a City Council member and continue to collect his $90,000 salary.

A few weeks after the arrest, Rodriguez appeared to the City Council for the first time and read a brief statement.

"I believe in my heart that I am innocent and I will be vindicated by a jury of my peers," he said. "There is another side to the story that will come out. It will come out in court. Therefore, I ask everyone to keep an open mind until you hear all the facts in this matter."

He received only scattered applause from the council, but two of his colleagues -- Bronx Councilmember Ruben Diaz and East Side Councilmember Margarita Lopez -- stood and gave speeches of support on his behalf.

Rodriguez says he will continue to attend meetings, vote on legislation, and show up daily at the office in Brooklyn. "When he was running for Speaker, he could not concentrate as much on issues in his district, and he plans to get back to that," said a Rodriguez spokesperson.

Just what he will be able to do in his district, where the development of the Fairway Supermarket at the heart of the scandal will proceed, is yet to be seen.

Rodriguez's fellow council members were reluctant to talk about the indictment other than to say they were "saddened" and "dismayed."

TERM LIMITS: THE ISSUE THAT WON'T GO AWAY

The new City Council has been in office only a few months, but they are already discussing a change in the term limits law, which enabled many of them to get their new jobs.

At issue is a quirk in the law that will force out six of the current members out in 2003 after serving only six years, while four other members will be able to serve 10 consecutive years in office if they continue to be elected. (For a full list of who is term limited when visit see the chart).

Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins, who oversees the Government Operations Committee, said that he wants to revisit the law so that he and others can at least serve their full terms. Speaker Gifford Miller said that it is too early to consider the issue, however he is already holding political fundraisers even though he can not run for re-election. Because of redistricting, even the 38 members who just joined the council for the first time will have to seek election in the fall of 2003.

When the last council tried to make a last minute move to overturn term-limits it was largely seen as a desperate attempt to save their jobs. Now just 100 days after taking office, some members are already looking ahead and wondering if the term limits that initiated this so-called revolution could also be their undoing.

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