Issue of the Week

The New City Council

by Mark Berkey-Gerard

17 December 01

When eight newly elected members of the New York City Council took a tour of Ground Zero recently, there were no TV cameras, no speeches, and no ceremony. The council members just stood quietly, staring sadly at the 16 acres of rubble that was once the World Trade Center.

Just a few weeks earlier they were average New Yorkers on the other side of the police barricades. Some are lawyers, local community leaders, or even the children of City Council members, but until they were elected, none of them had an official reason to visit the site.

On the other hand, unlike the dignitaries or celebrities whose visits have attracted attention for their symbolism, the new members of the City Council are already being asked to do something tangible to help the city recover from September 11.

Alan Gerson, the new council member for lower Manhattan, bears the largest burden. Some schools in the area still have not reopened, there is asbestos in the air, and the clean-up is a 24-hour a day process that keeps residents awake at night. But even those representatives far from Ground Zero are dealing with the effects. Constituents of Brooklyn Height's David Yassky are concerned about air quality after the smoke and ash blew across the river for days. Councilmember Robert Jackson from Washington Heights is worried about people in his district losing jobs. "The least paid are the first laid off," said Jackson. "And where do you think those people live?"

Yet, it is a long tradition that the City Council has been left out of key decisions in this strong mayoral city, and there are already some clues that the tradition may continue. When the mayor and the governor recently appointed all 11 members of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation to rebuild the World Trade Center site, some City Council members feared that their views will be ignored, even though they are supposed to have power over issues of land use.

On January 9, 2002, the new City Council will meet officially for the first time. Thanks to term limits, 38 of the 51 members will be brand new. And even those who pay attention to the City Council are asking questions. Who are these people? What are their agendas? Will they be an improvement on the old City Council? And will they be able to rise to the challenges that the city faces?

Some say if they are given a real opportunity, they might.

"This is the best incoming class I've ever seen in terms of their intelligence, energy, and their willingness to learn," said Douglas Muzzio of the Baruch School of Public Affairs, who recently held a three day training seminar for the new members. "I think the city lucked out with this bunch."

Each member has ideas as varied as the neighborhoods they represent.

James Oddo, a returning Republican member from Staten Island wants to get the council out of the business of changing street names, calling it a "luxury the city can no longer afford." Gale Brewer, from the Upper West Side, wants to ensure that budget cuts do not hurt the neediest New Yorkers. Flushing's John Liu, who was elected as the first Asian American member of the council, wants to cross the digital divide, help small businesses, and welcome new immigrants. And East New York's Charles Barron, who describes himself as a "black revolutionary Christian socialist," wants to revived his neglected neighborhood.

Ultimately, the new council will be judged on their performance.

They will have to balance a budget, pass new laws, and investigate city agencies. And as many of their constituents have already told them, these new members, many of whom are holding public office for the first time, will be expected to help the city recover and rebuild.

WHO ARE THEY?

In addition to just kicking the old members out, supporters of term limits predicted that it would open the council to more diversity. In some ways, it has. The new council includes a minister, a former leader of the Black Panthers, a college student, a podiatrist, an environmentalist, Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager, and two former cops.

But measured by party affiliation, gender, race, and even their last names, the 51 members of the council do not appear much different from the old.

There are two fewer Republicans, which means a party line vote in the council will now be 47 to 4. There are 12 women on the council, which is five fewer than before. There is the same number of African-American members (14), just one more Latino member (10). Taiwanese-born John Liu from Flushing is the first Asian American in the council.

There are also a number of familiar names, since five members are the sons or daughters of former council members: Yvette Clarke from Flatbush, Eric Malave-Dilan from East New York, Joel Rivera from Central Bronx, Helen Foster from Highbridge, and Peter Vallone Jr. from Astoria.

Not all of the new members are brand new to City Hall. Several former chief-of-staffs have moved into their boss's old job, including Queens Republican Dennis Gallagher from Middle Village and Democrat Leroy Comrie from St. Albans.

Then there are those who have moved down-state from political posts in Albany: Al Vann, Melinda Katz, and Oliver Koppell all bring experience from the State Assembly. Larry Seabrook from the north Bronx served in the State Senate.

The new council resembles the old in that it contains some neophytes, some former staff members at the City Council, some strong community leaders, and a handful of seasoned politicians.

The difference, some observers say, is the initiative of the new members. In the weeks since the election, they have organized themselves into coalitions, attended seminars to learn about budget and land use, and even held the first public debate for the candidates vying for the job of Speaker of the City Council.

WHAT CHALLENGES DO THEY FACE?

The first task of the City Council is to organize itself. On their first day in office, they must elect a new Speaker of the City Council. Eight different council members are trying to convince the others that they are the best for the job. Then they will have to elect the chairs and members of the 39 committees and subcommittees. With only 13 returning council members, some people who have never attended a City Council hearing will now have to lead one. They must monitor city agencies, investigate fraud, and try to get the mayor's appointed commissioners to answer difficult questions.

"When I was in the city council, I had no idea of just how little we knew about the real operations of the agencies that appeared before us," former council member Andrew Eristoff wrote in a recent article of advice to the new members. "The result, I must now confirm, is that commissioners (and other witnesses) tend to regard council members as both laughably uninformed and quite unpredictable."

The major challenge facing the council is the city's looming budget crisis, that has a hole of $1.3 billion in the current budget, and a $4 billion hole in the next. Some estimate that the city may face a crisis worse than the one in the 1970's. The council will have to work with the mayor to find out where to cut, if taxes must be raised, and what to do with rising debt. Some new members say the council should demand that Albany restore the commuter tax, but this will be a hard fight since the city does not have much leverage over the state.

The new council is also facing an unknown in the new mayor.

"The way that the city government charter is written means that the mayor is very strong," said Barbara Fife of the Baruch School of Public Affairs. "A lot will depend on the operating style of the mayor and the council."

While no one knows how the new mayor will run his administration, the initial signs are that Michael Bloomberg may at least be more cordial with the City Council than Rudy Giuliani. Bloomberg recently invited the members to his home for a reception and agreed to meet quarterly to discuss important issues.

CAN DEMOCRACY BE MORE DEMOCRATIC?

The most well organized coalition in the new council is a group of 21 who have dubbed themselves the "Fresh Democracy Council." They are calling for changes in the rules and procedures that they say would empower individual members.

The Fresh Democracy Council recently sponsored a public forum to hear what the candidates for Speaker had to say. [Read a transcript of the debate]. The forum drew a crowd of over 300 people, including many lobbyists, advocates, and union leaders who came to size up the future leadership. Individual council members asked the seven candidates for speaker if they supported rule changes and how they would discipline unruly members. They also wanted to hear their visions for the economy, education, and immigration.

While several of the Fresh Democracy members acknowledged afterward that the debate may not have changed the outcome of who becomes the next speaker, they emphasized that making the council procedures more public was part of the goal.

"This brings the process out of the smoke-filled back room where three men with cigars made the decisions," said David Weprin who is a member of the coalition and is also running for Speaker.

The last question asked of each speaker candidate was: "If elected, would you put the council's voting records and attendance on the Internet?" The audience chuckled, in part because it seemed like a common sense proposal that should have been done years ago, but also because the old City Council was notorious for making it difficult for average citizens, or even its own members, to obtain such information.

"It's amazing but true that there is actually a [computerized] legislative tracking system for the City Council, [but] the City Council members do not currently have access to it," said Councilmember Gifford Miller. It was only available to the Speaker and his staff.

The Fresh Democracy Council has impressed some of incumbent members, and made others wary, particularly when it comes to rewriting the rules of the council on the first day in office. "I think you have to live the role before you can understand how things should change," warned Councilmember Madeline Provenzano.

WHAT WOULD A SUCCESSFUL COUNCIL LOOK LIKE?

Given its past, it is difficult for many, even the new council members, to imagine what a fully empowered council might look like.

When faced with the question about how term limits would affect the council, the few returning members offered mostly dire predictions. West Side Councilmember Christine Quinn predicted that lobbyists for corporations, private developers, and real estate moguls would have an undue influence in the city's land use process. Brooklyn's Angel Rodriguez warned that the City Council's central staff members might drive the council's agenda and committees because they have the years of government experience. East Harlem's Phil Reed said that if he is elected Speaker of the City Council he would work to overturn term limits.

But now that the term limits is an issue of the past (at least for the time being), the council must come up with concrete ways to improve its image, itself, and the city.

"I believe the stronger we make each individual member and especially in terms of our committees, the stronger the institution will be," said Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins.

Still no matter how many new members there are, some things about the New York City Council may never change.

"They will be assessed unfairly no matter what they do," said Douglas Muzzio of the Baruch School of Public Affairs. "Their powers are limited compared to the mayor and the press is used to ignoring them or making fun of them. But it's public office. They asked for it."

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