Rule Changes - Some Better, Some Worse, Some Just As Bad

by Lenore Chester

Council members unanimously voted for new rules at its first meeting on January 9 (its "charter meeting"), as they gleefully assured one another that great strides were being made in their empowerment and in the democrat ization of the City Council. This implied, of course, that under Speaker Peter Vallone, democracy had been in short supply and that, if Council members had not been able to accomplish much, it wasn't really their fault. Thus the new era begins

But it is true that the public is definitely a big winner under the new rules -- though not under all of them.

It will now have an exact and detailed quarterly accounting of the council's expenditures. Round numbers will no longer suffice. The cost of every division and function of the Council will be itemized. Not even the Sergeant at Arms or hired consultants will escape financial scrutiny. And most exciting for the good government crowd, the council's legislative tracking database will be on the Internet for all to see. Getting voting records, copies of legislation or committee reports will be as easy for the general public as it has always been for those on the inside track.

Most of the adopted rules are designed to weaken the power of the Speaker vis a vis individual members of the council. For example, the rules now require an equitable allocation of resources to each member. This will prevent the Speaker from punishing any legislator through the purse and removes a major tool of the Speaker to keep the council in line.

Yet another blow aimed at the Speaker challenges his control over the legislative agenda. A bill's sponsor may now move for immediate consideration any bill or resolution considered and approved by a standing committee if it has not made it on to a Stated Meeting agenda after 45 days. Committee chairs could be the big winner in this power shuffle since they now have more control over the committee's agenda.

Other rule changes take aim at the central staff -- a group under the control of the Speaker. A long-standing complaint of council members has been that the central staff is paid more generously than those staffing their district offices. Without getting too specific, the new rules now require that resources allocated for the operation of council members officers are to be "reasonable in proportion to the amount allocated for central staff."

The rules changes also require the central staff to provide legislative drafting services to all members "on an equitable and confidential basis." One can only hope that this change will not result in the kind of overkill that the New York State legislature suffers from. In that body, about 15,000 bills are drafted each year and only a very few are acted upon. It is a tool legislators use to satisfy constituents, all the while knowing that the proposed legislation is going no where fast. It can be a prodigious waste of resources.

A major change empowers each committee chair to designate his or her own senior staff person assigned to that committee. This looks good on paper. But the one thing that has always been true about council staffing is that its central staff was generally excellent. Should some committee chairs select staff on the basis of political connections, debts owed, or the input of the various special interest groups that now surround them, much expertise and institutional memory may be lost. It is no great secret that good staff work is essential for high quality committee operations.

Moving the election of the chair of the Committee on Rules immediately after the election of the Speaker and before committee assignments are made is supposed to give that committee some influence over the naming of committee chairs. But we have already seen that the deal to select both the Speaker and the chair of the Rules Committee was made behind the scenes with relatively little input from newly elected members. So it should not have been a surprise that so many Bronx and Queens members were elected to leadership positions. And in case someone didn't get the message, Queens County leader Manton and Bronx County leader Ramirez were in the Council chamber cheering their guys and gals in. So much for reform.

Taken together, the amended rules do much to make the Council more accessible to the general public, to empower its members, and to create a more democratic legislative body. No one can argue with those goals, but there should be some concern if the reforms end up creating a fragmented legislative body without a strong leader to speak on its behalf or to negotiate with a far more focused and powerful executive. How this will work out remains to be seen. A more democratic Council is more than welcome; a weakened one is not.

Lenore Chester is the retired editor of Searchlight on the City Council