The City Council And Lead Paint
By Mark Berkey-Gerard

Last week on the steps of City Hall, a dozen protestors gathered around a cake decorated with the words "Unhappy First Birthday Intro 101 - Each Year Thousands of Kids Are Poisoned."

The demonstration - which featured birthday hats adorned with skulls and crossbones and buckets of lead paint - marked the one-year anniversary of the introduction of a bill to create more stringent lead paint regulations in the city. The bill (Intro 101) which has the support of 32 of the 51 City Council members, has yet to receive a public hearing or come up for a vote.

"I am disgusted by the process," said Leslie Powell, a mother of a two-year-old child who was poisoned by lead dust, even after her landlord assured her that there was no lead paint in her apartment. "The current law is not working for me and my family. What is the council waiting for?"

Advocates for a new law blame City Council Speaker Gifford Miller - who does not support the measure - for stalling. Even some of Miller's closest allies in the council are growing impatient.

"The City Council needs to be the champion of our children," said Councilmember Bill Perkins, whom Miller appointed as the council's deputy majority leader. "Instead we are saying 'let them eat lead dust' by our inaction."

The history of the lead paint bill goes back more than a year. In 1999, a similar bill was introduced, but a less stringent version - Local Law 38 - was passed instead. Intro 101 would repeal the current law and require landlords to clean up lead dust, not just lead paint. It would also transfer enforcement of laws from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to the Health Department.

In an interview in December, Speaker Miller said litigation had complicated the issue and that the number of lead-poisoning cases had "dropped fairly dramatically in the last few years" under the current law.

The speaker is the most powerful member of the New York City Council. He sets the agenda, selects the chairs of each committee that holds public hearings on a bill, and has the power to push a bill to a vote or bury it in the legislative process.

Before he became speaker, Miller vowed to use his power judiciously. "I don't want to be the kind of person who says 'here's what I'm interested in.' I want to say 'here's what we're interested in' and give my colleagues the opportunity to press forward on agendas as well," he said.

According to a recent survey by the New York Public Interest Research Group, the New York City Council is not the best model for open, vigorous debate.

Bills only come up for a vote if the speaker supports them and he knows they will pass. All 80 of the bills that have come up for a vote since January 2002 have passed. Miller has voted "yes" on every one.

On the other hand, 13 bills introduced since January 2002 that have a majority of the City Council's support (26 or more members) have not come up for a vote. Miller is not listed as a sponsor on 11 of those bills.

Also the votes in the council are always lopsided. The most common vote in the 51-member council is 48 to 0 (three council members - although not always the same three - are usually absent). The most divisive vote was 30 to 18 in favor of a resolution against war with Iraq.

However, council members also share some of the responsibility for the delay on the lead paint bill.

A council member - with the support of eight others - can issue a so-called "discharge motion" which moves a bill out of committee to the full council for a vote. No one has exercised that option.

At the press conference, Councilmember Perkins promised to issue a discharge motion on the lead paint bill if nothing is done, but he gave no time frame for doing so, only that he wanted a hearing on the bill "as soon as possible."

Supporters of the bill also argue that real estate interests are holding up the measure. The watchdog group Common Cause recently released a report that showed that Miller received $35,000 in campaign contributions from two real estate organizations that oppose Intro 101. The contributions are for Miller's 2005 campaign for a still to be disclosed office.

"Any suggestion that the fate of the lead paint bill has been affected by the relatively small number of contributions is way off the mark," said Chris Policano, a City Council spokesman. "The speaker participates in the strongest campaign finance system in the country."

Still when Miller wants to move a bill quickly, he has shown that he can.

Last July, the New York City Council passed a law to let the term limited Miller and five other council members stay in office for two more years. (Read an article on the term limits law and a recent court decision overturning it).

The bill was introduced and passed in just 14 days.

UPDATE: On April 3, Speaker Gifford Miller said he would schedule a hearing on the lead paint bill to be held June 23.