Council Lulus, Public Loses

by Lenore Chester

This was supposed to be a new and energetic New York City Council with a new Speaker and independent members. But when the $457,500 in "lulus" or the bonuses were handed out recently, it seemed like old times in the City Council. The chairmanships to which the greatest lulus were attached were clearly awarded by the Speaker largely as a way to pay back the political bosses who supported his election. So much for reform.

There was little thought given to streamlining the council, to making it leaner and meaner, or to concentrating resources on the major issues that will challenge the city in the next few years.

Council members are paid $90,000 for a part-time job to legislate, to bring quality service delivery to their districts, and to provide oversight of the operations of city government. That last task is by and large the purview of the 38 committees, subcommittees and select committees created by the Speaker. Each chair is provided a bonus or "lulu" ranging from $4,000 to $18,000 for the sometimes difficult and time consuming task of chairing a major committee. Finance and Land Use, for example, which involve the two major functions of the council, are committees known for their large number of well-qualified staff members.

Bonuses are also provided for party leadership positions and for chairing committees or subcommittees requiring significantly less time and effort. In fact, it does not appear that the dollar amount of the "lulus" have any real relationship to the amount of work required. Thus the chair of the Rules committee receives the same bonus of $18,000 as the Finance and Land Use committee chairs for considerably less work but obviously for considerably more political pull. There also does not appear to be much difference in the workload of the five committee chairs earning $15,000 from that of the 18 chairs being paid $10,000.

For the members, becoming a chair provides them with a little extra cash as well as a bully pulpit from which to try to assure their reelection in 2003. One could argue that since the charter mandates oversight of executive agencies by the council, members should not be paid any bonus for doing what they are already being paid to do. That is an argument the supposedly fresh new members of the council ignored. And, add their $457,500 in bonuses to the cost of staffing all 38 committees and there is a fairly large outlay of funds.

Political gamesmanship requires naming as many legislators as possible to chair committees. It satisfies all the county leaders and special interest groups surrounding the council. Once again, it seems to be who you know that apparently counts the most.

But making everyone happy does raise the serious question as to whether the council is not spreading itself too thin and may not be able to do a credible job of overseeing the executive agencies. Most committees will meet only once a month. Members are assigned to so many standing committees that their level of expertise may be minimal, requiring heavy dependence on the chair and the staff. And if the past is proof of the future, attendance will be spotty at best.

Lulus, therefore, may not only be unwise because of their cost, but because organizing the council to provide as many opportunities as possible for everyone to get a piece of the pie, may not in fact be the best way to be a strong legislative counter weight to the executive.

Focus, not lulus, is essential to good government.

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