Balance Of Powers

When I was first elected in 1974, I did not know much about city government. I was a young lawyer from Astoria, Queens, and I was concerned about Con Edison burning coal and polluting my neighborhood. New York City was about to go bankrupt, because it was relying on real estate taxes that hadn't been collected for over a hundred years. Crime was high and people were afraid to ride subways and to walk the streets.

At the time, the city was run by the Board of Estimate, which consisted of the mayor, as the chairperson, five very comfortable borough presidents, and a powerless City Council. The City Council could not appropriate one penny without the consent of the majority of the Board of Estimate, and the chairman, the mayor.

In the Board of Estimate, elected officials did not even have to show up to vote. When I was first elected, I was told "Look, all you have to do is sign this proxy. You don't even have to be here." But other members and myself demanded not only that we vote, but that we change the rules of the council.

I looked at city government and it was clearly not working. I said: Where's the balance here? Where do the people have a voice? Why do I have to depend on the mayor, who lives in Gracie Mansion and not in my neighborhood. The borough president of Staten Island had more to say about what went on in Astoria than I did.

A representative government means that you have the right to elect someone who lives in your district, who knows what goes on there, and will work to change it. So I introduced a resolution to review the Board of Estimate and everybody laughed.

It was not until the United States Supreme Court stepped in and ruled that the government violated the standard of "one man, one vote" that the city government changed. In 1989, the city's charter was revised. The city was divided into 51 City Council districts, with 150,000 people in each, who could elect their own representative. The City Council was given power over the budget, land use, and oversight over city agencies. I was elected as the first Speaker of the City Council, which was empowered as an equal partner to the mayor.

After balancing the budget, the biggest challenge facing the city at the time was crime. The city only had 26,000 uniformed police officers, compared to the over 40,000 that we have today. So we came up with a program called "Safe Streets, Safe City" that designated a personal income tax to do nothing else but rebuild public safety. We started codifying the administrative code and the city laws. And in the budget process we created citywide priorities so that each member could work to bring services to their communities. The budgeting process, where each member participated, translated into baseball leagues, Girl Scout troops, and boys and girls clubs for underprivileged kids. Over the years, the council was also able to pass the Clean Air Act, which reduced smoking and saved lives. We passed campaign finance reform to give every day citizens a shot at running for office.

Was it perfect? No. But it increased accountability and government became more transparent.

Does the average New Yorker have any idea what goes on in Albany? No. Any idea what goes on in Washington? No. But they know what is happening at City Hall. The press is located right there and they report on it everyday. You can't burp at City Hall without having an article written about it. In all the years I was speaker, the City Council always adopted a balanced budget. Not only did we adopt the balanced budget, but we did it on time. When was the last budget the State Legislature passed on time? It's a joke. And it has a lot to do with accountability.

Peter Vallone was Speaker the New York City Council from 1989 to 2001.
Adapted from a speech at Fordham University, September 10, 2002.

Also Read "Facing a Crisis" by Speaker Gifford Miller.