City Council chambers (photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)
A majority of the incoming class of the New York City Council, including newly elected and returning members, has signed on to a newly-released package of internal rules reforms for the next four-year session, which begins in January. The agenda is intended to improve the Council’s budgeting and legislative drafting processes, strengthen the role of committees, bolster internal budgets, and enhance workplace conditions for Council staff, among other measures.
Of the 51-member legislative body, 33 members have expressed support for the reforms, which would have to be first heard through the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections before being incorporated into a rules resolution to be adopted by the full Council, which will elect a new speaker at its first meeting, on January 3. The members, in a draft document released Tuesday, called on the next speaker to support the reforms and ensure their passage by March, and not later than June.
Seven of the eight speaker candidates back the proposals, including Council Members Robert Cornegy, Mark Levine, Corey Johnson, Jumaane Williams, Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Donovan Richards. Council Member Ritchie Torres was the only speaker candidate not to signal support. “The [Council Member] is still considering and deliberating each proposed reform, and their potential impact, before making a decision to sign on,” explained Raymond Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Torres, in a text message.
The proposals included in the package deal broadly with the Council internal culture and processes, seeking to further empower members and provide more transparency and representation in internal decision making. While they are inwardly focused, the reforms could have significant impact on how the Council operates and the work it does on behalf of New Yorkers.
Although the current Council instituted new rules in 2014 that created an independent bill drafting unit for members, legislation continues to be delayed in the drafting process with “first-in-time” bill requests delaying subsequent ones. It is a particularly frustrating issue for members that bills often get stuck in the "legislative services blackhole," said Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, insisting it was not meant that way by design. "Things have evolved over time in a way that has become problematic," he said. The new proposals call for bolstering drafting capacity, setting new rules for drafting requests by prohibiting indefinite delays and creating formalized rules for “first-in-time” requests.
The reforms also propose seeking more input from members on the Council’s policy priorities and for the speaker’s annual State of the City address, which current and outgoing Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has often used as an avenue to announce sweeping policy proposals.
The Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations has been called to action over the last four years to scrutinize Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and for high-profile failures of city agencies such as the Administration for Children Services and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. But, the committee did not exercise its subpoena power in any of those cases. The new proposals call for strengthening the oversight committee “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary,” to conduct more regular oversight of city agencies.
The proposals also emphasize improvements in appointment of members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees, and reforming how the Council’s committees function, including giving committee chairs more discretion in hiring committee staff.
The scheduling of committee hearings would also be reformed to ensure more regularly scheduled hearings, adequate disability and language access, and automatically triggering a hearing for a bill with strong support. They would also require committees to publish summaries of testimony from hearings, including the promises made by the administration and requests made by Council members.
"Over the past term, we have made the Council a dramatically more accountable, fair, and democratic body by bringing fairness to discretionary funding, eliminating lulus and outside income, expanding participatory budgeting, and significantly increasing transparency,” Lander said, in a statement accompanying the release. “The new proposals will take us even further.”
The package also deals with the Council’s internal budget, and the process by which members negotiate the city’s now-$86 billion budget with the administration. It calls for expanded Council support for participatory budgeting and community engagement, and increased capital funding given to each member for their districts. It also exhorts the next speaker to ensure that the Council’s budget negotiating team is fully representative of the Council’s composition, with borough and caucus representation and a few rotating seats to allow members to experience the process. “Council Members who chair committees that oversee 10% or more of the budget should automatically be on BNT,” the document states.
The 33 council members also appeal for an increase in the Council’s budget, bringing it to the same level as the Comptroller’s office, offering salaries to staff in parity with similar positions at city agencies and training and educational scholarships for staff.
The package also proposes reinforcing the prominent and powerful land use division, which is tasked with evaluating and approving land use applications across the city. The reforms seek to provide urban planners and attorneys to assist Council members navigating related issues and also propose allowing individual members and groups on the Council to sponsor land use applications themselves.
Finally, the reforms also advance quality-of-life improvements at City Hall, including sliding scale child care for members and improvements in air and noise quality. A minor proposal also calls for filling gaps in cell-phone and wireless internet service.
Note - this article has been updated with additional comment from Council Member Brad Lander.