Gotham Gazette

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"Imperfect" Campaign Finance Bill Wins Approval

The City Council overwhelmingly passed sweeping changes in the city's campaign finance system, despite reservations by several council members on the bill's approach to public financing and its exclusion of unions from the caps on campaign contributions. At its stated meeting June 27, the council also approved an overhaul of the city's building code, an exemption for small business establishments from billiards regulations and a measure more strictly regulating the placement of clothing bins on public and private property.

Counting the Cash in City Campaign Finance

The City Council's campaign finance bill attempts to put more emphasis on smaller donations by broadening a ban on contributions from corporations to include limited liability companies and partnerships and by reducing caps on campaign contributions from those that do business with the city by 90 percent.

The legislation was approved by a vote of 44 to 4 with council members Erik Dilan, Vincent Ignizio, Oliver Koppell and James Oddo dissenting.

Under the bill those that "do business" with the city include lobbyists, city contract holders, land use applicants and economic development recipients. But, much to the dismay of some advocacy groups and council members, the legislation does not include unions.

Calling the bill (Intro 586) the "gold standard of good government," Council Speaker Christine Quinn defended its exclusion of unions. "The situation here is to require that everyone gets treated the same way," Quinn said, contending that the limits on individual contributions create equality.

But not everyone agreed.

"It's not what's in the bill," said Councilmember Ignizio. "It's what's not in the bill. The fact that we are leaving out interest groups, unions in this particular case, at the expense of the rest of the city is questionable at best. I believe we have to treat all three groups equally."

The legislation, which was also spearheaded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, increases the public matching contribution from $4 for every dollar in the first $250 of a contribution to $6 for every dollar for contributions of $175 and below. The contribution limits on city contractors range from $250 for gifts to City Council candidates to $400 for those seeking citywide office. Those contributions also will not qualify for public matching funds. The individual contribution caps will continue to range from $2,750 to $4,950.

Supporters of the legislation argue that by increasing the public matching funds and greatly limiting contributions for those that do business with the city, the bill will empower average citizens and sharply curtail the supposed influence of special interests eyeing lucrative city contracts.

According to the legislation, the city will also study whether donations from family members of city contractors should also be included within the contribution limits. Currently, Quinn said, the state prohibits the solicitation of such personal information from city contractors.

The legislation also does not apply to providers of affordable housing or to contributors whose name is accompanied by a professional designation, such as Esq. or C.P.A., who might otherwise be interpreted as a limited liability company.

While some council members objected to the bill's treatment of unions, others contended that the contribution limitations could favor rich candidates who can finance their own campaigns and hurt efforts by politicians in poorer communities to gain financial support.

"In order for a campaign finance system to work it has to facilitate realistic campaigns," said Koppell prior to the council's vote, "This proposal unfortunately is unfair. It's unfair to candidates, especially to candidates from poor or minority districts who will find it very difficult to raise enough money to run, especially for races beyond the City Council race."

Several members who voiced opposition but still supported the measure, pointed to a discussion on the legislation's imperfect approach to campaign finance. Councilmember Simcha Felder, a sponsor of the bill, said, "The bill's not perfect. I don't think anything is perfect."

Even so, the city's good government groups support the sweeping reforms, which will take effect in intervals and are all intended to apply to the next citywide election in 2009.

Modernizing the Building Code

Nearly four decades since its inception, the city's building code has itself become dilapidated, city officials said.

Like bad plumbing or broken windows, the code was widely thought to be in need of an overhaul - a long-awaited rehabilitation that was approved, nearly unanimously, by the City Council last week. The code (Intro 578) was supported by 47 council members with one abstention by the Bronx's Koppell.

Following 9/11 -when officials recognized that small stairwells in skyscrapers could become a safety hazard - the Bloomberg administration and the City Council set out to revamp the city's construction code. The new code is a product of a commission formed by the Bloomberg administration in November 2002, which was charged with reviewing and reforming what was known as an "antiquated" set of regulations.

The code now incorporates national and international standards for new construction and mandates the installation of sprinkler systems for all residential buildings with three or more apartments and for one to two-family homes over three stories.

The new code, which takes effect in July 2008 and applies to new construction, also requires buildings over 125 feet to have a back-up generator for emergency lighting as well as at least one elevator in case of an emergency. It also classifies student dormitories as hotels to ensure devices, such as sprinklers and fire alarm systems, are incorporated into the building.

The bill included a mandatory three-year review of the building code to guarantee it is kept up to date.

"The code, because it's updated every three years, will kind of be a living, breathing document," said Dilan, the chair of the Housing and Buildings Committee. "It's not a perfect document… It's a long, complicated, technical bill."

In addition to stricter safety requirements, the new building code also offers incentives for environmentally friendly construction. It hands out rebates for projects that abide by the United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system for renewable energy, energy use reduction and bicycle storage facilities, among other green building elements.

Some real estate and building professionals have raised concerns that the new code would drastically raise the cost of construction. But, city officials said, a hike in cost initially could save more in the end through the elimination of redundancies in the code and including more energy efficient products.

Billiards Exemption

City Council unanimously approved a bill (Intro 577) so that bars and restaurants with less than three pool tables will not have to seek a billiard's license from the city. Introduced by Councilmember Leroy Comrie, the bill does away with a bureaucratic procedure and eliminates a burden on small businesses, officials said.

"This is a silly law and it doesn't need to be regulated," said Comrie. "This gives our business people one less onerous burden that they have to hurdle in order to do business in the city."

Illegal Clothing Bins

The council also approved legislation that gives the Department of Sanitation greater power to control the condition and location of clothing collection bins. Some council members defined the bins as an intrusion on public sidewalks, an eyesore and hub of graffiti.

The council approved the bill, (Intro 105), which would allow the Department of Sanitation to remove the containers if they do not comply with city regulations, by a vote of 47 to 1, with Councilmember Inez Dickens dissenting.

"The situation that we look at now is clothing bins that are popping up, as I like to say, like wild mushrooms in a rainy forest in the mid-summer," said Councilmember Michael McMahon, the chair of the Sanitation Committee "As you can see this a problem. It becomes a fungus in our community."

The bins will be prohibited on public property, and the owners of the bin will have to obtain permission to place a bin on private property. The legislation will require contact information be displayed on the bin and that it be kept clean.


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