Gotham Gazette

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Five First Steps At The City Council

Less than a month after her selection by her colleagues as City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn convinced them to pass five small but significant reforms meant to make the legislative body more democratic. (see the Stated Meeting Report Of February 1). Some skeptics might find it ironic that the reforms passed with little discussion -- and that the vote was unanimous.

The relentlessly lopsided votes in the New York City Council are one of the things that make so many New Yorkers so skeptical about the council.

Some are more than skeptical; they are outraged. Preservationists certainly were outraged late last year, when the council voted 43 to 6 to overturn the decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the 1913 Austin, Nichols warehouse (built by architect Cass Gilbert) as a landmark. Members of the council have since admitted that they did not know anything about the building before the meeting and were not prepared to weigh in; Councilmember Albert Vann, for example, recalls that he “did not come prepared for any deep thinking” on any issues that day. The council members subsequently overturned the mayor’s veto of their decision, saying they now understood the issue and did not think the building deserved landmark status. But this hasn’t made the skeptics any less skeptical.

Advocates for the disabled are outraged that a bill to make New York City’s taxi fleet accessible to those who use wheelchairs -– currently, less than one percent of the taxis are -- has not even made it to the floor for a vote.

Civic organizations and neighborhood groups that rely on the City Council to champion their causes, on everything from ensuring cleaner air in the Bronx to addressing patterns of housing segregation, long have been asking for a more open legislative process, so that they not only know the status of the bills that concern them, but can feel that their views are being taken into account.

Openness, transparency, accountability, greater participation, timeliness -– these are some of the principles that reformers believe need beefing up in the day-to-day procedures of the City Council, as laid out in a report (in pdf format) issued last month by Citizens Union that I co-authored.

And this is what new City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is promising to do. “We in the City Council have a responsibility to make our government responsive to our constituents’ needs,” Quinn declared at the news conference announcing her package of reforms. “By allowing for more transparency and by instituting these progressive changes we are making the City Council a stronger, better and more effective institution.”

The Power Of The Speaker

To realize the significance of the reforms, it helps to understand how much of the council’s power has been concentrated in the hands of the Speaker. She has the ability to control the flow of legislation and even the level of debate in many different ways. The speaker not only has the power to set the agenda for full council meetings, she exercises control over the agenda of the committees as well, including making decisions on what bills they will vote on. As a further show of power, the Speaker (rather than the committee chairmen) hires and pays for the counsels to the committees, and the Speaker’s staff is often given the responsibility to draft a bill, translating it from an idea into the necessary legal language. While these counsel are often conflicted between allegiance to the committee and the Speaker, the Speaker ultimately pays their bills. All of this presents a hurdle to individual council members -- and their constituents -- from having more of an impact.

With the new rule changes, Christine Quinn is signaling that she is willing to do things at least a little differently.

The Five Rule Changes

The new reforms are meant to be the first steps in addressing the problems for which the council has been criticized:

1. Timeliness: The Speaker’s staff often delays drafting into legal language the bills that are proposed by individual members of the Council (as opposed to the Speaker herself). The new reforms include a requirement that the staff must write such draft legislation within 60 days after a request.

2. Transparency: The public and even most members of the City Council can only easily get ahold of the first version of a bill when it is introduced for consideration. It is much more difficult to learn of the various changes that the bill undergoes in committee, so that they can follow the progress of the bill and be more informed when it comes to a vote. The new reform calls for the most current version at any given time to be posted on the City Council Web site.

Active Participation: Two of the rules just passed are meant to encourage council members to play a more active role in the political process by making it easier for them to use two rarely-employed procedures to go around the power of the Speaker.

3. Many bills, after being considered in the appropriate council committee, never make it to the full council (called the floor) for a vote, because they lack support by the Speaker. Theoretically, if enough city council members feel strongly enough about a bill, they can insist that it be brought to the floor. But this almost never happens. The new rule, which says that a bill must have the support of only seven council members (reduced from the previous nine) to bring it to the floor over the objection of the Speaker, is meant to signal this Speaker’s willingness to have this procedure used on occasion.

4. Similarly, the fourth new rule encourages members of the City Council to offer amendments to a bill after it already has been passed. Offering amendments is commonly practiced around the country.

5. Openness. Committees are now required to post notice of their hearings -– and, perhaps more importantly, their proposed agendas -- 72 hours in advance of committee meetings, online, to the news media and in a public place at City Hall.

What From Here?

Will the new rules be effective?

Reformers on the council itself are optimistic. Reformers outside the council, such as Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, are hopeful. “A useful early test,” Gurian says, “will be to see if the council is able to enact some of the long-overdue legislation that has been sitting for years without getting to the floor for a vote.”

In addition to the rule changes, the Speaker has pledged to create a “working group” on reform to review and evaluate other proposals.

Councilmember Gale Brewer, chair of the technology committee, sees no great conspiracy to keep council members in the dark but believes the council has not done an adequate job informing council members of the issues that are being worked on. “Because the budget is so large and because many of the issues that come before us and that affect New York are so complex, it’s a challenge to get everyone up to speed,” Brewer said. What will help, she believes, will be “more council and staff briefings as part of the council process and better use of list serves and the Web.”

Proposals need not come just from the council – or at least not just from the New York City Council.

The Web site of the Columbus, Ohio City Council is available in eleven different languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Korean, all languages that are widely spoken in New York City.

The City Council of Los Angeles must post on its Web site a list of expenditures neighborhood by neighborhood.

In Detroit the City Clerk’s office is required to post introductions of laws not only at City Hall but in a daily newspaper, so that the public knows what’s going on as well. And any public hearing cannot be held sooner than five days after the publication of the notice.

Support has been growing for a number of other measures. One common peeve is the way that funds are distributed to council districts and “stipends” to council leadership. The amount of money added to their $90,000 annual salary –- for what is officially (but only rarely in actual practice) a part-time job –- ranges as high as an extra $28,500. That is for the Speaker herself, of course, but even those rewarded less handsomely have one person to thank -- the Speaker.

Doug Israel is policy director at Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette 

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