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Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law

by Margaret Reuter, Center for New York City Law at New York Law School

The topic: "NYC Law" refers to the legal and juridical dimensions of City public policy. What do the laws say? How have they been interpreted? What is the relationship between laws as written and rules as enforced?

The context: The sheer size of NYC government requires its extensive legal involvement in countless issues. Over 700 attorneys are employed in the Office of the Corporation Counsel alone. Every major and minor public policy issue has a legal dimension. On some issues ≠ Charter revision or campaign finance limits, for example ≠ the legal dimension is paramount.

The reporter: Margaret Reuter, better known as Meg, is the managing editor of City Law, the bi-monthly journal on City legal developments published by the Center for New York City Law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at New York Law School. She is reachable at [email protected].

Meg's Top Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly journal published by the Center. Critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: analysis of 1989 charter mandate that the City annually assess the condition of its bridges, libraries, public schools, police stations and the like.
  • Charter Revision Commission - The commission has completed its work. The site now contains the Final Report, the Ballot Question, and the Summary of the Proposals, all in pdf format.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law. Searches for local laws and bills have some limitations. For instance a search for "lead-based paint" produced the recent local law, backed by the administration, but not the competing bill offered by council member Michels.
  • New York City's Law Department - Part of the City's comprehensive NYCLink the site provides descriptions of the work of each division. Highlights include the City's 1997 complaint challenging the constitutionality of the federal line item veto, in PDF format, and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty's case for tort reform.
  • New York Law Journal - Best feature: access to full text versions of most cases reported in its pages, most of which are never reported anywhere else (such as on westlaw or lexis). Retrieve and print out the cases reported in the Law Journal by picking "courts on" and searching by court. This is a real service, given that compiling your own archive of these decisions had been an arduous task of cutting, pasting, and photocopying. Good links to all kinds of law, business, university, and government related sites.

In the News: Whistleblowing--is it safe?

A number of decisions have been handed down recently regarding New York City employees who were forced to resign, demoted or denied promotions allegedly because they had reported misdeeds or abuses within their agency--whistleblowing. A quick review provides some insights.

Most-likely-to-succeed award goes to: Former employees who claimed they were the victims of retaliation for exercising free speech rights to criticize and report wrong-doing. Employees from Off-Track Betting and the Transit Authority (with more than 20 years tenure each) complained to his respective inspector general about abuses. Each was forced to resign; each sued in federal court, and in each case the court noted the important first amendment interest in protecting the employees from retaliation when they speak out.

A less sanguine result: A Department of Environmental Protection watershed enforcement officer, who was publicly vocal about the City's failings in protecting the watershed was denied a promotion. He sued in state court under the state Whistleblower's Protection Law (Labor Law ß740(2)(b)) and lost. The law protects limited categories of criticism--such as testimony. The employee had testified before City Council, but that was in 1991. His more recent criticisms were provided to environmental activist groups like the Hudson Riverkeeper, a type of "whistleblowing" not protected by the state law.

A gratifying result: A DOT employee also reported to the inspector general concerns about contracting irregularities. He was later demoted, and complained again. The inspector general concluded the employee's promotion was retaliatory. The employee and the court forced the inspector general to turn over confidential records.

Other Recommendations:

  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York- Site of the City Bar, organization highlighting its recently issued reports. Now playing: the full text of a report on the City's enormous tort case backlog (more than 62,000 cases) by the Council on Judicial Administration. They critique City efforts in addressing the problem against formidable odds. The site also includes an impressive list of pro bono opportunities for lawyers and law students.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law.
  • The Constitution Society - The Liberty Library has more than 100 classic essays on constitutional government in html, text and pdf format. Features such profound works as Machiavelli's The Prince, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Constitutional Ratification Debates.
  • NYC Documents at Columbia Univ. - This site links to scores of City related sites and guides users through Columbia's substantial collection of NYC-related materials by category.
  • Independent Budget Office - One of the illuminating features of the site: It will calculate exactly how your tax payments are divided up and spent at each level of government (city, state, and federal) both by broad category and by selected programs. Just input your taxes paid and adjusted income from your tax returns (or you can just estimate them, of course), and it will calculate the results.
  • Public Advocate - The chock-full site of Public Advocate Mark Green -- a good place to look to measure the worth of the office that Mayor Giuliani has targeted for abolition.
  • Citizens Budget Commission - Features recent research papers of the CBC. The latest: comparing the competitiveness of the NYC metro region's transportation infrastructure -- the City's highway and mass transit systems -- to LA, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Paris.

Meg Sounds Off:

Whistleblowing is a time-honored tradition. How else can we learn of corruption and abuses beyond the reach of the press and watchdog groups? Case in point: the Police Department's lack of whistleblowing tradition is perhaps at the core of its tarnished image, as denoted by the phrase "blue wall of silence." Standard operating procedure is to report misfeasance to the agency's inspector general, whose mission is to investigate and ferret out such problems. Reports to the inspector general also offer the likelihood of confidentiality. Conversations with the agency general counsel, however, are not necessarily protected, as different legal and ethical obligations are pertinent. Since employees are not officially a "client," so the attorney-client confidentiality privileges do not apply.

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