Reforms come to the NYC Council
By Mary Alice Miller
Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has brought a breath of fresh air to the NYC Council after 8 years of stifled democracy under former Speaker Christine Quinn. After consensus grew from a majority of new and returning Council members last fall, Mark-Viverito charges the Rules Committee with drafting a slate of reforms.
The resulting proposal is comprehensive and will enable the Council to operate in a more open and democratic manner for the public and Council members.
“The new and comprehensive reforms the Council will introduce today are needed to create a more responsive, transparent and inclusive legislative body that can be a stronger force for effective city government,” said Mark-Viverito. “Our reforms will make the Council more democratic and will allow our body to function more efficiently.”
The package of reforms include member item reform, fair consideration of legislation, more Council transparency and public engagement, enhanced empowerment of committees and committee chairs, creation of a dedicated legislative drafting unit, creation of a commission to examine stipends and compensation, and increased transparency of discretionary funding.
“For far too long, the Council has been subject to over dominance of the Council Speaker,” said Council member Inez Barron, “to the degree that district constituents have suffered from diminished allocations for important projects in their districts.”
During eight years of the previous Speaker’s leadership, limitations on member items were used to control Council member votes and punish those who did not fall in line, two Council members were convicted for member item fraud and Council Speaker Quinn was investigated for creating fictitious “ghost” organizations in which she parked slush funds for political use.
These incidents led Mayor de Blasio to campaign on the complete abolition of the member item system. But, according to a statement from Speaker Mark-Viverito’s office, “The Council believes that discretionary funding is vital to supporting community-based organizations that enhance the quality of life in New York City’s neighborhoods in ways that cannot be captured by traditional RFPs (little leagues, soup kitchens, youth arts groups, etc.). The Council is [proposing] the reforms to ensure greater fairness and transparency in the process, and ensure that it is not manipulated for political reasons.”
Under the proposal, there will be an equal distribution of core member item amounts (local, youth and aging). A needs-based increase dependent upon the number of people in poverty in a district could add up to a 25 percent increase in a member’s core discretionary amount for
antipoverty efforts. The allocation formulas would be disclosed in Schedule C. The Speaker’s discretionary allocations would be limited to 50% of the total funding directed by individual members outside Council initiatives.
All member items would become searchable in an online database.
A new dedicated legislative drafting unit would draft legislation requested by members on an equal and transparent basis.
Council members will be required to tell the truth when testifying. This would prevent Council members from promulgating unsubstantiated information such as when disgraced former Council member Halloran alleged that sanitation supervisors directed street cleaners to delay cleanup after the 2010 Super Snowstorm.
“By taking punitive politics out of member items, ensuring fair consideration of legislation, empowering committee chairs and opening up the Council to the public, these reforms will make the Council more fair and transparent, and will give New Yorkers a greater voice in their government,” said Rules Committee Chair Brad Lander.