Distrust and cynicism about government prevail these days—with partisan gridlock in Congress, NSA surveillance, New Jersey embroiled in Bridgegate, the New York State Senate denying New York City a vote on whether we can tax ourselves to pay for universal pre-K or raise our own minimum wage and Albany refusing meaningful campaign finance reform.
At the New York City Council, we are pushing in the other direction. On Monday, Feb. 24, the Council’s Rules Committee will hold a public hearing on a simple but fundamental question: “What changes in the City Council’s rules can make a more responsive, transparent and effective Legislature?”
Rules reform may seem arcane, but its impact on the lives of New Yorkers is not. The rules determine whether bills can get to the floor for a vote, how much discretionary funding goes to each district, and whether Council members can represent their constituents without fear of retribution.
It is not often that elected officials are willing to give up some of their power in the service of the public interest. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Council’s new Speaker, has pledged to do just that.
Historically, power within the Council has been concentrated in the Speaker’s office. The Council often operated as a one-person show, with the rest of the Council’s members—and by extension their constituents—having little say. So last fall most of the returning and incoming Council members (including Mark-Viverito) came together to pledge support for rules reform. The effort was organized by Council members Fernando Cabrera, David Greenfield, Jumaane Williams and myself, with a strong boost from the Progressive Caucus (all of whom signed on).
We agreed that we need to take the politics out of the discretionary funding (commonly referred to as “member items”) that enables Council members to support Little Leagues, soup kitchens and senior programs. As a report by Citizens Union made clear, the process remains flawed, with no correlation between need and resources. It is a poorly kept secret that discretionary funding has been allocated primarily based on each member’s relationship with the Speaker. That practice prevents members from voting their consciences and denies fair resources to New Yorkers in some of the city’s poorest districts—and we are going to end it.
Other principles that we all got behind: Legislation with broad support should get a vote. Chairs should be able to set the agenda for their committees. The Council should support innovative civic engagement, like participatory budgeting. Central staff resources should help members do their jobs. A clear grievance process should be in place in case the rules are not followed.
At our hearing—and over the following weeks as we develop a formal proposal to bring to the Council floor—we will talk through specifics on these ideas.
More than that: We will open up the floor, and the Web, for New Yorkers to contribute their own ideas for Council reform. We know that some want to see the end of the allowances that Council leaders and committee chairs receive. Others want more open data and transparency.
When the City Charter was amended in 1989, the Council was given more power over budget and land use matters, and expanded from 35 to 51 members. The idea was to make sure that Council members reflect and represent our city’s diverse neighborhoods—so communities have a voice in government. That is the real goal of reform.
To some, inclusive leadership means weakness. Political insiders caution that rules reform will leave the Speaker weaker and the Council therefore less able to act in unity.
I do not believe New Yorkers are that cynical. Do we prefer leaders who must resort to bullying and soft bribery, or would we rather start with efforts to build consensus? Are we not stronger when all Council members are empowered to be leaders in their districts and on the issues where they have expertise? Is it so hard to believe that we could stand together on matters that are a priority for our constituents, even when—especially when—that means standing up to the mayor?
I believe we can do it. I know we are going to give it our best democratic effort.
Brad Lander is Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections. On Monday, Feb. 24, at 2 p.m., the committee will hold a public hearing on “What changes in the City Council’s rules can make a more responsive, transparent, and effective Legislature?” New Yorkers will also be able weigh in on changes to City Council rules at council.nyc.gov.
Tags: Brad Lander, city charter, David Greenfield, discretionary funding, Fernando Cabrera, Jumaane Williams, Melissa-Mark Viverito, member items, New York City Council, Progressive Caucus, reform, rules, Speaker