Rules Reform Deformed

Written by Seth Barron on . Posted in Blog, Features, Government Operations, News, Other News.

The Progressive Caucus that now dominates the New York City Council leadership came to power promising sweeping reforms to how the body functions. These changes, according to the drafters of the agenda that 32 Council members have pledged to support, will increase transparency, empower committee chairs, establish equitable discretionary funding and make the Council generally more democratic.

What is missing from the reform agenda, however, is the one item that has been pointed to year after year as a key element of abuse in the administration of the Council, and which a distinct majority of the membership supports eliminating: lulus.

Lulus are the stipends that Council members are awarded in addition to their salary for serving as committee chairs or in positions of leadership. Originally intended as lump payments “in lieu of” expense reimbursements, lulus have become a means by which the Council Speaker can reward faithful members with sums that range from $4,000 (for subcommittee chairs) to $28,000 (for the Speaker herself). Each Council member’s base salary is $112,500, so the lulu is not an insignificant supplement to their income, especially if, as is mostly the case, members have no additional income.

The corrosive, corruptive nature of the lulu is obvious. Since nearly every member of the majority party gets some kind of lulu, committees and subcommittees are invented in order to justify payments for the extra work for which the members are supposedly being compensated. As a result, the Council consists of an unwieldy number of committees of overlapping jurisdictional oversight, or committees such as Women’s Issues that have no oversight authority whatsoever. Committee chairmanships, and their accompanying payments, are contingent on remaining in the good graces of the Speaker. In 2010 Charles Barron had the temerity to oppose Christine Quinn for the Speakership, and was punished with the loss of his committee chairmanship and the $10,000 stipend that went with it.

Reform-minded Council members, prodded by good-government organizations such as Citizens Union, have long called for an end to the lulu spoils system. Most of the members of the Progressive Caucus, for example, have signaled their opposition to lulus. (A notable exception is Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has always supported the practice.) Given that lulus have been a salient and oft-criticized symbol of how the Council is mismanaged, it seems odd that the new regime, while calling for change, has taken lulu reform out of consideration.

We spoke to three of the four Council members who drafted the rules reform agenda, and asked them why lulus were not included. Councilman Jumaane Williams, who explained that he personally believes “Council members should get paid extra for doing extra work,” said the goal of the process was to develop a proposal with wide support. “Obviously there are a lot of ideas of how to make the Council better, but the point was to get the broadest consensus possible.”

Councilman David Greenfield echoed his colleague’s sentiment about finding broad accord among the members, maintaining that “there was extensive give and take” regarding various proposals. Brad Lander, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and the newly appointed chair of the Council Rules Committee, similarly said, “We sought something that could build broad consensus. …We wanted to get as broad a platform we could.”

Williams, Greenfield and Lander would not respond directly to the point that lulu reform as a stand-alone issue has already garnered support from a very broad majority of the Council, and has wider support even than the rules reform agenda that the working group eventually produced. For instance, Council members Rosie Mendez, Peter Koo, Vincent Gentile and Karen Koslowitz have not signed the rules reform pledge, but all of them have supported a lulu ban. Only 32 members support rules reform, while 35 have come out against lulus.

The proverbial elephant in the back room in this instance appears to be Speaker Mark-Viverito. Asked whether Mark-Viverito’s opposition to lulu reform was a factor in not including it in the rules reform agenda, Greenfield called the notion “grasping at straws” and affirmed that the Speaker is “committed to rules reform.”

But what will that reform look like? It is an irony of every revolution that the new regime typically ends up a caricature of the old. Will Speaker Mark-Viverito really preside happily over a diminution of the power of the office that she fought so hard to attain? Throughout her campaign for Speaker, Mark-Viverito spoke of “co-partnering” with her fellow Council members, and promised to lead as a first among equals. But it is hard to imagine that, after such a bitter battle to win the Speakership, she would so readily divest herself of the appurtenances of her power.

Rules reform as it has been presented so far appears to disburse a lot of the Speaker’s powers to the committee chairs. For example, the present system confines the drafting of all legislation to a unit of the Speaker’s office, and that same unit decides which bills are brought to the floor for a vote. The Speaker is thus in charge of the Council’s entire legislative process. Under Christine Quinn virtually no bills came up for a vote that she had not personally shepherded to the floor, and prime sponsorship of Speaker’s office-drafted bills was handed out to individual Council members as a favor. Reform promises to decouple legislative drafting from the Speaker’s office, thereby allowing Council members at least to get their proposed bills into a format where they can be properly introduced to committee without political interference from the Speaker.

Proposed reform measures will also reduce the authority of the Speaker to reward her favorites through increased allocation of discretionary funds, by which means Council members are able to distribute money to community nonprofit organizations. The entire process of discretionary funding has been called into question, notably by Mayor de Blasio, who favors ending the system. Council members naturally like being able to dole out several million dollars over four years to local groups, and can use members item funding as a kind of patronage system to support local political allies. Reform will establish some form of parity among the Council members, either through a needs-based formula or a fixed amount per district. Either way, the Speaker will lose a valuable carrot to dangle in front of her co-partners, assuming this item passes.

The drafters of the reform agenda minimize the significance of these changes to the Speaker’s role within the Council. Williams said, “We do not want to lessen the power of the Speaker,” and Lander asserted, “The goal is to make a stronger Council, not a weaker Speaker.” But the effect of these reforms will surely reduce the Speaker’s power: How could it not?

Dispensing lulus is not the most important aspect of the Speaker’s authority. “Discretionary funding matters as much or more than lulus, but lulus are certainly another significant lever to keep members in line,” said Alex Camarda of Citizens Union. Lulus are highly visible symbols of power, and they are important rewards: It would be naive to dismiss the lure of an extra $10,000 as an incentive, when we see elected officials such as Eric Stevenson destroy their political and professional careers over similar sums.

It seems fairly transparent that Speaker Mark-Viverito’s favorable attitude toward the lulu system has played a role in the disappearance of lulu reform from the reform agenda: Given the broad support lulu reform has in the Council, and the constant inveighing against lulus from the press and good-government organizations, it is hard to reach any other conclusion. As the new Council session gets going and the Speaker’s legislative agenda unfolds, it will be revealing to see how lulus are addressed and administered, assuming that reform rolls ahead as planned in the first place.

Seth Barron (@NYCCouncilWatch on Twitter) runs City Council Watch, an investigative website focusing on local New York City politics.

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