Candidates Spar Over Speaker’s Power at Second Forum

The leading candidates for City Council Speaker tonight in the Bronx.

The leading candidates for City Council Speaker tonight in the Bronx.

The leading candidates for City Council speaker met for the second time tonight at a forum in the Bronx, where they sparred over the potential impact of proposed rule reforms that would significantly rein in the speaker’s powers and–some fear–also weaken the council.

“I don’t want to do anything that weakens the New York City Council,” declared Bronx Councilman Jimmy Vacca, one of six candidates who attended the forum, when asked about the proposed reforms.

“When we address rules reforms, we have to look at making it more democratic and definitely more transparent, but we also have to assure that we remain strong, a united voice that’s prepared to fight,” he said.

At least 30 returning and incoming council members have signed onto the package of reforms, which includes–most notably–a plan to overhaul the way the speaker doles out discretionary funds to council member. Critics have long accused current Speaker Christine Quinn of using the funds as a stick and carrot to reward her allies and punish those who’ve crossed her. (Her office has repeatedly denied the claims.)

Under the proposed new rules, the money would instead be divided up either equally among members or according to a formula based on districts’ economic needs. While some argued the change would weaken the speaker’s ability to corral members, others, including Queens Councilman Mark Weprin disagree.

“I support the rules reforms and I don’t think it necessarily weakens the City Council. As a matter of fact, sometimes the best way to gain power is to give it away,” he said. “And I think incorporating that power within the members and giving them a role to play can go a long way.”

East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, considered by some to be the front-runner in the race, echoed Mr. Weprin, arguing the changes would, in fact, strengthen the council by empowering individual members.

“I am not threatened as a leader to be able to say that my colleagues in government, my colleagues in the City Council are gonna be co-partners with me as your leader,” she said. “It is a progressive way of governing. It is inclusive.”

East Side Councilman Dan Garodnick, another candidate seen as a strong contender, also touted other reform proposals, including one that would create an independent bill drafting office. “There should be no circumstance in which somebody’s putting forth a good idea which simply gets bottled up because of political problems with the speaker,” he said, telling the audience he would treat the job as a “a 50-member member services operation.”

The remaining candidates, however, remained more skeptical of the plans. Bronx Councilwoman Annabel Palma agreed that “there’s always room for improvement,” but offered few other specifics, while Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens said she supported some measures, but had her doubts about the idea of funding all districts equally, worrying that might gloss over different needs.

Later, when responding to a question about large city subsidies given to companies like FreshDirect, Mr. Vacca again stressed the need for a strong council to provide a check on the mayor.

“This is one of the reasons why we cannot weaken the New York City Council!” he shouted, taking on the cadence of a church preacher . “We just can’t have oversight over city agencies. We have to maintain oversight over some agencies that don’t think that they owe us an explanation, because they owe us an explanation! … They report to you and they report to me!”

After the forum, Mr. Vacca doubled down on the message, saying he worried that, if the rules were enacted, the next council might look like the national Republican party, where House Speaker John Boehner has faced difficulty getting his members in line.

“I don’t want to be John Boehner who, when he goes in to see Obama, Obama says, ‘I can’t negotiate with you because you don’t represent your body. I gotta go see Harry Reid.’ … I want to be a speaker that when I sit down with the mayor, he will know that I consulted my colleagues and that I represent the will of the body and that he and I have to have discussion.”

Just because some members disagree with how Ms. Quinn operated as speaker, “That is not a reason to throw the baby out with the bath water,” he added. “If you weaken the speaker, you weaken the body.”