New ‘Working Group’ Being Built to Steer City Council Legislation

Councilman Brad Lander with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)

Councilman Brad Lander with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)

In a departure from the unilateral leadership style of her predecessor, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is currently in the process of creating a “policy working group” that would set the City Council’s agenda and even vet new legislation, sources say.

The council’s 10-member leadership team is hashing out the details of the group, which is still remains in the planning stages. But it will likely meet twice a month and take on a very formal structure, sources say.

Details of the working group remain under wraps–one council insider joked that the “first rule about the working group is that you don’t talk about the working group”–and decisions are far from finalized. Those familiar with the discussions, however, say the group may tap only council members closest to Ms. Mark-Viverito–unlike the leadership team, which includes Republican Minority Leader Vincent Ignizio and Councilman Dan Garodnick, Ms. Mark-Viverito’s top rival in the speaker’s race.

The group’s direction will likely be guided by Ms. Mark-Viverito’s deputies, especially Councilman Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee. 

“This enables Brad to hold onto and exert a lot of power. It plays into the notion of him as shadow speaker,” said one council source. “Melissa may technically have the title of speaker, but Brad is trying to run the council as much as possible by setting the policy and legislative agenda.” Mr. Lander was unavailable for comment.

In the first two months of Ms. Mark-Viverito’s reign, the hostility foreseen in the wake of a bitter speaker’s race has yet to reveal itself. Once-dissident council members meet peacefully with the speaker. Plans for opposition caucuses remain unrealized, lacking the apparent will.

Council observers still believe there may be wedge issues that end up dividing the proudly liberal members from their more moderate colleagues, but Ms. Mark-Viverito’s governing style, at least in theory, hopes to head off those divisions.

A source close to Ms. Mark-Viverito argued the working group was another reform aimed at empowering members who sometimes felt that ex-Speaker Christine Quinn wielded too much control over which bills made it to the floor.

“It’s a route that council members can pursue to get legislation considered,” said the Mark-Viverito source. “It’s a body of council members working collaboratively to identify and prioritize legislation and other policy initiatives that will be worked on and consensus built on to pass.”

The source also explained that bills would still be able to come to a vote without making it through the elite group. 

“It is not the exclusive route by which bills may pass. It is not like the rules committee in other legislative bodies where legislation goes after committee before it goes to the floor,” the source continued. “Bills that pass committees have and will continue to go to the floor.”

Some members who have heard about working group, however, wondered whether it would turn out to be just another mechanism for Ms. Mark-Viverito to exert control over the council using top deputies, albeit under the guise of good government reform. 

“It sounds ominous. Every layer of council bureaucracy that reinforces that certain council members are more ‘in’ than others threatens to become a tool that those members and the speaker can use to restrict the flow of legislation and the democratic process itself,” said Queens Councilman Rory Lancman, a lawmaker not originally aligned with Ms. Mark-Viverito during the speaker’s race. “I’m still trying to figure out what role all of these deputy leaders have in the legislative process.”

Ms. Mark-Viverito declined to comment.

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