City Council Rejects Quinn Era With Rules Reform

A City Council hearing. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)

A City Council hearing. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)

The New York City Council today announced an “historic” rules reform package designed to empower individual members, increase transparency and check the power of the speaker.

The rules, which will impact many core council operations, will most significantly alter the way that so-called discretionary funding is distributed to members. Under the existing rules, the allocations, which fund local services like parks and senior centers, were largely unregulated, leading to charges of favoritism and political retribution.

Under the new rules, the council would come up with an “objective” and public formula to decide how member item money is disbursed. The plan would either mandate equal funding for all members or create a “data-driven” formula that would account for economic differences between districts. Under one plan that has been discussed by members, districts would start off with the same-sized pot, with extra money then going to districts with the highest levels of poverty.

The reforms mark a key initiative of the new liberal body under Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Many council members had criticized the former speaker, Christine Quinn, for how she allocated funding, with some complaining about an allegedly punitive process, where lawmakers who angered the speaker could be punished by having their allocations slashed. Ms. Quinn repeatedly denied the allegations.

Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, an occasional antagonist of Ms. Quinn’s, was particularly passionate at today’s press conference rolling out the reforms.

“Look my district, if you look at the poverty list, I’m the fifth poorest district,” Mr. Cabrera said. “If you look at the allocations that I was receiving because I was speaking out on a certain issues that I [disagreed with] the previous speaker, I was penalized.”

“And actually it wasn’t me who was penalized, it was the constituents and this is why I have to truly tell you when we first sat and we were working on this list, I remember saying to myself, I have to truly tell you this, this is such a dream list,” he continued. “So today this dream is really becoming a reality.

View the full reforms and press release, via Ms. Mark-Viverito’s office, below:

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito Announces Council Reform Package

Proposals Will Make Council More Responsive, Transparent, Fair and Inclusive

Good Government Groups Praise Council for Increasing Equity and Transparency 

Council Will Hold Public Hearings on Proposals May 7th

City Hall – New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, along with Rules Committee Chair Brad Lander and Council Members Barron, Vallone, Cabrera, Rosenthal, Reynoso announced a historic reform package proposal today that will help make the City Council more responsive to the needs of New Yorkers in all communities, more transparent in how it operates and more fair and inclusive for all members enabling them to better serve their districts.

The process that led to this package of proposals has been extensive and highly collaborative. Last fall, thirty-four new and returning Members signed onto a platform calling for significant reforms to the Council’s rules. Following Speaker Mark-Viverito’s election, she charged the Committee on Rules, Privileges & Elections to develop a proposal by directly engaging the public, Members, and good-government groups. A public hearing followed in February, with testimony from a wide range of good-government groups and New Yorkers, along with a survey of Council Members in March. Extensive legal and policy research from staff.

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 Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “Our reforms will make the Council more democratic and will allow our body to function more efficiently and I thank Chair Lander, my Council colleagues and all those who submitted testimony on best practices for their work to make the Council the most inclusive body it can be. I look forward to discussing our proposed rules further at our public hearing on May 7th.”

Highlights of the reform package 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 Commission to Examine Stipends and Compensation
  • Increased Transparency of Discretionary Funding

“I’m proud that the Council—under the inclusive leadership of Speaker Mark-Viverito— is moving forward with historic and comprehensive reform,” said Rules Committee Chair Brad Lander.  “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.”

“I am pleased to bring my full support to this legislation being introduced today that will bring significant improvement to the democratic process by which the Council functions,” said Council Member Inez Barron. “For far too long, the Council has been subject to over dominance of the Council Speaker, to the degree that district constituents have suffered from diminished allocations for important projects and programs in their districts. In 2002, some entering members of the Council, including my predecessor  Charles Barron, formed the Fresh Democracy Council and were successful in introducing a few changes to the Rules. Today’s introduction has the prospect of extending reforms to a far greater degree. The group of Council Members presented a broad spectrum of reforms and ran on that platform. I am pleased that the Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, has embraced and advanced this legislation. It demonstrates her commitment to her pledge to bring fairness, equity and transparency to the City Council. I look forward to the hearing process that will help to refine and sharpen this legislation.”

Member Item Reform

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 the following reforms to ensure greater fairness and transparency in the process, and ensure that it is not manipulated for political reasons.

All Discretionary Spending allocated to individual Members for distribution (“Member Items”) must be allocated to Members based on a fair, objective formula that is publicly disclosed. The Rules will not provide a specific formula, but require that allocations must be either equal, or by data-driven formula based on objective differences between districts, or a combination.

“Our rules reform package will strengthen the Council by making ours the most inclusive, equitable legislative body it can be,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal. “Equal distribution of discretionary funds, with a needs-based increase determined by the number of people living in poverty in each Council district, will ensure every Council Member has access to the resources we need to help tackle income inequality across the City. I thank Speaker Mark-Viverito, Rules Chair Lander, my Council colleagues and good government groups for working on these proposals.”

“I am a firm believer in operating with transparency, equality, and inclusivity,” said Council Member Paul Vallone. “The reforms highlighted in today’s proposal, particularly those regarding member items and discretionary funding transparency, will grant New Yorkers a greater degree of engagement and awareness of the City Council’s actions, and allow us Council Members to better serve our respective districts.  I applaud Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections for spearheading this much needed reform.”

For FY 2015, the following formula is proposed:

Expense:

  • Equal distribution of core Member Item amounts (Local, Youth, Aging).
  • Provide a needs-based increase to Members, based on the number of people in poverty in each district (with a minimum and a maximum), which could add up to 25 percent of a Member’s core discretionary amount for anti-poverty efforts.
  • Continue IOI, DOVE, and CASA initiatives (funding allowing), which are based on data-driven differences between districts, and disclose the allocation formulas in Schedule C.

Capital:

  • Equal distribution (with ±5% allowance from average amount b/c Capital projects come in lump sums).

Other Rules Changes to Discretionary Funding

  • “Speaker’s List” limited to 50% of total discretionary Member expense allocations (i.e. funding directed by individual Members, outside of Council initiatives).
  • Increase transparency of discretionary funding.

o   Add discretionary spending awards to NYC Open Data Plan.

o   Add new “open data” requirements for searches & downloading of discretionary spending awards.

o   Add City capital projects, so all discretionary spending is included.

o   Require grantees to provide a short report on their use of the grant.

Fair Consideration of Legislation

The following changes will be made to ensure fair consideration of legislation proposed by all Members, and more transparency to the public:

  • Create a dedicated legislative drafting unit, to draft legislation requested by Members, on an equal and transparent basis. Unit would not be the only drafters (committee staff would still draft bills), but their primary function would be drafting
  • Create a new LS request tracking database by the end of 2014 which will enable Members to regularly review status of their requests
  • First named sponsors would be able to request and receive preliminary fiscal estimates within 60 days at any time after introduction
  • First named sponsors will be able to request & view a privileged legal memo, addressing questions of the Council’s powers to adopt legislation they propose.
  • Clarification that first named sponsors may request bills amendments at any time prior to committee vote, and the process by which they can do so.
  • New “supermajority bill sponsorship” rule would provide that bills with 34 co-sponsors must have Committee decide whether to hold a hearing on the bill.
  • Replace “Memorandum of Support” for bills (currently required by rules, but never viewed or used by public or other Members) with a 50-100 word, plain-language summary, which will be made public, for better understanding of legislation.
  • New “open data” provisions for releasing information and keeping the public informed about the legislative process (including hearings, transcripts, testimony & voting records, etc.).

“As a long-time advocate for government reform, I want to thank Speaker Mark-Viverito and Councilmember Lander and the Rules Committee for their leadership in making the Council’s practices more equitable, transparent, and accountable to the public,” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “I am pleased about the proposed reforms in general, and am particularly excited that we as legislators will be more empowered to participate in the process of drafting bills, and we as committee chairs will be more empowered to oversee our assigned agencies in a way that moves the City forward.  Additionally, through the use of Open Data and more accessible information about proposed legislation, the public will be better empowered to participate alongside the Council and keep us accountable. I believe these changes, along with those involving budget allocations, will allow me to more proactively address issues in my community and citywide, and better provide for my district’s needs.”

“The City of New York has entered a new season embracing transparency for a more responsive legislature.  The rules reform would decentralize power allowing members to effectively push for legislation that New Yorkers need. It would also allocate funds more equally and objectively.  I’m grateful to Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for allowing this to happen and I feel proud to be part of this effort to make the City Council stronger,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera.

Empowering Chairs and Committees

  • Topics & schedule: Clarify process by which Chairs select meeting topics & schedule.

o   Chairs retain the right to select topics and schedule hearings.

o   Scheduling request made through committee staff.

o   Scheduling request can only be rejected for cause (e.g. agency overseen by a different committee, scheduling conflict, exceeds monthly meeting staffing capacity).

o   Response can include feedback, concerns, even recommendation not to schedule.  But Chair retains the right to schedule.

  • Staffing:  Clarify that senior Committee Counsel is assigned from central staff,subject to the (ongoing) approval of the Chair

o   Need to maintain professional staff, hired & supervised by experienced attorneys.

o   Chairs have right to veto the assignment of a new staff person to their Committee (can recommend, but do not have the right to choose their own person).

o   If Chair becomes dissatisfied, he/she has right to have the senior committee staff changed, through a request to the Speaker.

o   Chair does not hire or fire staff.

o   Clearer and more durable than current language of “designate.”

  • Meeting requirements:  Change Committee meeting requirement from monthly to bi-monthly (except for Land Use which would remain monthly).

o   Would reduce meeting burdens and eliminate some overlapping/unnecessary hearings and tours, to allow Members better focus on more important oversight (as consistently requested by good government advocates).

o   Chairs may still schedule monthly hearings. They are simply no longer required by Rule. There is no reduction in staffing levels. Staffing will still be provided to allow for monthly hearings.

o   Requests for more than one hearing per month subject to staff resource availability.

  • Committee chairs given the responsibility of directing City government officials to affirm that they will tell the truth before testimony (aka “swearing in”).

o   Chairs retain discretion on other witnesses

  •  
  • Limit removal of chairs: Chairs may only be removed within a session by a 2/3 uncoupledvote of the full Council

More Transparent & Inclusive Council

  • Provide deadlines and clearer requirements for Council operating budget & an annual financial report

o   New deadlines will better ensure compliance (financial reports outlined in the Rules have not been provided in the past).

o   More detail than currently required.

  • Addition of Member Items to Council’s “Open Data Plan” submission. Implementation of legislative open data provisions. A Council Public Technology Plan will be developed to improve public access
  • Grievance Procedure:  Members may request & receive an Advisory Opinion from counsel to Rules Committee on questions about any Council rule, including compliance

Stipends and Compensation

The Council will be asked to go on record expressing support for the establishment of a Quadrennial Advisory Commission for the Review of Compensation of Elected Officials (as required by the City Admin Code 3-601), in January 2015. Further, we encourage the Quadrennial Commission to review & make recommendations for stipends, as well as compensation.

Other

  • Establish a written attendance policy.  The existence of a policy will be required by rule, but promulgated separately.
  • A number of technical changes to eliminate outmoded sections, clarify vague passages, and match rules to long-standing practice. Wherever possible (i.e. where State Law does not conflict), requirements for printing & paper notice have been replaced by equivalent requirements for e-mail notice and/or posting to the Council’s website.

 

“Citizens Union commends the City Council and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for proposing substantial improvements to reforming the Council’s rules and making it a more democratically-run legislative body,” said Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey. “The rule changes announced today give rank-and-file members a more meaningful role in the Council’s legislative process and ensure needed and greater equity in the allocation of discretionary funding, including for the first time the very large pot of capital funding.  It is truly a rare event when a legislative leader voluntarily shares power and gives up a portion of her authority, and in so doing Speaker Mark-Viverito is making the Council a more effective branch of government that will enable members to better represent the districts they serve.”

“A strong Council Speaker makes sure all the Members have the tools and the resources they need to fully represent their constituents,” said Gene Russianoff, NYPIRG. “The rules reforms being proposed today should result in a more productive, effective and responsive City Council.”

“The secretive retribution and reward system of the previous leadership had a deleterious effect on the democratic functioning of the Council. Although Common Cause/NY supports eliminating member items entirely, the equal distribution of resources as proposed is an important step forward toward greater equity for all New Yorkers. The proposed rules revision provides significantly more information and transparency to the public about the Council’s activities and spending, as well as more independence to individual members.  Common Cause/NY applauds Speaker Mark-Viverito and Rules Committee Chair Brad Lander for putting the public interest first,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY.​