Quinn's Foggy Attempt at Transparency

When Council Speaker Christine Quinn showed up for work at City Hall on the afternoon of April 15, she was greeted by the sight of her colleague, Councilman Charles Barron, calling for her head.

“Quinn must go!” he yelled. “Quinn must go!”

Reporters attending a nearby press conference then made a break for her, prompting Councilman James Oddo, leader of the Council’s three-member Republican caucus, to throw a protective arm around her shoulder and shepherd her through the City Hall entrance to safety.

It was yet another rough day for Ms. Quinn, whose relatively smooth tenure as head of the fractious Council ran off course this month with the revelation that her office had kept a hidden reserve for discretionary spending by appropriating money to made-up organizations.

Things only got rougher after she proposed a solution on April 11, a Friday, that would allow the mayor’s office to vet local funding initiatives by the Council. Under the proposal, the city would set up a request-for-proposal process for local groups seeking money.

Ms. Quinn also recommended the creation of an online database in which local funding would be itemized by the member making the request, and that such information would be made publicly available 24 hours before it is voted on as part of the city budget.

It may have been a winning public gesture—who, after all, wouldn’t like more transparency?—but for most her colleagues, it was a non-starter. By Monday, despite personal lobbying by Ms. Quinn in a series of closed-door meetings with members, most of the Council was in open revolt at the prospect of surrendering so much power to the mayor’s side of City Hall, with some sounding a distinctly seditious note about their legislative leader.

“No one, especially the legislative leader, is talking about the $5 million no-bid contracts, the $50 million no-bid contracts that the executive branch has full discretion over—and there’s absolutely no accountability whatsoever,” said Councilman John Liu after that meeting.

When asked about Ms. Quinn’s leadership going into the city budget negotiations, Mr. Liu said, “It’s really of no value to be united under a leader who is basically a rubber stamp for the other branch of government.”

And, asked about whether the fight could actually lead to a change in leadership, this: “There are still lots of questions out there. I think there are more questions after we had this meeting than before.”

Even some of Ms. Quinn’s allies seemed to waver.

“I didn’t fully understand, or didn’t know, the specificity of the reforms that Speaker Quinn had intended,” Dick Dadey, a good-government activist, said in an interview days after he stood with Ms. Quinn as she proposed the initiative.

“I am concerned that, in better understanding it now, I am concerned that the Council is giving up, unnecessarily, authority to the mayor in trying to bring reform to the process,” Mr. Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said.

Mr. Dadey later called to clarify his comments, saying that the involvement of the mayor’s office would make the process “more apolitical and merit-based.”

In an interview later in the day, Mr. Oddo, the Republican, seemed once again to be the only official interested in coming to Ms. Quinn’s rescue. “I don’t think a destabilized speaker going into budget negotiations is a good thing.”

Quinn's Foggy Attempt at Transparency