There's not much like a fight over horses to get New Yorkers out to City Hall.
At the start of a Council hearing on a proposed bill to ban the carriage horse industry, a collection of about 20 people stood outside the gates in consternation. They had been told that the hearing room was full.
"We're all in this together," said a distraught Pamela Seri, owner of a vegan restaurant on the Upper West Side. "This has to stop. They can't go on like this anymore." The hearing room inside was indeed packed, with PETA-sticker-sporting horse lovers and carriage horse drivers themselves.
At issue are two bills: one, spearheaded by Councilman Tony Avella, to ban horse carriages outright, which has been in the works for several years as the anti-carriage movement has bubbled up around the legislative fringes. The other, proposed by Councilman David Weprin, would raise the price of a carriage ride from $34 per half hour to $54 and impose other regulations for the health of the horses.
The carriage drivers, who joined Teamsters local 553 near the end of last year, support Weprin's bill.
Avella was in his element, browbeating witnesses from the departments of Consumer Affairs and Health and Mental Hygiene for failing to respond fully to FOIA requests, not knowing how much the drivers charge, and finding every horse inspected to be in perfect condition.
"This is the poorest testimony," Avella said. "You must have known these issues were going to come up. Didn't you do any research?"
Hours of public testimony followed, in which animal-rights groups inveighed against what they said was the cruelty of the industry, while teamsters and an immigrant group discussed the fate of the 400-odd drivers whom Avella's bill would put out of work. Veterinarians testified on both sides.
NYC and Co. CEO George Fertitta, testifying in support of the Weprin bill, said, "It's part of the fabric and the texture of the New York experience, and it would be sorely missed."