On Tuesday afternoon, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced a sweeping rules reform package that included changes to member discretionary allocation for over $50 million given to the City Council to spend annually. In the proposed reforms, all discretionary spending given to City Council members will be allocated based on a “fair, objective formula that is publicly disclosed.” That formula will include a base amount given to every City Council member, and an increase based on the number of people living in poverty in their district. The Speaker’s own discretionary funding will be limited to 50% of total discretionary member expense allocations.
Beyond the money, there will be new open data requirements for discretionary spending, the creation of a dedicated legislative drafting unit to draft legislation requested by members, a plain-language summary of bills, a written attendance policy, and a “supermajority bill sponsorship” that would require bills with 34 co-sponsors to have a Committee decide whether or not to hold a hearing.
These are major changes, and what some see as a response to the politically-motivated allocation practices of former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
The mood in the City Council’s Red Room was celebratory, with many Council Members thanking Speaker Mark-Viverito for making good on her election promises, and seemingly acting against her own self-interest allocate the money. “This process began last fall when 34 new and returning members signed onto a platform calling for significant reforms to the Council’s rules,” said Mark-Viverito. “What followed was an exhaustive and comprehensive top to bottom look on the Councils’ existing rules…we engaged with members so the public, good government groups… and we did a public hearing where we took hours of testimony on best practices.”
“We will take the politics out of member items,“ she said.
Councilman Brad Lander, Chair of the Rules Committee that helped develop the reforms, (and who later in the day turned his blazer inside-out in support of Clippers players) was ebullient. “I challenge the press and the historian here to find any set of reforms that’s more bold and comprehensive and moves the Council forward towards good government in any point in it’s history.”
Inez Barron, for her part, spoke about the Fresh Democracy Council in 2002 that tried to introduce rule reforms. “The problem was that those that were pushed through and accepted were not embraced and not implemented, because the Speaker at that time did not embrace it. “ After the press conference, Barron was very forthcoming with her opinions about former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who removed former Councilman Charles Barron (Inez’s husband) from the Committee on Higher Education.
“Personally, the prior speaker was very vindictive, punitive, and denied the constituents of a district their fare share, so if you did not take the same position as the Speaker, you were punished… money went to persons who lived in those districts who had residents in their district who gave graciously and abundantly to the Speaker. So it was a reflection more of a political debt in terms of financial support …My predecessor Councilmember Charles Barron [Councilwoman Barron’s husband] didn’t get as much from the speaker, but he was resourceful enough and persistent enough to reach out to other agencies to get them to buy into projects that he wanted to have in his district.”
Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, whose district is in the Bronx, agreed with that assessment, and emphasized the socioeconomic implications of these reforms. “I represent the 5th poorest district in the entire city and if you look at the allocations… [the] cost of speaking up on certain issues that differed with the previously speaker was penalized, and actually it wasn’t me who got penalized, it was the constituents.”
Dick Dadey, the Executive Director of the non-profit citizen’s Union, was positive about the proposed reforms. “Today’s proposed rules reform will do much to change the way in which the council operates. It will be a much more democratically run…and allow members to be able to represent better their constituents, and result in more equitable distribution of funds for al the neighborhoods of the city as well as allow members to advocate and push for legislation that serves the needs of their districts.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio is known to be against discretionary item funding. City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito disagrees. “I’ve been a very, very strong a defender…of the discretionary allocations. We see it as a reinvestment of taxpayer’s dollars in our districts. These go to organizations that employ locally, that provide very grassroots community based services…so we’re going to continue to make that case, and that’s what’s going to be part of our conversation with the Mayor.”
Another public hearing about the rules reforms will be held on May 7th.