By myself and Nick Powell, Published in City & State
One Speaker’s power grab is the next Speaker’s platform for reform.
The New York City Council’s annual practice of handing out discretionary funds to nonprofit organizations and other local groups has long been a point of contentious debate, both within city government and among good-government organizations. Some say the process is ripe for corruption and abuse, while others argue that member items are an effective mechanism for funding organizations that provide vital community services.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Council can take a step toward ensuring more equitability in the member items system, one part of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s proposed sweeping rules reform package that will receive a public hearing before the Council’s Rule Committee. The member items section calls for all discretionary spending given to City Council members to be allocated based on a “fair, objective formula that is publicly disclosed.”
All 51 members of the Council receive discretionary funds each year that go toward “local initiatives”— i.e., nonprofit and community-based organizations—with the exact amount determined by various factors but never less than $80,000 per district.
The changes to the formula will include making equal the distribution of core member item amounts—“core” being those that go toward local organizations, as well as those that serve children or seniors. There will also be a needs-based increase to Council members based on the number of people in poverty in their respective districts, which could add up to 25 percent of a Council member’s core discretionary amount for antipoverty efforts.
The most momentous member items change, however, is to the Speaker’s power over her own pot of discretionary funds—dubbed the “Speaker’s List”—which funds organizations that provide services that exceed the amount an individual member can fund, or that serve a larger geographical area than a single Council district. Under the new rules, the Speaker would no longer have the authority to decide how much of the discretionary funding each Council member is given to distribute to local organizations and projects each year—a privilege the previous Speaker, Christine Quinn, had been accused of abusing, according to current and former Council members. Instead, the Speaker’s List will be limited to 50 percent of total discretionary member expense allocations.
“We will take the politics out of member items,“ said Mark-Viverito when she announced the rules change proposal.
Unfairly or not, there was a widespread perception that Quinn used her pot of discretionary funds as a means to punish recalcitrant members and reward the fealty of others. Tony Avella, a former Councilman who is now a state senator, told City & State last year that because of his outspoken behavior, Quinn had denied him member items as a means of retaliation.
A July 2011 member items analysis issued by then Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer (now the city comptroller) reinforced this notion, finding significant disparities in member item allocations across the city’s Council districts. For instance, former Councilman Domenic Recchia, an ally of Quinn’s, received the most dollars in member items from the Speaker: $1,630,064. On the flip side, former Councilman Charles Barron, one of Quinn’s most vocal detractors, received the third-lowest amount: $399,464.
“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,” said Councilwoman Inez Barron, who took over the Council seat of her husband, Charles, after he was term-limited out of office.
Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who served under Quinn as well, agreed with Barron’s assessment, and emphasized the socioeconomic implications of the proposed rule changes. “I represent the fifth-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 previous Speaker was [being] penalized—and actually it wasn’t me who got penalized, it was the constituents.”
To be fair, many of the transparency reforms to the member items process that Mark-Viverito has floated largely piggyback on reforms Quinn had already put in place. Quinn made sure that the Schedule C form, which lists those organizations applying for Council discretionary funds, was made public, along with the name of the member who sponsors each item and the amount and stated purpose of the funding. The reforms under Quinn also required applications and allocations for member items funding to be searchable through the Council’s website.
Mark-Viverito’s proposal builds on those measures by adding discretionary spending awards to the city’s Open Data Plan; creating new “open data” requirements to facilitate the searching and downloading of discretionary spending awards; and requiring discretionary fund grantees to provide a short report on their use of the money.
Mark-Viverito has made a concerted effort to distance herself from her predecessor since taking over the Speaker post in January, aiming to fashion herself a consensus builder in the chamber. Her first major legislative initiative, an expansion of the paid sick leave law—which Quinn bottled up in the Council before relenting and passing it last year while running for mayor—passed overwhelmingly. With member items reform on the table, Mark-Viverito can potentially close another controversial chapter of Quinn’s tenure.
Interestingly, Mark-Viverito, one of the first four Council members to pilot participatory budgeting back in 2011, did not include institutional support for PB as part of her package of rules reforms, even though she had previously been in favor of doing so. Participatory budgeting is a method currently being employed by a handful of Council members to promote civic engagement in their communities. The residents of districts represented by Council members who choose to participate in PB are allocated a portion of their members’ discretionary funds to vote on how they would like it to be distributed.
“The idea of getting the institutional support from the Council as a body to really create a more uniform process [for participatory budgeting] that would be applicable at a citywide level—and those of us that are doing it would advocate for it too—that brings visibility and accountability,” Mark-Viverito told City & State in August.
It remains to be seen whether the proposed member items reforms will satisfy Mayor Bill de Blasio and several good-government organizations that have called for discretionary funding to be banned outright. Through statements, the mayor has reiterated his stance that member items should be eliminated, yet the Council does not need the mayor’s approval to change its rules.
The proposed changes also offer Mark-Viverito an opportunity to contest the notion that she is too close with the mayor politically—a criticism that was also leveled at Quinn for her relationship with former mayor Michael Bloomberg. For her part, Mark-Viverito was confident the reforms she laid out would be enough to win over Mayor de Blasio.
“We see it as a reinvestment of taxpayer’s dollars in our districts,” said Mark-Viverito. “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.”