What’s Worse Than Albany’s Three Men in a Room? The Power of the Speaker of the NYC Council

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For years, there have been complaints about Albany’s “three men in a room” form of governance. Less discussed is the power of NYC’s Council Speaker.
According to several council members, the Council Speaker decides who chairs a council committee (and therefore receives a chair stipend), picks committee assignments and allocates discretionary budgets to each member.
Council members receive a capital budget (for infrastructure improvements in their district, such as park upgrades) and an expense budget. The expense budget includes $108 thousand for senior services, $151 thousand for youth services and a minimum of $80 thousand for discretionary purposes. Councilman Barron states that $80 thousand is the minimum, but some council members receive as much as $300-400 thousand or more. It is said that the amount of each council member’s discretionary budget is based not on need, but on the relationship with the Speaker. And supporting the Speaker’s agenda and ingenuity are the tools required to bring dollars back to a district.
The Council Speaker is the sole elected official making these decisions. The power of the Speaker was highlighted by the recent contentious council votes regarding co-naming 4 blocks on Gates Ave. after Sonny Abubadika Carson. It was the Speaker who decided she wanted Carson’s name removed from the list of street co-names throughout the city. Before and after the vote, there were allegations and assertions of the speaker using the power of her office to influence the vote by her ability to decide discretionary funds individual members could bring back to their districts.
How did things get this bad?
Prior to the 1980’s, NYC was guided by the old Board of Estimate. Questions around the concentration of decision-making power led to the establishment of the City Council. Local decisions, such as the desire to rename city streets, were diffused to the district level. A non-fixed portion of the city budget available for council use became reduced to an annual orgy of contention, as each council member advocated for additional funds for their district by currying favor from the Speaker.
The power of the Speaker presumably is regularly visited. At the beginning of each year, the council votes on rules of governance, including the powers of the speaker. In particular, 2001 saw 8 changes to the rules of governance in the City Council.
Apparently, these changes may not have been enough. As it stands, the Speaker makes multiple unilateral decisions, such as appointing council members as chair of various committees, with the commensurate “allowances” or “lulus” padding their salaries and controlling their agendas, appointing central staff as council to committees, thereby leaving chairpersons little independence or authority, and making final decisions regarding allocation of discretionary expense member items.
How did the council give the Speaker so much power? The NYC Charter (amended 2004) states, “The council shall determine the rules of its own proceedings at the first stated meeting of the council in each year and shall file a copy with the city clerk. Such rules shall include, but not be limited to, rules that the chairs of all standing committees be elected by the council as a whole.” How did choosing committee chairs go from group vote to the prerogative of the Speaker?
Decisions such as those regarding allocation of discretionary budgets for individual council members should not be decided by one person. That is not how American democracy is supposed to work. At least Albany has three in the room.
A better system would have a Speaker’s committee making such decisions, with the Speaker being the spokesperson for the committee. Such a committee with members reflecting the diversity of council districts may produce more democratic decisions based upon fairness, if not need.
The recent street co-naming fiasco has revealed the need for this type of change.
Barron asserts since the Speaker enjoys an apparently cordial working relationship with the mayor, she should use her power to advocate for $1 billion of the $59 billion city budget to be set aside for council use. Barron believes the perception of the Speaker’s ability to influence the mayor is greatly exaggerated. It is easier to be perceived as powerful by influencing a street co-naming request.
After the Carson vote, rumors swirled alleging many ‘no’ votes were currying the Speaker’s favor (to insure continuation of their member items), ‘yes’ votes were about principle, and abstentions were bet hedges.
According to a 1999 Village Voice article regarding then Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr., “before Vallone and the mayor shook hands on a budget deal, the Speaker appeared poised to pressure councilmembers into supporting his lead-paint scheme by threatening to take away their “member items”- money for projects in each council district that typically reward loyal constituents or pay for popular programs.”
Councilman Tony Avella, the only white to vote for the Vann Amendment, began his career by working in Vallone’s district office. As notorious as Speaker Vallone was, Avella says “my impression was that things did not operate the same [as now]. Under [speaker] Miller, [council operations] changed dramatically, became more political. Under Quinn, it has gotten worse.”
Try to get a complete list of City Council member items, each broken down by individual name, or district, for the current ’08 fiscal year, or any previous year. As of this date, you can’t.
Theoretically, this is public information, several council members say so.
A few years ago, Wayne Barrett, Village Voice veteran political reporter extraordinaire, “tried to find Una Clarke’s member items” when she was running for Owen’s congressional seat. The NYS Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) covers NYC. According to Barrett, until this date, the NYC Council has not complied with Wayne Barrett’s FOIL request regarding Una Clarke years ago. And Barrett was only asking for the member items of one council member.
What is the Council hiding? Why the absence of complete transparency?
If the NYC Council can get bogged down in the minutia of one street co-name (during budget negotiation time), why can’t it comply with the very public information laws it is required to uphold?
This writer tried to obtain member items by name and/or district.
The Mayor’s Public Information (PI) office referred me to the Speaker. The PI office of the Speaker told me I was asking a ‘technical’ budget question and they didn’t have that info. Calls to several councilmember offices revealed they did not have this information. The Office of Management and Budget publishes geographic budget information for various city agencies, such as fire, police, and sanitation, but it does not do the City Council.
It is sad to receive verbal stumbling blocks and stonewalls in response to a simple request for public information.
A Google search produced an arcane document called City Council Fiscal Year 2007 Adopted Expense Budget (aka Schedule C). Other years are also available. The 2007 Schedule C contains approximately 70 pages of non-profits and the council dollars they received. It does not contain the council districts they are located in, nor the council person whose member dollars they represent.
Wayne Barrett recalls trying to use this