Two months on the job, the new council is defining itself
by Ben Max
Saturday, March 8th, will mark two months since the new New York City Council held its first stated meeting. At that meeting on January 8th, the 51-member legislative body convened officially for the first time at City Hall, simultaneously took a ceremonial oath of office, and got to work.
The past two months have been eventful, beginning with the council’s selection of its new leadership and a deal to expand paid sick leave legislation, and wrapping up with several oversight hearings and many council members heading to Albany in support of Mayor de Blasio’s “pre-k” plan, one large piece of the council’s 2014-15 State Budget and Legislative Agenda.
Looking back at the new council’s first two months on the job, we see the organization of its personnel, confirmation of campaign promises around policy, rules reform and oversight, and indications of where the city’s legislature is likely heading.
With 21 new members, the council saw a great deal of turnover via the 2013 election cycle. Before those new council members were even inaugurated, they, along with their veteran colleagues, were swept up in the race to be their leader, the council speaker. In conjunction, a slate of five major council rules reforms was drafted and circulated among council members-elect, both new and returning, for initial approval. Over thirty signed on and the proposals, aimed at democratizing the council, were oft-discussed during the speaker’s race.
All this while the newly elected were staffing up, finding office space, planning early initiatives, and, in many cases, being seen by their constituents as on the job already.
In November, as many as seven council members participated in a series of public speaker candidate forums, and, after a significant amount of non-public politicking, the dust settled on January 8th with Melissa Mark-Viverito standing on the floor of City Hall’s council chambers being unanimously elected to lead the body for the next four years. Adding significance to the occasion was Mark-Viverito becoming the first Latino to hold the position.
Speaker Mark-Viverito’s first order of business was to nominate an initial Rules, Privileges and Elections Committee, which, with her participation, would decide upon other council leadership and committee posts. Mark-Viverito named the working committee, with Councilmember Brad Lander its chair, the council approved (with a few council members voicing tepid concern over the committee’s make-up), and the council adjourned.
For the next two weeks, council members spent time at their district offices, performing constituent services, plotting their legislative agenda, making public appearances, and, naturally, jockeying for those leadership and committee posts.
In an email this week, new Councilmember (CM) Costa Constantinides reflected, “The past few weeks have been very rewarding. I have participated in everything from press conferences to historical celebrations to legislative hearings.”
When the full council reconvened, on January 22nd, the slate of leadership and committee appointments was announced. Again, there were a few council members who expressed reservations about the decisions made, including CM Jumaane Williams, who noted fewer black council members in leadership positions than he would like to see. But, overall, the council was in agreement and its leadership posts were filled and issue committees organized.
Initial Legislation, Rules Reform, and Oversight
With the new City Council organized and set to begin its deeper work, the big ticket agenda items remained the expansion of the paid sick leave law that had been passed in a more compromised, business-friendly form the prior session, and the aforementioned council rules reforms.
Both of these initiatives are indicative of the council becoming more “progressive” and pursuing a more activist government focused on facilitating greater opportunity for all New Yorkers and becoming a more transparent, accountable body.
Following the formation of the council’s Progressive Caucus in 2010 by co-chairs Mark-Viverito and Lander and coinciding with the rise of the self-proclaimed true progressive in the mayoral race, several council members had run as “progressive” Democrats during their 2013 campaigns and promised to join the caucus upon taking office. During the speaker’s race, Mark-Viverito had regularly identified herself as “the progressive” in the running and twenty-plus members of the “progressive bloc” of council members agreed to back one agreed upon candidate for speaker, which wound up, clearly, being Mark-Viverito.
While it has yet to be announced which council members will officially be part of the Progressive Caucus this term, it is clear that the council has moved further left, especially captured by the shift to Speaker Mark-Viverito from former Speaker Christine Quinn, who was oft-criticized for her working relationship and willingness to compromise with former Republican-then-independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Promising to be the most progressive council in recent memory, the legislators have not disappointed those who swept them, the mayor, and fellow progressives Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James into office. The council’s first legislative act was the expanded paid sick leave bill, negotiated quickly by the new speaker and the new mayor, and passed into law despite objections from the business community and five dissenting council members (the council’s three Republicans and Democrats Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Paul Vallone, who represents a fairly centrist Queens district previously represented by a Republican). The law goes into effect in a staggered fashion, sooner for businesses with more employees.
“With expansion of paid sick leave and the Mayor’s call to increase the number of living wage jobs, it’s clear that the tone and agenda of city government as a whole has shifted in a way that will benefit more New Yorkers,” Councilmember Annabel Palma emailed, capturing the tone of the new progressive-led city government.
She continued, “I hope to build on these efforts with the bill that I sponsored that will make it easier for workers to unionize. I know from first-hand experience that unionization is an effective way to bring low-income workers out of poverty and into the middle class.”
Showing further synergy with the new mayor, the council’s public safety and transportation committees, chaired by CM Vanessa Gibson and CM Ydanis Rodriguez, respectively, held a joint hearing on “vision zero” to examine steps that can be taken to reduce traffic crashes and deaths. The plan, as outlined by Mayor de Blasio, calls for more red light cameras (which require approval from Albany), structural changes to dangerous intersections, greater speeding enforcement, reduced speed limits (again, via Albany) and more.
The council has also showed its progressive teeth by having a hearing on the rules reforms package, holding a public housing committee hearing at a NYCHA complex, led by former public housing resident and current public housing committee chair CM Ritchie Torres, and convening an education committee hearing to examine conditions and programs for LGBTQ students, families, and staff in the city’s schools, led by education committee chair CM Danny Dromm.
Among others, the council also held detailed hearings to examine the City Board of Elections and the ways in which New Yorkers are recruited and appointed to community boards, both led by government operations committee chair CM Ben Kallos.
None of this is to mention many lower profile bills and resolutions introduced to the council by its members, including, for example, three quality of life bills by the aforementioned Constantinides and a bill by CM Dan Garodnick to require disclosure of those paying for campaign mail.
And if it was not completely clear how much of a break from the Bloomberg years the new council is making, there were the six Bloomberg veto override votes, including to pass laws requiring more information from the NYPD on hit-and-run crashes and crimes in parks.
Indications of What’s Ahead
It is clear that the new New York City Council is progressive and reform-minded. It is also clear that the council will be working closely, and usually in lock-step, with the mayor.
What is unclear is how much the council will challenge the mayor or hold him and his administration accountable. Despite questions and concerns from many council members, the expanded paid sick days legislation was easily passed and the mayor’s pick to head the Department of Investigation, Mark Peters, who also happens to have served as de Blasio’s campaign treasurer, was approved almost unanimously.
There appears to be some daylight between de Blasio and Mark-Viverito over charter school co-locations, with Mark-Viverito calling for the rollback of more than the three late-Bloomberg-era approvals that de Blasio’s Department of Education team announced last week. But, this is an issue the council has no legislative say over, which is why Mark-Viverito is co-signing a lawsuit to stop the co-locations from going into effect for next school year.
Palma, a speaker candidate at one point herself and a critic of a perceived snub from Mark-Viverito on committee assignments, stated, “I plan to work in the Council to make city government more responsive to all New Yorkers, holding the mayor accountable to the platform he was elected on.”
What is also unclear about this council is how much its floor will indeed be home for the type of robust debate that council members such as Dan Garodnick, Brad Lander, and Mark Weprin have called for over the past several months. When a bill or resolution comes out of a committee, will it be rubber stamped by the council at large, save, perhaps, those dissenting Republicans?
And speaking of the council’s three minority party members, how much will the speaker and the rest of the council solicit and validate their opinions? Councilmembers Ignizio (the minority leader), Ulrich, and Matteo are and will be in agreement with many items put forward by their Democratic colleagues, but when, if ever, might a bill be reconsidered because of Republican opposition?
So far, there has been a light, collegial mood to council meetings and hearings, some of which have included less than unanimity.
CM Matteo responded to an inquiry about the new council’s first two months by stating, “As someone who has worked in government for 10 years I understand the importance of working together and as 1 of 3 Republicans in a 51-member body, I also knew that I would be a voice of respectful dissent on issues like paid sick leave. That being said I am looking forward to working with my colleagues on issues of common ground as we move forward.”
The coming debate over council rules reform, especially regarding member items, might very well give all the indication needed to see how progressive, cohesive, and collegial-yet-challenging the new New York City Council is and will be.
Note: this article has been changed to reflect that there were five (not four) dissenting votes on the new, expanded paid sick leave legislation.