Quinn Says Council Members' Worry Over Funding Revenge Is 'Ridiculous'

By Jill Colvin on February 20, 2013 5:39pm 

CITY HALL — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn dismissed concerns from council members who fear Quinn will cut their budgets if they endorse one of her opponents for mayor, calling the worries "ridiculous."

As DNAinfo.com New York reported Tuesday, some council members, fearful of retribution, are mulling delaying endorsing candidates other than Quinn for mayor until after budget season because they fear their share of $50 million in discretionary funding will be slashed.

"I haven't heard any of those concerns. I think that's a ridiculous worry," Quinn told reporters at a press conference at City Hall Wednesday. "I just haven't heard that at all."

While Quinn's staff has long maintained the funding is dished out based on districts' needs, a report by the good-government group Citizens Union last year found that wasn't the case.

“I definitely think that discretionary funds will be wielded as a weapon in the fight for endorsements,” said one of nearly a dozen council members who raised the concerns in recent weeks.

“It’s a legal form of blackmail," another member said.

The concerns echo those raised by a slew of good-government groups, which have long pushed for a major overhaul of the discretionary funding system so that money is more clearly tied to districts' needs.

Common Cause New York and the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center are now calling on the candidates vying to replace Quinn as speaker to commit to vastly scaling back the office's power, which they say has become far too concentrated in recent years.

“The Speaker is able to reward or punish members at his/her discretion so that taxpayer dollars, dedicated for the public good, become no more than a political football," the advocates wrote in the letters sent last week to council members whose names have been floated as potential candidates to succeed Quinn.

"Although the current Speaker has denied that political loyalty influences member item distributions, there are continuing allegations to the contrary," the letter continued.

The groups also want the speaker to exercise less control over committee assignment as well as decisions about which legislation makes it to the floor for a vote.

"There’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, who said that, today, even if there is wide support for a piece of legislation from the public and among members, unless the speaker is in favor, "it's rarely moved forward because of fear of retribution.

“We’ve seen too many issues that have not moved to a vote even though there is substantial support within the public and solid support within the council itself," she said, pointing to legislation ranging from wheelchair-accessible taxis to the paid sick leave bill.

She said in a statement she hoped the candidates would recognize what she described as the current system's "deleterious effect on the functioning of democracy."

“Ideally, all candidates for Speaker would have an appreciation for the autocratic effects of the current system and seek to reform it,” she said.

The candidates currently campaigning to become the next speaker include Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens, East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito and Queens Councilman Mark Weprin. Other names that have also been floated include East Side Councilman Dan Garodnick and Councilman James Vacca from The Bronx.

Lerner said she had yet to received responses from the candidates, but hoped to hear from them soon.

A representative for Vacca said he had not received a copy of the letter yet, while other potential speaker candidates did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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