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City Council Coalition Plans to Rein in Next Speaker's Power

By Colby Hamilton | September 19, 2013 7:26am
 Council Speaker Christine Quinn presiding over a full meeting of the council on August 22, 2013
Council Speaker Christine Quinn presiding over a full meeting of the council on August 22, 2013
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Official NYC Council Photo by William Alatriste

CITY HALL — During her eight-year reign as City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn has been accused of running the group with an iron fist — doling out cash to supporters while stripping the same from dissenters, and holding back broadly popular bills from coming up for a vote.

But in the wake of Quinn’s significant loss in the Democratic primary last week, four returning City Councilmen are reaching out to the rest of the membership in hopes of coming up with a plan that would significantly check the power of the next speaker and instill a measure of balance in the chamber.

“It makes sense to decentralize some of the responsibilities that the speaker has,” said Brooklyn City Councilman David Greenfield, who has been working on the proposed changes alongside Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx, and Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn.

“I think it's in the speaker's interest to spread it out a little bit and have a little help."

The planned reforms are “not a criticism of the Speaker and her leadership,” Greenfield added, saying they were instead the result of conversations he and others had been having with members over a long period of time.

“You now have strict term limits,” he continued. “Councilmembers want to accomplish things and get things done. They want to feel like their voices are heard.”

The councilmen were loath to speak ill of Quinn, despite some of their past run-ins with her on the floor of City Hall.

Cabrera, who once battled with the Speaker to move forward legislation to allow a vote on church services in schools, said that while there might be gripes about Quinn's tenure as speaker, "It's more about the system.”

“Honestly if we wanted to make it about her, we would have come with this proposal that we want to put forth way before. We would have done it during election time, and we didn't,” Cabrera said.

While all four of the councilmen say conversations with other members are just beginning, they have a set of initial ideas for checks and balances in mind.

First among them is a plan to get proposed legislation on the table for discussion with or without the speaker's approval.

“The idea is that if you have legislation, there should be a mechanism that it can actually be written, whereby it gets introduced, and whereby it can get a hearing,” Greenfield said.

“We’re looking at making sure that bills and laws have a larger space to be discussed, no matter who put it in and no matter what it is," said Williams.

Another idea is to bring greater equity to the distribution of funds to members. Quinn's critics have regularly accused her of using the process of doling out member items to reward friends and supporters, while cutting back funds to her enemies, regardless of overall needs in individual members’ districts.

The City Council members who have gone public with complaints that they were penalized for criticizing Quinn’s decisions include Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who said he saw funding for his district dry up after he spoke out against Quinn's proposal to rename the Queensboro Bridge after former mayor Ed Koch.

For the clique of council reformers, the aim is to do more than keep the next speaker from using funding to simply punish or help other members. According to Lander, the goal is to “take the politics out of member items.”

“Those with the poorest neighborhoods are at the bottom of the capital and discretionary funding. Where's the justification for that? There is none, whatsoever,” Cabrera said.

Additionally, members of the group hope to give committee chairs more resources and greater autonomy from the speaker’s office.

“Empowering the chairs will take the stress off of whoever the next speaker is,” Greenfield said, noting, “[W]ith a $70 billion budget, you want to delegate some of the authority.”

"There are a lot of good bills, not only that I've introduced but many from my colleagues who didn't curry favor, that haven't gotten a fair chance because [the Speaker] controls the committees," said Queens Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who has run afoul of Quinn in the past.

A number of the members of the group were quick to point out that these ideas were not set in stone.

“This is by no means a done deal,” Williams said. “This is really a conversation starter."

While the reforms might seem to undercut the power of future speakers, members of the group said greater transparency and increased responsibility by individual members could actually be a boon for a speaker.

“If we were to change the rules, it’s going to require a different kind of leader. A true leader is the one who shares power,” said Cabrera.

"There's a very diverse array of councilmembers across ideological and demographic and geographic lines who are eager to see some rules reform in the council that opens up space for council members to do their jobs — to contribute to an inclusive, productive, successful council,” Lander said.