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Originally Published: April 29, 2014

Statement By Dick Dadey
Executive Director

Citizens Union commends the City Council and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for proposing substantial improvements to reforming the Council’s rules and making it a more democratically-run legislative body.  The rule changes announced today give rank-and-file members a more meaningful role in the Council’s legislative process and ensure needed and greater equity in the allocation of discretionary funding, including for the first time the very large pot of capital funding (which totaled nearly $550 million in the last fiscal year).  It is truly a rare event when a legislative leader voluntarily shares power and gives up a portion of her authority.  In so doing, Speaker Mark-Viverito is making the Council a more effective branch of government that will enable members to better represent the districts they serve.
 
The changes today are as much substantive as they are cultural. Written rules reform is important, but changing the culture to one that is more collaborative is essential in strengthening the body. These changes could usher in a new spirit of cooperation in the Council and place far less emphasis on rewarding your friends and punishing your detractors. The challenge will be to see how these rules reforms are used and the effect they will have in a creating a more deliberative legislative body led by a still strong speaker. 
 
Citizens Union has long advocated for changes to Council rules, and has seen welcomed and incremental advancements dating back to 2006 leading to major changes announced today. Citizens Union testified this past February before the Council on rules reform, advocating for several changes the Council plans to adopt. Those reforms include:
 
  • Distributing discretionary funding more equitably by dividing it equally among members or according to a needs-based formula.  Based on previous funding discretionary funding levels, the speaker is giving up her authority over about 38 percent of discretionary funds, up from 2 percent for previous speakers;
  • Requiring organizations receiving discretionary funding to explain how they use the funds;
  • Making discretionary funding and legislative information more transparent through releasing information to the Open Data portal and on the Council’s website in an accessible format, and providing more detailed information about the Council’s own budget; 
  • Creating a more autonomous and transparent bill drafting process with dedicated drafters and a database accessible to members enabling members to check the status of the bills they requested be written;
  • Enabling committee chairs to be more clearly involved in the selection of their staff; and
  • Supporting the needed formation of a Quadrennial Commission to address Council compensation including stipends (lulus).
 
Citizens Union in 2012 released a major report, Creating a More Equitable and Discretionary Funding Process in New York City, calling for discretionary funding to be allocated based on equity and a needs-based formula, and shedding light on the large pot of capital discretionary funding. The report also demonstrated for the first time that the funding levels to individual members were not made based on objective measures of need. Citizens Union helped put in motion the recent Council rules reform effort when in 2006 it issued a landmark report, Principles of Council Reform: Ideas for a More Democratic and Effective City Council, outlining changes that would make the Council a more effective legislative body.
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