Citizens Union commends the City Council and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for the adoption of a new set of rules for the Council that was the result of a public process unlike any done before by the Council. To the Council’s credit, this public process has resulted in substantial improvements to reforming the Council’s operations and making it a more democratically-run legislative body.
Citizens Union has long advocated for changes to Council rules, and has seen welcomed and incremental advancements dating back to 2006 leading to the major changes being approved by the Council today. Citizens Union testified in the two rounds of public hearings held by the Council this year on rules reform, first in February and again earlier this month to the proposed draft set of rules, advocating for several changes. We thank the Council for including in the final rules several technical recommendations that will ensure that the operations of the body will be made transparent through its website. The final reforms embraced by the Council in rules and in public statements include the following significant changes:
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 36 percent of discretionary funds, up from 2 percent for previous speakers;
Allowing for any member of a committee to propose amendments to legislation during committee meetings, which then may be voted on by the committee for inclusion in bills;
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 them 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).
The rule changes adopted 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.