Council Gets Fres

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They won’t take the oath of office for another few weeks, but the new members of the City Council are already eyeing the clock on their first term. With only two years until redistricting forces another election on them–federal law requires states to redraw district lines every 10 years to reflect new U.S. Census data–they want to make sure the council leadership lets them move ahead on their agendas from day one.

So a few handfuls of new Democratic councilmembers have banded together to try to tip the longstanding balance of power both inside and out of the legislature. Calling themselves the Fresh Democracy Council, their rallying cry is changing the role of the council speaker from that of a centralized political dealmaker, embodied by departing Speaker Peter Vallone, to one of facilitator.

“Power should be more decentralized,” says Charles Barron, the councilmember-elect in East New York and one of the leaders of the group, which counted 19 members in late November.

For starters, they want the entire council to elect the members of a new committee that would carry out the influential task of selecting committee chairs. In the past, the speaker has appointed the council’s rules committee, which selects chairs for every other committee. The practice provides the speaker with substantial influence over council leadership and a significant way to reward allies and punish members who step out of line–a power that former speaker Peter Vallone put to use. The Fresh Democracy Council also wants each committee to be able to hire its own staff, rather than relying on employees who are hired by and ultimately report to the speaker.

Under the status quo, current council members complain, the understanding is that if the speaker doesn’t support legislation, it simply doesn’t happen. “Bills can be held up arbitrarily,” says four-year councilmember Bill Perkins of Harlem, a candidate for speaker and a supporter of many of FDC’s ideas. Months after helping sponsor legislation supporting transgender rights and reparations for slavery, he says he does not know where those bills are. “Ask the council,” he says. “And when you find out, let me know.”

This is not the first time these reforms, modeled in part on procedures in the U.S. Congress, have been pushed in the City Council. Ten years ago, the New York Public Interest Research Group proposed a slate of changes that included some of those now under discussion by Fresh Democracy. With Vallone already settled into his seat, victories then were few; mandatory public disclosure of councilmembers’ campaign spending was the only rule change put on the books.

“The speaker had such total control,” remembers outgoing councilmember Ronnie Eldridge, an advocate for reform in 1991. The bulk of the changes, says Eldridge “never happened because people were afraid of antagonizing him.”

Now, however, as she packs up her Upper West Side office, Eldridge wishes she were a part of this new group of councilmembers. “Undoubtedly there will be changes in the rules this time,” she says, noting that the reformers already have more support than she ever had–her proposals, she recalls, never got more than eight votes

But some members of the Fresh Democracy crew want to take no chances. To consolidate their influence, they say, they’ll have to play the same game as everyone else looking for power in the new council: back a single candidate for speaker, in the first real contest for the post since 1986. “If the new speaker does not accept our ideas, they’ll be put to the side and we’ll have business as usual,” says Queens councilmember Allan Jennings, who spearheaded the freshman effort the day after the September 25 primary. With several other caucuses vying to select the next speaker, Jennings hopes Fresh Democracy will be first to endorse a candidate for speaker. “We’re trying to set the tone,” says Jennings.

But other councilmembers say it’s unrealistic, even dangerous, to expect reform-minded councilmembers to forego their existing political loyalties in order to back a Fresh Democracy candidate for speaker. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” says David Weprin of eastern Queens. “There are too many people with too many interests in other places.” Weprin, for one, says he could be the Queens Democratic organization’s candidate should Democratic Party leader Tom Manton–the city’s most powerful county party chief–decide to put someone up from his borough. Also in the works was a possible deal between Manton and Brooklyn Democratic Chair Clarence Norman to get Angel Rodriguez of Sunset Park in as speaker and Weprin appointed finance committee chair. Labor unions, to which some FDC members owe their elections, are also expected to weigh in on the race.

The Fresh Democracy Council itself includes at least two other aspirants for the speaker job. Al Vann, a former assemblymember from Bedford Stuyvesant, says he will definitely seek the post. Bill DeBlasio of Park Slope has also expressed interest.

A contentious debate over the candidates could make or break the Fresh Council, their proposals and the political future of its members.

“It will bring us all together,” says Barron hopefully.

“Or further apart,” retorts James Sanders, a member from Queens.

And, of course, caucus members could agree to support a candidate who then goes on to lose, putting them all out of the power circle. While several speaker hopefuls, including frontrunners Gifford Miller and Rodriguez, have expressed varying degrees of interest in the proposals, some contenders are no fans of the Fresh Democracy crusade. Phil Reed of the Upper West Side and Harlem says the proposals are fine, “as long as they stay as proposals. We can’t have the anarchy of all these people going off in different directions.”

Indeed, Reed insists that centralized power is the only way the council can be effective. “We have a constitution to uphold, and if we’ve only done X and Y, how do we look? Somebody has to decide what the priorities are.”

The freshmen stand firm, however, and insist that the councilmembers will be more productive if their proposals are enacted. And they’re not letting Reed’s reservations deter them, arguing that they have already achieved a lot of what they set out to do: “A lot of speaker candidates are accepting reforms,” says Jennings. “We’re halfway there.”