At 1 p.m. on Tuesday, February 10, 2009, six New York City Council committees were holding hearings in various rooms across two Lower Manhattan buildings. At 250 Broadway, Councilman Lewis Fidler was challenging an HPD official about affordable housing. Over at City Hall, Councilman John Liu was pressing the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services on its commitment to aiding disadvantaged businesses. Mayor Bloomberg was in the Blue Room joking about his vetoes; the Civil Service committee was in a hearing room agreeing to override one of them. A bill concerning taxi riders’ rights was moving forward, as was a measure covering recycling at street fairs. That day, councilmembers and Council candidates logged $11,030 in campaign contributions. There were 266 days until the 2009 general election. It had been 110 days since the Council voted to allow term-limited members the chance to run again.
When the Council was debating term limits in October, Councilman Miguel Martinez defended his “yes” vote by saying: “If my constituents are not satisfied with the work I’ve done on the City Council, they will vote me out.” With incumbent councilmembers enjoying a 97 percent re-election rate over the past 20 years, there’s little chance that voters will boot Martinez or any of his colleagues. But the questions posed by the term limits debate—relevant to the 2009 elections and to the looming revision of the city charter—remain: What, exactly, does the City Council do? How well does it do it? And in a system characterized by an intrusive state government and a powerful mayor, does the Council really matter?
To answer these questions, the new issue of City Limits Investigates reports on a week in the life of the New York City Council, combining the coverage of six reporters who attended every hearing and major event of the week and followed three Councilmembers through a day’s work. The story that emerges is one of contradictions—of hearings that offer cartoonish speechifying one moment and serious interrogation the next, of a legislative record in 2008 that included dozens of substantive new laws alongside 133 symbolic street re-namings, of a relationship with the mayor that includes 49 veto overrides as well as high-profile genuflections. One former Council member said the advice he gave to colleagues was, “You can do excellent work and you’ll be re-elected. Or, you can fuck this up … and you’ll be re-elected.” Yet many councilmembers do work extremely hard.
Such contrasts shouldn’t be a surprise on a body that contains 51 New Yorkers, including a podiatrist and a former Black Panther, two lesbians and one orthodox Jew, a wealthy lawyer and a transit worker, a person with a medical degree and another with a background in mathematical physics. Each councilmember approaches the job differently. This is particularly evident in their attendance record at hearings, which ranges from perfect to poor: One councilwoman showed up for fewer than half the hearings she was supposed to. (See list below.)
But numbers are only part of the story. As City Limits Investigates reports in this issue, there are wide disparities in how Councilmembers conduct themselves at hearings. Some sit and listen through the entire event, asking probing questions. Others arrive late, check their email via BlackBerry and leave early. Their attendance counts as long as they show up sometime during the meeting—or cast a vote on any matter before the committee.
Dig deeper, however, and the lack of focus by some members is easier to understand. With 35 committees, six subcommittees, two select committees and a handful of task forces, councilmembers are often asked to be more than one place at once—as they were that Tuesday afternoon, when three committees were holding a joint hearing and three others were holding separate hearings simultaneously.
Sometimes these conflicts are reflected in the attendance records, or in members multitasking when the public is trying to have their say. Sometimes the impact is more subtle, as it was earlier on Tuesday, February 10th, when the Land Use committee met to vote on eight items, from affordable housing deals to landmarks matters to zoning changes.
The roll was called. The vote was 16-0.
Then Councilman Vincent Ignizio rushed into the committee room from the council chamber next door, where the Public Safety Committee was meeting with NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly. Ignizio strode to the witness table, grabbed the mic and said, “I vote aye on all,” then turned and walked back to the other hearing. Make it 17-0.
If Mayor Bloomberg makes good on his January 2008 promise to convene a charter reform commission, Council Speaker Christine Quinn says she plans to push for more Council power. “There are a number of areas where I think the charter—when they were getting rid of the Board of Estimate—they weren’t clear in who got the power, and lack of clarity will always end up favoring the executive,” Quinn tells City Limits. If given the chance to award more power to the Council, voters might well begin by looking at what it has done with the muscle it has.
2008 Hearings Attendance Rate, Percentage per Member
Tony Avella (Queens) 100%
Anthony Como (Queens) 100%
Christine Quinn (Manhattan) 100%
Simcha Felder (Brooklyn) 97.58%
Helen Sears (Queens) 97.37%
Jessica Lappin (Manhattan) 95.17%
Peter Vallone, Jr. (Queens) 95.07%
Maria del Carmen Arroyo (Bronx) 95.04%
Gale Brewer (Manhattan) 94.56%
Letitia James (Brooklyn) 94.07%
Matthieu Eugene (Brooklyn) 94%
Daniel Garodnick (Manhattan) 93.9%
David Weprin (Queens) 93.71%
Lewis Fidler (Brooklyn) 93.59%
Inez Dickens (Manhattan) 93.33%
Bill deBlasio (Brooklyn) 93.28%
Domenic Recchia, Jr. (Brooklyn) 93.18%
Leroy Comrie, Jr. (Queens) 92.97%
Robert Jackson (Manhattan) 92.65%
James Oddo (Staten Island) 91.76%
James Vacca (Bronx) 91.41%
G. Oliver Koppell (Bronx) 90.86%
John Liu (Queens) 90.64%
Diana Reyna (Brooklyn) 90%
Kendall Stewart (Brooklyn) 89.8%
Melissa Mark-Viverito (Manhattan) 89.17%
Eric Gioia (Queens) 88.74%
Rosie Mendez (Manhattan) 88.72%
David Yassky (Brooklyn) 88.39%
Vincent Ignizio (Staten Island) 88.27%
Vincent Gentile (Brooklyn) 88.11%
Melinda Katz (Queens) 85.83%
Joseph Addabbo (Queens) 85.61%
Michael Nelson (Brooklyn) 82.56%
Charles Barron (Brooklyn) 82.5%
Annabel Palma (Bronx) 79.56%
Erik Martin Dilan (Brooklyn) 77.14%
Michael McMahon, Jr. (Staten Island) 75.6%
Hiram Monserrate (Queens) 74.7%
Larry Seabrook (Bronx) 74.57%
Alan Gerson (Manhattan) 74.52%
Joel Rivera (Bronx) 73.77%
Miguel Martinez (Manhattan) 73.28%
Sara Gonzalez (Brooklyn) 72.95%
James Gennaro (Queens) 71.97%
James Sanders, Jr. (Queens) 71.43%
Alan Vann (Brooklyn) 70.95%
Helen Foster (Bronx) 68.12%
Thomas White, Jr. (Queens) 66.98%
Darlene Mealy (Brooklyn) 56.64%
Maria Baez (Bronx) 47.54%
No longer on City Council