Voters deserve an ethical government that works for everyone. Creating an ethical and clean government that works in the public interest continues to be our common cause. As the New York City Council undergoes a leadership change, it has the opportunity to improve the rules which govern its functioning with a process that is fair and produces equitable outcomes.
Council Rules Reform
Common Cause New York has prepared the following suggestions and discussion of ways in which the Council’s rules could be reformed:
- Fast-track majority supported bills
- Member-driven bill drafting
- Eliminating member items
- Regulating the Speaker’s list
- Consolidate committees
- Sexual harassment policy
- Improvements to the Council website
- Participatory Budget Unit
- Fast-track majority-supported bills
Common Cause/NY recommends that a “fast-track” system be instituted for any bill which reaches a significant threshold of sponsorship. It is our recommendation that if a bill has more than 50% of Council members as sponsors (“Majority Bill”), it should receive automatic fast-track status through the committee process and on to the floor for a vote, unless at any stage in the process the bill’s sponsor requests in writing that the bill not progress further. Such request will remain in place until rescinded by the bill’s sponsor. Further, where a bill has more than half of Council members signed on as sponsors, it should automatically receive a committee hearing within 60 days of its achieving majority support, unless the bill’s sponsor waives such timing in writing, which request must be made public. Then, once a Majority Bill has been the subject of a committee hearing, it should come up for a committee vote within 45 days of the hearing, unless the bill’s sponsor waives such timing in writing, which request must be made public. Finally, we recommend that once a Majority Bill has been voted out by all appropriate committees, it must be moved to the floor for a vote within 30 days of the last committee vote unless the bill’s sponsor waives such timing in writing, which request must be made public.
Member driven bill drafting
The current bill drafting unit has not lived up to the goals that led to its establishment. Members still lack sufficient ability to influence which bills are drafted and introduced. The process of drafting and introducing bills, while somewhat improved, remains throttled by central staff and the speaker.
Common Cause/NY recommends that the legislative drafting unit be made more responsive to individual member’s issues. The requirement in current Rule 6.60 that bill drafting services be provided on a confidential basis has resulted in the current system of secret “holds” on issues for bill drafting. This system serves to isolate members and discourage consensus building. We recommend removing the confidentiality requirement. Any system of “holds” on issues for bill drafting must be transparent and time limited.
Members interested in the same issue should be encouraged to collaborate and build a consensus, which can result in stronger co-sponsored bills. We do not support a system which would lead to any member being able to have an unlimited number of bills drafted. There needs to be some coordination and control of both the number and topics of bill drafting. However, Common Cause/NY believes that a system encouraging collaboration will avoid the problem we see in Albany of unnecessary multiplicity of bills on the same topic. A thorough analysis of proposed legislation should be provided automatically to members if the staff’s conclusion is that the requested bill raises significant legal or constitutional issues.
Various state legislatures and city councils provide interesting models. A threshold issue which flows from our initial review of certain other jurisdictions’ procedures for drafting bills is whether the unit which drafts legislation should be devoted exclusively to bill drafting or should also provide other analyses and legal advice to members.
Taking the example of other states and cities, Common Cause/NY supports making the bill drafting unit an independent unit which also provides objective research and analysis on issues of interest to members and committees.
We recommend that all bills should be accompanied by a sponsor’s memo, available to the public through the Council’s website. Further, we believe that it is helpful for all bills to be accompanied through the legislative process by an analysis memo prepared by the staff of the bill drafting unit and supplemented by the staff of the committee(s) to which the bill is assigned. The memo should discuss the current state of the law, the practicality and legality of the proposed bill, what groups oppose or support the measure, and any “organizational sponsor,” any group which had a hand in drafting or suggesting the measure. The memo should be public and available online as part of the legislative history of the bill.
Further, we believe that committee members and bill sponsors should be encouraged to discuss potential changes to a bill at the public hearing, which can also include markup/amendment of the bill.
Eliminating Member Items
It is Common Cause/NY’s long-standing position that member items should be eliminated to reduce the opportunities for corruption and promote the fair distribution of taxpayer resources. Political distribution of discretionary funding should be replaced by a uniform system of distribution based on objective criteria. Simple district-based applications for funding could be evaluated by city agencies pursuant to objective criteria under which the recommendation of the relevant Council member would be an important requirement, but not the sole controlling factor.
We recognize and applaud the more equitable distribution of discretionary funds between districts but believe that it can be improved further. If member items are retained and not eliminated, the process by which they are allocated – both between districts and within each district – must be reformed to minimize use of taxpayer money for political purposes. The use of advisory district committees should be explored. Appropriate anti-fraud measures were previously adopted to ensure that recipients of discretionary funding were qualified. However, we recommend that the procedure for clearance of non-profit organizations be evaluated, as recipients have had problems with delays, lack of transparency, and prompt evaluation and communication if there are problems.
Regulating Speaker’s List
We recognize and commend the Council for specifying the maximum amount which the speaker may allocate as the “Speaker’s List” (i.e. discretionary funding for organizations determined by the speaker, beyond member items, and outside of a formula), which is a positive change. However, Common Cause/NY strongly supports further regulation of the Speaker’s List. Allocations should be reserved for organizations which serve multi-district populations, such as cultural institutions that are located in one member’s district but are enjoyed by, and are essential to, residents from throughout a borough or the entire city, or organizations that provide services in multiple districts. The Speaker’s List should be a mechanism to fund citywide or borough wide efforts that members could collaborate to identify, not taxpayer money given out at the speaker’s sole discretion.
Common Cause/NY believes that committees should be consolidated. In abolishing the administrative stipends known as “lulus,” an obvious reason for multiplicity of committees has been eliminated. Currently, the New York City Council Rules provide for 38 committees (not including sub-committees). Common Cause/NY believes having too many committees leads to ineffectiveness of members, failure to build meaningful expertise, disrespect of public speakers who testify to mostly empty daises, and stalled bills. We strongly recommend that a task force be appointed to explore this issue further to develop a more effective committee structure for the New York City Council.
Sexual harassment policy
Institutions have come under recent scrutiny for failing to properly adjudicate complaints of sexual harassment. The Council Rules should require that the Council publicly publish its process for handling such complaints so that it is clear to staff, members and the public alike. A good process is timely, fair, and thorough, prioritizes a safe work environment for all employees, and provides the public, employees and members with confidence that due process has been adequately administered. We support efforts to standardize investigation of complaints, whether against staff or members. Common Cause/NY recommends that investigations of complaints of sexual harassment should be conducted by an outside entity and not left to either an Equal Employment Committee made up of Council employees or the Committee on Standards and Ethics made up of members.
Improvements to the Council website
Common Cause/NY recognizes that the Council’s website has undergone substantial improvement in the past four years. It can be further improved, however. New Yorkers should be able to easily track a bill from start to finish. On the Council website, there should way to sign up for email alerts providing notification when a bill moves or some action is taken regarding it.
Additionally, no budget information should be provided solely in PDF form. The budget breakdowns and schedules should be in machine readable form that is downloadable, searchable and manipulatable.
Participatory budget unit
Similar to the the bill drafting unit, the participatory budget unit has not lived up to expectations. There is not sufficient funding, staff resources, or priority given to the unit to enable it to build the necessary expertise. A centralized participating budgeting unit should be able to to build meaningful expertise and experience over time to properly support and assist Council members who choose to participate. The current arrangement places too heavy a burden on the district staff and does not take advantages of building sufficient institutional expertise or economies of scale, and requires the constant training of new staff members. To some degree, there will always be new staff to be trained, but fostering long term institutional expertise should be prioritized.