The Speaker panel covered the issue of bringing transparency, accountability, and reform to the New York City Council. On November 21, 2017, Citizens Union held a public forum on good government with the candidates running to be the next City Council Speaker. The candidates on the panel were Council Members Robert E. Cornegy Jr., Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Donovan Richards, Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy Van Bramer and Jumaane D. Williams. Council Member Ritchie Torres was also invited to the panel but could not attend due to a prior engagement in his district. The forum was held at New York Law School and was moderated by Ben Max, the Editor in Chief of the Gotham Gazette. President and Dean of New York Law School and Citizen Union Board Member, Anthony Crowell, opened the panel with remarks on the importance of the position of Speaker and the influence it can bring to shaping good government.
To start, Ben Max asked the candidates about their tenure thus far in the Council, their accomplishments and reputation in the Council, and why they should be the next Speaker. Most of the candidates alluded to their legislative record or their work as Committee Chairs. For instance, Council Member Levine spoke about his bill with Council Member Vanessa Gibson that now provides for the right to counsel in NYC Housing Court. Meanwhile, Council Member Richards spoke about his leadership as Chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and how the experience allowed him to tackle the issues of all districts in the City. Other candidates alluded to their personal attributes or their backgrounds in life. Council Member Williams spoke about his activist experience and how this will allow him to keep progress when things in the Council get tough. Council Member Van Bramer spoke about his working class roots and how he knows struggle and the importance of the fight.
Ben Max then went on to ask questions that were specific to good government and how the Speaker can play a role in contributing to this goal. The questions covered a wide range of topics from lobbyists and the transparency of Council meetings to questions on a third term for Council Members and the efficiency of Members in carrying out their duties.
Council Member Cornegy spoke on the commitment to protect the sanctity and the institution of the City Council. As Speaker, he plans to cultivate all the talent in the Council and to get the best out of every single member in order to move the body forward as a whole. He also believes in a recording process on keeping track of lobbyists who come on to City property to speak with members and has plans for a workforce disclosure bill, requiring the City to disclose its workforce demographics, in order to ensure transparency between the City and its people. On the issue of term limits, Council Member Cornegy supports a third term for the reason that those who choose to become part of the Council are allowed to meet the 10 year requirement for city pension. He further stated that he did not want the lack of pension to be a deterrence for members who are in the middle of their lives and careers to not pursue the Council seat.
Council Member Johnson shared Council Member Cornegy’s sentiments on having the Council arrive in a consensus to move forward and further stated that individual members should empowered to carve the issues that are important to them in the committees they chair. He also spoke on the lack of diversity in the Council, alluding to the fact that there are no women running for Speaker this cycle and the Council is losing two LGBT members. Thus, he aims to ensure that as Speaker, all voices of the City are heard. Council Member Johnson also spoke about the public’s difficulties in understanding the City budget and to find an easier way for the public to know how their taxes are being spent when the Council plans the budget. Council Member Johnson also believes in a third term for the Council and the decision should be done through referendum. He further believes that it should not be extended to executive branch positions such as the mayor or citywide positions such as the borough presidents.
Council Member Levine touched on the weakness in the legal defense funds and stated that there is a weakness because there are no guidelines on the ability of a lobbyist or someone doing business with the city to give legal defense funds. To this issue, Council Member Levine stated that he has a bill that would establish a “regime” for people who could not raise tens of thousands of dollars for a mayor or a city council or borough presidents would face similar restrictions and similar mandates on public disclosure in the case of these legal defense entities. Council Member Levine also shared his concerns with the city budget and not only does the process need to be more transparent for the public but for the Members themselves as there are parts of the budget that the Council is unaware about or does not understand.
Council Member Richards stated that he believes that the job of the Speaker is to be the gatekeeper for the City and to push back against anything that can harm the health of the City. He believes that as Speaker, constituent services needs to be reformed and funding needs to be provided for Council Members to properly staff their offices, especially for those members with two different district offices to suited the geography of the district so they can have the resources to efficiently provide constituent services. As Speaker, Council Member Richards also aims to strengthen the oversight and investigations committee as it has not blossomed to do what it was meant to do.
Council Member Rodriguez touched on the importance of holding members accountable and to ensure that as Speaker, he and the Council will continue to work with community organizations and advocates to ensure that change is made in the City. He also spoke on the issue of discretionary funding and believes that this is a way to bring transparency to the City. Council Member Rodriguez also believes in the strengthening of the Council’s central staff and for them to provide better support to the Council. He believes that rent for the office spaces should be paid for by the central staff to leave Council Members with more funds to allocate for their district.
Council Member Van Bramer stated that he will commit to bringing diversity to the Council as Speaker. To ensure transparency, Council Member Van Bramer stated that as Speaker, he will work with colleagues to implement gender and race audits on Council and the agencies and make that information publicly accessible and available to every single person and to use that transparency as an agent of social change. Council Member Van Bramer also spoke on the issue of term limits and stated that he believes in a third term for Members as it would allow for them to complete their work, specifically on the completion of capital projects which can extend beyond eight years.
Council Member Williams stated that as Speaker, he aims to ensure that the legislative body works as a check on the Mayor and the executive branch of the City. He wants to make sure that the Council works well with the Mayor but to also ensure that it acts as a counter balance to the city’s executive government when it is needed. As Speaker, Council Member Williams wants to reform the hearing process and to ensure that they are more consistent. He wants to ensure that those who are testifying know when they need to come in and do not have to wait long periods of time. He also wants to ensure that those in the City who do not have access to lobbyists also have an equal and fair balance and access to the Members.
The new Speaker will be chosen by the 51 members of the City Council new class in January 2018.
Click here to see the video of the panel.
By: May Vutrapongvatana (May is a CityLaw Intern and a New York Law School Student, Class of 2019.)