Kenneth K. Fisher Shares His Insights on Term Limits, Land Use Law, and Government

Kenneth K. Fisher was born into a political family. The son of Harold Fisher, the former Chairman of the MTA, Fisher “didn’t grow up playing golf or tennis” but rather “handing out flyers” at every election for as long as he can remember. In fact, his earliest memories consist of “campaigning for Hugh Carey and John F. Kennedy.”

After attaining his law degree from Syracuse University, Fisher joined the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a public benefit corporation created in 1975 to reduce oil consumption. From there, he joined his family’s law firm, Fisher and Fisher, where he stayed for 15 years. In 1991, voters in Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, and Williamsburg elected Fisher to represent them in City Council. After term limits forced Fisher out of office, he became Partner of Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen’s Environmental and Land Use Law practice group.

A lawyer for Council Member. According to Fisher, being a lawyer was both an asset and a liability in Council. His legal training taught him to see both sides of an issue, which aids policy analysis but can exhaust the public because it does “not want to hear, ‘on the other hand,’ it wants to know where you stand on something right away.”

As Chair of the Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime subcommittee, Fisher sought to be a strong advocate for historic preservation. He presided over the designation of several historic districts and individual landmarks, and even helped establish the first high school program in the City dedicated to historic preservation. Fisher says that his time at Council provided him with a “different approach to land use issues.” While other practitioners may have “more in-depth, technical knowledge” of land use law, Fisher argues that he “has a good ear for how arguments are likely to be received” by policy makers, which is needed to get things done.

Same wine, different bottles. Fisher believes that term limits are “extremely damaging” and “bad for the City.” The “greatest misunderstanding” during the debate over term limits, argues Fisher, is that the incumbency rate of Council Members was so great that it necessitated government intervention. Over the ten years he served in Council, Fisher said that “roughly one-third” of Council Members left Council for one reason or another.

Fisher believes that term limits for Council Members eliminate the “institutional memory” of an important branch of local government. This memory, claims Fisher, prevents mistakes from reoccurring. For example, Fisher points out that if there were no term limits, the current scandal over the misappropriation of public funds may have been avoided because some of the Council Members who witnessed the effects of past, similar scandals would still be in the Council.

Fisher worries that without an institutional memory, the City may pursue policies that hinder development activity, which is a dangerous prospect given the dismal economic forecast. Fisher’s assessment is that there are currently enough projects in the pipeline to maintain development activity for the next two years. After that, he warns, “development will fall off a cliff” and, because of term limits, if Council Members pursued misguided land use policies, they would not be around to accept responsibility for their mistakes.

Reshaping the Big Apple. Fisher recalls how he once wrote a letter to the New York Times about a fictional agreement between the Mayor and developers to build a stairway to heaven. Some members of the community criticized the project, decrying it as the onset of unwanted gentrification. Others argued that the stairway would attract “riff-raff” into the neighborhood. And everybody agreed that the project would increase traffic. After the letter was published, a disability-rights activist wrote the Times, expressing her outrage that Fisher’s analogy centered around a stairway, which is inaccessible for those persons in wheelchairs.

Fisher says that his letter was intended to show the atmosphere in which land use attorneys operate. Developers “often see themselves as an artist and the City as a blank canvas.” The problem, says Fisher, is that they don’t pay enough attention to “who gets splattered with the paint.” Given the number of sophisticated interest groups in the City, and a savvy media that can easily “magnify controversies,” projects require developers to work with attorneys who are “sophisticated about communication.” In other words, says Fisher, an attorney’s job is to “identify the interaction between public and private interest and communicate that to decision-makers.” — Sami Y. Naim


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