SPRING 2009 VOL. 33 NO.

01

A week in the
life of the
New York
City Council

the chamber
by Jarrett Murphy with Sarah Crean, Michelle Han, Curtis Stephen, Chloe Tribich and Helen Zelon

PUBLISHER’S NOTE
The last two times that New York’s City Council escaped its usual obscurity were certainly not
highpoints of the legislature’s 71-year lifetime. Last spring, controversies surrounding the council’s practice of parking funding for community-based organizations under the name of fictitious
entities threw open a window on some questionable business practices. Late in the year, after
a fractious debate, the City Council voted to overturn term limits—rejecting the voters’ will as
expressed in two separate referenda.
Amid such controversies and the constant churn of falderal—like hundreds of symbolic street
namings—some of the people’s business does, however, get done and on occasion done well.
Just in the past year, the Council can point to accomplishments like restoring $129 million in
cuts to city classroom services or passing a series of measures to improve construction safety
in the wake of several deadly accidents. Over the years the body has led the way nationally with
significant action on gay rights, campaign finance and the environment.
But whether inspiring or embarrassing, the Council’s work usually takes place uncomplicated
by broad public awareness or scrutiny. Given New York state’s authority over many nooks and
crannies of city policy (including taxation) and our underlying “strong mayor” system, the Council has little uncontested leverage over policy and offers its members scant opportunity to distinguish themselves. The truth is that if you ask a typical New Yorker, they will be hard pressed to
name their own councilmember—much less another member outside their home district.
For this issue of City Limits Investigates we wanted to provide readers a window on the curious texture of members’ daily lives as well as offer a feel for how the Council as a whole does its
business. The parade of meetings blurring the consequential with the inane; the behind-closeddoors, district by district deal-making; the push-me-pull-you relationship between the speaker,
her central staff and members; the consuming, unglamorous and underappreciated work of constituent service and the constant background noise of fundraising and political hob-knobbing
all combine to create a gerbil wheel of action—or perhaps distraction—for the Council and its
members.
As the city faces some of its steepest challenges in more than a generation, we need and
expect the Council to be an effective counterweight to mayoral prerogative and a forum for
real debate. In order for that to happen, we need to first understand the body’s limitations, its
strengths and the political theater we are complicit in compelling them to participate in.
We hope this snapshot of a week in the Council’s life prompts a look in the mirror—by them
and by ourselves as citizens. Does the Council matter? How do we understand and shape their
service? Do we have the Council we deserve?
Finally, we’d like in particular to thank Councilmen Robert Jackson, John Liu and James Vacca who were gracious enough to allow City Limits reporters full access to their days, their candor
and the mix of the noble, objectionable and mundane that is life in the New York City Council.
—Andy Breslau,
Publisher

SPRING 2009 VOL. 33 NO. 01

Over
5 Days…

Does the
City Council
matter?
ChapterS
I. Monday
II. Tuesday
III. Wednesday
IV. Thursday
V. Friday

4
10
16
22
28

in focus
A Test Run
Little election, big problems
Beyond Lulus
The Council’s outside earners

15
26

City Limits Staff

Jarrett Murphy

Investigations Editor

Karen Loew

CityLimits.org Editor

The Council in action: James Vacca of the Bronx speaks to a constituent; Queens Councilman John Liu races the clock as he addresses a seniors’
group; Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilman Robert Jackson, both from Manhattan, prepare for a general meeting. Cover: The New York City
Council Chamber at 10:30 a.m. on February 9, 2009. Photos: JM

City Limits Investigates is published quarterly
(spring, summer, fall and winter) by City Futures
Inc., 120 Wall Street, 20th floor, New York, NY 10005,
a nonprofit organization devoted to rethinking,
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Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. No portion or
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Sarah Crean

Investigations Intern
City Futures Staff

Andy Breslau

Executive Director & Publisher

Mark Anthony Thomas
Deputy Director

Ahmad Dowla

Administrative Assistant
city futures Board of Directors:
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www.CITYLIMITS.ORG

Monday 11 a.m.: The crowd at a Parks Committee hearing
overflows into the balcony seats. Photo: JM

City Limits Investigates

Over 5 days, the 51 members of the City Council
attended 16 hearings, held 44 votes, served 8
million constituents and faced 1 big question:

Do they matter?

This is the story of that week.

by Jarrett Murphy with Sarah Crean, Michelle Han, Curtis Stephen, Chloe Tribich and Helen Zelon

H

I. Monday

The meeting of the New York City Council’s Zoning Subcommittee is
scheduled to start at 9:30 on the morning of February 9. By that time,
there is a long line of notebook-clutching reporters and gear-laden camera
operators forming in the foyer of City Hall. Pretty soon, the person they
are waiting for will stride across the wide plaza in front of the building,
from the glass-encased police checkpoints to the steps that rise into
New York City’s capitol.

owever, the man of the hour has
nothing to do with the New York
City Council. He is Chesley B. “Sully”
Sullenberger III, the pilot who a few
weeks earlier saved hundreds of lives by
gently landing his stricken U.S. Airways
jetliner in the freezing Hudson River. He
is there to receive the key to the city in
the Blue Room, near the mayor’s office
on the west side of City Hall.
Up the stairs and on the other side
of City Hall, the meeting of the Zoning
Subcommittee is less well attended.
In fact, many of the committee’s own
members have not shown up. Councilman Tony Avella of Queens, who chairs
the panel, is on his cell phone trying to
find his missing colleagues. Councilman
Simcha Felder from Brooklyn, the only
other committee member actually present at 9:30, asks Avella, “Do you want to
reschedule this for Thursday?”
The cameraman for the city’s television station is staring into space. The
timer for public testimony is stuck at
3:00. Civil War general George McClellan stares down from an oil portrait on one wall of the City Council
committee room.
Al Vann, a Brooklyn councilman, arrives at 9:40. “Here comes Melinda,”
a staffer says, looking out the window.
“She’s on her BlackBerry.” Avella,
hands in his pockets, shuffles over to

look. Melinda Katz, a Queens councilwoman and the chair of the powerful
Land Use Committee, enters the room
a few minutes later talking on her cell
phone in an unhappy tone: “We’ve
had two hearings...I want this done by
March 7.” The phone rings. An aide answers, talks, hangs up. “[Bronx Councilman Larry] Seabrook is on his way.”
Councilman Eric Gioia from Queens
comes in at 10, about the same time a
Council staffer notices Captain Sullenberger making his way up the City Hall
steps. “Should we open the window and
scream?” someone asks. “No,” says
Felder. Tongue in cheek, he suggests
some heckling instead. “Go home! We
hate you! Flying your plane into our river!” The committee counsel jokes back,
“He should have glided into City Hall.”
Finally, a quorum being present,
Avella gavels the meeting to order to address the one item on its agenda: an application for a zoning amendment for an
affordable-housing project in Gramercy.
Two representatives of the housing developer testify for a couple of minutes.
Katz never stops BlackBerrying. The
roll is called, everyone votes “aye,” the
gavel falls and the New York City Council has completed its first order of business for the week of February 9.
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last October that he wanted

term limits extended so he could seek
four more years in office, it fell to the City
Council to decide whether to approve
the change. The debate that followed
split a body that votes almost always
with unanimity and raised the profile of
an institution that is usually overshadowed by the mayor, comptroller, district
attorneys, police commissioner, schools
chancellor and other public figures.
The final vote on term limits was 2922 in favor of the extension. But the
Council’s decision didn’t answer all the
questions the episode raised about New
York City’s legislature. Does it serve as
a genuine counterweight or a mere rubber stamp to the mayor? Do individual
councilmembers have the freedom to
pursue their policy visions, or are they
beholden to a powerful speaker’s own
agenda? Does the Council listen to constituent input, or are all those public
hearings just window dressing for foregone conclusions?
In short, does the City Council matter?

A

s the zoning hearing breaks up,
Gioia chats with a reporter and
offers a piece of advice for those who
set out to watch the City Council. He
recently read a review of a series of
documentaries by Frederick Wiseman,
who filmed the action inside different
institutions—first a hospital, then a

SPRING 2009

5

City Limits Investigates

Monday noon: The City Hall press corps occupies one corner of the Council chamber. The
seats are rarely packed. Photo: JM

prison, and so on. “It was great—real
cinema verité,” Gioia recalls. “Then he
did the same thing in a state legislature,
and it was terrible. He figured out why:
In a prison or a hospital, what you see is
what you get. In a legislature,” he says,
gesturing toward the Council chambers in the next room, “everything you
see out there has been decided behind
doors somewhere.”
To the extent that the City Council is
in the public eye, public hearings are
what puts it there. Unlike the mayor,
councilmembers don’t often generate a
lot of publicity when they visit a site or
hold a press briefing. Their time in the
sun is usually confined to the sessions in
which members question commissioners and accept public testimony on proposed legislation or policy issues. It is
not surprising, then, that hearings come
in for a fair amount of criticism—much
6

SPRING 2009

of it from councilmembers themselves,
like Simcha Felder, who, after the Zoning hearing, is shaking his head and eyeing his watch. The perpetual lateness of
his colleagues seems to be one of the
few things Felder doesn’t laugh about.
“Citizens take time off work to come”
and testify, he says; when there are no
councilmembers there, “It looks terrible.” And it snowballs: Members who
show up on time end up waiting for a
quorum, so the next time, they don’t
bother to be punctual either. None of
this tardiness registers in the attendance
records because members get credit as
long as they enter the chamber at some
point during the hearing; it doesn’t matter when they arrive or how long they
stay. “The real winners are those who
show up an hour late and then stay five
minutes,” Felder chides.
“Then you notice how few [council-

City Limits Investigates

members] are actually listening,” he
continues. “The work people bring in
here—and I do this too—BlackBerrys,
forget about it, correspondence!” Some
members eat during testimony. Others
read the newspaper. A few chat with other members or staffers. “This is why we
extended term limits?” Felder asks.
Next door to the committee room,
in the main Council chamber, security
guards are setting up extra chairs to accommodate what is expected to be an
overflow crowd for today’s next order
of business—a hearing on four proposed measures addressing the use of
“crumb rubber infill” in playing fields
or black rubber mats as playground
surfaces. The infill, which is used under the synthetic turf that the Parks
Department has used to replace worn
grass fields, has raised health concerns
over its chemical content and heattrapping effects. Meanwhile, the black
mats have been linked to children’s receiving severe burns when they crawl
or walk barefoot on them.
The City Council’s main chamber
has a dingily ornate feel. The massive
wooden dais is impressive from afar; up
close you see battered edges trimmed
with tape. The ceiling features peeling
paint and an oval allegorical portrait that
is faded and grimy. The drapes that run
from floor to ceiling, woven with the
Council’s seal, are threadbare.
By 10 a.m. a substantial crowd has
gathered in the chamber, most of them
sitting in the rows of metal folding chairs,
a few heading upstairs to the balcony. Individuals sign in at clerk’s desk to testify
at the hearing—but they’ll get their shot
only after city officials make their statements and answer questions. At least 60
people register to talk. One wonders if
there will be time to hear them before
another hearing is supposed to start in
the same room.
At 10:25 the hearing comes to order.
Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who
serves as presiding officer of the City
Council and is an ex officio member
of every committee, is making a rare
appearance at a hearing. “Questions
remain about the health and environ-

mental risks” of crumb rubber infill,
Gotbaum says, recalling that she has
voiced “repeated concerns about the
use of synthetic turf in our city parks”
dating back to April 2007, when her office called for testing of the crumb rubber infill. Next, Councilwoman Jessica
Lappin of Manhattan, who introduced
the legislation calling for a warning
about black mats at playgrounds, tells
the hearing, “They are safety mats, but
they’re not safe.”
Then the Bloomberg administration—
in the person of officials from three city
agencies—gets to have its say.
The lateness of councilmembers is
only one of the concerns about public hearings, which, after all, are the
primary forum for New Yorkers to interact with their government. Another
critique is that the mayor’s staff always
gets to speak first. “That means the
administration gets to frame the issue
and never has to respond to the public
after it has had its say,” says one nonprofit executive who frequently deals
with the Council.
Gotbaum leaves as the city starts its
testimony. Councilwoman Gale Brewer
of Manhattan takes her seat and begins
scrolling through her BlackBerry. A
man in the front row of the audience is
sleeping. Nancy Clark, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Health
and Mental Hygiene, describes a literature review that DOHMH did of studies
that looked at the toxicity of crumb rubber infill. Clark says one field that has
registered higher than normal levels of
lead—in East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park—will be replaced. Her partner at the witness table, Parks Department first deputy commissioner Liam
Kavanagh, says Parks will stop using
crumb rubber infill but won’t remove it
from any parks where it currently exists,
except Thomas Jefferson.
When Clark and Kavanagh are done
with their prepared statements, the
questioning begins. There’s plenty of
posturing and repetition, but there are
also good questions—like Councilwoman Helen Foster of the Bronx asking
whether different kinds of mats are used

in places where it’s really hot, like Florida—and there's even a little drama:
Gioia: “Why is the city no longer using
crumb rubber?”
Kavanagh: “Heat levels were a concern.”
Gioia: “Do you admit it was a mistake to
install?”
(long pause)
Kavanagh: “No.”
Gioia: “Why not?”
Kavanagh: “It is a material that has made
many fields available for use; they have
been safe fields.”
There’s still more drama when Lappin
holds up a gory photo of the burns one
toddler suffered after walking on black
playground mats.
At noon, chairwoman Foster closes
the sign-up sheet for members of the
public who wish to speak. But her colleagues are still asking questions of the
administration’s witnesses. Some of
them are making speeches. Foster tries
to get them to hurry it along. But the
audience is growing restless. “Excuse
me, are you all gonna talk, and are we
just gonna sit here?” yells a voice from
the crowd. Foster yells back, “You’re
not recognized!”
Soon another discordant voice speaks
up: Councilman Vincent Ignizio of Staten
Island, who thinks his colleagues’ bills
are “a solution in search of a problem.”
He adds, “In my view, synthetic turf
ought to be embraced. I welcome [such
fields] in my district.”
The man in front row has drifted off to
sleep again, listing off to his right.

W

hile the public—and Felder—
are justly annoyed at elected
officials’ late arrivals, councilmembers
are sometimes asked to be in two places at once. And while the committee
room is conveniently located next to the
Council chambers, allowing members
to shift between two hearings, many
Council hearings are a five-minute walk
and elevator ride away in an office building at 250 Broadway, across the street
from City Hall. This zany schedule is

one reason why councilmembers, most
of whom make a salary of $112,500 a
year (Avella and Melissa Mark-Viverito
refused the 2006 raise and still make
$90,000) sometimes get caught running late or multitasking.
In the committee room, Annabel
Palma is the only one on time for the 11
a.m. meeting of the Subcommittee on
Landmarks. She beats the chairwoman,
Jessica Lappin, who is one of the point
people in the Parks Committee hearing next door. “Once [the other councilmembers] are here, it’s five minutes,
boom boom,” a Landmarks aide promises John Liu, a member from Queens.
He’s right: After coming to order, the
Landmarks Subcommittee hears from
two witnesses and quickly approves the
lone item on its agenda, concerning renovations to a building that’s to be made
into a school, with a vote of 5-0. “We’ll
keep the roll open for five minutes for
members who are away or in the next
room,” Councilman Miguel Martinez of
Manhattan says.
In that room, Ignizio’s endorsement of
fake turf draws a mixture of applause and
boos. This prompts one of the security
guards to call out, “Ladies and gentlemen,
there’s no clapping and no booing. Let’s
cut that out. Thank you very much.”
Finally, a good two hours into the
hearing, the public gets its chance to
testify at this public hearing. New Yorkers for Parks executive director Christian DiPalermo tells the Council, “We
need a citywide policy for turf.” Doug
Rowan, representing the Bayside Youth
Raiders football team, is pro-turf. “You
can’t maintain grass. It’s nonexistent.
It’s rocks and glass we used to play on,”
he says. Stavros Xenopolis, a soccer
coach, agrees. “The artificial turf has
changed our lives and the opportunity
for kids of all ages to become active,”
he says.
The witnesses are flying by. The committee is hearing from a panel of four to
five speakers every five minutes. Each
speaker is timed, with a bell signaling
when to stop. Many run over but not for
very long. No councilmembers are responding to the public testimony.
SPRING 2009

7

City Limits Investigates

A man named Steve Prestiani, sporting long dreadlocks, is called. He says
his name is Stevie and claims, “I am simply representing the earth.” He’s against
turf. Richard Kassen, the father of the
burn victim whose photo Lappin displayed, testifies, “Six children are admitted to the Cornell burn unit every year,
burned on their feet and hands” from
playground mats.

“We want as much flexibility as
possible,” says Kay, in part.
“What role will City Council play?”
Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn asks.
“Good question,” Kay responds. “We
will continue to have this conversation.”
Brewer asks about using some money
to improve broadband access. Kay says
he’ll follow up with her later.

“the mayor has all the goodies...
The administration has shown it
can cut deals with individual
councilmembers.”
The meeting, due to end at 1 p.m.,
ends at 2:30. Everyone on the list gets
a chance to testify, but some witnesses
have left before their turn comes. By the
end, only the committee chair, Foster, is
there to listen. The other councilmembers have drifted away.

S

ome of them have ended up in the
committee room next door for a
meeting of the Economic Development
Committee. The purpose of the gathering is for councilmembers to learn more
about how the city intends to spend federal stimulus money. But they don’t learn
much. The hearing reflects another common phenomenon at the Council’s public
hearings: Sometimes the witnesses representing the mayor aren’t able or willing to be very cooperative.
After Chairman Thomas White Jr. of
Queens opens the hearing, Jeffrey Kay,
director of the mayor’s Office of Operations, delivers his testimony. He talks
broadly about the mayor’s priorities in
spending the money: building infrastructure, preventing cuts to core services,
strengthening the markets where cities
sell bonds to pay for capital projects and
developing the workforce.
When the questioning begins, the
councilmembers want to know more,
but Kay offers little.
“How flexible is the money?”
White asks.
8

SPRING 2009

White asks Kay, who serves on the
board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “Can you outline which
projects the MTA would pursue?” to
which Kay, with a nervous giggle, responds, “I can’t.”
Brewer asks about workforce development.
“We are discussing how to use job-retraining money. When we come up with
a plan, we’ll let you know,” says Kay.
Alan Gerson of Manhattan asks about
how the plan will help “strengthen credit
markets.”
“It’s fair to say we’ll get back to you on
that,” Kay says again.

S

ince its modern inception after the
consolidation of the five boroughs
in 1898, the city’s legislature has been a
work in progress. First it was a bicameral Municipal Assembly, then a Board
of Aldermen and finally the City Council. Its membership has fluctuated over
the years from 73 down to 17 and back
up to, in 1991, the current tally of 51.
And its powers have been altered by at
least seven charter revisions.
The sharpest shift came in 1989, after
the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the
city’s Board of Estimate was unconstitutional. The Board had, for 60 years,
served as a sort of a superlegislature
for the city, overseeing land use and
budget issues. The mayor, comptrol-

City Limits Investigates

ler, City Council president and borough
presidents all had voting power on the
Board—which meant that Staten Island
had as much power as Brooklyn. To the
court, this arrangement violated the
“one person, one vote” principle. After
the ruling, the city decided to disband
the Board and reassign its powers to the
mayor, Council and borough presidents.
One area over which the Council acquired substantial technical authority
was land use. The Council must approve
all changes to the zoning map and zoning text, all urban-renewal plans, and the
disposition of certain buildings in the
city’s portfolio. It can also review special
zoning permits, landfills and city property sales and purchases.
The land use powers are so broad
that there are three subcommittees to
divvy up the work. Zoning and Landmarks met earlier on Monday. Now, as
the afternoon wears on, the third Land
Use subcommittee, Planning, takes
up an agenda of 15 items over at 250
Broadway. All the deals under review
involve transfers of property held by
the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to private parties. One is a building being sold to create low-income housing for the elderly.
Another is a previously approved condo
deal with affordable units that, because
of the economic downturn, is being
switched to a rental building serving
slightly different income groups.
Chair Daniel Garodnick, a Manhattan councilman, asks questions about
each transaction: “What was the process of selection for the developer of
this site?” “Is there any restriction on
affordability going forward?” But the
most important detail in every case is
whether each deal has the support of
the councilmember in whose district
the project falls. The subcommittee
learns that their Council colleagues
have signed off on nine of the projects
on the agenda, so the panel approves
them all in a single vote. One deal, in
Al Vann’s district, is held over to the
next morning.
Council opposition has helped reshape
land deals in recent years—as with the

Monday 12:30 p.m.: The clock ticks, the crowd thins, but many still wait to speak at the Parks Committee hearing. Photo: JM

Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning, in
which David Yassky and Diana Reyna
secured more affordable housing, or
the low-income units that former member Hiram Monserrate worked into the
Willets Point development, or the school
that Garodnick himself won from a project on the East Side.
But these are the exceptions. The
fact that local councilmembers receive
deference doesn’t mean they have real
muscle. When the Board of Estimate
disappeared, most of its powers were divided between the mayor and Council—
but they weren’t divided evenly. Under
the Board system, councilmembers
who could align themselves with their
borough presidents, who in turn could
usually count on the other four borough
presidents to back them up; together,
they could block the mayor. Today,
no such mechanism exists. When the
Board disappeared, the mayor escaped
the most powerful check on his power.
The Council gained new authority, but it
lost a useful tool. The way the Fordham
University political scientist Bruce Berg
puts it is that the Council moved from being “a silent partner to a junior partner.”
“They got power in land use, but not
a lot, because the mayor has all the
goodies,” says Partnership for New
York City president Kathryn Wylde, a
veteran observer of city government,
referring to the mayor’s substantial
power to adjust city policy and budget
to reward helpful legislators. “The administration has shown it can cut deals

with individual councilmembers.”
And even if the Council maintains unity in opposing a land use project, its power is confined to its ability to say “No,”
which doesn’t lend itself to creative negotiating. “It’s hard for the Council to be
proactive on zoning issues,” says Brad
Lander, the longtime director of the
Pratt Center for Community Development and a candidate for a Council seat
in Brooklyn. “‘No’ is a hard bargaining
position to have.”
What limited leverage “no” gets you
depends on your will to say it. But the
Council has not rejected a city land use
proposal outright in a long time. That
leads Lander to wonder “whether the
threat remains credible.”

W

hen the Council’s official business of the day is done, many
members turn to another job—that of
running for re-election or for higher
office. According to the latest filings,
candidates for the City Council (both
incumbents and newcomers) have already raised $4.3 million for the 2009
campaign, while the 16 current councilmembers who are running for other
offices or have not declared which office they’re seeking have raised a combined $14 million.
On Monday evening, Yassky’s campaign for comptroller holds a fundraiser
at an apartment on Riverside Drive in the
West 70s. During the term limits debate,
Yassky joined members Gale Brewer and
Alan Gerson to propose an amendment

that would have called for a referendum
on the issue. The amendment failed, and
while Brewer voted against the term
limits extension, Yassky and Gerson supported it. That vote has brought Yassky
a fair amount of criticism.
But it’s not on the mind of many in the
room on Riverside Drive. One attendee
is Marshall Bennett, a securities lawyer
at Wolf Popper, who was Mississippi’s
state treasurer for 16 years. Over wine
and cheese, Bennett wonders whether
there’ll be a runoff in the crowded comptroller race (other councilmembers in
the race include Melinda Katz, John Liu
and David Weprin, all of Queens) and
whom black voters will support.
After a half-hour of snacking and chatting, the guests hear Yassky introduced.
The evening is billed as a meet and greet,
but raising money is obviously the raison d’être. Yassky discusses the deteriorating economy, pointing to estimates of
how drastically New York City incomes
will fall in the next year. “These are significant numbers,” he says. “We’re going
to have a position of prominence in the
new financial marketplace,” he predicts,
“but we don’t really know what it’s going
to look like.”
While it is early in the season, the
souring economic climate will only make
it harder for Yassky and others to raise
money—especially if one must remind
one’s donors when the election is. “The
election is this year, same as for mayor,”
Yassky tells the crowd at one point. “2009
is the year for our city elections.”
SPRING 2009

9

Tuesday 9:45 a.m.: Waiting in the committee room...
for committee members. Photo JM

City Limits Investigates

T

II. Tuesday

The City Council’s schedule of public hearings is supposed to be made public
at least three days before each event takes place. The idea is that the public
ought to be given the right to attend. But this rule is routinely broken; at least
four hearings now on the calendar for this week weren’t listed by the preceding
Friday. Such is the case for today’s 9:45 a.m. gathering of the Planning
Subcommittee, which is reconvening from Monday afternoon to consider that
deal in Al Vann’s district to which the councilman had objected. It’s a rush
job—the full Land Use Committee is due to meet 15 minutes later to approve
all the matters that the Zoning, Landmarks and Planning subcommittees have
approved in the preceding 24 hours. The idea is to have all those measures
ready for full Council approval when the entire 51-member body meets on
Wednesday for one of its twice monthly general or “stated” meetings.

he hour of the meeting comes,
and Avella is there again—the
only councilman present. He and the
staff are chatting, and its clear that the
Council’s central staff, who report to
Speaker Christine Quinn, are asking
him to do something he doesn’t want
to do (permit a member who missed
Monday’s Zoning hearing to cast a
vote). Such a disagreement is not unusual. Avella is Quinn’s harshest critic
on the Council; he also clashed with
Quinn’s predecessor, Gifford Miller.
(Miller is a member of the board of
City Limits’ parent organization, City
Futures Inc.)
Christine Quinn, who has represented the West Village/Chelsea district on
the Council since 1999, became speaker in January 2006. The speaker is the
procedural manager and public face of
the Council, deciding on committee assignments and controlling the flow of
legislation. The speaker is elected by
the Council’s members, but they usually vote in borough blocs at the behest
of county Democratic leaders.
One of Avella’s beefs is that staff
members hired and fired by Quinn’s
office run the operations of his Zoning
Subcommittee and, he asserts, all the
other Council panels. “Land Use staff
decides what’s on the agenda. I can’t
put things on the agenda. I’ve been refused in the past,” he says. “And there’s
nothing I can do with the staff because
the staff reports to the speaker.”
Other councilmembers and former
Council staff take a more nuanced
view. Under Miller, the Council began
allowing committee chairs to hire their
senior committee staffer. And sources
say that committee chairs are consulted on other committee hires too.
However, the final decision comes
from the speaker or, rather, her staff.
The power of the Council’s central staff
is a fact of life, even for its leaders. Councilmembers, especially those in higher
positions, depend on their staff. “You
can’t do everything,” says one former
councilmember. That means staff members can influence decision-making. “If

you want to retain good staff, then you
can’t overrule them every day.”
After his chat with the staff, Avella
heads to a hearing at 250 Broadway.
The Planning Committee gets going
and, once it has learned that HPD has
satisfied Vann by promising to “review
the request for a lower sales price” by
the man who is buying the city property,
passes the matter unanimously.
Moments later, the full Land Use
Committee—the largest that the Council
has—gathers in the same space. There
are so many members that three have
to sit at the witness table. The mood is
light and collegial. The only matter on

building and a second room in the basement, numbers at least 20 people, but it
is rare to see more than two or three of
them at any Council hearing or meeting.
One exception is when Kelly makes the
walk over from 1 Police Plaza for a hearing of Peter Vallone Jr.’s Public Safety
Committee. Today, because of Kelly’s
presence, there are several print reporters as well as TV people.
The hearing is about what New York
can learn from last year’s terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Kelly shows up early,
and most of the committee is also there
on time. Kelly discusses various steps
the city has taken to study and learn

“You can’t do everything,”
says one former councilmember.
That means staff members can
influence decision-making.
“If you want to retain good
staff, then you can’t overrule
them every day.”
which anyone testifies is the low-income
housing for seniors going up in Robert
Jackson’s Manhattan district. Jackson’s
very pleased with the project, saying, “I
support it 110 percent.”
“Does that mean he gets an extra
vote?” jokes Councilwoman Maria del
Carmen Arroyo of the Bronx.
The committee votes 16-0 in favor of
the project in Jackson’s district and seven other items that no one testified on.
Then Vincent Ignizio enters the room,
grabs a mic and says, “Yes, thank you,
I’d like to vote ‘Aye.’ “
17-0.

A

moment later, Ignizio is in the next
room telling Police Commissioner
Raymond Kelly what a good job he is doing. He adds, “I’m sure you guys, like us,
don’t get much appreciation.”
The City Hall press corps, which occupies two rooms on the first floor of the

from the attacks, how the cops conducted terrorism exercises this past December and increased their training in the
sort of weaponry that was used in Mumbai. “We can’t focus on any one measure.
Vigilance, information sharing, regional
cooperation and an unwillingness to
yield are key,” he says.
Vallone leads the questions and covers
a lot of ground. He asks about screening
containers in ports, the impact of budget
cuts, protecting hotels, disrupting cell
phone communications. His colleagues
go elsewhere: Ignizio asks about weaponry. Simcha Felder wants to know
about security in schools. Helen Foster
suggests better communication between
police and neighborhoods. But they all
echo Vallone in one respect: They praise
Kelly effusively. Felder takes the praise
giving to a new level. “A lot of people
feel good, comfortable, with the fact that
you’re running things. Would you conSPRING 2009

11

City Limits Investigates

tinue to serve as police commissioner
for another term? Will you give us a
commitment now?”
“I serve at the pleasure of the mayor,”
is the commissioner’s response.
“But for his next term?” Felder, a big
Bloomberg backer, asks.
“I serve at the pleasure of the mayor.”
When Kelly is done, cameras follow
him and Vallone into the hallway, and
the commissioner answers some questions. When Vallone returns to the chair
to continue the hearing, the room has
almost emptied.

M

eanwhile, at 250 Broadway, an
audience member who made
the mistake of coming into the Fire
and Criminal Justice Services Committee hearing with a cup of coffee gets
a prompt reprimand. “You know the

wide—are enough to cover all the buildings that come due for inspections in the
city each year.
“You’re asking, is 16 inspectors enough
to handle this workload, and the answer
is absolutely not,” Chief Richard Tobin
says. He explains that inspectors have
no cars to use and are expected to get to
their inspection sites via mass transit.
Being a Council witness is not always
a walk in the park. As the hearing continues, Robert Rampino, the head of the
inspectors, claims his staff follows no set
guidelines on what constitutes a violation. The councilmembers look aghast.
Tobin finally interrupts his subordinate,
visibly upset. “Well, he’s very confusing
when he speaks,” he says, motioning toward Rampino. “I can tell you right now,
it’s not an ambiguous process. I agree
with you—when I was listening to him,

“I really need your help getting
people to stay on the sidewalk,”
the press aide pleads. “If
someone gets killed...”
rules. This is not your first time here,”
a guard admonishes her. Chairman
Miguel Martinez, sipping unmolested
from his own large cup of coffee, is on
his cell phone trying to get his committee together for a meeting that is
already 10 minutes behind schedule.
A couple of minutes later, Martinez
starts the meeting, which is supposed
to discuss the FDNY fire alarm inspection unit and then take up a bill to outlaw
novelty lighters, which some consider
a safety hazard because they look like
toys and appeal to children.
At first, the questioning seems obsessed with minutiae—Martinez tries to
understand what the inspection regime
is for new construction, versus a shopping mall, versus a commercial building
that has several different institutions or
organizations occupying separate spaces
within the building. But the seriousness
of the issue emerges. Martinez asks if
16 inspectors—how many there are city12

SPRING 2009

my head was spinning. No, there is a
guidebook the inspectors follow. It’s all
clearly delineated.”
Rampino sits stoically. It does not
seem like it will be a pleasant ride back
to FDNY headquarters.

J

ust as hearings can appear on the
calendar with little notice, they can
also disappear with no fanfare. Tuesday
was supposed to see a meeting of Councilman Bill de Blasio’s General Welfare
Committee at 10 a.m., but it was called
off. Instead, Brooklyn’s de Blasio is
headlining a press conference on the
steps of the Department of Education
headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse,
directly behind City Hall. It’s to protest
a Bloomberg administration cost-cutting
plan that would move children from kindergarten classes in Administration for
Children’s Services–run day care centers into kindergarten classes in public
schools, which opponents say will exac-

City Limits Investigates

erbate school overcrowding.
Several dozen preschoolers have
been bused in before de Blasio arrives.
“What do we want? Day care! When do
we want it? Now!” goes the chant. Press
conferences and rallies are commonplace in and around City Hall; on some
days the steps of City Hall witness a parade of groups that occupy the area for
a few minutes, display banners, make
their case and then yield to the next
group. In fact, as de Blasio rallies the
kids at Tweed, his colleagues James
Gennaro and David Yassky are appearing on the City Hall steps to discuss
a bill promoting green roofs before a
more modest crowd.
The 6-foot-5 de Blasio arrives and
pauses to prepare his remarks, looking
even taller than usual amid the sea of
children. After first considering a race
for Brooklyn borough president this
year, de Blasio is now running for public
advocate, as is colleague Eric Gioia. Four
councilmembers are running for comptroller. One wonders if it’s going to be
awkward to have so many rivals working
on the Council.
Along with Brooklyn’s Letitia James,
de Blasio was a leader of the Council faction that opposed extending term limits
last fall. Councilmembers and staffers
say privately that there are still hurt feelings over the tone of comments the two
made during the debate—feelings that
could hinder both as they try to get legislation passed during an election year.
But de Blasio is skilled at framing issues in a way that plays well to the media, which might be a more important
asset for him now than anything the City
Council can do to help him “What is the
DOE thinking?” de Blasio laments to the
crowd at Tweed, criticizing a policy that
means there are “some 3,000 kindergarten-age kids who don’t know what their
fate is going to be!” Then James takes the
podium to talk about children “who will
be forced into the street.” The crowd, coincidentally, is forcing the press into the
street. One of de Blasio’s staffers pleads
with a press aide from the Council of
School Supervisors and Administrators:
“I really need your help getting people to

Tuesday 1 p.m.: Bloomberg signs bills as Jessica Lappin and Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri look on. 1:45 p.m. Diana Reyna asks—
and gets few answers—about how minority-led firms might benefit from federal stimulus money. Photos: JM, Chloe Tribich

stay on the sidewalk,” she says. “If someone gets killed...”
Behind the speakers, most of the signs
the protesters hold say things like “Children are our future. Don’t cut America’s
future.” Of course, the day care issue is
about jobs too. But while James mentions the potential layoffs associated with
the city’s new policy, most of the speakers focus on the kiddies. That doesn’t
make the unions happy: The next day,
a labor official is overheard in the City
Hall lobby complaining to a friend that
he thought de Blasio overemphasized
the impact of the proposed changes on
children and didn’t talk enough about
the plight of workers.

C

ouncilman Vincent Gentile of
Brooklyn is the first to cross City
Hall to the mayor’s side for the 1 p.m.
bill signing in the Blue Room, the ceremonial setting for the mayor’s press
conferences and other public events.
He’s there because the mayor is set to
ink a bill that will extend health benefits to the family of a Department of
Environmental Protection worker from
Gentile’s district who died on the job.
Jessica Lappin and Queen’s Leroy Comrie join Gentile near the podium. They
are there as sponsors of other measures the mayor will sign today aimed
at improving the enforcement of safety
regulations at construction sites.
Late as usual, Bloomberg strides in,
shaking hands as cameras click. “This

is a ceremony that takes place whenever there are bills that the City Council passes that the mayor doesn’t veto,”
he says. It was a joke, but the quip was
accurate. The mayor’s ability to block
Council legislation is, while not absolute, considerable.
As the mayor speaks, the Council’s
Civil Service and Labor Committee is
meeting to approve a veto override that
will go to the full Council on Wednesday. It’s for a measure that amends the
residency requirement for city employees who belong to District Council 37,
allowing members who’ve completed
two years on the job to live in six counties outside the city, just as police officers, firefighters and some other city
workers can. Bloomberg has vetoed
52 bills during his mayoralty and the
Council has overridden him 49 times
(see Overriding Concern, p.19). The
vast majority of those vetoes and overrides took place during Bloomberg’s
first term under Gifford Miller’s tenure
as speaker.
But those numbers don’t capture how
many bills never saw the light of day
because their support was shy of a vetoproof majority—at least 34 votes, and
more than that if the Council wants to
defend against the mayor’s pressuring
one or two more members to side with
him. Nor do they reflect legislative dance
steps like last year’s move by the Council
to split an e-waste bill into two parts so
the mayor could sign one containing as-

pects he liked and veto the other, which
encompassed policies he opposed. In
2006, the state’s highest court ruled that,
even if his veto is overridden, Bloomberg can choose to not enforce a law that
he thinks conflicts with the U.S. or state
constitutions. There’s no question about
it: In New York’s strong-mayor system,
the City Council is the weak partner.
Bloomberg signs the bill to help the
family of the dead DEP worker, using
a fistful of pens to sign the document
and then passing them out to the people
around him. Next up are the two bills
that Lappin and Comrie helped pass. Finally, he moves to a law that will further
restrict engine idling. The mayor hails
the measure as a wise response to a serious public health threat.
“We tried to do the same thing with
congestion pricing,” he says. “We tried
our best with the state legislature, and
we’re still working on it.”
But it is unlikely that the Council
wants to vote on congestion pricing
again. When it took up the politically
dangerous matter last March, the Council was assured that the state Assembly
would also vote on and ultimately pass
the plan. In the end, no vote ever took
place in Albany. So those on the Council
who voted “yes” stuck their necks out
first, got no backup and ended up with
no new policy to show for the risk.
Quinn’s fans praised her for courage
and legislative skill in getting 30 ayes. But
some councilmembers have said they
SPRING 2009

13

City Limits Investigates

City Limits Investigates

feel as though she hung them out to dry.
The race to clear the decks before
Wednesday’s stated meeting means that
at 1 p.m., there are four hearings, involving six committees, scheduled. In reality,
with councilmembers only able to be in
one place at a time, this means members
are flying from room to room and hearings are starting late or running with
skeleton crews.
At 250 Broadway, two hearings are under way. The Governmental Operations
Committee is holding a brief meeting to
send to the full Council a bill requiring
street fairs to recycle their garbage. Meanwhile, in a packed room on the 14th floor,
a hearing of the Committee on Housing
and Buildings is taking place. Councilman Lewis Fidler and HPD deputy commissioner Joseph Rosenberg are tussling
over a Council bill that would give a tax
break to the Electchester cooperative
housing development in Queens. The
2,500-unit development, launched in 1949
by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to house tradesmen and
their families, has seen fees soar nearly
30 percent over the past several years
because—thanks to a legal loophole—a
property tax exemption that covered the
complex over most its lifespan lapsed.
First Fidler and Rosenberg wrestle
over whether the city is abandoning
its commitment to build or preserve
165,000 units of affordable housing.
Fidler thinks it is. Rosenberg says it’s
not. Then Fidler wants to know why
Electchester lost its tax protection
when other similar developments did
not. Rosenberg has no answer.
When the city is done testifying, its
representatives leave. Then it’s the public’s turn. Some talk about Electchester.
But one witness comes forward to present something else: complaints about
how her Mitchell-Lama building is run.
The chairman, Erik Martin Dilan, lets
her vent and then says that he is assigning one of his aides to work with her
and will hold an oversight hearing on
HPD’s monitoring of Mitchell-Lama
developments. The Electchester residents cheer, apparently glad to see any
member of the public getting the atten14

SPRING 2009

tion of official New York.
Back at City Hall, the Transportation
Committee is racing too. It holds a hasty
meeting to pass a bill requiring both yellow and livery cabs to post a passenger’s
bill of rights. Then it convenes a joint
hearing with the Contracts and Civil
Rights committees.
The subject matter for the joint get-together harks back to Monday’s meeting
of the Economic Development Committee: whether public agencies are going
to use federal stimulus money to award
contracts to Minority and Women-owned
Business Enterprises, or MWBEs.
The first order of business is slapping
around the MTA, which has refused to
attend the hearing. “I am concerned and
insulted that the MTA wasn’t here,” says
the Bronx’s Larry Seabrook, chair of the
Civil Rights Committee. “We need to put
some heat underneath them.”
But those who have chosen to attend
also get some heat. When Marla Simpson,
head of the mayor’s Office of Contract
Services, takes the stand, Transportation
Committee chair John Liu asks her about
the Department of Transportation’s compliance with local laws that set out goals
for participation of MWBEs, and says,
with a tinge of irritation, “Last time, the
goals were not met.”
“We think DOT is doing fine,” Simpson contends. “If a contract is done by
competitive single bid and a MWBE
doesn’t win, there’s not much we can
do.” Simpson also clashes with Letitia
James, who asks what role the City
Council will have in oversight of stimulus money. Basically none, is what
Simpson says, “same role as in all contracts.” James looks angry.
After Simpson departs, Sandra
Wilkin, president of the Women Builders Council, testifies—and illustrates
why the public is worth listening to.
Wilkin brings up some practical barriers that minority- and women-owned
firms face. She notes that such entities
are unlikely to benefit from stimulus
money because that cash will require
high levels of bonding and expensive
insurance. Liu responds: “You’ve given
us all a reality check.”

But hearings can quickly turn from
interesting exchanges of information
to something less illuminating. A hint
of this comes when Seabrook speaks
at length about why the MWBE program doesn’t work and how it “punishes success.” He gets animated; he
gestures; he says things like “People
do what they want when they want!”
The witnesses fire back in kind and at
similar length. Everyone is agreeing
on everything. The clock is ticking.
The conversation takes on the tone
of a group of friends complaining. At
about 4 p.m., the hearing ends. The
cleaning staff descends.
Another reason to be skeptical about
the value of public hearings is that they
attract a very small number of the people
councilmembers are supposed to serve.
“Look around,” one former councilmember said, gesturing around a restaurant.
“No one in here has ever been to a City
Council hearing. They’re normal New
Yorkers. They’re going to pick up their
kids and cook dinner, go out with their
boyfriend or girlfriend,” he said. As to
governing, “That’s our job.”

S

everal hours after the Council’s official business has ended for the day,
David Yassky is leaning against a doorway in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, watching
a presentation about a proposed zoning
change to nearby blocks. Some residents worry they will be pushed out by
new luxury development. The meeting
was called for 6 p.m., but it’s close to 7
when Yassky gets his chance to speak.
“We want more housing but don’t want
current residents to lose their homes,”
Yassky says. He talks about his experience during the Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning. “We’ve got a lot of work
to do,” he says, “but I’m due at an event in
midtown—now—so I’m going to run.”
De Blasio also sent a representative to the meeting, but by the time
Yassky departs, de Blasio’s stand-in
has already had to leave. Another representative sent by an assemblyman
apologizes that more elected officials
haven’t shown up in person.
“They’re all on the circuit,” he explains.

Only 8,000 voters decided who’d next represent District 32,
from Broad Channel to the boardwalk. Photo: Sarah Crean

The Test Run

Little election, big problems
The election last fall of Joseph Addabbo to the New York State Senate
opened up his Council seat for what became a hotly contested race, one
of three special elections for the Council that took place on February
24 in the opening act of the 2009 municipal election season. The battle
attracted significant local attention and raised a number of issues concerning ballot access and campaign finance that could echo in Council
races citywide later this year.
The 32nd District encompasses a large and, in sections, geographically isolated area. Roughly half of the district’s registered voters live
in the Rockaways, while the remainder are located in Broad Channel,
Howard Beach, Woodhaven and Ozone Park.
Addabbo, who is a Democrat, defeated two-term Republican councilmember Alfonse Stabile to win the Council seat in 2001. When Addabbo vacated the seat, Queens Republicans saw an opportunity to reclaim lost ground. They appear to have been correct: Eric Ulrich, only
24, a Republican district leader, former Catholic seminarian and City
Council staffer, won handily, defeating his closest opponent, Democratic district leader Lew Simon, by more than 12 percent.
Strictly speaking, however, special elections are nonpartisan. On
a one-time basis, candidates are required to declare membership in
an independent party with no Democratic or Republican affiliations.
Seven candidates had originally entered the race. But in the weeks
leading up to the election, Geraldine Chapey, a Democratic district
leader from the Rockaways, filed through proxies two successful
challenges to the ballot qualifications of two other candidates,
creating enormous controversy. Chapey did not return phone calls
seeking comment.
Frank Gulluscio, a longtime Democratic activist and former Addabbo
staff member, was thrown off the ballot because of questions regarding some of the signatures he collected. Glenn DiResto, a retired NYPD
lieutenant with no prior political experience and no Democratic or Republican affiliation, was disqualified because the name of his declared
party, Families First, allegedly could have been confused by voters with
the Working Families Party. Another candidate, Samuel DiBernardo, was

disqualified earlier by the Board of Elections because required text was
missing from his petition.
Ballot challenges are a tried-and-true practice in city politics. Indeed,
four candidates in one of the other February 24 Council elections were
disqualified because of ballot challenges; one of the four was reinstated, necessitating the use of paper ballots on Election Day.
But some of the 32nd District candidates, local bloggers and others
have questioned the fairness of challenges during special elections, which
operate on a compressed timeline and with smaller campaign budgets.
DiResto’s case has garnered particular attention. After receiving
Chapey’s proxy’s challenge, he appeared at a February 3 hearing in
front of the Board of Elections because the validity of his signatures had
been challenged. The board found that DiResto still had the necessary
number of signatures, but the lawyer representing the “challenger” to
DiResto’s spot on the ballot then raised a complaint about the name of
DiResto’s party.
DiResto was removed immediately. Unlike Frank Gulluscio, who was
given an opportunity to change the name of his party after receiving
notice from the Board of Elections, DiResto never got that chance. When
asked why, Matt Graves at the Board of Elections said, “That’s a good
question. I don’t know.”
DiResto told City Limits that after being removed from the ballot on
February 3, he appealed to state court. On February 17—only one week
away from the election, DiResto was restored to the ballot, but Chapey
immediately appealed the decision. DiResto was removed again on Friday, February 20. At this point, he felt it was fruitless to appeal the appellate court’s decision, because the election was set for the following
Tuesday.
Because of challenges from Chapey’s campaign, DiResto says he
was unable to obtain the public matching campaign funds for which he
qualified. He says the court battle cost him $10,000.
Special elections might be special, but they are not rare. Including
the three people elected February 24, 15 out of 51 councilmembers first
reached the Council via special elections. Such races offer the chance
to enter the Council without securing as many votes as it takes to win
a regular election. The District 32 special election attracted only 8,000
voters; in 2001’s general election, 31,000 votes were cast for that council seat. Once on the Council, people who win in special elections often
enjoy the considerable advantages of incumbency, including a tendency
to win re-election.
The issues that generated conflict in the 32nd race, however, apply to
more than special elections. Challenges often knock insurgent candidates
off the ballot in Council races; there were 32 such challenges in Council
races in 2005. The system for getting and staying on the ballot generally
favors candidates with money or clubhouse connections because they
have access to election lawyers and people who can help collect signatures. District 32 candidates had to collect a little more than 1,000
signatures to get on the ballot. Successful candidates usually gather three
to four times the number required, just to discourage challenges.
According to Election Day interviews, issues like the need for better mass transit and looming bridge tolls were on people’s minds as
they headed to the polls. But disagreement with Chapey’s tactics may
have helped push the seat to the Republican newcomer Ulrich, who
received 3,500 votes; Chapey placed a distant third, with 920. The
seat will be in play again this fall, when voters will elect a candidate
to a full four-year term. —Sarah Crean

SPRING 2009

15

Wednesday 11:30 a.m.: Robert Jackson, with members Vincent Ignizio on his right and Al
Vann and Leroy Comrie on his left, at a Finance Committee hearing. Photo: JM

City Limits Investigates

T

III. wednesday

“Now where the hell is it?” Robert Jackson asks, smiling. He sprints up a flight
a stairs, then down one. He opens the door to the gymnasium and asks for help.
He is looking for a computer lab he helped build. Turns out he was right the first
time—it’s two flights up.

he momentary confusion about
the lab aside, Jackson is in very
familiar territory. He is attending a science fair at PS/IS 187 on Cabrini Boulevard, the school that all three of his
daughters attended. He served on the
school’s parent association for 19 years
and the community school board for 15
years. He seems to know everybody—
the security guard he went to high
school with, the principal who was once
a PS 187 student herself, the faculty
members with whom he trades updates
on sports injuries. It was his experience
as a parent here that led him to join
other parents in a lawsuit against the
state of New York arguing that Albany’s
school-funding formulas cheat urban
kids. The so-called Campaign for Fiscal
Equity lawsuit resulted in a huge—if as
yet only partially fulfilled—promise by
the state to spend billions more on New
York City’s schoolchildren.
He finds the computer room. There
are 20 or so sleek-looking machines,
several of them in use. On the wall is
a plaque thanking Jackson and Miguel
Martinez, the councilman from the adjacent district; since residents of both districts might attend the school, together
they allocated $250,000 of their discretionary funds to the room. Jackson says
he subsequently dedicated $300,000 to
the school to purchase computers for
individual classrooms.
He trots back downstairs to the gym,
wearing—as he always does—a black
button in his lapel that says, “Robert
Jackson/City Council.”
It’s the 53rd running of the PS/IS 187
science fair. Every class has collaborated on four or five experiments. Ben and
Andy, two second-graders, are waiting.
They will be the first to show their project to Jackson. They are soon to receive
what Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and
others have come to expect from the
chair of the Council’s Education Committee: a good grilling.
Ben and Andy tested whether plants
contaminated with road salt would grow
as successfully as plants treated only
with water. “How often did you water the

plants?” Jackson wants to know. What
kind of plants are they? How many kids
worked on this? “What is your conclusion?” When Ben replies that they concluded cities ought to use sand rather
than salt on icy roads, Jackson says theatrically, “Sand? How do you know that
will work?” “We guessed,” offers Andy.
The councilman’s eyes grow wide in
mock surprise. “You guessed?”
Jackson is one of several guests invited
to tour the fair. Most are doing a cursory
job of it. He is not. He wants details on
the experiment testing the impact of antifreeze on plant life and the one next to
it analyzing the effect gravity has on how
seeds grow. Then it’s on to the eighthgraders. “Good,” Jackson says to me,

ters and his re-election campaign. At 8
a.m., he’s to attend a function of Literacy
Inc. in midtown. From 9:15 to 10 he’s
supposed to make fundraising calls from
his car. At 10, Larry Scott Blackmon, a
Bloomberg political operative, wants to
meet him. “I’m assuming he wants to
talk about the Bloomberg campaign,”
Jackson says. The speaker’s State of the
City speech is at noon. “But there’s also
this delegation here from Hunan province in China. I was there a couple years
ago,” says Jackson, whose father was
Chinese and who is co-chair of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus—a
group that comprises nearly half the
Council and wields considerable clout.
“We’re trying to get a meeting with the

As an institution, history,
rules and formal authority
matter on the City Council.
But on a day-to-day basis, the
body is shaped by personalities.
“now I can ask some hard questions.”
As an institution, history, rules and formal authority matter on the City Council. But on a day-to-day basis, the body is
shaped by personalities. Jackson’s is one
of the largest.

I

t’s 10:45 a.m. when Jackson leaves
the school en route to a Finance
Committee meeting at 11. The days
of the Council’s twice-monthly stated
meetings are the busiest, he says.
There are always last-minute committee meetings, the speaker’s press
conference, rallies on the steps and
the meeting itself. For Jackson, today’s schedule after the meeting includes huddling with a deputy mayor;
an event in Crown Heights, Brooklyn;
and a precinct council meeting back in
the district.
That’s today. As Jackson walks, he’s
looking at tomorrow on one of the two
BlackBerrys he carries—one for official
business and the other for private mat-

speaker and the mayor. So that’s just tomorrow morning.”
Jackson, a Quinn ally, is a member of
eight Council committees. He chairs Education and also serves on the Finance,
Housing, Contracts, Ethics, Rules, Land
Use and Sanitation panels. He is also a
member of the speaker’s rules reform
working group and on the budget-negotiating committee. “That’s why 90
percent of my time is spent downtown,”
Jackson says as he drives down the Henry Hudson. “It’s too much. I only asked
to be on six [committees],” he says.
“But when you’re the speaker, you want
people aligned with you on committees,
especially Rules and Ethics.”
The Education Committee is the Council’s third largest, behind Land Use and
Finance. It also has a fairly high profile.
Jackson says Quinn has not attempted
to dictate what his committee does. And,
he says, he has been consulted on the
hiring of committee staff.
Jackson’s Volvo runs into some traffic.
SPRING 2009

17

City Limits Investigates

Wednesday 3 p.m.: Jackson reads over the agenda for the biweekly stated meeting—a
slate of bills and land use items on which not a single "no" vote will be cast. Photo: JM

It’s 11:15. “I try not to be late, but sometimes I am,” Jackson says. “But I try not
to because I don’t like to be late. I don’t
like it when my staff is late.”
Being late is one thing. Being late and
voting “aye on all” is something else altogether, and that seems to happen quite
often at the Council. Simcha Felder tells
of a time when he sat at a hearing, signed
his name to a blank piece of paper, then
passed it around the room. When it
came back with everyone’s signatures
on it, Felder wrote, “I support Simcha
Felder for Speaker” at the top. The only
person who asked what it was he was
signing was Staten Island’s James Oddo,
the Council minority leader.
Has Jackson ever voted for something
without knowing what it was? “It happens,” he says, referring to his experience on Land Use. “But everything is
vetted out in subcommittees. All of the
zoning matters have been vetted out.
It’s more of a formality. If you have a
concern, you raise it in subcommittee. That’s when they’re going to be
dealt with.” Many subcommittee votes,
though, are also unanimous.

A
18

t City Hall, one committee meeting has already come and gone:

SPRING 2009

The Health Committee convened
briefly to approve a bill permitting
public access to inspection reports on
water tanks. Now, with sun bleeding
into the room from behind the drapes
and curtains, the Finance Committee
is meeting to hear an application for a
Bedford-Stuyvesant Business Improvement District and to approve a resolution reallocating some money from
last year’s budget. Before the meeting
starts, one of the men from the BID
speaks to a Council aide. “How’s it coming along?” the aide asks. “We’ve had
some people try to give us resistance,
but we’ve broken it down,” says the
BID guy. “They’re not here today.”
Very few people are, in fact, there.
Who could be? It’s 11:30 on a Wednesday. New York conducts almost all its
official business during hours when
most constituents are at work. Other
large cities—like Boston, Chicago and
Los Angeles—also usually work 9 to 5.
Smaller municipalities like Yonkers; Paterson, N.J.; Hartford, Conn.; and Springfield, Mass., convene at least some of
their hearings at night. Some New York
councilmembers do hold evening forums back in their districts so they can
hear from a wider ranger of people.

City Limits Investigates

Toting a huge bag of mail that his
staff has gathered for him to review,
Jackson arrives. He scans some paperwork. One is a document listing allocations of member items from last year’s
budget. Some are only getting vetted
now, thanks in part to the scandal that
erupted last spring over the Council’s
allocating money to fictitious organizations so the speaker could dispense the
cash later on. Jackson is required to
sign a document certifying that he has
no personal connection to any of the
agencies being funded.
Jackson learns on one BlackBerry
that a new candidate has entered the
race to unseat him. He replies on the
other to an invitation to the opening
day of a Little League in his district.
“Yes,” he texts, then jokes, “especially
in an election year.” He receives a legal
memo from the counsel to his Education Committee about the Education
Construction Fund. “They didn’t want
to give it to me in writing,” Jackson
says, but he demanded, so they did.
Then one of Quinn’s press aides asks
Jackson to approve a quote for a press
release about the veto override on the
DC 37 residency legislation, which the
Council will approve shortly.
Meanwhile, the men organizing the
Bed-Stuy BID are testifying. No one’s
paying much attention. “Excuse me,
guys, can I just interrupt for one minute?” the Finance chair, David Weprin,
asks the BID people. He wants to vote
on the budget bill. “We have a quorum,”
Weprin says. “I know some members
have to leave.” The clerk calls the roll,
members vote and the testimony continues, but six members take their cue
to depart.
As the hearing ends, several members head out to a press conference on
the City Hall steps. But Jackson doesn’t
have much chance to participate. On the
plaza in front of the building, he meets
Barbara Lowry, a neighborhood activist,
who tells him that one of the arts organizations he and Miguel Martinez funded
last year has folded; she wants Jackson
to find another cultural group in the district to take the $7,000 the two council-

members gave.
Time for lunch. Jackson heads to a
deli a block from City Hall; it’s his regular place. “You have to go like four blocks
to get decent Chinese food,” he notes.
Cheeseburger and fries in hand, he
strides back to City Hall, his cell phone
to his ear, talking to a staffer about what
to do with the money that the defunct
arts group can no longer use. “I would
like to see that money allocated to a domestic violence unit,” he tells the aide.

A

piece of advice Jackson gives new
councilmembers is to always attend the Council speaker’s traditional
pre-stated-meeting press conference.
It’s handy, he says, to know what pieces
of legislation the speaker is highlighting and what questions the press asks
about them. What he doesn’t say but is
2002
also true is that showing up could get
your
2003 face into the papers and will most
likely buttress your relationship with
the
speaker.
2004
The legislation Quinn is highlighting
2005 includes the measure to make watoday
ter tank inspection records public, the
2006 cab rider’s bill of rights, the relivery
quirement that street fairs recycle their
2007
2008

garbage and the override of the mayor’s
veto of the DC 37 residency requirement, which is in a bill called Intro 837.
“I want to thank Councilmember Robert Jackson for his work and sponsorship of Intro 837,” Quinn says, calling
him “one of the strongest friends of labor” on the Council. Indeed, before his
election, Jackson worked for the Public
Employees Federation for 20 years. His
sponsorship of the DC 37 bill is a bit
ironic, however, since he was originally
an opponent of the measure. Many on
the Council resisted when Bloomberg
and DC 37 agreed to lift the residency
requirement as part of their 2006 contract negotiations; the Council wasn’t
about to surrender some of its power
to set city policy. DC 37, angry at the
Council’s hesitation, threatened to campaign against anyone who failed to support it. But Jackson was concerned that
city residents would miss out on jobs if
anyone from Rockland to Suffolk could
apply for them. The compromise bill
included a clause requiring workers to
live in the city for the first two years of
their employment. Bloomberg vetoed it
because he felt the residency policy was
a collective bargaining issue over which

T

he agenda for the Council’s 1:30
p.m. stated meeting doesn’t go
around until 2. Normally, some sort of
draft is ready earlier. Joe McInerney,
one of Jackson’s staff members, says
he and the boss usually review the list
of agenda items on their ride downtown on stated-meeting days. But it
can always change at the last minute if
Quinn’s people get word that something
is not going to pass or a problem crops
up with a land use application. One of
several reforms Quinn instituted when
she took over the speaker’s chair was
to hold bimonthly caucuses in which
members can privately raise any con-

veto overridden

Overriding Concern
2009

he had authority.
“We’ve reached a compromise, and I’m
so happy to hear that,” Jackson says after
Quinn introduces him. “We don’t expect
the 45,000 workers to move outside the
city, but if everyone else has [the right],
why can’t members of DC 37?”
There are 10 or so reporters present,
and they ask a few questions about the
veto override. Most of the press conference, however, bogs down into a surprisingly arcane discussion of the safety of
water tanks.

veto stood

Since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, he has vetoed
52 City Council acts. The Council has overridden him 49
times. Most of the vetoes—and overrides—took place
during the mayor’s first term.

top dollars

Every year, councilmembers allocate general discretionary
funds, as well as money targeted for youths and the elderly and
capital funding. Here are the top 10 allocators for fiscal 2009:

$24,659,464

Domenic Recchia

2002

$18,954,464

David Weprin

2003
2004

Lewis Fidler

$10,039,464

Inez Dickens

$9,836,964

2005

Melissa Mark-Viverito

$9,716,464

2006

Michael McMahon*

$9,410,464

Rosie Mendez

$9,401,164

Larry Seabrook

$9,173,339

James Sanders

$8,944,964

2007
2008
2009
Source: New York City Council.

veto overridden
veto stood

Jessica Lappin

$8,368,614

*Has since left the Council for Congress. Sources: New York City Council, Citizens Union.

SPRING 2009

19

City Limits Investigates

cerns about a measure. “It gives people
a very clear place where they can go
ask questions and flesh out issues,”
Quinn tells City Limits.
As it is, on this meeting day, several
staff members huddle after the agenda
goes around because something important was left off. They brainstorm ways to
get the item on the agenda. This is not
simple, because elected councilmembers
are the only ones authorized to do that.
On the agenda Wednesday are requests to consider appointments to the
Richmond County Board of Elections
and city Board of Health; communications from the mayor on the financial
plan, expense budget, contract budget
and capital budget; six land use matters being sent to committee; eight
land use items coming out of commit-

include 10 Latinos, 13 blacks, one Asian
American and 24 non-Latino whites.
They are 17 women and 31 men. Brooklyn has 16 members; Queens, 12; Manhattan, 10; the Bronx, eight; and Staten
Island, two.
None of the votes being taken are in
the slightest doubt; everything is going
to pass by an overwhelming margin. “I
can’t really explain it,” says Quinn when
asked about the unanimity the Council
exhibits. “There’s been more votes with
a higher number of negative votes since
I’ve become speaker and that’s something I’m proud of because we should
look at issues that are tough.”
What’s interesting is how members
distinguish themselves in a body that
nearly always acts unanimously. After
Jackson gets credit for the veto override

The other councilmembers
are seated in what seems like
a random pattern—not by
borough, seniority or name—
but is not. “There’s a reason for
where everybody sits,” says one
member. “But I don’t know what
the reason is.”
tee for final approval; and four bills
ready to become laws.
Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, seated at an ornamental chair high on the
dais, runs through the agenda, but it’s
Quinn who calls the shots—identifying
items to be voted on and assigning mayoral messages and new bills to the appropriate committees. The other councilmembers are seated in what seems
like a random pattern—not by borough,
seniority or name—but is not. “There’s
a reason for where everybody sits,” says
James Vacca of the Bronx. “But I don’t
know what the reason is.”
The 48 members on the Council this
day (three seats are vacant at the time)
20

SPRING 2009

on the DC 37 residency bill, Bill de Blasio one-ups him slightly by referring to
the other city unions whose members
still must live in the five boroughs. “I
look forward to working with my colleagues to craft true parity,” he says. Fidler then jumps in with the simple “It’s
always a pleasure to override a mayoral
veto.” But there’s collegiality too. There
are a lot of long handshakes and arms
wrapped around shoulders.
When the votes are counted, it’s 47-0
in favor—except for the livery cab rider’s bill of rights, on which Peter Vallone
Jr. abstains. That passes 46-0-1. (Helen
Foster is excused from the meeting.)
Then it’s on to new business, meaning

City Limits Investigates

new laws. Councilmembers introduce
some 15 resolutions, 10 bills and 26 new
land use items. A few talk about their proposals. Michael Nelson from Brooklyn
pitches Intro 926, which would require
the Sanitation Police to take a picture
as proof of their claim that a property
owner had put out too much garbage.
Simcha Felder says Res. 1805 would call
for a study of the feasibility of universal
voter registration.
When the meeting ends, Jackson files
with the Council clerk a sheet indicating
which of the new bills he will sign on to
as a co-sponsor. Then he gets a call from
McInerney about that $7,000 grant to
the defunct arts group. The city is saying the money, since it’s been unspent,
is not available. But McInerney feels
that if Jackson and Martinez team up,
they can shake it loose.
To the untrained observer, the meeting seems to have gone smoothly. But
the behind-the-scenes maneuvering
must have been considerable. One of
Quinn’s staffers, passing a friend on the
stairs as the meeting breaks up, offers a
stressed-out sigh. “Days like this I die,”
he quips.

A

n hour later, his car crossing the
Brooklyn Bridge, Jackson is on the
phone again. The governor of Hunan
province has hurt his back, so he’s canceling the next day’s planned get-together with the speaker. Jackson’s aides want
the councilman to go to a press conference the next day, but Jackson declines,
saying the organizers sent notice too late.
Then there’s talk about the weekend’s
New York State Association of Black and
Puerto Rican Legislators retreat in Albany; Jackson wants to make sure he meets
with an association of minority contractors while he’s upstate. “I’m running for
re-election,” he reminds the staffer on
the other end, hinting at the need for the
contractors’ financial support. Jackson is
nervous about fundraising in 2009, given
the bad economy and new rules restricting contributions from people “doing
business” with the city, like lobbyists and
people associated with businesses and
organizations with which the city con-

Wednesday Noon: Jackson grabs lunch, makes contact, reallocates money. At right, ready for the science fair at PS/IS 187. Photos: JM

tracts—traditional sources of campaign
cash for incumbents.
Jackson swings the car though central Brooklyn. The next stop is a forum
on preventing youth incarceration sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund
at Medgar Evers College. It’s unclear
at first why Jackson is racing out to an
event that is miles from his own district.
“I’m the chair of the Education Committee. I’m the co-chair of the Black, Latino and Asian caucus. C’mon man,” he
says. “Half our youth end up in prison. I
said I’d come. To listen. They want me
to listen to the youth. Sometimes we’ve
got to listen.”
As he strides down the aisle of the
school’s auditorium, there’s a panel of
teenagers onstage. One young girl, Candace Randall, talks about the trauma of
foster childhood and advocates for kids
being kept with their families. Another,
Adilka Pimentel, talks about the Student
Safety Act, which Jackson has sponsored and would increase monitoring
of the safety agents who work at public
schools and have been accused of overpolicing hallways.
Jackson is a runner, by hobby and
personality. In last year’s New York
City Marathon, he covered the final
20 miles with a cramped calf muscle.
He didn’t know until the race was done
that he’d torn his other calf muscle at
some point during the run. The lesson he took away from the experience,
however, was that resting is a trap. “I

didn’t stop until mile 18, and then I
must have stopped five times between
then and the end of the race,” he says.
“Next time, I’m not stopping.”
This hard-charging approach has
earned Jackson a reputation as one of
the hardest-working councilmembers.
It has helped bring a certain focus to
the oversight hearings Jackson has conducted as Education Committee chair. It
also manifests itself in an often aggressive, sometimes confrontational personal style. Jackson expects others to keep
up with him.
When it’s time for questions at Medgar Evers, Jackson takes the mic. As
he did at the science fair, he presses
the panel on methodology, wanting to
know more about a youth survey they
conducted. He gently challenges the girl
who criticized foster care. “I know, in my
opinion, some foster parents aren’t in it
for the money,” he says. But she replies,
“That’s been my experience.”
Then he asks the panel what people
in the room need to do to help pass the
bill regulating school safety agents.
The panelists are confused by the question. “What do we need to do?” he asks
again, pointedly. But they’re still not
sure what he means. After all, it’s his
own bill. “We have the support of most
of the Council...so we just need a hearing?” offers an uncertain Pimentel.
Jackson sits down. “I think what
the councilmember was trying to get
at but couldn’t really say was that we

need to get a rally together in front of
City Hall,” Pimentel says.
Jackson turns, smiling. “I didn’t say
that!” he says. But it’s not a bad idea.
Jackson e-mails his staff for an update
on the bill. He realizes that he’s the one
who needs to get moving, to press his
colleague Peter Vallone Jr. to take it up in
his Public Safety Committee. “He hasn’t
been pressured on it, and I haven’t pressured him,” Jackson says. “So maybe
they need to pressure me. Because you
get so busy with other stuff.”
Driving home along the FDR, Jackson
realizes he is too late to make the precinct council meeting. It’s back to the office to pick up any new mail to add to the
overstuffed bag in his trunk.
Getting the Student Safety Act
passed will take more than Vallone’s
assistance. And it could take more
than 26 votes. One of the earliest lessons Jackson learned was that getting
things done on the Council requires
more than a mere majority. You’ve got
to have a veto-proof majority. In fact,
you’ve got to have a few extra votes.
“The mayor can always pick one or
two off,” he says. “The mayor is an
800-pound gorilla, and unless we’re
united, we can’t defeat him.”
The secret to unity is convincing
members that standing with their colleagues matters to their own constituents. “What’s in it for your district?
That’s the bottom line,” he says. “That’s
what people use as a bargaining chip.”
SPRING 2009

21

Thursday 9 a.m.: Councilman James Vacca starts the day, as usual, in his district office. Photo: JM

City Limits Investigates

Thursday 3:30 p.m.: Vacca shoots the
breeze at a senior citizens center. Photo: JM

J

IV. thursday

Councilman Jimmy Vacca’s aides have a rule for the hour-long ride from his
district office in the East Bronx to City Hall: Don’t let the councilman drive.
Vacca’s driving style is, well, cautious. The trip would take forever if he took the
wheel, the aides say. Besides, Vacca’s got too much to do during the ride. No
sooner has the car pulled out into traffic at about 9:20 on Thursday morning
than Vacca’s on the phone to the district office he just left, telling another aide
to call a local Sanitation Department official. “The street sweeper could not have
come down here,” Vacca says, after spying leaves and trash along the curb.
“Call him up and ask him what’s going on on Tremont Avenue.”

eff Lynch, Vacca’s chief of staff,
turns the car south toward I-95. Vacca makes a call about a woman who’s
being fined $25,000 by her co-op board.
He gets an e-mail saying that the City
Island firehouse, which he is fighting
to keep open, will be staffed that night.
Next, aide Bret Collazzi, sitting in back,
has details on a property on Balcom Avenue that Vacca believes is in violation
of the building code. Vacca spent the
two decades before his 2005 election as
the district manager of Bronx Community Board 10, and in some ways he never left the job. Where Robert Jackson
spends 90 percent of his time downtown
at City Hall, Vacca estimates he spends
no more than a third of a typical week
there. It is a long drive, after all. What’s
more, he’d rather be in the district.
“My secret is, I do everything in my
neighborhood. If my wife and I go out to
eat, I do it here. I do my shopping here.
My wife says, ‘I sent you out three hours
ago.’ I come back with a litany of issues,”
Vacca says. The office logs between 30
and 50 constituent cases a day. The key
to addressing them, Vacca says, is knowing whom to call: “Some councilmembers
will have an aide call the commissioner.
I will call the local Parks foreman. First,
the commissioner is harder to get on the
phone. Also, I know the local Parks foreman. A tree has fallen. Am I gonna wait
five days for a commissioner to call me
back because a tree fell?”

Vacca’s car has rolled over the RFK
Bridge and is on the FDR Drive heading south. One wonders how mayoral
agencies respond to people like Vacca,
a fairly junior councilman, when they
call asking for something. “It’s a mix,”
he says. “I think it depends what you are
trying to do. If it’s a policy issue, you can
go through hoops. If it’s a community
problem, the agencies are pretty good.
You have to prod them and follow up.”
But dealing with local officials is
something Vacca knows well. Navigating life on the City Council, on the
other hand, has been a learning experience. “This place is very political. I
learned that early on. I also think this
place is dependent on relationships
you have with members, letting them
know you have credibility,” Vacca says.
“You may ask yourself, ‘What am I doing here?’ You’re one of 51. But what is
your specific role?”
The car shoots off the FDR into the
neighborhood around City Hall. As he
learned the ropes, Vacca says, he realized that he needed to make clear to the
speaker what his goals were and to not
have too many goals. Overdevelopment,
education and senior issues are what he
has prioritized.
But some lessons of life on the Council are harder to swallow. The bill-writing
process—which the speaker’s office
controls—is frustratingly slow. Vacca
has put forward a measure to ease licensure requirements for facilities that
receive deliveries of senior meals. It has
been pending for two years, he says.
This is a complaint of Avella’s too—he
asserts that the speaker’s office refuses
to write bills it doesn’t agree with. Quinn
instituted a rule to write bills within 60
days, though she says some issues are
too complicated to handle within that period. “The 60-day rule has largely been
followed,” says Dick Dadey, the executive director of the government-reform
advocate Citizens Union. “But there are
curious exceptions. Still, it is better under Quinn than before.”
In an interview with City Limits, Quinn
defended the bill writing process. “We’ve
probably written in the past three years

somewhere between five or eight hundred bills. Every piece of legislation is
a priority of the staff,” she said. “What
ends up on the agenda of a committee is
largely up to the chair of the committee.
That is an area where members need to
work with the chairs of the committee.”

T

he guard at the City Hall gate lowers the barrier, and Lynch drives
through. The language of the place—
that is still sometimes mysterious,
Vacca says. “Everything is nuanced,”
he says. “Did they really say that? Did
they mean what they said? Does what
they said mean what I think it means?
Why am I happy? Should I be happy? Is
that good? Sometimes I have to say to
myself, ‘Was I had?’”
Vacca’s office is on the 17th floor of
250 Broadway. The view of City Hall and
the Brooklyn Bridge is pretty spectacular. It’s an upgrade; his first Council office had no windows.
He arrives at the office in time for a
10:30 meeting with people from DOROT,
a senior citizens’ services agency. Vacca
is just wrapping up a stint as the chair—
in fact, the only member—of the Senior
Centers Subcommittee. DOROT runs a
program (which Vacca has helped fund)
that links seniors for telephone chats
and telephone-based courses. For 10
minutes, three representatives make
their pitch to Vacca—that the service is
a vital lifeline to seniors, that they keep
tabs on one other and learn important
health tips—and he listens, palms on
his desk, saying little. He is engaged in
one of a councilmembers’ chief duties:
letting someone try to sell him on supporting, funding, opposing or sponsoring something.
How do you lobby the Council? One
former member who is now a lobbyist, Ken Fisher, says the approach to
the Council differs depending on what
you’re seeking. For land use items,
obviously, you target the member in
whose district the project falls. “On
budget stuff, you might be focused on
a particular geographic area or delegation, or you might need to talk to
everybody,” he says. With legislative
SPRING 2009

23

City Limits Investigates

Thursday 4 p.m.: Queens Councilman and public advocate candidate Eric Gioia asked to visit
Vacca’s district. Says Vacca, “I don’t say ‘No.’” Photo: JM

matters, you try to identify who’s concerned with the issue, although, Fisher
says, that form of lobbying is the least
frequent “because the Council’s legislative jurisdiction is so limited.”
“The first thing you have to figure
out—and this is where people misplay
things—are the rules,” says a former
mayoral aide who lobbied the Council.
“The procedural rules—these are the
absolute keys to success. They can be
an advantage or be used to defeat you.”
These rules determine who has the
power to call bills up for a vote, how to
force a vote or prevent one, and when
measures lapse from inaction—all the
gears and levers of the legislative machinery. Advance planning is also key:
The aide recalls one vote for which he
figured out a year in advance that he’d
need a veto-sustaining number of votes
and worked to get those votes over the
next 12 months.
Targeting the Council also requires
a detailed understanding of its politics, both internal and external. Some
24

SPRING 2009

members are looking for a reason to
undermine the speaker, while others
are looking to curry favor with the
speaker—regardless of the policy issue at hand—and those tendencies can
work to the lobbyist’s advantage. Some
thrive on the support of unions or other
outside groups the lobbyist can target.
“Where do they get their money?” says
the former aide. “What are they looking
at next in their districts?”
The biggest lesson, perhaps, is not
to get too emotionally invested. “If you
make this personal,” the aide says, “you’ll
last about five minutes in government.”
The people from DOROT don’t have
to play hardball; Vacca is on their side.
When their pitch ends, it’s his turn to
talk. “Every councilman’s going to say
to you what I will say: ‘How many people
in my district are served? Bring me a
proposal,’” Vacca tells them.
Each councilmember is given at least
$80,000 in general discretionary money
to dole out, as well as $151,000 in youth
funds and $109,000 for senior centers.

City Limits Investigates

But in actuality, most members allocate
a lot more, especially when capital funding is also rolled in (see Big Spenders, p.
19). In the current fiscal year, Vacca distributed $8,000,000 in total funds. In fact,
just that Tuesday, he managed to get
two mentions in the Daily News for his
generosity. One mentioned that Larry
Seabrook and Vacca had given $300,000
each to schools in their district, while a
separate article talked about Vacca’s allotting $350,000 for renovating the cafeteria at Lehman High School.
Chief of Staff Lynch has already
walked over to City Hall for a meeting
with Bloomberg administration representatives about PSAC II. PSAC II, or
Public Safety Answering Center II, is the
city’s new 911 backup center, which is
planned to go up in Vacca’s district—too
far up, Vacca thinks. The original plans
called for a 37-story structure costing a
billion dollars. When Vacca and others
complained that that would be unusually
high for the generally low-density East
Bronx, the administration resisted.
But then budget realities required a
lower cost and, as it turned out, a lower
roof. “Everybody sees the budget crisis
as a bad thing, and it is,” Vacca says.
“But it also brings people back down to
earth.” The current version—$750 million and 25 floors high—is still a little
tall, Vacca thinks. But if it does go up, he
wants the city to take this opportunity to
put in infrastructure that the neighborhood has long needed—like an extra bus
stop and a new ramp to the Hutchinson
River Parkway. Vacca crosses the street
to join the meeting. It’s just after 11 a.m.

A

n hour later in the City Hall lobby,
security guards and Quinn staffers are scrutinizing the people coming
in. “Check every ticket,” one says. “No
signs.” There are red, white and blue
tickets associated with different seating areas. Inside the Council chamber,
spotlights are set up on the balcony and
two sets of flags are onstage in front of
a deep-blue curtain. The Council seal
is projected onto a huge screen high
above the stage. The crowd is milling
about, ignoring requests to sit down.

“[Teachers union president] Randi Weingarten’s mother died, and today’s the
funeral, so there’s competition,” says
one onlooker, gazing at the crowd. A
security guard mumbles into his radio,
“10-4 Cobra 6.”
Quinn takes the stage to loud applause.
She introduces the Council leadership.
This includes James Oddo and Vincent
Ignizio, who are the minority leader and
minority whip. They lead the Republican delegation on the Council, which
includes, well, James Oddo and Vincent
Ignizio. Who exactly is Ignizio—who
earns a $5,000 stipend for holding the
post—whipping?
Even weirder than that is where
Oddo, Ignizio and the rest of the Council are sitting. They are far off to stage
right, tucked so far into a corner, they
cannot see Quinn and need to watch on
a plasma-TV screen. Some chat through
her speech, which includes a raft of
proposals: making business startups
easier, rendering taxes more progressive, streamlining pension funds, using
unsold market-rate development for affordable housing and incarcerating gang
members longer. She mentions about a
dozen councilmembers by name as she
credits their proposals and at one point
applauds “the mayor’s leadership.”
In the car heading back to the Bronx,
Vacca says it’s the best speech he’s
heard Quinn give. Of course, many of
the items she ticked off—from taxes to
affordable housing—might be beyond
the Council’s powers. Albany leaders
and Bloomberg would need to be on
board for them to work. “But you know,”
Vacca says, “if you’ve a relationship with
the mayor,” as Quinn does, “this could
be more substantive” —meaning it could
actually get done.

O

n the trip up the FDR and back to
the district, Vacca gets a briefing
on policy developments that his staff has
learned about during Quinn’s address.
There is bad news. The city’s latest
capital plan has pushed back a longawaited project for the Country Club
section of the Bronx. The area is off the
city’s sewer system, meaning that when

it rains, the pipes back up and residents
find their basements flooded. “It’s not
rainwater,” says aide Bret Collazzi. “It’s
sewage. So people basically have shit
in their basements.” Two other sewer
projects that the local community board
wanted have also been back-burnered.
All the city will say is that they need
more study. Vacca is wolfing down a salad. “That’s how the city treats community boards,” he says through a mouthful,
“with pat answers.”
The car rolls over the Third Avenue
Bridge and turns onto Bruckner Boulevard as the briefing continues. One
community group wants to reopen a
road within Ferry Point Park; they’re

practice. His biggest beef with the administration is over the way it pursued
its recent plan to reorganize the city’s senior centers. At a meeting with the mayor’s people late last year, Vacca says he
and others on the Council were simply
informed that the city was planning to
take money the Council had allocated to
specific programs for seniors and redirect it to fund a reorganization—which,
according to Vacca, could have resulted
in the closure of 80 senior centers.
Earlier this year, the city backed down
from that reorganization plan. At the very
least, the episode hinted at the answer
to a burning question. By going after senior centers, the mayor didn’t seem to

“A lot of my colleagues said
they were undecided about term
limits. Maybe that was a wiser
course,” Vacca says. “Sometimes
I react from the gut...”
asking how to do that. And another is
wondering about the status of a promised renovation to a recreation center
in Westchester Square. Vacca calls his
Parks Department contact to find out.
Finally, Collazzi tells Vacca, a group
of homeowners with which the councilman will meet this evening wants to
talk about a new Department of Buildings proposal to require that complaints
about zoning violations be filed within
30 days of a building permit being approved. “This is another transparency
measure,” Vacca says with a sneer. “If
I hear ‘transparency’ once more. That
word has taken on a life of its own the
past two years.” The Bloomberg administration has made it difficult to figure
out who is in charge of, say, fixing a
problem Vacca has learned about concerning parking permits at a local high
school, Vacca says. “Who do I contact at
DOE? I don’t know,” he says. “They’re
so transparent that I don’t know.”
Vacca walks up the steps to his office,
which shares a building with a dental

be doing Vacca any favors. And a favor is
exactly what everyone assumed Jimmy
Vacca had earned in exchange for his
last-minute shift from opposing the term
limits extension to supporting it.
The fight over term limits was another part of Vacca’s education on life
on the Council. It was a test some think
Vacca failed.
“A lot of my colleagues said they were
undecided about term limits. Maybe
that was a wiser course,” Vacca says, sitting down in his personal office. “I said
‘No’ right away because I thought it was
wrong to do it without a referendum.”
But then he considered the argument
that the city would not have time to hold
a referendum, at least not one that would
have passed Department of Justice muster. “Sometimes I react from the gut,” he
says. In this case, his gut changed.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t always react
from your gut. Lesson No. 2: “My
Throgs Neck stories don’t always play
well in Manhattan.”
During the term limits debate, Vacca
SPRING 2009

25

City Limits Investigates

Beyond Lulus
The Council’s
outside earners

“Lulus” are the term of art for the stipends that councilmembers are given for
their work as committee chairs or party
leaders. They range from $4,000 for most
subcommittee heads to $10,000 for
most committee chairs to up to $28,500
for the speaker. For decades, reformers
have wanted to get rid of lulus. “They’re
basically a way of making sure [councilmembers] comply with leadership
votes,” says Sal Albanese, who served
on the Council from 1982 to 1997.
“Members would tell me they could not
vote a certain way because they had to
pay their mortgage.” Councilman Tony
Avella refuses to accept his lulu.
For her part, Speaker Christine Quinn
says lulus merely compensate committee chairs and Council leaders for extra
work. As a practical matter, some members who accept the lulu devote it to the
expenses of running their office, including paying for staff.
In any case, the amount members
earn from lulus is dwarfed by what some
councilmembers gain from work that has
nothing to do with the City Council.
Most members do not have outside
employment, but 14 reported such income
on their 2008 financial-disclosure forms.
For a handful—like Robert Jackson, who
reported less than $5,000 a year from
teaching a course for Cornell University,
or Kendall Stewart, who claimed to make
less than $1,000 from his real estate
company—the second jobs appear to be
minor affairs. But for a few, the outside
work is more lucrative.
Peter Vallone Jr. reported $60,000 to
$99,999 in income (the disclosure forms
report income in ranges) from his family’s law firm, as well as a small stream
of income from a real estate partnership.
Domenic Recchia made $100,000 to
$250,000 on a law practice and $20,000
to $140,000 in rental income. Finance
Committee chair David Weprin earned
up to $35,000 from a law practice and
as much as $250,000 as an investment
banker at a firm that brokers the sale

26

SPRING 2009

related a story about a conversation
he’d had with his mother in which she
expressed dismay at not being able to
vote for Bloomberg again. He told it
as an example of the mixed feelings
he’d encountered in Throgs Neck and
elsewhere in his district. But the way
the TV news cut the film, he says, “it
sounded like I voted that way because
my mother told me to.” Then the Daily

City Limits Investigates

referring to the move in late February
in which Vacca was named chair of the
Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, for which he traded in a $4,000
“lulu,” the stipend a councilmember
gets for committee or leadership work,
for a $10,000 one.)
Vacca flatly denies that he was offered
or threatened with anything for his vote
on term limits.

“I still look for Lucille Ball,”
Vacca continues. “I do it because
it’s wholesome entertainment.”
You remember that he hasn’t
seen “The Sopranos” because
of the swearing.
News’ Errol Louis wrote that Vacca,
during the debate, “babbled and shook
like a leaf as he caved in and changed
his vote, looking for all the world like
Fredo Corleone, the dim-witted pawn in
the ‘Godfather’ movies.”
“I’ve never seen ‘The Godfather,’ Vacca says. “But as an Italian American, that
was a little offensive.”
He also chafes at people who’ve accused him of being a “Bloomberg ally,”
since the mayor supported Vacca’s opponents in both the primary and general
elections in 2005.
Vacca gets up to go to his next event—
a Valentine’s Day concert at a local senior center. Has he really never seen
“The Godfather?” “No. And I’ve never
seen ‘The Sopranos’ either. Every other
word is a curse,” he says. “And they portray Italians terribly.”
(Asked in early March about his depiction of Vacca, the Daily News’ Louis
said, “‘The Godfather’ is a great movie
worth watching…I can assure Councilman Vacca that there’s nothing in the
film half as offensive as his term limits
flip-flop and the subsequent lulu he accepted from Speaker Quinn. And unfortunately, it was a spectacle the whole
city was forced to watch.” Louis was

The temperature has dropped, but a
good crowd is in the function room at
the Middleton Plaza senior center, located next to PS 71, where both Vacca
and his aide Collazzi went to school.
The 50 or so attendees—including
Vacca’s mother—are listening to a mellow rendition of “My Funny Valentine”
when Vacca walks in. The drummer
plays with brushes.
Vacca is in his element. He invites
the crowd to call him or e-mail him, but
not at 9 on Sunday evenings because “I
watch ‘Desperate Housewives.’” This
triggers a long riff on the state of television. “Remember the days when we just
had channels 2, 4, 7, 9, 11?” he asks. “It
seemed like there was more on.” The
crowd is eating it up. “It’s true!” cries
one gray head to another. “I still look
for Lucille Ball,” Vacca continues. “I
still look for those kinds of comedies. I
do it because it’s wholesome entertainment.” It sounds like pure baloney until
you remember that this is a guy who
hasn’t seen “The Sopranos” because of
the swearing.
After Vacca accepts an invitation to
dance to what the front man dubs “a nice
little rumba,” Eric Gioia shows up with a
box of carnations. Vacca says that Gio-

ia, who is running for public advocate,
asked to come to the district. “I like de
Blasio. I like Gioia. I like Yassky,” Vacca
says with a shrug, referring to three of
the seven colleagues who are running
for citywide officers. “I don’t say no.”

B

ack at the office, Vacca carries on
three conversations at once about
matters in the district—the high school
parking permits problem, some local
news coverage of a graffiti removal
project and a rejected bid to install
parking meters.
Cynics—both on the Council and the
outside—often say that the best councilmembers can do, given their relative
lack of power, is develop an excellent
constituent services operation. Some
members do make the direct-service
side a priority. Diana Reyna’s answering
machine invites callers to dial by neighborhood—“for Williamsburg press 1...
for Bushwick press 2... for Ridgewood
press 3.” Tony Avella circulates an allpurpose form offering fill-in-the-blank
reporting for problems from building
violations to rodent infestation.
But there are limits to what councilmembers can do on the service side
too. This year members are spending
an average of $283,000 on office staff.
Councilmembers typically have a chief
of staff, a legislative director, a constituent services director and a scheduler.
Some rely on part-timers, interns and
volunteers to handle the workload.
While a chief of staff might make
$70,000 a year, a scheduler could get as
little as $24,000.
For the Council as whole, resources
are an issue. With a budget of $52 million in fiscal 2009, the Council had a total staff of 329 people—compared with
the 900 who on the mayoral staff, not to
mention the executive staffs of all the
city agencies that report to him.
The sun descends in the East Bronx,
and Vacca’s day rolls on. He meets with
a group of organizers and high school
students who want Vacca’s help setting
up a collection of used cell phones to
give to domestic violence victims. Next,
it’s off to Edgewater, a unique coopera-

tive community of 750 bungalows located on the edge of Long Island Sound.
The streets there are so narrow, FDNY
trucks cannot get down them, so a volunteer fire company operates in the
neighborhood. Vacca wants to congratulate and get a picture taken with two
firefighters who’ve enrolled in a program to obtain their emergency medical technician certification. On his way
into the firehouse, he runs into Keith
Freider, a leader of the Edgewater coop. Some kids have been graffitiing the
local playground, Vacca says. “Do you
know who it is?” Vacca asks. “Yeah, I
know who it is,” Freider says. “Will you
talk to them?” “Yeah, I’ll talk to them.”
There are doughnuts and coffee on
the pool table. A cozy little bar sits off
to the side of the main room. The place
is decorated with old-time firefighting
paraphernalia. The firehouse seems
like something from another time—
maybe the 1950s—and someplace other than the Bronx. Edgewater is one of
those places that make Vacca’s district
very different from the rest of the borough. It’s a difference that some residents are intent on defending. Sometimes that protective instinct can be a
little exclusive.
Back in his district office at a little after 6 p.m., Vacca meets with a home- and
business-owners’ group, his last task of
the day. The group is down on density,
overdevelopment, infill development,
high buildings, Bloomberg and renters.
“I’ve seen people in the neighborhood
who’ve been squatting for 20 years!”
complains one. Another says, with a
smile, that he’d like to see Co-op City’s
massive towers replaced with singlefamily homes.
Vacca brushes aside most of this bigpicture grousing and focuses on the
details—the very minute details. A master parking plan, that’s what we need, he
says. Is angle parking appropriate for
Crosby Avenue? Can we build off the
new red light he had installed on Roberts Avenue, which slows traffic down?
“That light is fantastic,” he says.
“I’ve gotten a lot of ver y good reaction to that light.”

Private Paychecks are sizeable for
(clockwise from top left) Koppell, White,
Vallone, Recchia, Weprin, and Fidler.
Photos: City Council

of government bonds (he says the deals
don’t involve New York City). Lewis Fidler
reported law practice income ranging
from $70,000 to $170,000. Oliver Koppell
disclosed $61,000 to $105,000 from two
law practices. And according to tax forms,
Thomas White Jr. was paid $234,000 in
2007 as executive director of a substance
abuse treatment center.
Good-government advocates have
criticized councilmembers who earn a
substantial amount from outside work.
“Do I think it’s a tug on their time and
attention?” says NYPIRG’s Gene Russianoff. “I sure do.” Defenders of the practice
say that especially with term limits, councilmembers need to preserve their ability
to make a living after they leave office.
The effect of outside employment on attendance varies: White’s 67 percent attendance was among the Council’s worst
last year, but Vallone ranked in the top 10
for showing up at hearings.
One striking thing about councilmembers’ financial disclosures is the
diversity in their economic standings.
While a few are rather well off—one
claims an asset portfolio worth between $630,000 and $1.6 million—
most have little wealth. A few have significant debts; one member is saddled
with $55,000 to $200,000 in credit card
and nonmortgage loan debt. —JM

SPRING 2009

27

Friday 11 a.m.: Chinese seniors beam when they see John Liu.
His celebrity status as an Asian-American pioneer is striking. Photo: JM

City Limits Investigates

A

V. FRiday

The head of the Council’s Transportation Committee is waiting for a parking spot
outside Antun’s reception hall in Queens Village, where he is supposed to make a
brief appearance at 9:30 a.m. at the annual legislative breakfast of the Queens
Council on Developmental Disabilities. It is 9:28 when John Liu pulls his spotless
Nissan hybrid up behind the car that he thinks is pulling out. Then it is 9:29.

fter this event, Liu is supposed to
attend a question-and-answer session with a senior citizens’ social action
committee, visit a supermarket, attend
a Lunar New Year luncheon, possibly
go to a press conference about a looming hospital strike and head to a political
meeting in Sunnyside, then two more
in the Bronx, before the NYPD Asian
Jade Society’s annual dinner in Manhattan at 6 p.m. Then he’ll run home
to tuck in his 8-year-old son and drive
up to Albany for the first evening of the
minority legislators’ weekend caucus.
He will not stay the night. Liu’s schedule only firmed up at 11 the previous
evening. He was up at 4 a.m., because
that’s when the Daily News goes online.
The Post, he says, appears on the Web
at about 4:30.
“Today is actually a light day,” Liu says,
“because things are evenly spaced out.”
Now it’s 9:30. The car does not seem
to be yielding the space, so Liu pulls
back out and drives down the street in
time to grab a different space that has
just opened up. He tosses his Bluetooth
onto the center console and speed-walks
down the sidewalk. “9:31,” he says. “That
car cost us two minutes.”
Liu gets ushered to a seat near the
front of the room. He’s introduced along
with other legislators—or, more often,
the staff members those legislators have
sent. Liu rarely raises his head from his
BlackBerry. The opening remarks are
barely concluded when he gets up to go.
“They weren’t going to get to the
speaking part until 10:30, so there was
no way” he could stay, Liu says. “Too
bad. I was hoping to get some comments in. Maybe if the seniors don’t
ask too many questions, we can head
back. I wanted to talk about something
not on their agenda: the transportation
of developmentally disabled kids. That’s
something even the advocacy community needs to get up-to-speed on.”

L

iu gets on the Cross Island Parkway. I ask him what he thought of
the speaker’s State of the City the day
before. He offers mild praise. Liu says

he has gotten on well with Quinn, but
that seems more like a description of
how things used to be.
“I think 2008 was a rough year in a lot
of different ways, and she made some
bad judgment calls.” There was the
congestion-pricing vote, which exposed
councilmembers who voted yes, as Liu
did, to the political fallout without any
promise that Albany would ever act on
the plan. Then there was Quinn’s reaction to the slush-fund scandal. Liu and
others resented Quinn for reacting to
media pressure over the grants to fictitious organizations by imposing reforms
that have reduced the Council’s already
limited power. (Indeed, a few weeks
later, the mayor moved to block several
councilmembers’ allocations.)
Liu sees these missteps as an inevitable outgrowth of Quinn’s alleged mayoral ambitions, which are themselves
the product of term limits. “It is probably
something that would happen to the best
among us, when the leader of a legislative body is at the same time running for
an executive position” he says. “It is a
combination that simply does not work.”
Despite their differences, Quinn
hasn’t punished Liu for voting against
her and the term limits extension in October. “[The term limits vote] hasn’t gotten in the way of my agenda. My budgetary priorities have still been fulfilled,”
Liu says. “I’ve still passed a number of
bills in late 2008 and last week.”
That wouldn’t have been the case
back in the day. One councilman from
the 1980s recalls defying majority leader
Thomas Cuite on one vote and dwelling “in the doghouse” for nine months.
“They wouldn’t even deliver my mail,”
he remembers.
Another former member, Sal Albanese, who held a Brooklyn seat from
1982 through 1997, bucked Cuite and
his successor, Peter Vallone Sr., more
than once, and paid the price. “I’ve probably been removed from more committees than any other member in the history of the City Council,” he jokes. He was
kicked off the Education Committee,
removed as chair of Youth Services and
had a subcommittee on parental involve-

ment in schools eliminated because he
angered the leadership.

I

n today’s Council, Liu says he has
enjoyed independence as a committee chairman. “I’ve set my own agenda,
in consultation with the members,” Liu
says. “The speaker’s office hasn’t gotten involved, with one exception.” That
was the “pay to pray” bill—a measure
that eliminated parking meters on Sundays. “I refused to hold a hearing. It
was just an example of a bill that sounds
great but is awful policy.”
The phone buzzes. It is a reporter
calling about a new local traffic management plan. Liu has switched over to the
Grand Central Parkway. He discusses
the details of lanes and parking spaces as
he weaves through traffic, arrives at the
Forest Hills Jewish Center and marches
around the corner to the entrance. He is
late. Rushing down the hallway between
the front door and the room where he
is to speak, Liu rubs his hands over his
face and straightens his tie. He doesn’t
want to look as if he has been running.
For the next hour, Liu responds to questions about Meals-on-Wheels, Access-aRide, hospital closings. Liu is engaging,
informed, concise. When one questioner,
Adele, refers to something as a shande,
another tells Liu that’s Yiddish for shame.
“I know what it means,” he says, “and
Adele is a real mensch.” When he’s done,
he gets polite applause. “He didn’t talk
about the nutrition!” one lady complains
to her friend. “I know,” the friend replies.
“And that’s why I came!”
In the next room, Liu meets a more
enthusiastic crowd—a group of Chinese
American seniors. They beam when
they seen him and grip his hands. As
the first Asian-American elected to the
Council, Liu’s celebrity status in Asian
New York is striking. As we leave the
center, we are trailed by a reporter for
World Journal, the Chinese-language paper, who is doing a Valentine’s Day story
about Liu and his wife. She’s picking up
on an earlier line of questioning.
“So who made the first move?”
Liu is uncomfortable. “We were introduced by friends,” he says. “I didn’t just
SPRING 2009

29

City Limits Investigates

pick her up at the party.” The reporter
wants to learn more, but Liu has to go.
Could she call his wife? “I’ll have her call
you,” he says.
“When?”
“Now,” he promises then gets in the
car. “In this business, you get a lot of
weird requests,” he says. Indeed, Liu’s
next stop is a Korean supermarket
where he is to meet a reporter from Korea Times doing a series on local celebrities’ favorite stores (i.e., their favorite
Korean stores).
Liu returns to 2004 and to the story
about the “pay to pray” bill. He thought
the bill was a terrible idea that the Council would almost certainly approve—
terrible because it would impede parking turnover in heavily trafficked areas,
popular because it sounded so nice. So
he refused for a year to hold a hearing
on it. Speaker Gifford Miller reintroduced the bill in mid-2005 through the
Finance Committee to get around Liu’s
roadblock, and it passed. “Now, in fact,
we’re paying the price for it—severe
congestion on Sundays, where nobody
can find a place to park,” Liu says.
Miller and Quinn are different, Liu
says, owing to their unique political situations. Miller knew he’d be forced out by
term limits in 2005 and have to act on his
mayoral ambitions then, when he’d be
up against the incumbent Bloomberg.
“So his tone and approach reflected that
reality,” Liu says.
Quinn, on the other hand, knew
she wouldn’t be running against
Bloomberg and, in fact, might benefit
from his endorsement if she runs for
mayor, so she pursued a cooperative
relationship—some would say too cooperative. “Bloomberg, he’s a man who
gets his way” is how NYPIRG’s Gene
Russianoff puts it, “and he has a speaker who never says ‘No.’ “However, it’s
not clear how often Quinn really disagrees with Bloomberg. “Quinn hasn’t
had to swallow a lot, but it has hurt her
with members who see her as lacking
independence,” Russianoff says.
What is clear, Council observers say,
is that Quinn was able to learn by watching Miller. Miller was the first speaker to
30

SPRING 2009

try to ride herd amid the “chaos” of term
limits. Previous Council leaders could
maintain control with a system of promises and punishments that would be
doled out over years. Now councilmembers are probably as worried about their
next job as they are about their next
Council committee assignment.
HMart, the supermarket where Liu
is to be profiled, is brightly lit, its produce gleaming, as Liu arrives just before noon. He finds the Korea Times
reporter. “So you want me to pretend it’s
Sunday?” he asks. That’s the idea. Liu
grabs a basket and begins his circuit.
She asks why he shops there. “Because
it’s two blocks from my house,” he says,
grabs a huge tub of tofu, some banana
chips for his son and some prepackaged
radish kimchi. The reporter asks him to
check out some of the produce. Liu, who
used to work in a grocery, shows how
he tests peppers for freshness. Then he
poses with a pepper.
Back in the car, Liu shrugs. “Whatever they want,” he says.
He ends up buying so many groceries, he has to take them home. Now he
is late for the Lunar New Year celebration. His BlackBerry is telling him that
there’s no press conference about the
strike but that he has another stop on his
way to the political meeting in Sunnyside
and yet another one after the two Bronx
meetings but before the Jade Society dinner. “I am lucky,” he says of his life. “I
have a very low-maintenance son.”
Driving through his district, Liu acknowledges that Quinn is operating
under real constraints. “The speakership is not something gained overnight
because of a vote. Power derives from
the institution itself and the longevity
of the position,” Liu says. “Term limits,
combined with the relative lack of power
of the City Council, curtails what the
speakership actually is.”

O

ne day in late February, The
New York Times noted on its City
Room blog that New York State was
considering revising the harsh Rockefeller drug laws and added, “The City
Council, in what may be a rare moment

City Limits Investigates

of genuinely meaningful discussion,
holds a hearing on the topic.”
This reflected a commonly held view.
The truth is clearly a little more complicated than an easy quip.
While it has devoted valuable time to
symbolic exercises like renaming 133
city streets in 2008, the City Council is
not a do-nothing body. In the past year,
it has approved bills that call for disadvantaged businesses to get a larger
share of projects that receive tax breaks,
track the influence of private groups on
public parks, prohibit discrimination
against tenants, establish green carts to
sell fresh fruit and vegetables in underserved neighborhoods, demand a citywide storm-water management plan and
force the NYPD to report to the Council
on firearms discharges.
Its members, however, are faced with
a stark, two-sided political reality.
One side is summed up by the advice
that a former councilmember recalls giving to colleagues: “You can do anything
you want and you will be re-elected. You
can fuck this up and you will be re-elected. You can do an excellent job and you
will be reelected.” The point was dead
on: Incumbent councilmembers have a
97 percent re-election rate.
The other side is revealed in a story
Ken Fisher tells about his first year on
the Council, when the city faced the
need to make real budget cuts amid a
slumping economy. “I had a migraine for
two weeks,” Fisher says, “until I realized
I didn’t have much say on it.”
The City Council does matter. But it
doesn’t matter as much as it could. That’s
partly due to how its members wield
their power and run their hearings and
whether they show up. But it also reflects
the hand the Council has been dealt.
While the City Council votes to approve the budget, it must vote on the
whole $55 billion package. It cannot
fight with the mayor over, say, the way
the police budget is spent without also
holding up the money for housing,
schools and other agencies. The Council cannot modify the budget unless the
mayor asks it to. It can’t force the mayor
to spend money on projects he opposes.

With a few exceptions, like the Department of Investigation, the City Council
has no advise-and-consent power on mayoral appointees, which limits its ability to
shape the policy of the executive agencies. Term limits have probably contributed to a weaker Council, because legislators—especially the speaker—don’t
get a chance to develop the expertise,
power base and media standing needed
to really challenge the mayor. Last fall’s
fight to extend term limits, however,
may also have hurt the Council’s standing, as it did Bloomberg’s bidding after
he had for years mocked the Council’s
own efforts to alter term limits.
“We have the strongest mayor in the
country,” Russianoff says. “They’re obviously David to the mayor’s Goliath.”
But even that unbalance is only part of
the picture. The City Council and mayor
both have to defer to the state legislature
on criminal justice, rent regulations and
most taxes. They have little control over
mass transit, the city’s airports and seaports, and most of its bridges, highways
and tunnels. “The power that’s out of kilter is between the city and state. I can’t
think of what you would constructively
take away from the mayor. It is such a
constrained list,” says Kathryn Wylde
of the Partnership for New York City.
“We can’t raise revenue. We can’t toll the
bridges. We can’t do much of anything.
We can college the garbage, but we can’t
change the solid-waste management
plan without the state legislature.”
Some believe the Council has more
power than it uses. “We’ve only scratched
the surface of what we can do in terms
of oversight of city agencies,” says Tony
Avella. Sal Albanese says much of the
Council’s power stems not from formal
authority but from its access to the press.
In 1985, Albanese wanted the city’s
contracting policy to incorporate the
MacBride Principles—a human rights
code that requires multinational firms
doing business with the city to adopt a
nonsectarian approach to any business
dealings in Northern Ireland. So, he
held a press conference. “Tom Cuite
thought it was a communist plot. But we
were on the front page of the next day’s

Times of London,” he remembers. “That
generated a lot more sponsors. Eventually, we passed that resolution.”
But it’s not clear that the city’s papers
are paying as close attention to the Council these days as they used to. And to
some extent, why should they? As one

their own counsel lead to more patronage? Will authorizing the mayor’s office
to oversee how councilmembers disperse their discretionary funds further
tilt the balance of power toward the
executive? Will empowering individual
councilmembers enervate the Council
as a whole?
Given the limited power in the city’s
hands, “the more you weaken the
speaker, the more you weaken the
Council. It becomes every member for
themselves,” says Wylde. “I think those
efforts to take power away from the
speaker sound like good government
but in fact would greatly diminish the
power of the legislative branch.”

F

Friday 12:30 p.m. Liu circulates at the Lunar
New Year celebration, slipping from English to
Chinese to Spanish. Photo: JM

veteran pol describes the Council’s paltry
power, “Oversight is meaningless without the promise of corrective action.”
For decades, good-government advocates have advanced a menu of proposals to improve the Council. And speakers have acted on them. Miller made it
easier for individual members to get bills
to the floor for a vote and improved public access to Council information. Quinn
increased budget transparency, allowed
more open floor debate and restricted
lobbyists.
Today there are calls for further
reform. Avella wants an end to lulus.
Yassky wants committees to approve
their relevant parts of the budget. Citizens Union’s Dick Dadey says he’d like
to see, “a stronger, more effective committee system that has fewer committees that are able to dig down deeper
into issue, and not have to compete for
members’ attention.”
Many reform proposals, however,
raise potential problems of their own.
Will allowing committee chairs to hire

riday has turned into a gorgeous
day, bathing downtown Flushing
with sunlight. The Lunar New Year luncheon occupies the entire second floor
of a huge, two-story restaurant just off
Main Street. Liu enters and makes the
rounds, wishing people a happy New
Year in Chinese. He sees Latino diners
and slips into Spanish.
As the 2009 races roll on, a reshaped
political playing field might force a new
equilibrium in the city’s power structure.
“This Council has had a run of prosperity that took some of the pressure off
them. They had this mostly harmonious
relationship with the mayor that allowed
them to let him set the direction,” says
Fisher. “That might change.”
So might the Council’s powers.
Bloomberg said more than a year ago
that he would convene a charter revision commission. If—when—he does,
Quinn says she’ll ask the panel to take a
look at expanding the Council’s authority over budget modifications, landmark
designations, revenue forecasts and other governing tools.
Liu takes the stage and begins to
speak. He has to pause every sentence
or so for translation into Cantonese
and Mandarin. He seems to refer to his
own campaign for higher office. But he
might be referring to the Council. “We
all know 2009 is a special year,” Liu says.
“We have an incredible opportunity to
get a bigger voice.”
SPRING 2009

31

City Limits Investigates

CITY FUTURES 120 Wall Street, floor 20, New York, NY 10005

CITYLIMITS.ORG

“We have the
strongest
mayor in the
country. The
City Council is
obviously
David to
the mayor's
Goliath.”

Council seats await their owners and the Council’s biweekly formal meeting. Photo: JM

32

SPRING 2009