The Council Votes for Chaos

Shown the Door, Term-Limited Pols Slap City in the Face

The counterrevolution that rocked City Hall last week—when 22 members of the City Council announced a bill to rescind term limits—was roundly derided on every editorial page, with even The Wall Street Journal paying critical attention to a very local matter. The New York Times' John Tierney ridiculed the council as if it were still just a street-naming legislature, and Newsday's Ellis Henican actually branded the 51 incumbents "craven, butt-protecting, barely literate cretins" and declared that "we would be better off with no councilmembers at all."

The anger over this self-serving bill, designed to reverse the results of two public referendums, was understandable, even if irrationally overblown. What was particularly infuriating about the bill was the decision to do it now, when it could throw an otherwise glorious election year into chaos—perhaps discouraging many of the potentially hundreds of candidates for the presumed 36 wide-open seats. The council could've tried this unprecedented legislative end run around a two-time referendum anytime since 1996, when the issue last appeared on the ballot, testing its legal theories without casting a Florida-like cloud of uncertainty over a pivotal election year. Instead, no one may know who's eligible to run—or who's running—for months.

The disgruntled members chose not to introduce the bill last year because Speaker Peter Vallone's all-powerful chief of staff, Bruce Bender, reportedly assured them he was putting a deal together to bail them out. Vallone eventually bounced Bender, and all talk of a brokered leadership bill disappeared. So the councilmembers who are currently leading this fight, and who wax on about how substantive their roles have become in the charter-empowered new council, did nothing to save themselves earlier, when it would have been far less disruptive, because of a temporary staffer's "knowing" wink.

Stan Michels leads fellow councilmembers in last-stand fight against voters.
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Stan Michels leads fellow councilmembers in last-stand fight against voters.

No black or Latino has ever had any real influence in the council.

Fourteen of the 22 sponsors are black and Latino, and incredibly, the champions of the bill actually argue that it will preserve the seniority power of minorities on the council. But no black or Latino has ever had any real influence in the council, which has been controlled by Vallone and council finance chair Herb Berman since 1986. Archie Spigner, the council's version of the Invisible Man, is the most powerful black, and he is the deputy speaker, an honorific title in any legislature with a large stipend and no portfolio.

Indeed, Stan Michels, the Washington Heights-West Harlem councilmember, is the lead sponsor of the bill, and he has long represented a predominantly minority district. He will probably be succeeded by a black candidate, perhaps the celebrated Robert Jackson, who spearheaded the lawsuit that recently overturned the state education formula. Jackson, who has accomplished more as a citizen than many councilmembers have in decades of incumbency, is precisely the kind of candidate who turns the debacle-is-coming argument on its head.

With Jackson and Asian candidates in Queens and Manhattan like John Liu and Margaret or Rocky Chin adding to the nonwhite majority within the council's Democratic conference, does anyone doubt that a minority will hold at least one of the top two positions in the 2002 council, possibly speaker? With seniority junked as the determinus of power within the council, ethnic and borough alliances will shape a new leadership that may need some seasoning, but is virtually certain to be more diverse and activist.

The council has had its moments during the Giuliani years—most notably, passing the 4-to-1 match for the city's campaign finance system and blocking the mayor's efforts to privatize public hospitals, disconnect fire alarms, or move the Yankees to the West Side. But it has so rarely flexed its charter muscles that it is hard to believe that a successor council would not be more daring.

Even when individual councilmembers have stood up against the Giuliani onslaught—like General Welfare Committee chair Steve DiBrienza, who took on the mayor's brutal workfare program—they've wound up with virtually nothing to show for years of battle other than their own wounds. DiBrienza got the council last year to override Giuliani vetoes on two very belated and crucial pieces of workfare legislation—creating a grievance procedure for welfare recipients forced to work and creating 7500 transitional jobs for them. But the mayor refused to implement them, and the council just sat on their hands, forcing a frustrated DiBrienza to tell the Voice: "The council doesn't push the envelope. It won't even sue about these bills. We need to be more aggressive."

The council has been similarly paralyzed when faced with another of the great controversies of the Giuliani era—overly aggressive police tactics. Shelly Leffler, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, has, like DiBrienza, used his bully pulpit to showcase the Giuliani excesses, but not a single bill altering police tactics has become law. The council has twice overridden Giuliani vetoes of bills that would have set up an independent police monitor to investigate police corruption and misconduct. But Giuliani challenged the bills in court, where the latest version still stews. Vallone has used this fantasy legislation as a fig leaf for more than seven years, without ever going to the mat over it during his weekly lovefests with the mayor.

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