Council Orgy

Erasing term limits and contribution caps amid a speaker battle

With Mike Bloomberg settled in at City Hall for four more years, all the action is in the east wing, where the council is awash in self-absorbed intrigue. The 43 re-elected incumbents and eight new members will soon pick a speaker, the second most powerful person in city government. The top item on their 2006 agenda will then be to extend their own terms from eight to 12 years. They will do so right after overriding an expected mayoral veto and approving a jackpot of union contributions for themselves, smashing prior Campaign Finance Board (CFB) restraints.

The obvious theory is to do as much damage as possible to their own reputations as far away from the next election as they conceivably can, betting on public amnesia and jettisoning, for the moment, every opinion but their own.

Gale Brewer is the best mask the council could wear for its most incestuous adventure: deep-sixing the two-term limit imposed in 1993 and reaffirmed in 1996 by almost two-thirds of the city's voters. The west-side workhorse councilwoman with impeccable good-government credentials told the Voice that she will introduce a bill in December to junk the two-term rule.

"There are three ways to go," Brewer explained. "We can vote to extend our own terms by law. We can vote to extend the terms of the next council class, delaying its effect until 2009. And we can set up a council charter revision commission that would put a measure extending term limits on the ballot. I am open to any one of those three possibilities. I have not heard of any bills other than my own being drafted in the council."

Asked if the recent threat by cosmetics king Ron Lauder to bankroll opposition to any change in term limits that his millions helped make law a decade ago, Brewer insisted that Lauder wouldn't "frighten" her into going the legislative over the referendum route. "I think the people read ballot proposals carefully and make their decisions," said Brewer, citing the wildly different results on propositions 1 and 2 on this November's ballot, "and I think 12 years would pass." Of course, should the council vote to give themselves four years by legislative fiat, Lauder and other opponents, including Mayor Mike, could put another eight-year limit on the ballot, either as a citizen proposition or a Bloomberg charter amendment.

Brewer appears far more willing to return the issue to the voters than six of the candidates for speaker, including the one she's reportedly backing, Brooklyn's Bill de Blasio. De Blasio was actually the only candidate to endorse the term limit change in his prepared statement at a recent Citizens' Union forum, but almost everyone else joined him in choosing the legislative alternative, and no one even raised the possibility of including the public in this public reversal. De Blasio actually claims that referenda are the anti-democratic tools of big-money interests. He seems determined to make outgoing speaker Gifford Miller look like a goo-goo, since Miller blocked earlier de Blasio attempts to open the CFB door to affiliated union contributions, and insisted again last week that "any change" on term limits "should be put before the voters." Indeed, the only two speakers to hold office since a new charter created the post in 1989 have blocked this self-serving legislation and insisted on a referendum.

The current speaker candidates—led by frontrunners de Blasio, Christine Quinn, and Melinda Katz—presume that a three to one Appellate Division decision in 2003 allows the council to extend the limits by itself. But that case was brought to right a transparent wrong—namely that some councilmembers were being forced out after only six years because the 2002 reapportionment resulted in two-year terms with a re-election in 2003. The court sustained the council's bill because it "merely amended the term-limit provisions of the City Charter without changing the length of the term of office." Brewer's proposal will clearly change the length of possible service, if not the four-year length of a particular term.

Bloomberg has already made it clear that he will veto council legislation that bypasses a referendum, but he did that in 2003 and was overridden. His law department then defended the council bill in court, contending that the mayor saw it as unwise but "lawful." The city's briefs, however, repeatedly argued that the 2003 change wasn't altering "the duration" of a councilmember's service, only whether a two-year term was counted as a full term.

The speaker race will be won by the first candidate to demonstrably secure 26 of the 51 council votes and revolves around the sometimes competing and sometimes allied roles of two power centers of Democratic politics in the city: the unions and the party organizations. While each of the three front-runners has collected substantial union contributions, de Blasio has personal ties to pivotal unions that transcend his $28,250 in labor donations since 2004. De Blasio's cousin runs the national hotel workers' union, whose affiliates have made it a gigantic donor to councilmembers, and both de Blasio and his wife have worked for the Service Employees International Union, the single biggest council giver.

When council Education chair Eva Moskowitz held hearings in 2003 examining the negative impacts of union contracts on school operations, provoking the outrage of teachers' union boss Randi Weingarten, de Blasio led labor's defense on the committee. Mosko-witz, who is leaving the council in January, told the Voice that de Blasio "attempted to negotiate stuff for Randi, trying to change the order of speakers and shorten the hearings." After "calling and lobbying" Moskowitz unsuccessfully, he then "asked softball questions" at the hearings, she said. Bloomberg said at the time: "It was really only Eva Moskowitz standing up and asking the tough questions. Everyone else just stood there and pandered to the union and said, 'Aren't you wonderful?'" Weingarten's union has contributed $5,000 to de Blasio since 2002.

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