Council Priorities

The new City Council Speaker doles out some surprising assignments

Not that anyone expected new City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to throw perks or plums to those who opposed her, but the list of committee appointments she unveiled last week contained some mind-boggling names and omissions. This was Quinn's maiden voyage as the new leader of the 51-member council, and her picks represented both an indication of her priorities as well as a distribution of spoils among the members and Democratic county leaders who endorsed her. As such, the list revealed Quinn as more the steely-eyed Irish pol who whipped six challengers for her post than the former housing activist who once wrestled with City Hall bureaucrats.

For starters, there was the appointment of newly elected Queens councilmember Thomas White Jr. as the new chairman of the Economic Development Committee. The post brings a lulu of $10,000 that is added to his $90,000 base salary. It also positions him to garner campaign donations from all those with business before the panel. White is the first former councilmember to return to the body since term limits—which Quinn has vowed to revisit—were imposed in 1993. But before those rules forced him out of office, White had become a one-man walking argument for why many thought term limits were a good idea in the first place. Back in 1995, White had the council's worst attendance record, missing half of all his committee meetings. He never even held a session of his subcommittee on alcoholism and substance abuse. By 2001, his last year in the council, he was still missing 40 percent of committee sessions. Worse, as Newsday's William Murphy revealed last summer, three top officials of J-Cap, the drug treatment program White heads in Jamaica, Queens, were nailed on federal charges of shaking down vendors. White was never accused of a crime, but a Department of Investigation report obtained by Murphy said he'd also failed to intervene in staff wrongdoing. "For many years, White managed this organization while the criminal activities continued unabated," the DOI report stated.

That's the résumé of the man Quinn chose to head a committee that is supposed to oversee the city's economic development operations. Ideally, the head of such a panel could use its powers to bird-dog such Bloomberg administration deals as the one that seeks to evict several hundred employees from the Bronx Terminal Market in favor of a big-box-store retail center to be built by a close friend and former business partner of the current deputy mayor for, yes, economic development. Or it could look into the administration's curious approach to promoting economic development in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where several hundred more workers are facing eviction from the city's piers next year, without any backup plan to relocate either employees or freight customers elsewhere on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Christine Quinn
photo: Dan Luhmann
Christine Quinn

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  • White didn't return a call to inquire about his agenda. A secretary at his agency, J-Cap, said rules there forbid anyone taking a message related to "politics."

    In picking White, Quinn had to dump the panel's former chairman, James Sanders Jr., another Queens councilman. Elected in 2001, Sanders hadn't exactly distinguished himself either, providing lackluster leadership on issues and embarrassing the Speaker's office. After marrying his chief of staff last summer, he ignored council nepotism rules that bar wives from council payrolls, vowing to fight an order to fire her. But his greater sin appears to have been angering Quinn's key political backer, Queens Democratic boss Tom Manton, who backed a losing candidate against Sanders last fall.

    On Wednesday, as the committee assignments were being put to a full council vote, Sanders stood in the chambers to denounce his ouster. "Were we in a meritocracy, I would still be chair of my committee," he said. "Sadly, forces outside this room have more power than they deserve and they have exacted their pound of flesh." Sanders's tough talk faded as soon as the session ended and reporters pressed him to name names. "They know who they are," he said coyly.

    Quinn has already taken a public shellacking, albeit mostly on blogs, for designating Brooklyn's Erik Martin Dilan to head the influential Housing and Buildings Committee. Dilan inherited his seat from his father, State Senator Martin Malave Dilan, who was also term-limited out of office. Both men are loyal soldiers of new Brooklyn Democratic leader Vito Lopez, whose endorsement of Quinn put her over the top in her search for votes. A longtime state assemblyman from Bushwick and Williamsburg, Lopez also heads the assembly's housing committee, so the designation of his protégé to run the council's housing panel gives him unprecedented clout over city programs and policies. But the younger Dilan's most noteworthy housing experience was his obstinate refusal—until the final vote in the council—to sign on to tough new lead-paint-removal requirements forged in the council's last session. Dilan's hesitancy stood out because his Bushwick and Ocean Hill district constitutes a large portion of what's been dubbed the "lead belt," with the city's highest concentration of cases. Tenant activists repeatedly marched in protest on Dilan's borough offices and publicized his ample contributions from the real estate industry.

    Landlord lobbyists rarely get everything they want from the council these days—witness the lead paint bill and last year's Tenant Empowerment Act. But they've managed under every council leader to hold on to the right to approve the head of the housing committee. Former Speaker Gifford Miller handed the post to conservative Democrat Madeline Provenzano, whose Bronx district held comparatively few rental units, making her less vulnerable to tenant pressures. Before that, southeast Queens councilman Archie Spigner, who marched in lockstep with Democratic Party orders and whose district was largely composed of homeowners, presided for years over the panel.

    Asked earlier this month about Dilan's much rumored appointment, Quinn insisted to both the press and tenant lobbyists that nothing was decided. But when his nomination was released on Wednesday, it was accompanied by wholesale changes. Gone from the committee were a trio of stalwart pro-tenant councilmembers, Manhattan's Gail Brewer, Brooklyn's Letitia James, and Queens's Melinda Katz. In their place were two of the council's three Republicans, and the ubiquitous White. The lone bright spot for tenants was the appointment of newly elected councilmember Rosie Mendez from Manhattan's Lower East Side.

    Another head-scratcher by Quinn was the designation of Brooklyn's Simcha Felder as head of the Governmental Operations Committee. Under its former chair, Bill Perkins of Harlem, the committee took on everyone from the police commissioner, over civil liberties violations, to the mayor, over diversity in hiring. Those are unlikely targets for Felder, whose Borough Park district is so conservative that he took a bathroom break rather than cast a public ballot for Quinn, whose lesbian status might offend his heavily Orthodox Jewish constituents.

    The committee also oversees the public campaign finance board, which has long asked the council to address the nettlesome issue of whether candidates facing nominal opposition should be allowed to receive public matching funds. Those insisting they needed the public's dime to aid their re- election this past year ranged from Brooklyn radical Charles Barron (re-elected with 89 percent of the vote) to Staten Island Republican Andrew Lanza (who got 81 percent). This problem doesn't affect Felder, whose donation-rich district filled his coffers with a whopping $287,000—without his even entering the public campaign finance system. But whether that makes Felder, known as a jokester, a free agent on the issue or an easily maneuvered reform foe remains to be seen.

    Quinn got credit for extending an olive branch to former challenger Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn, retaining him as head of the General Welfare Committee, and making him a new assistant majority leader. Less noticed was her decision to leave other pro–de Blasio figures out in the cold. James, whose most high-profile stance has been her opposition to the massive Atlantic Yard arena project, was shut out altogether in the awarding of committee leadership posts. "I am bloodied but unbossed," James said last week, echoing the late Shirley Chisholm.

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