The Council Votes for Chaos


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.

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.

When Leffler adopted a bill giving the police commissioner a wider range of powers to discipline bad cops—a reform championed by both the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations—Vallone and the rest of the council collapsed under pressure from the police unions and killed it. Leffler scheduled the bill for a vote in his committee, and, says Leffler, Vallone swooped in to remove it from the calendar.

Even Stan Michels—a progressive paragon within the council who chairs the Environmental Protection Committee—has rolled over on the administration’s abominable solid-waste disposal plan. Michels had the courage to personally confront the combustible mayor on recycling, and he has squeezed concessions out of the administration that have led to annual increases in the amount of recyclables collected. But the council did nothing when Giuliani and George Pataki decided to close the city’s only landfill even though no real alternative was in place, and the costly maneuver was a transparent political boondoggle for the city’s only Republican county.

The Independent Budget Office estimates that the closing is occurring at least 20 years early, five years before a rail-barge network can be put in place to get the garbage out of the city, and at an annual cost of hundreds of millions. Not only will a daily caravan of garbage-laden and budget-busting trucks be Giuliani’s legacy, it will be Michels’s and Vallone’s. The next mayor and council may have to lay off teachers to pay for it. In exchange, the council got an agreement to do a study of commercial waste standard operating procedure for a legislature that has rarely said “no” to a major Giuliani initiative.

Virtually the entire council leadership was there before 1990, when it assumed much of the powers of the abolished Board of Estimate. Their sense of what the body could and should do was framed by the limitations of the old charter, and try as they might, they have never psychologically transcended it. A new council will insist that future mayors implement the welfare and police misconduct laws it passes; it will make sure councilmembers decide when the city’s only landfill will close.

Through the darkest days of the Giuliani era—when the city’s minorities were literally under siege—this council shuddered and schmoozed, afraid to become the counterpoint to Rudy that the charter required them to be. Now, faced with a new day, its only champion is itself.

Research: Robbie Chaplick, Jesse Goldstein, Laurence Pantin, Gregg Robertson, and Theodore Ross