How NYC Council Speaker Chokes Democracy

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This is an election year. Changes can be realized. Vote for those city council candidates who will stand up to the Mayor and the Speaker and end their dictatorial control.

[New York News]

The City Council is the Legislative Branch of government that is supposed to provide the Checks and Balances to the power of the Mayor who represents the Executive Branch of Government.

The City Council passes the $60 billion dollar city budget, not the Mayor. The City Council passes the laws in this city, not the Mayor.

The City Council has the power to determine how city owned land will be developed, not the Mayor. The City Council has oversight responsibility over every city agency and subpoena power to force city agency commissioners to testify at council oversight hearings.

With all of this power one would think that the City Council would be the great protector of the rights and interest of people of New York City. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the unbridled, unchecked, abusive use of the power of the Mayor and the power of the Speaker of the City Council that controls the budget, land use, legislation –laws-- and city agencies in the interest of the Mayor and the Speaker, not the people.

The key to checking the Mayor and the Speaker’s power, thus protecting the people’s interest, is to democratize the office of the Speaker of the City Council. As it stands now the Speaker is a dictator not a facilitator.

The Speaker has too much power over the 51 members of the New York City Council. Council Members are afraid to go against the Speaker; there’s a heavy price you pay. These are the powers of the Speaker: The Speaker hires and fires central staff.

Therefore they work at the pleasure of the Speaker.

The Speaker determines which council members will chair committees and which committee’s council members will serve on. This gives the Speaker absolute power at which legislation will pass, and which legislation will die in committee. The Speaker determines how much capital and program money each council member will get for their districts.

While there is a set amount for Youth and Senior programs, council members can get much more money for expense and capital projects at the discretion of the Speaker if they vote and act at the pleasure of the Speaker.

The Speaker even determines where council members sit in City Hall Chambers during full council meetings—Stated Meetings—and which official you will occupy at 250 Broadway. The Speaker also determines who can use the prestigious "Red Room" at City Hall to host world and local leaders. If the Speaker doesn’t agree with the politics of a council member’s guest, they will not be permitted to use the Red Room.

The point here is the Speaker has the power to determine who uses the peoples Red Room. The Speaker has the power to determine who will be honored with proclamations at our full stated council meetings, not the council members. This is far too much power for the Speaker. With the exception of an extremely minuscule minority (2), an overwhelming majority of the council members vote in the interest of the Speaker and not of the people who voted them in office.

Let’s not forget the term limits vote. It was the New York City Council that voted 29 to 22 in favor of the Mayor.

The Mayor had no vote, and the Speaker had 1 vote. However, the majority of the council members were afraid to vote against the power Mayor and Speaker. In 2009 we will vote for city council candidates. Now is the time to call for change in how the city council does its business.

In 2001 we started the fresh democracy council. New council members voted for 8 new rule changes. These rules didn’t go far enough. The first order of business for the 2010 city council is to vote for rules and a speaker. The people must unite, rise up, and force the council to do the right thing and make some real changes.

Being one who strives not to major in the problems and minor in the solutions, I therefore offer these City Council rule changes for the purposes of transforming the City Council from a speaker’s dictatorship to a people’s democracy.

Rule Change #1: Let there be a pre-determined equitable distribution of capital and programmatic money to each council member for their districts.

In short, give each member the same amount. We must take away the power of the speaker to give out capital and expense money. This rule change will free up council members from the bribes and arm twisting for their votes.

Rule Change #2: Let’s set up a Council Committee to determine who will chair committees and who will serve on committees.

This needs more thinking through, but it’s a step in the right direction. Take the power away from the speaker.

Rule Change #3: Let the council members decide who the council leadership will be; that is, The Majority and Minority Leaders, Deputy Majority and Minority Leaders, and the Majority and Minority Whips, etc. Take the power away from the speaker.

Rule Change #4: Let the council members reform the budget negotiating team.

The speaker has too much power and influence over the budget negotiation process with the Mayor.

I firmly believe these rule changes will be a step in the right direction for bringing democracy to the city council. I am sure there are more changes that can be added to this list, but let’s get started with these. I am a realist and an idealist. Some of you may say this will never happen. They said that about President Barack Obama. Remember all things are possible.

The city council is made up of 51 members, 26 whites and 25 people of color—13 Blacks, 11 Latinos, and 1 Asian. We have the power to make this happen. This is an election year. Changes can be realized. Vote for those city council candidates who will stand up to the Mayor and the Speaker and end their dictatorial control. Let’s truly bring back that saying of the sixties "Power to the People".

This time let’s make it a reality. Remember the struggle may be long, but our victory is certain.


Barron is a member of the New York City Council and founder of Operation Power

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