The People in Charge Profiling the New York City Council

The People in Charge

Every New Yorker knows the face of their mayor. But the faces they might not recognize are those of their city council members, a group that wields more power than most state legislatures. Fifty-one individuals make up the New York City Council, representing all five boroughs. Alongside the mayor, the laws they pass affect just about everyone living and working in New York - and it's a role they take seriously.

Council History 101

The New York City Council dates back to the days when the island was a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam. Incorporated as a city in 1653 by the Dutch West India Company, New Amsterdam was governed by a council of legislators who served as the local lawmaking body and as a small-scale court.

Nearly 300 years later, the council began a rather swift evolution into its current form. In 1938, a new charter was drafted making the council the local legislative body and creating the Board of Estimate to be the chief administrative body. In certain instances, the council had to answer to and get approval from the board, so the 26-member council did not function as a completely independent body. The number of council members then was determined by a system of proportional representation, but that system was abandoned in 1949. At that point, one council member was elected from each state senate district within the city. Two council members at large were added from each of the five boroughs.

In 1983, a federal court ruled that the council members at large notion violated the U.S. constitution's one-person, one-vote mandate. A similar ruling was made in 1989 regarding the Board of Estimate, which was consequently abolished. A new charter increased the number of council members from 35 to 51 and granted the council full power over the municipal budget, zoning, land use and franchises - powers once held by the Board of Estimate.

The Who, What and Where

Although the council is responsible for myriad pieces of legislation and ultimately the lives of some 8 million citizens, its main responsibilities boil down to four specific areas: monitoring the operation and performance of city agencies, making land use decisions, crafting and approving the city's budget and legislating on a wide range of issues ranging from zoning changes, to housing and urban renewal plans, community development plans, and what happens to city-owned property. The group oversees city agencies, too, to determine if their programs and budgets are functioning properly.

The council's 51 districts include 10 from Manhattan, eight from the Bronx, 14 from Queens, 16 from Brooklyn, and three from Staten Island. Some districts include portions of more than one borough. "Constituent group work is a priority," says Council Member Gale Brewer of Manhattan. "We all have districts that we represent and we're all very involved in those districts."

Council members are limited to two four-year terms, a relatively new development that led to dozens of new members taking office in 2002. "Today's city council members are mostly of the grassroots variety," says Steve Hamill, a council spokesperson. "2001 was the first year of term limits. Almost all our current members are the result of a very competitive primary process. They are a really energetic group."

The council and the New York City mayor are peers with equal power. They must work hand-in-hand on resolving major issues - including the budget - each year. According to Hamill, most of the decisions the council makes are hammered out in committee, with current council speaker Gifford Miller, current majority leader, Joel Rivera, current minority leader, James S. Oddo, and current public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum serving as ex-officio members of all committees.

The council speaker is elected by the council members and is primarily responsible for obtaining a consensus on major issues, and the minority leader is elected from among the party with the next largest representation. Although not a member of the council, the public advocate presides at the council's stated meetings and votes in the case of a tie. In the advocate's absence, the speaker presides or designates a presiding officer, or the body may elect from among its membership a president pro tempore to preside.

On the Agenda

In coming weeks and months, the council will tackle a number of important issues. First on that list is the budget. "The budget is number one on our list of priorities," says Brewer. "In New York City, we have a $45 billion budget. Only the federal government and the state of California's budgets are larger." It is an enormous responsibility and one that hits close to home for co-op and condo owners. "This whole process impacts co-op and condo owners in terms of revenue," Brewer says. "We need to make sure that revenue comes in. We want to have money for things like education and the needs of children. Unfortunately, that sometimes means we have to raise things like property taxes."

Hamill adds, "The budget affects everything from how many cops are on our streets to how many street cleaners there are to how much money our schools are getting." Pulling the numbers together is a months-long process during which council members work with the mayor to build consensus on priorities that must be addressed.

While the budget is perhaps the most important document drafted by the council, it's not just about finding a financial balance. "In the 1970s, the city had huge fiscal problems," Hamill says, referencing the infamous budget shortfalls, service cuts, and unemployment of that not-so-long-ago era. "Ever since then, the city has had to make and maintain a balanced budget." That means the council not only has to set forth the numbers, it is required by law to make sure the city and its agencies adhere to them - something not many cities have to do.

This year's budget debate has brought up the question of property tax refunds. Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a $400 rebate to homeowners. Council Speaker Gifford Miller proposed a 2 percent property tax reduction that would include commercial landlords and businesses as well as homeowners. The mayor's rebate would be a one-shot deal, although he has hinted others might appear in the future. Miller's proposal would be a long-term rollback. However the council votes, co-op and condo owners seem assured some sort of a tax break - always good news.

Co-op and condo owners also will be interested in the outcome of the council's recent home rule urging the state legislature to renew the partial tax abatement. If passed, the legislation would renew the abatement for four more years and require the city's administration to present a plan to the state legislature with recommendations addressing the disparity in property taxation between family homeowners and co-op and condo owners. "The council"¦ will continue to support the development of a plan to achieve complete equity in taxation between Class 1 and Class 2 property owners," Hamill says.


Council Member Gale Brewer chatted with

The Cooperator recently about life in the council and where it's headed next. She represents District 6 (representing the Upper West Side and Clinton) and is a member of committees working on technology, steering and budget. What are some of the most important issues facing the council right now?

"One issue is affordable housing. In our neighborhood, there are people who bought co-ops, but now because of property tax increases and other increases, affording those properties has become more difficult. We have to make sure that people can still afford to live in them. We have to ensure affordable rental properties as well. Education, too, is important. I spend a great deal of time in schools, and I recently saw a science classroom where only one water faucet out of eight worked. Now I'm going to try to fix those problems. Security is also an important issue, both personal and city-wide. Jobs, too, are vital. With the economy changing so quickly from manufacturing to the information age, we're trying to match the jobs that do exist with the people in need of jobs. We're trying to make sure that the community colleges are training people for the jobs that will be available in the future."

What are your views on the property tax issue?

"One of the issues that our speaker has talked about is that the two percent tax would help small businesses, co-ops and condos in the long term. It helps a broader group of people. Also, the $400 return [proposed by the mayor] would cut into the budget by $250 million, which is $250 million less for the city and its issues."

What are your thoughts on tax abatement?

"The council has to work with the state legislature on this. I certainly support (renewing the abatement). It would be a really, really big disaster without it."

What are your primary goals both for your constituency and for the city at large?

"The big picture is about the balance. Life can be very, very hard for the middle class in Manhattan and the rest of the city. If you have kids, getting them into good schools is very difficult. Forty percent of students who applied didn't get into the schools they wanted last year. I want to make sure that Manhattan is a place for low income and middle class families. You have to think of policies that will be of assistance to others. We need enough abatements, flexible housing rules and mixed income housing opportunities to have a balanced housing system. It's all about sustaining the middle class."

Property owners who want to voice their opinions on upcoming issues have a newly enhanced line of communication with the council, which debuted a new Web site

( in May. Citizens now can easily e-mail bill sponsors to voice their opinions. They also can receive weekly e-mails on upcoming city council hearings, meetings and events, get updates on hot topics and more. As Hamill says, "This is a tool that co-op and condo owners need in order to be able to advocate or voice their disagreement on issues that are important to them." Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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