Mayoral candidates tussle over council member items


Take a look at the New York City Council’s  website, and you will find a searchable database containing a list of all of the Council’s member items. This list includes the recipient of the member item, the amount given , the source, and a description of the money’s use.

Yet what remains undisclosed is the relationship of the association and the council member who granted the member item. In 2008, Council member Mathieu Eugene (D-Brooklyn) allocated $45,000 to the sports and youth guidance program he founded. According to the New York Times, when this money was given to the organization, the city’s auditors criticized the group’s  record keeping, including its lack of time sheets for an employee, Eugene’s brother.

This is but one of many examples in which council members have used member items to finance organizations they have ties to.  In 2008, the Times reported that over a dozen council members admitted they used member items to help finance groups they had a connection with.

Given public reaction to disclosures from recent and current investigations regarding  alleged misuse of funds by state legislators and city council members, the Democratic mayoral candidates have used the issue of City Council member items to promote themselves and criticize other leading candidates.

A member item is a share of the city’s finances the Council allots to an organization to be used for public services. The distribution is discretionary, and account for millions of dollars of the city’s yearly budget.

“Our current system is perfectly transparent,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a mayoral candidate, said at a forum on April 3.

Quinn said that when she became speaker, the city’s member item system was broken. Yet under her leadership, she said, the council has fixed its flaws and changed the system from top to bottom.

Furthermore, she said that getting rid of member items would hurt  community groups, leaving them without adequate resources to accomplish their goals. Instead of punishing these groups because of a few transgressors, Quinn proposed, change the system to protect it against abuse. a

“That’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” she said when asked what makes her a leader best prepared to steer clear of political scandals.

Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate and a former Democratic council member from Park Slope, called for an end to Council member items. He said other ways should be found to fund community organizations that  respond to  grassroots  needs –without a system of political privilege. At the forum, he said that member items have been used as a tool for politicians to benefit themselves, as well as an instrument for political control within a political body.

“What we have now is a system that allows both politicians to take care of their own needs, and it allows for any leader, in this case Speaker Quinn, to exercise political control through the use of that money,” de Blasio said.

“I welcome Bill’s adopting of my position on member items, which I had in 1998,” former Council member Sal Albanese, a Bay Ridge Democrat and mayoral aspirant, responded at the forum. “Bill, welcome aboard.”

Albanese said that based on past activity, de Blasio and Quinn have the same record on member items, and thereby promoted himself as the only candidate who has consistently fought to end member items. He said that when de Blasio served on the City Council, he never complained about member items.

Quinn continued the attack on de Blasio, saying that in 2005, when he was running for speaker of the City Council, he said nothing against member items.

“When you were running for a position where member items were relevant, the system was great,” Quinn said. “When you’re out, you want to change the system.”

In defense of his apparent inconsistency, de Blasio said that then, member items did not have as damaging an effect as they do today.

“Things have changed as we’ve seen more and more abuses, and that’s why we need more and more reform,” he said.

Josh Skaller, president of Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, one of the organizations that helped organize the April 3 forum, said that the current member item system relies on the premise that each council member knows what’s best for his or her district.

“What ends up happening is that the availability of funds largely depends on the relationship between the council member and the speaker,” he said.

Skaller said that these relationships have little or nothing to do with fairness or the districts’ needs. The speaker, he said, is using member items as a political tool, not for community enhancement.

“As they are now, they should be gotten rid of,” Skaller said member items.

However, Skaller said that if they are abolished, the government must put something else in place to accomplish what they were meant to achieve. Ideally, he said, a socioeconomic calculation should be used to assure that member items are equally distributed.

The New York Public Interest Research Group supports the effort to make member items more transparent, said Gene Russianoff, an attorney and spokesman for NYPIRG.

Russianoff said that member items should not be outright banned, but that he and NYPIRG prefer participatory budgeting. This would better involve the people in the process of allocating money to different organizations.

“If I were speaker, I’d move all member items to participatory budgeting,” Russianoff said.

Former City Comproller Bill Thompson and John Liu, the current comptroller, seemed neither here nor there when the subject of member items came up.

“I am not against member items, but it is clear that there are still problems there,” Thompson said.

Thompson said that member items must be based on the need of the districts and community organizations.

“Member items are a tiny piece of the city’s annual budget,” said Liu.

Liu said too much attention was being paid to the questions about member items, contrary to Albanese, who brought up the issue frequently.

Albanese spoke of member items almost exclusively when asked what makes him the candidate with the power to put an end to political corruption. Similarly, when asked if changes should be made to the city charter, Albanese immediately said that member items should be banned.

Liu said that member items are far smaller than the amount money the city spends on no-bid contracts.

“We need to overhaul the entire process, not just member items,” he said.

Photo: Candidates debate spending on Council member items at April 3 forum.




Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply