Citizens Union We Just Achieved Long-Championed City Policy Reforms by Dick Dadey
It was a good day yesterday for reform at City Hall.
With the support of our members spanning decades and the leadership of key reform-focused members of the city council, Citizens Union achieved some long-championed city policy reforms.
When Mayor de Blasio yesterday signed 4 council bills into law, he significantly, and appropriately, raised the salaries of city elected officials (see the table at the end of the letter for the old and new salaries). But more importantly, after hearing from me directly in testimony I provided at the public hearing held just before he acted on the bills, the mayor ushered in a new era of valuing public service, enacting sorely needed reform for how we compensate the members of the New York City Council.
As with any reform it isn't perfect, but it is far better than what we currently have. We call that progress we can support, especially when it arrives as a result of many years of thoughtful research, policy analysis, and tenacious advocacy by Citizens Union - made possible by members like you.
Gone for the next two years are the additional stipends (also known as lulus) averaging $9,000 that 50 of 51 members receive on top of their current base salary of $112,500. Under past speakers, these lulus were used to reward supporters and punish those who didn’t toe the line. Part of the $36,000 increase in councilmembers’ salaries is because the new baseline includes the elimination of these discretionary and uneven lulus. However while this change is historic, it is only temporary. Nothing prevents the next council from returning to this practice in 2018.
The timing of future pay commissions was pushed back one year to the third year of a four-year term in the hope that it would make it more likely that future pay increases would not take effect until the next term. But nothing prohibits a future council from self-dealing again by making its raises effective immediately during their current term in office, especially when they influence how large a pension a retired councilmember may receive. Again, this is a second historic reform, but it is not guaranteed to last without a permanent change to the city charter.
The council opted for a complete ban on outside earned income, which is at odds with the recommendation of the Quadrennial Commission, chaired by Fritz Schwartz. The commission and CU both wanted members to be allowed to earn outside income up to a cap of 15% of their council salary. An outright ban could possibly exclude qualified New Yorkers who may want to run for city council but also wish to keep open their businesses and law practices, a factor to be considered when council terms are limited to eight years.
One last good, and permanent, reform was publishing elected officials’ financial disclosure forms online, allowing New Yorkers to view these documents without an onerous and outdated process that involved a trip to the COIB office to pick up paper copies and resulted in the elected official being notified of your request.
The city council process used to approve the pay raises took eight days – nearly half of the normal time when legislative bills are considered. The process also involved only one public hearing, not the customary two for pay raises. This short-circuiting of the process further added to the uneasiness of the decision to increase council salaries, especially when council members voted to override the commission’s recommendation and add $10,000 to their salaries – the first time this has occurred since the process was enacted over 25 years ago.
In spite of our reservations about the time-limited process and the temporary nature of some of the reforms, Citizens Union believes that on balance, the new salaries are acceptable which is why we urged the mayor to sign them into law. They are made even more appealing given the reforms achieved. Now that a new norm on reform has been established, we will work hard to make permanent these temporary reforms. The big outcome is that New York is again valuing the importance of public service and the need to attract a wide variety of qualified New Yorkers to run for public office while implementing needed reform to provide fair compensation that has been decades in the making. That in and of itself is an accomplishment we all can be proud of as we strive to make democracy work for all New Yorkers and create a better, more efficient and effective city government.
This achievement would not have been possible without the support of many reform-minded members of the city council. Three stand out: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Rules Committee Chair CM Brad Lander and Government Operations Committee Chair, CM Ben Kallos.
With much appreciation,