New York Daily News Council Independence (Or Lack Thereof) by Liz Benjamin

New York Daily News
New York Daily News
Council Independence (Or Lack Thereof)
Liz Benjamin
09/11/2009

Government transparency is all the rage these days.

There are now a number of useful clearinghouse Web sites where members of the public can use to track the attendance, connections, campaign finance reports and voting records of their elected officials.

But only one, NewYork.OpenLegislation.org, has a feature that enables users to determine the degree of independence Council members have had when it comes to voting with Speaker Christine Quinn.

You will probably not be surprised to discover that city lawmakers generally don't stray far from Quinn's side - not even the Republicans.

In fact, even one of the most independent of lawmakers, Queens Democrat Tony Avella, has voted with the speaker 94.9 percent of the time so far this year, which translates into 298 votes with Quinn and 16 votes against her.

Thirteen Council members voted with Quinn 100 percent of the time.

Avella, whose colleagues frequently gripe that he doesn't play nice with others and once even voted down four land use items in his district just to demonstrate their dislike of him, wasn't always such a lone wolf. In 2006, he voted twice against the speaker, ranking him 18th on the independence list.

That year, Brooklyn Democrat Charles Barron cast 28 "no" votes, which means he bucked the speaker 7.17 percent of the time.

The site is a lot of fun to play with. If you've got the time, check out how the Council members who are now seeking citywide office started asserting themselves last year.

While you're at it, you can also check the voting records and attendance of state lawmakers; NYPIRG also recently released an analysis of the leadership-driven Legislature. (Council members' attendance, which has become an issue in select races this year, is not yet available).

"The numbers show that leadership makes nearly all the decisions for their legislative bodies with only infrequent dissension, even from the loyal opposition," said Jeff Greenberg, the CFO of the Open Government Foundation, the nonprofit behind the Web site.

The founders of the Open Government Foundation include several former state legislative staffers. One of them is Thom Neale, who used to work for Assemblyman Vito Lopez on the Assembly Housing Committee.

"Our mission is simple: wherever the state legislature neglects to release critical legislative data to the public, whether through apathy, indifference, or impracticability, we will step in and use every means available to release the information for free ourselves."

The information for the site, which was launched earlier this summer, comes from the Council's own site, and it's a little spotty in places.

The Council posted the information after rejecting FOIL requests for it. The Times successfully sued over the rejection and received a lower price for the data it sought.

Issue: 
Good Government