The New York City Council will convene Thursday, two weeks after the 51-member body elected Adrienne Adams as their speaker, representing the only major piece of business before the council when members last met.
Now comes the legislating, the central function for members, whose priorities vary according to the needs and political bent of their districts. The process starts with an idea and, if everything goes well, winds up in the chamber.
But conceiving an idea is one thing. Turning it into a law is another.
Through interviews, a review of the most publicly available bill drafting manual in the council, the Rules of the Council and the City Charter, here’s what it takes for a bill to become law in the council:
It begins with an idea
The inspiration for a bill often begins at the community level, largely driven by a need in the district or throughout the city. Usually, a constituent, staffer or a member raises an issue that might require a new statute or an update to an existing one — known as a “local law.”
Ideas can emerge at a local community board, precinct council, or borough board meeting. Sometimes the inspiration can originate from a news article highlighting the lack of transparency on the physical locations of reported crime, exploiting an archaic nuisance abatement law, or revealing how food delivery app workers are shortchanged.
In some cases, the New York City mayor or borough presidents can introduce legislation, but they need the City Council speaker or a member who doubles as chair of the appropriate committee to submit the proposed bill, according to the manual. The city’s public advocate, who has a ceremonial role presiding over the council, can introduce legislation independently.
How does an idea turn into a bill?
Council members can budget for a legislative director, sometimes a staffer with a legal background, to manage the legislative process, talking to lobbyists, council staff attorneys and community groups about the bill.
The legislative director submits the idea, called a “legislative service request,” on behalf of the member into an internal spreadsheet that’s accessible by the council’s legislative division. That office is composed of a team of attorneys that conducts research to analyze whether such a bill proposal has legal standing.
“They’re sort of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s to see if we’re able to move this bill forward,” Greg Faulkner, the former chief of staff to Bronx Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, said of the legislative division.
At this point the process can get tricky.
The attorneys at the council’s legislative division wield significant power in deciding whether to advance a bill, basing it on a number of factors, including if a bill can stand legal scrutiny. This stage can take months or even years, given the extent of legal research that’s required, said former Councilmember Ben Kallos, who represented Manhattan.
“Most legislation dies in drafting,” Kallos said.
But should the team determine it is feasible for a proposed bill to be enacted, then they get to work on wording the bill, using language that can take months to hash out.
“It goes through a lot of reviews,” Kallos said. “The more complicated the issue, the longer it takes.”
Once the legislative division fine tunes the bill’s language, the attorney assigned the proposed bill then submits a formal draft back to the member for approval. In some cases, the bill language is shared with advocacy groups or special interests who might offer their own input. In fact, some of those groups can be involved in drafting the language themselves.
The agreed-upon bill is then placed in an internal system called Legistar, a listing of all drafted bills, regardless of whether they’ve been introduced yet. The member who helped author the bill becomes the prime sponsor and can also request a “fiscal impact statement” analysis, which outlines how much money will have to be spent as a result of the local law being passed.
There are instances where a similar bill has already been drafted and is on file without the member knowing. This is because bills can date back years without being acted on and remain in the pipeline. So, hypothetically, if a member proposes public libraries further expand their hours, they can’t proceed if they learn a similar bill is already registered.
In that instance, the member can do two things: stand down or move ahead trying to get the new bill registered. Choosing the second option can take time since the legislative division is not required to disclose the identity of the member who devised the bill, according to Faulkner. This makes it difficult for the member to personally reach out to their colleague to see if they can either have the bill removed or co-sponsor the bill.
But should the member succeed in either getting the bill drafted or determine the original author to collaborate in co-sponsoring the bill, then…
Success! The bill is registered. Where do we go from here?
The next step is for the member to formally introduce the bill to the council in what’s called a “stated meeting,” where the full body meets to carry out the business of New York City.
By then, the members can cobble support by getting sponsors to their bill to further strengthen its chances of passage.
After the member introduces the legislation, reading a summary of it, the council speaker assigns it to the committee within the council that would best explore the relevance and consequences of the bill.
What role does a committee play?
The council has roughly three-dozen committees and subcommittees focused on a specific topic, including education, health, public safety, small business, the environment and transportation.
Committee members essentially review and interrogate whether a bill deserves to become a law. To do this, the committee holds public hearings that allow New York City residents, special interest groups, city agency employees (usually commissioners or another higher-up), to testify on the merits of the bill. They are allowed two minutes to speak or submit written comments.
Under the rules, a committee chair can decide when to schedule a public hearing. Sometimes the chair can schedule it with input from the speaker.
“The hearing is another opportunity for information to be raised and people responding to the language of the bill, and to whether or not the bill is addressing the issues that they care about,” said former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “That happens even before the hearing happens—a lot of that back and forth and changing some of that language of the bill. And revisions are made.”
Hearings usually can run for five minutes or 12 hours, the standard cap. From there, Kallos said, the speaker’s office, bill sponsor, committee chair, and committee decide whether to proceed. If so, they alert the mayor, and the council’s attorney begins to further flesh out the bill with help from the city Law Department.
“Sometimes these changes are very minor, and sometimes we’re talking about a completely new bill,” Kallos said.
How do I influence a piece of legislation?
There are many ways for New Yorkers to weigh in on a bill. The best known route is to submit formal comments or attend a committee hearing. All of the committee hearings and the bills being discussed can be found on Legistar as well. Just go to the council’s website, click on “Legislation” at the top menu, then click on “Hearings Calendar and Video Archive” for a schedule of hearings and the bills being debated.
Another option is to contact the sponsor directly, or contact your own council member to share your concerns. The contact information for every member’s office can also be found on the council site, by clicking on “Find Your District/Member.”
And if that doesn’t work residents can follow a time-honored tradition in New York City government: Show up to the steps of City Hall and let your voice be heard.
Does the bill go straight to the floor after a committee hearing?
After hearings on the merits of a given piece of legislation, the committee will usually hold a separate meeting to vote the measure “out of committee” and on to the full council.
Then bills are required to be “aged,” meaning a physical copy of the legislation is placed on members’ desks. They must then review them at least seven calendar days (except Sundays) before the bill comes before the council for a full vote. This, theoretically, gives members time to digest what exactly it is they’re voting on. By this point, they’ll also have the chance to review the fiscal impact statement.
Once that happens, the speaker decides if and when to call the bill to a full vote before the council. This part can get complicated too since a speaker has the power to decide when to place a bill on their agenda or whether to leave it in limbo
That process can take months, depending on the speaker’s willingness to cobble enough votes to ensure the bill's passage. A bill is usually not put to a floor vote unless the speaker knows it has enough support to pass.
How many votes are needed for a bill’s passage?
A bill requires 26 members, or a simple majority, for it to pass. However, a speaker can choose not to put something to a vote unless they expect the bill will pass with a supermajority, composed of 34 or more in the council. Such votes are secured to send a message to the mayor that a bill is veto-proof, Kallos said, as a supermajority will override a mayor’s veto.
If the bill passes with less than 34 members approving it, it’s placed in a precarious position – all that work can be erased by a veto.
What happens if the mayor vetoes?
Members have 30 days to alter portions of the bill that the mayor objects to, or pass the bill again with a supermajority.
And if the mayor knows a veto is pointless?
The mayor may still try to veto a bill to make a political point, even if it’s going to be overridden by the council. Or the mayor can ignore the bill altogether. If the mayor intends to hold a bill-signing, there is technically another public hearing on the bill, but at that point its passage is often a fait accompli. But if, after 30 days, the mayor has taken no action, the bill automatically becomes law.
So when does it become law?
Some laws can take effect immediately. Other times, the bill takes effect one year from the time it’s passed, giving time for those affected to comply with the new measure. Often, the time-period for implementation will be written into the bill itself.