Reform the New York City Council speakership selection process

New York City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem) was selected by unanimous vote on 8 January 2014 to succeed former Councilmember Christine Quinn (D-West Village) as speaker of the municipal legislature.  

For a periof of time, members of the Progressive Caucus of the New York City Council contemplated voting by secret ballot for the new Council speaker, effectively hiding from the public the business they are voted to do.

Despite a tumultuous speakership campaign that revealed fault lines between the traditionally powerful political party county committees and an insurgent class of lobbyists, who were able to flex their influence on public policy to include the selection of the Council’s new speaker, peer pressure forced everybody to fabricate a unified front behind Council Speaker Mark-Viverito.

During the speakership campaign, it was revealed that Councilmember Mark-Viverito had been accepting free campaign consulting services from a lobbying firm in contravention of City Charter rules against such an arrangement.  Other reports revealed that Councilmember Mark-Viverito had not made important income disclosures.  

To finance the full-court press for the speakership, Councilmember Mark-Viverito launched a controversial campaign committee with the state’s campaign finance regulatory authority, creating the impression that Councilmember Mark-Viverito was treating the legislative leadership post as a seperate public office, possibly establishing a dangerous precedent in the form of a dual mandate.  This campaign committee acted outside of the city’s campaign finance regulatory authority, making Councilmember Mark-Viverito appear to be forum-shopping for her controversial campaign committee.  Municipal campaign finance rules cap donations and spending for campaigns for the New York City Council.  The backroom deals waged by Councilmember Mark-Viverito gave her the confidence to self-declare herself the winner of the speakership campaign, and she improbably began to plan her victory party -- even before Councilmembers had publicly cast their unanimous votes.

To lend this corrupt process some credence, the candidates for the speakership participated in farcical public forums, giving the public the inclination to believe that their opinions about the speakership candidates would play a role in selecting a speaker, when, in reality, the speakership is determined in backroom deals.

On the eve of the speakership vote, concerns over these ethical lapses or other ethical issues led the Editorial Boards of a host of newspapers to oppose Councilmember Mark-Viverito’s speakership, including The New York Daily News, The New York Times, and The New York Post.

Despite these disturbing facts, then Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) was widely reported to be lobbying to install Councilmember Mark-Viverito as the Council speaker, so that he could push his legislative agenda through the City Council with the help of a Council speaker, who, in turn, owed her selection to the new mayor-elect.

To reward her supporters, the new Council speaker reportedly awarded prized City Council committee chairmanships, and corresponding valuable annual stipends, to those Councilmembers, who maintained loyalty to her campaign, despite the controversies.  

Almost two years after the New York City Council vote that selected Councilmember Mark-Viverito as Council speaker, the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board assessed fines and penalities on Council Speaker Mark-Viverito’s campaign committee for having violated the City Charter rules against accepting gifts from lobbyists.  As reported by Progress Queens, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito’s spokesperson issued a statement following the announcement of the fines and penalties, saying, in part, “This is a positive resolution.”  The spokesperson was wrong.

New Yorkers deserve a Council speaker, who is selected under conditions that uphold democratic principles of transparency, fairness, and an absence of corruption.  A positive resolution would be for the New York City Council to reform the process by which it selects a Council speaker, including considering how the position could be publicly-elected.  

There are ways to eliminate the undue influence of lobbyists, backroom deals, and the spoils system from determining the Council speaker.  One option would be to rotate the Council speakership amongst the five boroughs, according to the highest nominal Councilmember candidate vote-getter in that borough in that election year.  The qualified public servants elected to the New York City Council would undoubtedly have other ideas.  How about holding true public forums around New York City, so that voters can submit suggestions on how reforming the speakerships selections process could be accomplished, and then allowing the City Council to vote on the suggestions ?  Then, follow the process to amend the City Charter to improve democracy in the New York City Council leadership.

  -- Progress Queens