In January 2014, a new group of leaders will be joining the New York City Council offering the opportunity to make it more accountable and responsive to our community. With the membership changing by nearly half, all new members should stand up for rules reform and require any candidate for Speaker to agree. As a member of Community Board 4, and current Chair, I have personally witnessed too many occasions where Council politics have superseded the voice of the community. This city and its citizens deserve a change.

We need to change the methods of distributing discretionary funding. As the convictions in recent years of Councilmembers Miguel Martinez, Larry Seabrook and Hiram Monserrate as well as the April indictment of Councilmember Dan Halloran has shown, the present system has proven susceptible to sticky fingers and outright corruption. Political brinksmanship must be eliminated as a criterion for the award of member-items. This can be accomplished by dispersing money based on the financial need of the district and by requiring greater transparency about the recipients and their relationships to the councilmembers making the allocation. We must embrace the reforms advanced by Citizens Union to mandate the release of the discretionary funds being distributed and at which councilmember’s behest in advance of any vote by the Council and the expansion of the online database to allow for greater public engagement. The budget process should be further made more transparent by clearly defining how taxpayer dollars are spent and limiting the size of these individual budget categories.

Another important issue is the recognition that the democratic process requires the timely consideration of any legislation which is supported by a majority of the Council. Individual members need to be given greater authority to bring bills before the full Council and committee chairs need to be able to set agendas. Whether or not a bill survives a vote by the Council, the public discussion of the issues helps educate constituents on the policy proposed and their representative’s stance on the issue, and ensures a level of civic discourse critical to a well-functioning democracy.

Becoming elected to the City Council is a privilege. I support a change to the City Charter to classify it as a full-time job. Currently, councilmembers are compensated $112,500 for what is deemed a ‘part-time job’ and are given approximately $300,000 for their office expenses (staff salaries, rent, and office supplies). We need to eliminate the ability for our councilmembers to collect outside incomes, which distract from the focus on their public service and create the potential for conflicts of interest. We should ask our elected officials to make a full-time commitment to the city and in turn, make a full time commitment to them. In the interim, greater disclosure of additional incomes should be implemented so the public is better apprised of their representatives’ other commitments and interests. With an increase in the base pay of Councilmembers expected soon, it should be accompanied by the elimination of stipends for serving as a committee chair.

New tools, such as participatory budgeting, the practice of allowing residents to help determine how to distribute funds in their district, and empowering Community Boards, by granting them additional formal powers of review and requiring greater thresholds for the city to override their recommendation, will expand participation by all New Yorkers in their government. An example is the recent April involvement of the residents in eight districts to determine the distribution of over $1 million of their capital budgets. This type of productive partnership encourages transparency and civic engagement so should be the norm not the exception.

Formal and transparent processes for community board appointments including applications, interviews, and the prompt filling of vacancies will encourage more community members to apply and increase the quality and diversity of those chosen to be members. Community Boards, along with the Borough Presidents, Public Advocate, Conflicts of Interest Board, and other bodies that provide a check on the mayor and agencies, should be given independent budgets that are not subject to the whim of others in government.

My hope is to promote these reforms to create a more responsive, transparent, and accountable Council, one that is better equipped to address constituent needs, tackle important legislation and make New Yorkers proud of their municipal government.

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