Monday, November 14, 2005

City Council Agenda

In order to really transform itself into a first rate legislative body, the City Council needs to develop a comprehensive policy agenda for New York City, one that, while setting a contrast to the mayor’s priorities, lays out a new vision for New Yorkers. In doing so, the primarily Democratic Council can begin to help develop a new and fresh policy perspective for a part that is perceived to be running on nostalgic fumes lately.

We agree with Anthony Weiner when he says that ideas count. If so, key councilmembers need to urge that the new speaker look for ways to tap into the rich academic, think tank and foundation resources extant in this city. Just as there are probably no strictly Democratic or Republican ways to pick up garbage, it is equally true that good municipal policy is not within the purview of one particular ideology.

The new speaker should set up a series of colloquia on a wide range of policy issues. From this in-depth examination of the issues, a number of policy initiatives should be promulgated. What follows are some suggestions:

1) Regulatory Reform – The Environmental Control Board is probably the largest court in the country but what passes for due process would shock even the most conservative observer. The entire adjudicatory process should be overhauled in the city.

2) Land Use Review – The current system, at least from the standpoint of real land use review, is a charade. A new process should be proposed, one that incorporates some of the precepts of accountable development. In addition, the consultants that conduct the review need to be independently contracted, not hired by the developer as is the current practice.

3) Firehouse Siting and Fire Safety – The Council should pass legislation mandating a new siting study for firehouses. The last study, done in 1975 by the Rand Corporation, is way outdated and the FDNY is currently using a Ouija board when it decides which firehouses to close.

4) Privatization – Can certain services be done cheaper if outsourced to the private sector? Will the Council be willing to ever consider this if labor opposition is generated? There may be certain areas, like waste removal, where the private sector can complete the job in a more cost efficient manner. If the budget shortfall does exceed $4 billion, the Council may be more amenable to something like this rather than being forced to accede to social service cuts.

As Jonathan Bowles suggests, it might be useful to also streamline the public hospital infrastructure, “Billions can be saved by closing underused city hospitals.” Can we do this without jeopardizing health care for the poor? Should the subject be taboo?

These are just some thoughts. Others, such as vouchers for education, might also be explored on a pilot program basis. In addition, the whole eminent domain question should be thoroughly evaluated and legislation proposed to alter some of the harsher features of the current law.