Monday, May 12, 2008

Times Cleans up the Slush

In a continuation of its excellent reporting on the City Council's purported slush scandal, the NY Times on Sunday uses the incisive work of Diane Cardwell to make some significant points about how all of this fits into the question of NYC governance: "But veterans of New York City politics say that many of the practices now being revealed are far from novel or rare. Indeed, they say, they are woven into the very fabric of city government, tough threads spun from the mayor’s near lock on power, which leaves lawmakers with few ways to wield influence, affect life in their communities or make a name for themselves."

Exactly so. The problem here devolves from the mayoral-centric concentration of power-a concentration that attenuates the necessary checks and balances needed in a democratic system: "The change, in a mayor-centric system, did not give the Council a lot of new power. But it gave members the ability to dole out the discretionary funds that the mayor, seeking to smooth the passage of his spending plan, granted them. Those funds represent just a tiny portion of the budget — less than six-tenths of a percent in the fiscal year ending in June. But they are critically important to the members as a way to curry favor with supporters and constituents."

And what the current controversy does, is to deflect attention away from the mayoral exercise of power, and in Bloomberg's case, its misuse-for the remaining 99% of the funds that the city disperse every year. And, as Cardwell points out, the council practice was an attempt to reserve to itself at least some modicum of power: "Before its expansion and its assumption of power over the city budget, the City Council had long been considered the weak arm of city government, relegated to the role of puppet as the powerful Board of Estimate pulled the strings. But after charter reform, former city officials say, the Council, full of a sense of new found authority and a desire to be an equal partner with the mayor, tried to create flexibility in the budget by putting aside money for the speaker to control."

No, it's not the greatest way to do it, but the answer here doesn't lie with the elimination of member items, but with the appropriate expansion of legislative budgetary functions. In this way, all of the sleight-of-hand can be dispensed with: "Some former officials said putting aside money was meant to help correct mistakes, like forgetting to finance an important program, without having to formally seek approval for additional spending from the mayor. Council leaders once tried to create a general reserve fund for such contingencies, but the concept never took hold, so council officials set out to devise their own response to the problem. "

Now that Bloomberg's looking to do some charter reform in the fall, it would behoove him to include the appropriate expansion of the city council's role in the budgetary process in the reform package. In this way, all of the hand wringing and false outrage can be put aside.