November 25, 2013

Council Speaker candidates debate at Baruch College
Council Speaker candidates debate at Baruch College
By Marc Bussanich 

New York, NY—Back in October 31 incumbent and anticipated new City Council members proposed changes to City Council rules that they say would empower individual members. At a council speaker forum on Wednesday evening, candidates argued for and against the reforms, compelling the moderator to ask do they believe empowering council members weakens the speaker and thereby weakens the council as a political institution. Watch Video

Seven candidates running for City Council speaker participated in the debate hosted by Baruch College and moderated by political analyst and Baruch professor, Doug Muzzio. The proposed reforms would give more power to council members to decide how to allocate discretionary funding, give them greater control over committee hearings and staffing and dedicate more Council resources to members.

Muzzio first asked Councilwoman Inez Dickens whether she’s concerned about the prospect of the rule reforms weakening the speaker’s position.

“No, I don’t think that empowering members weakens the institution and don’t believe it weakens the speaker. The speaker has the responsibility of all 50 members…and carrying forth the message of the 50 members,” said Dickens.

Jumaane Williams, one of the 31 Council members who signed onto the reforms and one of the four members to initiate them, said that he in fact worked hard to remove some items from the proposal because he believed that they would weaken the speaker.

“I’ve been talking about rule reforms since I first got to the council. The one thing I’ve been clear about is that there needs to be a speaker strong enough to keep the body independent, together and be a counterbalance to the mayor. These reforms will help empower as many of our colleagues as we can. I think this is the right balance,” said Williams.

Councilman Dan Garodnick said there’s no question that the more autonomy individual members have the less potential cohesion that there will be in the council. But ultimately it comes down to a question of the speaker’s skills of persuasion and diplomacy.  

“Whether it’s me or someone else the skill of the speaker to be able to hold the body together…that becomes even more important and is a real factor [in considering a speaker].”

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito also signed onto the reforms. She expressed surprise that people might interpret the proposal to empower members as somehow weakening the speaker.

“I always find it fascinating when the idea of sharing power comes into question people say it weakens the institution. I think it empowers the institution and makes it more effective,” Mark-Viverito said.

Councilman James Vacca said it’d be a real challenge trying to empower members while maintaining a strong speaker.

“We need to do both. We have some challenges before us….[bringing] members more into the process but I also think we need a strong speaker,” Vacca said.

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