NEW YORK—New York City residents looking to applaud or complain about laws, development, the performance of city agencies, or the budget need to look no further than the City Council. The 51-member governing body is in charge of it all. But, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility.
Among its many tasks, the council is looked upon to ensure that the human rights of every New Yorker are upheld through law and policymaking.
“The New York City Council, as our lawmakers, has the power to make really significant changes in a human rights framework,” said Erin Markman, policy and researcher coordinator at the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center. “Not only do they have the ability, but they have the obligation.”
Markman wrote the fifth annual “Human Rights Report Card” report, a comprehensive look at council members’ legislative records relating to human rights issues such as housing, worker’s rights, health, and criminal justice. This year, 50 council members were given a grade, with Speaker Christine Quinn getting a separate assessment due to her unique role on the council.
The report only focused on council legislation singled out as relating to human rights, a list of which was sent to each council member in June, one month prior to grading. The report did not take into account constituents’ experiences with council members, behind-the-scenes activity, or how money is spent in the district. Markman argues that the voting record and sponsorship of bills is equally quantifiable for every member, while the intangibles are not.
For the third year in a row Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose District 8 includes El Barrio/East Harlem, Mott Haven in the Bronx, and Central Park, took home the top grade, an A+ (89 percent). She beat out Councilwoman Helen Foster by one percentage point.
“As someone who strives for social equality, I think it is a validation of being mindful of what we stand for and advocate for,” Mark-Viverito said on Wednesday. “I am really honored.”
Mark-Viverito was a primary sponsor on the major immigration law passed in November 2011 that prohibits the Department of Corrections from detaining someone solely based on immigration status. She also sponsored the stop-and-frisk reform bills.
On Thursday Mark-Viverito introduced a bill she was the lead sponsor on, which would limit the city’s ability to hand over immigrants who pose no threat to public safety for deportation proceedings.
Thirteen council members received an A rating. However, Markman hopes even for those who do not receive high marks, it will be used as a positive tool.
“We really hope people will use this to learn more about what is going on in council and as a jumping off point to really connect with their council members and encourage them to do more,” Markman said.
The report takes into account legislation sponsored or introduced by each member. Since Speaker Quinn does not tend to do that, Markman opted against a letter grade, instead assessing the movement of human rights bills through the council.
The speaker was commended for the passage of 22 pieces of human rights legislation, including the whistle-blower protection expansion act, which protects city contractors from taking an adverse personnel action against an employee who reports fraud or mismanagement.
Quinn was also applauded for leading the council to override Mayoral vetoes of five human rights bills, included the prevailing wage and living wages bills (Mayor Michael Bloomberg filed suit against the override).
While the living wage bill was passed, the report says Speaker Quinn used her position to restrict the scope of the bill, something the Human Rights Project viewed as a negative.
Additionally, the speaker was criticized for delaying hearing and votes of human rights bills, which on average have more sponsors than nonhuman rights bills. The most noted of these bills is the paid sick leave bill. It has a veto-proof 36 sponsors, but Quinn has not allowed the bill come to a vote. Quinn said early in October “given the current economic reality, now is not the right time for this policy.”
While the speaker has more power than other members, that power is not unchecked by the council. For bills needing a committee hearing, lead sponsors can use the Sponsor’s Privilege, which allows them to petition the committee chairperson for a meeting. The chair has 60 days to schedule a meeting for a vote to be taken on the spot or a hearing held within 30 days.
-If you don’t know who your council member is, find out on the City Council website
-Attend an open committee meeting if a policy will affect you. Check the council website for the calendar
-Search, track, and read legislation on the council website
-Get involved with your local community board. In some issues, such as land development, the community boards are where the ideas are first discussed.
-Become engaged in the participatory budgeting process if your council member uses it.
For legislation stalled in committee after a hearing and needing to be voted on, such as the paid sick leave bill, the City Council as a whole can use the Discharge of Committee rule. This rule says if the majority of council sees fit, they can collectively vote to discharge a piece of legislation from committee.
“While recognizing the nuances of the political climate and what it is like to be in Council, we really want to stand on our human rights ground and ask that Council to use these to restore democratic functioning in this process and allow bills to come to hearings,” Markman said.
Mark-Viverito, who has stood up to Speaker Quinn on issues before such as council redistricting, believes the issue is not as clear-cut. “It is important to be able to stand on principal, but understood that there are repercussions,” Mark-Viverito said.
She said providing for their constituents is priority one and pushing back can hurt that long-term goal. “I can see where council members are in a dilemma and don’t want to be too confrontational because at the end of the day, legislation is not going to move, and you may not as get as much discretionary money for your community. That is an unfortunate reality of the dynamic right now.”