New York—City Council members introduced a bill several weeks ago that would create an open petition website for New Yorkers to voice their concerns, similar to the White House’s “We the People” website.
But on Wednesday during an initial hearing on the bill, the mayor’s Digital Director Jessica Singleton rejected the idea, citing flaws in the White House website. She also said the city’s current 311 complaint-filing system was sufficient enough to deal with the public’s most immediate concerns.
The bill, co-sponsored by Council members James Vacca and Peter Koo, would require city agencies and city officials to respond to certain petitions that receive a threshold number of signatures, similar to the White House website. If enacted, New York City would be the first local government to establish such an open petition website.
Council member Vacca said that while the 311 system, which currently operates through phone, the Web, and mobile app, is mostly effective at getting city agencies to fix problems that New Yorkers raise; the complaints are brought up on an individual basis. Thus, elected officials have no way of tracking how many people also have similar concerns.
In Singleton’s testimony before the City Council’s Committee on Technology, she reasoned that 311 has been doing well to respond to people’s requests, and that the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications frequently collects and analyzes data on the 311 requests.
The bill’s current draft gives that office the jurisdiction to create the website.
Vacca countered that the petition website can provide a platform for the public to voice their opinions on the city’s policies, such as the soda ban, or paid sick leave—something the 311 system doesn’t accommodate.
“People should be heard beyond the lobbyists, the politicians, and the press,” Vacca said. “The administration speaks about engagement every day. I think we’re missing something here.”
When Singleton pointed out flaws with the White House website—such as people petitioning with frivolous, nongovernment-policy-related requests, or the small number of responses the petitions elicited from the White House administration—Vacca asked why she couldn’t collaborate with the mayor to amend the legislation and make improvements to the city’s version.
Singleton didn’t provide an answer.
After the hearing, Vacca said he will continue to push for the bill and discuss it with Speaker of the Council Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“I’ve been told no before,” Vacca said, noting that the mayor’s office has rejected his ideas before but eventually reached a compromise. “I think there’s room for us to come together.”
Currently, many different city entities take complaints from city residents—the public advocate’s office, local community boards, and local and state elected officials’ offices.
Vacca said the petition website can help identify common problems that people bring up, and track whether the city responded in a timely and appropriate manner.