BY DIRK MCCALL | There has been much coverage recently of budget practices at the City Council, especially focusing on member items and the allocation of funding to not-for-profit and community-based organizations. While there have undoubtedly been some abuses – there will be in any system – folks are missing the larger picture and not seeing the full impact of what has been taking place at the City Council.
I write as a former chief of staff to a member of the Council, who has sat through many budget hearings and meetings, and as a longtime activist in the LGBT community. I want to highlight the reforms that Speaker Christine Quinn has introduced, reforms that bring a greater degree of transparency to the process while ensuring that local community organizations are still able to secure financial support for their worthy programs and initiatives.
Speaker Quinn has worked diligently to increase transparency and promote accountability. Working with other reformers in the Council, she created the policy under which the names of Council members would be attached to items in the budget for which they had sought funding.
Among the new standards the speaker has introduced are increasing pre-clearance and disclosure requirements for organizations requesting funding. Organizations now have to certify that they are in compliance with state and federal law, document past compliance with contracts, and demonstrate a track record of providing the services for which they are requesting funds. They must also provide conflict-of-interest disclosure forms, ensuring that any relationships between their organizations and the decision-makers on the Council and in the city government are made public prior to funding determinations being made.
In addition, the speaker has instituted safeguards for the use of any fiscal conduit that may receive appropriations on behalf of groups being funded, broadened the data included in budget documents, and created the post of Independent Compliance Officer within the City Council's Division of Finance. That compliance officer, whom the speaker will not be able to fire at will, will have an appointment that spans the terms of two successive Council speakers, and will be responsible for ensuring that all new regulations and transparency provisions are implemented and adhered to.
With transparency comes accountability, and Quinn should be commended for not only talking the talk, but also walking the walk. She has set a new standard for good government and accountability in the allocation of city funds. The creation of a pre-clearance requirement ensures that only valid and law-abiding organizations will be able to seek support, and all New Yorkers should thank the speaker for her leadership on these thoughtful and innovative reforms.
It's difficult to overestimate the importance of local organizations being able to continue turning to our elected officials in times of need or for assistance with worthy projects. Voters hear the words “member item” and may be confused – too few realize that these are the funds that keep the local Little League in uniforms, help the neighborhood senior center provide hot lunches, and provide the additional trashcans keeping our streets clean and litter-free. This funding helps worthy not-for-profits provide free educational forums, after-school programs, arts education for our children, and innovative new HIV prevention programs.
Discretionary funding plays an important role in our local communities and the abolition of it, as some newspapers have advocated, would be problematic. Local elected officials know their districts, and know which organizations and programs are doing good work and may be in need of assistance.
Creating competitive bidding processes might sound laudable, but many observers in a position to know point out that this would likely only reward groups that hire better grant writers – not necessarily the groups doing the best, most necessary, and most innovative work. Maintaining the ability of local elected officials to apply their informed discretion allows them to channel funding to groups serving the needs and community interests of their district.
Thankfully, Speaker Quinn has stepped up to the plate and is working with notable civic leaders like Citizens Union and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) to ensure that the allocation of government funding is carried out in an open and transparent manner that demands accountability. With Quinn's reforms, the New York City Council sets a standard worthy of emulation by other legislative bodies while also ensuring that worthy organizations and programs are not cut off from the support they need to thrive.
Dirk McCall formerly served as chief of staff to a member of the New York City Council and is a past president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City.