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27th January
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, January 27, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

For the first time (and perhaps the last), I recently found myself in agreement with City Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn.

Mr. Barron, the former Black Panther and confidant of the Reverend Al Sharpton, usually opines on the joys of slapping white people, the offensive presence of images of our nation’s founding fathers in City Hall, and the glories of Zimbabwe’s dictator, Robert Mugabe. So it came as a surprise to hear Mr. Barron’s levelheaded and courageous criticism of his colleagues for abdicating their independence in choosing their own leadership.
“The process stinks,” Mr. Barron said in a published report. “I don’t think we’re independent enough from the county leaders.” He was the only abstaining vote when Christine Quinn was chosen as speaker, which, considering just how miserable life can be for a rebellious outsider, was courageous.
Good for him.

There is something sad about an independently-elected deliberative body of 51 Council members, probably the highest paid in the country, that can’t choose their own leadership from among their number without outside instruction. This is particularly depressing because 43 of the 51 are incumbents who served together the past four years and should intimately know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Apparently, there is more weakness than strength here.

Consider this: Councilman Oliver Koppell, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, veteran of 23 years in the State Assembly, serving as chairman of several of the Assembly’s most influential committees and for a year’s term as the attorney general of the State of New York, was tossed the lean bone of the chairmanship of the Mental Health Committee.This is an improvement over being shut out of the Council’s considerable largesse, as he was during his first term.

In order to get this post, Mr. Koppell felt compelled to hand over his vote to the Bronx County Democratic machine.

Mr. Koppell’s Bronx colleague, Joel Rivera, elected five years ago as a 22-year-old college student to the seat previously held by his father, Jose Rivera, has yet to complete his studies. He seems to be a nice young fellow, but seems to have no particular interest or knowledge of the workings of government. Yet he holds the dual posts of majority leader of the Council and chairman of the Health Committee, both decidedly more prestigious posts than the one held by Mr. Koppell.

But Joel Rivera has an enormous advantage over Mr. Koppell. Never mind a Harvard education or years of government experience. Mr. Rivera simply has a better bloodline. His father, who now serves in the State Assembly, is the Bronx County Democratic leader.

Jose Rivera is a delightful fellow, the best possible (extended) family man. Not only is his son Joel serving in the Council but two years ago, Joel’s sister Naomi was handed a State Assembly seat in the district adjoining her father’s.

Joel’s mother, Ivine Galarza, was handed the well-paid post of District Manager of Community Board 6. Jose Rivera’s good friend Maria Baez also serves on the Council, assigned to chair the important Committee on State and Federal Government Relations. Her daughter, Carmen Baez, with the thinnest of resumes, has just been handed the plum patronage job of deputy county clerk.

So Mr. Koppell and all his experience leaves him begging for crumbs, as the insiders grab the largesse. He’s just not in the right family.

How dysfunctional is the City Council? Another member of the Bronx delegation, Larry Seabrook was chairman of the Civil Rights Subcommittee during his last term. Mr. Seabrook,not known as one of New York’s most energetic public officials, never bothered to call a meeting. So rather than either sack him or discontinue the superfluous subcommittee, Ms. Quinn has raised its status to a full committee, retained Mr. Seabrook, and awarded him a $4,000 stipend as chairman.

So the Council will continue on a crash course with the interests who seek to build our economic future. Count on it to continue to oppose the opening of big box stores such as Wal-Mart and BJ’s Wholesale Club, denying low-income consumers discount shopping opportunities, costing unemployed city residents thousands of jobs they desperately need,and giving away tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, in tax revenues to surrounding suburbs.

Mayor Bloomberg’s agenda, as articulated in his State of the City address yesterday, is at the mercy of this Council. While Mr. Bloomberg has been very successful getting himself elected, he has exerted little political muscle in helping friends and punishing enemies among the Council members. The mayor will almost certainly be confronted with plenty of opposition, and loads of special interest legislation that he will properly veto, only to be followed by a long streak of overrides.

In the mayor’s first term, this destructive agenda was fueled by then-Speaker Gifford Miller’s mayoral aspirations. This term, with the vast majority of Council members precluded from seeking re-election, look for plenty of posturing as members jockey for their next job. That means more nonsensical legislation, more pandering to unions and other special interest groups, and no big-picture strategic thinking.That’s the sorry state of the city.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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