A Roadmap to Navigating NYC's Bureaucracy
By Kali Keenan
The School House Rocks educational song "I'm Just a Bill" only begins to describe the long, excruciating journey for a bill to become a law. The New York City Council puts its bills through the same rigorous processes of proposing, debating, revising, and voting, that Congress does. The Smoking Ban Bill, proposed in August 2002, is more than your average bill. According to the City Council web site, this legislation proposes to extend current city bans on smoking to all public places and places of employment in New York City.
The mere mention of a city council fraught with bureaucracy bewilders many New Yorkers. According to the council's web site, it partners equally with the Mayor to govern city agencies, make land use decisions, approve the budget, and conclude on other citywide issues. There are currently 51 members on the council, one for each of 51 different council districts. Approximately 157,000 citizens occupy each district. Composition is sixteen council members from Brooklyn, fourteen from Queens, ten from Manhattan, eight from the Bronx and three from Staten Island.
One of these council members is elected as the Speaker and his/her job is to preside over the full council meetings, called Stated Meetings, and reach a consensus on major issues. Stated Meetings are held twice a month at City Hall. The speaker also assigns the council members to the various committees. Each member must serve on at least three committees. "The Speaker tries to assign his biggest supporters to the committees of their choice first. But some people don't always get what they want," says Noah Franklin, Councilman Oliver Koppell's Chief of Staff.
Three types of committees exist within the council: standing committees, sub-committees, and select committees. Standing committees are permanent. "They focus on a particular subject matter and are used as a departure point for sub-committees," says Franklin. Committees on education, health, land use, and public safety are all examples of standing committees.
Franklin also says, "Sub-committees were created to alleviate proposals in standing committees." Sub-committees address issues like immigration, juvenile justice, and landmarks.
"Select committees evolve on an as-needed, temporary basis to address issues that don't frequently come to the council's attention. They function almost as task-forces," says Franklin. Lower Manhattan redevelopment, civil rights, and technology in government are a few of the "task forces" that have already been created this year.
According to Franklin, "Anybody can submit an idea to the council." Once an idea for a bill is brought to the attention of a council member, it is assigned to a committee. The committee members generate the legislation in document format. This text thoroughly and explicitly outlines the suggested bill and the definitions associated with the proposed legislation.
Over the past twelve years the council has heard several other anti-smoking proposals, but passed only one piece of legislation concerning the issue.
In 1990, the Smoking in School Building Prohibition bill would have brought an end to smoking anywhere in school buildings, educational facilities or even on school grounds, according to the council's web site. The proposal was referred to the health committee and its members passed their document of the proposal on to the Legislative Documents Unit. The bill was not brought up in a committee again.
"A bill will sit on a desk in the Legislative Documents Unit until the committee has time or is prepared to hear it," says Lucy Mayo, Legislative Director for Councilwoman and Health Committee Chair Christine Quinn.
A 1994 bill to prohibit advertisements for cigarette and other tobacco products in city owned buildings used for sporting events sat on a desk in the unit and was never again addressed by the council.
"All bills that haven't been passed by the end of the session in which they were proposed die. To become live again, they would have to be re-introduced in the next session," said Franklin. The session for the current committee began on January 1, 2002 and will conclude on December 31, 2003.
A 1993 bill to prohibit smoking in fast food restaurants was not passed in its introductory session, but was reintroduced in 1994. The re-introduction of a bill usually warrants a certain level of attention by committee members; yet this specific bill only progressed through one hearing. It was then "laid over by committee," Mayo says; meaning that no further action was taken, such as a vote. Ultimately though the bill is still being considered on the committee level. The city council web site chronicles all actions that a bill goes through. The action of being "laid over" is almost always the last documented activity of a bill that does not get passed. The 1994 bill proposing to ban smoking from all childcare facilities was "laid over" and has seen no further activity.
After several attempts to limit smoking in New York City, one bill was actually successful. In 1995, the Smoke Free Air Act was passed. It limited smoking to pool halls, bingo parlors, bars, restaurants with a seating capacity of over 35 people and private areas (such as homes, enclosed offices, vehicles and designated smoking hotel rooms).
In 1998, another bill eliminated ashtrays from public, non-smoking areas of New York City hotels.
In April 2002, Mayor Bloomberg proposed an amendment to the Smoke Free Air Act of 1995. According to the council's web site, the amendment would prohibit smoking in restaurants (regardless of seating capacity), in private offices when someone other than its occupant is present, and in city owned vehicles. This bill was referred to the health committee upon which time they expanded the proposed legislation in August 2002. What resulted was the current prohibition of smoking in public places and places of employment bill, referred to as the Smoking Ban Bill.
Outside factors can further complicate the actual process of a bill becoming a law. The media often plays a role in heightening tension within the council. "The media has its own goals and likes to create controversy," says New York University Professor of Politics Steven Brams. "Why shouldn't the bill get a lot of coverage? It isn't a trivial issue for many people," added Brams.
Perhaps the amount of coverage has only aided in expediting a decision on the matter of the proposed smoking bill. Chairwoman Quinn has already brought the bill before two committee hearings where the council members heard both sides of the issue and reviewed the legislation. Each hearing has garnered more support within the council. Before the last hearing on November 1, 2002, only 23 council members sponsored the bill.
Choosing to sponsor a bill is the equivalent of a guaranteed vote of, "yes" from that member. After the November 12, 2002 hearing, 25 members chose to sponsor the legislation. The committee is only one vote away from possessing a majority in the council. Once there is a majority, the bill can be put to a vote on the committee level.
Not only does the media contribute to heightened awareness of a bill. There is great international support for the Smoking Ban in New York City. In addition to a host of California-based advocacy groups, the Bar Owners Association of Ireland also submitted documents to the council supporting the legislation, according to Karl Camillucci, Chief of Staff for Councilwoman Diana Reyna.
Mayor Bloomberg's dedication to seeing the bill through convey his feelings on its importance to the public. "Bloomberg is not a publicity hound. He has his own agenda and pursues it," says Brams. To be successful, however, certain concessions between Bloomberg and the council may be made. Franklin says, "The council will absolutely bargain with the mayor. The speaker may push for an increase in the living wage prescribed to city-contracted workers. He also may push for budget increases in certain areas and lobby to avoid cuts in other areas. The speaker hasn't even said he supports the bill."
While Camillucci supported Franklin's concession theory, he also thought the bill should have passed weeks ago. "Whatever trades may have been possible are not reality anymore," says Camillucci.
Brian Kavanagh, Chief of Staff for Councilwoman Gale Brewer, contradicts Camillucci. He says, "The council is not linking the smoking bill to the budget. But the bill will see more movement after the budget is settled."
Mayo says, "The council still may act on the bill before the end of the calendar year. The media exaggerated the postponement of the issue until after the budget is resolved as abandonment." Despite the rumors and speculation, Brams says, "It seems to be a pretty civilized debate. Definitely unlike Guiliani's name-calling."
These issues behind the proposed smoking ban allow for citizens to question the city's democratic process and indeed if all legislative matters will be ultimately determined by media coverage and personal agendas.
Brams, the expert witness to the courts brought forward to initiate reform within the council's structure years ago says, "It's now a more democratic system than we used to have in New York City." According to Brams, the council used to be much smaller and led by only five presidents, one for each borough. He testified to promote the now 51-member council. Oddly, 46 current members are democrats. Brams doesn't see the party inequality as a problem. "New York City is a democratic city. It doesn't make the system any less democratic to have an extreme majority in the city council," he says.
Given the bill's progress within the council, international support, the media's coverage piquing public opinion, and that the bill still has over a year to be debated, the experts agree that this is one issue that will not just lay on a desk and be forgotten.
Back to Top