In the wake of the indictment of City Councilman Ruben Wills, The Times’ editorial page today forcefully calls for the end of “member items” – the money that individual Council members are allotted to dole out to projects in their district.
Wills’ alleged transgressions don’t actually involve his member item honeypot; it’s state money and funds from the city’s Campaign Finance Board that the Queens lawmaker is charged with stealing. Nevertheless, Wills’ legal headaches once again raise questions about whether City Councilmembers should be the main conduit for “discretionary funds” that are typically allocated through city agencies.
Noting that three Councilmembers have recently been convicted for misappropriating pork, The Times opines: “Member items should be abolished, in favor of standard, objective grant-making.”
That sounds great in theory but after living for more than a decade on the outskirts of the five boroughs – Rockaway Beach – I’m not convinced that the denizens of City Hall always know what’s best for my neighborhood or are aware of its most immediate needs.
NY1 Political Anchor Errol Louis has has toured many City Council districts across the city and the one thing that’s quite striking from his visits is that member items – when doled out properly – have been incredibly helpful to city residents. From work in forgotten parks to renovating classrooms to opening community centers, many of the projects are small bore but quite important. It’s unclear to me whether large city agencies would be able to be focus as clearly on the nitty-gritty like many Council members have been doing in their districts.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has proposed a raft of reforms to the system that would give more money to financially-needy districts. She also wants more transparency in the process which has sometimes been used as a political thank-you note to lawmakers from the City Council Speaker. It’s worth taking a hard look at her proposals before shutting down the Council’s discretionary funding program.
“Good government” doesn’t always translate to good things in far-flung neighborhoods across the city. Why have 51 City Council members if their only job is to rename streets?