By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
This column is being written on Sunday, July 21 and being
sent to all members of the City Council on Monday (7/22). The Council is
reporting the term limit bill out of committee on Tuesday (7/23) and plans
to vote it into law on Wednesday (7/24).
Why the rush to judgment on a bill just introduced and so
intricate that its framer indicated there was an “unintentional side
effect” which prevented former Council members from seeking office next
Why not step back and fix what is wrong with the bill?
Although I’m not hopeful I can be effective, I write this
column to appeal to the honesty, integrity and commitment to democracy of
each of the 51 City Council members.
I urge them to value democratic principles above self-serving
I urge them to read this column, turn to their Speaker and
ask that he rewrite a piece of legislation to avoid participating in a new
self-serving low for the integrity of the City Council.
Let me explain.
Regular readers know that I have been a leading advocate of
the quality, integrity, energy and dedication of the new City Council.
As one who led the fight against the old City Council
changing the term limit law passed by referendum so as to enable
themselves to run again, it was gratifying to see the fruits of that fight
ripen and accrue to the benefit of our wonderful City.
That fight was never a matter of term limits to this paper or
me. As a matter of fact, we have never endorsed term limits and opposed
the referendum that first brought them to New York in 1993.
However, when the people spoke, and later reaffirmed their
position in another referendum, term limits became the law. We believe
that the people’s law should remain unchanged until the people decide to
change it — not the City Council members who were the very folks term
limited by the people’s new law.
However, when the first group of Council members faced term
limits, they moved to change the law by themselves. We felt it
“criminal” for elected officials to defy the people’s will and on
our front page we actually put the Queens Council members supporting the
unilateral overthrow of term limits behind bars. It was an ethical and
moral low point in New York City government.
This column and this paper yelled loudly. Week after week we
pointed our finger at the wrongdoers and explained the undemocratic nature
of Council members changing a law passed by the people in order to benefit
themselves. Others joined our cry and the vile effort finally failed.
Elections were held last year and 38 new members of the class
of 2001 joined 13 more senior members to create a brand new City Council.
Giff Miller from Manhattan’s upper east side was elected
Speaker after an impressive effort to build a coalition of support.
The Council went to work in January and demonstrated they
were bright, diligent, knowledgeable quick learners who performed at a
level far above the previous Council. They quickly proved the term limit
doomsday theorists wrong. The sky didn’t fall. On the contrary, the City
rebuilt with a new Council effectively functioning under the leadership of
a young, bright capable Giff Miller.
In post Sept. 11 New York, government was strong, good and
effective. It seemed vigorous and free of many of the ugly scars and
blemishes that have been part of our political legacy. The Council members
were on. They made us proud.
During their election, we interviewed each of the 14 new
Council members from Queens. Some 60 plus candidates for Council came
through our office last year. Almost to a person, they responded to our
questioning by revealing a disdain for the old Council. They cited the
former members’ self-serving attempt to overturn the term limit law and
the use of public office and funds for political gain. These council
candidates, including just about every winner, deplored such actions.
They would never participate in overturning the people’s
will so as to benefit themselves. To a person, I asked; they answered.
I believe they each said it: Tony Avella; John Liu; Hiram
Monserratte; Peter Vallone, Jr.; David Weprin; Jim Gennaro; Helen Sears;
Eric Gioia; Leroy Comrie; Melinda Katz; Alan Jennings; Dennis Gallagher;
James Sanders; Joe Addabbo, Jr.
Although many didn’t believe in term limits, they all
believed only the people could change the law they passed by referendum.
Just last month, my old friend Giff Miller stopped by the Trib
Office for a chat. During the interview, I asked him where he stood on the
term limit law which would force him out of office at the end of next
year. Giff responded that he was too involved in the budget negotiations
at that time, but had always believed that only the people had the right
to change the term limit law.
Then the budget passed and reality set in.
Giff Miller demonstrated that he was a consummate politician.
My friend moved with speed and dispatch and had a bill drafted which would
“perfect” the term limit law. He would “preserve” term limits and
improve the law by adjusting it to reflect “what the people intended.”
The “tinker” would modify the law so that Council members
would not be term limited unless they served two consecutive four-year
terms. As a result of redistricting, every twenty years a Council class
would be term limited after six, not eight years. Giff set out to correct
this. He and seven other present members of the Council would be forced
out of office next year if the law weren’t changed.
He had election law superstar attorney Eric Lane guide the
bill’s technical creation and he worked the phone. Giff lobbied and spun
and called every friend and foe of the term limit law. Giff Miller was
He even called me. I had not been quiet about my opposition
to the Council modifying the people’s law. I was viewed as one of the
leaders of the “crusade” to block the old Council from overturning the
people’s term limit law. Giff called and he was good, smooth and
charming. He always is.
I don’t recall his exact words but he explained that there
were two faults in the law that he intended to fix. One was to change the
law so that members were not term limited unless they had two four-year
terms because that was really what the people intended — he quoted
“eight is enough” as the slogan of the term limit advocates back in
’93. The second, was to prevent a term limited official from resigning
before the end of a term so as to preserve eligibility to run in the next
Giff presented himself as the man who was perfecting the term
I didn’t agree, but understood.
I told Giff I was going to press with a column that opposed
what he was doing — passing a law that extended his own term in office.
I then offered Giff a future column to explain his viewpoint.
He eloquently and effectively used that space last week to write about
“improving the term limit law.”
He wrote: “The point of this bill is to repair a glitch in
the term-limits law that allows some members of the City Council to serve
for eight years while preventing others from serving for more than six.”
Giff didn’t convince me, but he convinced just about
everyone else. I was ready to throw in the towel and congratulate the
Speaker on an impressive win.
I told my friend Peter Vallone, Jr. who had pledged himself
to Giff’s effort that even though I thought the effort wrong, I’m not
sure — if I were in Giff’s shoes — that I wouldn’t be doing the
same thing. You see, Giff’s political survival may depend upon extending
his Council post for two years until the Manhattan Borough Presidency
becomes vacant as well as the three citywide positions. If he were term
limited next year, there would be nothing to run for.
Well, Giff won his point in the public forum. I seemed to be
the lone voice against what he was doing and I was ready to give in. Giff
was so effective in fact, that we saw one Queens Councilman debate against
the bill on NY1 and then the next day change his mind and agree to become
a cosponsor of the bill.
Why would Councilman Alan Jennings do such a flip-flop on the
term limit legislation?
Perhaps he was told what it took us until last Wednesday to
uncover and confirm. Last week’s Queens Tribune broke the
story that hidden in the “term limit tinker” was a provision that
would deny the right to run again next year to the former Council members
who were term limited in 2000.
The “people’s law” passed by referendum in 1993 only
kept these members from running until 2003 — the next election. But the
term limit “tinker” would ban them until 2005.
That means that the strongest opponents – the people who
previously held the seats – would not be allowed to challenge the
present Council members.
Now we have no idea how many former Council members would
want to run. It doesn’t really matter. They should have the right to.
Tom White was exploring the possibility and after Alan
Jennings heard the “tinker” would eliminate his archrival, in front of
TV cameras, Alan Jennings sold out and flip-flopped.
Julia Harrison might want to challenge John Liu and it is
extremely unlikely that she would be our candidate,but we’ll defend her
right to run. How could John Liu raise his hand to block her candidacy
when the people gave her the right and the constitution guarantees it?
It’s the American way. And so it goes with each of the 38 former
members. They might not be better than the new Council people, but they
have a right to run.
How could any member of the present Council raise their hand
so as to deprive anyone of their right?
The new Queens members sat in my office as candidates not too
long ago and pledged a new day in City government. They promised an end to
self-serving politicians who used their positions to cast votes to improve
their own political lots.
A number of Council people have confidentially talked to me
with outraged at this hidden wrinkle preventing the former members from
running. However, they also recognize that Council leadership has been
generous to them and their districts at budget time and are therefore
reluctant to take the fight.
They recognize that the bill’s drafter and Council
leadership lobbied effectively, spoke out publicly, and wrote in this
column, but secretly hid the fact that buried very deep within the fine
print of the law is a provision that would bar the former Council people
from challenging their successors. Was this a clever way for Council
leadership to win overwhelming support from their members?
The bill explains its purpose; we’ve read the Speaker’s
explanation of the legislation. We’ve followed the debate — carefully.
They never mentioned this little wrinkle.
So last Wednesday the Tribune called and asked the
bill’s framer, “does this legislation prevent the former members from
And Eric Lane responded that it was “an unintentional side
Well, Council members are reading this on Monday: The Speaker
already knows my point of view.
The law could still be rewritten. The Speaker and his seven
term-limited colleagues could still have their right to a minimum eight
years in office without ever raising their hands to deny others the right
The people’s referendum permitted the former Council
members the right to run again in 2003. Should the new Council be able to
take that right away?
Where would you expect to find a legislative body voting to
deny their strongest opponents the right to run?
In a totalitarian state? A Central American unstable junta? A
Middle East terrorist-allied Authority? Or the New York City Council?
I don’t believe a majority of the City Council members want
to defy the democratic principles they hold dear. I believe that even
though I disagree with the Speaker’s eight-year minimum term limit
change, everyone can have their way without resorting to the horrendous
step of Council members enacting self-serving rules that would bar people
from challenging them.
There is still time – but very little.
During the election, I asked the Council candidates how long
it would take until they sell out and become part of the corrupt and ugly
political process they sought to replace.
I fear I may have my answer.
by Dom Nunziato