Good Government: Another Oxymoron?
Council Speaker Giff Miller with Trib Publisher Mike Schenkler at the Queens Tribune holiday party, last year.
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
I love my job.
I have quite a few different ones, but I am referring now to my role as political columnist.
I get to know the people who run our Borough and City. Sometimes, I even get inside the process to watch.
Sometimes I even can impact outcome and have a positive effect for the people of Queens and the City.
Sometimes, I can just tell my readers what’s going on.
This is clearly one of those cases.
I sit and write on the weekend – Sunday, October 10, knowing that there is going to be a City Council rush to judgment orchestrated to avoid full public and press scrutiny.
Under the guise of “good government” reform – how ironic – the Government Operations Committee will report out of Committee on Tuesday, Campaign Finance “Reform” legislation. The Legislation will then be voted on and passed by the full Council on Wednesday – as fast as anything ever happens in governemnt.
Most of the Council members will have never read or digested the inch thick packet of Campaign Finance “reform.”
And surprisingly, the biggest net effect of those changes will provide millions of dollars more of public tax money to Council Speaker Giff Miller – or another of his party – to use in the campaign to challenge the Republican Mayor Mike Bloomberg, next year.
This is legislation conceived to help Miller’s Mayoral Campaign and Miller is engineering the process.
It is shameful!
I like Giff Miller.
I like him personally.
I admire him professionally.
He is bright, driven and cares about our City.
He has effectively led the new City Council during a period of transition and adjustment.
He has performed admirably in his challenging role. He has proven to be an effective leader.
He is a viable candidate for Mayor in 2005.
It seems, that in next year’s Democratic Mayoral Primary to determine who gets to battle Mike Bloomberg, Giff Miller is a strong and viable player.
With Queens Assemblyman, labor leader Brian McLaughlin taking a pass and popular Bill Thompson likely deciding to seek another term as Comptroller, Giff is left in a field of only two other strong players: aggressive popular Queens/Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Weiner has spent the past two years positioning himself for a potential Mayoral try; and veteran Latino statesman, former Mayoral candidate and Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer is likely going to be in the fray making his final try for public office.
There may be others – and Thompson can still play – but political pundits are watching Weiner, Ferrer and Miller.
I like them all and have had the opportunity to get to know each of them. I also think the Republican giant, Mike Bloomberg who the primary winner will seek to topple, has done a fine job – although he has been much less accessible than the three Dems.
I could see myself happy with any of the four players – I could imagine supporting any of them.
Giff Miller could likely have won me over – he still could.
However, deep down, I know that in spite of his fine performance, Giff has demonstrated that he believes it’s okay for him to use his position to advocate and pass laws which benefit himself.
His term limit tweak under the guise of good government, of a couple of years ago enabled him and a small handful of colleagues to run for an additional two years in office – without that “Miller tweak,” Giff would probably be in private industry today.
Now, Miller has gone back to the “good government” well once again, and is rushing through new legislation that will “level the playing field” against wealthy – self financed opponents – read Mike Bloomberg.
It seems Miller has backed off on his other “good government” fix which would have denied Anthony Weiner the use of any of his existing campaign funds while Miller could use all of his, but the proposed legislation will move so fast through the process, few will know what they are really voting on.
Basically, we can tell you that Miller, or the winner of the Democratic Primary will get six dollars of public money instead of the existing law’s four dollars for each eligible dollar they raise. This could mean millions more for his run against the Mayor.
Applying this law to other offices, it could cost the City many multiple millions.
We have not had the opportunity to dissect the legislation – it has not been out there long enough and no official calendar of a Council vote has been announced.
We can tell you that Miller benefits and Miller controls the Council. On the face of it, it is undemocratic and unfair for the Council to change the rules midstream to benefit Miller.
Yet, by the time you read this, we thought that was exactly what was going to happen.
In a similar rapid fire process as the “term limit tweak,” Miller ally, Manhattan Councilman Bill Perkins, Chairman of Government Operations, was planning to report the bill out of committee on Tuesday (10/12); Council staff would have quietly snuck copies of the bill -- before it was passed by committee -- onto members desks over the weekend in order to “age,” and Wednesday (10/13) the full Council was to have blindly voted.
Few, if any member, would have had the courage to complain that they did not have the time to digest the bill(s) or ask for time to consider or debate the inch thick package. After all, Miller controls committee assignments and Council staff and perks. You don’t cross the leader – think Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno.
Now this rush to judgment was surprisingly cancelled on Tuesday with quiet calls from staff to Government Operations Committee members cancelling the meeting.
We do not know why.
This past Friday, I chatted with a member of the City Council who described his concern and frustration with what appeared to be an unstoppable train that would have caused “damage to the public perception of the Council.”
“While the Bill itself seems fine,” this Council member who requested not to be named told us, “I would not want to change the rules in the middle of the game.” The member insisted that if the change was warranted, it could take effect after the next Mayoral election so that the Council could consider it on the merits and not on the “Giff factor.”
Clearly, passing law to help the Council Speaker in an election contest runs against the grain, according to one member, and “Lots of members will vote for it and never have seen it.”
Perhaps the Speaker rethought his action and stopped the process to give democracy a second look. Or maybe it was just a technical glitch and things will steamroll shortly.
“Good government” is a wonderful watchword; it is not an excuse for taking advantage of the system.
January 9, 2002, inside Council Chambers, Gifford Miller (center) with colleagues, after unanilously being elected Council Speaker.