BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | New City Councilmember Corey Johnson is denying that he has flip-flopped on the issue of accepting Council stipends, also known as “lulus.”
The annual payments, in the past ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, have traditionally been doled out to members as compensation for chairing committees. But they have also been seen as a way for the speaker of the Council to wield influence and control among its members.
When he was running for office last year, Johnson responded to a questionnaire by the good-government group Citizens Union, one question of which was specifically on the extra payments.
“What is your position on limiting stipends or ‘lulus’ to only members holding majority or minority leadership positions?” candidates were asked.
Johnson’s response was marked down as “Support.”
However, the Daily News recently called out four councilmembers, including Johnson, for allegedly saying they would not accept the stipends, but then changing their position and “pocketing the money.” The other three include Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan, Daneek Miller of Queens and Vincent Gentile of Brooklyn.
In addition, the News said its editorial board had asked candidates whether they supported limiting the stipends to the very top leaders of the Council, “as is the case in virtually every other legislature in America, [which] would strip the speaker’s power to pay for support or slash the salaries of members who buck her.”
A total of 35 members who were sworn in this Jan. 1 reportedly backed lulu reform. However, of those, according to the News, only 10 have followed through and are refusing the money outright: Dan Garodnick, Ben Kallos, Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan; Brad Lander, Alan Maisel, Carlos Menchaca and Mark Treyger of Brooklyn; Andy Cohen of the Bronx; and Steve Matteo of Staten Island.
An additional 16 councilmembers are accepting the money, but saying they will give it to charity. Each must give a public accounting of what he or she does with the funds. The News called this position a “dodge,” however, noting that Public Advocate Letitia James, for one, when she was a councilmember, took lulus, saying she would donate the cash to charity, but that her tax returns didn’t indicate she took a deduction for doing so.
Under new Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, though, the playing field has been leveled on lulus. In the past, the amount of the stipends varied among committee chairpersons, but now the payments have been made the same across the board — $8,000. According to a source, a few councilmembers still may get additional funds, such as the chairperson of the large and important Finance Committee, as well as the majority and minority leaders.
Under law, the stipends cannot be used by members to pay their staff.
In a statement to The Villager last week, Johnson said he did not flip-flop, and he defended taking the stipend.
“In January, I was honored to be appointed as chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Health,” he said. “This is an extraordinarily important committee that has oversight of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, health clinics, school health facilities, as well as animal welfare and control. With my appointment came an $8,000 stipend, which is the same amount that 37 other chairpersons of committees and subcommittees received.
“The Citizens Union questionnaire did not specifically ask about turning down stipends for chairing committees,” Johnson noted. “The allotment of stipends has changed considerably under the leadership of Speaker Mark-Viverito. There has been an equalization so that no chairperson is punished with regard to politics. The City Council has a Rules Committee meeting on Feb. 24 where it will discuss reforms, including on how stipends are allotted. I’m a reformer and look forward to supporting many of the reforms that will be presented.”
In addition, Johnson said that he never told the Daily News his position on lulus during the campaign.
“As a citizen, candidate and now councilmember, I never met or sat with the Daily News editorial board,” he said.
He admitted he did speak to that paper about the subject, but only two weeks ago — for the article that ultimately criticized him.
As for why he decided to take his stipend as personal income rather than donate it to charity, Johnson indicated he feels it’s appropriate compensation for the amount of work he’ll be doing as a committee chairperson.
“All public employees have a right to do as they see fit with their paycheck,” Johnson told The Villager. “Donating any amount to charity is admirable and kind. Receiving an additional amount of money for chairing any committee is reasonable, in my opinion. The Health Committee is one of the most active committees in the Council, and we have a comprehensive and full agenda to tackle this year.”
Councilmembers make a pretty good salary, around $110,000 per year. On the other hand, Johnson, who is 31, didn’t have a job when he was campaigning for office, and no one can deny that the cost of living in Manhattan keeps rising. Does Johnson, who lives in Chelsea, perhaps simply just need the extra money?
“No matter where anyone lives, New York is not an inexpensive place to call home,” the councilmember said. “I am and will be a full-time councilmember that will not be seeking outside income apart from my Council salary. I worked hard to get elected, and will work tirelessly as the councilmember for the Third District and also as chairperson of the Committee on Health.”
An article in The Villager last Oct. 3 noted that in a Sept. 16 op-ed, the Daily News called on Johnson and 11 other new councilmembers to make good on their “past promises” to ban lulus and reform so-called member items — also known as discretionary funds, which councilmembers allocate in their districts — which have allowed Council speakers to effectively buy political support by providing extra funding to friendlier members. Johnson said he welcomed that early scrutiny.
“This is the first order of business,” he said then. “So people really should be watching over the next few months, as we plan to make some significant reforms in the Council. I’m looking forward to teaming up with all these good folks in the Progressive Caucus who want to reform the Council to make it more democratic, to empower individual members, to take favoritism out of the member-item process and to make staff allocations and committee assignments more fair.”
The recent News article also noted that four councilmembers who are “on the outs” with Speaker Mark-Viverito were the only ones denied lulus, including third-term Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who no longer chairs a committee.
Last week, Mendez told The Villager that, when she used to get lulus, she used them for charitable purposes, such as, in one case, reported by this newspaper a few years ago, helping a family pay for a funeral. But she noted that, after that report, she got a huge flood of requests from constituents who also wanted help, and so ever since then, has chosen not to publicize how she used her stipends to help the community.