The New York City Council’s autocratic unwritten rule

There’s just one person in the room — and he, or she, has all the power.

Do you want affordable housing, a new supermarket or a dog park? Do you want empty land transformed into something special or open space preserved?

The decision appears to lie in the hands of the City Council’s 51 members. But that’s not true. In reality, one person often has an outsized say on land use and development. It’s not the mayor, or the council speaker. It’s the council member who represents the district where the project is being considered. It’s a long-standing unofficial rule: If that member says no, the project is derailed.

Sometimes, the council member’s “no” is enough for the developer to withdraw an application — before a hearing, before a vote, before anyone else can have a voice.

That happened when developer Phipps Houses withdrew its proposal to build more than 200 affordable housing units in Sunnyside after Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer opposed the project. The council never held a hearing. No one testified as to the merits or problems. And the council never held a vote. Van Bramer claimed he had the community’s interests at heart. But we can’t know for sure, as no other voices were heard.

One person decided.

And this happens again and again.

The City Council’s tradition of allowing one member to rule on a project that could have citywide impact removes any hope for fair and balanced decision-making or accountability. It means the city’s interests aren’t addressed. The council member’s wants, needs or re-election trumps everything. The practice potentially hands control to donors and behind-the-scenes supporters, creating the possibility that decisions are made for the wrong reasons.

It’s often said that in Albany, three men in a room are in charge. In NYC, it seems, it’s one man or woman. The face and voice might change with each project, but it’s still one person. Together, the City Council’s 51 members could create a unified body of 51 voices and 51 votes. Instead, we’re left with the ugly, authoritative power of 51 separate decision-makers.