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Welcome reforms for the New York City Council

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito during

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito during a news conference at City Hall, in which she announced a reform package proposal on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Some welcome sprouts of democracy are starting to bud in City Council chambers after years of iron-fisted rule. In a remarkable move, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has proposed procedural changes that would restrict her clout and grant the council's 50 other members more independence.

Most important: The speaker would divest herself of power to dictate how much in discretionary funds each council member gets for distribution among local causes, such as health clinics and youth athletic organizations.

Members instead would get equal amounts of money, except for those from poorer districts, who would get 25 percent more. The total pot for these expenses -- known as member items -- comes to around $50 million a year.

Until now, these funds have been a surefire way for council speakers to keep the troops in line. Members who go along with the leadership can shower constituents with largesse. Members who make trouble can wind up with an embarrassingly small bag of gifts.

Former Speaker Christine Quinn was known for wide disparities in the way she ladled out member-item cash.

The Mark-Viverito proposal should fix that problem.

Our only gripe is that the plan stops short. The right amount of walking-around money for council members to hand out to a favored few is zero.

These honey pots are magnets for corruption.

Councilman Miguel Martinez of Washington Heights was sentenced in 2009 for the theft of $106,000. Some of this money was meant for nonprofit groups in his district.

Councilman Larry Seabrook of the Bronx was convicted of corruption in 2012 in connection with a scheme to steer money to friends and relatives through nonprofits.

Still, Mark-Viverito's plan would be a big step forward.

She also proposes to require a two-thirds council vote to remove committee chairs. That would zap another powerful weapon that speakers have used to keep the independently minded in line.

The reforms would lead to a more rambunctious -- but more democratic -- council. We hope they're adopted.


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