The staffer for Council member Jumaane Williams was just trying to get a bill on the agenda for the City Council’s next meeting. Routine paperwork, but first, the bill had to live up to the scrutiny of legislative counsel Gary Altman.
“Just dropping off,” the staffer tried, as Altman, a nearly 38-year council veteran and longtime keeper of the rules, adjusted his glasses and took a look.
Alas, there was a problem. Another council member was supporting the legislation, but he hadn’t physically signed the paper. Altman sent the staffer to go fix.
“I’ve done it a million times,” Altman said, of reviewing the bills. And he and his staff have always tried to keep things precise and follow the rules.
In fact, he helped write the rules for the modern council in the 1980s as the body grew in power and size, and he has been the careful guardian of those rules ever since. Until May 1, that is, when he retires and deprives the place of his expertise.
Deep in the history of City Hall
Altman, 62, who arrived fresh out of law school in 1979, “basically is the institutional memory of the New York City Council,” says current Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who worked with him then and now. Just last week, she says, he helped her office locate information about a business improvement district from the 1990s that left no trace on the internet. “I don’t know what they’re going to do without him.”
Altman says that Brewer introduced him as a council expert to Gloria Steinem when she visited City Hall, and Steinem encouraged him to write a book about his experience. But he says even thinly veiled fiction isn’t in the cards, which makes sense given that he is a fierce defender of the institution.
He has held a two-day orientation program to acquaint newly elected officials with the legislative process, particularly helpful for younger members lacking government experience, though he is always available for advice. Recalling the council session that opened in 2002, he indignantly remembers the headline of a 15 year-old New York Times article verbatim: “Council full of neophytes gets off to slow start.”
The council seems to have the opposite problem now: perhaps due to term limits which went back to eight years total in 2010, Altman says there’s more legislation flying around than in previous sessions.
He supported rules changes in recent years to encourage council members to read the bills they sign onto.
“Almost all bills are well intended,” says Altman, though he acknowledges some end up being “silly.” One that didn’t pass would have established a health club bill of rights, including the right to cancel your membership if you die.
Altman said he wasn’t a fan of the council’s bill creating a plastic bag fee to reduce waste (it passed but was shot down by the State Legislature). He sometimes has personal partisan opinions, but concerning his legal job of getting legislation into shape, “I’m just following the rules.”
He says former council speaker Peter Vallone Sr., who Altman calls a mentor, once told him that if both sides aren’t happy after a bill is passed, it’s probably a good bill.
Altman is “the quintessential staff guy,” says former Council member Sal Albanese, whose years in office overlapped with Altman’s tenure. Albanese clashed with Vallone but says Altman was always careful and serious, “not the kind of guy who would gossip about anything or anybody.” He was “very diligent” and knew the nuts and bolts of legislation, says Albanese: “the quintessential institutional guy.”
Altman is now parting ways with that institution, which made him think back to former Mayor Ed Koch. He remembers seeing Koch once, after his time in office, sitting on the top step of City Hall, “enjoying his domain.”
“He lived for the job,” Altman says of Koch, not unlike him.
Just following the rules
The politics won’t be all gone despite more time to see his grandchildren in retirement. He’s the president of his co-op on the Lower East Side, blocks from where he was born. He recently worked with neighbors to organize a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, which he’ll be aging into.
But for a few more days, he watches the council’s rules. As the 1 p.m. deadline for bills approached on Thursday, staffers came in and wished him luck as they dropped off their paperwork. Including the staffer who Altman sent away earlier that morning.
On the second attempt, the staffer tried adding a printout of an e-signature from the second council member. No good. It had to be actually on the bill itself. So the staffer came back with the signature cut out and Scotch-taped on top. That worked for Altman — it was a “mom and apple-pie” bill on housing, which Altman said he knew the council member was supporting.
But before he filed one of his last bills, he wanted to get it just right.