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Boss Quinn

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Quinn in the City Council chambers.  

Quinn’s sartorial edict was symbolic, but was nothing compared with her staff putsch. In assembling her team of senior advisers, Quinn kept onboard Chuck Meara, the chief of staff of her predecessor, Gifford Miller (“Chuck knew the place, and a number of members spoke to me on his behalf,” says Quinn, who is close to Miller), but hired new deputy chiefs, including Maura Keaney, who had once run Quinn’s council office before leaving to work for the garment-workers union Unite Here, and Ramon Martinez, a Queens political operative who had previously worked for Hillary Clinton and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

Then Quinn lowered the ax. On the morning of February 17, pink slips were hand-delivered to 61 council employees, their computer access was quickly cut off, and they were given until the end of the day to clear out their desks. The list included everyone from the respected veteran finance director Larian Angelo to policy analysts to secretaries. Quinn was conveniently out of the office that day—visiting a Queens hospital and then heading to Albany for a meeting—and thus missed the sight of teary-eyed staffers wandering around with moving boxes.

Although Miller had purged a similar number of people after taking office and did so on Valentine’s Day, Quinn created a bigger uproar with her firings, perhaps because people hadn’t seen the more ruthless pol in her. “Gifford didn’t even get a story in the Times,” Quinn says. “I got three.” A Quinn defender says she was clearing out previous patronage hires. “How did some of these people get here? Either you’ve got a rabbi or you do a lot of political work on the side. This is a political institution.” Other council members, however, grumbled that Quinn was firing competent people to open up slots for her own payback hires. Still, for Quinn, behaving so forcefully in the first few months of her speakership showed that she was willing to play as rough as the boys. When I mentioned to Bloomberg deputy mayor Kevin Sheekey that a number of legislators told me they’re scared of Quinn, he laughed. “Fear is good,” he said. “As the saying goes, when you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

The Kabuki ritual that is the annual fight between the City Council and the mayor’s office over how to spend the city’s money goes like this: The mayor presents his budget proposal—this year it’s $52.7 billion—which includes scores of spending proposals for projects and programs he deems worthy, plus cuts in popular programs like arts funding and libraries. “It’s smart of them because it allows us to be pigeonholed on working on one percent of the budget,” says Quinn. “If the council is spending all its time restoring important services, we don’t raise broader issues.” In turn, council members go ballistic, hold hearings, and demand that money be restored; they also give the speaker a long wish list of new programs, such as more funding to fight hepatitis B or to hire more housing inspectors. Ultimately, the mayor and the council speaker battle over what stays in and what gets cut out, with an annual June 30 deadline looming for a budget deal. The speaker has discretion over tens of millions of dollars, both by choosing which new citywide programs to push for in negotiations with the mayor and by controlling the purse strings of the council’s own $48.5 million operating budget. Traditionally, the process of wrangling money from the speaker has been a freewheeling, back-room affair. Council members would simply hand the speaker scraps of paper with their wishes written on them; a billion dollars’ worth of requests might wind up in $150 million in city spending, with all the decisions made behind closed doors.

In April, Quinn announced far-reaching reforms that essentially overhauled the process by fiat. Her 50 fellow council members are now limited to four requests. Members have to fill out detailed forms, which must include the signed support of nine of their colleagues, and the signers must represent at least three of the five boroughs. Members can back no more than seven requests in addition to their own four. The forms must be submitted by a deadline (it was May 17 this year); after that date, no further requests will be considered until the following year. Quinn says the reforms are intended to make the process more open, to force council members to set priorities, and to weed out proposals that don’t enjoy at least some degree of widespread support. “Every year I’ve been part of the budget process,” says Quinn. “A member would say, when the list was given out, ‘No one asked me.’ The perception was, ‘The speaker doesn’t like me.’ ” Critics say the changes create unnecessary paperwork and limit the number of worthy projects council members can lobby for. “She said she didn’t want to go through the whole budget dance with the mayor,” says Brooklyn council member Charles Barron. “Now we’ve got to go around dancing with each other.” The changes are imperfect—Quinn allows that she’s willing to tinker—but they’ve been hailed by good-government groups as a positive step toward greater accountability.


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