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Senior Slump

Term limits make it mighty hard for the City Council to stay focused.


When New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone announced last month that his office would be collecting 500 Ralph Lauren blankets and 1,000 used coats to distribute to the needy, it might have seemed like a typical act of goodwill by a city politician. Except for the fact that the needy in question were in Watertown, New York, 25 miles from the Canadian border.

Vallone is running for governor, so a little politicking outside the five boroughs can be excused. But moments like this are becoming standard practice at the City Council these days, where nearly everybody is job-hunting -- if they aren’t counting the days to retirement.

As a result of the 1993 law limiting elected officials in New York to two terms in office, 40 out of the 51 current council members will automatically be kicked out in 2001. Opponents of the law argued that it would be disruptive and deter good candidates from running, but nobody thought it would happen this quickly. With an evacuation date four years away, the council already looks like the American Embassy three days before the fall of Saigon -- everyone’s trying to find a way out. “I hadn’t been in office in the new term for more than three days when this chorus began: ‘What are you doing next? What are you doing next?’ “ says Andrew Eristoff of Manhattan (who has enrolled in an NYU course in information technology just in case). Says another council member, “There are people sidling up to industries looking for jobs; people using the City Council to run for another office; and this whole other group that’s going to retire, so they’re asleep at the wheel.”

It all started last month when Vallone delivered his State of the City address, which was, in the words of one member, “more like a manifesto on state-government politics.” Since then, Vallone has called for things like a statewide abortion-clinic-access bill, which the city hardly needs, having already passed one of its own. “I would say the council’s a bit adrift,” says another member. “As a body, we’re not exactly focused on anything other than what is perceived to be useful to the Speaker for running for governor.”

It’s not just Vallone. Everyone seems to be running for something else. Two relatively obscure members, Kenneth Fisher of Brooklyn and Thomas Ognibene of Queens, have already appeared on NY1 discussing their mayoral ambitions -- 46 months before the next election. And council members Tom Duane, Anthony Weiner, Noach Dear, and Martin Malave-Dilan are pursuing other elected offices, though you can still usually find them in the council chambers. “They’re going to be there because that’s where they get the press for now,” says a staff member who predicts they’ll become scarce when their campaigns heat up.

Allen Roth, the executive director of New Yorkers for Term Limits, doesn’t believe the council’s work habits have been affected. “These people always had other things to distract them,” says Roth. “It’s a part-time job. What they’re afraid of is change. They’re not guaranteed a job for life anymore.”

About the only members who aren’t panicking are the ones who claim they were planning to retire anyway. Asked about his plans for the future, 69-year-old Archie Spigner of Queens muses, “How about sitting on a beach? That’s an option.” A half-dozen more are expected to ride into the sunset, as well.

Meanwhile, new council members are a little awestruck at the power that will soon be theirs. In four years, the most senior elected official in New York City is going to be the now-28-year-old councilman Gifford Miller, elected in the middle of last term and therefore eligible to run again in 2001. “He’s moving up fast -- you got to hand it to him,” says a former colleague. “But this is just ridiculous.”

It’s not the Gifford Millers who’ll really be in charge, though. The general lack of experience on the council is more likely to distort the balance of power in favor of the next mayor, whoever that may be. “I don’t have the expertise that the older people have, and that’s just the sad truth,” says Margarita Lopez, who recently took over Antonio Pagan’s old seat. “The mayor is going to have a ball in the sense that he can implement policies that are maybe even illegal because some of us may not even realize it. Honestly, this is going to be hell.”


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