Keith Powers for City Council
22-Point Plan to Improve City Government
Six New Ideas to Curb The Influence of Big Money
The campaign finance system in New York City is a model for other cities and states. Our system provides grassroots candidates with the opportunity to run for elected office without needing access to large contributions or exclusive donors. I am proud to participate in and support the public financing system.
I am dedicated to leveling the playing field between regular donors and the large donors that can provide a significant fundraising boost to elected officials. The outsized impact of large campaign contributions erodes and undermines the core democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” In the coming years, the City can take a few important steps to help reduce the influence of big-money contributions, including:
- Strengthen Campaign Finance Laws: The Campaign Finance Board (CFB) currently provides candidates with 55% of their money through public funding, requiring them to fund the other 45% through private donations. The City can empower grassroots campaigns by allowing for full public financing, thereby removing the need to attract large donors. My idea: pilot a full public financing program for special elections, which are non-partisan elections that occur in a shortened time period. If it works, the City can scale it up to regular elections.
- Lower Contribution Limits Across the Board: The Matching Funds program helps amplify the voice of regular New Yorkers, but big donors are still the path to fundraising for most elected officials. I propose lowering the contribution limit for City Council from $2,750 to $1,225 (which is the maximum matching amount per contribution) to make small donors and large donors equal in their donation capacity.
- Close “Doing Business” Loopholes:
City law lowers the maximum donation limit for individuals and companies doing business with the City. However, loopholes in the City’s campaign finance system allow these individuals and companies to give the normal maximum donation—rather than adhering to ‘doing business’ contribution limits. By closing this loophole, we will uphold the intention of the law and make sure that contributions do not affect outcomes of business proposals and agreements between the donors and the City.
- Open Calendars on Lobbying Meetings:
The public should have more access to information about lobbying activity in the City. For starters, the City Council should disclose all lobbying meetings every January and July, at the same time that they have to disclose their contributions. This would provide a clear picture of how contributions are being used to influence outcomes at the City Council. I would also push to make sure that the Mayor honors his pledge to disclose City agency lobbying, which has yet to be fulfilled.
- Increase Sunlight on Lobbying Activity: The City has strong disclosure laws that require lobbyists to disclose clients and compensation on a bi-monthly basis. Here’s what’s still hidden: a list of who got lobbied, who did the lobbying, and the specific bill or subject matter. This information is provided to the City, but the public has no access to the information. The City should provide this information on the City Clerk’s website so that the public can have a clearer picture of lobbying activity.
- Expand Lobbying Restrictions on Former Elected Officials and Decision Makers: The City law currently prohibits any individual from lobbying their branch of government for one-year after leaving government. I propose extending this prohibition to two years for all elected officials and senior decision makers. The City also has to continue to update its laws to ensure that the definition of ‘lobbying’ meets the constant update in technology, access to elected officials, and new means of communication.
Four New Ideas to Reform the City Budget
The annual budget provides Council Members with millions of dollars to spend in their own district. While this funding goes to many worthy groups and projects, it continues to be a complicated, opaque process that rewards politically connected groups and hurts smaller groups that are unable to navigate the system.
I start with one big premise: take the politics out of the funding process or end the process all together. There are available options if the City chooses to replace this process, like allowing City agencies to distribute funding directly (e.g. through request for proposals) or providing more meaningful public input into decisions. We can also:
- Create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Member Item Reform: Every year, the City Council allocates millions of dollars to each member to spend in their district. Unfortunately, too much of the money is spent based on political or personal connections rather than merit, need, or measurable outcome. I join Mayor Bill De Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and others that have voiced concern about this process. I recommend appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission of good government advocates, budget experts, and community members that can further the Council’s 2014 reforms and recommend whether to replace the existing process or how to improve it.
- Put Every Funding Allocation Online in an Easy-to-Read Format: After the money is spent, the Council should give the public an easy-to-read report demonstrating how their Council Member allocated or supported funding. Right now, a City Council Member allocates three pots of funding (Local, Aging, Youth) and recommends through four others (Borough Delegations, Speaker Funding, Caucuses, Initiatives). The public should have a clear list of which organizations their Council Member supported. After the budget process, let’s put an easy-to-read list online that details each organization that received direct funding or support from a Council Member.
- Measure “Outcomes and Objectives” of Discretionary Funding: For groups receiving the largest pots of funding, we need a way to measure their outcomes against their objectives. One of my concerns with discretionary funding is that after money is being allocated, the outcomes are not being measured to ensure outcomes. It’s time that we measure the metrics on a year-to-year basis. Before the next budget, the City Council should ask the largest groups to provide metrics on their outcomes. This is not unusual: RFPs often require a process of evaluating outcomes, and private foundations require it when distributing money.
- Open the Data in Budget Documents: Budget watchdogs a need access to public information in an open format so they can analyze City data and help citizens understand major allocations in the City budget. If elected, I would push for legislation to require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to provide budget data to the public in a machine-readable and sortable format without restrictions on usage.
Nine New Ideas for City Council Reform
One of my priorities is to strengthen the City Council and to make sure that it is on equal footing with other branches of City government. My ideas would allow City Council Members to have more freedom to introduce bills, reduce unnecessary parts of the Council, and to make it easier for public engagement in the process. Here is my nine-point plan to make that happen:
- Establish Independent Bill Drafting: The Council should establish an independent bill drafting unit that can operate as a fully operational and independent entity to draft bills in an expedited manner. The unit would serve the City Council, Public Advocate, and Borough Presidents. The State Legislature has a unit that performs independent bill drafting and can serve as a template for the City Council.
- Improve Bill Introduction: Members should have the unfettered ability to introduce legislation and have it considered by the City Council, rather than leaving control in the hands of the Speaker. The current process limits the amount of bills that a Council Member can request at a given time and has other limitations on the number of bills that can be introduced on a particular topic. This process should be reformed to allow Council Members to more freely introduce legislation.
- Enact Time Limitations on Bill Placeholders: In present form, a Council Member can put in an LS request (essentially a placeholder on a particular bill topic) that is never removed. The harm in this process is that a Council Member can decide to sit on a bill for the entire four years. One of the quickest fixes: implement time restrictions so that an idea has to be introduced as a bill within a given time frame or becomes available to another Council Member for introduction.
- Institute Transparent Bill Aging: The City Council rules require a bill to be placed on public display for 7 days leading up to a vote. The City Council satisfies this requirement by merely placing the bill on desk inside of City Hall, outside of public purview. The Council should update the process with technology and create an online list of bills that are ‘Active' or ‘Aging’ so that members of the public will know when a bill has an upcoming vote.
- Consolidate and Reduce Council Committees: The City Council currently has 35 committees and six sub-committees, with a range of 5 to 23 members on each one. The Council should consolidate and reduce the overall number of committees, create a better balance of members on each committee, and strengthen the staff on core committees. Allowing a high number of committees is a form of patronage, where virtually every Council Member is a Committee Chair.
- Create Independent Committees: City Council Committee Chairs should be able to operate their committees with more freedom. This means providing them with the ability to schedule committee meetings, hire committee staff, and determine which bills will receive a vote. This freedom will create a more democratic City Council.
- Put Voting Records Online: The City Council should provide an easy-to-navigate system for letting voters know how their Council Member voted on a range of bills or issues. I propose putting voting records on the Council Member’s page so that the public can see how their member is voting.
- Strengthen the Council’s Oversight Function: Oversight is one of the Council’s most important functions. The City Council should increase resources and staff to reinforce its commitment to perform oversight of the Mayor and City agencies. This would give the Council significantly more power to ensure that its objectives are met and to perform diligent oversight of City government.
- Push Reporting Reform: There are hundreds of reporting requirements placed on City agencies. Many of these reporting requirements are outdated or unnecessary. The Council should review agency reporting requirements with the intent of eliminating or reducing those that are no longer needed and instituting systematized checks to ensure necessary reports are completed and submitted.
Three New Ideas to Modernize City Elections
Let’s face it: the public has lost confidence in our elections, and recent events have only made it worse. Whether it’s long lines at the polling places, stringent rules about absentee voting, or an election system from the 19th Century, the City and State of New York need to take election reform seriously. Although the State has jurisdiction over many parts of our elections, the City can take meaningful steps to the lead the way on reform:
- End Patronage at the Board of Elections: The City must take election reform seriously—beginning by reforming the City’s Board of Elections (BOE). Right now, the City Council appoints BOE Commissioners in a process that is hidden from the public. Here’s an easy idea for the City Council: implement independent screening panels for the BOE that provide a rating, such as “Highly Qualified”, “Qualified”, or “Unqualified,” for any individual that submits their name for nomination as a commissioner.
- Implement Instant Runoff Voting: The City spends millions of dollars on campaigns for citywide run-off elections, which are often low-turnout, low-information races. Instead, we should implement instant runoff voting for Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller elections. This will save millions of dollars and increase voter turnout.
- Modernize Poll Worker Recruitment: New York State needs to update election laws to allow for early voting, online voting, and easier access to voting. In the meantime, the City can take immediate steps to make Election Day better for more people. I propose a new program to assist with Election Day operations:
- Half-Day Shifts: Make it easier for people to commit to working at the polls.
- Municipal Poll Workers Program: Allow non-essential municipal staff a day off to work at the polls.
- College and High School Recruitment: Give students a day off from school to fulfill their civic duty and work in the polling place.
- New Technology in the Polling Place: Provide poll workers with the technology to give better guidance to voters.
- Better Compensation for Poll Workers: Update the compensation to provide a better incentive.