Editorial: Dan Halloran charges put spotlight on 'member items'
Thank City Councilman Daniel Halloran III for this much. His actions, rendered with brutal detail in a federal criminal complaint, have cast a harsh spotlight once more on how elected officials distribute public money.
The Queens pol could inadvertently wind up triggering another round of much-needed reforms.
"Member item" is the polite term for the discretionary cash that council members get to help pay for amenities like baseball and soccer fields or community centers or similar local projects. Others prefer less delicate terms -- like slush fund, honey pot and pork barrel.
Why? Because, while member items can do much good, politicians sometimes find less altruistic uses. The feds say Halloran picked up $6,500 in campaign contributions from an undercover FBI agent and a cooperating witness at a meeting last September and then promised, when asked, to send their way at least $20,000 in member-item money.
"Absolutely, that's easy," Halloran is quoted by the feds. "That's not even an issue, not even an issue. . . . In fact, I might even be able to get you more."
He might have been talking through his hat. It's not clear he could have delivered. Council Speaker Christine Quinn has pushed through some significant reforms. A 2012 report by Citizens Union, the good-government watchdog group, found that organizations receiving council cash are better-vetted now and distribution of member-item money is subjected to tighter disclosure rules.
But the rules could be tightened further. Member items should be handed to council members less as a reward for supporting council leadership and more on grounds of objective merit, Citizens Union rightly notes.
Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, a Quinn opponent in the Democratic mayoral primary, would scrap the system. But that doesn't make sense.
Member items give a boost to community groups and are awarded by those who should best know neighborhood needs. They must simply be done with more attention to merit and less to politics.