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Council moving to trim speaker's power over pork

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito during

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito during a news conference at City Hall, in which she announced a reform package proposal on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Credit: Charles Eckert

The speaker of the New York City Council would cede much of her power, including over how much pork the body's lawmakers dole out in their districts, under a proposal backed by a majority of members.

Instead of the speaker deciding who gets what, the money will go out equitably to the lawmakers who represent the city's 51 districts, based on an objective formula that has yet to be determined but factors in how poor a district is.

Bills supported by council members, but opposed by the speaker, would also have an easier path to hearings and votes under the changes unveiled Tuesday. Under the current process, the speaker maintains near total control over what bills are considered.

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan) said she doesn't consider the concessions a loss of power.

"To me, power is in being able to have a legislative body that is collaborative," she said.

The member items -- which typically go to places like senior centers and other community groups -- total about $50 million. The items were the focus of a scandal in 2008 when millions were found to have been allocated to phantom groups.

Although former Speaker Christine Quinn's name went all but unmentioned at Tuesday's announcement, the changes represent both a departure from and repudiation of Quinn's controlling methods.

Quinn was known to use member-items allocation as a carrot for loyal lawmakers and a stick for dissenters. She could not be reached for comment.

"Because I was speaking out on certain issues that differed with the previous speaker, I was penalized," said Councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx), who clashed with Quinn on a number of issues, including letting churches rent school property, and a proposed Tenants' Bill of Rights. Not that the council's leadership would lose all leverage. The speaker will still be able to dole out money as part of the so-called speaker's list, but that would be limited to 50 percent of the total allocations given to all the council members.

And while the proposals call for establishing a commission to review stipends and compensation -- such as controversial bonuses for members known as lulus that sometimes reach in the five figures -- the proposals do not call for their end.

"The stipends continue to exist," Mark-Viverito said.

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