Who Represents Me: Demystifying the City Council

June 12, 2017

The webinar, “Who Represents Me? Demystifying the City Council” is now available to watch online! Watch it now or read the transcript below.

Who Represents Me?

2017 is an election year in New York City! Here at New Yorkers for Parks we want to prepare our constituents for the upcoming races and make sure we have an informed electorate ready to prioritize parks and open space. As an independent advocacy organization, we inform, lobby and influence key decision-makers when it comes to our city’s open space. Some of the most important decision-makers when it comes to parks are the City Council members. In this post, we will discuss how to find out who represents you in the city, how to contact them, and how to get involved in the elections.

Our Elected and Appointed Officials

The following officials represent you in New York City:

Mayor- Bill de Blasio. The mayor is the head of the executive branch and administers all city services and oversees the $85 billion city budget. The mayor is limited to two consecutive four year terms. Having been elected in 2013, Bill de Blasio is up for re-election this fall. The mayor represents all five boroughs.

Borough President- On the other hand, each borough has a singular representative known as the Borough President. Borough presidents advise the Mayor, advocate for key issues in their borough, appoint community boards, comment on the municipal budget, and while they are elected, they generally serve ceremonial positions. Each borough president does have a discretionary budget to fund projects within their borough and influence the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. Therefore, if you are advocating for a particular park project in your community, it is beneficial to have the support of your Borough President.

Public Advocate- Letitia James. The public advocate is first in line to succeed the mayor and serves as a direct liaison between New Yorkers and the city government, acting as the “watchdog” for the electorate. As with the Mayor, the Public Advocate represents all five boroughs and is elected every four years, and may serve two consecutive terms.

Comptroller- Scott Stringer. The comptroller is the chief fiscal officer and chief auditing officer of New York City.The Comptroller can serve three consecutive four year terms, and monitors the performance and finances of the city agencies, contracts, and city debt.

Community Board- On a more local level, we have our community boards. Community boards are appointed advisory groups, with 59 total boards spread across the five boroughs. Community boards are made up of up to 50 volunteer members who are appointed by the borough president, half of whom are nominated by the City Council members who represent the district. While the community board members are not elected directly by New Yorkers, they do advise on land use and zoning, comment on the city budget process and engage constituents on development of or opposition to specific projects. They serve no official authority to make or enforce laws, however.

City Council- The City Council is the lawmaking body of New York City, with 51 members representing the 51 City Council Districts across the five boroughs. The City Council serves as a check to the Mayor, monitoring city agencies, making land use decisions, approving the city budget proposed by the mayor, and proposing and passing laws. City Council members are limited to two consecutive four year terms. It’s worth noting that after a four-year respite City Council members can serve a third term if they are elected.

City Council

The head of the City Council, known as the Speaker, is currently Melissa Mark-Viverito. The Speaker of the City Council sets the agenda and all proposed legislation ultimately passes through her office.  The City Council is made up of 35 different committees. Each City Council Member is obligated to sit on at least three committees. The Parks and Recreation Committee, for example, is chaired by City Council Member Mark Levine, from District 7, but he also is part of the committees on education, finance, governmental operations, housing and buildings, and rules, privileges and elections. Our City Council members are very busy! This year, they are even busier than usual because it is an election year.

City Council Districts

Every decade, following the census, the districts are redrawn to conform to demographic changes and to ascertain that the map is in compliance with the “one-person, one-vote” constitutional requirement. There are a few different ways to find out your City Council District.

  • Who Represents Me? www.mygovnyc.org is a great place to start! This easy to use website allows you to enter your address and will provide the name and contact information of your city, state, and federal elected officials. This is a wonderful, one-stop shop resource.
  • New York City Council. www.council.nyc.gov is the official website of the New York City Council. On the homepage, you can enter your address or search on a map for your district. The search engine will provide the district number, member name, borough, party and list of represented neighborhoods.

Contact City Council

On the City Council website of each member you will find the contact information for their District Office and their Legislative Office. The District Office is typically located within the representative’s district and you should contact this office with issues particular to your community as the staff on site can provide constituent services in the neighborhood. The Legislative Office for all 51 members is located at 250 Broadway in Manhattan. The Legislative Office houses staff focused on broader policy work. Most City Council members also have personal, separate websites or blogs that can provide up-to-date information concerning news in your district. Some members offer newsletters and many are active on social media.

Contact Your City Council Member

In an election year, it is a great opportunity to get to know your City Council member, and the other candidates running for the seats, as they are looking for their constituents’ support. If you would like to engage with incumbent or new candidates, you can write letters to their office, make phone calls, and even invite them to community events you are hosting. It is not guaranteed, of course, that each member will have time on their schedule to meet every constituent who reaches out, but New Yorkers for Parks has a few tips to increase your chances of getting some facetime with your City Council Member.

  • Contact and build a relationship with key staff. You should get to know the Chief of Staff, Scheduler and Office Manager of your Council Member. You can call the District or Legislative office to identify these key staff members, or find this information on the Council Member’s website. These key staff members have access to the official’s calendar, speaking events, and can help arrange a meeting with your community group and the representative.
  • Join Participatory Budgeting (PB). PB is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. City Council members choose to join Participatory Budgeting in New York, giving at least $1 million from their discretionary budget for the community decision-making process. Currently, 31 of the 51 City Council members are part of the program. This being an election year, it is a great time to talk to your council member or candidates about why you either support and appreciate their participating in PB, or for the 20 districts that don’t participate, why you think they should! Participatory Budgeting allows New Yorkers to decide where to spend our capital dollars on “brick and mortar” projects, so if you have some projects in mind, use your leverage in this election cycle to advocate for PB.
  • Attend and testify at City Council Hearings. City Council hearings are a great opportunity to submit and read public testimony to your elected officials concerning various park-related topics. NY4P’s webinar “Going on the Record” gives you the inside scoop about how to successfully testify at a City Council hearing, including everything from how to check in at the building to how to make a compelling case. Check it out here!

Community Board versus City Council Districts

We are represented by elected City Council Members and appointed Community Board members. However, the areas that these two bodies represent are not identical. In other words, your City Council District is different from your Community Board district. We admit that these distinctions can be confusing. At NY4P, we typically research and advocate on behalf of New Yorkers according to their City Council Districts. For example, our City Council District Profiles look at open space allocation and demographics of the 51 City Council Districts. We choose to look at City Council Districts for a very specific reason- your City Council Members are the officials with money you might need to accomplish a park project. Each Council Member has a discretionary funding budget and legislates on issues concerning land use and rezoning in your community. In our growing, developing city, your park and open space priorities are intrinsically tied to the funds and priorities of your City Council Member. Just another reason to get out and vote this fall!

2017 Election

This year, the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents and city council members are all up for election. The City Council primaries will be held September 12, 2017 and the general election November 7, 2017.

Track the Candidates

There are over 200 candidates officially running for public office this fall. There are many different ways to keep track of the candidates and identify their positions.

  • New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB). www.nyccfb.info The CFB is a great, official place to start. The CFB website provides information about the elections, voting, voter services, and candidate services. You can find the “Candidate List” under the “Campaign Finance Reports” tab in the “Follow the Money” section on their homepage to see the updated list of people running for office. If candidates have officially joined the Campaign Finance Program by filling out a Candidate Certification and agreeing to participate in the city’s matching funds process, they are listed as “Participants” on the Candidate List.
  • Local newspapers. City Limits, City and State, DNA Info, and Gotham Gazette a few examples of news outlets across the city that are keeping a close on the races.

Open versus Incumbent Seat

One of the trickier facets of a City Council election is determining if your district seat is open, and therefore will definitely be filled by a new candidate, or is held by an incumbent, who is seeking re-election against new candidates. Your district seat is open if the current council member has reached the limit of their terms. Remember, in the New York City Council, the council member can serve two consecutive four year terms. It’s important to note that some councilmembers were eligible to serve for three terms under a rule change that took place in 2008, but those rules are no longer in place, and we are back to a two-term system. In 2017, of the 51 districts, 7 of them are going to open seats. These 7 members are term limited and a brand new batch of candidates are running for the seat. The remaining 44 members, if they want to keep their seat, are running for re-election as an incumbent, against a batch of new candidates. Why is this important? Although this is not always the case, usually the most contested elections are for the 7 open seats. The candidates are new, seeking support, and want to hear from constituents. This is where you come in! We want to stress, though, that every single incumbent member needs to be re-elected to hold their seat. In fact, there are already some hotly contested seats and lots of exciting news stories to follow. If you care about parks and open space, all 51 elections are important!

Your To-Do List

  • Register to vote
  • Track candidates on the Campaign Finance Board website
  • Read the NYC Voter Guide, published by NYC Votes each fall
  • Find your polling site and know what to expect on voting day
  • Get involved! Volunteer at poll sites, register as a poll worker, or volunteer for a candidate
  • Support the New Yorkers for Parks Public Realm Bill of Rights and demand that our elected officials prioritize parks and open space!