City Council Set To Overhaul Neighborhood-Grant System

New speaker wants to reform the controversial member-item process.

01/29/14
Assistant Managing Editor
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High on the agenda of the new City Council and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is reform of the member-item funding process for neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations. Sources say that Council members have made clear to both the speaker and Mayor Bill de Blasio that they won’t support eliminating the grants, known as member items, which allow them to curry favor with their constituents’ movers and shakers.

The matter is likely to come up for public debate during open hearings of the Rules Committee next month. Council sources said that while de Blasio is committed to making good on his campaign promises, which included phasing out a heavily corrupt member-item process, his ally, Bronx-based Mark-Viverito wants to find new ways to keep the cash flowing while rooting out misuse.

Those may include giving each of the 51 members an equal sum; devising a need-based formula taking into account factors like elderly and poor populations per district; or increasing an existing participatory process in which residents vote on how to spend the district’s allotted funds.

Under the current system, the speaker has the power to dole out goodies unilaterally, inviting the temptation to reward allies and punish upstarts.

The reform debate will take place as the city gears up for the budget process but also as Mark-Viverito consolidates her hard-fought power in a Council with newly redrawn districts and 20 new members, due to term limits. Neighborhood groups that depend heavily on city grants for rent, payroll or other expenses are bound to be watching closely.

“Large, citywide entities have government-relations operatives to go through the process of asking for funds,” said freshman Democrat Mark Levine of Upper Manhattan. “But when it comes to the Little Leagues, the community gardens, the afterschool programs, only a local elected official knows these groups best. There is close to unanimous agreement on that in the City Council.”

A spokeswoman for Mark-Viverito said the speaker was not available for an interview Tuesday and did not respond to requests for comment on the member-item process.

Levine, whose office has helped fund programs at the Washington Heights YM-YWHA and that neighborhood’s Jewish Community Council, among many other local organizations, said Mark-Viverito had publicly committed to a more open and transparent grant process during her campaign for leadership.

Cynthia Zalisky, director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, said her agency hopes for a process that will closely look at needs in each district.

“We’re concerned that will be just an evaluation of the ZIP codes without talking to us about various issues,” she said, noting upper-middle class areas like Forest Hills where some residents are struggling.  UJA-Federation’s recent survey found Forest Hills had the largest share of near-poor Jewish families in the eight-county study. “We have to be vocal with the City Council to make sure there is a fair process.”

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The state Legislature took a step toward punishing universities that comply with an academic boycott of Israel earlier this month when Speaker Sheldon Silver announced a bill that would ban state education funds from being used for that purpose.

“Actions such as the American Studies Association’s discriminatory boycott of Israel and its academic institutions are a blatant assault on the academic freedoms that New York and its students have come to hold dear,” said Silver. “Colleges should not use taxpayer funds to support boycotts, resolutions or any similar actions that are discriminatory and limit academic opportunities.”

The bill would block tax dollars from being used to fund academic associations that join the boycott movement, which has generated considerable controversy among U.S. faculty groups. Silver said the bill would not apply to individual professors’ activities. State Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx is pushing a similar bill in the upper house.

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De Blasio generated some heat this week by attending a pro-Israel dinner. But it wasn’t the BDS crowd that protested.

The City Hall press corps was up in arms that the AIPAC soiree wasn’t on the mayor’s public schedule. An intrepid reporter for Capital New York who found out and managed to get in was escorted from the Hilton ballroom, but not before she recorded some of his remarks.

“Part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel. There’s no greater ally on earth, and that’s something we should say proudly,” the mayor said at the hush-hushed Jan. 23 gala by the pro-Israel lobbying group.

De Blasio described his visit to Israel with his family several years ago. He also said “City Hall will always be open” to AIPAC.

In an interview with The Jewish Week during the Democratic primary last summer, the former councilman and public advocate said he saw no political downside to being pro-Israel in New York City, but added, “If anyone doesn’t like my stance in favor of Israel, they can vote for someone else.”

Responding to criticism about the secret dinner appearance, de Blasio told reporters on Jan. 24 he wanted to respect AIPAC’s request to avoid publicity.

“We do owe you a clearer understanding of where I am and what I’m doing,” he said, offering an olive branch. 

adam@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

01/29/2014 - 19:35

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