These changes could almost verbatim be established in Boston, if you changed "NY" to "Boston", and reduced the number of councilors and aides commensurate with the size of NY vs. Boston.
This is great food for thought, thank you NY TIMES:
By DAVID PECHEFSKY
Published: January 22, 2010
IN Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City speech on Wednesday, he spoke of the City Council as if it were an equal partner in government. Indeed, the mayor’s surprisingly close re-election, the unusual defeat of a handful of council members and some spirited races in the general election in a city where winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to victory, might lead one to expect the 51-member body to be imbued with new democratic vigor. However, the council members inaugurated this month have joined a body whose governance structure is hardly more democratic than a high school student council’s — where the principal calls the shots.
Ultimately, all City Council decisions are made by the speaker and the speaker’s staff. The speaker controls which members get to sit on which committees and who heads those committees, what legislation comes up for a vote, the hiring and firing of the 250-plus central staff and the money that members get to dole out to their districts.
Since the 1989 City Charter reform enlarged the Council’s powers, a strong speaker has been seen as necessary to counterbalance the mayor, but this balance doesn’t hold. Because the current speaker, Christine Quinn, has so much control over the Council, Mayor Bloomberg can deal almost exclusively with her, ignoring the members and, by extension, their constituents.
The consequence of a cozy relationship between the speaker and the mayor is a Council that goes along with the mayor on most major issues. That’s why we’ve seen the City Council approve — at the mayor’s initiative — the rezoning of large areas of the city for high-end development, congestion pricing and the overturning of referendum-approved term limits.
Fortunately, creating a representative and transparent City Council that can check mayoral power won’t require a wholesale rewriting of the charter. All that is needed are three small but significant changes.
First, the Council should reform its process for approving the city budget. The mayor now prepares the budget with his Office of Management and Budget and city agencies, and then submits a relatively final document to the Council. Council committees hold hearings to review the mayor’s plan, but they have no real ability to make changes.
The Council’s budget negotiating team then spends torturous hours behind closed doors, proposing a few alternative cuts, which are usually rejected by the mayor’s side, and haggling over additional expenditures, which make up a tiny fraction of the whole. The final size of the Council’s “pot” is decided between the speaker and the mayor.
There are better alternatives. For instance, Council committees should vote on the components of the budget under their purview, like Congressional appropriations committees. Votes in committee would be in the form of resolutions and would therefore lack the force of law, but they would be a template for the Council’s negotiations with the mayor and carry more weight than the current closed-door deliberations.
This would engage more members earlier in the process, instead of allowing all the action to happen around the end-game exercises of the negotiating team, and encourage the Council to look at the budget in greater detail and more comprehensively. Best of all, city agencies would have to publicly substantiate the worthiness of their programs or risk an embarrassing vote in the Council.
Second, we need to restructure how the Council is staffed. The members of the central staff, which provides technical assistance and policy advice, serve at the pleasure of the speaker, meaning they can be fired at any time.
So if a councilman requests an analysis of a particular piece of legislation, staff members need to assess whether that councilman is in good standing with the speaker and whether his proposal is likely to get the speaker’s support. If the answer is no to both, then the request gets a low priority on the work pile. This results in some good ideas never getting a full vetting and some bad ones that are never put to rest.
As many parliamentary democracies have already done, the Council should establish a legislative services commission that sets the rules for hiring, compensation, promotion and retention of legislative staff. The result would be a professional staff that works for the Council as a whole, is better insulated from politics and better able to provide objective aid and analysis.
The third fix is to reform how the speaker is selected, and it would require a charter amendment. Instead of being chosen by the council members, the speaker should be popularly elected citywide (and the redundant public advocate position should be eliminated). The speaker should then be subject to a recall vote by three-fourths of the council members; if the speaker lost that vote, a special election would then be held to fill the position. This would ensure that the speaker remains responsive to council members and the electorate.
With these reforms, the speaker would lose some power, but gain a public mandate akin to the mayor’s — as well as leadership over a strong institution that could fulfill its true potential as an agent of democracy.