Defending Quinn, Bloomberg says member items serve a purpose

Bloomberg on Thursday. (Dana Rubinstein)
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Mayor Michael Bloomberg today defended Christine Quinn's stewardship of the City Council, and her use of discretionary "member items."

"I've always said that I think Speaker Quinn, who's getting criticized for this, is a person of enormous integrity, and I think that she has done an excellent job of running the city," said Bloomberg today, at a press conference in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The recent arrest of Councilman Dan Halloran, a Republican from Queens, for allegedly promising to funnel city discretionary funding to a man he thought was a real estate developer in exchange for campaign contributions, has once again drawn attention to the City Council and how it disburses money.

The Council speaker controls some $400 million in city monies that she allocates to councilmembers, who then distribute them to local non-profits and community groups. 

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Quinn and other politicians, including Bloomberg, argue that members items are an invaluable source of funding for local non-profits, groups that might otherwise escape the attention of a more centrally-controlled system.

But member items also comprise the main tool by which Quinn exerts authority over her members, awarding more to loyal members, and fewer to disloyal ones.

Yesterday, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is running against Quinn in this year's mayoral race and who was himself a councilman who benefited from member items, called for outlawing them altogether, and pinned the blame for the latest scandal in part on Quinn.

"When I was in the City Council, people weren't going to jail," he said. "And the problem has gotten worse and worse."

Councilmember abuse of member items is in fact an old issue.

Since the slush-fund scandal of 2008, the Council has instituted reforms designed to prevent misuse of member items.

It hasn't solved the problem entirely.

Today, Bloomberg, who is tacitly supporting Quinn in her run for mayor, argued that that's no reason to get rid of them.

"As you know, I have always supported member items, as long as they are administered and checked carefully and reflect the needs of the community," he said. "I have always thought that providing some services at the very local level where, government, because it has a big responsibility, might not do it so efficiently. ... And if a city agency that's supposed to administer a member item doesn't think it's right, we just don't do it."

"We're very careful before we write a check," he added.

He also lavished unusual praise on the City Council, which Quinn administers.

"In all fairness, compared to other legislatures around the country, I think the City Council functions very well," he said. "They read their bills, which doesn't seem to happen in other legislatures. They hold hearings. They deliberate. And that's the way that democracy should work."