In first forum, speaker contenders spar over eminent domain and member items

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Speaker candidate Annabel Palma. (William Alatriste/NY City Council)
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Five candidates for City Council speaker offered differing opinions on eminent domain and the controversial member-item process during a forum in Jackson Heights on Thursday night.

The forum, held at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, was the first in a series of public conversations about who should succeed outgoing speaker Christine Quinn, when the 51-member Council elects its new speaker in January.

In her opening statement, Manhattan councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito cast herself as "the progressive candidate for City Council speaker," and later offered the most radical proposal of the night when she suggested the city buy homes from banks before the properties go into foreclosure.

"I think that the idea of using eminent domain in a reverse way, that this is looking at it from a perspective that we typically don't look at it, as a way of seizing those properties from the bank, as a way of making those homes affordable for people that want to stay in their community, I think is something that we should look at," Mark-Viverito said. "I think it's innovative, it's creative."

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She was responding to a lengthy question from a member of New York Communities for Change, one of the sponsoring organizations, about whether the city should use eminent domain to intervene when homeowners are facing foreclosure.

Her four competitors offered more tempered answers.

"We want to use that very gingerly because that is a very—you know, something we should only use in unique circumstances," said Dan Garodnick, who represents the East Side of Manhattan, referring to eminent domain.

Councilman Mark Weprin of Queens said he supported a bill when he was in the state Legislature to provide homeowners more time to work with banks before going into foreclosure. On the issue of eminent domain, Weprin was more cautious.

"You've got to be a little careful because … this could raise rates for banks on peoples' loans," he said. Annabel Palma and James Vacca, both Bronx Democrats, were cool to the idea."I don't believe in eminent domain," Palma said, adding that the city should offer other resources to New Yorkers facing foreclosure.

Vacca talked about his work as a fighter for the community.

"We have to empower local council members and their district offices and I think that we have to provide resources," he said, noting his staff intervened in certain foreclosure cases on behalf of homeowners.

"If I have a house in my district that's nearing foreclosure and the bank has it and they don't cut the grass, that bank gets a call from my office! It's unacceptable!" he added. Mark-Viverito later said the city could buy the homes and restructure the loans. (A similar plan was recently approved in Richmond, California.)

The five candidates all agreed that Christine Quinn, the outgoing speaker, waited too long to allow a vote on a measure mandating paid sick days. Quinn shelved the bill in 2010 and only moved it to the floor for a full Council vote this spring, during her campaign for mayor, after members threatened to use a little-employed "motion to discharge" to move the legislation without her support.

Garodnick said he would create a culture in which members wouldn't fear punishment from the speaker for using such a motion.

The candidates also offered differing visions for reforming the member-item process that allocates discretionary funds to council members for non-profits in their districts.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio attacked Quinn's uneven distribution of the funds during the mayoral primary, saying "it's time to just end" the practice. (De Blasio was not vocally opposed to the allocations during his time on the Council, but attributed his newfound outspokenness during the primary to the arrest of Councilman Dan Halloran.) 

At the forum, Mark-Viverito said the earmarks, which total about $50 million a year, are "too politicized."

She, Weprin and Garodick have all signed onto proposed reforms that would reduce the speaker's role in dispersing the funds, by requiring either members to all receive similar amounts, or basing the allocations on the fiscal needs of each district.

Palma and Vacca spoke generally about reviewing the process but did not suggest specific changes.

"The problem with the allocation is it embarrasses people," Weprin said. "It gives the speaker the ability to humiliate someone."

Vacca also said he would curb the time spent passing resolutions, which are only symbolic in nature and carry no legislative weight.

The new speaker will be chosen in January by the 51 members of the body, in a process that has historically been heavily influenced by county Democratic leaders.

Manhattan councilwoman Inez Dickens, who is struggling to assert her viability as a speaker candidate, showed up as the forum was concluding.

 

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