Buried deep in New York City’s laws lurk obscure bits of bureaucracy like the Tattoo Regulation Advisory Committee and the Horse Drawn Cab Stand Report. Many have endured for decades in name only, while others carry on, with or without a reason for being.
These dusty corners of government are about to get a housecleaning. This Friday a new Report and Advisory Board Review Commission — that’s right, a commission on commissions — will hold its first public hearing, reviewing 21 mandated reports and boards that city agencies say have outlived their usefulness.
The commission consists of three members of the City Council — Speaker Chris Quinn, Gale Brewer and Leroy Comrie — and four appointees of the mayor, including his budget, technology and legal chiefs. By a majority vote, they will be able to suspend any or all of the reports and task forces. The Council will then vote to ratify the commission’s recommendations.
As requested by a majority of city voters last fall, the group will review all 175 reports and advisory bodies that have piled up in the City Charter and administrative code, the two blocks of law that govern New York City. Most are vestiges from past crises and administrations — like the Arson Strike Force, initiated in 1978 by the City Council and run until 1993 by the Fire Department in cooperation with the city’s police department and housing, welfare and finance agencies.
“I’m all for transparency, but people forget how big we are,” said Councilmember Brewer, who chairs the council’s Committee on Governmental Operations. “This review process is a good idea.”
For the first round, the the commission asked city agencies to recommend commissions and reports they no longer had reason to produce. The fire department volunteered the Arson Strike Force, which has not met for two decades and whose data is available in the Mayor’s Management Report and the Bureau of Fire Investigation annual report.
Another item under scrutiny by the commission, the Zoning and Planning Report, is supposed to detail the agenda of the City Planning Commission for the future development of the city. Though the mandate has been in the City Charter since 1989, the Department of City Planning has only released the report once. The department told the commission that it would be redundant since the information is on its website and in PlaNYC.
David Reiss, who runs the Community Development Clinic at Brooklyn Law School, said that the report in any case would not do what the City Charter asks it to do – provide the city with a long-term development plan. “I’m in favor of some well-resourced arm of the city government thinking about the big picture,” said Reiss. “But [the Department of] City Planning doesn’t do comprehensive planning. It responds to proposals brought to it.”
Civic and advocacy groups are now mobilizing to ask the commission for clemency on some reports, which they say they rely on as important sources of information on government activities and the functioning of the city.
One of those is the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, which comes out each February. In the reports, required in the City Charter, each local agency shares performance metrics and assesses trends — everything from the Fire Department’s average response times to the median time it takes the Medical Examiner’s Office to complete a toxicology report.
The Mayor’s Office, whose Office of Operations produces the report, says the preliminary edition is redundant since the same information is available in the Citywide Performance Report and the final Mayor’s Management Report, which comes out each September.
Rachel Fauss, a policy and research analyst at the civic reform group Citizens Union, noted that while the reports must be released every year, the performance indicators in them are not. “In subsequent administrations,” she said, “the information could easily disappear.”
The preliminary report is also the basis for charter-mandated City Council hearings that generate management recommendations to the mayor each April. The final report does not come out until after the mayor and city council have agreed on a new budget.
The commission is also considering reducing the frequency of the Class Size Report, which the Department of Education is obliged to published in in November and February; under the proposed change, the November report would be eliminated. The Department maintains that the November report is not needed because class size counts are not verified until January. Producing the report costs the city $14,000 each year.
All of the public comments the commission has received so far have urged the continuation of the school report. “The February report [comes] too late in the year to help parents and advocates concerned about this issue,” warns one.
Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, says the November edition is a crucial resource for advocates and parents. “There are literally thousands and thousands of classes that for the first two months of the year that are absolutely outrageous and they do very little to make sure they bring those class sizes down,” said Haimson. “One of the reasons we wanted the report early in the year is to make the DOE actually deal with it.”
At the February 28th meeting of the commission, the representative for Speaker Quinn proposed withdrawing the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report and the Class Size Report from the list of reports up for review. The proposal was defeated by a vote of 4 to 3.
But other reports have moved ahead toward elimination without any objections. The Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program costs the city more than $681 million a year, and the Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch administrations all produced required reports showing which properties received the benefits and estimating job creation tied to the program. The reports stopped in 2001.
The Department of Finance, which oversees the tax abatement, says the report is redundant because of the its annual tax expenditure report summarizes the spending. The Department’s website also lists exempt properties. The program ended in 2008 but thousands of properties continue to receive the benefit.
Bettina Damiani, project director at Good Jobs New York, a watchdog group on government subsidies, said that the report is still as badly needed as it was when the Bloomberg administration stopped producing it.
“It’s not about keeping the report,” said Damiani of its proposed elimination. “It’s about the city releasing and actually doing the report. All these companies are still receiving benefits.”
Additional reporting by Pei Shan Hoe.