City Council boldly Zooms where it hasn’t gone before

Council_Stated_Zoom_042220
Council_Stated_Zoom_042220
Jeff Coltin
The New York City Council's first remote meeting on Zoom.

City Council boldly Zooms where it hasn’t gone before

But this first digital meeting was just a test for what’s to come.
April 22, 2020

They logged onto Zoom from every corner of the city, from the South Shore of Staten Island to the northern reaches of the Bronx. In fact, Wednesday’s first-ever remote meeting of the New York City Council had perfect attendance, with all 50 current council members present – something that rarely happens at meetings held at City Hall, under normal circumstances. 

But then again, what else did the city’s lawmakers have to do at the time? The City Council as a whole hasn’t met for nearly two months, since Feb. 27. The last committee meetings were almost six weeks ago, on March 13. And in the meantime, the world has changed, with the new coronavirus taking the lives of as many as 15,842 New York City residents and slowing the city’s charging economy to a trot. 

But in a time when so much in the city is going poorly, the nearly-three-hour-long meeting moved relatively smoothly. There was a minor hiccup early on, where the meeting was paused to resolve technical difficulties, but it resumed after two minutes. Indeed, the live-streamed meeting led to some New Yorkers wondering aloud on Twitter why Congress or the state Legislature couldn’t do the same. Congress has considered implementing remote voting, but hasn’t taken action. And while state lawmakers in Albany were able to pass a budget with some altered voting procedures, they’re postponed all subsequent public meetings – and may cancel the rest of the legislative session entirely.  

While New York City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, who presided over the meeting, deserves notice for banging an actual gavel in what appeared to be her living room, credit for the meeting’s organization must also go to council parliamentarian Lance Polivy, a staffer who made sure the rules of order governed by the City Charter were strictly followed, despite the circumstances. Of course, some exceptions had to be made. Rules, Privileges and Elections Committee Chairwoman Karen Koslowitz made a motion to suspend certain rules about meeting at City Hall “in relation to certain emergency measures to respond to the public health risk posed by the coronavirus.” The motion passed unanimously, and the video meeting continued.

As for actual legislating, the council unanimously passed dozens of the typical land use applications and low-profile real estate tax abatements that always make up a portion of its business. The only dose of digital debate was a disagreement over whether the council should expand the size of the Downtown Flushing Transit Hub Business Improvement District in Queens. City Councilman Peter Koo, who represents the area, supported it, but Brooklyn Councilman Kalman Yeger forced a vote to reconsider, since the pandemic could have changed some business owners' thoughts on the matter since a public hearing held in February. Yeger’s challenge failed, and the bill passed.

In some ways, the meeting could be seen as a test run for what’s to come. The council officially introduced an ambitious package of bills at the meeting meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus and to help New Yorkers who have held their health or jobs or finances affected by the disease. It includes a bill that would close some 75 miles of city streets to cars in order to allow New Yorkers more space outside, and another that would halt all residential and commercial evictions for 12 months. Another bill would effectively close some city homeless shelters during the pandemic and instead let homeless New Yorkers stay in unused hotel rooms. They’re likely to spur more debate among council members than expanding the Flushing BID. There isn’t a specific timeline for the package, but Council Speaker Corey Johnson said he wants to move quickly, and the next meeting of the full legislative body is currently scheduled for May 5.

Still, Johnson expressed regret that the council couldn’t do more, and called on the federal government to provide the city with more money and help in coordinating a crisis response. The legislative package “is not a silver bullet,” Johnson said in a video press conference before the meeting. “It’s not a panacea. It’s not going to take care of every issue. It’s an area we think we can bring an additional level of protection for the folks right now who are anxious and concerned.”

The council also plans to hold its usual spring budget hearings by video conference, during which the body will comb through the extensive budget cuts proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The council had previously pushed de Blasio to save more money in a “rainy day fund.” Now, Johnson said, “the rainy day is here.”

The day’s proceedings over Zoom, however, shed some light on council members’ personal lives and eccentricities. City Councilman Chaim Deutsch tuned into the beginning of the meeting from his car. He made it home and hugged his dog, then caught the latter half of the meeting lounging in the sun in what appeared to be his backyard. City Councilman Ben Kallos was joined in the meeting by his large housecat, Pandora. He occasionally stroked her on video, like a James Bond villain gone municipal. City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents the neighborhoods around the George Washington Bridge, appeared before a digital background of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. City Councilman Costa Constantinides seemed to be sprouting a quarantine beard, while City Councilman Stephen Levin has let his already-long hair grow to unforeseen lengths

In normal times, the legislators spend some time at City Hall meetings gossiping, joking and catching up with friends. Now, separated by a stay-at-home order and with Zoom’s chat function disabled, they had to make personal connections publicly. “I miss being in the same room with all of you,” said City Councilwoman Adrienne Adams. When Levin’s young child showed up on his video, it was praised as “adorable” and “wonderfully distracting.” And many condolences were shared with City Councilman Rafael Salamanca, whose father recently died from COVID-19. 

“I want to sign off, and tell New York City, ‘I love you,’” Johnson said before closing the meeting. “Godspeed. Be safe, New York City. We’re here for you.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
20201026