Council Watch: Friendly Fire

Council Watch: Friendly Fire

Council Watch: Friendly Fire
July 22, 2014

New York City Council hearings tend to be placid, almost soporific affairs. But from time to time individual Council members decide to stage a bit of theater, especially when confronting an administration official. In these cases, Council members pontificate, speechify, bully and generally chew up the scenery in order to prove to the cameras and the assembled crowd how committed they are to taking on the powers that be—as if they were not among them.

This spectacle has become particularly absurd since the progressive movement took control of both wings of City Hall. Now, with there being virtual ideological and political unanimity between the branches of government, Council members have to be more creative than ever to generate disputes which occasion them the opportunity to grandstand.

For example, at a May 6 Education Committee hearing about charter schools, Councilman Antonio Reynoso lit into Laura Feijoo, senior superintendent in the New York City Department of Education’s Office of School Support, in regard to “over-the-counter students.” Over-the-counter students are children whose education has been interrupted for a variety of reasons—recent immigrants, for example, or kids who have just moved to New York—who as a result have not yet been assigned to a school when the academic year begins.

Reynoso, angry that charter schools, which assign spaces based on oversubscribed lotteries, are generally exempt from taking over-the-counter students, vented his frustration at Feijoo, whose 25-year career in New York public education has culminated in her recent appointment to the de Blasio administration. After asking Feijoo to define “over-the-counter,” he interrupted her explanation, accusing her of “not getting to the point of my question.”

Reynoso then proceeded to harangue Feijoo over the question of whether over-the-counter students are more needy than students generally. “That’s often true,” agreed Feijoo. “Often, if not always true,” snapped Reynoso, who went on to deliver an attack on state education policy, casting Feijoo as its embodiment. “You can explain what the law is, what the procedure is, what policy is, but if your policy is not assisting these schools to succeed and the students to succeed, then you need to change them,” proclaimed Reynoso to applause from the audience.

The absurdity of this interchange is that Reynoso’s posturing was directed at an official who had nothing to do with the policy he was talking about, who probably agrees with him, and who represents an administration that Reynoso is utterly allied with in every respect. Can anyone who knows anything about Reynoso, who served his predecessor Diana Reyna as her chief of staff, honestly envision him staking out a meaningful position independent of the progressive political machine of which he is a grateful cog? Of course not. The sole purpose of Reynoso’s performance was to elicit some tepid approbation and allow him to strike a noble pose against injustice.

Of course, Reynoso wasn’t the only elected generating a head of rhetorical steam at the charter school hearing. Public Advocate Letitia James spoke at length about the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, drawing an explicit comparison between Topeka’s practice of racial segregation and the privileged funding and operation of charter schools, which serve an almost exclusively minority population. Councilman Daniel Dromm, the Education Committee chair, went further, comparing charter school enrollment practices (by law lottery-driven) to “apartheid.”

The officials who sit through these rants typically maintain a posture of grin-and-bear-it, knowing that they have to eat their fair share from the plate and do so smilingly. Indeed, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A senior mayoral aide from a prior administration notes, “It is debatable in New York City whether the City Council is constitutionally an effective counterweight to the power of the mayor. Structurally, the mayor has most of the balance of power, and it is in these kinds of hearings where the Council members have the opportunity to bring some heat and light to bear. It isn’t fun to sit through a browbeating, but ultimately you’d rather be playing with the mayor’s hand than the Council’s.”

So while it may be embarrassing to watch Council members playact Daniel Webster, one supposes that it would be worse if administration officials faced only anodyne questioning.

Recently Councilwoman Margaret Chin, explaining her vote for the creation of a municipal identification card, said a few things that make, if such a thing exists, the opposite of sense.

Arguing against the idea that the municipal ID is primarily intended for undocumented immigrants, Chin said, “There are a lot of people with green cards that don’t have ID.” Is Margaret Chin somehow unaware that the “green card” is actually and literally a form of federally issued picture ID, and that legal resident aliens thus definitely already possess ID?

Then, disputing the idea that it is somehow a normal thing to get a picture ID from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Chin said, “Many of us don’t drive! So for us to get a nondriver’s ID, we have to have so many forms and documents. And where do you go to get a nondriver’s ID? It is very difficult to find. I had a very hard time finding a motor vehicle place to do it.”

It couldn’t have been that difficult: There is a DMV office on Greenwich Street, in Chin’s district, a mile from her district office and a 15-minute walk from City Hall.

Seth Barron (@NYCCouncilWatch on Twitter) runs City Council Watch, an investigative website focusing on local New York City politics.

Seth Barron