What the New York City Council got done in the past two years

The legislative body could use some of its additional oversight powers in the next session.

The City Council may continue ramping up its scrutiny of the Adams administration.

The City Council may continue ramping up its scrutiny of the Adams administration. John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

You’d be hard pressed to make the case that the main character of New York politics over the past two years was the New York City Council. Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, in its first two years out of the gate, has dominated everyone’s attention – not just with the ethical questions dogging the administration and the more recent public corruption investigation into the mayor’s campaign fundraising, but also in the administration’s ongoing response to the asylum-seeker crisis.

While the administration may garner more headlines, the City Council has also been at work in its truncated two-year session, passing over 200 pieces of legislation, holding dozens of oversight hearings on the Adams administration, and trying, with varied success, to claw back cuts in budget negotiations with the mayor’s team.

The council, led by Speaker Adrienne Adams, passed legislation aimed at tackling homelessness and the city’s housing crisis. The speaker’s Fair Housing Framework will establish housing production target goals – though not mandates – in every part of the city. Following a contentious mayoral veto and subsequent override, the council passed a package of bills expanding eligibility for housing rental vouchers. In the nearly 60 land use projects that the council approved, roughly two-thirds of new housing units will be affordable, according to the speaker’s office.

The speaker’s office also pointed to legislation geared toward expanding opportunity – bills aimed at making affordable child care more accessible, including the creation of a pilot grant for child care programs in the city. Another bill requires the city to create a strategic plan for its industrial sector, and the council secured funding in the budget for a pilot program to help former CUNY students complete their degrees.

Other legislation has taken aim at the city’s health crises. The council released a mental health roadmap and passed bills requiring the city to make information about available mental health programs more accessible. With its first female majority, the council passed a package of bills requiring the city to bring free doula services to underserved neighborhoods, and to expand reporting and education on maternal health disparities. Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the council passed a package of bills aimed at protecting the privacy of people traveling from other states to get an abortion and requiring city health clinics to offer free abortion pills.

“As the first women-majority and the most diverse City Council in our city’s history, we are proud to have confronted some of the city’s biggest challenges through the lens of equity during this past session,” Speaker Adams said in a statement. “By focusing on solutions to long-standing issues that foster inequities within our city, the council has prioritized the health, safety, and wellness of all New Yorkers.”

Council Member Keith Powers, who serves as the body’s majority leader, said this council pursued both longer-term goals and tried to confront more immediate issues. Powers pointed to his bill requiring the city’s fleet to be made up of zero-emissions vehicles and legislation mandating permanent residential curbside composting citywide. On more immediate issues, he mentioned legislation restricting unsafe e-bikes and e-scooters, as well as a bill he introduced aimed at making it easier to crackdown on illegal pot shops. “I think this council, more than any, has been really focused on these quality-of-life issues that have been popping up over the last few years,” Powers said.

Oversight hearings have run the gamut, from the municipal workforce shortage to city jails.  But some advocates pointed to the hearings the council has held on the administration’s asylum-seeker response as particularly important, including the convening of a Committee of the Whole in 2022, which brings together the entire council, to take a sweeping look at the city’s response. “Them holding the mayor and the administration accountable has been also a feat in itself,” Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said of those hearings.

City Council Member Gale Brewer, who chairs the Oversight and Investigations Committee, said investigators who work for the council have also played an important role in going to migrant shelters to report what’s happening on the ground.

Awawdeh called it “heartwarming” to see the council take up other issues that touch immigrant communities early on, including a package of fire safety legislation following the Twin Peaks fire in early 2022 that killed 17 West African immigrants.

Christine Quinn, a former speaker of the City Council and now president of the homeless shelter provider Win, also praised the council for its work on homelessness, noting not just the expansion of housing voucher eligibility, but the passage of a bill requiring mental health professionals to be available in family shelters.

A co-equal branch

When Adrienne Adams was elected speaker by her colleagues in early 2022, questions were raised about how she would lead the council in its role as a check on City Hall, and how closely she would align with Mayor Adams as a fellow moderate. Over the past two years, Speaker Adams has seemed increasingly willing to criticize the administration in public statements – speaking out against the administration’s efforts to roll back the right to shelter, reviving a commission aimed at closing Rikers Island on time as the mayor has expressed his doubts about a 2027 closure and criticizing the administration’s budget cuts as needlessly sweeping.

While the council’s leadership reversed some of the administration’s proposed cuts in the most recent budget negotiation in June, some of those services are on the chopping block again as the administration pursues additional cuts. City Council Member Tiffany Cabán said some of the council’s key accomplishments have been undercut by the administration. A planned expansion of curbside composting to the Bronx and Staten Island will be delayed seven months with the latest budget cuts, for example.

Cabán said that council leadership has been rightfully pushing back. “I think it’s fair to say that we have seen the gloves come off a little bit more when it comes to the speaker’s office,” Cabán said.

Criticizing the administration in public statements is one thing, but observers pointed to the council’s override of the mayor’s veto of a legislative package expanding eligibility to CityFHEPS housing rental vouchers earlier this year as one of the more concrete manifestations of the council fulfilling its co-equal role.

City Limits recently reported, however, that the administration is not taking steps to fully implement that package, raising questions about whether the council will take legal action. “The council is prioritizing the successful implementation of all local laws we enacted to remove barriers that New Yorkers face in accessing CityFHEPS, so the city adequately confronts the worsening eviction and homelessness crises,” a spokesperson for the speaker said in a statement. “All tools available to the council remain as options to ensure compliance, because New Yorkers cannot afford continued bureaucratic barriers and dysfunction that leave them in shelters or at risk of entering them.”

But some observers also suggested that the council could be far more aggressive in its oversight role, including by using its subpoena power to prevent the administration from evading accountability. “They have taken a very important step with this veto override, but there are opportunities for additional aggressive investigations and oversight,” said one person who doesn’t work for the council but is familiar with its inner workings.

The council can issue subpoenas to compel city officials to testify at hearings or to produce information relevant to an inquiry, but it hasn’t utilized that power yet, even when the administration hasn’t shown the greatest reverence of the council’s oversight role. The New York City Police Department repeatedly declined to appear at scheduled hearings on its Strategic Response Group, eventually skipping the oversight hearing altogether. The NYPD has also backed out of three scheduled hearings this year on its compliance with a law requiring transparency about how it uses surveillance technology. And emails obtained by the Daily News earlier this year revealed a testy back-and-forth with council staff and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Phil Banks in which the council sought information about illegal marijuana stores and threatened legal action after having those requests ignored.

Issuing subpoenas to compel officials to testify at a hearing is rare. But the previous council issued more subpoenas for information when Bill de Blasio’s administration was dragging its feet on responding to inquiries – including for information about remote school attendance data in 2020, and the cost of the NYPD’s four-legged surveillance robot.

The speaker’s office and Brewer both said the council hasn’t issued a subpoena yet because it hasn’t had to. “It hasn’t risen to that level,” Brewer said. “We could, it’s been discussed, but not yet.” Brewer said the council sends a lot of follow-up letters to procure information from the administration on a given inquiry. “We get information that way sometimes, and sometimes we don’t,” she said.

Learning curves

According to the council’s online legislation tracker, 231 bills have been enacted in this session so far, though the speaker’s office teased a busy December. In their respective four-year sessions – twice the length of this one – former Speakers Corey Johnson and Melissa Mark-Viverito each oversaw the enactment of more than 700 bills. The last time that the council had truncated two-year sessions – a quirk of the city’s redistricting process – was the back-to-back two-year sessions in 2001 and 2003, in which 131 and 198 bills were enacted, respectively.

Though the volume of bills passed doesn’t necessarily define a council’s achievements, some acknowledged that the council got off to a slow start with legislation at the beginning of this session, in part because more than two-thirds of the council members were new, including some who didn’t enter with experience in government. Cabán, one of those new members, noted that it took a while for everyone to get the hang of things.

Advocates and council members have long lists of unfinished business that they’re eager to get a jump-start on next year, but with a little more time on the clock, some are hoping to see major initiatives cross the finish line before the end of this year.

While the previous session saw the passage of some policing and criminal justice reforms – several of which passed during the George Floyd protests in 2020 – some see banning the use of solitary confinement in city jails as a big piece of unfinished business. 

“Ending solitary confinement – it’s just got to happen,” Cabán said. “I really, really hope it happens before the end of the year.”