New York City

What does the New York City Council do?

Passing laws, negotiating budgets, making land use decisions and more!

Excelsior is a bi-weekly newsletter that comes out on Thursdays.

Excelsior is a bi-weekly newsletter that comes out on Thursdays. Alex Law/City & State

Overseeing the city

The New York City Council is about to have a tumultuous year.

With three current vacancies and 30 term-limited members, the 51-seat New York City Council is about to see a whole new slate of lawmakers. But before trying to understand the significance of this year’s City Council races, it’s probably important to understand how the council works and what council members do.

To begin, the council acts as the city’s lawmaking body and keeps the mayor, as well as various city agencies, in check. The council has three main responsibilities: passing legislation, reviewing and adopting the city budget, and regulating land use.

The process of passing legislation begins with a member of the council filing a bill with the council’s clerk. Bills are introduced to the council in what is known as a “stated meeting” – a recurring meeting that happens every two weeks – where the bill is assigned to the appropriate committee to be debated and possibly amended. At the same time a public hearing will be scheduled to provide the committee with testimony and insights that may affect the bill language. The committee then meets to vote on the final version of the bill before it is sent to the full council for a final debate and vote. If a majority – 26 council members – vote in favor of the bill, it is passed and sent to the mayor to either be signed into law or vetoed. Should the mayor veto a bill, the council has 30 days to override the veto, so long as two-thirds of the council, or at least 34 members, vote for it.

The city’s fiscal year begins on July 1 and ends on June 30 in the following year. There are five main steps involved in preparing and executing the budget. First, the mayor proposes a budget, which the council then assesses to see if it meets the city’s needs. The council then holds public hearings to gain insights from lawmakers, advocates and residents to identify what, if anything else, must be included and addressed in the budget. The council submits its recommendations to the mayor based on what its members think are the city’s most important issues and monetary needs. After receiving the council’s response, the mayor creates an adjusted budget. The new budget proposal is then debated by the council, and it comes to a final agreement with the mayor – sealed by the traditional handshake between the mayor and the council speaker.

The council is responsible for regulating how land is used across the city, including zoning, city land and public spaces, landmarks, and sidewalk cafes. There are several committees and subcommittees dedicated to land use. The city charter even stipulates that there must always be a land use committee (in addition to a finance committee), which makes it special compared to the other committees. The council even has architects, city planners and administrators to assist its land use committees.

The council is also in charge of providing oversight for city agencies, which it does, in large part, through its many, many committees – I really cannot overstate how many committees there are. It is in these various committees that deep dives into city practices and programs are performed on a wide array of subjects.

By the numbers

City Council

  • 51: City Council districts
  • 2: The number of full terms a council member can serve – with special exceptions – and each term lasts for four years
  • 38: The number of standing council committees
  • 125: The number of laws that were passed by the council and enacted in 2020

The 2020 impact

What is the council focused on now?

The council was faced with two major crises last year: the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests against systemic racism and police brutality. This year, it has been addressing those two issues by focusing on COVID-19 relief and police reforms.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the council’s attention to healing the city’s economy, while making sure that its COVID-19 rates decrease and eligible residents are able to secure a vaccine. Since the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines began in December, the council has been focused on making the distribution of the medicine as equitable as possible. Residents continue having issues making appointments and the data shows that residents in the ZIP codes hardest hit by COVID-19 are being vaccinated at lower rates. Members of the council have also been advocating for better ways to test for new COVID-19 variants. And since the council has a big say in how the city allocates its money during the budget process, the council will play an important role in how COVID-19 relief is allocated in the coming year.

The issue of systemic racism led the council to propose a sweeping New York City Police Department reform package in January, aimed at creating greater police accountability.

Power Players

Who runs this town?

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio: In order for legislation introduced by the City Council to become a law, Hizzoner needs to sign it. However, if the mayor ends up vetoing a proposal, the council can still pass it with a two-thirds majority vote.
  • Corey Johnson: As City Council speaker, Johnson leads the council and was elected by his peers. The speaker is in charge of setting the agenda, helping to negotiate the budget and passing legislation.
  • Laurie Cumbo: As the council’s majority leader, Cumbo represents the largest political party in the council, which if you hadn’t already guessed, is the Democratic Party.
  • Steven Matteo: Similarly, as the council’s minority leader, Matteo represents the smallest political party in the council, which is the Republican Party. 
  • Daniel Dromm: Chair of the Committee on Finance, Dromm, alongside several other council members, is charged with overseeing all things finance, from the city’s Department of Finance to the development of the budget.
  • Rafael Salamanca Jr.: Chair of the Land Use Committee, Salamanca oversees the City Planning Commission, Department of City Planning, Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Three is the loneliest number

What do the council’s Republicans do?

Republicans have typically not had much of a presence on the council – and with just three current Republican members, Matteo, Joseph Borelli and Eric Ulrich – the party still doesn’t. While this may seem significant, the council doesn’t operate as a partisan house like the state Legislature or Congress, and party affiliation isn’t that important, especially considering the wide range of political views among its Democratic members. As minority leader, Matteo sits on the Finance Committee, in addition to the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections, and the Committee on Standards and Ethics, which he chairs. So it’s hard to say that council Republicans are entirely powerless.