January 3, 2014

Separation of Powers: Still Alive and Well in NYC
The Huffington Post

Written by David Nocenti

I’ve been reading with great interest the recent news articles about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reported intervention to help get Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito elected as the next Speaker of the New York City Council.

Some have reported Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to influence the Speaker race with all the shock and dismay of Louis Renault discovering that there was gambling going on in Rick’s CafĂ© as he received his winnings. Others have bemoaned this development as a tragedy for the principle of separation of powers, apparently believing that the new mayor was trying to select a weak Speaker who could be manipulated and would never challenge his policies or his authority.

Fortunately, the reports of the death of an autonomous City Council have been greatly exaggerated.

Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito is fiercely independent, and that is not going to change. I run a non-profit in her district in East Harlem and have seen her take on issues both popular and unpopular. She has an open door policy and is willing to listen to reasonable arguments from both sides, but she decides issues on her own and is not afraid to fight for causes she believes in, no matter who is on the other side. To give just one example, while members of the City Council generally hesitate to take on their own Speaker, Viverito broke publicly with Speaker Christine Quinn over the issue of paid sick leave.

Yes, if Council Member Viverito is elected by her colleagues as Speaker on January 8, she will undoubtedly negotiate with the new mayor and recommend that the Council compromise when necessary, but such accommodations are required in order to be an effective legislative leader. (Look no further than the current Congress for an example of the paralysis that occurs when a legislative body is dominated by members who reject all compromise). There is no question in my mind that she will be forceful in opposing Mayor de Blasio when she thinks he is wrong.

Nor does Mayor de Blasio expect anything less. Both individuals are progressive Democrats, so their interests will often align. But both also know that running for office and governing are two different things entirely, and there will be no shortage of issues on which the new mayor will take positions that the Council Speaker — heeding the will of her majority members — will need to oppose. Indeed, that would be true whether the speaker is Melissa Mark-Viverito or Dan Garodnick or anyone else.

So let’s stop worrying about the supposed end of the balance of power in city government. It wasn’t true of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Speaker Christine Quinn, despite all the reports of their close working relationship, and it won’t be true of Mayor de Blasio and Melissa Mark-Viverito. There will be plenty of battles to witness.

The good news is that Mayor de Blasio and Council Member Viverito are friends and colleagues, and have worked closely together in the past. This should give everyone confidence not that one will rubber-stamp the other’s decisions, but instead that they will work out their differences as they arise. That’s called governing.

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