In closed-door meeting, councilmember reminds colleagues of ‘member deference’ on jail plan
Two days before the only public hearing on the plan to build four new borough-based jails as part of the effort to close Rikers Island, Councilmember Stephen Levin reminded his Brooklyn colleagues in a closed-door meeting of a controversial tradition that would have members vote in lockstep with him, the Brooklyn Eagle has learned.
Levin spoke to his colleagues and their staffers at the beginning of the meeting about “member deference” — the idea that, on land-use votes, other elected officials should follow the lead of the councilmember whose district is affected by the plan (which is, in this case, Levin).
“When Levin opened, he was talking a lot about member deference,” said one council staffer with knowledge of the meeting, who declined to give their name to speak openly on the subject. “It’s important to Levin, it’s important to leadership that everyone is in step and that any disagreements with the way the plan is being carried out should be directed toward Levin and not made publicly.”
According to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the Eagle, and of which a transcript can be found here, Levin spoke about member deference only once, at the end of his approximately 10-minute-long opening statement.
“Member deference would allow four councilmembers to determine a land use decision that will have citywide implications. It’s irresponsible as a member to give up that responsibility because of an unwritten rule,” the staffer said.
Levin denied that he said anything about member deference, and said he supports councilmembers voting their conscience.
“I never uttered the phrase ‘member deference’ at all, and I don’t even think I really implied that,” Levin told the Eagle, saying the expression was not really part of his vocabulary. “Maybe they misinterpreted what I was saying.”
But in the audio recording, Levin clearly mentions member deference. First, Levin tells people at the meeting to bring any issues they have to him or his staff or the chairs. “It’s going to be starting to get pretty intense, and because, as you know, the way that with land-use there’s some member deference. Councilmembers [Margaret] Chin, [Diana] Ayala and [Karen] Koslowitz and myself will be kind of in that role collaboratively,” the councilmember can be heard saying. “So if there’s anything that’s coming up, please let us know so that we’re kind of able to incorporate things as far in advance as possible so that we’re not kind of scrambling last minute to get things done.”
“Ten years of land use has given us some guide as to how to do this in as orderly a way as is possible,” Levin finishes, before introducing another speaker.
The councilmember backtracked his denial after he was made aware of the audio recording. “If I used the phrase, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to then deny it and mislead. If I said it, I said it. I wasn’t intending to tell people that I felt like councilmembers had to vote a certain way,” Levin told the Eagle.
The two-hour meeting, held the same day as the City Planning Commission vote to approve the mayor’s jail plan and two days before the council’s first and only public hearing on the jail plan, was presented by Levin and a group called Just Leadership USA. JLUSA is a national organization whose goal is to reduce the nation’s incarcerated population by 50 percent by 2030. In New York City, the group is supportive of the mayor’s borough-based jail plan as a means to closing the violence-plagued jail complex at Rikers Island. Many of JLUSA’s members were formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island.
The council staffer also said that the JLUSA speaker, Brandon Holmes, mentioned member deference during his speech.
The city’s plan would bring a new jail to every borough except Staten Island for a total cost of about $8.7 billion. The jails would each contain 1,150 beds to accommodate a projected 4,000 residents, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which is spearheading the plan.
A second staffer also said Levin spoke about member deference during his opening statements at the beginning of the meeting, which was reportedly sparsely attended by Brooklyn councilmembers. About two dozen people attended the meeting, but of the Brooklyn delegation, only Farah Louis, Mark Treyger, Antonio Reynoso, Kalman Yeger and Brad Lander were there along with Levin, according to the staffers. There are 16 Brooklyn City Council members.
“Clearly there wasn’t a sense of urgency to show up,” the second staffer said of the councilmembers who weren’t there. The staffer said the meeting did not feel like an objective way to learn more about the plan and make an informed decision.
“There was no other side. As elected officials, you should know what the benefits are of closing Rikers. But also, what are the potential issues? It just seems like this is already a done deal.”
George Arzt, a veteran political consultant, said that the unwritten rule of member deference allows the affected local councilmember to generally be the ultimate decider on land use issues — and that the borough-based jail plan is no different.
“The citywide jail plan is really very local projects. In each district where the jail is, the council — on land-use matters —generally will bow to the person whose district the project is in. And there are exceptions, but most of the time that unwritten rule is followed,” Arzt said. Arzt is also the spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, though he was not speaking to the Eagle in that capacity.
Though councilmembers come to their own decisions, Arzt said, they usually vote with the local councilmember, if only for fear of retribution.
“They could vote [against the councilmember], but it would be very messy and it’s rarely done. You vote against the councilmember, next time something comes up for you in your district, people vote against you.”
“On the one hand, the argument in favor is there are complex issues and it makes sense to have the councilmember from the district dig in on the issues,” said Alex Camarda, a senior policy advisor for the good-government group Reinvent Albany. The group does not have an official position on member deference. Camarda said that member deference to local councilmembers does not allow for a “global” view of major initiatives that aren’t just local.
“The specific jail is the local councilmember issue, but the jails are a citywide issue,” Camarda said.
Several Queens councilmembers and staff members said they have not been part of explicit conversations about member deference, but there is an understanding among some members that they will support a colleague taking a politically difficult position in favor of the jail.
“They want to support those members who are sticking their necks out,” said a staffer for a Queens councilmember. “It’s not an easy to thing to stand up for.”
Opponents of the mayor’s plan have bashed member deference as a practice and called on councilmembers to make their own informed decisions. Levin supports the mayor’s plan, though he believes changes will be made in the council before the proposal is voted on.
“I fully expect we’ll be working towards seeing a reduction in the size,” Levin told the Eagle in July.
The second staffer believes that despite Levin’s call for member deference, councilmembers will ultimately vote how they want.
“I personally think they would vote how they feel unless they got a phone call from the speaker,” the staffer said. “At the end of the day, members like Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch are going to do what they want. They really don’t care.”
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson acknowledged member deference in 2018, though he wouldn’t let a local councilmember kill a project they don’t like necessarily.
Additional reporting by David Brand.
Update (Sept. 10 at 9:15 a.m.): At the request of Councilman Stephen Levin, the Brooklyn Eagle has published the complete transcript of his statements made at the meeting. Links to that transcript were added to the post, and it can also be found here.
Clarification (Sept. 10 at 1 p.m.): The article has been amended to clarify that Levin’s comments came at the end of his opening statement.
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