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New York City Council Accuses Mayor Adams of ‘Cowardice’ and ‘Contempt’ as Municipal Power Struggle Enters Strange New Phase

A spicy City Council hearing revealed the rift between Mayor Eric Adams and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams.

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams sits at the dais in the council chamber.

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said the behavior of the administration of Mayor Eric Adams “illustrates a contempt for this council.” (Emil Cohen / NYC Council Media Unit)

At a City Council hearing on a bill that would ask New York voters to make certain mayoral appointments subject to council approval, a representative for the mayor refused to answer any questions, then claimed the administration didn't send anyone to answer questions because they thought the City Council's invitation had been a joke, then walked out of the building, so that an hour or so later, the mayor could convene a different body of rulemakers that he himself appointed to propose a different set of questions to New York voters, and thus use an obscure state law to block the City Council's attempt at weakening his powers.

"I am incredibly disappointed with the cowardice that has been displayed by the mayor and his administration today," Brooklyn City Councilmember Lincoln Restler, who chairs the council's committee on governmental operations and state & federal legislation, said at the end of Wednesday's two-hour hearing. "I hope that today will represent a turning point because I don't know how we get any lower."

Moments earlier, Tiffany Raspberry, the head of intergovernmental affairs for Mayor Eric Adams, read a statement from the mayor opposing the bill into the record, but not before she informed Restler and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams that this would be all she'd be doing, because the council hadn't invited the administration to testify in the "traditional way."

Restler replied that he had been in contact with her subordinate, and that the City Council's own IGA rep was talking to the Mayor's Office as well.

"I'm familiar with the exchange you had with my director and he shared with me that you all were exchanging those messages in jest," Raspberry replied. "And so now that we understand that you didn't take it that way, we'll be sure to make sure that anything that is shared in jest in a collegial manner, that we specify that that is the case."

Raspberry then thanked the lawmakers and walked out of the chamber.

"This to me illustrates a contempt for this council, which we have all witnessed with great clarity," Speaker Adams said to Raspberry's back.

Tiffany Raspberry, the head of intergovernmental affairs for the Adams administration, reads testimony from the mayor opposing the legislation before walking out (Screenshot)

If the first two years of the Adams/Adams dynamic was marked by a kind of muted collegiality, 2024 has been rocky. First, the council overrode the mayor's veto to enact modest police accountability bills, despite a last-minute push by the mayor to categorize his coequal branch of government as crime-coddling naifs. Then came the especially pointed budget fights over library funding and early childhood care that are still ongoing. And now, once again, the mayor is fighting the City Council's efforts to impose a modicum of accountability over agencies he oversees. This time, though, Mayor Adams might have the upper hand.

This most recent battle began last week, when Speaker Adams prepared to introduce a bill that would require the mayor to receive the council's approval for 21 executive positions in City government—including the heads of the departments of Buildings, Sanitation, and Transportation (read the full list here). The City Council already has advice and consent power over numerous mayoral appointees, like the heads of the Department of Investigation and the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Increasing their approval power would require a change to the City Charter, which means putting the issue to the voters. If Speaker Adams's law passed, this question would appear on the ballot in November, and the voters would have to decide.

Unless Mayor Adams tried to amend the charter at the same time by using his power to convene a charter revision commission to put their own charter questions on the ballot. According to Section 36, paragraph (g) of the state's Home Rule Law, the mayor's charter commission would preempt the council's bill, and boot the council's ballot question to the following general election.

This is exactly what Mayor Adams did last week, convening a charter revision commission hours after a New York Times reporter asked for comment on the council's bill. When it was announced, Mayor Adams's commission had just one member; now it is stocked with 13 loyalists.

Both sides have until August 5—three months before Election Day—to make their moves. Theoretically, the charter commission has a tougher task than the City Council, which just needs to hold hearings and take a vote (and, perhaps, a veto override vote) in a little more than two months. Charter commission work is dense and plodding and takes several months, if not half a year— it usually researches a variety of proposals, holds public hearings across the five boroughs, takes public testimony, and comes up with succinct pitches for voters to consider. 

But charter commissions of years past have mostly existed to advance some tangible policy reforms, not act as the final move in some fucked-up game of municipal power struggle tic-tac-toe. The most recent charter commission was convened back in 2018, and was composed of people appointed by the mayor, the council speaker, the comptroller, the public advocate, and all five borough presidents. It met and held hearings for over a year, and resulted in five ballot questions on the 2019 ballot that all passed, ushering in a range of policies like ranked choice voting in primary elections (as a mayoral candidate, Mayor Adams hated ranked choice voting) and giving the City Council advice and consent power over the head of the Law Department (yet another thing that currently pisses Mayor Adams off).

The mayor has been vague about what he wants his commission to consider. "I want them to look at everything. There's always things that we can do to run our City agencies better, our city better. I want them to look at everything," Adams said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

In his written testimony against the measure, Mayor Adams said the delays caused by the advice and consent process would be too long, and pointed to his predecessor being able to appoint a new Health Commissioner at the height of the COVID pandemic as an example of why strong executive power is necessary, and why the risks to the public are too great.

“On top of those risks," Mayor Adams wrote, "the politicization of the appointment process can have many harmful implications for New York City’s professional governance."

Perhaps anticipating these arguments, Speaker Adams, in her testimony, noted that the City Council has already approved both of the mayor's choices to lead the Law Department without incident since the body received advice and consent power following the 2019 election.

And Restler said that the political argument is particularly rich coming from Mayor Adams, because if the mayor had gotten his way, Speaker Adams would not be Speaker Adams.

"He interfered in our speaker's race a number of years ago advocating for an alternative candidate and pushed aggressively for specific people to get committee chair positions in this council," Restler reminded the audience.

Most of the people who testified in front of Restler's committee supported the bill, including the former top lawyer for the City Council, Jim Caras.

"New York City appears to be an outlier amongst the very largest city governments by virtue of the fact that it gives no role to its legislative branch, direct or indirect in the appointment process of most City department heads," Caras said, noting that Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston all grant their councils this power. "Our charter is missing an important check on the executive."

Susan Lerner of Common Cause also testified in favor of the bill, but wondered why the NYPD or other uniformed agencies weren't on the list. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams also suggested it was time for the NYPD to be subject to this oversight, as did former Parks Commissioner and current Citizens Union head Betsy Gotbaum.

Asked why the NYPD was left off the list, a City Council spokesperson said that the legislation wasn't meant to be "exhaustive," that Speaker Adams has supported subjecting the NYPD Commissioner to advice and consent in the past, and insisted that the council might push for it in the future. "We don't see this as our one shot," the spokesperson said.

As for Raspberry's claim that Restler was joking with her staff and never officially invited the administration to testify, the spokesperson replied, "I don't know how else to describe it other than like, they're just blatantly lying." 

"The chair, staff have been in touch with them over the last several days, and they were going back and forth about whether they were going to send somebody. Then they told us they weren't sending somebody [Tuesday] night."

At 1 p.m. on Wednesday, the mayor's charter revision commission met for the first time in Midtown. It's chaired by Carlo Scissura, the CEO of the New York Building Congress who was Mayor Adams's choice to lead a City agency back in 2022 until the CITY reported on Scissura's failure to register as a lobbyist while brokering deals between private companies and the government. The commission's executive director is senior mayoral advisor Diane Savino, a former state lawmaker who was a founding member of the deeply cynical Independent Democratic Conference. Also on the commission: former Rep. Max Rose, former first deputy mayor Lorraine Grillo, 93-year-old Rev. Herbert Daughtry Sr., whom the mayor considers a mentor, as well as Jackie Rowe-Adams, who lost two sons to gun violence and co-founded Harlem Mothers Stop Another Violent End. (Rowe-Adams is also a fervent supporter of NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey.)

At the commission's first meeting, one member spoke about receiving an email instructing her to not speak to the press. Scissura said the mayor has asked them to think about "public safety and fiscal responsibility measures" when coming up with their recommendations.

"I have gained so much respect for our mayor," Rowe-Adams reportedly said. "I just want to say, thank you, Mayor Adams, thank you Mayor Adams."

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