Op-Ed: Nix member items

A new rash of arrests of elected officials for corruption and bribery has shaken us all. And at the root of one of the more outrageous scandals is the same problem that was at the heart of the slush fund scandal a few years ago that saw three members of the City Council go to prison.

Discretionary funding, or member items, is money individual councilmembers award to projects of their choice. Many are worthy. Yet the system is enormously susceptible to graft, corruption and abuse of power.

The slush fund scandal featured councilmembers diverting member items to sham nonprofits for sole purposes of providing kickbacks to themselves, friends and family.

But this breathtaking criminality isn’t the only casualty of member item abuse. The dollars are doled out at the discretion of Council leadership and are handed out unevenly, with some members receiving more for their districts than others. Those closer to the Speaker tend to get more money than those who fail to follow the party line.

That often leads to leadership exploiting member items to pressure and retaliate against anyone who dissents. Just last week, two councilmembers admitted their member items were slashed after they crossed Speaker Quinn – a clear punitive move.

The many ways member items can be abused returned to front pages when City Councilmember Dan Halloran allegedly conspired to trade member items for cash for his political campaign fund.

This is no way to run a railroad. We don’t need a system that invites corruption, scandal and political retribution to invest in the projects our communities need. It’s time for an outright ban of this controversial spending system, beginning with the current budget cycle.

This doesn’t mean we stop sending resources to the many good nonprofits and neighborhood efforts doing important work in our communities. There are many ways New York City can continue to fund vital projects without the member item system.

The truth is this is how it’s done in most municipalities and states across the country. Albany and even Washington, D.C. decided to do away with the state and federal equivalents of member items. New York City shouldn’t be lagging behind Albany and Washington when it comes to reform.

If Dan Halloran is convicted, he will be the fourth councilmember to go to jail because of the slush fund member item scandal in the past five years. It’s painfully obvious that this system is ripe for abuse, and it’s clear the reforms instituted after the scandal broke aren’t working.

We need to end this system – completely and immediately. We need more community input on issues and projects that matter to everyday New Yorkers, and we need a transparent, apolitical mechanism to ensure worthy groups and nonprofits continue to receive funding they deserve.

We need a breath of fresh air in New York City politics. This begins with an end to member items.

Bill de Blasio is New York City public advocate.

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