Friday, October 17, 2008

My Trip to the Circus: Inside the City Hall Term Limits Hearing

In the end, it was all just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing.

As I began to approach my third hour sitting in the audience of yesterday's public hearing at City Hall on the extension of term limits, I decided to give up and go home. I had signed up to testify around 5 p.m. and realized that it would be hours more until I would get my chance to do so, once the committee chair Simcha Felder announced at 8:15 that the slate of speakers called to the microphone had submitted their names just a little past 1.

By that time, I had had my fill. I had even gotten to sit in the front row of the audience, once the first three rows were vacated by the Mayor's supporters. These passionate New Yorkers, who were (allegedly) paid by Bloomberg to crowd out citizens who had actually come to testify, finally decided they had done enough half-sleeping and limply holding up signs to satisfy their terms of employment. From this intimate vantage point, I could see Upper East Side Council Member Jessica Lappin (who had her legs up on the wooden crossbar beneath the dais) doing her best impression of "thoughtful", instead of bored. Coney Island Councilman Dominic Recchia didn't bother feigning contemplation. He wore a sneer of contempt for the public.

Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. became immersed in his laptop after a testy exchange in which he set legendary former Councilman Henry Stern straight on what his daddy, former Speaker Peter Vallone, thought about term limits. Said Junior to the stately septuaganarian: "I respect you, but you gotta get out more."

Manhattan Councilman Robert Jackson had a similarly decorous exchange with a Democratic political consultant named Steve Kramer, who had vowed that if the Council extended term limits "we will come after you." Jackson, taking the general threat very personally, launched into an angry tirade which concluded with some permutation of George Bush's "Bring It On!" I was too stunned to copy it down verbatim, but Jackson barked something like "bring it" or "you can bring it on up here".

Yeah. Classy.

For the opposition crowd, Brooklyn Councilwoman Letitia James was the star of the night. She openly applauded passionate anti-extension testimony, despite admonitions from Coucilman Felder not to do so, and delivered a compelling speech slamming the Mayor's record on caring for low-income and minority families.

On the Council's side of the table, the only other moment that resonated with me was a point Minority Leader James Oddo (R - Staten Island) brought up to dispell the notion that deciding the issue in a special election refendum wouldn't represent the will of the people. Oddo reminded that he had first been elected in a special election, as had many of his colleagues, including Tish James (who was seated beside him), and, of course, Council Speaker Christine Quinn (who wasn't there). "Is there an asterisk next to my name?" asked Oddo rhetorically.

All in all, the hearing was predictably disappointing. After the marquis testimonies were given (i.e. the ones by big-name politicians), the Council Members demonstrated little interest in asking the real people of New York any questions.

Just like the digital clock on the wall counting down each person's two minutes to testify, Felder and the rest of the Council knew that time would soon run out on the public.

And then they'd be free to stop pretending they care, and just go back to doing whatever they want.

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