The People in Charge Profiling the New York City Council

Every New Yorker knows the face of their mayor. But the faces they might not recognize are those of their city council members, a group that wields more power than most state legislatures. Fifty-one individuals make up the New York City Council, representing all five boroughs. Alongside the mayor, the laws they pass affect just about everyone living and working in New York - and it's a role they take seriously.

Council History 101

The New York City Council dates back to the days when the island was a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam. Incorporated as a city in 1653 by the Dutch West India Company, New Amsterdam was governed by a council of legislators who served as the local lawmaking body and as a small-scale court.

Nearly 300 years later, the council began a rather swift evolution into its current form. In 1938, a new charter was drafted making the council the local legislative body and creating the Board of Estimate to be the chief administrative body. In certain instances, the council had to answer to and get approval from the board, so the 26-member council did not function as a completely independent body. The number of council members then was determined by a system of proportional representation, but that system was abandoned in 1949. At that point, one council member was elected from each state senate district within the city. Two council members at large were added from each of the five boroughs.

In 1983, a federal court ruled that the council members at large notion violated the U.S. constitution's one-person, one-vote mandate. A similar ruling was made in 1989 regarding the Board of Estimate, which was consequently abolished. A new charter increased the number of council members from 35 to 51 and granted the council full power over the municipal budget, zoning, land use and franchises - powers once held by the Board of Estimate.

The Who, What and Where

Although the council is responsible for myriad pieces of legislation and ultimately the lives of some 8 million citizens, its main responsibilities boil down to four specific areas: monitoring the operation and performance of city agencies, making land use decisions, crafting and approving the city's budget and legislating on a wide range of issues ranging from zoning changes, to housing and urban renewal plans, community development plans, and what happens to city-owned property. The group oversees city agencies, too, to determine if their programs and budgets are functioning properly.


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