After waiting for more than eight hours to testify at a New York City Council hearing on Dec. 11, a former state assemblyman was not allowed to speak—because he would not bend his knee and pledge his troth to the committee chair.
Chair of the Education Committee Daniel Dromm told former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin that “the rules of the Council” dictate all members of the public swear or affirm that they are telling the truth before they testify at a Council hearing—even though the rules only specify that government officials be sworn in.
Benjamin, who represented a district in the Bronx for four terms in the Assembly and is now a columnist for City & State, waited in City Hall all day to speak in opposition to a resolution calling on the state Legislature to impose racial diversity on the city’s elite high schools by changing their rigid admission standards. Benjamin, an African-American who attended the top-rated Bronx High School of Science, and who favors the current system, was ordered by Dromm to raise his right hand and swear that his testimony would be truthful, or else he would not be allowed to testify.
“You are not a court of law, and you have no oversight over me,” said Benjamin to Dromm in a heated exchange. “The fact that I am here proves that I want to give testimony, period.”
“The rules of the Council,” responded Dromm, after consulting with his colleague Brad Lander, chairman of the Rules Committee, “require that you be sworn in.” He then dismissed the panel without allowing Benjamin to voice his perspective.
Though Dromm spoke as though he were respecting ancient standards of protocol, the Council’s rules regarding swearing in have been around only since May of 2014, and explicitly do not “require” members of the public to be sworn in.
Council Rule 7.50.e, adopted as part of a package of progressive rules reform earlier this year, states, “The chairperson of each committee shall ensure that representatives of [c]ity governmental entities affirm prior to testifying at a committee meeting that their testimony is truthful to the best of their knowledge, information and belief.”
While committee chairs are probably allowed to make members of the general public swear they are telling the truth, the intent of the rule is clearly to ensure that city officials are not perjuring themselves.
Brad Lander, at a Rules Committee hearing on May 7, alluded to the change as “affirming that city government officials are telling the truth.” And Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, at the May 14 stated meeting, said, “We are further empowering committee chairs to run their committees and hold stronger oversight, by giving chairs the responsibility of directing city government officials to swear in.” (The emphasis is mine in both cases.)
Neither of these Council leaders said anything about compelling members of the public to swear in or else forfeit their ability to speak. After all, what is the point of this rite, other than to demonstrate the power of committee chairs in all their schoolmarmish splendor? Is it even plausible that a member of the public would wait around for hours to present his or her personal opinion, and then lie about it? And if so, who cares? Especially when the matter under debate is a non-binding resolution that Albany will never, ever look at—much less act upon—this ritual comes across as particularly ridiculous.
People who line up to give testimony have not been summoned before the Council: They come forward on their own volition to petition their government or to air a grievance. The barriers to do so are high enough: finding out when a committee meets, attending during the workday, and waiting, sometimes for hours. All this to get the floor for two or three minutes to speak—usually only to the committee chair and some staffers, because the rest of the Council members have left—and then to be waved off for the next panel. These concerned citizens, unlike the cynics and hacks they face, actually believe that their opinions matter, and that these hearings are not just a showcase for elected egos.
A great many other committee chairs do not even bother to swear in members of the public, because it is silly, and an abuse of ceremony. People who come voluntarily before the Council deserve respect and an assumption of honesty. They are not puppets for pompous, power-tripping legislators to order about. Speaker Mark-Viverito, whose spokesperson would not tell me what her opinion on the matter is, should advise committee chairs to exercise some discretion in how they throw their rather minuscule weight around, if only for the appearance of dignity.
Seth Barron (@NYCCouncil Watch on Twitter) runs City Council Watch, an investigative website focusing on local New York City politics.