From the NY Times:
All members of the New York City Council have long enjoyed a slush fund, an annual allowance that is supposed to go to a soup kitchen or senior center or other nonprofit social program in the district. The amount of money for each district seldom depends on need; it comes courtesy of the Council speaker, who holds the purse.
This year, Speaker Christine Quinn has $49.6 million for the so-called member items: $13 million divided equally among Council members; $16.6 million for her own items; and almost $20 million more to spread as she pleases among the Council districts. At the top of her list was Domenic Recchia, whose Coney Island-Brighton Beach district got $1.6 million to spend. The Council districts that got the least — $362,000 — are represented by Helen Foster and Larry Seabrook of the Bronx.
The system is stacked politically. Nothing breeds good will — and more votes — in the local district like a new ballpark, courtesy of the Council member. It has also been an invitation to corruption. One former Council member, Miguel Martinez, was sentenced to five years in prison, partly for stealing member item money. Mr. Seabrook is awaiting trial on charges of illegally routing his share to friends, family and himself but still gets that $362,000.
Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, recently issued a report that highlights the favoritism and capriciousness of the system and calls for scrapping member items altogether. Mr. Stringer, who reportedly has mayoral ambitions, insisted that the report was not aimed at Ms. Quinn, another potential candidate. His study immediately led reporters to ask about his own member items (borough presidents get them too) — $504,000 this year. Both he and Ms. Quinn have been rightly asked how they can justify receiving campaign contributions from some of the nonprofit groups seeking these grants.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo got the State Legislature to do away with its member item pot — $170 million worth — for this year. That was a budgetary move, not a recognition of the system’s inherent corruption. Ms. Quinn has worked to make the process more transparent and to require more accountability from groups receiving the money. It is not enough. The whole tainted system should be scrapped and the money doled out openly and fairly through regular city budgets.