By John Celock

Council Committees Vie to Impact Quality of Life Issues for Queens Kids


Editor’s Note: Early this year, the city's term limits legislation resulted in the replacement of 38 out of 51 members of the City Council, including all 14 members of the Queens delegation. The Queens Council delegation, all freshmen, was made the most powerful borough delegation in the city's legislature when new Council Speaker Gifford Miller named all 14 to leadership positions. This article is part of a series examining how Queens Council members plan to use their positions of power to benefit children and families. Formed to help consolidate the City Council’s oversight functions of city government agencies within the executive branch, the brand-new Oversight and Investigations Committee stands to have a far and wide-ranging impact on quality of life issues for Queens schoolchildren. “At the beginning of the session of the new City Council this year, we decided to create a new committee handling oversight and investigations. The committee, which is chaired by Councilman Eric Gioia [D-Woodside], is charged with overseeing city services and investigating any problems that may exist within them. I am proud of the work this committee has been able to achieve already,” says Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Upper East Side), who, in a move that portends to strengthen the borough’s role in city policy-making decisions, appointed all 14 Queens representatives to City Council committee chairmanships early this year. With his committee now focusing on monitoring the delivery of city services and the management of city affairs for various areas of city government, Gioia notes that children’s policy will be a top agenda issue for members of the Oversight and Investigations Committee. “The role of this committee is to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and children are among those,” the Committee chairman says. Gioia, who made education and youth top issues in his election campaign last year, says he plans to have the Committee focus on issues relating to schools and after-school programs. In order to evaluate the problems facing students in the city’s public school system, Gioia has visited each of the schools in his district to study the issue. “I wanted to go out and see firsthand what is done in the schools,” he says. Following his self-inspired study of schools in Woodside, Sunnyside and Long Island City, Gioia reports that school temperature is just one among the many issues he plans to have the Committee address. He says he noticed that many schools lack air conditioning, a problem he wants to curtail in those that are used during summer school. Gioia says his committee is also working on legislation to crack down on “whistleblowers” within the city government. Such legislation, he says, would inform city employees that they would be protected if they came forward to report corruption within city government. If city employees come forward to his panel or other officials, Gioia says he’s confident that it will help improve the delivery of services and programs to New York families. According to Miller, members of the City Council hope to enact major legislation later this fall that would radically reinforce protections for whistleblowers. “Councilman Gioia is doing important work on protecting whistleblowers who expose problems or wrong-doing, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families,” Miller says. _____________________

Named by Miller to serve as chairwoman of the Council’s Land Use Committee, Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), now has the important task of overseeing the rezoning of land in the city — decisions which include the location of new schools, landmarks, and the disposition of city property. Katz says the Committee faces the magnanimous challenge of balancing two major public interests. “One of the biggest challenges is that we need to build, but we also need to keep our neighborhoods good places to live,” she says. Katz notes that future school sites are of extreme importance as the Committee moves forward, especially with the shortage of classroom space in Queens and other boroughs. When Committee members consider the potential future location of new city and borough schools, she says they will look not only at the neighborhoods that would be affected but also at the environmental impact of the site. Katz says she hopes to see more schools constructed in the borough in coming years. “We need to have more money in the capital plan to build schools in Queens,” she adds. Katz says Land Use Committee members are also focused on the development of more affordable housing throughout the city and in Queens. One of her top goals, she says, is to keep more families in the city. She notes that she sees a clear connection between the development of new housing and the construction of schools. “The fact is that we want to keep neighborhoods where they are livable. You can’t look at affordable housing without looking at the schools, and you can’t look at the schools without looking at affordable housing,” the Committee’s chairwoman says. Katz says she and Committee members are committed to both the development of the city’s waterfront and the citywide preservation of open space for recreation. She says that a myriad of ideas for open space preservation will be studied to provide a balance between new development in certain neighborhoods and the prevention of over-development in others. She remains concerned that over-development in certain areas could hurt the quality of life for children by increasing car traffic, in turn provoking both pedestrian safety and environmental concerns. “There are certain parts of Queens, like Long Island City, that need to be developed. The Rockaways need development but you need balance since you don’t want to take up all of the waterfront there. The problem that you have with big development is that it does not always benefit the community,” Katz contends.