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Testimony Before the New York City Council Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections

Testimony of the New York Civil Liberties Union before the New York City Council Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections regarding recommendations for changes to the City Council’s Rules in establishing a more responsive, transparent, and effective legislature

Good afternoon, and thank you to the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections for permitting testimony on this issue today. I am Socheatta Meng, Legislative Counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU is the New York affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, and we are a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to defending civil rights and liberties for all New Yorkers. We have around 50,000 supporters around the state, many of whom live or work in New York City.

The NYCLU is deeply invested in supporting legislative rules that promote transparent and deliberative legislative decision-making. Open and fair legislative processes are vital for us as advocates as well as for the rights of the people on whose behalf we advocate. As advocates, we have a broad agenda that encompasses issues from reproductive health to police practices. To share with Council Members our expertise and perspective on these wide ranging issues, we rely on public hearings such as this – and meaningful notice of such hearings – as one critical means for participating in such deliberations. We are also committed to defending the individual’s right to participate in government. Among the most fundamental rights in American society is the right to make one’s voice heard in the halls of legislative power. And legislative rules can empower or hinder the exercise of this right.

There are many aspects of rules reform that are important, but we focus our testimony today on one issue that we believe receives insufficient attention: the notice that the public receives about committee hearings and meetings.

Because of the NYCLU’s broad agenda, we may well have expertise that we would like to present to Council Members at hearings. However, we often receive notice of hearings with insufficient time to prepare thoughtful and thorough testimony. This means there are frequently occasions when the NYCLU has expertise that could inform committee deliberations, but we are unable to prepare a comprehensive analysis and presentation.

We have reviewed a collection of fourteen hearings that took place between October 2013 and today’s hearing. The hearings all dealt with issues relating to the civil rights and liberties of New Yorkers, including immigration, government transparency, and education-related issues. We found that there were, on average, only eight working days between the notice of the hearing (sent to the NYCLU via an email) and the hearing itself. The hearings all raised complicated questions of law and policy. Eight days is simply not enough time for the public, or advocates, to conduct research, analyze issues, draft testimony, and clear our schedules in order to address the council in a meaningful way.

For example, the Education Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday, February 25 on the treatment of LGBT students in public schools. We received notice with only five working days to prepare. There have been hearings before last October with even shorter notice periods. Last June, we received notice of a Civil Rights Committee hearing on legislation to ban the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution with only one working day to prepare testimony.

Short periods of time between a hearing notice and a hearing make it difficult for advocates to adequately prepare testimony. For example, the question presented in the June 18th, 2013 hearing about the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution raised complex policy questions. To what extent are people discouraged from using condoms because they fear police will suspect them of engaging in prostitution-related offenses? Do prosecutors need to use evidence of condom possession to identify human trafficking? How can policymakers balance the need to identify victims of trafficking with the need to promote safe sex practices? Many advocates have useful information to offer Council Members on these questions. With only one working day to prepare for the hearing, however, some advocates will only be able to develop cursory testimony for the Council. And some advocates will be unable to testify at all. These advocates will be shut out of the legislative process, and Council Members will not have the benefit of their research and analysis.

The NYCLU believes that the City Council should strive to provide approximately thirty calendar days notice before hearings. This would require the Council to undertake some planning in advance of a hearing, but it would allow for open and meaningful participation by interested parties. At the very least, advocates and the general public should be provided fifteen days notice before a hearing date.

The mechanisms through which the public receives notice of hearings also have a significant impact on the ability of the public and advocates to participate. In addition to providing notice through the Council’s website and through email notifications to interested parties, we urge the Council to do broad outreach, particularly to affected communities. It would be helpful if the City Council could identify the various methods which would make such information more accessible to the public and members of affected communities, and provide timely notice of hearings through these methods.

The NYCLU believes that earlier hearing notices would be a simple reform with powerful effects. Publishing notice of hearings further in advance of the hearing itself will do much to improve the ability of advocates and the general public to participate in the legislative process. Thank you again for giving us this opportunity to speak with you today, and we look forward to working with you to further improve the ability of New Yorkers to contribute to the legislative process.

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