Voters whose City Council members are running for reelection or another post can see how they’ve been doing at an important aspect of the job: responding to questions and complaints from constituents.
The window into the Council’s work is provided by CouncilStat, a database that tracks requests members receive and how quickly they’re responded to.
Since 2015, CouncilStat has taken in more than 260,000 constituent cases — everything from housing crises to dirty streets and much more.
When Jennifer Cianciotta, a Staten Island resident and an assistant principal at P.S. 209, sees “terrible” roads in her neighborhood, she knows who not to call.
“I have made plenty of 311 calls,” said Cianciotta. “They’ve never answered.”
Instead, she alerts her local Council member, Steven Matteo, who is now running to be Staten Island’s borough president.
“When I called Councilman Matteo, not only did I get a response from him right away, he sent me a letter saying he sent a clean team to help out within, I would say, two weeks,” said Cianciotta.
She isn’t the only one calling Matteo’s office.
Matteo has fielded 19,000 requests from constituents like Cianciotta since the summer of 2015. His yearly average of 3,166 per year is the highest volume among Council members — far surpassing the 690 requests each year logged by the 51 Council offices on average.
Inquiries about applying for U.S. citizenship, seniors applying for monthly discounts on their phone and internet bills, or looking for affordable housing are some of the most frequent requests, according to CouncilStat.
The single most common request citywide? Help with filing taxes.
Manhattan and Brooklyn constituents most often asked for help in dealing with leases or problems with landlords, while Queens and Staten Island residents called district offices most often about potholes or other transportation issues.
Come June, New Yorkers will elect two-thirds of the council members among a crowded field of hopefuls. Newcomers who are vying to fill 37 open seats have set out bold platforms, including ending the city’s prison system or creating a publicly owned utility company.
For the 19 incumbents who are running to stay another term, CouncilStat shows how members performed in one of their more mundane tasks — responding to constituents’ pleas for problems the callers can’t fix themselves.
“Half our job is getting agencies to do their job,” said Matteo.
The recorded volume by 51 offices vary, since reporting is voluntary. The complaints are listed by district number only, requiring those searching the system to know their Council member’s district number.
The Council member with the lowest average, Eric Ulrich (R-Queens), did not respond to requests for comment. He is not running for reelection. His office logged an average of 49 requests per year.
Councilmember Kalman Yeger, who represents Borough Park and Midwood in Brooklyn and is running for re-election, has 1,200 reports, or 400 per year from 2018 to 2020 — a figure lower than average.
Yeger said he does not require his staff to use the Council’s dashboard when providing constituent service. He does not want the City Council or “who oversees the database” to know why his constituents call his office.
“I don’t have anything to prove at 250 Broadway,” Yeger said, referring to his City Council office building address in Lower Manhattan. “I have things to prove in my neighborhood.”
Yeger is running unopposed on three different parties’ ballot lines, virtually guaranteeing another term.
Other Council members say they value the ability to track requests through a centralized system, but that technical limitations prevent them from participating fully.
The number of new CouncilStat cases opened each month citywide peaked in July 2017, with nearly 7,500, but has fallen to less than 2,000 a month since the pandemic began in early 2020.
When the virus engulfed Corona in the district of Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Queens), his staff couldn’t log into the system remotely, he indicated in a statement to THE CITY.
“We had to pivot from having hard copies and a log in our district office to a completely digital process for our constituent services,” he said.
Carolina Valencia, a spokesperson for Moya’s office, said CouncilStat is not user-friendly and that the office usually employs an internal system instead.
Before Moya took office in 2018, predecessor Julissa Ferreras-Copeland recorded 1,400 service requests per year. During the first two years of Moya’s tenure, that figure dropped to 180 requests annually.
Catalina Cruz, former chief of staff for Ferreras-Copeland and current Assembly member serving the area, said the district office had “a constant flow of requests” and that demand has only increased since she took the state post.
“The need for competent and compassionate constituent services has never been higher in our community — to the point that my current office had to convert into a food pantry because our neighbors’ most basic human needs were not met,” said Cruz.
Moya said that the numbers don’t reflect the amount of work his team does.
“For example, since the pandemic, we’ve serviced over 2,500 constituents and this does not include the thousands we have given PPEs to and serviced at food pantries and distributions,” he said.
Others have kept up with the recording through the tenure change and the pandemic.
Take Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who represents Lower Manhattan and is seeking re-election. Her predecessor, Rosie Mendez, tracked about 1,000 requests each year and her office has recorded 1,350 requests annually since 2018.
Rivera agrees that the reporting system can be improved. But she said she advocates for the system so that people have easy access to how many — and what kind of — requests Council members process.
“We prioritize transparency over expediency in my office,” said Rivera on why she uses CouncilStat. “I hope my Council colleagues do the same.”
As a legislative body, City Council members propose new laws, suggest changes, approve or reject development plans and negotiate the city’s $90 billion budget, coming up with ideas for where and how to spend it.
Providing constituent services is a responsibility that Matteo credits as helping him better legislate. For instance, he alerts the city Department of Transportation about bumpy spots on the roads that he hears about constantly from area residents.
“We want to be part of the process of planning their resurfacing and milling contracts. So we send all our resurfacing requests to DOT,” said Matteo.
David Ng, an engagement manager with the Advocacy Institute, a non-profit that provides training on civic engagement, said CouncilStat provides a “good start” for measuring how accessible council members are to their constituents.
“But it is just one small part of a larger portfolio that a legislator does,” said Ng.
Ng said getting funding for services their districts need, hosting outreach events or running mobile office hours are as critical as aiding constituents one on one.
Cianciotta says she plans to stay engaged in her neighborhood by sharing concerns with the district’s office, regardless of who wins. Sal Albanese, a former Brooklyn Council member, is the Democratic nominee, while David Carr, Jordan Hafizi, Kathleen Sforza, Marko Kepi and Sam Pirozzolo are battling for the Republican nomination.
She says it’s up to residents to advocate for and demand better service from the city government.
“All of us want to live in a safe, clean, healthy environment,” said Cianciotta. “We have to start small.”