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Do You Know Who to ‘Yell’ at in New York City Government?

Knowing how to solve a problem on your block or in your community often means knowing who has the power to fix it — and how to get their attention. As the big citywide primary approaches, here’s a look at how to tap officer holders to get things done.

City Council members hold a hearing on lead in. buildings, Nov. 13, 2019. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This article is adapted from our weekly Civic Newsroom newsletter, which is sent out every Tuesday. You can sign up here to get it or fill out the form at the bottom of this post.


We’ve received a lot of questions from readers trying to figure out what power the elected officials we put into office even have.

One reader asked for more reporting “about the importance of the local seats and what they can change or have power to do.” Another wanted to know: “What’s the role of borough presidents? Are they the equivalent of state governors?” And another queried: “What power does the mayor have versus the public advocate versus the comptroller versus the agencies and the City Council?”

These are all great questions. Answering them could be a book, or several — or a year-long college curriculum! But we only have about two more months to get everyone up to speed for the Democratic primary on June 22. So we’re going to briefly tell you about each of the offices that will be on the ballot this summer and the power they hold.

Who represents you and what do they do?

We hope we sound like a broken record at this point, but there are a lot of candidates running for mayor and City Council. Plus, every borough president seat is up for grabs, as well as public advocate and comptroller. It’s overwhelming, we know.

So what do they all do? Here’s the short version, with help from the set of articles we’ve written explaining these roles:

City Council

The City Council is like New York’s Congress, with its members responsible for proposing and voting on potential new laws and hammering out the city’s budget in coordination with the mayor.

This year, hundreds of people have joined the 2021 race to fill a particularly high number of vacancies in the Council — 35 of the 51 City Council seats are open, thanks to term limits. It’s a lot of candidates to sift through, so we made a map you can use to look up who’s running in your neighborhood.

Borough President

Borough presidents are official champions and boosters for their boroughs. They have sway over a sizable budget to fund local projects, they can offer advisory input on proposed development and they can introduce — but not vote on — legislation in the City Council.

Every borough president seat is up for election this year, with at least a half-dozen candidates vying for each office. The list of candidates is included here.

Comptroller

The comptroller is the city’s money manager and auditor, charged with overseeing its enormous pension fund, all city contracts and making sure city agencies are spending funds well. In the post-pandemic era, keeping a check on the city’s financial resources is likely to become a bigger job than ever. More than a dozen candidates are running for comptroller. Read more about them here.

Public Advocate

The public advocate is an official watchdog for city policies and an ombudsman for New Yorkers. The office typically shines a light on issues and problems that the advocate deems in need of addressing.

The public advocate can introduce legislation in City Council, though cannot vote on bills. The advocate is also first in line at City Hall if the current mayor cannot serve. The office has been a political stepping stone: You might remember a certain Bill de Blasio was a public advocate.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who won his seat in a special election in 2019 and again in a general election later that year, faces a handful of challengers this time around, but may be a hard incumbent to beat. Here’s who else is running.

Mayor

The mayor is, well… the mayor. The office-holder has enormous influence over what gets done in the city, and how. The mayor sets priorities on policies and program funding — like the development of affordable housing or how schools are run — and drafts the city budget, which outlines how to pay for it all.

The mayor also appoints the heads of every city agency and can approve or veto legislation passed by the City Council. Reminder: There are some important things the mayor has little control over, most famously the city’s subways and buses, which are run by the MTA, a state agency controlled by the governor.

The contest to win City Hall’s top spot is a crowded one with more than 40 candidates (and expected to be officially whittled down soon). If you have some time, you can read through all of them here. If you have less time, check out Meet Your Mayor, our quiz-driven interactive tool that shows you how the candidates match with your take on the issues that matter most to New Yorkers.

Do you know who to call?

Knowing how to solve a problem on your block or in your community often means knowing who has the power to fix it — and knowing how to get their attention. This can sometimes mean alerting elected officials and sometimes not. It often comes down to finding the right agency, department or supervisor.

“People just, in general, don’t know who to yell at,” said a source who works for the city in constituent services, which means their job is to interact with and assist residents seeking help from local government.

That goes for everything from getting rid of a tree branch that’s blocking a park entrance to getting help with an illegal eviction to trying to get better bus service in a neighborhood without subway access.

Heading toward the June 22 primary, we want to know: Do you know how to get your elected officials’ attention?

We’ve gathered some advice from several experts who work in advocacy, constituent services and nonprofits:

Know your elected officials

One of the first steps to getting more involved in local government is knowing who represents you. You can search your address and find your elected officials and their contact information here.

After finding out who your officials are, you can start to follow what they’re up to. You can sign up for their email lists, call and talk to their staff members or possibly even volunteer in their local office if you want to be involved with what’s happening in your district.

You don’t need to know everything about an issue or what you want done when you reach out to your representative. There are staff members whose job it is to know what’s going on in the neighborhood and can help you figure out what steps you can take to get help or push for change.

“We hire the electeds. The elected is hired by the vote, and voters can offer them guidance,” said Anderson Fils Aime, who works for the state as a community liaison.

Know who can help you escalate an issue — and how

A good start to figuring out where to apply pressure on local government is to find someone who can translate your problem into “government-ese,” as one public administrator told us. Talking to the staff at your local community board is often a great first step, or finding the squeakiest wheel in your neighborhood to get advice. Think: a longtime resident, advocate or the leader at a local nonprofit or community space.

Here’s where to find your community board.

As for the squeaky wheel, that’s often embedded in community knowledge. If you know a squeaky wheel — or are one yourself — let us know by emailing civicnewsroom@thecity.nyc.

No matter the office, are they responsive?

If you have a local issue that needs attention, there are likely multiple offices that can help you solve your problem. For example, if lots of cars are illegally parking in a local bike lane, your community board, City Council member and borough president could — in theory — help escalate your complaint to the appropriate agencies. But will those offices take your call, listen and do something about it?

That varies widely.

If one official isn’t particularly helpful, depending on the issue you can contact someone at a different level of government. And remember which offices weren’t helpful when election time rolls around.

But there is often a ladder of power when it comes to getting stuff done. And while addressing a problem may start with your community board, the road to a solution might lead all the way to the state capitol — which brings us to ...

City vs. State

New York City has been historically reliant on New York State’s government in Albany to address some of the most important issues in the five boroughs — including subway service (run by the state-controlled MTA), rent regulation (maintained by state law and the state courts) and some taxes.

State officials work closely with city officials like the mayor and City Council, who work closely with community boards and the borough presidents. If you are trying to get to the bottom of an issue, it’s a good idea to reach out to everyone who represents you.

Certain issues, like fixing potholes on your block, are things that the city government is responsible for, which means the first thing you might want to do is call 311. But if that doesn’t work, it could be time to try your community board or local City Council member.

Other issues, like housing or immigration, have different facets that are influenced by different levels of government. For example, while federal government makes the laws about immigration, the state government can do things like create a relief fund for undocumented workers affected by the pandemic and the city government has done things like create IDs for anyone regardless of immigration status.

Once again, you can find your representatives at every level of government and their contact information here.

Who else cares about what you care about?

Perhaps the best way to start getting involved in government and taking action about things that matter to you is to find others who share your passion. This could be a neighbor, your community board, a nonprofit organization, an advocacy group, a local political club or one of your elected officials. See if they have meetings you can attend, email lists to subscribe to or calendar updates to follow to stay informed about the issues that matter most to you and when you can weigh in.

Maybe even attend one of our Civic Newsroom sessions!

What else do you want to know about how your local government works?

This is just a start. We’re going to continue thinking about how best to explain how power works in New York’s city government and how it can help you make a decision on June 22 (or before if you vote early). We want to hear more from you about it. Email any questions you have to civicnewsroom@thecity.nyc and stay tuned for more information about future events coming up.

Mayor Bill de Blasio budget presentation
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his preliminary budget at City Hall, Jan. 16, 2020.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

A few more tools for you

Got some time? Here are some campaign events this week

What are your election questions?

If you have any questions about the election process, the candidates or any other information when it comes to voting in New York, let us know by replying to this email or sending a note to civicnewsroom@thecity.nyc.

What else we’re reading

We’ve heard from many of you who want to hear more from candidates on resiliency, climate change and the environment. THE CITY’s newest reporter Samantha Maldonado, who most recently covered energy and the environment for POLITICO, took a look at how the major mayoral candidates are thinking about those themes. Read her story here: “Can the mayoral candidates bring a sea change to NYC’s climate resilience fight?

You can sign up to get these updates to your email inbox or as a text message every Tuesday here.

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