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So how many years have you lived in NYC without going to a city council meeting? :) 

I recommend checking one out if: you’re incurably nosy; you want to glimpse how the city works; you have a random weekday off; and/or you feel like grappling with different topics than your normal ones. 

City Council is NYC’s legislative body (basically the city’s equivalent of Congress). There are two types of meetings: Committee meetings and Stated meetings 

  • Committee meetings are small (only the committee’s members are supposed to attend, so about 5-10 council members), and they focus on specific topics. (See the full list of committees.)

  • Stated meetings happen twice a month, and all of our council members are expected to attend (all 51 voting members). These are largely ceremonial. 

In February, I went to one committee meeting and one stated meeting. I’ll share my general thoughts, then on each of the specific meeting formats. 

In general

  • It’s interesting to get to see City Hall in use 

  • Council members are normal people, and this is their day job. That’s why council meetings are always at inconvenient times if you have a day job too. 

    • Sometimes you’ll see council members run in late, or play games on their phones instead of listening to their colleagues. 
  • Apparently council members are just famous enough that I got unexpectedly starstruck seeing them!  

Committee meetings

If you pick one type of City Council meeting to attend, I’d recommend going to a specific committee’s meeting. 

I attended a joint meeting of the Committees on Aging and Criminal Justice. The focus was helping elderly people reenter society after being incarcerated [link]. 

I stayed for the first 2 hours of the meeting. First, there was a panel of leaders from 4 relevant city agencies, and the council members asked them questions. Then, there was a panel of formerly incarcerated people who gave their testimony, which was quite moving.  


Data: Council members asked city agency directors very specific questions about how city services were being used. The directors couldn’t answer most of them, causing the council members to rebuke them for being unprepared. I am somewhat sympathetic to not being prepared for every possible slicing and dicing of metrics (eg “how many people used these 2 specific programs”), but I came away wishing the directors had shown they had working models of their own programs. 

Accountability: Why couldn’t this hearing have been an email? I was thinking about what the 2+ hour meeting actually accomplished, and generating accountability seems like a main outcome:  

  • If you make agency directors answer council members’ questions, they want to look good. This is a useful chance for council members to form impressions on who + which agencies are competent. 

  • Theoretically, it’s good for council members to have to face city residents giving their testimony and build empathy.

  • Also theoretically, it’s useful for council members to build shared context by all having been in the same meeting. 

  • I say “theoretically” here because of something I was surprised by. I expected that all council members in the specific committee would attend the whole meeting, but in reality, many council members slipped in, asked a question and made a few remarks, and then left 5-10 minutes later. 

Focus and scale: This meeting highlighted the conflict between wanting the government to focus on solving our city’s biggest problems, versus the reminder that even infrequent problems cause real suffering for individuals we need to care for.

  • The council members asked some super specific questions, eg: “Is there any programming for female seniors with disabilities re-entering society?” Lots of programs had small usage numbers (such as 200 emergency hotel beds for re-entry).

    • This reminded me of a program to convert basement apartments into legal units, which, because of extensive stipulations, had seen only 9 units successfully converted [source].

    • 200 emergency beds is low at NYC-scale. However, for specific people, it may well have been a vital lifeline.

  • I saw how easy it is for people to fall through the cracks. The agency leaders kept deferring to the other agencies (“Oh, our agency doesn’t focus specifically on people with disabilities, you should ask X other agency instead”), but the whole point of having a joint committee meeting is that people will inevitably span multiple categories (gender, health status, etc).

Stated meetings

I have considerably less to say about stated meetings.
A Stated meeting is interesting to see once, perhaps, if you like pomp and circumstance. Attending one reminded me that so much of politics is ceremonial (renaming streets for local heroes; declaring local holidays, etc). I found it hard to follow this meeting despite diligently paging through the meeting agenda. Its main purposes seemed to be announcing what’ll be discussed in various committee meetings and voting on bills (without discussion of said bills, which would’ve been the interesting part.)

Some social notes: This felt like observing a company offsite or reunion - council members are sort of like coworkers, and they only gather twice a month. It was interesting to see which council members socialized before the meeting officially started, and there was some gossip, like my council member announcing her engagement by slyly declaring a new conflict of interest!

How to attend a city council meeting

Here’s the calendar of all of the meetings: 

Pick one with a topic you’re interested in, or just the next convenient one, or one where you can watch your council member in action. (To find out who your council member is, you can search here by typing in your address).