Post: Council member Chin Paid Advocacy Group to Advance Plastic Bag Bill (Updated)

City Council member Margaret Chin. File photo.
City Council member Margaret Chin. File photo.
City Council member Margaret Chin. File photo.

According to the New York Post, City Council member Margaret Chin failed to report payments to an advocacy group for promoting legislation to require a plastic bag fee in New York City. The story, published yesterday, states:

Chin, a Manhattan Democrat, paid $5,000 in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 to the Citizens Committee for New York City to “provide for reusable bag giveaways and outreach events about the environmental impacts of single-use [bags],” council-budget records state… The giveaways are considered lobbying under state law because they’re focused on the passage of a specific bill, experts said. The annual cost of the freebies put the Citizens Committee’s spending past the $5,000 threshold that requires lobbyists to report to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Chin’s spokesperson, Paul Leonard, told the Post:

This is a ridiculous, politically motivated attack by those with an anti-environmental regulation agenda on legitimate Council funding to increase the use of reusable bags, and reduce the amount of single-use bags clogging our City’s waste stream.

One expert consulted by the tabloid, David Grandeau (read his back story here), said he believes an investigation is warranted because the expenditures may have violated rules barring the use of city money for lobbying efforts. The plastic bag legislation was proposed about two years ago. It would require grocery stores to charge a 5 cent fee per bag.

UPDATE 2/24 City Council member Brad Lander, co-sponsor of the legislation, is coming to Margaret Chin’s defense. In a letter addressed to editor of the Post, he wrote:

The New York Post’s hatchet-job attack on Council Member Margaret Chin’s budget allocation to Citizens Committee for NYC is a ridiculous distortion of the truth and an obnoxious assault on the free speech of a valued not-for-profit organization. Here are the facts:

In typical sensationalizing fashion, the Post alleges that Margaret allocated money to a “registered lobbyist.” In fact, she directed funding to the Citizens Committee for NYC, a 40-year-old not-for-profit group whose mission is to help New Yorkers – especially those in low-income areas – come together and improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Their lobbying? Working with those groups on policies to improve our neighborhoods – like getting rid of the plastic bag waste that clogs our trees, mars our beaches, and pollutes our oceans.

Council Member Chin designated funds for Citizens Committee to give away reusable bags – so that people wouldn’t have to keep using and wasting plastic bags – and to conduct outreach about the harms of plastic waste. Citizens Committee did a great job, organizing numerous events in which many elected officials chose to partner as a valuable service to their constituents.

This use of public funds is 100% permissible and appropriate.

On their own – without using public funds – Citizens Committee also printed up flyers supporting the bill that Margaret and I are honored to co-sponsor, that would require stores to charge a small fee on each single-use bag, as an incentive to bring reusable bags & reduce the 9 billion (you read that right) plastic bags that New Yorkers throw out every year. This counts as “grassroots lobbying” – which is a permissible activity for 501c3 organizations (this is why they registered, to report their permissible lobbying), and a valuable part of democratic free expression.

Their great crime, according to the Post: they put the flyers in the bags.

By this logic, what’s next? Limiting what a not-for-profit is allowed to put on their bulletin board, because public funds help cover the rent?

The Post is not only attacking a good not-for-profit, a good elected official, and good environmental legislation. You are attacking free speech.

The Post’s source in calling for an investigation, David Grandeau, in considered by good-government groups to be “the defense attorney for Albany’s lobbying elite.” In recent years, he has helped funnel millions in “dark money” for lobbying for charter-schools and the effort to defeat the Upper East Side waste-transfer station.

Millions in unreported lobbying contributions apparently never bothered the New York Post. But those flyers in the bags? An outrage!

For the record: I’ve supported Citizens Committee with discretionary funding, helped them give out reusable bags, and joined them in grassroots lobbying in support our bill to reduce plastic-bag waste. And I look forward to doing it again.

You don’t like it? Fine. You can still buy all the plastic bags you want – and we don’t even mind if you put the New York Post inside them!

It’s your free speech right, after all, to put your paper in the plastic bags.

But you should not – even for a cheap shot at a good elected official and sensible environmental legislation – try to take that same free speech right away from Citizens Committee for NYC.