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What's The [Data] Point? 202, with City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg


whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 68 -- 202, with City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

polly trottenberg wtdp march 2019New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg joined the podcast to discuss her tenure and approach to managing city streets and transit, as well as her role on the MTA Board. The conversation touched upon street safety and the city's Vision Zero program, getting the city's buses moving again, bike-sharing, parking placard abuse, L-train repair work mitigation plans, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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City’s Flawed Capital Project Process the Subject of Renewed Scrutiny, and Some Reform


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(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Many New Yorkers know the city has trouble completing construction projects on time and under budget. Projects like school renovations and the build-out of park facilities are capital projects, the subject of increasing scrutiny and some reform, with more promised, as frustrations persist and residents, watchdogs, lawmakers, and other city leaders seek answers.

Top officials from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to Comptroller Scott Stringer have taken a fresh interest in improving the capital projects budgeting and delivery processes. The mayor’s office has released several plans promising to do just that. After forming a new subcommittee on the capital budget last year, the City Council has proposed reforms and Council members have been critical of the city’s handling of capital spending during this month’s annual budget hearings.

Stringer has proposed three city charter revisions to improve accountability, recommendations to a charter revision commission that will soon propose changes to the city’s central governing document.

There are some areas of agreement among the parties involved, but it is currently unclear if there will be any major substantive changes to the current system, wherein the city’s long-term capital budget planning is lacking in transparency and widely seen as unrealistic, and projects are consistently falling behind schedule and over budget.

Much of the recent attention has come through this year’s city budget process. As part of the reviewing the preliminary expense budget put forward by Mayor de Blasio, the City Council also assesses the preliminary capital budget for next fiscal year as well as the ten-year capital strategy.

At the first preliminary budget hearing of this cycle, Melanie Hartzog, the city’s budget director, said that the top priorities for capital projects over the next decade would be education, environmental protection, housing, and transportation.

In two recent hearings and several recently-released plans, city officials have promised to address many of the long-standing issues associated with capital project delivery, including planning, process, and transparency.

“We have doubts,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, at the Council’s initial budget hearing. Johnson and other Council members raised several issues about the capital budget and the ten-year plan. He said that the latter half of the ten-year plan “does not take into account the city’s needs,” including both its current commitments and new needs that will arise.

Multiple Council members brought up that the ten-year plan does not include any new school construction after fiscal year 2024. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the capital budget subcommittee, called this “unrealistic planning” and noted the city’s history of frontloading its ten-year capital plans.

Gibson specifically cited the budget planning for the NYPD’s capital needs. The current proposal allocates $850 million in capital spending for the first three years of the plan, and only $160 million in the next seven. Hartzog acknowledged the history and said that the city is working to improve. Council members did acknowledge some progress in clarity for what is outlined.

In addition to problems with planning, capital delivery from conception to completion has its own set of obstacles. Recognizing the past-due and over-budget trend, the city’s Department of Design and Construction earlier this year released a strategic blueprint that promises to “fundamentally reevaluate the status quo in City capital project delivery.”

As of the time of the report’s release, DDC was managing 834 active projects valued at $13.5 billion. Since 2004, the annual capital budget has grown by $1 billion to $3 billion each year to keep pace with a growing city, which has also added nearly a million jobs in the same period. DDC deals with most city capital projects outside of the School Construction Authority, which is its own entity dealing with its eponymous subject matter. SCA is known to be far more successful in its planning and delivery than DDC.

The blueprint identifies three internal and external impediments within the delivery process, including DDC’s own business practices, burdensome procurement process rules, and the engineering challenges that come with underground infrastructure that “all complicate efficient delivery of capital projects” in the city.

The report also identifies climate change as a necessary factor to consider in all future planning. Capital projects need to both protect the city from rising sea levels and natural disasters as well as minimize the city’s contributions to global warming, according to the report. The agency is under relatively new leadership as it embarks on this ambitious plan. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Lorraine Grillo, who has also continued leading the School Construction Authority, as the new DDC commissioner last July. Grillo has been widely praised for her leadership of SCA, including by City Council members, though the city continues to struggle with school space in many neighborhoods.

DDC is currently undergoing an agency-wide review of its practices and external challenges. Through this review, DDC promises to “modernize how we do business.” These modernizing reforms include standardizing project initiation, managing projects more effectively, enhancing management capacity, and updating internal systems and technology. The plan promises to better identify and prioritize needs, streamline procurement, and restructure contracts to promote meeting deadlines, among other improvements.

Contracts and contractor diversity are also a primary concern for the mayor’s office and the Council, they say. DDC wants to get more out of its contracts and diversify and expand the pool of applicants. Daniel Steinberg, the Senior Advisor to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said that many minority- and women-owned business do not apply for contracts because of the city’s history of untimely payments. This can also dissuade newer and smaller businesses from participating in the bidding process. Timely payment of contracts is a larger issue that DDC is also seeking to address.

During a February joint hearing, the City Council’s finance committee and capital budget subcommittee considered two bills that aim to improve transparency in the capital projects process.

The City Charter mandates certain reporting on the process to the Council and the public, but Council Member Gibson said these reports “often do not relate to one another or the city’s real spending in a meaningful way.” The two bills, which had the support of the Council members present at the hearing, are intended to address these issues. Gibson said that the proposals would give the Council and public “a wholistic and detailed look at all capital projects that are in progress throughout the city.”

The first, Intro. 32, sponsored by Council Member Andrew Cohen, a Bronx Democrat, would require city agencies to provide electronic notification of any delays or cost changes for capital projects. This is very similar to one of the charter revisions that Comptroller Stringer is proposing. The second, Intro. 113, sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, would create a database to track citywide capital projects. Finance committee chair Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat, said that “transparency in the capital process is key to providing assurances to the public that city resources are being put into good use in an efficient and effective manner.”

While most of the hearing focused on these two bills, it was clear that the Council members had larger issues in mind and thought of the bills as first steps to larger-scale reform and improvements.

Steinberg, of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said during the hearing that his office agreed with the two bills “in spirit,” but was concerned with components of each bill that he would consider to be “impractical.”

He voiced concern that Intro. 32 would require reporting for all capital projects, which includes everything from equipment acquisition (such as of paper shredders) to building or repairing massive water tunnels. In regards to Intro. 113, he said that it “would be incredibly burdensome to implement while providing little new information.”

Intro. 32 currently has ten Council sponsors, while Intro. 113 has 35 sponsors, well above the threshold required for passage in the 51-seat Council.

Nonprofit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission submitted testimony in support of Intro. 113 at the February hearing, saying that “the capital budget is just as important as the operating budget and should be subject to the same monitoring and scrutiny.” Gibson brought up the bills again at the initial preliminary budget hearing.

The two bills are focused on transparency in the capital projects process, but the sponsors and other Council members also contextualized the proposals as necessary for the eventual improvement of the entire system and not a distinct issue of bureaucratic transparency. During the hearing, Cohen said that “the inability of the city to deliver on capital projects is an epidemic.”

Council members frequently expressed their personal frustration with the process and the length it takes for many capital projects to be completed, some spanning multiple Council member terms. Cohen, who is in his second term, said that he “spends a significant amount of my time on projects that were funded by my predecessor.” Gibson similarly expressed frustration over parks projects commonly taking as long as eight years to complete, which presents an oversight challenge to Council members, who are term-limited to eight years in office over two terms.

A source of frustration for Council members was that only capital projects costing $25 million or more are required to be reported on the capital projects dashboard, a publicly-available transparency tool on the city’s website. Capital projects of that size account for only 300 of the over 10,000 ongoing projects for a year. Steinberg said that the Mayor’s Office of Operations would be open to expanding the scope of the dashboard’s reporting to be more inclusive than the current threshold. After learning that the city does not have an employee assigned specifically to data entry for the dashboard, Gibson said that it was evidence that capital projects transparency “is not a priority in this city.”

Another area of agreement between the Council and Comptroller is the need for individual budget line items for each capital project. This proposal was one of Stringer’s suggested charter revisions and Gibson brought it up at both recent Council hearings pertaining to the capital budget. Stringer is also proposing that the city regularly report on the condition of capital assets, a requirement he wants added to the charter.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Public Advocate's Office, Law Department, Ranked-Choice Voting


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(photo: @Charter2019NYC)


Three former New York City Public Advocates argued for strengthening the powers of the office. Former and current Law Department officials defended the agency’s independence. Experts on city government argued for and against expanding the powers of non-mayoral elected officials. And a Board of Elections official detailed the logistics of implementing ranked-choice voting in New York City.

Those were the broad themes of a Monday night hearing held at the City Council chambers by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, which is tasked with examining the powers and functions of city government with the aim of improving them. The commission, whose members are appointed by a variety of the city’s elected officials, will put forth proposals to change the city’s constitution that will go before voters this November.

Monday’s was one in a series of “expert hearings” being held by the commission as it considers specifics within its previously outlined focus areas. Before Monday, expert hearings had been held on police accountability, election reforms, city budgeting and contracting, and conflicts of interest and a proposal to create a chief diversity officer across city government.

Strengthening the Public Advocate
Among the ideas the commission is considering is giving more authority to the public advocate -- or to eliminate the office entirely if not -- and three of the four former officeholders were at the hearing to defend the role of the city’s ombudsperson. They included Mark Green, Betsy Gotbaum and Letitia James, who held the position before being elected attorney general last year. James was also one of the original sponsors, along with Borough President Gale Brewer, of the legislation that created the charter commission.

The only former public advocate not in attendance was Mayor Bill de Blasio. City Council Member Jumaane Williams is currently public advocate-elect after winning the February special election. He’ll take office soon. The public advocate is the city’s watchdog and ombudsperson, one of just three citywide elected officials and first in line to the mayor if the city’s chief executive is unable to finish his or her term.

James, Gotbaum, and Green all defended the responsibilities of the office they once held, and called for giving the public advocate greater authority. James pushed for subpoena power for the office and for the statutory ability to bring lawsuits against city agencies on behalf of New Yorkers, an issue she pursued after using litigation to mixed effect against the de Blasio administration. She called on the commission to “finally fulfill the promise of a fully empowered people’s watchdog.”

All three also argued for an independent budget for the public advocate, where it would receive a certain percentage of the city’s overall budget or financing based on some other statistical model, removing its reliance on the mayor’s whims. The office receives about $3.6 million in funding for the current fiscal year. Though de Blasio, a former public advocate himself, has increased the office’s budget and is proposed another small increase for next fiscal year, previous mayors have not been so generous. “It was this constant dance and constant fight,” said Gotbaum, now the executive director of government reform organization Citizens Union, of her fight for greater funding under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “That’s just unnecessary.”

Green was the only one to suggest a number: at least $6 million to carry out the office’s duties. “It is wrong and foolish that if an office does its job, it loses its job because of a mayor who is politically or personally antagonistic,” he said.

He also urged the commission to finally put to rest the idea that the public advocate should be eliminated, a suggestion that was even put into legislation by a few City Council members earlier this year.

Though the commission seemed open to the former public advocates’ ideas, Commissioner Sal Albanese, a former City Council member and three-time mayoral candidate, repeatedly asked them to justify the office’s existence, citing anecdotal evidence that people believe it is a wasteful use of taxpayer money. He insisted that City Council members can perform the same duties and that the public advocate was a “vestigial” institution in the city’s political system.

Naturally, the three former public advocates pushed back. James cited the thousands of complaints she fielded and resolved for New Yorkers, and the bills she introduced that were passed into law -- more than all public advocates before her combined, as she is fond of noting. Green cited the office’s push for the creation of the city’s 311 helpline, among other successes, saying it was “spurious and silly” to consider scrapping the office altogether.

James and Gotbaum also advocated for giving the public advocate the power to appoint members to other watchdog agencies such as the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Conflicts of Interest Board, and the Human Rights Commission. “Putting more public officials on those committees would at least get a better balance of interests on those committees so that the mayor isn’t so, so powerful,” Gotbaum said.

Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College who has worked with previous charter commissions, did later agree with Albanese that the public advocate’s office has been ill-defined since it was created by a 1989 charter revision commission that drastically changed the structure of city government -- the last major overhaul to the city’s governing document and structure. “It derives from the ambiguity of the position,” Muzzio said during his testimony. “It was never decided what the purpose of the body was...All the reforms are random decorations on the christmas tree. They’re not integrated into a purpose that is coherent, logical, and adequately funded.”

Conflicts at the Law Department
In its recommendations to the charter commission, the City Council raised questions about the corporation counsel, the city’s top lawyer and a mayoral appointee, and the Law Department, specifically wondering who the agency represents if there are internecine disagreements in city government. The Council has in the last year sued the city to block a development project on the East River waterfront and even filed a lawsuit against the corporation counsel, arguing for the ability to file amicus briefs in court.

At the hearing, former corporation counsel Victor Kovner and Karen Griffin, senior counsel at the Law Department, defended how the department functions and attempted to clarify how legal decisions are made. Both urged caution and insisted that any attempts to interfere in the powers of the corporation counsel, including imposing term limits as some have suggested, would undermine the office’s independence.

“It would undermine the independence of that office at great cost to the city,” Kovner said.

“Ultimately, the charter gives the corp counsel the authority to make final decisions about what’s in the best interest of city,” Griffin said.

Though Griffin did not take a position on whether the City Council should be given “advise and consent” authority in the selection of the corporation counsel, as the Council has called for, Kovner rejected the proposal, again citing the office’s independent reputation. “I think it’s a great mistake...Leave it. It’s working well,” he said.

Griffin also explained that when conflicts arise in the Law Department’s representation of a city official against another, the agency would “independently decide which position is legally correct.” And, in cases involving the mayor facing off against the City Council, the department sides with the mayor as the appointing authority, which could change if advise and consent is approved as a policy. Otherwise, in those circumstances, the Council has called on the charter commission to consider mandating that the Law Department provide funding for outside counsel for all other non-mayoral elected officials.

Muzzio later suggested that the city do away with the corporation counsel and create the position of city attorney, similar to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Balance of Power
The commissioners questioned the third panel of experts -- Muzzio and Stanley Brezenoff, a veteran of decades of city government service who recently retired after holding several positions under de Blasio -- on improving the balance of power in city government, which heavily favors the mayor.

“Is there anything that either of you envision that a body like this could do to provide for a meaningful voice…to the borough executives without disrupting [the] strong mayoral formula?” asked Commissioner Stephen Fiala.

Muzzio suggested that the power of borough presidents could be enhanced through independent budgeting and by giving them a greater voice in the city’s land use approval process.

“We don’t have a government, fortunately, that is simply a top government and a bottom government. We have an intermediate government that can recognize the needs and desires of boroughs and at the same time work within a citywide paradigm,” he said. “This is a supplemental power, it’s not revolutionary. It’s not going to change the basic strong mayor structure of city government.”

He similarly argued that the City Council’s authority could be strengthened in various ways without undermining the mayor.

But Brezenoff warned of diluting the power of the mayor or the Office of Management and Budget, which sets funding levels for the borough presidents. “This surgical approach to governmental structure is hard stuff,” he said. Brezenoff also did not seem to agree with the idea that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) should have set timelines under the charter. “This is a very difficult balancing act. I would just urge care,” he said. (ULURP will be one focus of Thursday’s expert hearing.)

Ranked Choice Voting and Special Elections
Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, was the final panellist to testify before the commission on Monday. Ryan primarily urged the commission to consider a change in the charter’s provisions on special elections, pointing to the recent one held for public advocate in February.

Currently, the charter requires that the mayor declare a special election, after a vacancy, to be held within 45 days. That short timeline, he said, precludes the BOE from being able to send out ballots in time, particularly military ballots, and also prevents candidates or voters from successfully challenging ballot petition decisions in court. It will also mean that once Council Member Jumaane Williams, now the public advocate-elect, resigns his Council seat, another special election will have to be held within just six weeks, instead of waiting for the already-scheduled election days this year, which are for a June primary and November general election.

Ryan said the commission should consider bringing the “glaring inconsistency” in the city’s special elections in line with timelines set for state special elections -- elections take place between 70 and 80 days after the governor’s proclamation. That would also be particularly necessary once the city begins to implement early voting for elections under a new state law, he said. “The more predictability that people have in the conduct of elections, the better off we’re all gonna be,” he said.

Asked about ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, Ryan said the BOE did not have an official position. A charter commission convened by the mayor last year declined to formally take up the issue, citing a lack of sufficient time to explore its pros and cons.

At the hearing. Ryan did lay out the prerequisites for implementing ranked-choice voting from his perspective. He said the BOE’s vendor of election systems would be able to implement it with its current mechanisms, though with duplicative counting required by the agency, and that a more automatic process would require more time to upgrade software. “Until we know what the rules are and what the expectation is, the algorithm can’t be determined,” he said of the ranked-choice formula that voting machines would have to use. [Read more about ranked-choice voting]

He did point out that the state BOE would have to approve any changes passed by the city, though he doubted it would face any opposition since it would be limited to New York City alone. “I can’t imagine a scenario where the state would say no,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.


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