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City Council Progressive Caucus Calls for Crisis Intervention Reforms


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(Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The New York City Council Progressive Caucus is stepping up calls for Mayor Bill de Blasio to reconstitute a citywide task force to examine how emergency responders help people suffering from mental illness, and are insisting that the mayor consider creating a parallel response force of social workers and therapists that can answer calls rather than police officers.

In a letter sent to the mayor last Wednesday, the 21 members of the Progressive Caucus said the mayor should act by the end of the month to revive the Mayoral Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice, which was set up, and concluded its work, in 2014, or create a similar body.

“As we’ve seen once again in the last week, the tragic costs of not acting in a sustained and focused manner are too high,” the members wrote, referring to the shooting death of Crown Heights resident Shaheed Vassell by NYPD officers who were not trained to respond to situations involving “emotionally disturbed persons.” The letter noted that since the last task force’s recommendations were put in place, in the summer of 2016, ten people in emotional crisis were killed by police.

Late last year, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a progressive caucus member, had led an effort calling on the mayor to do the same. He was among those who reiterated that request after the death of Vassell. But though the NYPD says it is on board, the mayor continues to drag his feet. “It’s really a City Hall conversation,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman said at a Council hearing last month.

The Progressive Caucus members’ latest request differs slightly from what has been previously sought.

Rather than directing efforts at improving NYPD officer behavior, which they nonetheless hope the task force will do, they are calling for the mayor to support a new system that prioritizes professional mental health providers in emergency situations, where 911 operators can divert calls to social workers or therapists instead of the police and where therapists or trained peers can join police at the scene of an emergency. They also call for an expansion of mobile crisis teams and co-response teams that include mental health professionals paired with officers that have received Crisis Intervention Training. Just over 8,000 officers in the 36,000-strong police force have gone through CIT. 

"Too often, individuals with behavioral and mental health conditions are wrongly introduced to the criminal justice system. In order to improve their safety, we must consider comprehensive strategies that will prioritize preventive care and response tactics by mental health professionals,” said Council Member Diana Ayala, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and chair of the Council’s Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, in a statement.

The Progressive Caucus includes nearly half the 51 members of the City Council, and counts Council Speaker Corey Johnson among its ranks. Council Member Ben Kallos is co-chair with Ayala.

Although the Council members praised the administration’s efforts that resulted from the recommendation of the previous task force, they noted that many initiatives stalled and also pointed to the weaknesses in the NYPD’s approach to CIT training as evidenced by a January 2017 report by the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD.

“The deaths of Dwayne Jeune, Saheed Vassell, and too many others have shown that there are fundamental flaws in the way our city handles EDP emergencies,” said Council Member Williams, in a statement.

Steve Coe, CEO of Community Access, decried the “lack of leadership around this issue” despite the action plan put in place based on the 2014 task force’s recommendations. He commended the Progressive Caucus’ efforts, stressing that bringing stakeholders such as district attorneys, the city’s health department, NYPD officials, mental health experts and advocates was necessary “to assess what’s working, what’s not working, and develop diversion and treatment strategies that are effective and sustainable.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note- This article has been updated. 

Brooklyn City Council Member Setting Early Foundation for Speaker Run


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Council Member Justin Brannan (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council Member Justin Brannan is everywhere.

He’s at the governor’s mansion discussing the state’s efforts to empower women- and minority-owned businesses. He’s meeting with the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council about the city’s construction industry. He’s at the Chinese-American Planning Council’s 53rd anniversary celebration, posing for photos with Congressional Rep. Grace Meng, state Assembly members Peter Abbate Jr. and Yuh-line Niou, and fellow Council members. He’s talking police-community relations with NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill. He’s speaking with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. He’s at union rallies, nonprofit galas, senior centers, PTA meetings and parades.

He’s being interviewed on television and photographed at City Hall, and he’s developing more and more of a social media presence, showcasing both his travels around the city but also his focus on constituent services in his district, praising his colleagues, chronicling his subway struggles, and sharing song lyrics. And, he’s campaigning for Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic Party leader with outsized influence in other parts of government.

All that in the last two months, part of a frenetic start for a Council Member who has only been on the job since January, though he has been involved in city politics for much longer. And those activities haven’t gone unnoticed as Brannan, a Brooklyn Democrat, is emerging very early on as a potential contender to be the next Speaker of the City Council.

The Council Speaker, arguably the second-most powerful elected official in the city, is chosen internally by members every four years, in a process that is less-public facing and more backroom-dealing. In 2021, the next city election year, 36 Council members will be term-limited, portending a sea change in the 51-member legislative body and giving incumbents, who usually sail to reelection, a leg up in the speaker race. Brannan seems to be following the playbook of current Speaker Corey Johnson, who started making moves for the speakership early in his first four-year term.

It is, of course, far too early to tell what the field of candidates will look like, which is why Council sources are reluctant to speak openly. But the buzz around the Council threw up the same names over and over. Besides Brannan, other potential contenders -- all of them Democrats -- include Bronx Council Member Rafael Salamanca, Queens Council Members Francisco Moya and Adrienne Adams, Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera, and Brooklyn Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. The list, save for Brannan, who seems to be the most active, is the same as that reported by City & State earlier this year. Some seem to have better odds, given their prominence on the Council and their relationships with the powerful Queens and Bronx Democratic county committees.

Brannan represents District 43 in Brooklyn, covering Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach. He has a deep well of experience, as a former chief of staff to his predecessor, Council Member Vincent Gentile, and as intergovernmental affairs director at the Department of Education. He founded the Bay Ridge Democrats and served as its president. He’s also been a professional musician.

“You can see that he’s been out there, in other Council members’ districts and all over the city, so he might be taking a cue card from Corey Johnson’s playbook,” said a Council source who wished to remain unnamed. The source noted that though it will be an “open field” of candidates in 2021, the names that are popping up early are because of their relationships with county committees. “I think people are trying to get a sense of how to play the game...so it’s early to put money on a particular candidate.”

Another source with knowledge of Brannan’s moves noted that he has the advantage of being one of the few members who will be returning to the Council. “The fact that there’s only a handful of members coming back in four years sort of narrows the pool because...unless people would be OK with another two-term speaker, the next speaker is going to be one of the people that’s coming back,” the source said. Brannan, if reelected, would be serving his second and final term, as would the other contenders previously mentioned.

The source also noted that Brannan has made relationships over the last few years that will be beneficial down the line. “I think Justin’s always had, whether it was through the Bay Ridge Democrats or whether through campaign work he did, he’s always had those relationships,” the source said. “When he goes to the boroughs, it’s not like he’s introducing himself for the first time.”

Those relationships, including with Crowley and labor union leaders, will largely determine how the speaker race shakes out. The other members on the list of contenders have their own strengths and connections as well, and the speaker race often comes down to powerful stakeholders compromising in support of one candidate, taking into account a wide variety of factors.

Council Member Salamanca chairs the powerful land use committee and is a product of the Bronx Democratic County Committee. Salamanca’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Council Members Moya and Adams are closely aligned with the Queens Democratic County Committee and its powerful boss, Rep. Crowley, who played kingmaker in the election of Johnson as speaker, in partnership with others, especially state Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, who heads the Bronx Democrats. Moya has the added bonus of having worked in the Assembly with Crespo.

“I’m sure this makes for great debate among all the political junkies out there, but the speakership is more than three years away,” Moya said in a statement. He insisted his focus is on his community, particularly on affordable housing, reduced-price MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, and protections for workers in the building industry. “There will be a time and place to talk about the speakership but that’s a long ways away,” he said, not denying interest.

Stacey Yearwood, a spokesperson for Adams said the Council Member would not comment on being a speaker contender “as it is premature.”

None of the six potential candidates denied an interest in being the next speaker of the Council.

Council Members Rivera and Ampry-Samuel are viewed as rising stars in the Council and have have both been given prominent committees to lead -- hospitals and public housing, respectively. Rivera also received considerable support from Johnson in her election to the Council; they represent neighboring districts. Rivera declined to comment. Ampry-Samuels said in a statement, “My focus right now are the constituents of the 41st District and the residents of public housing.”

There’s no one predictable path to the speakership. “I think it’s hard because there’s been so few speakers that to go back and look historically how a speaker gets made, it’s different every time,” said the second Council source. “There’s the wisdom that Queens and the Bronx never make their own person the speaker, that would mean that Salamanca and Moya wouldn’t be the speaker. But who knows? There’s a lot of dynamics. There’s also the demographic dynamics. If we have a white mayor, chances are Justin’s not gonna be the speaker. If we have a black mayor, maybe there’s a chance there.”

In this last speaker’s election, there was vocal indignation that yet another white man was going be elected to a powerful seat in city government -- both Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Comptroller Scott Stringer are white men, Public Advocate Letitia James is a black woman. There were calls for electing a speaker of color, including from black and Latino Council members who were running for the seat themselves. All that could change, as the source noted, if the citywide seats aren’t occupied four years from now by mostly white men.

Brannan is coy about his plans, even if they seem transparent to others. “It’s April 2018!,” he said with a jovial laugh, when asked outside City Hall whether he was making an early move for the speakership. “It’s barely four months into my first term and I’m just laser-focused on being a good Council member for my district. Having succeeded a guy that was in office for a long time, I’ve got a lot to prove. So that’s my number one focus.”

He added, “It’s fun and flattering to be mentioned in that circle [of speaker potentials]. I think this new crop of my colleagues are all very talented and very smart. To be mentioned with this class is great.”

He conceded that maybe another white man may not be the way the Council will look to go and that diverse representation is sorely lacking in the legislative body. “Bottom line is that it’s gotta be someone that’s qualified for the job...I’ve already said in my Council seat, I would love nothing more than to be succeeded by a woman. So those things are important to me too. I’m certainly not blind to those dynamics but it’s just so far away.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

In Response to De Blasio Proposal, City Council Sets Stage for Tense Budget Negotiations


speaker johnson presents preliminary budgetresponse 3 credit william alatriste

Speaker Johnson and colleagues (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council appears to be gearing up for a tense budget fight with Mayor Bill de Blasio, releasing a telling early counter on Tuesday in its official response to the mayor’s $88.7 billion proposed budget for next fiscal year, put forth just after a tense hearing with budget officials about modifications to the current budget.

The Council’s response to de Blasio’s preliminary budget, the first under Council Speaker Corey Johnson and released after weeks of hearings, calls for millions in new spending, additional reserves for a rainy day, and more accountability and transparency in the city’s budgeting process.

The priorities enumerated in the document are a clear indication of the type of independence that Johnson has promised since taking office, with a focus on “strengthening the social safety net, fighting for the middle class and handling taxpayers’ money responsibly,” as Johnson put it at a news conference at City Hall.

Among key recommendations, the Council is calling on the mayor to fund “Fair Fares,” a proposal formulated by a group of transit advocates to provide half-price MetroCards to 800,000 low-income New Yorkers. The Council had pushed for the proposal last year as well but de Blasio shot it down repeatedly, even a proposed pilot program, insisting that it was the state’s responsibility to fund it, given that the MTA is a state-run entity. Fair Fares did not make it into the recently-passed state budget, and the Council is now calling for $212 million for the program, which it estimates would also benefit about 16,411 veterans living in poverty and would extend the program to veterans attending city colleges.

Johnson and the Council are also pushing for a $400 property tax rebate for homeowners with incomes below $150,000 -- which would cost about $187 million and cover about 487,000 households, they said -- and called on the mayor to form a long-promised property tax reform commission jointly with the Council to examine structural problems and propose reforms.

Almost every item highlighted in the budget response seems likely to elicit consternation from the mayor. Though the administration has put nearly $5.5 billion towards reserve funding, to prepare for an anticipated economic slowdown, the Council is calling for another $500 million. The Council is also insisting on another $2.45 billion in capital funding over four years for the embattled public housing authority, NYCHA, to repair heating and water systems and to build more senior housing.

The Council is calling for a reassessment of spending on homeless shelters and for education spending to be increased to “Fair Student Funding” levels. Members are demanding that the mayor’s next budget iteration, due out later this month, include a plan for $485 million in unfunded mandates foisted on the city by the state. The Council is proposing $227 million in new and baselined agency funding. And, it is emphasizing the need for more transparency in both the expense and capital budgets, proposing 123 new units of appropriation that would provide a more detailed breakdown of budgeting and pay the way for greater accountability.

Johnson emphasized that the increase in funding that the Council is advocating is offset by revenues, savings, and agency efficiencies and reductions. “I believe this is a pretty aggressive response to what was presented to us and we expect a real negotiation from now until the executive budget,” he said, later insisting that the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget had set lower estimates for revenues and agency savings than the Council.

“When we go down, we’re adjusting the available resources in what OMB gave us by $1.8 billion,” he said. “We believe that our forecast, in between what [the Independent Budget Office] is saying and what OMB is saying, we view it as $1.8 billion...We’re not just spending a lot of money. We’re also cutting back on savings in certain agencies, especially DHS [Department of Homeless Services].”

The mayor’s office quickly responded to the Council’s proposals. "Times are increasingly tight, and the $418 million we just spent to fix the state-run subways, which the Council supported, will only make this year’s budget process all the more lean,” said Freddi Goldstein, a mayoral spokesperson on budget matters. It was a clear reference to Johnson’s position that the city pay for half of the $836 million MTA Subway Action Plan, which the city is being forced to do under a provision that was included in the state budget earlier this month. (That $418 million includes $254 million in operational costs -- which is included in the Council’s response -- and $164 million in capital costs.)

The Council’s more “aggressive” approach was already on display Tuesday morning, at a rare finance committee hearing on proposed modifications to the budget for the current fiscal year ending June 30. More often than not, in the past few years, the Council has easily approved the periodic budget modifications so the city can adjust spending as needed. But this year the adjustment was the subject of a standalone hearing, led by Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee.

The administration had requested the Council’s approval on $970 million in spending reallocations across city agencies. But Council members seemed unwilling to pass up the opportunity to ask hard questions of OMB officials, mostly relating to a $152 million proposed increase in spending on the Department of Homeless Services.

“They want a modification, they have to come to the City Council,” Johnson flatly explained, when Gotham Gazette asked whether the Council was using the budget modification as leverage over the administration. “We’re not a rubber stamp. We have oversight questions, we have questions that need to be answered.”

Dromm, who had earlier emphasized to Gotham Gazette that the hearing was simply about more transparency, added, “It’s a new Council, it’s a new situation. We have new expectations and we expect the administration to live up to those expectations.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.



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