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Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Voters approved three ballot proposals on Election Day to amend the New York City charter, the city’s foundational governing document -- the local constitution. The proposals related to the city’s campaign finance system, civic engagement, and community boards. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empaneled a charter revision commission last year that put the proposals on the ballot, argued that the proposals would strengthen democracy in the city.

“The question in front of voters was simple: Are we going to be a city that works for everyone,” de Blasio tweeted after the measures passed. “New Yorkers answered with a resounding ‘YES, YES, YES!’”

Now that all three proposals are to be added to the charter, they will have to be implemented within the next few years. At the same time, another charter revision commission created through City Council legislation is also holding public hearings and is expected issue its own recommendations for the 2019 general election ballot.

Each of the three proposals approved this year included language around implementation, though some aspects will be left to certain individual and group decision-makers.

Proposal 1 - campaign finance reform
Proposal 1, which lowers campaign contribution limits in city elections and enhances the city’s public-matching campaign finance program, passed with 80.3 percent approval.

New York City’s voluntary public matching funds program, often seen as a model for the country, currently matches the first $175 of each campaign contribution at a ratio of 6-to-1. Proposal 1 raises the public match to 8-to-1 for the first $250 of a donation, thus increasing the impact of smaller donations, and will lower individual contribution limits to citywide candidates from $5,100 to $2,000, with lower offices like borough presidents and City Council members also seeing public match increases and lower contribution limits.

The goal is to empower small-dollar donors, giving their contributions a greater impact and disincentivizing candidates from depending on larger, wealthier donors and PACs. In theory, it allows first-time candidates not backed by deep-pocketed donors to run more competitive races.

The percentage of a candidate’s overall spending limit that can be received in public funds will be increased from 55 percent to 75 percent, and candidates will be allowed to receive public funds earlier in their races -- a change that could help insurgent candidates or candidates without deep-pocketed allies, but also could help incumbents rack up higher totals earlier.

Under the text of the amendment, the new campaign finance regulations will take effect on January 12, 2019. But, candidates who choose to participate in the public funds program and run for office in the 2021 primary elections can choose to opt out of the new rules, thus sticking with the current limits and system. Candidates must declare their intentions by July 15, 2019.

For non-participating candidates, meaning those who opt not to participate in the matching program, the limits and thresholds remain the same as they were before January 12.

All candidates participating in the public matching program will be brought under the new regulations starting in 2022.

The language of the amendment also includes a clawback provision should any of the changes to contribution limits and matching fund ratios be struck down in court. In such an instance, all the changes would be nullified except for the expansion of the public matching funds cap from 55 percent to 75 percent.

In all, the charter commission estimated that the new system would increase the amount of public funds disbursed to candidates by roughly 47 percent relative to the very busy 2013 city election cycle, which will in many ways be mirrored for 2021. In the 2013 cycle, the Campaign Finance Board doled out $38 million in public funds. Under the new rules, disbursements would have been an additional $18 million, for a total of $56 million, according to the charter commission’s staff research.

In last year’s elections, when there were fewer competitive races, the CFB gave out about $18 million in public funds, which would have seen an additional $8.5 million in public funds under the amended charter.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who unsuccessfully attempted to increase the public funds cap to 85 percent through legislation, was glad to see voters pass the improvements to the system. In a phone interview, he implied that concerns about the cost of the new system were overblown, and said that enhancing the system is key to eliminating real and perceived conflicts of interest.

“It’s far less than the city lost on Rivington, and whether it was a case of actual corruption or just appeared improper, it had significant cost to our city,” Kallos said, referring to the scandal around the city’s sale of Rivington House and related allegations of pay-to-play involving the mayor. “Just the defense of our city cost about $6 million,” he added in reference to the mayor’s legal bills accrued during law enforcement investigations of his fundraising that saw no charges filed. “So whether it is to save $100 million around Rivington or the $6 million in legal fees, it pays for itself.”

He continued, “When the next mayor’s going to have a budget in excess of $90 billion, [$18 million] to make sure that that elected official would only be accountable to the voters without the influence of big money is worth every penny.”

Gotham Gazette: Proposal 2 - civic engagement commission
Proposal 2, which creates a civic engagement commission tasked with implementing a citywide participatory budgeting program and other initiatives, passed with 65.5 percent approval.

The new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding efforts undertaken annually in City Council districts (currently in 31 of the 51 CDs), would have to be implemented by the commission by July 1, 2020. Participatory budgeting allows residents to vote on projects to spend a certain amount of funds in their Council districts.

The commission will also be tasked with improving translation services at voting sites and providing resources to community boards, as well as more generalized partnerships with community organizations to increase civic engagement.

The commission would remain a fixture after implementing its designated programs, and would be required to report annually on its programs, many of which can be by its own design.

The commission will consist of 15 members: 8 appointed by the Mayor, 2 by the City Council Speaker, and 1 by each Borough President. The mayor’s majority of board picks worried some that it would be a power-grab of sorts, given the wide latitude afforded to the commission with its mission of “enhancing civic engagement and strengthening democracy.” But in that respect, it is actually something of an improvement from the proposed Office of Civic Engagement, which would be completely under the mayor, per a bill introduced by City Council Member Brad Lander, who supported proposal 2 and celebrated its passage.

The commission will be empaneled on April 1, 2019.

Proposal 3 - community board reform
Proposal 3, which establishes term limits for community board members and institutes a set of new requirements around the community board application process and more, passed with 72.3 percent approval.

Community board members, who are appointed by Borough Presidents and currently allowed to serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, will now be allowed only to serve four consecutive two-year terms. At that point, members will be term-limited out, but they will be allowed to be reappointed after a two-year interregnum. Current community board members will be allowed to serve an additional four terms no matter how long they have served as of 2019. Thus, no current member will be term-limited off their board until 2027.

To prevent heavy turnover that year and the following year, appointees commencing their term in 2020 will be allowed to serve five terms.

Borough Presidents will also be required to seek out diverse candidates for community board appointments, ensuring that different geographic areas are adequately represented. The proposal mandates that borough president reach out to community organizations active in the district and also allows civic groups and neighborhood organization to submit nominees to the Borough President. Community boards as constituted today are often criticized for being older and whiter than the communities they serve. Younger and more diverse voices on community boards could lead to very different outcomes. Borough presidents will also be required to make applications for community board member positions available on their websites with detailed requests for information about members, including work and community experience, demographic information (which would be optional) and conflicts of interest disclosures, among other things.

While community boards do not have a binding vote on land use and development matters, local City Council members often strongly consider and align with their home community boards. Four of the city's five current Borough Presidents expressed strong opposition to proposals 2 and 3 (Brooklyn's Eric Adams was the lone exception) and worked unsuccessfully to defeat them.

The civic engagement commission approved in proposal 2 will also be required to provide additional resources to community boards, such as “urban planning professionals and language access resources.”

Though it received a higher vote share than proposal 2, proposal 3 was widely seen as the most controversial of the three during the election season. While proponents noted that community boards are often older and whiter than the communities they represent, opponents said the measure would lead to a brain drain to the benefit of real estate developers. The worry was that an influx of new members without land use knowledge would allow developers to run roughshod over community interests. In the end, voters took the side of the proponents.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Brachfeld contributed to this piece.

What's The [Data] Point? 18.6%, New York's Inequality & Social Safety Net


whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 60 -- 18.6%, Inequality and the Social Safety Net, with Greg David and Cara Eisenpress [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

gregdavid caraepress amazon18.6% is the poverty rate in New York City. Greg David and Cara Eisenpress, both from Crain's New York Business and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, discuss their recent reporting exploring New York City's safety net, how it's funded, and how it compares to other places, while showing that the city's robust safety net is made possible by the city's vast inequality and tax structure.

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!

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Without Chair, Council Committee Hears Bills Aimed to Help Discharged Military Veterans


Council Member Chaim Deutsch

Council Member Deutsch (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


A bill that would require the New York City Department of Veterans Services to help veterans discharged from the military solely for their LGBTQ status to upgrade or change the narrative of their discharge status and “extend all city benefits and services” to them was introduced to the City Council’s Committee on Veterans at a hearing on Monday.

Introduced alongside it was a bill that would require DVS to create a unit to assist veterans with discharge characterization upgrades and offer legal advice for those pursuing meritorious appeals. Almost all of the activists, city officials, and other members of the veterans community who attended the meeting supported the sentiment of the bills — but almost none of them supported them as written.

Other than retiring, most people leave military service through the discharge process. When a veteran is first discharged, they can be given one of five statuses: honorable, general, other than honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable. Discharge status is given at the discretion of the commanding officer. A less than honorable discharge, often referred to as a ‘bad paper discharge,’ can be given for any number of reasons — including being injured or ill — and results in a veteran being disqualified for certain federal Veterans Affairs benefits.

President of the American Veterans for Equal Rights’ New York Chapter Denny Meyer stated in his testimony that between World War II and the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” 100,000 LGBTQ American soldiers were less than honorably discharged for being gay. During the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, another 14,000 were involuntarily discharged for the same reason, and although most of these veterans received honorable discharge paperwork, the narrative of the paperwork listed their homosexuality as the reason for being discharged.

The bill related to LGBTQ discharge and reparations, Intro. 479, was proposed by Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Democrat from Queens and chair of the Council’s LGBT Caucus. The bill would seek to address discriminatory practices by requiring the city’s DVS to offer assistance to those less than honorably discharged solely for their sexual orientation or gender identity in upgrading their status or changing the narrative of that discharge.

This effort complements Intro. 1218, a bill sponsored by Council Member Chaim Deutsch, the chair of the Council’s veterans services committee, which would require DVS to create a unit with the sole purpose of giving legal advice to any veteran seeking discharge upgrades.
Deutsch did not chair the hearing on the bills, despite not only being the committee chair but also having one of his own bills on the docket. A conservative Democrat from Brooklyn, Deutsch did not provide an on-the-record explanation of his absence from the hearing despite repeated inquiries by Gotham Gazette. The City Council speaker’s office did not provide comment for this article when asked. Council Member Dromm’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about Deutsch’s absence. It is rare that a Council committee will hold a hearing without the chair.

The hearing was chaired by Council Member Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the committee. Council Members Dromm and Alan Maisel, another member of the committee, were also in attendance at the beginning of the hearing, though Dromm left for state Senator Jose Peralta’s wake shortly after discussing his bill, with Maisel leaving not long after as well. Council Member Mathieu Eugene, a committee member, came for a short time later in the meeting, leaving after asking a few questions concerning the logistics of discharge statuses. The only other member of the veterans committee, Council Member Paul Vallone, was not present at all.

Testimony on the two bills was first given by DVS Commissioner Loree Sutton, who in part responded to Dromm’s discussion of his bill.

During the testimony, Sutton brought up two major issues with the bills that would be echoed throughout the hearing by advocates.

First, although the language of Dromm’s Intro. 479 implies that some city benefits depend on discharge status, this is not the case, according to Sutton.

“Discharge status and LGBTQ status are not identifiers used to screen out applicants for city resources,” Sutton said.

The bill states: “A veteran with any discharge status less than honorable, for example, cannot access the full range of benefits offered by the VA and, often, are denied benefits by the state and local veterans affairs bodies as well.”

Dromm said that part of the intention of the bill was to codify LGBTQ veterans’ rights into law. Mentioning how the Trump administration has set back LGBTQ rights, he said that this bill would prevent a similar occurrence at the city level.

“One of the reasons why we put this legislation forward is because while we recognize Mayor de Blasio's commitment to LGBT rights and [Sutton’s] personal involvement in it as well, we don’t know what the next mayor’s going to bring,” Dromm said. “We’ve seen an administration in Washington D.C. that is already attempting to take away our rights and God forbid something like that should happen here in New York City, and all the work that either [Sutton has] done or the Council has done could be lost if in fact we don’t codify it.”

When it came to the bill proposed by Deutsch, Sutton and others mentioned that it would have DVS provide a service already provided by non-profits, some of which had representatives at the hearing. The service of providing legal advice and guidance in regards to discharge status upgrades is somewhat specialized and requires intricate knowledge of the legal system, according to Director of the Veteran Advocacy Project Coco Culhane, whose non-profit provides said legal advice.

“We do not believe that a unit within DVS would be an efficient use of city funds or city employees’ time,” Culhane said, going on to note that DVS was not originally intended to be a service-based agency, and so should not be advising veterans even if it had the legal expertise. The original mission of the still-new agency is to educate veterans about the services they are applicable for, largely federal, and help connect them with the resources they need.

Sutton agreed with this sentiment.

“DVS is not a subject-matter expert on evaluating the legitimacy of discharge upgrade claims,” Sutton said. “This bill would require that DVS provide what is actually legal advice and counselling, which is beyond its capacity and is inappropriate because city agencies do not provide direct legal counsel to members of the state.”

Systems DVS already has in place to assist veterans seeking discharge upgrades mainly rely on reaching out to attorneys for their advice, and helping link veterans to appropriate legal services. VetConnect, an online website that seeks to connect veterans with services they need, is also part of these efforts.

Ashton Stewart, coordinator with SAGE Vets Program, an LGBT veterans advocacy group created for the purpose of helping veterans who had been less-than-honorably discharged due to their sexual orientation, supported the legislation.

“SAGE wholeheartedly supports the discharge characterization upgrade assistance legislation.” Stewart said. “We believe that taking this step will bring profile to the important issue of LGBT service members wrongfully discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation.”

Vadim Panasyuk, Senior Veteran Transition Manager at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, added to the concerns about the bills, saying that if DVS were to provide legal advice concerning discharge upgrades it may complicate things for veterans and nonprofits.

“There are already processes in the nonprofit sector that will help veterans upgrade their discharge status free of charge,” Panasyuk said. “IAVA is concerned that passage of these bills could create confusion among the nonprofit and veterans community. DVS may be better served to complement these existing services rather than competing or duplicating them.”

The larger problem, according to both Culhane and Kent Eiler, Project Director of the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project, is the lack of qualified lawyers in the field of veteran law.

“The demand for able, experienced accredited representatives is vastly outstripped by the demand of veterans who need assistance,” Eiler said.

According to Sutton, so far in 2018, 105 veterans contacted DVS about discharge status. However, both Eiler and Culhane expressed that this number is not representative of the actual need. Eiler mentioned that those who come to the City Bar Justice Center are often put on an eight- to ten-month waiting list, while Culhane said that the Veteran Advocacy Project has had as many as 650 veterans waiting at a time just for the non-profit to investigate the merit of their case. Culhane said in just under two years, 500 veterans had contacted her association seeking assistance with a discharge upgrade.

With only two members of the Council remaining by the time the last panel of activists testified, Brannan brought the meeting to a close, with the fate of the bills unclear -- they can be voted on by the committee at a future meeting, amended and reheard by the committee, or laid over indefinitely.

Meyer, who was the last to give testimony, representing the American Veterans for Equal RIghts’ New York Chapter, expressed that having heard the testimony given at the meeting, his thoughts on the bills had changed. However, his feeling that LGBTQ veterans needed to be repaid for their service even in light of unjust treatment, remained.

“Someone is going to have to decide who is going to help them, who is going to rectify this, it’s as simple as that,” Meyer said.

***
by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.



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