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City Council Examines Sexual Harassment Policies, Considers New Laws

Helen Rosenthal women

Council Member Rosenthal and others (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As the nation grapples with how to confront sexual misconduct, the New York City Council is addressing the issue in its oversight and legislative capacities. On Wednesday, Council members held a press conference and subsequent hearing on “best practices” for preventing sexual harassment, identifying current city government protocols, and considering a slate of new legislation.

The 45-minute press conference outside City Hall featured about a dozen Council members, along with advocates, promoting the action being taken by the Council. It was led by Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Committee on Women and ran the hearing that was held jointly with the Committee on Civil and Human Rights. During the hearing, members formally introduced the Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act, a package of 11 bills aimed at preventing and punishing sexual harassment in much of city government and the private sector.

“Countless women and men have raised their voices and built the #MeToo movement,” Rosenthal said at the press conference. “The courage and the grace of these survivors has made a reckoning inevitable, not just for the powerful individuals finally brought to account, but for our society as a whole. We owe them a great deal of gratitude--and more to the point, we owe them action.”

“Because although we have strong sexual harassment protections on the books,” she said, “we know that reality has not caught up with the law. Harassers are still too often able to operate with impunity.”

Among the Council proposals is a bill requiring city agencies to administer anti-sexual harassment training twice per year. The lead sponsor of the bill is Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Another bill, introduced by Council Member Mark Levine, would require the dozens of city agencies to produce a yearly report of sexual harassment incidents. Additionally, Rosenthal introduced a bill mandating that the city’s Commission on Human Rights distribute a “climate survey” to city agencies to “assess the general awareness and knowledge of workplace sexual harassment policies and prevention” in them, according to the bill’s summary.  

In a similar vein, Council Member Adrienne Adams proposed a bill requiring the Commission on Human Rights to join forces with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) to deliver an “assessment of risk factors associated with sexual harassment within city agencies” to the mayor and speaker. Notably, this assortment of legislation applies only to mayoral agencies, including the mayor’s office, but not the City Council itself, according to a spokesperson for Rosenthal. The bills do not apply to the Borough Presidents’ offices, the Comptroller’s office, the Public Advocate’s office, or other non-mayoral government entities, either.

At Wednesday’s hearing, representatives from DCAS presented a new citywide employee handbook that outlines guidance for many examples of inappropriate workplace behavior and what to do when an employee feels harassed.

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer submitted legislation that would require businesses contracting with the city to include sexual harassment policies and procedures in their division of labor services employment reports.

The array of proposals also addresses private businesses throughout the city. For example, Council Member Laurie Combo and Public Advocate Letitia James put forward legislation requiring businesses with more than 14 employees to conduct sexual harassment prevention training. Along similar lines, Council Member Keith Powers’ bill on the matter would amend the city’s Human Rights Law related to sexual harassment to apply to businesses employing any number of people, rather than the current threshold of businesses with more than four employees.

Council Member Robert Cornegy, for his part, introduced a bill that would mandate that employers inform workers of their rights vis-à-vis sexual harassment with an office poster and a bill introduced by Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel would direct the Commission on Human Rights to provide resources regarding sexual harassment on its website.

Council Member Carlina Rivera has legislation classifying sexual harassment as a form of discrimination under the city’s Human Rights Law. In an interview prior to the hearing, Rivera explained the goals of the effort. “What we’re looking for is clearly to show everyone that as a city we’re going to set the model for others, whether it’s the public or private sector,” she said. “What we’re looking for are best practices.”

The Council wants to ensure “every workplace is free from sexual harassment,” Rivera added.  

“When it comes to private businesses,” Rivera said, “one of the things that is incredibly challenging is transparency.” The legislation pertaining to private businesses, Rivera said, needed to not just be symbolic, but must clearly codify what is and is not acceptable workplace conduct.

“We’re doing this to open that door for all to come forward and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening to me in my own business,” she continued, “and we’re going to be able to challenge them on their own set of practices in terms of protecting their employees.”

Former City Comptroller and Congressional Representative Liz Holtzman, who participated in both the press conference and hearing, echoed Council Member Rosenthal. She noted that though there have been previous efforts to address seuxual harassment, not enough has been done to follow through once the problem had been identified.

The Council bills may be amended before either another hearing to discuss them or committee votes to move them through. Bills passed by committee are then voted on by the full 51-member City Council. Mayor Bill de Blasio would then be asked to sign any bills passed by the overwhelmingly Democratic Council. The Democratic mayor has indicated he is supportive of taking new legislative action on this front, and representatives of his administration appeared supportive of the Council’s proposals at the Wednesday hearing.

Public Advocate James contended that as high-profile instances of sexual harassment make headlines, it is also a common occurrence in daily life of too many everyday New Yorkers. “We all have our own individual, personal Harvey Weinstein’s that we know,” she said.

Council Speaker Boxes In Mayor on MTA Action Plan Funding

Corey Johnson Mayor de Blasio budget briefing

Speaker Johnson talks with Mayor de Blasio (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council is set to begin hearings next week on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $88.67 billion preliminary budget proposal for fiscal year 2019, with a smaller but significant figure likely to become an issue of controversy in negotiations between the two sides of City Hall.  

Council Speaker Corey Johnson seems to be gearing up to push the administration on funding half of the MTA’s $836-million action plan to stabilize the city’s ailing subways. The plan, announced by MTA Chair Joe Lhota in July, has become another point of contention between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, as Cuomo and his appointee, Lhota, have called on de Blasio to fund half the action plan, which the mayor has refused to do. De Blasio has pointed to more than $450 million he says the state has raided from the MTA and should return in order to fund the action plan.

While de Blasio fights the governor’s demand, Johnson may be closing in on the mayor from the other side.

“It is no secret that our subway system is in crisis. Though I am glad the Governor appointed Chair Lhota to fix the MTA’s ongoing problems, we still have serious concerns and we finally need to get the job done,” Speaker Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette on Friday, when asked about his position on the MTA action plan. “The New York City Council will consider a one-time payment to fund the proposed subway action plan and we look forward to working with the Mayor, Governor, the Senate and Assembly and MTA in repairing the transit system.”

Johnson’s remarks came after a recent interview with the amNew York and Newsday editorial board in which he indicated that perhaps the city should consider paying half the cost of the plan in exchange for more accountability from the MTA, and possibly more. “Maybe if the mayor were able to get some other good things for the city that are really important to him, maybe he would be more willing for the city to come up with a one-time payment,” Johnson said in the interview, perhaps previewing his role as a deal-broker on the issue.

Not only will all the parties be negotiating the action plan funding, but also long-term funding for the MTA, which may include a congestion pricing scheme. Johnson said he is worried that a potential “lock box” for revenue raised through congestion pricing -- a hotly debated policy issue that has taken center stage in the MTA funding conversation -- would not be failsafe. That concern appears to muddy de Blasio’s demand that any congestion pricing plan include such a lock box guarantee that any money raised in the city stays in the city for MTA subway and bus improvements.

At an unrelated news conference on Thursday, de Blasio brushed aside any concern about Johnson’s contrasting perspective, and denied that it may be undercutting his position in budget negotiations with the state. “I have a lot of respect for the speaker. We have talked about it. We have a different view but it’s with real respect,” de Blasio said, when asked by Gotham Gazette about Johnson’s openness to funding the MTA action plan. “He’s the leader of a separate part of government. He’s going to issue his opinions, the important thing is we always talk about them.”

De Blasio expressed appreciation that Johnson was pushing for “real checks and balances” to ensure money raised in the city is spent within the city and with oversight and approval from local officials. “So I think the speaker was right on point on those things he said about what the conditions would be. But no we’ve had a very collegial relationship. I’m very happy with it.”

It was a similar exchange to that de Basio had with Comptroller Scott Stringer last summer, when Stringer said that the city should put up half the action plan funds.

De Blasio and the City Council must agree on a new city budget deal by the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. The state fiscal year begins April 1, and negotiations in Albany are about to heat up.

At the Thursday press conference, the mayor reiterated his preferred policy of implementing a so-called millionaire’s tax that would both fund transit infrastructure and subsidized MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, and called the new congestion pricing plan, put forth by the governor’s Fix NYC panel, that would implement a surcharge on taxis and for-hire vehicles “a very promising one.”  

“Look, there’s going to be a whole negotiation over the state budget. We’re going to be actively involved in that,” he said. “And we’re going to be listening for any plan that guarantees results for the people of New York City. If it doesn’t have a lockbox, we’re not going to part of it.”

As Johnson noted, any agreement on funding the MTA and on a potential congestion pricing plan will have to be negotiated between the governor, the state Assembly and the state Senate. But state elected officials have so far vacillated on how to move forward or presented options that have been unpalatable to de Blasio’s administration. The governor has not presented actual bill language around congestion pricing, though his panel put forth detailed recommendations with a three-year phase-in.

“We had an initial conversation internally,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, told reporters earlier this month. “I can clearly say the funding sources for the MTA is a priority for members, but I don’t think the members at this point are ready to go forward. But I do think we will come up with some ideas because the importance of funding the MTA — even the biggest critics realize some sort of long-term funding is necessary.”

The Senate leadership, on the other hand, has been far more hostile to the mayor’s priorities, as is typical. “The city has to ante up its share. The state has already made a commitment,” said Senate GOP Majority Leader John Flanagan, at an unrelated news conference on January 10. Flanagan has already come out against any new taxes and has been noncommittal on congestion pricing. During a Crain’s New York Business breakfast forum on January 26, he said, “When someone asks me about congestion pricing, I don't want to gratuitously say ‘no’ because we have not conferenced this.”

The Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, which helps Republicans control the chamber, has put forward separate legislation earlier this month that would force the city to bear half the cost of the MTA action plan by diverting a percentage of sales tax revenue.

That measure, among others, was also part of Governor Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, which includes cost shifts for MTA capital improvements from the state to the city and a proposal to create special tax zones in the city to capture revenue for the MTA from increasing property values around transit investments. The Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog, criticized the proposals and called the shifts “unjustified” and said they would require “a sevenfold increase in City capital contributions.”

“These proposals are an attempt to impose an onerous cost shift onto New York City residents and businesses, who already pay an estimated 72 percent of MTA dedicated taxes and subsidies,” said CBC President Carol Kellerman, in a statement on Cuomo’s executive budget in January.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Manhattan Democrats Drop Lawsuit Over Nominee to Board of Elections

Corey Johnson Mark-Viverito City Council

Speaker Johnson and former Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The Manhattan Democratic County Committee is dropping a lawsuit against the New York City Council over a nomination for a commissioner to the Board of Elections.

In December, the Manhattan Democratic Party, led by Chair Keith Wright, filed a legal challenge against then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s attempt to confirm her preferred candidate to a Manhattan BOE commissioner seat over the county party’s choice. A lawyer for the Manhattan Democrats told Gotham Gazette on Friday that Wright and new Council Speaker Corey Johnson had come to an agreement and that Wright had instructed the lawyer to drop the suit.

The BOE has ten commissioners, one Democrat and one Republic from each of the five boroughs, who serve two-year terms and are selected through the political party machinery. Current Manhattan Democratic commissioner Alan Schulkin’s term ended in December 2016 but he has continued to serve on the board since the City Council has yet to choose his replacement.

In late 2016, the Manhattan Democrats nominated Jeanine Johnson, an aide to Wright, to fill Schulkin's seat. But the Council did not act on the nomination, after which state law allowed the Council's Democratic conference to choose their own nominee. In November 2017, the Manhattan Democrats chose another nominee, lawyer Sylvia DiPietro. But Mark-Viverito chose instead to advance her own candidate, environmental lawyer Andrew Praschak, over the wishes of the county, leading to the lawsuit. Mark-Viverito and Wright are known to not get along, and the Manhattan Democratic Party is known as particularly lacking in cohesion compared to other boroughs.

The City Council has traditionally toed the county line on nominations to the BOE and the entire body usually votes along with the county's choice. Praschak's nomination was far more complicated. Council Members from Manhattan at first refused to vote on Praschak, insisting on interviewing him and other candidates. After interviews with both DiPietro and Praschak, the latter emerged as the preferred nominee. But a second attempt to vote on Praschak’s nomination also failed when most Democratic Council Members from other boroughs did not show up, meaning the conference could not get a necessary quorum. To some, this indicated that other county leaders were pulling weight to help Wright.

The Manhattan Democrats’ lawsuit was filed December 4, soon after the failed vote attempts to install Praschak. On December 19, the Manhattan Democrats won a preliminary injunction in their suit against the Council, which was lifted after the Council appealed. But the lawsuit was successful in forestalling a vote till the Council’s term ended and Mark-Viverito’s tenure with it. A resolution fell to the new class of the Council under new Speaker Corey Johnson, who, unlike Mark-Viverito, ascended to the speakership with support of the major county party leaders in the Bronx and Queens.

Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer for the Manhattan Democrats in the lawsuit, told Gotham Gazette that Chair Wright and Speaker Johnson had decided to move forward without a lawsuit hanging over the process. “[Keith Wright] said they’re sorting it out but he wanted me to discontinue the lawsuit,” Schwartz said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon.

Schwartz said he would be sending a “stipulation of discontinuance” later that afternoon to the Corporation Counsel’s office, which is representing the City Council in the lawsuit.

Reached by phone, Wright said, “I’m not ready to comment on anything at this time.”

Robin Levine, a spokesperson for Speaker Johnson, said in an email that she “can't comment on pending litigation.” Mark-Viverito did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear if the nomination of DiPietro will go forward as Wright and Johnson continue to negotiate. “That’s up to them,” Schwartz said. “It’s something Keith’s gotta work out with the Speaker.”

“It’s a friendly relationship,” he said of the two, contrasting it with Mark-Viverito’s dynamic with Wright. “I wouldn’t say that was friendly at all.”

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, who supported Praschak’s nomination after hearing DiPietro voice “misplaced” concerns about voter fraud, said he is hoping to see a reformer on the board. The current commissioner, Schulkin, has also faced criticism in the past for expressing similar unfounded sentiments about voter fraud in the city and the need for voter identification.

Kallos, former chair and current member of the Council’s governmental operations committee, which has some oversight of the Board of Elections, is concerned with election administration in the city, which falls under the 10 BOE commissioners as well as the executive director, Michael Ryan, and staff. The notoriously dysfunctional BOE is governed by state law, and there have been perpetual calls for modernization and professionalization of the board, including removing party politics from the commissioner appointment process. Johnson is opposed to such a reform, but has said he wants to see election administration improved.

“I look forward to working with the new Manhattan delegation chairs and the speaker on getting somebody committed to reform on the BOE,” Kallos said in a phone interview. “Whether its Sylvia DiPietro or another nominee, I hope they’re more concerned with not having lines on Election Day and with a smooth voting process rather than non-existent voter fraud.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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