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'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law


de Blasio public hearing City Council bills

De Blasio at a public hearing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Four government transparency bills that were passed by the City Council on October 31 aged into law on Friday, having gone 30 days without any action in favor or against them by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The bills all relate to increased disclosure by the administration of billions in city government spending and have been praised by good government advocates.

Among the bills was one that requires the administration to publish annual budget documents in a user-friendly, machine-readable format to the city’s online Open Data Portal, allowing the public easier access to information that is currently listed in thousands of line items in the $86 billion city budget. The bill’s lead sponsor was Council Member Ben Kallos.

The three other bills -- with lead sponsors Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Dan Garodnick, and Corey Johnson -- formed a package aimed at improving transparency at the Economic Development Corporation, a city-run entity that manages and promotes the administration’s job-creation and business-development initiatives. The bills allow the City Council added oversight of EDC, which provides many millions of dollars in financial benefits to projects and businesses each year and also handles the sale and lease of city-owned land. They mandate that EDC provide fiscal impact statements and job creation estimates for projects receiving financial assistance; require EDC to detail their efforts to clawback funds from those agreements that fail to meet their goals; and allow the City Council time to review and comment on proposed economic development agreements.

“These new City laws will make it much easier to understand both the big picture of how the City is spending money and the specifics of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy deals the City makes with businesses,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group, in a statement Friday. “It will be much easier to see if the taxpayer is getting a good deal. These new laws are a blueprint for what the state should do.”

The City Charter provides that if the mayor takes no action on a bill after it is approved by the City Council, within 30 days, it automatically becomes law. In fact, it’s “pretty common” for bills to age into law without the mayor’s signature, said mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in an email on Friday. She added that if the mayor signed every bill, “we’d be doing bill signings like every day.”  

Goldstein noted that out of the 25 bills passed by the Council on October 31, all but one aged into law. The only one the mayor signed was Council Member Rafael Espinal’s bill to repeal the city’s antiquated Cabaret Law, which used to require establishments to obtain licences from the city to allow dancing. De Blasio signed the bill on November 27 at Elsewhere, a popular nightclub in Brooklyn.

Often, the mayor holds bill-signing ceremonies at City Hall, affixing his signature to numerous bills at a time. At one such ceremony on October 16, for instance, de Blasio signed a dozen bills into law. “It’s really just a timing thing,” Goldstein said in a later email, estimating that perhaps close to 100 bills have similarly lapsed into law in de Blasio’s first term.

City Council spokesperson Robin Levine declined to comment for this article.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Speaker Candidates Give Generously to Colleagues


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Corey Johnson, Francisco Moya, Joe Crowley (photo via @CoreyinNYC)


The eight City Council members, all Democrats, who are competing to lead the 51-member legislative body as speaker for the next four years must convince numerous constituencies of their viability, including some combination of county party leaders, labor unions, the mayor, and other influential politicos. But, when the new Council class convenes in January, the vote will come down to the 51 Council members, and they are not without agency. The speaker candidates, all men, have for months been seeking to curry favor with their colleagues, employing a variety of methods. One such tactic is to donate campaign funds to current and incoming members of the City Council.

All eight candidates -- Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Robert Cornegy Jr., Ritchie Torres, Donovan Richards, Jumaane Williams, and Jimmy Van Bramer -- have made large political contributions from their reelection campaigns, according to an analysis of campaign finance filings by the New York City Campaign Finance Board at Gotham Gazette’s request, though the amounts to vary widely.

Numbers reflect disclosures filed through November 7, the day of general election and the most recent filing deadline. The next deadline is Monday, December 4.

The speaker candidates used money from their campaign accounts to spend on a variety of political causes, but most of their political giving went to other members running for reelection or Council candidates running to replace term-limited members.

Council Member Johnson’s lobbying largesse far outpaces the rest of the members, with $126,300 in political contributions, of which $84,875 went to other current or incoming members. Johnson, who has been aggressively campaigning for the Council’s top spot long before others jumped into the fray, also gave to local Democratic clubs and Democratic county organizations. He made the maximum allowable contribution of $2,750 to 26 candidates (including Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who was unsuccessful in her reelection bid).

Levine, who along with Johnson and Cornegy is seen as a frontrunner in the race, has been second with $84,185 in political contributions, including $69,375 to his colleagues.

Most of the recipients of campaign cash from the speaker candidates has overlapped.

In third place is Rodriguez, whose political contributions to colleagues were $52,750, out of a total $57,761 spent from his campaign account on political donations.

The rest of the members spent far less to build support and help colleagues. Torres only gave $35,000 out of $59,117 in political contributions. Richards contributed $31,500 out of $37,465. Cornegy’s donations were only $27,500, Van Bramer’s were $24,675 and Williams gave just $13,000.

In total, there were 42 Council candidates from across the city who received a political contribution from another candidate, including both sitting Council members and those running for open seats. Among the 42 were a few who were unsuccessful as well as 11 new incoming members of the City Council.

The biggest beneficiary of the political giving was Adrienne Adams, a Democrat who was elected to the District 28 seat in Queens, which was empty following the expulsion of Council Member Ruben Wills after his conviction on corruption charges. Adams received $26,750 from Council colleagues, of which $18,000 was from seven speaker candidates. Cornegy was the only one who did not donate to her. Adams could not be reached for comment. In her run she had the backing of the Queens Democratic Party machine, which is seen as the most influential county party in the speaker race, with Rep. Joe Crowley at its head.

Justin Brannan, another Democrat who won the District 43 seat in Bay Ridge, collectively received $12,250 from five speaker candidates. “Having been a staffer in the Council and a Democratic organizer for many years, throughout my primary and general elections, I was grateful to have the support of many of the members I now look forward to calling colleagues and one of which we will elect as our leader,” Brannan said in a statement. “Personally, I'm looking for a speaker who will empower the members and consider the many diverse voices that make up the body.” He did not say who he would vote for.

As Brannan indicated, it’s not unusual for Council Members to bolster Council staffers’ bids for City Council. This was the case for Carlina Rivera, the former legislative director to outgoing Council Member Rosie Mendez. Rivera won Mendez’s Council District 2 seat in Manhattan. In a statement, Rivera said she was “thankful” for the support from Council members, who gave her $14,483 in total. All but $150 came from speaker candidates, but Rivera insisted that would not affect her vote. She declined to indicate which speaker candidate she may be leaning towards. “My decision on the next Speaker will be made like any other -- with careful consideration of each candidate’s record and policies,” she said. “It won’t be easy given the strength of each candidate, but I look forward to casting my vote based on these merits.”

Even as the speaker candidates’ political giving is tallied, some have helped raise money for their colleagues without raising it directly or bundling it as an intermediary. Some also raised money for or donated to Mayor de Blasio’s reelection bid, even as they attempt to sell their colleagues and others on promises of standing up to the mayor as the next speaker. Speaker candidates, to varying degrees, also went to campaign with members and candidates in their districts. Johnson and Levine were the most active in this respect, too, helping candidates to collect ballot petition signatures, knock on doors, and greet voters.

In Midtown Manhattan’s District 4, Keith Powers was elected to the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Dan Garodnick. Powers received the maximum $2,750 contribution from five speaker candidates. “I’ve known all the candidates for more than a few years,” said the former lobbyist who ran on a good government platform, in a phone interview, “and I’ve worked with them and I think they know I’ll be a good addition to the City Council. I think that’s why they supported me.”

The donations are not considerations in the race for speaker, Powers said, insisting he does not have a preferred candidate yet. “I think for everybody, it’s about the person’s ability to lead the Council, to keep the Council independent of the mayor,” he said. “I think [Council members] choose a speaker based on what’s best for their district and the issues they work on, and someone who shares their values.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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A Vision for the Future of the Tri-State Region


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New York, New Jersey and Connecticut must reform their governing institutions, overhaul and integrate their transit networks, fight climate change, and make it less costly to live in the region. Those are the four major thematic prescriptions of the Fourth Regional Plan, a comprehensive vision released on Thursday by the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a prominent urban think tank that has advocated for comprehensive urban development projects in the tri-state region for more than 90 years.    

The RPA is a private group composed of urban experts and business leaders who first came together to release a broad holistic plan for the New York metropolitan region in 1929. It has since grown into an influential research and advocacy organization and many of its proposals have informed state and local policy. The latest plan, as with past documents, proposes long-term solutions to major urban issues such as economic growth, mass transit, affordability, and housing.

The new plan is “much more inclusive” than past iterations, said RPA President Tom Wright, at the Thursday release at The New School in Manhattan. The RPA sought input from civic groups, community-based organizations, and thousands of residents from the region, he said, and employed analytical data tools that were unavailable in the past.

“The challenges that we’re talking about with this plan are clearer than they’ve ever been because we’ve been tested,” Wright said, referencing the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the great recession, and Hurricane Sandy, which he called the “three great shocks” that have affected the region since the last regional plan was released, in the mid-1990s.

At the core of the plan are four guiding principles -- equity, health, prosperity and sustainability -- on the basis of which the plan recommends actions to improve state institutions, fix the region’s transportation infrastructure, tackle the challenges of climate change, and increase household incomes while creating more affordable housing.

“Unless we dramatically increase our infrastructure capacity, housing supply and productive capabilities, economic growth over the next 25 years will be half what it was over the last 25,” Wright warned. “And without this growth, we won’t be able to raise our living standards, expand opportunities or pay for the investments that we need.” He predicted that the plan’s recommendations would double predicted job growth from 850,000 jobs to nearly 2 million jobs by 2040, and that it would end homelessness and sharply reduce inequality along racial, ethnic and gender lines.

Many of the recommendations would require broad cooperation between state and local authorities from the three states. They include creating an integrated regional rail network for the three states and modernizing major transit hubs and airports in the region.

Building on commitments already in place in the three states to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the plan recommends that the region follow California’s lead to expand their carbon pricing efforts to transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. Those efforts could generate $3 billion in revenue a year combined, the plan estimates.

The RPA also proposes a more proactive approach to coastal resiliency instead of one dependent on federal aid to respond in the wake of climate disasters. It imagines a Regional Coastal Commission of the three states which would take a “long-range, multi-jurisdictional, and strategic approach” to resilience and sustainability. It also puts forward the idea of a Tri-State Energy Policy Task Force, to focus on sources of sustainable energy to create a greener electrical grid.  

Many of the recommendations deal with New York City’s own public transit and traffic crises. The plan supports a congestion pricing strategy and changes to highway tolling to reduce traffic. It also addresses the specific problems of the MTA, calling on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation to renovate stations, reduce overcrowding, repair the signal system and improve accessibility for people with disabilities. One of the apparently less popular proposals involves shutting down more weeknight service on the subway system to create longer windows for subway repairs. An apparently more popular aspect includes several subway line extensions.

The plan also suggests reforming the structure of transportation authorities such as the MTA and the Port Authority to provide more accountability and transparency while reducing the cost of constructing new transit infrastructure. The plan also proposes new divisions at the Port Authority to handle operations and a separate infrastructure bank for major projects.

Addressing the audience, First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, who is set to leave the de Blasio administration in January, praised the plan and RPA’s focus on long-term outcomes across political jurisdictions. “You have to challenge us, you have to challenge the conventional wisdom,” he said of the plan, expecting that one government or the other, even de Blasio’s, would find fault with parts of the proposal.

But he said it was invaluable in thinking of the prosperity of the larger region with which New York City’s future is inextricably linked. “We rise and fall together,” he said, “and it’s time we recognize that.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.



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