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The Week That Was in New York Politics, Jan. 4-8

week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York

Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday January 8

IMAGE OF THE WEEK: Penn Station rendering, via Governor Cuomo's office on flickr; Mayor de Blasio's signs paid parental leave personnel order for nonunion city employees, via Ed Reed for the Mayor's Office

Penn Station rendering via gov

bdb paid parental leave


1. New Deputy Mayor: On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Dr. Herminia Palacio will take over as Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, filling a position that had been vacant for four months. Homelessness is an especially key issue for Mayor de Blasio and his administration, as they work to remedy an increasing homelessness crisis.

2. Cuomo’s Executive Order: Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on Sunday requiring all homeless people on the streets be moved into shelters when temperatures fall below freezing, and ordering homeless shelters to extend their hours. The move has been met with some criticism, in part because the city already provides much of the same protections to homeless people. [Read: Something Cuomo & De Blasio Agree On: City Shelters Need Improvement]

3. Cuomo’s 2016 Agenda: Speaking on NY1, Gov. Cuomo said ethics reform will be on the top of his agenda: “I’m going to push the legislature very hard to adopt more aggressive ethics legislation, more disclosure, more enforcement.” Cuomo also mentioned economic development and “social justice,” namely the “high unemployment among young minority males,” as being important to him, and has also called to overhaul Penn Station in an upgrade that could cost about $3 billion. The governor has spent the week unveiling key pieces of his agenda, including several infrastructure-related plans. [Read: Corruption, Elections Loom Over Lengthy 2016 Legislative Agenda & Predictions! Experts Look Ahead to New York Politics in 2016]

4. Minimum Wage Hikes: Mayor de Blasio announced Wednesday that city employees, including workers contacted through nonprofits, will see their minimum wage increased to $15 an hour by 2018 in a move that will impact an estimated 50,000 workers. Governor Cuomo is expected to make a statewide $15 minimum wage one of the focuses of his State of the State speech next week.

5. Paid Parental Leave Born: On Thursday, Mayor de Blasio signed a personnel order to provide paid parental leave to roughly 20,000 New York City employees. The order provides six weeks of paid time off for parental leave. [Read: De Blasio Moves on Paid Parental Leave]

$3 billion is the price tag for Gov. Cuomo’s push to remake Penn station, the Wall Street Journal reports.

22% decrease in traffic deaths since Mayor de Blasio launched Vision Zero, the New York Post reports.

1.7% overall decrease in major crime in New York City in 2015, according to statistics released by the NYPD, though certain categories were up, including murder.

50,000 city workers will earn $15 per hour by the end of 2018 under pay raises announced by Mayor de Blasio on Wednesday.

20,000 nonunion municipal employees will be allowed up to 6 weeks of paid parental leave thanks to a new measure signed by Mayor de Blasio, Gotham Gazette reports.

450,000 New Yorkers, give or take, will be able to save upwards of $400 a year on their public transportation expenses now that a new Commuter Benefits Law has gone into effect, Gotham Gazette reports.

26 City Council members signed a letter asking Mayor de Blasio to have his agencies find ways to reduce spending by about 5% before he release his next preliminary budget, Gotham Gazette reports.

129 bills vetoed by Cuomo in 2015, according to Politico New York

It was a good week for Herminia Palacio, who became the new Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (though it is also tough for Palacio in that she is taking one of the most challenging jobs in city government).

It was a bad week for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who will pay a $7,000 fine for accepting gifts from a consulting firm during her run for speaker (though it is also good for Mark-Viverito that the issue is being put behind her).

Around this time 146 years ago, on January 3, 1870, ground was broken for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Around this time 50 years ago, on January 4, 1966, during the longest transit strike in New York history (which shut down subways and buses for 12 days), Mike Quill, then-president of the transport workers union, criticized city officials during a press conference broadcast by WNYC. He was arrested days later.

Around this time 69 years ago, on January 6, 1947, the Supreme Court upheld rent controls when they refused to hear a case by New York landlords who wished to raise rents.

Gotham Gazette Executive Editor Ben Max appeared on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show on Wednesday to discuss the year ahead in New York politics.

40 Questions for New York Politics in 2016, by Ben Max

Corruption, Elections Loom Over Lengthy 2016 Legislative Agenda, by David Howard King

Good Government Groups Want Legislators to Pledge to Fight for Reform, by David Howard King

Majority of Council Members Urge Mayor to Identify Budget Savings, Samar Khurshid

City to Open Gun Courts to Expedite Prosecutions, by Meg O’Connor

Proposed Zoning Changes Raise Questions About Small Businesses, by Colin O’Connor

Something Cuomo & De Blasio Agree On: City Shelters Need Improvement, by Ben Max

Eyeing Diversity, New Push for Demographic Data on Community Board Members, by Samar Khurshid

Bill Mandates Review of Criminal Justice Programs, by Samar Khurshid

At Homelessness Forum, Manhattanites Voice Local Concerns on Pressing Issue, by Ryan Brady

Time for the Mayor and the Governor to Work Together, by Ben Max (opinion)

More Evidence Punitive NYPD Youth Programs Fail, by Alex S. Vitale (opinion)

Paid Family Leave in NYC: Progressive Policy, Regressive Plan, by Arthur Cheliotes (opinion)

To Fix Penn Station, Think Smaller, by Adrian Untermyer (opinion)

A New York New Year's Resolution: End the AIDS Epidemic, by Doug Wirth (opinion)

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton spoke about the city’s falling crime rates and new gun courts initiative with Brian Lehrer on WNYC.

Incoming Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Herminia Palacio, discussed her new role at City Hall with Errol Louis on Inside City Hall.

NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

City to Open Gun Courts to Expedite Prosecutions

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A gun bust (photo: @NYCMayorsOffice)

In an effort to reduce gun violence and gun-related crimes, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton says the city intends to create specialized “gun courts” in each of the five boroughs. Gun courts will expedite the handling of gun-related cases to more quickly identify and imprison those who use guns illegally.

The head of the Citizens Crime Commission, Richard Aborn, has been working on the initiative for several months, leading toward an upcoming announcement, Bratton said during a radio interview earlier this week. The collaboration between the CCC and Bratton has “involved the five district attorneys, two of the five are brand new, and Judge Lippman, before he stepped down from the bench,” Bratton explained Tuesday on WNYC.

“The Commissioner’s comments were a teaser...for a larger policy package from the City in coordination with every part of the criminal justice system to ensure that reducing gun violence is taken seriously at every stage,” Monica Klein, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

It appears the new gun courts pilot program will be launched in Brooklyn, though the ultimate goal is to create a gun court in every borough, where the district attorney can send gun-related cases to fast-track them. The specifics of the program will be officially announced within the next few weeks.

In a statement, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said, “A dedicated judge will help us prosecute gun cases faster and more efficiently in Brooklyn. We are in discussions with court officials about setting up this specialized part and having it up and running in the coming weeks.”

Staten Island’s new District Attorney, Mike McMahon, “was not privy to any conversations the previous administration may have had regarding gun courts,” having only taken office several days ago, though he “has spoken this week with NYPD Commissioner Bratton to schedule a meeting to discuss gun courts, gun violence, and other issues,” Douglas Auer, director of communications for McMahon, told Gotham Gazette.

In 2015, shooting incidents declined overall, though murders were up slightly from 2014's record low, and killings committed by shooting were “up fairly dramatically,” Bratton said. Gun arrests increased by 10 percent from the previous year, and the NYPD seized a “record number of guns.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a pilot gun court program in Brooklyn in 2003, under then-DA Charles Hynes, which saw an increase in the amount of jail time defendants received, though the program was discontinued. Gun courts were first established in Providence, Rhode Island in 1994, and also exist in Philadelphia, Boston, and Birmingham, Alabama.

Similar to drug courts, gun courts streamline the processing of gun-related cases, allowing judges to focus attention on gun-related crimes, rather than mixing such cases in with various other offenses, such as murder or rape, which may make, for example, illegal possession of a firearm, seem like a less serious offense by comparison.

However, unlike drug courts, which largely redirect drug offenders to treatment programs rather than prison, gun courts often result in harsher punishments for those accused of gun-related crimes, though the main intent is to move gun-related offenses through the criminal justice system more swiftly and efficiently in order to get those who have committed gun-related crimes off the streets as quickly as possible.

New York’s new gun courts will work by employing “the precision model,” Bratton said, by “drilling down - instead of basically suspecting one million minority males and stopping them every year,” gun courts will allow law enforcement to “focus on understanding who it is within the community who are committing these crimes and focus attention on them.” In saying this, Bratton was referring, again, to the overuse of stop-and-frisk tactics during the previous administration.

Bratton believes the system is “under-sentencing people involved in gun crimes,” and wants judges to “maximize the penalties” in cases of violent crime.

“Those several thousand people in the city who think nothing of taking out a gun and shooting another human being, they need to be treated with every ounce of the justice system that we can apply to them to basically get them off the streets and keep them away from the rest of us,” Bratton said on WNYC.

One advantage of creating gun courts could be that “putting a priority on prosecuting gun crimes will serve as a deterrent,” said Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “If people know that they’re going to be hit hard and fast with a conviction or charge,” it could discourage people from committing gun-related crimes.

New York does have strong gun laws, including a 3.5 year mandatory minimum for anyone caught carrying a loaded, illegal weapon. Yet with 90 percent of guns recovered from crimes in New York City originating from other states, such as Georgia and Virginia, there is only so much the city and state can do to keep guns from being used illegally.

To combat the flow of illegal guns into the city, New York law enforcement works to identify and break up gun trafficking rings - like the one that smuggled 112 guns into the city over the course of a year - but until federal action is taken to make it harder for those who intend to commit gun crimes to get guns, such efforts are simply putting a bandaid on a bullet wound.

“There’s no real federal statute that deals with this gun trafficking,” Brooklyn DA Thompson said, expressing frustration, during a press conference announcing the aforementioned gun bust in October, 2015..

“Two high profile police shootings involved guns that were traced back to Georgia...Until we have strong federal gun laws, we’re going to have this problem,” Barrett said.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has put forward an anti-gun trafficking bill (for the second time), which would elevate gun trafficking to a felony. “At the moment, it’s a misdemeanor - the same charge you get if you were trafficking a chicken,” Barrett said, “this is a problem that needs to be addressed at the federal level.”

On Tuesday, President Obama issued executive orders to help increase gun safety by expanding who is required to have a background check before purchasing a gun and tightening rules for reporting guns that are lost or stolen, among others. Though there is relatively little that can be done to make more stringent gun control a reality without action from Congress.

There is something that New York City and State can do to reduce gun-related crimes, Barrett says, since 10 percent of crime guns recovered by city law enforcement originate from New York.

“If the mayor and the police commissioner would publish the source of the crime guns, where these guns are coming from in New York State, that would be very valuable to know, because that would inform our advocacy,” Barrett said. If it turned out that a large number of those crime guns were stolen, for example, gun safety advocates would push for safe storage laws in New York.

“I do believe we have to put a lot of resources into dealing with the gun violence problem,” City Council Member Jumaane Williams told Gotham Gazette. “What worries me is that we seem to be very much law enforcement heavy as a resource, as opposed to other things that are needed to stop the systemic problem” of gun violence, such as reducing the “demand for violence” through programs like one led by the gun violence task force in the City Council, which Williams leads and provides services such as job training and legal, mental health, and mediation services in neighborhoods with higher rates of gun violence.

To Williams, “the main thing is that public safety can’t just be the domain of law enforcement. We need many agencies working together on this.” Efforts by law enforcement to address the systemic problem of gun violence “has to be part of the solution, but it can’t be something we hang our hat on,” he said.

Cracking down on those involved with gun-related crimes is generally viewed as a step in the right direction, though gun courts also raise concerns for some.

“The impulse is a good one - to target criminals who use guns and to incapacitate them if necessary,” Eugene O’Donnell, professor of law, political science, and criminal justice at John Jay College told Gotham Gazette. “However, in practice, there are many different situations where individuals are arrested for gun possession who are not hardened felons, and that has always been the rub.”

When Gotham Gazette reached out to the NYPD, the office of the deputy commissioner for public information said no one was available to comment. The Manhattan and Queens district attorney offices declined to comment, and a spokesperson for the Bronx district attorney said gun-related crimes are a concern for new DA Darcel Clark, but had no further comment. A representative for the Citizens Crime Commission told Gotham Gazette he could not say anything more about gun courts than what Bratton already revealed during his radio appearances before the official announcement.

by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette, @MegOConnor13

Majority of Council Members Urge Mayor to Identify Budget Savings

budget handshake bdb mmv

A budget handshake between the Mayor & Speaker (photo: William Alatriste)

Concerned about the city's increased spending and possible future budget deficits, a majority of City Council members have appealed to Mayor Bill de Blasio to have his agencies evaluate their priorities and find ways to reduce spending before he releases his next preliminary budget.

"After two years of experience, your agency heads should be asked to identify those policies that are either not working, or unnecessary," says the Dec. 31 letter signed by 26 of the 51 Council members. The effort was spearheaded by Council Member Dan Garodnick and, significantly, includes the signature of finance committee chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. The signature of Council Member Steve Matteo, minority leader of the Council's Republican caucus, was accidentally omitted from the letter, his office told Gotham Gazette.

The letter, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, calls on the mayor to instruct his agency heads to find five percent in potential savings across the board in what would be a return to a cost-saving practice performed by his predecessors that de Blasio has moved away from.

Though the letter does not explicitly say so, the Council members are referring to a PEG or Program to Eliminate the Gap, which was used by prior administrations to identify ways of reducing expenses, eliminating waste, and boosting revenue to close projected gaps in the budget. It is called a good government practice by officials and budget watchdogs, some of whom have raised eyebrows as the city budget has grown rapidly over the past two years.

Mayor de Blasio did away with PEGs once he took office and instead launched a Citywide Savings Program in his May 2015 executive budget. The CSP relies on recommendations from city agencies, without a hard requirement. Some have called PEGs too ruthless, noting that in certain cases an agency may be ripe for finding reductions while another agency actually needs more funding.

"Budget monitors and rating agencies have all applauded this administration's fiscal prudence, with reserves at unprecedented highs, out-year gaps at lows, and a strong $1.1 billion citywide savings program for FY15-16 that we'll build on this year in collaboration with the Council," said Amy Spitalnick, spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Spitalnick added that the administration has also secured "billions in unprecedented health savings" through the union contracts it negotiated. Those new labor deals - signed by de Blasio after he came into office with no municipal unions under contract - are part of the reason the city budget has grown under de Blasio.

The city budget for the current 2016 fiscal year is over $80 billion, though city reserves are at unprecendented level, in part due to a booming city economy. Spitalnick also told Gotham Gazette what she had told the Wall Street Journal, that "The city has prudently used revenue that came in above estimates to pay down future years' gaps and boost reserves."

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who chairs the contracts committee and signed the letter, seemed to scoff at this suggestion, writing on Twitter, "Admin response to "boost reserves" misses the point. There are always savings."

Spitalnick told Gotham Gazette in response, "We have a robust savings program in place AND we have simultaneously boosted reserves to unprecedented levels to protect the City in the event of a downturn. Seems like lots of folks are confused here."

A large part of the administration's argument against PEGs is that they would lead to billions of dollars in cuts to services and staffing, including tens of thousands of layoffs.

Estimates from the mayor's office say they would have to eliminate up to 45,000 positions -- including more than 10,000 teachers and 5,700 police officers -- and cut daily Fire Department emergency medical services by seven percent. It would also force a reduction in implementing Paid Sick Leave by costing the Department of Consumer Affairs dozens of staff.

Council Member Dan Garodnick pointed out that what the letter asks for is more of an advisory figure than a mandatory one. "That does not mean that we necessarily want to cut the budget by any particular amount," he said. "We just want to assess our priorities," he added, alluding to the exercise of finding "potential savings," as the letter requests.

Garodnick said the Citywide Savings program definitely helps, but agencies should undertake a more formal and complete review. "The agency heads are in the best position to identify what's working and what's not. We need to tap into that expertise to be able to do sound budgeting," he said.

The City Council itself has been party to the city's spending increases, of course. Aside from agreeing to the overall budget with the mayor, the funds directly spent by the Council has gone from $51.5 million in FY 2014 to $61 million for FY 2016 -- an 18.4 percent increase. Council members are also preparing to vote for salary increases for themselves and other city elected officials.

Last year, the Council was successful in its push for adding 1,300 more officers to the police force, adding around $100 million to the city budget. Just last month, the Council, with an overwhelming majority and in partnership with the Mayor, passed a controversial bill that would use public funds to pay for security guards at private and religious schools. In the debate over the bill, its lead sponsor, Council Member David Greenfield, said the $19 million price tag was affordable since the city is "flush with cash." Greenfield did not sign the December letter to the mayor.

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland did sign, though, and she could be heard on the floor of the Council responding to Greenfield and others that the city is 'not that flush' with cash, cautioning her colleagues to be mindful about assuming there is money for everything or an ever-increasing budget.

"What was powerful about the PEGs was setting strict targets for agencies to meet and so it generated greater savings," said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission. Agreeing with the intent of the Council members' letter, she said, "It's the responsibility of everyone in government to be constantly questioning whether things are operating as cost effectively as possible."

De Blasio is expected to release his preliminary Fiscal Year 2017 budget toward by the mid-January deadline, which will trigger the first round of Council budget hearings, starting with the mayor's budget director appearing before Ferreras-Copeland's finance committee. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito did not sign the letter, but a spokesperson for the speaker told Gotham Gazette that during preliminary budget hearings the Council will be looking for ways city agencies can find savings.

Ferreras-Copeland explained her support for the formal request: "As this letter states, asking agencies to review their budgets is sound policy, and we ask them to conduct these analyses with the goal of finding 5% in savings," she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "These efforts will help ensure that our considerations in the Finance Committee are balanced as we develop a budget that reflects the values of efficiency, equity, and fairness for New Yorkers."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

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