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Report: Under New Law, Small Donors Drove Public Advocate Special Election Campaigns


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The first public advocate debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))


Small-dollar donors were behind 63 percent of the first wave of campaign contributions to candidates who ran in the February special election for public advocate, up from 26.3 percent in 2013 when there was an open race for the seat, according to an analysis by New York City Council Member Ben Kallos. The Manhattan Council member sponsored the law to implement in the public advocate special election the new campaign finance rules overwhelmingly approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year.

The public advocate special election, in which City Council Member Jumaane Williams emerged victorious, was the first citywide race under the new rules that lowered contribution limits for special elections for citywide offices from $2,550 to $1,000 (special election limits are half of the regular election limits, which changed from $5,100 to $2,000), increased the ratio of public matching funds given to candidates from 6-to-1 for the first $175 of a qualifying contribution to 8-to-1 for the first $250, and increased the limit for public funds payments from 55 percent of the spending limit for a race to 75 percent. Soon after the referendum was approved -- by just over 80 percent of voters -- the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio expedited legislation in order to apply the rules to elections before 2021, after which they were set to be mandatory. For the special election and those through 2021, the next citywide election year, candidates must choose the old or new system.

Of the 17 candidates on the public advocate ballot, all but one opted into the voluntary public matching funds program, which is administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Only four decided to stick with the outgoing matching program while the rest chose lower contribution limits that came with higher public matching funds. In total, the 11 candidates who eventually qualified for public funds received $7,178,120 via the CFB.

According CFB’s own analysis released the day after the election, the most common contribution amount was $10, down from $100 in previous public advocate elections. “The matching funds give candidates the incentives to raise money the right way, by going to the New York City voters they want to represent in government, not to big-money donors or special interests,” said Amy Loprest, CFB executive director, in a statement on February 27. “If we want a government that is closer and more responsive to the people, it has to start with how candidates fund their campaigns.”

Kallos, the City Council’s resident good government wonk, has pushed improvements to the city’s campaign finance law for years and felt vindicated by seeing the campaign finance numbers behind the election. The ballot question, proposed by a charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio, was largely similar to a bill Kallos had sponsored in the previous legislative session of the Council.

“One of the reasons I was so eager for this to apply in the public advocate’s race is I was worried about the time between the vote in November [2018] and 2021 and I wanted to prove to people that this could work,” he said. There will be another public advocate election this fall to decide who will hold the seat vacated by Attorney General letitia James for the final two years of her public advocate term. Kallos’ bill also lowered the thresholds for candidates to qualify for official debates sponsored by the CFB and for public funds payments.

His analysis, which covers the candidates’ pre-election campaign finance disclosures till February 11 (the most recent filing deadline - final numbers are due March 25), found that contributions of $1,000 and more accounted for 26 percent of the $2.2 million raised to that point in the election, compared with 60 percent throughout 2013. In total, all the candidates raised $2.6 million for the special election, which was “nonpartisan” and did not have party primaries. In 2013, candidates raised $4.9 million running for public advocate in the primary and general.

Kallos has long been critical of big money in elections, particularly donations from the real estate industry which have been a large force at the city and state level. “This is the first time a citywide elected official has been elected without real estate money,” said Kallos, who himself rejects real estate donations.   

Several candidates in the special election similarly refused real estate cash, which is of a piece with broader calls for candidates to rely on small donors. Public Advocate-elect Williams was among those who signed a pledge floated by New York Communities for Change, a housing justice advocacy organization, to refuse corporate and real estate money.

“New York City has changed forever: we will no longer be held hostage by big-money real estate developers and landlords who aim to profit through policies that incentivize the displacement and gouging of low-income tenants,” said Jonathan Westin, NYCC executive director, in a statement calling on other candidates to follow Williams’ lead.

Several candidates running for citywide office in 2021, or exploring a candidacy, have already said that they will rely on the new campaign finance system, including Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Real estate donations are increasingly becoming a litmus test for progressive Democrats, some of whom were elected to the state Legislature last year and are also pushing to implement a public financing program for state elections similar to the city’s model. For advocates and labor leaders, the public advocate election was proof positive that small-dollar financing is effective and should be replicated by the state. “Jumaane Williams's victory, and the public participation in the process, is a glimpse of what we could accomplish if we pass campaign finance reform at the state level,” said Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager for Citizen Action. Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, said, “The major shift towards small donor financing in city wide elections shows that working people in our state want a more democratic system.

Kallos notes that candidates can spend fewer hours dialling for dollars from wealthy donors if they rely on small contributions from the tens of thousands of residents of their districts, or from millions in the case of citywide races. “My hypothesis was that if we increase the public match...that that would halve big money and it actually did that,” he said. “It wasn’t a modest success. It literally cut it almost in half.”

The expanded matching funds program has been widely praised for elevating the voices of everyday New Yorkers. “Normally, a special election for public advocate would probably be very much of an insider’s race. It would be funded by insiders and people who follow politics closely,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government advocacy group. “And I think that what putting this legislation into effect now did was incentivized candidates to reach out to ordinary New Yorkers to campaign.” Camarda also expects this momentum to carry forward and that candidates will feel “real pressure” to participate.

Many of the candidates who ran for public advocate were also first-time contenders, including Nomiki Konst and Dawn Smalls, who were among the ten candidates on stage at the first official debate in the race, and among the seven candidates at the second official debate.

There have been arguments levelled against the public funds system, of course, and it’s hard to predict exactly how it will work for a full-fledged citywide race rather than a truncated special election. Some candidates have said the regulators of the program are sometimes overly harsh and fine them for small, technical violations. Others criticize the cost to taxpayers -- the entire special election is estimated to cost the city around $20 million in administrative and public campaign financing while the annual budget of the public advocate was only about $3.6 million last year. Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who stuck with the old campaign finance rules and came in third in the special election, argued that the new system was being pushed through to prevent her from winning, apparently in part because she was transferring a significant sum of funds from her prior campaign account, an advantage more easily mitigated with the new system.

But there is otherwise broad agreement that the city’s program is a model to be emulated, as other jurisdictions have done across the country, and it is progressively being improved. “I’m still not done yet,” Kallos said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify that total candidate fundraising was $2.6 million for the special election. It has also been updated to clarify the contribution limits for special elections. 

Library Presidents Seek Additional Funds at City Council Budget Hearing


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Library rally before the Council hearing (photo: @NYCLibraries)


The presidents of the city’s three public library systems on Monday requested from the City Council an additional $35 million in operating support and $15 million in capital funding, allowing the libraries to maintain and expand collections, hire more workers, fund more programming, make necessary building repairs and expansions, and respond to emergencies.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preliminary budget proposes a $388.8 million subsidy for the public library systems, which are separated into the New York Public Library (serving the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island), the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Library, as well as four Research Centers. City Council documents note that the combined system contains 216 branches across the five boroughs, and has over 65 million items, including books, DVDs, and periodicals, in circulation.

Under the budget proposal, the NYPL would receive $142.9 million, the BPL would receive $106.7 million, the QBPL would receive $110.2 million, and the research libraries would receive $29 million. This would be a decrease for the NYPL and an increase for the other systems from this year’s adopted budget. The city’s fiscal year begins July 1; in February, de Blasio released his preliminary spending plan, coming in at $92.2 billion, that is now the focus of City Council hearings and will be the subject of negotiations before a new budget is agreed upon in June.

The de Blasio administration has significantly increased funding for libraries. De Blasio’s first budget as mayor, the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, included $311.4 million for the systems, which itself was a large increase after several years of post-recession austerity in library funding under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The presidents of the three library systems testified in front of the Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee, chaired by Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, and to a packed audience of library workers wearing orange “Invest in Libraries” shirts. The presidents are Tony Marx of NYPL, Linda Johnson of BPL, and Dennis Walcott of QBPL.

Van Bramer, who before the hearing addressed a rally of library workers outside City Hall, was broadly sympathetic to the argument for more funding.

“Just about anything good that happens in this city couldn't happen without libraries and without library workers, and we've gotten to a good place on public libraries in this city, but we can do even better,” Van Bramer said at the beginning of the hearing. “And I want to frame the discussion there and make sure that we're all working towards that goal.”

The city’s public libraries provide far more services than just book lending and study space. The public libraries provide literacy programs, instruction in coding, and outreach to incarcerated individuals. They are, for many people, the only access point to the internet. The libraries are currently gearing up to play a critical role in ensuring an accurate count in the upcoming U.S. Census. And, according to Marx, 20 percent of IDNYCs are obtained at library branches.

“We cannot do all of this if we don't get increased funding simply because our costs have been increased,” Marx said at the hearing. “We want to do everything in partnership with you, and we're proud of what we have done. But it is simply unsustainable without additional support.”

Collective bargaining increases led to small proposed increases in the budgets for the BPL and QBPL, but the presidents signalled that this was not enough to cover rising labor and health care costs that would be met by the additional $35 million investment.

The additional funding would, according to the presidents, allow the libraries to maintain current funding for their host of programs, instead of directing money towards fulfilling labor obligations.

“[Allocating $35 million] will ensure our growing programs remain strong and have new and expanded spaces, are staffed with library workers, program rich, and filled with materials our patrons deserve,” said Johnson. She went on to note that the administration had instead asked the libraries to identify $8 million in savings as part of the mayor’s “Program to Eliminate the Gap.”

While funding for libraries has substantially increased, there are some obvious areas where new funding could greatly improve the situation. One hundred percent of the city’s libraries are now open six days per week, but the percentage open seven days per week is in the single digits. While everyone in the room expressed support for having 100 percent of locations open seven days per week, the presidents dismissed this possibility as impossible in the short term, and that additional funding would be needed just to maintain six day weeks.

On the capital front, de Blasio’s preliminary ten-year capital plan unveiled in February allocates $778.3 million to the city’s libraries, which will go towards renovations, expansions, or relocations for certain existing branches. Those present noted that branches often have to close in the summer due to broken air conditioning and in the winter due to broken boilers.

The presidents asked for the additional $15 million capital allocation this year, $5 million for each system, in order to fund critical maintenance at branches, such as air conditioning or boiler failures.

The spectators, library workers and allies, expressed satisfaction with the work of the library presidents and with Van Bramer via silent, jazz hands applause. Nonetheless, as their shirts indicated, they also were calling for greater investment in the systems.

“The libraries have to advocate for funding because they have to make their points known why they need the funding in the first place,” said Kleon Battersby, a technology resource specialist at BPL. “New York is ever increasing as far as population, and they have to know that the funding is being used for the right reasons. So as long as they keep advocating for the libraries, I personally think the hearing went very well, and I hope that they give them the funding that they need.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Police Accountability


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(photo: @Charter2019NYC)


The 2019 Charter Revision Commission met on Thursday evening to discuss police accountability reforms before an impassioned crowd filled with activists. Local advocates along with some politicians have long called for increased transparency and accountability in policing, particularly in recent years following the 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers on Staten Island and the slow, somewhat secretive process by which any accountability has been handled for that incident and others like it over the years.

The commission heard testimony from experts from representatives of the Civilian Complaints and Review Board (CCRB), NYPD, Legal Aid Society, and a variety of police reform advocacy groups.

It was the second charter revision commission hearing this year featuring “expert” panels on key areas that the commission is considering for reform recommendations. The commission, which has narrowed its focus areas to four big buckets, will make its recommendations this summer and its proposals for changes to the city’s charter, its foundational governing document, will go before voters in November.

The four focus areas are elections, which the commission met to discuss the week prior, governance, finance, and land use. Thursday’s meeting was the first to discuss governance, which includes police accountability.

The hearing occurred one day after the Legal Aid Society released a database of more than 2,300 cases of police misconduct involving almost 3,900 police officers between 2015 and 2018 (police unions say the database contains false and trivial allegations).

The CCRB is currently the primary mode of formal police accountability in New York City. The civilian board, members of which are appointed by various officials and groups, investigates citizen complaints of police misconduct in four arenas: force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language. The board then recommends a certain level of discipline to the police commissioner, who holds the ultimate authority to determine and enforce penalties for misconduct.

The CCRB is a 13-member body: the City Council appoints one member per borough, the police commissioner names three members with experience in law enforcement, and the mayor installs five members and names the chair.

The hearing was divided into three panels, though unlike the election reform hearing, which was split thematically, the police accountability panelists discussed similar issues and recommended similar amendments to the charter to address the topic at hand.

The first panel included representatives from Citizens Union, a government reform group focused on transparency and accountability, Communities United for Police Reform, an activist organization, NYC Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board, and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The second panel hosted a criminal justice professor from Borough of Manhattan Community College, an attorney from the Legal Aid Society, president of the Boston-based National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, and the Independent Monitor of the Denver Police Department.

And to conclude the hearing, the third panel was composed of the executive director of the CCRB, the NYPD legislative affairs director, and an NYPD Deputy Commissioner.

All panelists and commissioners broadly agreed on the importance not only of accountability and transparency in the NYPD, but also on the maintenance of public perception of these tenets. Ideas on how to achieve those goals––or thoughts on whether New York City has already achieved them––differed.

With exception from the two NYPD representatives, a consensus emerged among most panelists around amending the charter to increase the CCRB’s legal strength and to compel the NYPD to release public rationale when the commissioner’s disciplinary decisions divert from the CCRB recommendation. Many experts also advocated increasing CCRB’s budget in tandem with that of the NYPD.

Police commissioners typically deviate from the CCRB’s discipline recommendations: according to the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, the police commissioner implemented the board’s recommendations in 26 percent of cases in the first half of 2018 and in 37 percent of cases in the first half of 2017. Deputy Commissioner Kevin Robinson of the NYPD, however, asserted that the concurrency rate––or the rate at which the NYPD acts upon the CCRB’s recommendation––has risen since this dip. The board agreed that the NYPD will often enforce some discipline at the CCRB’s recommendation, but it rarely aligns with the actual suggested measure of discipline.

Executive director of the CCRB Jonathan Darche proposed four amendments to the charter: codification of CCRB’s administrative prosecution unit, allocation of subpoena power to the board’s “highest ranking staff,” a stronger impetus for NYPD compliance with the CCRB’s requests for information and documents, and to raise the CCRB budget to one percent of the NYPD budget.

“While the department will continue to encourage a healthy working relationship that goes beyond the strict bounds of the charter,” said Oleg Chernyavsky, executive director of the NYPD legislative affairs unit, “we do not support such an expansion of the CCRB’s authority.” Darche encouraged the commission to consider the urgency of collecting evidence for misconduct investigations that rely on city resources like street cameras, where footage is routinely taped over.

The NYPD commended its own steps toward increased transparency. Chernyavsky said that last year Police Commissioner James O’Neill gathered an external panel of criminal justice experts to assess the department’s internal discipline process, ultimately finding “no evidence of a lack of fairness.” The department still decided to act on a number of reforms suggested by the panel, like deliberation over the adoption of a standardized disciplinary matrix, according to Chernyavsky.

Some experts suggested amendments to bolster CCRB’s oversight power. Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, proposed allocating disciplinary enforcement capacity to CCRB, including potential prosecutorial power. She also advocated fully publicizing all of the NYPD budget, enabling oversight of issues like surveillance technology procurement. Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, supported many similar provisions, including a charter amendment requiring City Council oversight of technology acquisition and decentralizing the disciplinary power of the police commissioner.

“The biggest problem has always been in CCRB’s lack of authority,” said Sisitzky.

Charter Commission Chair Gail Benjamin, former director of the City Council land use division and appointed as chair by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, along with Commissioner Alison Hirsh, vice president of 32BJ SEIU and appointed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, inquired about the disciplinary procedure for “peace officers.” The experts generally agreed that the city lacks an adequate oversight system for these 5,000 officers, but Darche said that the CCRB lacks the resources to oversee peace officers.

The hearing’s most polarizing issue came from Pamela Monroe of the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board. Monroe asserted that the “CCRB has failed,” and instead proposed a board of 21 elected officials “responsible to their district and answerable to New Yorkers.” The members would serve four-year terms that coincide with mayoral and City Council elections, she explained. The campaign has not yet determined if candidates should run along party lines or in nonpartisan elections. Monroe’s testimony drew fervent applause from the audience, which was largely composed of the campaign’s supporters.

Commissioner Rev. Clinton Miller, who was appointed by Speaker Johnson, asked for details, and Hirsh and several other commissioners inquired about the necessity for elected officials on the CCRB and expressed concern over how the NYPD’s political power could sway these elections in the department’s favor and potentially prevent new accountability reforms. “New Yorkers deserve to have the people represent them,” Monroe answered. Local elections are a tenet of democracy, she explained, and espoused her campaign’s belief that the current CCRB is reflective only of the politicians who appoint them, rather than the city at large.

While Brian Corr of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, reinforced Hirsh’s concerns over how police unions may wield their political clout in an election, most other experts declined to take a position on the issue as members of their organizations were still deliberating the idea.

Commissioner Sal Albanese, a former City Council member and appointed by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, challenged many of the suggested reforms throughout the hearing. Albanese celebrated CCRB’s progress from when NYPD officers served on the board, which changed to its current all-civilian structure 26 years ago under the David Dinkins mayoral administration. He also extolled more recent reforms, including the installations of an inspector general and a federal monitor within the NYPD roughly five years ago.

“Are these things not working?” Albanese asked, to laughs from both the audience and the panel.

Corr later told Albanese that large cities need a body independent of the police department with checks on its power from the mayor and City Council, empaneled with “people who are trained in civic oversight, who understand investigations and can also look at systemic issues.”

Commissioner Stephen Fiala, the Richmond county clerk and appointed by Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, asked several experts to detail their complaints with the 2012 Memorandum of Understanding that broadened oversight of the NYPD.

Many experts lamented the lack of any measure compelling the NYPD to provide a public rationale in instances of non-concurrency between the department and the CCRB on disciplinary measures, despite provisions in the 2012 MOU that suggested the NYPD would disclose these explanations. Ethan Geringer-Sameth explained that Citizens Union has had to wield legal action to unveil certain NYPD decisions. “The fact that it’s not public now,” Kang said “really shows how the NYPD has been allowed to make their own rules.”

Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, a Mayor Bill de Blasio appointee, asked the CCRB and NYPD representatives why the MOU “shouldn’t be codified, given the fact that it has stood the test of time.” Darche called the memorandum a “template for charter revision,” while Chernyavsky said that the MOU maintained police commissioner power because those who occupy that position worked through all levels of the police ranks, giving them important perspective on issues of police misconduct.

Issues of police mistrust within communities of color were debated during the second panel. Albanese asserted that polling shows people of color generally trust police officers, while Manhattan Community College professor Liza Chowdhury said she had not heard of these polls and spoke of historical over-policing in neighborhoods of color, drawing enthusiasm from demonstrators in the crowd who carried photographs of African-American men who have been killed by NYPD officers. Fiala, meanwhile, agreed the NYPD must improve its relationship with civilians, but blamed a lack of trust on a general trend toward suspicion of institutions.

Cynthia Conti-Cook of the Legal Aid Society recommended implementing a conflict counselor position within the CCRB to serve as independent legal representation for clients, rather than the standard set by New York City Law Department’s interpretation of state Civil Rights Law 50-a, which she deemed “the crux of the problem.” The state law, she explained, requires attorneys advancing complaints against police misconduct to delineate why they believe misconduct exists, but blocks their access to disciplinary documents from the NYPD. Defense attorneys, Conti-Cook said, are “arguing in the darkness.”

Chernyavsky advocated for amendments to 50-a that would permit the release of information in the public interest––including officer names, trial transcripts, decisions and disciplinary outcomes––while maintaining safeguards “aimed at protecting officers against harassment.”

“Commissioner O’Neill,” Chernyavsky said, “has attempted to be more transparent within the bounds of the existing law,” noting the decision to release body camera footage and CompStat data. “We can have both. We don’t need to throw away the safeguard that are afforded to our officers at the cost of transparency.”

Many experts and commissioners shared a desire to see a police force that demographically better reflects the communities it serves (which has been the trend in the NYPD), and the need to confront trauma both in neighborhoods that have experienced police brutality and within the police force.

Representatives from the NYPD did not propose any charter amendments.



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