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A Call for Tighter Ethics Laws

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
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A Call for Tighter Ethics Laws
Photo from joebruno.org
Joe Bruno (left) in his pre-indictment days

Spend time in New York's Capital Region and you will be hard pressed to go very far without seeing former Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno's name -- and not because of his recent eight-count indictment on federal corruption charges.

If you arrive in the region by air, one of your first few steps may lead you past a bust of Bruno at the Albany International Airport. If you catch a minor-league baseball game, you will probably visit the Joseph L. Bruno Stadium. During a walk through Saratoga Spa State Park you will likely encounter the Joseph L. Bruno Pavilion. The list of buildings that bear the former senator's name goes on and on, from a lobby in a local YMCA to a biotechnology research center and a town park.

Local leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, bowed to Bruno whenever they could to secure funding for their own pet projects or to get legislative favors. Bruno famously responded to questions about whether it was fair that upstate New York benefited so greatly from his power, "It's been our turn these last dozen years."

Bruno had a leadership position and as one of the three men in the room wielded large amounts of power. But the types of questions that now face Bruno have confronted many New York's politicians. Most have not been indicted, but concern about their behavior and their use -- or abuse -- of their offices has arisen nevertheless.

A number of activists in New York say this atmosphere of impropriety -- and constant suspicion of impropriety -- must end. With that in mind they have proposed a package of measures designed to change the way business is conducted in the state capital.

A Call for Changes

For his part, Bruno faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine on charges that he traded his influence in the state legislature for financial gain. Among other accusations, the indictment alleges that Bruno's financial disclosures made from 1993 to 2005 did not include all required information and had misleading and false information. Those filings are required under the state's Ethics in Government Law. As Senate majority leader, Bruno had the power during most of those years to control the ethics committee that would have policed the transgressions Bruno is alleged to have committed.

At least some of the changes offered by good government groups would address that. The organizations want to set new guidelines that they think would reduce the chances that politicians will use their positions to enrich themselves financially and also would give constituents a clearer look into how influence is traded in Albany. They want to establish a new ethics commission that will oversee both the legislative and the executive branches. And they want more transparency and stricter guidelines on the use of campaign contributions.

Last week, members of New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause New York, the League of Women Voters of New York State and Citizens Union (whose sister organization is Gotham Gazette's publisher) gathered in Albany to ask for these changes and to challenge the new Democratic leadership in Albany to keep its promises to enact reform.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that politicians should be falling over themselves to do away with the perception that hangs over the capitol -- the perception that just about everyone in politics is a corruption scandal waiting to happen.

That does not seem to have occurred. Instead, the reaction was not overwhelming, according to Common Cause's Susan Lerner. DeNora Getachew of the Citizens Union said that she felt "this was just the beginning of a conversation."

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesperson for Sen. Craig Johnson, who chairs the committee on Investigations and Government Operations, said the proposals are "very thoughtful."

The Cloud of Suspicion

During interviews following his indictment, Bruno portrayed himself as an honest man who "needed to make a living." But take the time to stand in the shadow of the baseball stadium locals affectionately call "the Joe" and ask residents of Bruno's former district if they were surprised at Bruno's indictment. They will look at you like you've just asked them if they are surprised that leaves fall during autumn. They might say something such as, "He is a New York politician, right?"

Horner said an oversight body to police ethics for both the executive and legislative branches could give New Yorkers more confidence in their representatives' integrity. Currently, each branch has its own separate ethics watchdog. The Legislative Ethics Commission is made up of legislators from both houses. On the executive side, the Commission on Public Integrity has seven members -- all appointed by the governor.

In other words, officials basically police themselves. Horner, for one, thinks that presents a problem.

"Self regulation doesn't work," he said. "The system we have in New York for regulation is unusual in the entire country." Only four other states have similar oversight boards, 29 other states have one independent board that oversees the legislature and executive branches.

The Commission on Governmental Ethics, as proposed by the groups, would oversee both the executive and legislative branches of state government. It would have nine individuals. The governor would name three, and the comptroller, the attorney general, the speaker and minority leader of the Assembly, and the temporary president and minority leader of the Senate would appoint one member each. The executive director would be appointed by the chair and vice chair of the commission, who would be of different parties. Members of the commission would not be allowed to hold political office or be employed by lobbyists.

Horner isn't optimistic that the governor and legislature will approve this suggestion. "Politicians are nervous about the unintended consequences," he said. "They are loath to create an independent watchdog group. There is not enough public pressure for them to make the change. And the governor doesn't talk about it, so we will see."

In 2008, Paterson introduced a campaign finance reform bill, but critics say he has not pursued reform as tenaciously as his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer. "We want to not dictate campaign finance reform. We want to really persuade legislators that it is really the root of the dysfunction we have in Albany," Paterson has been quoted as saying. "We'd like to come to consensus with the two legislative bodies about curtailing it."

Paterson also has not adhered to the $10,000 ceiling on individual contributions that Spitzer imposed on himself. The governor said he would operate under the existing law that sets the limit for contributions at $55,900.

Increasing Transparency

The Ethics Reform Act of 2009 would require politicians to publicly disclose the names of all people they do business with and the amount of money they make from those business dealings. Currently, New York State law requires that public officials disclose the names of the businesses that employ them, but they do not have to report the amount of money they make or the names of their clients. Horner said that this lack of information can make it hard for constituents to know who is influencing who and can also create an appearance of impropriety where none should exist.

John Pikus, the special agent in charge of the Albany division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who oversaw the Bruno investigation, told the press that one reason the Bruno investigation took three years is because of the nature of the legislative process in Albany.

"The ability to understand the legislative process is difficult at best," Pikus said. "There are factors involved in which bills are passed, member items are approved, which never see the light of day. ... And that, really, from our standpoint, from the FBI's standpoint, was the problem. We can subpoena. We can provide opportunities for individuals to come in and talk to us, but the legislative process was almost Byzantine."

Preventing Abuses

The Ethics Reform Act of 2009 also would restrict the amount lobbyists and firms that receive state contracts could contribute to politicians and political committees. Lobbyists and those receiving government contracts also would be barred from serving on boards and commissions that make decisions on audits or the awarding of contracts. A database of lobbyists and contractors would be created to make it easier for the public to see who is peddling influence. And finally, laws on the personal use of campaign funds would be strengthened so that campaign money could not go to pay legal defense bills, tuition, mortgage, rent or utility bills, or dues and fees to country clubs -- as has been the case in the past.

Horner said he hasn't heard much support for these ethics reform changes this year, "The winners of the game rarely want to change the rules," he said.

He, however, does expect a renewed debate on better oversight, increased transparency and more limits on the influence of lobbyists and contractors. "If they address all three things," said Horner, "it will be a very good session.



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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The State of the Parks

By Adrian Benepe

15 July 02

When I was 15, I got my first official job in parks -- a summer job mopping up the locker room at the Szold Pool on East 10th Street and picking up beer cans in East River Park. I came back full time as a park ranger in 1979 when I was out of college. Today, as parks commissioner, I oversee the largest urban park system in the nation and also, I believe, the most complex.

When you add together the city, state and federal parkland, almost 27 percent of New York City is green space. The 28,600 acres that we manage is more than the parks in Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver put together.

There are 614 ball fields. 991 playgrounds, 550 tennis courts, 52 outdoor swimming pools, 10 indoor swimming pools, 35 indoor recreation centers,14 miles of public beach, 13 municipal golf courses, 12 nature centers and six ice skating rinks.

Four botanical gardens. Four zoos. Four major stadiums: Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, the United States Tennis Association Stadium in Flushing and the new Keyspan Stadium in Coney Island The botanical gardens, the zoos and the stadiums are operated by other organizations but they belong to the city and are under the aegis of the Parks Department.

In addition to developed parkland, there are 11,000 acres of nature preserve citywide: forests, woodlands, freshwater wetlands and salt marsh ecosystems. These are protected from encroachment, degradation, development and other human impacts.

THE HISTORY OF GREEN NY

The city's first park was Bowling Green. It has been a park since the 1600s when it was set aside as a public space and sold to the city of New York I believe for the price of three peppercorns. But the modern park movement really started in the 19th century with Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. They had a pastoral vision of urban parks as lushly and naturalistically landscaped retreats and as democratic and social experiments to bring people from all classes together in one place. There was minimal athletic use, and the natural and native flora and fauna were only preserved if they fit into the overall plan.

Olmstead and Vaux designed Central Park, Prospect Park, Riverside Park and Morningside Park. These parks were not always appreciated, but have stood the test of time and are now as, if not more, appealing to visitors than when they were first built 130, 140 years ago.

The next major area of park building and construction is the Works Progress Administration era with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointing Robert Moses as the first commissioner of a unified Parks Department. Though Moses has taken a lot of heat, particularly over his highway building, there is very little you can point to in the parks domain that isn't good.

He served as parks commissioner from 1934 to 1960. During that tenure, Moses created, renovated or expanded nearly every park in the city. When he started in 1934, there were 14,000 acres of parkland. By 1960 there were 34,000. (Since then, we turned 6,000 acres over to the federal government for Gateway National Recreation Area.)

What's left over from that era includes some of the greatest architecture of the 20th century done with the simplest of materials -- cement and brick and steel -- because you weren't allowed to use fancy materials. Great architects who were unemployed were put to work.

As we go into the 21st century, it's not easy to point to a Vaux or Olmstead whose vision we can implement. However urban parks and park systems are moving in a new direction that will have far-reaching implications in design and use. As municipal budgets shrink for parks, the demand for accessibility and public programming expands, so we have no choice but to develop innovative responses in management and planning.

During his tenure as parks commissioner in the 1970s, Gordon Davis created the position of park administrator, to have one person taking care of all aspects of the management of each large flagship park, and he appointed commissioners for each borough. He also founded the nation's first urban park ranger program.

PUBLIC/PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS

As Davis helped parks reach out to the public, private citizens began to reach back, and a number of civic minded citizens, notably Richard Gilder and Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, helped found the Central Park Conservancy.

Before the Central Park Conservancy, the idea that a private voluntary group should play a leading role in the management of a park did not exist. This experiment in the private, non-profit management of a public park became the crucible for such initiatives throughout the city, including the Prospect Park Alliance, the Riverside Park Fund, the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, the Greenbelt Conservancy, and many others.

Together, these groups raise and spend somewhere between $30 million and $40 million a year on direct services and physical improvements to the parks. That's cash, not volunteer services

Some people say that only helps the wealthy parks, that it plugs holes in the city budget and is the wrong thing to do. But having watched these partnerships grow over 20 years we understand their value goes well beyond the pecuniary. Even if we had all the money in the world, there would still be a need for private sector and private citizen involvement.

Private, nonprofit management has proved to be for the public good. It has increased efficiency. It has enabled expanded community outreach. It has allowed a lot of innovative practices to become standard.

The public interest has to always be paramount. That is why as parks commissioner, I have all of these groups reporting to me. You do not simply turn over a public park to a non-profit group, no matter how good.

VOLUNTEERS AND STAFF DOING GOD'S WORK

Every year tens of thousands of people come out to help in parks. From people working in community gardens to ecologists in conservation projects with the Urban Park Rangers to the person who comes out every day and picks up litter, we had 70,000 volunteers giving over 1 million hours of service in the parks last year. Based on a very conservative calculation, this represents $10 million worth of labor.

But we need paid staff as well. We have about 3,000 full-time, year-round staff. We have another 3,000 seasonal workers. We also have something new called the Parks Opportunity Program, a welfare transition program.

The Work Experience Program, or workfare, is not going to go away because federal regulations are very clear about it. If you are able-bodied and unable to find work, the federal and state government will give you a welfare check but you have to do some work. The numbers of workfare people in the parks has gone down from about 6,500 to about 1,500 for reasons that are still not clear to me.

But now people who have lost their welfare benefits because of the five-year eligibility limit are being sent to us. We give them six month jobs, train them and try to place them in other jobs. Over this past year, we've placed over 400 people in full-time jobs. Next year, our goal is 600.

The Parks Department is one of the few places where people with no skills can be put to gainful employment. Our work is very simple. We rake leaves. We cut grass. We paint benches. We make playgrounds safe. It does not require a doctorate to do this work. And we're not ashamed of that. Planting flowers is God's work. So the Parks Department is a very good place to send people who need jobs.

GREENING THE CITY

A lot of other new things are going on. One of the mayor's big priorities is greenways. We ultimately hope for 350 miles of greenways through neighborhoods and along waterfronts. We're getting near to the point where you'll be able to go most of the way around Manhattan. On the West Side, it's almost there.

The state and city are getting ready to spend $300 million for Hudson River Park, from 59th Street down to Chambers Street along the waterfront Much of that will be on the piers. It will include exciting architecture and all kinds of passive and active recreational facilities.

And we're trying to make the city greener. Where two avenues meet at an angle, there's a little piece of land left over in the middle or the side. We've greened 2,000 of those with a program called Greenstreets.

We're also going to try to green up a lot of gray playgrounds -- plant a lot of flowers at the entrances. After the attacks of September 11, we wanted to do something where people could help participate in the recovery of the city. Volunteers planted a million and a half daffodils across the city as a living memorial.

Last year, we planted 12,000 street trees around the city. This year we'll plant another 8,000 trees.

And we want all of our park employees to have horticultural training, to know something about gardening.

We have a lot of asphalt play yards in the school. There is a new technology that creates an artificial turf field that look just like grass. It's soft, You can play on it 12 months a year. You don't have to cut the grass. We've done nine fields so far, with another 16 in the pipeline. It's not as nice as grass but is a lot better in terms of maintenance.

In playgrounds, we have spray sprinklers that use drinking-quality water. It goes up in the air and comes down into the drains. We're going to start recycling that water to use for watering the landscape nearby. The water is 95 percent clean, we'll purify it and then send it out to the landscapes in irrigation system.

KIDS FIRST

But with all these new programs, what is our priority?

Kids, youth, teenagers. Nothing is more important.

The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that 25 to 30 percent of American children are obese. After an obese child reaches six years of age, the probability that obesity will persist exceeds 50 percent. Obese children may suffer lifelong physical and emotional consequences, and adult obesity is associated with significant health risks.

In a recent interview in the Sunday New York Times magazine, Ralph Nader spoke of the commercialization of childhood. He said that companies marketing to children offer, "Bad diets, fat and sugar, teaching them to be addicts" by getting them to watch 30, 40 hours a week of screens -- video, television, computer screens. This, he said, amounted to, "a pervasive form of child molestation."

That's extreme, but not far from the truth. It is a form not of child molestation but of child abuse to allow children to sit in front of screens 30 or 40 hours a week. It contributes to a loss of literacy and perhaps more dangerously to poor health.

A kid cannot go to the gym by herself. A child cannot go out for a run. A child cannot go to a pickup basketball game in most neighborhoods. Coupled with the explosion of electronic media, the need for children to be in a structured safe environment means that kids are prone to becoming both physically inactive and socially isolated.

So organized recreation programs are essential, not just nice. Otherwise children get no exercise.

We offer young people a range of activities. They're life savers. because the difference between learning good health habits and fitness habits and not learning them often means the difference between a healthy, safe life and an unhealthy one.

Sports can also mean the difference between turning to drugs and destructive behaviors and not doing so. I grew up in New York City. My friends who turned to sports did not turn to drugs or did so only briefly. Some of the ones who did not have sports and went to drugs are no longer alive to tell why this happened. This is a reality in all economic groups and classes.

A hallmark of this administration will be taking care of children particularly the "tweens," those between Little League and varsity high school sports. We will do everything we can to take care of young people and make sure they learn life long habits of fitness and exercise.

CUTS AND FEES

Public space is a necessity for children and adults. In this budget situation, we must make the most of our assets. We have made up for some of the cuts with the imposition of fees. Money from fees and from concessions, including Tavern on the Green, used to go to the city's general fund. For the first time, city hall is letting us keep the money so it will go back to the recreation programs .

You will not see impacts from the budget cuts we have. Based on the ratings and numbers, the parks are cleaner and better this year than they have been in 30 or 40 years.

In this budget climate, our priorities are clear: to strengthen the public/private partnerships, make the city greener, enhance training for employes and, most importantly, expand the recreational and educational opportunities for children and teens.

Adrian Benepe is New York City commissioner of parks and recreation.

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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