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Stated Meeting: Clerk Battle and Food Allergies

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
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In a borough against borough battle over a well-paid political patronage position at City Hall Thursday, Queens won when the City Council approved the appointment of a Woodside resident to the post of city clerk.

Freshly minted clerk Michael McSweeney had been deputy clerk since 2004 and was acting clerk since the summer.

In addition, the council also approved several bills requiring allergy warnings be posted in restaurants' kitchens, street fair generators use ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and developers receive the proper permits for any construction near city wetlands.

A Political Post

For hours Thursday afternoon, 48 council members milled about the corridors of City Hall waiting for a 1:30 meeting to start. The delay: Ruminations and debate over the political ramifications of the city clerk appointment, all of which occurred behind closed doors.

The council finally voted at around 5 p.m., elevating McSweeney to the position by a vote of 32 to 16. Fifteen of the opposing votes were from Brooklyn council members. Councilmember Helen Foster of the Bronx also opposed the appointment.

Charged with overseeing the city's marriage bureau, the registration of lobbyists and city records, the city clerk is an oft-thought political position usually awarded to a borough of the City Council speaker's choice with the blessing of county party leaders.

This time the speaker chose Queens.

McSweeney replaced Hector Diaz, who was only appointed a year ago and stepped down for a job at a nonprofit. Diaz was from the Bronx.

Typically, the position, which comes with a $185,700 salary, rotates from borough to borough, keeping political leaders happy. This time around, Brooklyn was unsatisfied.

Those that dissented all agreed their opposition had nothing to do with the qualifications of McSweeney. It had to do with process mostly, and, in one case, that the position did not go to a minority. McSweeney is white.

"This is about politics and process," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler, who lamented the fact that the vote was not publicly advertised. Fidler said the vote should have been delayed to allow for public input.

Quinn said she chose to hold the vote Thursday so they could fill the position sooner rather than later with a well-qualified, competent candidate.

Allergy Warnings

There are about 300,000 New Yorkers with food allergies and about 20,000 restaurants. To ensure New Yorkers are not put at risk, the City Council approved legislation to require restaurants display posters in their kitchens with information on food allergies.

The bill ( Intro 818), sponsored by Councilmember Jessica Lappin, was approved by a vote of 46 to 2. Council members Jimmy Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, both Republicans from Staten Island, voted against the bill.

Eight foods, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans, cover 90 percent of food allergies. According to a study from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Lappin said, 42 percent of restaurant workers do not receive food allergy training.

"You go out to dinner and you order a cup of coffee. You ask for decaf. They give you regular, and at 2 in the morning, you're up cursing the restaurant," said Lappin. "A similar mistake like that for someone who has a food allergy could literally prove fatal."

Any restaurant that does not post allergy information in their kitchens would get a $100 fine. The posters will be in Chinese, English, Korean, Russian and Spanish.

Clean Fuel for Street Fairs

The hum of a generator powering a food cart at a summer street fair or one lighting a trailer on a street movie set is commonplace on the streets of New York.

Now, the City Council wants to regulate how clean that power is.

A bill (Intro 684) approved unanimously by the City Council will require any diesel-fueled generator operating under a permit issued by the city only use ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel or an alternative fuel.

Citywide, there are 25,000 camera shooting days, according to the council, and 330 street fairs. Councilmember Alan Gerson, the bill's lead sponsor, said the law will reduce sulfur output by 90 percent.

Councilmember Jim Gennaro, the chair of the council's Environmental Protection Committee, said the legislation was part of the city's "war on sulfur."

Protection Wetlands

Gennaro said there are 15 square miles of wetlands in New York City, and the City Council wants to do a better job at protecting them.

Under legislation (Intro 919) approved unanimously by the council, the Department of Buildings would require any wetlands permit issued by the state Department of Environmental Conservation or the federal government be submitted to the city before development could occur in the five boroughs. The bill was sponsored by Councilmember Al Vann.

The law will help the city better coordinate with state officials who issue these types of permits, city officials said.



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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.

What Happened To My Middle School?

by Jonathan Mandell

25 November 02

When I came up with the idea for a middle school focused on journalism -- the first such middle school in the nation -- I got the same strange reaction again and again.

"Are you going to stay involved?" asked Ida Montera, the principal of P.S.124, one of the elementary schools that would feed into my middle school. "The school needs your enthusiasm."

Parents of fifth graders in Park Slope, Sunset Park and Carroll Gardens said the same thing, as did the officials of school district 15: Will I stay involved? The school needed my enthusiasm.

Why WOULDN'T I stay involved, I replied. And why does it need my enthusiasm, I thought. Who am I? What it needs is a good principal, committed teachers, a rigorous program.

Five years later, the school still exists -- or so I had been told. The Secondary School of Journalism is one of three middle schools, soon to be high schools as well, that have taken up residence in the building that once housed John Jay High School in Park Slope.

But I have not been involved for years. In that time, the school has taken a bizarre journey that may or may not say something about the school system in general; it is hard to imagine -- or difficult to accept -- that its fate is typical.

New Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has taken up one of the mantras of educators in the city -- that regular New Yorkers, business people and professionals, must become involved in the public schools of the city if these schools are to succeed.

To which I can only reply: I tried.

A Dinner And A Dream

In 1995, I was a reporter for New York Newsday, writing an article about two cops whose child was going to P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village. I attended that elementary school, so it was something of a thrill to go back and interview the principal, though it was of course no longer the same person.

The new principal, Frank DeStefano, and I became good enough friends so that, some two years later, when he was appointed superintendent of school district 15 in Brooklyn, I called to congratulate him. He invited me to dine with him and a colleague of his a few weeks later.

At dinner, he talked about his new job. His major task, he told me, was to create new middle schools in order to keep the students in the district from going to more attractive middle schools in school district 2, his old district.

Each of the new schools, he explained, would focus around a specific theme. I did not understand this, so he explained: One would be for the performing arts, another would be for science and mathematics, another would be an "inclusion school" where "special ed" kids mixed with the non-disabled. A fourth school would be for foreign languages. There had to be a dozen middle schools in all, he said; he was looking for some more themes.

"Why not a school for journalism?" I blurted out. I don't recall his reacting. He and his friend, an assistant principal, started talking about something else.

While they were talking, I started thinking that what I had suggested so spontaneously was not such a bad idea. The skills the best journalists master are the same that you need to be a good student: the ability to learn quickly, research efficiently, write clearly, and to be engaged in your community and aware of what is happening in the world. One of the best things about journalism, I thought, is that it is about every subject on earth; anything you are interested in, you can write about. So why couldn't educators use journalism to motivate kids not yet interested in school?

A kid who has memorized 100 rap songs, say, but does not do his homework does not have a problem learning; the problem is getting him motivated to learn academic subjects. What if teachers asked that adolescent to transcribe those rap songs, to provide a glossary of rap terms, to interview a rap singer, to write his opinion about the controversy over rap lyrics? What if he were to meet a professional music critic, and, under that critic's supervision, research, report and write an article that would then be published or broadcast.

Journalism could even help students understand how valid and valuable the cultures and experiences of their classmates are. Indeed, a student who had gotten little joy or encouragement from school previously because of poor academic performance, might suddenly find herself sought after by her fellow journalism students, precisely because her experiences were worth re-telling.

I interrupted their conversation. "Hear me out," I said, and I made a pitch, the way I would pitch an editor. The ideas tumbled out of me, rooted in my experiences as a reporter, as a teacher of journalism to graduate students, and as someone who had himself first become inspired to be a writer back in (what was then called) junior high school.

I even came up with a name for the new middle school. It should be named, I said, after Manuel de Dios Unanue, the Spanish-language journalist who had been killed five years earlier on the order of the Colombia drug cartel for his investigations into the drug trade in Queens. He died in the line of duty, in pursuit of the truth.

By the end of the evening, Frank seemed convinced. He said he would write the proposal the next day and submit it to the school board the following Wednesday.

"You could be the co-director," he said.

I was shocked. "I don't know anything about education."

"You don't have to," he said. "That's the director's job."

Next Page: "Birth Of A School"

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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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