Gotham Gazette Thu, 22 Feb 2018 09:23:32 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) City Council Members Outline Priorities for New Term 38866913345 afd4b05a3e z

City Council members (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The New York City Council is gearing up for a new agenda under Speaker Corey Johnson, with several newly created committees and fresh faces in the legislative body. As the Council begins to schedule its first committee hearings and readies for the reintroduction of legislation from the last session, there are a number of priorities that Council members are planning to pursue. Returning members say they want to pass bills that have been pending and build on their work from the last four years, while new members are eager to follow through on the policy platforms that got them elected.

New issue committee chairs appear ready to steer those committees in new directions, while Johnson has promised a robust agenda and is taking steps to beef up the Council’s oversight powers, expand its land use division, and increase its scrutiny of the mayor’s budget. Many of the committees, new and old, under his watch will take on greater responsibilities and are expected to tackle a slew of contentious policy issues, legislation, and oversight matters. Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette indicated a broad list of priorities, with some agenda items that will have citywide ramifications and others more parochial, district-level in their scope.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, in her new role as chair of the women’s committee, said she will pursue legislative and public policy solutions to combat sexual harassment in the public and private sectors, to end the gender pay gap for municipal workers, and advance criminal justice reforms to protect sexual assault and domestic violence survivors.

“We are seeking to empower women at every level -- in the workplace, in the economic arena, in social interactions, and in politics,” Rosenthal said. In December, Rosenthal stood with Council Member Mark Levine to announce a request for drafting legislation that would require complaints by Council staffers to be investigated by the Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics, as is currently the case for complaints against elected Council members, and would also mandate that city agencies report on sexual harassment claims twice a year.  

Rosenthal also wants to see through the full implementation of her legislation, signed by the mayor in September last year, to create an Office of the Tenant Advocate within the Department of Buildings. Among her other priorities are protections for small businesses in her Upper West Side district, seniors’ needs, and the city’s social safety net. Formerly chair of the contracts committee, which will now be led by new Council Member Justin Brannan, Rosenthal said her guiding philosophy in approaching priority issues will still be “fiscal responsibility.”

Council Member Levine said he hopes to follow up on unfinished business from the last session, including the implementation of Right to Counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court, which was a bill he sponsored and waged a years-long campaign to win support from the mayor. Now chairing the health committee (he had parks last term), Levine will also focus on expanding healthcare coverage and addressing racial inequities in health outcomes across the city. One priority he has expressed support for is single-payer healthcare, an issue that Speaker Johnson has been vocal about pursuing.

After chairing the public safety committee last term, Council Member Vanessa Gibson is chairing the new Subcommittee on Capital Budgets, which will be tasked with analysing the city’s now $96 billion capital budget. The subcommittee will assess the procurement process at city agencies and how agencies spend their capital dollars. Gibson said she is “looking to create better capital spending oversight and ensure there is a consistent process for capital projects so that we can truly realize meaningful investment in New York’s aging infrastructure.”

Gibson also said she will continue to advocate for bail reform, an issue that Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised to put his weight behind this year. Gibson will also have to navigate complicated land use issues as she tackles the proposed Jerome Avenue rezoning in her Bronx district. The project is moving forward quickly and will come through the land use committee now being chaired by Gibson’s Bronx colleague Council Member Rafael Salamanca.

Council Member Ritchie Torres, another Bronx Democrat, is overseeing the newly empowered Committee on Oversight and Investigations, which will comprise a dedicated investigative unit of former prosecutors, professional investigators, and former journalists. While the division is staffing up, Torres’ first public task will be a joint oversight hearing on February 6 with the Committee on Public Housing, which he chaired last term, concerning heat and hot water failures in NYCHA housing. The new chair of the public housing committee is newly-elected Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who formerly worked at the public housing authority, NYCHA.

[Related: New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates]

The new chair of the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections, Council Member Karen Koslowitz, said last week she was still formulating her agenda for 2018. Her committee is expected to lead the way on a package of internal rules reforms that a majority of the Council, including Speaker Johnson, have endorsed.

Koslowitz, of Queens, also spoke of extending traffic safety laws to bicycle riders, saying that she would “like to see them be registered, licensed.”

Council Member Mark Treyger, a former teacher who has taken over as chair of the education committee, spoke at length about the issues plaguing public school infrastructure. “I come from a district that some of our schools were built with money from the New Deal, and haven't seen upgrades since the New Deal,” he said of his southern Brooklyn community, also emphasizing the need for additional school aid.

Treyger also wants to advance two bills he proposed in the last session: one requiring the city to station licensed social workers in all police precincts, and another to make it illegal for police officers to engage in sexual activity with a person in their custody. The second bill was prompted by a recent case in which an 18-year-old woman accused two officers of rape while she was in their custody. The officers claimed the act was consensual, leading to public outcry over the loophole in the law that does not automatically categorize it as custodial rape. Legal proceedings continue in the matter.  

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, the new chair of the governmental operations committee, said he will push campaign finance reforms over the next few years since his committee has oversight of the Campaign Finance Board, which administers the city’s public matching funds program to incentivize small-dollar donations in elections. “The whole idea of the campaign finance [program] was to equalize the playing field,” he said. “Whenever you have policies that don’t… [that] puts a candidate at a disadvantage, I have issues with that,” he added, without going into specifics.

In his role, Cabrera will also oversee the city Board of Elections, the Law Department, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, among other agencies. The BOE will administer at least three election days this year, in June, September, and November, with a fourth likely in some districts if Cuomo calls for special elections to fill several currently vacant state legislative seats.

Council Member Steven Matteo, the Republican minority leader, said he plans to prioritize property tax relief this year, something he has long advocated for. “Last year we had the veterans property tax that we passed here, my bill. I want to expand on that this year, too, do some real property tax relief for everyone else,” he said. Matteo, one of three Republicans in the Council, was appointed by Johnson to chair the Committee on Standards & Ethics, which, if new legislation on workplace sexual harassment is passed by the Council, will likely see its role expand this session. The committee is currently investigating an allegation of sexual harassment against Council Member Andy King.

Mayor de Blasio has promised to take up property tax reform this term, which Matteo intends to hold him to. The Council had announced plans for a property tax reform task force last term, but it never came to be.

Council Member Brannan also hopes to tackle property tax reform, he said, hoping that he will be able to sit on the proposed commission “to really take a deep dive into it.” As a former employee of the Department of Education, Brannan also said the Council has an opportunity to increase its oversight of DOE operations. “I think, it’s a couple areas where I think we can get a little more aggressive,” the contracts chair said. DOE contracts to outside vendors have been a point of contention for years, an area Brannan may be able to meld his prior experience and new responsibilities.

Council Member Carlina Rivera, also newly-elected, will have her hands full chairing the Committee on Hospitals, newly created to oversee the city’s municipal hospital system, which is in financial crisis. But she also has local concerns she wants to address, she told Gotham Gazette, including reforms to city rules that allow construction in the early mornings, evenings, and weekends, an issue leftover from her predecessor, former Council Member Rosie Mendez.

Some of Rivera’s other priorities concern land use and infrastructure projects, particularly the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, an integrated coastal protection initiative aimed at reducing flood risk due to coastal storms and sea level rise. She also intends to focus on NYCHA’s infrastructure woes, citing the numerous developments in her district and the issues of heat and hot water in NYCHA housing, and she must negotiate a major land use deal in her district related to a proposed Union Square tech hub that the de Blasio administration wants to build.

Council Member Diana Ayala, another rookie lawmaker, is chairing the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services. She said she expects some examination of safe injection sites coming to New York City, which advocates argue would reduce drug users’ risk of overdose, transmitting diseases, and death. Speaker Johnson has said he is in favor of exploring the possibility. "The safe injection sites I know are going to be a big issue," Ayala told Gotham Gazette. "There's been a lot of conversation around bringing those to New York."

Ayala also suggested that she will be looking into how New York City’s criminal justice system deals with the issue of domestic violence.  

When asked about her policy priorities, new Council Member Adrienne Adams emphasized immigrant protections and homelessness. Adams expressed deep concern about the policies coming out of  Washington, D.C. under the Republican-led Congress and President Donald Trump. Under former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Council passed a number of immigrant-friendly laws and curbed the city’s cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities. “My district is extremely diverse and with the policies coming from Washington these days, they’re affecting my district and the entire city of New York tremendously,” said Adams, of southeast Queens.

Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., of the Bronx, who joined the Council from the state Senate, is the first chair of the Council’s new Committee on For-Hire Vehicles. When asked about his priorities, Diaz Sr. simply said, “Taxis.”

Samar Khurshid contributed to this article.

by Matthew Sweeney, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to better clarify Diana Ayala's comments on safe injection sites.

City Council Members Outline Priorities for New Term Tue, 23 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
'Tears of Joy,' Hope for a District in Alicka Samuel's Win alicka samuel facebook crop

Alicka Ampry-Samuel (via Facebook)

It was late Tuesday afternoon, primary day, in Brooklyn, and amidst the rattle of the subway and wafting aroma of a not-far-off Popeyes fried chicken restaurant, Alicka Ampry-Samuel danced on the sidewalk with Corey Johnson, a current City Council member from Manhattan, to “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now.” Although the outcome of Samuel’s race -- she was a leading candidate in the crowded Democratic primary for the open City Council District 41 seat -- was uncertain, the atmosphere was quasi-celebratory, with family, friends, and supporters swaying to the beat blaring from speakers stationed nearby. It was a moment of levity during a day of grueling campaigning.

The competition for the seat was fierce. Ampry-Samuel was one of nine candidates on the primary ballot, in a district encompassing portions of Bed-Stuy, East Flatbush, Crown Heights, and Ocean Hill-Brownsville, where the Democratic primary winner would be assured the seat given no candidates from other parties are running.

Vying to replace Darlene Mealy, a long-time Council member widely considered ineffective, the candidates were seeking the opportunity to better represent one of the poorest and neediest districts in the city. For Ampry-Samuel, primary day meant exhaustive hustling across the district in a last-minute pursuit of votes. It meant dozens of handshakes and leaflets with her face and name on them, and visits from the likes of Johnson, a candidate to become the Council’s next speaker, from Mayor Bill de Blasio, himself seeking a primary election victory, and others.

It also meant support from many campaign volunteers and family members eager to see Ampry-Samuel charged with addressing community issues like affordable housing, including public housing, employment opportunities, school quality, parks, social services, and more.

Samuel, dressed in bright red, entered primary day with optimism and a resume packed with political experience. She was a former district leader, chief of staff for Assemblymember Latrice Walker, and most recently a senior advisor at NYCHA. However, she was realistic about her chances, acknowledging the crowded field, which included multiple candidates who also have strong resumes.

In an interview, Ampry-Samuel said “we know that a lot of folks don’t come out for the local elections.” And she was right, with just 10,557 votes cast in her primary. But, she received enough of them -- 3,320 votes, or 31% -- to prevail, besting the second-place finisher, Henry Butler, who received 2,318 votes, by 1,002, a margin less than the 1,197 votes received by third-place finisher Cory Provost and just a few more than the 915 votes good for fourth place.

Ampry-Samuel started Tuesday out on the street, greeting commuters near the subway entrance on Ralph Avenue and Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Stating that she “was clearly exhausted,” she said she was also “energized.” On what she termed her “third wind,” given the long months of campaigning, she approached the largely thankless task of handing out fliers with cheer and charm. After one man said his wife’s last name was Samuel, she replied, “So, you gotta vote for your cousin!”

Ampry-Samuel canvassed during rush-hour traffic along with prominent politicians in the community, including Congressional Rep. Yvette Clarke, the wizened former Rep. Edolphus Towns, and childhood friend Latrice Walker, still an Assembly member from nearby.

“We out here in these streets, girl!” exclaimed Walker, dressed in bright pink and especially energetic.

Not only did Samuel accrue the endorsements of most relevant local politicians, she had managed to reel in the biggest fish in the pond, de Blasio. Having previously endorsed her candidacy and campaigned with her over the weekend, he arrived at Ralph Avenue and Fulton Street to support her, and his own campaign, accompanied by men whispering into their sleeves, a communications team, and additional police officers.

Although Ampry-Samuel said de Blasio’s “endorsement is a positive for the community,” his presence was somewhat divisive. While they were talking up voters, a driver in a pickup truck yelled, “Boo de Blasio! Anybody but de Blasio!” Earlier in the morning, Samuel had a tense conversation with a woman who pointedly asked, “Why do you support de Blasio?” And a young man named Anthony explained that although he supported Samuel, that “in a sense, yes” it bothered him that she and de Blasio were associated.

Samuel responded to this criticism, explaining that “we gotta get a seat at the table.” By accepting the mayor’s support, she is gaining a powerful ear in city government, attention that could be leveraged for the community’s benefit. As Dion Turner, her brother, said in an interview, “If you’re not at the table, you’re just a menu.”

Many were happy to see de Blasio, though.

Surviving the madhouse of the mayor’s awed admirers, Ampry-Samuel and her team took a quick breather before leaving the subway stop, setting off to engage residents in the many public housing developments of Brownsville, a neighborhood that has the highest concentration of public housing in the nation.

Having grown up in Brownsville public housing herself, Ampry-Samuel seemed at home embracing those she saw on the street. As she greeted friends, family, and voters, a campaign aide pointed out that she was “giving things a personal touch.”

Clutching a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, Ampry-Samuel eventually strolled past two women near the Van Dyke Houses. They were wearing deep blue shirts printed with the name of opponent, Henry Butler.

“Definitely, her biggest competitor is Henry Butler,” explained Jamell Henderson, a former City Council candidate and current Ampry-Samuel supporter.

Placing second in the primary with 22% of the vote, Butler is a native of Bed-Stuy and District Manager for Community Board 3. Although he had stopped by the subway entrance earlier that morning and proclaimed that “we’re all good Democrats,” he had a contentious relationship with Ampry-Samuel and her campaign.

Dion said that there had been a lot of “negativity created by him” and alleged that his supporters were “tearing down posters.” He expressed frustration with Butler’s blue-shirted backers who he claimed disrupted Ampry-Samuel and de Blasio that morning by “putting posters behind de Blasio’s head.”

Anthony Green, Ampry-Samuel’s cousin, also expressed irritation, telling those same supporters, “Don’t be disrespectful!”

Despite any of that, Ampry-Samuel joked good-naturedly with the women wearing Butler t-shirts and went on to schmooze with residents near the Van Dyke Houses. Having chatted up friends and strangers, Ampry-Samuel entered the latter half of primary day and took a needed rest at her campaign headquarters.

“I’m just ready for nine o’clock to come and go,” she vented to her friends, referring to when polls closed.

Joining a small convoy led by a minivan plastered with campaign posters, Ampry-Samuel soon set up shop in the late afternoon in front of the subway entrance on Rockaway Avenue. Biggie Smalls blasted from speakers in her campaign vehicle. With the volume way up, Ampry-Samuel enjoyed the moment and connected with voters returning home.

“It sounds like she really cares about the community,” said Jonathan, a student studying journalism and media.

Community was a recurring theme in Ampry-Samuel’s campaign. Having grown up in the area, her extensive family was her campaign’s foundation. In fact, she said in reference to nearby supporters that “for the most part, most of the people that you see are family.” Throughout the day, her cousin, brother, aunt, and mother were all seen trekking through the streets to support her.

Her husband, a U.S. diplomat working in Washington D.C., even flew in to visit. “Even as we were traveling across different countries, she’s been focused on this community,” he explained, wiping sweat off his wife’s brow with a paper towel.

Community issued dominated the campaign and appeared to determine voters’ choices. Anthony, the same young man who said de Blasio’s support for Ampry-Samuel bothered him, criticized Butler, saying he represented the interests of Bed-Stuy, not those of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Conversely, Kenneth, a Butler supporter from Bed-Stuy, praised him. “He lives in the community I live in. He’s trying to work for the community,” he stated, canvassing near the Atlantic Towers.

Under the waning daylight, with campaign fliers littering the sidewalk, Samuel sat near the same Atlantic Towers, visibly fatigued. An hour before, she had voted with her son in tow and had spent the remaining time before polls closed near a popular voting site, flashing the same broad smile at residents she had early that morning.

“I feel exhausted, but emotional because it was such a long day, and emotional because there was just a lot of love out there in the entire district,” said Ampry-Samuel. Polls were set to close at 9 p.m., 15 hours after they opened.

Anxious, she and her family, friends, and supporters went to a nearby lounge to watch the election results. With music playing in the background and balloons hovering near the ceiling, the numbers came in earlier then expected.

At one point, “Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz” by Lost Boyz played over the lounge’s loudspeakers. Ampry-Samuel danced in celebration. Effectively Council Member-elect, Ampry-Samuel will be sworn in come January, part of a new class of 51 City Council Members. One early and big question for her is whether she will be more effective than her predecessor. At a recent candidate forum, Ampry-Samuel promised to bring th energy and attentiveness to the Council that she says she has brought to all her other public service roles.

Reached by phone the morning after the primary, Ampry-Samuel said, “There were tears of joy.”

by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

'Tears of Joy,' Hope for a District in Alicka Samuel's Win Sat, 16 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000