Gotham Gazette Gotham Gazette is an online publication covering New York policy and politics as well as news on public safety, transportation, education, finance and more. http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/association-for-neighborhood-and-housing-development 2017-10-23T20:51:30+00:00 Webmaster webmaster@gothamgazette.com Pacific Park Developer's Deceptive Affordable Housing Spin 2017-06-22T04:00:00+00:00 2017-06-22T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7018:pacific-park-developer-s-deceptive-affordable-housing-spin Samar Khurshid <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/535_carlton_pacific_park.png" alt="535 carlton pacific park" width="600" height="232" /></p> <p>Part of the 535 Carlton Pacific Park lottery ad</p> <hr /> <p>Ashley Cotton's June 22 Gotham Gazette op-ed “<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7015-tackling-new-york-s-housing-affordability-crisis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tackling New York’s Housing Affordability Crisis</a>” is deeply deceptive, part of the long-running spin from the developer of the Pacific Park (formerly Atlantic Yards) project.</p> <p>It's on par with the misleading mayoral press release June 13 for the "100% affordable" 535 Carlton, which I analyzed in <a href="http://cityandstateny.com/articles/opinion/media-critic-de-blasio-should-cop-to-how-he-steers-coverage.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">City &amp; State</a>.</p> <p>Cotton, the External Affairs Executive VP for Forest City New York (and thus the spokesperson for the joint venture Greenland Forest City Partners), writes of that new building, "It’s 100 percent affordable, and proof positive that our public-private affordable housing model delivers great results."</p> <p>Really? Half of <a href="https://a806-housingconnect.nyc.gov/nyclottery/AdvertisementPdf/276.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">535 Carlton</a> is dedicated to middle-income households earning up to 165% of Area Median Income, or AMI. Translation: studios cost $2,137, one-bedrooms $2,680; two-bedrooms $3,223, and three-bedrooms $3,716.</p> <p>While those dip below market rates, they hardly supply housing to those who need it most. According to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development's <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2017/05/anhd-posts-2017-area-median-income.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Affordable Housing "Cheat Sheet,"</a> only 7.4% of New York households even fall within 140% and 170% of AMI, above which is clearly market rate.</p> <p>I recall the 2009 public hearing, where a member of the housing group ACORN <a href="http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_mJPzxRaCL64/Srn8PbS2v8I/AAAAAAAAIeE/-2ucsJxjzwE/s1600-h/ishot-1721.jpg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">urged approval</a> of Atlantic Yards because "[t]he people in my building cannot afford $2,000 a month rent." They still can't.</p> <p>The word "affordable" sounds good, but vagueness about actual affordability obscures how affordability differs significantly from that originally promised, which got advocates like ACORN on board.</p> <p>Cotton writes, "We committed to delivering 2,250 units of below market-rate housing by 2025." Yes, but that obscures how the developer, with compliant public officials and cowed advocates, has delivered apartments for households in the top quartile of city incomes.</p> <p>The 2005 ACORN <a href="https://www.scribd.com/doc/30116234/acorn-forest-city-ratner-affordable-housing-memorandum-of-understanding-mou-for-atlantic-yards" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreement</a> was supposed to deliver 2,250 units of affordable housing, with only 20% of them -- 450 total -- going to the best-off middle-income cohort. Not only has AMI floated up significantly, this building has 50% of the units assigned to the best-off cohort.</p> <p>No wonder that I discovered, after analyzing the raw spreadsheet of applicants for <a href="http://citylimits.org/2017/04/19/the-real-math-of-an-affordable-housing-lottery-huge-disconnect-between-need-and-allotment/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">City Limits</a>, that while 92,743 households applied for 297 lottery units, only 2,203 applicants even fell within income eligibility for the 148 middle-income apartments among them.</p> <p>"For lottery winners, these units are life-changing," Cotton writes. Sure, for the woman Cotton features in her essay, who had been trying desperately to get good housing, and luckily won the lottery.</p> <p>For the relatively small number of those seeking the middle-income units, as well as the significant number of middle-income households who've actually turned down the housing after winning the lottery, it's not so life-changing.</p> <p>"Pacific Park Brooklyn," writes Cotton, "is already proof that putting affordability first can reap great rewards for the citizens of New York." Actually, it's proof that "affordability" is a great selling point when few look closely.</p> <p>The unfortunate but deeply important lesson of Atlantic Yards -- 13-plus years in -- is that the developer is always spinning.</p> <p>Those of us with long memories recall past deceptive essays by the developer. In May 2008, Bruce Ratner, CEO of Forest City Ratner (since renamed Forest City New York), penned <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/atlantic-yards-dead-dream-article-1.326474" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an op-ed</a> for the Daily News, contending, "for the first time, I am offering an updated construction timetable for the project...We anticipate finishing all of Atlantic Yards by 2018."</p> <p>Well, we know how that turned out. The timetable stretched to 2035, and then was said to be 2025, at least for the affordable housing, though officials at Ratner's parent company <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2017/06/when-does-forest-city-estimate-atlantic.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">now hint</a> at well past 2030.</p> <p>"We're still building the iconic Miss Brooklyn tower," Ratner wrote, regarding the Frank Gehry-designed flagship building at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which would loom over the Barclays Center and contain an atrium in which arena attendees could gather.</p> <p>Now, of course, Gehry is long gone, and the Greenland Forest City joint venture -- surely wary of construction over a regularly used arena -- <a href="http://citylimits.org/2016/07/11/fuzzy-plans-for-new-towers-at-key-pacific-park-site/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">now plans</a> to seek state permission to shift the bulk of Miss Brooklyn across the street. That would transform an already large approved tower -- replacing the current big-box stores Modell's and P.C. Richard -- into an enormous two-tower project.</p> <p>Consider the Feb 2010 <a href="http://observer.com/2010/02/the-oped-atlantic-yardsit-is-happening/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">op-ed</a> from Ratner's deputy, MaryAnne Gilmartin, in the Commercial Observer. Atlantic Yards, Gilmartin wrote, "has been about jobs and housing and an historic community-benefits agreement that ensures that the project’s economic and social benefits help the folks who live here and need it most."</p> <p>Well, it's clear today that much of the "affordable housing," not to mention the market-rate housing, doesn't help those who need it most.</p> <p>What about that much-ballyhooed Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA? It was a huge part of project promotion, earning a <a href="http://web.archive.org/web/20150611195627/http://www.nyc.gov/portal/site/nycgov/menuitem.c0935b9a57bb4ef3daf2f1c701c789a0/index.jsp?pageID=mayor_press_release&amp;catID=1194&amp;doc_name=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nyc.gov%2Fhtml%2Fom%2Fhtml%2F2005a%2Fpr248-05.html&amp;cc=unused1978&amp;rc=1194&amp;ndi=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">press release</a> from Mayor Bloomberg's office when it was signed in 2005.</p> <p>One significant part of the CBA, a pre-apprenticeship training program that was supposed to vault struggling Brooklynites into coveted union jobs, dissolved, leading to a <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-atlantic-yards-cba-promised-path-to.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bitter lawsuit</a>. Other elements remained vague, unenforceable aspirations.</p> <p>Who oversees the CBA? Because it's not a government document -- Bloomberg was just a witness -- it's left up to the compromised signatories, which had neither the expertise nor the incentive to challenge the developer. As a consultant Forest City itself hired to evaluate the CBA <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2014/06/forest-citys-own-consultant-cba.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">concluded</a>, the developer financially compensated the organizations for their potential to secure community support for the project, but not for their capacity to fulfill the CBA's programmatic goals.</p> <p>The CBA required an independent monitor. "Atlantic Yards is setting a new standard," Ratner <a href="http://50.56.218.160/archive/category.php?category_id=26&amp;id=11836" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">asserted</a> in March 2007, "and the ICM [Independent Compliance Monitor] will be everyone's watchdog to ensure we reach all of the goals and benefits we have agreed to." The monitor was never hired, despite a Request for Proposals. The developer saved at least $100,000 a year, and the CBA evaded scrutiny.</p> <p>I remember a November 2004 public meeting in which Forest City's initial Atlantic Yards point man Jim Stuckey, asked how the project would be overseen, replied, "The CBA we have in negotiation calls for an independent officer. Probably more than one." He even <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/05/nyregion/instant-skyline-added-to-brooklyn-arena-plan.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told</a> the New York Times in July 2005 that the full project -- which was supposed to take 10 years when announced in 2003 -- might be completed as soon as 2011.</p> <p>That's the developer's record. Their statements, including claims of "<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7015-tackling-new-york-s-housing-affordability-crisis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tackling New York’s Housing Affordability Crisis</a>," always deserve skepticism.</p> <p>***<br />Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the daily blog <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report</a> and is working on a book about the project. On Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/AYReport" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">@AYReport</a>.</p> <p>

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<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/535_carlton_pacific_park.png" alt="535 carlton pacific park" width="600" height="232" /></p> <p>Part of the 535 Carlton Pacific Park lottery ad</p> <hr /> <p>Ashley Cotton's June 22 Gotham Gazette op-ed “<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7015-tackling-new-york-s-housing-affordability-crisis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tackling New York’s Housing Affordability Crisis</a>” is deeply deceptive, part of the long-running spin from the developer of the Pacific Park (formerly Atlantic Yards) project.</p> <p>It's on par with the misleading mayoral press release June 13 for the "100% affordable" 535 Carlton, which I analyzed in <a href="http://cityandstateny.com/articles/opinion/media-critic-de-blasio-should-cop-to-how-he-steers-coverage.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">City &amp; State</a>.</p> <p>Cotton, the External Affairs Executive VP for Forest City New York (and thus the spokesperson for the joint venture Greenland Forest City Partners), writes of that new building, "It’s 100 percent affordable, and proof positive that our public-private affordable housing model delivers great results."</p> <p>Really? Half of <a href="https://a806-housingconnect.nyc.gov/nyclottery/AdvertisementPdf/276.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">535 Carlton</a> is dedicated to middle-income households earning up to 165% of Area Median Income, or AMI. Translation: studios cost $2,137, one-bedrooms $2,680; two-bedrooms $3,223, and three-bedrooms $3,716.</p> <p>While those dip below market rates, they hardly supply housing to those who need it most. According to the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development's <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2017/05/anhd-posts-2017-area-median-income.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Affordable Housing "Cheat Sheet,"</a> only 7.4% of New York households even fall within 140% and 170% of AMI, above which is clearly market rate.</p> <p>I recall the 2009 public hearing, where a member of the housing group ACORN <a href="http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_mJPzxRaCL64/Srn8PbS2v8I/AAAAAAAAIeE/-2ucsJxjzwE/s1600-h/ishot-1721.jpg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">urged approval</a> of Atlantic Yards because "[t]he people in my building cannot afford $2,000 a month rent." They still can't.</p> <p>The word "affordable" sounds good, but vagueness about actual affordability obscures how affordability differs significantly from that originally promised, which got advocates like ACORN on board.</p> <p>Cotton writes, "We committed to delivering 2,250 units of below market-rate housing by 2025." Yes, but that obscures how the developer, with compliant public officials and cowed advocates, has delivered apartments for households in the top quartile of city incomes.</p> <p>The 2005 ACORN <a href="https://www.scribd.com/doc/30116234/acorn-forest-city-ratner-affordable-housing-memorandum-of-understanding-mou-for-atlantic-yards" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreement</a> was supposed to deliver 2,250 units of affordable housing, with only 20% of them -- 450 total -- going to the best-off middle-income cohort. Not only has AMI floated up significantly, this building has 50% of the units assigned to the best-off cohort.</p> <p>No wonder that I discovered, after analyzing the raw spreadsheet of applicants for <a href="http://citylimits.org/2017/04/19/the-real-math-of-an-affordable-housing-lottery-huge-disconnect-between-need-and-allotment/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">City Limits</a>, that while 92,743 households applied for 297 lottery units, only 2,203 applicants even fell within income eligibility for the 148 middle-income apartments among them.</p> <p>"For lottery winners, these units are life-changing," Cotton writes. Sure, for the woman Cotton features in her essay, who had been trying desperately to get good housing, and luckily won the lottery.</p> <p>For the relatively small number of those seeking the middle-income units, as well as the significant number of middle-income households who've actually turned down the housing after winning the lottery, it's not so life-changing.</p> <p>"Pacific Park Brooklyn," writes Cotton, "is already proof that putting affordability first can reap great rewards for the citizens of New York." Actually, it's proof that "affordability" is a great selling point when few look closely.</p> <p>The unfortunate but deeply important lesson of Atlantic Yards -- 13-plus years in -- is that the developer is always spinning.</p> <p>Those of us with long memories recall past deceptive essays by the developer. In May 2008, Bruce Ratner, CEO of Forest City Ratner (since renamed Forest City New York), penned <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/atlantic-yards-dead-dream-article-1.326474" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an op-ed</a> for the Daily News, contending, "for the first time, I am offering an updated construction timetable for the project...We anticipate finishing all of Atlantic Yards by 2018."</p> <p>Well, we know how that turned out. The timetable stretched to 2035, and then was said to be 2025, at least for the affordable housing, though officials at Ratner's parent company <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2017/06/when-does-forest-city-estimate-atlantic.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">now hint</a> at well past 2030.</p> <p>"We're still building the iconic Miss Brooklyn tower," Ratner wrote, regarding the Frank Gehry-designed flagship building at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which would loom over the Barclays Center and contain an atrium in which arena attendees could gather.</p> <p>Now, of course, Gehry is long gone, and the Greenland Forest City joint venture -- surely wary of construction over a regularly used arena -- <a href="http://citylimits.org/2016/07/11/fuzzy-plans-for-new-towers-at-key-pacific-park-site/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">now plans</a> to seek state permission to shift the bulk of Miss Brooklyn across the street. That would transform an already large approved tower -- replacing the current big-box stores Modell's and P.C. Richard -- into an enormous two-tower project.</p> <p>Consider the Feb 2010 <a href="http://observer.com/2010/02/the-oped-atlantic-yardsit-is-happening/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">op-ed</a> from Ratner's deputy, MaryAnne Gilmartin, in the Commercial Observer. Atlantic Yards, Gilmartin wrote, "has been about jobs and housing and an historic community-benefits agreement that ensures that the project’s economic and social benefits help the folks who live here and need it most."</p> <p>Well, it's clear today that much of the "affordable housing," not to mention the market-rate housing, doesn't help those who need it most.</p> <p>What about that much-ballyhooed Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA? It was a huge part of project promotion, earning a <a href="http://web.archive.org/web/20150611195627/http://www.nyc.gov/portal/site/nycgov/menuitem.c0935b9a57bb4ef3daf2f1c701c789a0/index.jsp?pageID=mayor_press_release&amp;catID=1194&amp;doc_name=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nyc.gov%2Fhtml%2Fom%2Fhtml%2F2005a%2Fpr248-05.html&amp;cc=unused1978&amp;rc=1194&amp;ndi=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">press release</a> from Mayor Bloomberg's office when it was signed in 2005.</p> <p>One significant part of the CBA, a pre-apprenticeship training program that was supposed to vault struggling Brooklynites into coveted union jobs, dissolved, leading to a <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-atlantic-yards-cba-promised-path-to.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bitter lawsuit</a>. Other elements remained vague, unenforceable aspirations.</p> <p>Who oversees the CBA? Because it's not a government document -- Bloomberg was just a witness -- it's left up to the compromised signatories, which had neither the expertise nor the incentive to challenge the developer. As a consultant Forest City itself hired to evaluate the CBA <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2014/06/forest-citys-own-consultant-cba.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">concluded</a>, the developer financially compensated the organizations for their potential to secure community support for the project, but not for their capacity to fulfill the CBA's programmatic goals.</p> <p>The CBA required an independent monitor. "Atlantic Yards is setting a new standard," Ratner <a href="http://50.56.218.160/archive/category.php?category_id=26&amp;id=11836" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">asserted</a> in March 2007, "and the ICM [Independent Compliance Monitor] will be everyone's watchdog to ensure we reach all of the goals and benefits we have agreed to." The monitor was never hired, despite a Request for Proposals. The developer saved at least $100,000 a year, and the CBA evaded scrutiny.</p> <p>I remember a November 2004 public meeting in which Forest City's initial Atlantic Yards point man Jim Stuckey, asked how the project would be overseen, replied, "The CBA we have in negotiation calls for an independent officer. Probably more than one." He even <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/05/nyregion/instant-skyline-added-to-brooklyn-arena-plan.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told</a> the New York Times in July 2005 that the full project -- which was supposed to take 10 years when announced in 2003 -- might be completed as soon as 2011.</p> <p>That's the developer's record. Their statements, including claims of "<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7015-tackling-new-york-s-housing-affordability-crisis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tackling New York’s Housing Affordability Crisis</a>," always deserve skepticism.</p> <p>***<br />Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the daily blog <a href="http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report</a> and is working on a book about the project. On Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/AYReport" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">@AYReport</a>.</p> <p>

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With Clock Ticking, East New York Negotiations to Heat Up 2016-04-04T00:52:30+00:00 2016-04-04T00:52:30+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6262:with-clock-ticking-east-new-york-negotiations-to-heat-up Super User <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/espinal_east_new_york_hearing.jpg" alt="espinal east new york hearing" height="418" width="600" /></p> <p>City Council Member Espinal (photo: William Alatriste)&nbsp;</p> <hr /> <p>With only two weeks left for the City Council to vote on the proposed rezoning of East New York, all eyes are on City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who is leading negotiations with the de Blasio administration and whose approval of a revised plan will determine its fate. Espinal has promised significant improvements to <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/east-new-york/east-new-york-1.page" target="_blank">the plan</a> put forward by the city and community organizers and advocates are calling on him to reject the rezoning if it does not deliver what they see as adequate affordable housing, local hiring, and other provisions.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Espinal's colleagues and many others are looking to him as the East New York negotiations with the de Blasio administration will set the precedent for rezonings across the five boroughs.</p> <p>The city's proposal to rezone East New York was passed almost unanimously by the City Planning Commission on February 24, giving the City Council the next fifty days to vote on it as part of the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The neighborhood is the first of 15 the city plans to rezone as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's ambitious plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. The plan aims to change land use rules and implement community improvements in order to make East New York more desirable and liveable, while fostering development that will include thousands of new units of housing, many of them with rent regulations.</p> <p>Negotiations so far have been slow going, leading to a series of news reports this past week indicating that Espinal and others on the City Council side of the bargaining table are frustrated with the de Blasio administration. The parties are set to hold another meeting on Monday afternoon at City Hall, which participants hope will yield progress.</p> <p>"There's a lot of frustration because we've proposed changes to the plan and we've been waiting for [the administration] to come back to us," said Espinal, whose district covers a vast swathe of the area in the plan - the City Council traditionally defers to the local Council member to approve or disapprove land use deals.</p> <p>Espinal has made his priorities clear: "serious anti-displacement measures, a strong jobs plan and truly affordable housing." While he insists there has been no push back from the administration against his demands, the lack of movement seems to be testing his patience.</p> <p>"The clock is ticking," he said. "We've been working on this for over a year. It's time to talk turkey." Espinal did say that one cause for delay was that both the administration and Council had been preoccupied until last week with the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposals, two citywide zoning amendments that lay the groundwork for the neighborhood rezonings that are set to go from East New York to Flushing, corridors in the Bronx and on Staten Island, East Harlem, and beyond.</p> <p>The de Blasio administration has reiterated its commitment to the process. "The city is currently having very productive conversations with Council Member Espinal on the East New York rezoning plan," said Austin Finan, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement. "Since the beginning of the East New York planning process, we have been and remain committed to ensuring that the final proposal to be voted on by the City Council meets the affordable housing and community infrastructure needs of East New York residents."</p> <p>Espinal will meet with city officials on Monday to hammer out the details of the East New York plan. On the Council side of the table, he'll be joined by Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, and Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee. Also expected to participate are the Council's land use director, Raju Mann, and the chief of staff to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ramon Martinez.</p> <p>According to a source with knowledge of the discussions around the rezoning, key sticking points include not only ensuring deeper levels of affordability in new housing, but also extending affordability for about 1,000 current residents whose rent-regulated apartments are nearing expiration of their terms; details of the city's commitment to a Workforce1 job training center; and progress around adding school seats and day-care slots - two areas of need in the administration's final environmental impact assessment of the rezoning plan.</p> <p>"We have an opportunity to show that we are attacking inequality head on in East New York and the administration needs to take this issue seriously as we negotiate the first rezoning under MIH and ZQA," said Council Member Richards in a statement. "The lack of progress thus far on these negotiations is deeply concerning and we need to see legitimate movement soon to ensure that the needs of the community and Council Member Espinal are met."</p> <p>All the stakeholders -- Espinal, his colleagues, community leaders, housing advocates, de Blasio administration officials, real estate developers, and others -- recognize that these rezoning negotiations will set the tone for the next fourteen and determine the future of housing and development in the city for decades to come.</p> <p>"What I'm doing in East New York is the reason I ran for office," Espinal said. "It's an opportunity to create the strongest affordable housing plan in the city and set a precedent for how the rest of the city approaches rezoning." He has received strong support from his colleagues who, he said, "feel that whatever deal I'm able to reach with the administration, they can work off of when their neighborhoods are up for rezoning."</p> <p>Council Member Peter Koo from Queens is likely to be next in the hot-seat as the Flushing West rezoning proposal moves through the ULURP process.</p> <p>"We're certainly watching what happens in East New York closely," Koo said in an email, "but the Flushing West rezoning proposal is significantly different. Our rezoning area is on the waterfront which limits depth, and the LaGuardia flight path limits height. Flushing also has serious infrastructure needs that a large-scale rezoning of this nature would need to address. So we're watching East New York to see how the city responds to the community because Flushing also has a long list of needs."</p> <p>Housing advocates also recognize the immense pressure that Espinal is facing, although different groups have taken varied approaches to respond.</p> <p>"The guy's in a difficult spot," said Jonathan Furlong, zoning technical assistance coordinator, Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. "What he decides in East New York has vast and far reaching implications for the Bronx, East Harlem, Flushing, Upper Manhattan."</p> <p>ANHD has provided technical assistance to the Coalition for Community Advancement, a collaborative effort by housing advocates to address issues of rezoning across the city, communicating with administration officials, elected representatives, and residents. Members have met with Espinal numerous times to air their concerns and will also be meeting with Council Speaker Mark-Viverito.</p> <p>The CCA has called for a scaling back of the East New York plan and has proposed its own alternative community plan. Besides more affordability for current residents, they want manufacturing sites removed from the plan to protect manufacturing jobs, a $15-million small homes preservation fund, the preservation of the Arlington Village development as affordable housing, and mechanisms to set aside space for community facilities.</p> <p>On Sunday, the coalition held a rally outside City Hall to tell the Council to vote against the rezoning plan unless these proposals are embraced. The group said Sunday night that about 120 people rallied, including community members, State Senator Martin Dilan and Assembly Member Latrice Walker.</p> <p>Furlong commended Espinal for being firm with the administration, but faulted him for not being more vocal on specific proposals. "It's tough to get a read on him," he said of the Council member.</p> <p>New York Communities for Change, a grassroots advocacy group, has been more critical. NYCC released <a href="http://nycommunities.org/how-deepen-affordability-east-new-york" target="_blank">a report</a> titled "Educating Espinal: How to Deepen Affordability for Thousands of Apartments in East New York and Protect Low-Income Residents" in which they directly called on Espinal to fight for more affordability in the plan.</p> <p>"The Council member has not yet come out in support of a growing cry in the community for deeper affordability for low-income families," said Jonathan Westin, NYCC executive director. The group, which claims about 1,000 members, has two demands: 50 percent of units in new developments affordable for families making about 40 percent of the $77,000 annual area median income (AMI), and union jobs for workers in any new construction along upzoned areas. AMI is a federally-calculated number for all of New York City and surrounding counties. The area median income in East New York is significantly lower - about $35,000 per year for a family of four, about the same as 40% of AMI.</p> <p>"We're pushing that if that's not part of the plan, he should vote "no,"" said Westin. "He should not vote against the interests of his constituents."</p> <p>Asked recently about the East New York rezoning and the pushback it has received, Mayor de Blasio said that development and gentrification are taking place all over the city and that the city must take action to harness it. On WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/mayor-de-blasio-public-housing/" target="_blank">the mayor said</a> on March 18 that "the worst thing in the world is to do nothing about" gentrification. "And bluntly," he said, "that was the broad approach of the previous administration and I point to neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy as classic examples where there was no rezoning" to offer developers more in exchange for community benefits.</p> <p>Saying that there needs to be "a coherent governmental response" to gentrification and displacement, de Blasio said that "rezonings are absolutely necessary to create that affordability...if we don't do it, you'll see displacement with no countervailing action by the government." The mayor indicated that the East New York plan will include many affordable units for both lower- and middle-income residents.</p> <p>It is negotiations on the plan that will yield the full details of what that government response is, in East New York and elsewhere.</p> <p>On Thursday, New York Communities for Change led a rally in East New York, blocking traffic along Atlantic Avenue to draw attention to their demands. "Along Atlantic Avenue is where lots of developers have bought property and stand to make a windfall of profits from the rezoning," said Westin. "We need to ensure that with the increase in density that they get from the rezoning, there are deep affordability standards and real job standards for workers building these buildings."</p> <p>Espinal was blunt about NYCC's efforts. "I don't need any educating," he said of their report. "I was born and raised there. I know exactly the struggles my constituents are going through."</p> <p>Insisting that he prefers a "pragmatic approach," Espinal said he wants a holistic plan that covers all constituents and their needs, and that the administration has been receptive.</p> <p>"To be fair, they've been listening," Espinal said. "But the time to listen is over. It's time to take action."</p> <p>

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>Note: this article has been updated with details of the Sunday rally.</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/espinal_east_new_york_hearing.jpg" alt="espinal east new york hearing" height="418" width="600" /></p> <p>City Council Member Espinal (photo: William Alatriste)&nbsp;</p> <hr /> <p>With only two weeks left for the City Council to vote on the proposed rezoning of East New York, all eyes are on City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who is leading negotiations with the de Blasio administration and whose approval of a revised plan will determine its fate. Espinal has promised significant improvements to <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/east-new-york/east-new-york-1.page" target="_blank">the plan</a> put forward by the city and community organizers and advocates are calling on him to reject the rezoning if it does not deliver what they see as adequate affordable housing, local hiring, and other provisions.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Espinal's colleagues and many others are looking to him as the East New York negotiations with the de Blasio administration will set the precedent for rezonings across the five boroughs.</p> <p>The city's proposal to rezone East New York was passed almost unanimously by the City Planning Commission on February 24, giving the City Council the next fifty days to vote on it as part of the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The neighborhood is the first of 15 the city plans to rezone as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's ambitious plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. The plan aims to change land use rules and implement community improvements in order to make East New York more desirable and liveable, while fostering development that will include thousands of new units of housing, many of them with rent regulations.</p> <p>Negotiations so far have been slow going, leading to a series of news reports this past week indicating that Espinal and others on the City Council side of the bargaining table are frustrated with the de Blasio administration. The parties are set to hold another meeting on Monday afternoon at City Hall, which participants hope will yield progress.</p> <p>"There's a lot of frustration because we've proposed changes to the plan and we've been waiting for [the administration] to come back to us," said Espinal, whose district covers a vast swathe of the area in the plan - the City Council traditionally defers to the local Council member to approve or disapprove land use deals.</p> <p>Espinal has made his priorities clear: "serious anti-displacement measures, a strong jobs plan and truly affordable housing." While he insists there has been no push back from the administration against his demands, the lack of movement seems to be testing his patience.</p> <p>"The clock is ticking," he said. "We've been working on this for over a year. It's time to talk turkey." Espinal did say that one cause for delay was that both the administration and Council had been preoccupied until last week with the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposals, two citywide zoning amendments that lay the groundwork for the neighborhood rezonings that are set to go from East New York to Flushing, corridors in the Bronx and on Staten Island, East Harlem, and beyond.</p> <p>The de Blasio administration has reiterated its commitment to the process. "The city is currently having very productive conversations with Council Member Espinal on the East New York rezoning plan," said Austin Finan, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement. "Since the beginning of the East New York planning process, we have been and remain committed to ensuring that the final proposal to be voted on by the City Council meets the affordable housing and community infrastructure needs of East New York residents."</p> <p>Espinal will meet with city officials on Monday to hammer out the details of the East New York plan. On the Council side of the table, he'll be joined by Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, and Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee. Also expected to participate are the Council's land use director, Raju Mann, and the chief of staff to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ramon Martinez.</p> <p>According to a source with knowledge of the discussions around the rezoning, key sticking points include not only ensuring deeper levels of affordability in new housing, but also extending affordability for about 1,000 current residents whose rent-regulated apartments are nearing expiration of their terms; details of the city's commitment to a Workforce1 job training center; and progress around adding school seats and day-care slots - two areas of need in the administration's final environmental impact assessment of the rezoning plan.</p> <p>"We have an opportunity to show that we are attacking inequality head on in East New York and the administration needs to take this issue seriously as we negotiate the first rezoning under MIH and ZQA," said Council Member Richards in a statement. "The lack of progress thus far on these negotiations is deeply concerning and we need to see legitimate movement soon to ensure that the needs of the community and Council Member Espinal are met."</p> <p>All the stakeholders -- Espinal, his colleagues, community leaders, housing advocates, de Blasio administration officials, real estate developers, and others -- recognize that these rezoning negotiations will set the tone for the next fourteen and determine the future of housing and development in the city for decades to come.</p> <p>"What I'm doing in East New York is the reason I ran for office," Espinal said. "It's an opportunity to create the strongest affordable housing plan in the city and set a precedent for how the rest of the city approaches rezoning." He has received strong support from his colleagues who, he said, "feel that whatever deal I'm able to reach with the administration, they can work off of when their neighborhoods are up for rezoning."</p> <p>Council Member Peter Koo from Queens is likely to be next in the hot-seat as the Flushing West rezoning proposal moves through the ULURP process.</p> <p>"We're certainly watching what happens in East New York closely," Koo said in an email, "but the Flushing West rezoning proposal is significantly different. Our rezoning area is on the waterfront which limits depth, and the LaGuardia flight path limits height. Flushing also has serious infrastructure needs that a large-scale rezoning of this nature would need to address. So we're watching East New York to see how the city responds to the community because Flushing also has a long list of needs."</p> <p>Housing advocates also recognize the immense pressure that Espinal is facing, although different groups have taken varied approaches to respond.</p> <p>"The guy's in a difficult spot," said Jonathan Furlong, zoning technical assistance coordinator, Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. "What he decides in East New York has vast and far reaching implications for the Bronx, East Harlem, Flushing, Upper Manhattan."</p> <p>ANHD has provided technical assistance to the Coalition for Community Advancement, a collaborative effort by housing advocates to address issues of rezoning across the city, communicating with administration officials, elected representatives, and residents. Members have met with Espinal numerous times to air their concerns and will also be meeting with Council Speaker Mark-Viverito.</p> <p>The CCA has called for a scaling back of the East New York plan and has proposed its own alternative community plan. Besides more affordability for current residents, they want manufacturing sites removed from the plan to protect manufacturing jobs, a $15-million small homes preservation fund, the preservation of the Arlington Village development as affordable housing, and mechanisms to set aside space for community facilities.</p> <p>On Sunday, the coalition held a rally outside City Hall to tell the Council to vote against the rezoning plan unless these proposals are embraced. The group said Sunday night that about 120 people rallied, including community members, State Senator Martin Dilan and Assembly Member Latrice Walker.</p> <p>Furlong commended Espinal for being firm with the administration, but faulted him for not being more vocal on specific proposals. "It's tough to get a read on him," he said of the Council member.</p> <p>New York Communities for Change, a grassroots advocacy group, has been more critical. NYCC released <a href="http://nycommunities.org/how-deepen-affordability-east-new-york" target="_blank">a report</a> titled "Educating Espinal: How to Deepen Affordability for Thousands of Apartments in East New York and Protect Low-Income Residents" in which they directly called on Espinal to fight for more affordability in the plan.</p> <p>"The Council member has not yet come out in support of a growing cry in the community for deeper affordability for low-income families," said Jonathan Westin, NYCC executive director. The group, which claims about 1,000 members, has two demands: 50 percent of units in new developments affordable for families making about 40 percent of the $77,000 annual area median income (AMI), and union jobs for workers in any new construction along upzoned areas. AMI is a federally-calculated number for all of New York City and surrounding counties. The area median income in East New York is significantly lower - about $35,000 per year for a family of four, about the same as 40% of AMI.</p> <p>"We're pushing that if that's not part of the plan, he should vote "no,"" said Westin. "He should not vote against the interests of his constituents."</p> <p>Asked recently about the East New York rezoning and the pushback it has received, Mayor de Blasio said that development and gentrification are taking place all over the city and that the city must take action to harness it. On WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/mayor-de-blasio-public-housing/" target="_blank">the mayor said</a> on March 18 that "the worst thing in the world is to do nothing about" gentrification. "And bluntly," he said, "that was the broad approach of the previous administration and I point to neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy as classic examples where there was no rezoning" to offer developers more in exchange for community benefits.</p> <p>Saying that there needs to be "a coherent governmental response" to gentrification and displacement, de Blasio said that "rezonings are absolutely necessary to create that affordability...if we don't do it, you'll see displacement with no countervailing action by the government." The mayor indicated that the East New York plan will include many affordable units for both lower- and middle-income residents.</p> <p>It is negotiations on the plan that will yield the full details of what that government response is, in East New York and elsewhere.</p> <p>On Thursday, New York Communities for Change led a rally in East New York, blocking traffic along Atlantic Avenue to draw attention to their demands. "Along Atlantic Avenue is where lots of developers have bought property and stand to make a windfall of profits from the rezoning," said Westin. "We need to ensure that with the increase in density that they get from the rezoning, there are deep affordability standards and real job standards for workers building these buildings."</p> <p>Espinal was blunt about NYCC's efforts. "I don't need any educating," he said of their report. "I was born and raised there. I know exactly the struggles my constituents are going through."</p> <p>Insisting that he prefers a "pragmatic approach," Espinal said he wants a holistic plan that covers all constituents and their needs, and that the administration has been receptive.</p> <p>"To be fair, they've been listening," Espinal said. "But the time to listen is over. It's time to take action."</p> <p>

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>Note: this article has been updated with details of the Sunday rally.</p>
Questioning Importance, Council Members Spend Limited Time at Hearings 2016-03-28T02:40:25+00:00 2016-03-28T02:40:25+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6246:questioning-importance-council-members-spend-limited-time-at-hearings Super User <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/van_bramer_alone_hearing.jpg" alt="van bramer alone hearing" height="450" width="600" /></p> <p>Council Member Van Bramer starts a hearing (photo: @JimmyVanBramer)</p> <hr /> <p>On March 1, at perhaps the most important City Council hearing of the year, just three of the finance committee’s eleven members were present when the session began. The Council’s first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion fiscal year 2017 preliminary budget began nine minutes after its scheduled time, at 10:09 a.m., more prompt than typical Council hearings. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, arrived three minutes later, just after the finance chair, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, wondered aloud whether the speaker would be joining in as expected.</p> <p dir="ltr">Mark-Viverito, the key figure in negotiating budget matters with the mayor, left about 50 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another five hours after her departure. Over the course of those hours, the rest of the finance committee’s members arrived at some point, staying for different amounts of time, as did six Council members not on the committee. By the time city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony began, at 4:05 p.m., Ferreras-Copeland was the only Council member there to hear him speak.</p> <p dir="ltr">This scene is typical of City Council hearings, which regularly start more than 15 minutes later than scheduled and see limited attendance by Council members, who are tasked with writing legislation, negotiating the city budget, overseeing city agencies, and tending to a wide variety of issues in their home districts.</p> <p dir="ltr">Gotham Gazette monitored 13 City Council hearings over a ten-day period, from late February into early March, collecting data that shows more often than not, the committee chair is the only Council member that remains to hear testimony from members of the public at the end of a hearing (7 of 13); more often than not, at least one Council member had two committee hearings scheduled for the same time (8 of 13); and committee hearings never start at their scheduled time, with the earliest start time nine minutes after the scheduled time and the latest start time 54 minutes after. The average start time of the 13 hearings was 23 minutes past scheduled start.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We actually have multiple members who stayed for the entire hearing,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a nearly four-hour Feb. 3 hearing he chaired on a package of legislation to raise the salaries of city elected officials, including Council members. “That is incredibly rare.”</p> <p dir="ltr">It can be frustrating for members of the public to miss work and spend hours at committee hearings waiting for their turn to testify, only to find that most Council members have left before they’ve had a chance to speak. Yet to Council members, leaving hearings early or arriving late is often seen as necessary, either due to conflicting hearings or meetings, or to take care of something in their home districts.</p> <p dir="ltr">“If I were to stay the whole time for every hearing…hours and hours of time would be diverted away from district meetings and staff meetings,” Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette, capturing a theme touched upon in several conversations with Council members about hearings.</p> <p dir="ltr">“What substantive cross examination can you conduct in the span of two or three minutes?” Torres asked, referring to the fact that committee members are allotted a short amount of time to ask questions during hearings (multiple rounds of questions are usually allowed by the chair, though). “If I want to question a commissioner in detail, I might as well meet with them in private.”</p> <p dir="ltr">The “real oversight” happens when a Council member runs a hearing as committee chair, Torres added. It as a sentiment voiced by multiple members Gotham Gazette spoke with about the value of hearings and hearing attendance. Many say that they rely upon the chair to conduct strong hearings and are able to be briefed by committee staff, their own staff members, and others.</p> <p dir="ltr">The oversight that comes with conducting and attending hearings “is perhaps the key element” of Council members’ jobs, said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Yet because the City Council has “a huge amount of hearings and committees,” Russianoff says, Council members often have multiple hearings they must attend that are scheduled at the same time.</p> <p dir="ltr">Both good government experts like Russianoff and Council members themselves say they believe the large number of committees is related to the recently-banned practice of distributing stipends, or lulus, for chairing committees, and that the number of committees should be examined and potentially reduced. “I think [the large number of committees] was a result of all the Council members wanting to get these lulus,” Russianoff said of the typically $5,000-$10,000 bonuses Council members received for their work as chairs.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think that with the elimination of lulus, we’ll hopefully see a reduction in the number of committees,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. The 51-seat Council has 36 committees and six subcommittees.</p> <p dir="ltr">With all those committees and members sitting on<a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/quadrennial/downloads/pdf/testimony/submission_and_attachments__speaker_melissa_markviverito.pdf" target="_blank"> an average of six committees</a> each, avoiding scheduling conflicts can be a near impossible task, particularly when hearings go on for four or five hours. Council hearings typically begin at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.</p> <p dir="ltr">On March 9, Council members on the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved a resolution to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6216-city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned" target="_blank">"delete"</a>&nbsp;the Committee on Community Development, but Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, said “there is not a more comprehensive look [at the number of committees] underway.” Lander believes that the number of Council committees helps the Council do its legislative and oversight work better.</p> <p dir="ltr">While the Council’s move to do away with lulus - which came in conjunction with the pay raises and other reforms - may potentially reduce the number of committees, Russianoff says that in the meantime, he “still believes” Council members’ attendance at committee hearings and the scheduling conflicts created by having so many committee hearings “is a key thing and it is something that they should deal with. It should be a top priority. It’s where they hear from and interact with city officials.”</p> <p dir="ltr">For Council members, fulfilling their obligations to attend committee hearings, press conferences, public events, other meetings (such as leadership meetings or policy meetings), and addressing the concerns of constituents in their districts is a balancing act. The decision to miss part of a committee hearing is often the result of prioritizing time in their districts above spending hours listening to testimony.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Most days feel like a sprint,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who represents portions of upper Manhattan. “But there’s no substitute for showing up in person, whether it’s a public event, meeting with a local leader or commissioner, a press conference, or a hearing; so as much as possible, we try to be in two places at once.”&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">Levine, a member of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, was able to spend just five minutes at the committee’s March 3 preliminary budget hearing. This was due to the fact that he had to chair the Committee on Parks and Recreation preliminary budget hearing held at the same time.</p> <p dir="ltr">Generally, when Council members are unable to remain for the duration of a hearing, they have a member of their staff attend, take notes, and fill them in on key information they may have missed, or they get briefed by committee staff. Others, like Council Members Torres and Levine, catch up on what they missed by watching videos of hearings that are posted on the Council’s website, they said, or by reading through parts of written testimony.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members question whether spending several hours at a committee hearing is the best use of their time.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I will confess that it’s not necessarily worthwhile to remain throughout the duration, and here’s why: I often tell people there are no committees, there are only committee chairs. When you’re a committee chair, there’s no limit to the duration or depth of your questioning,” said Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Committee on Public Housing.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Whereas if I go to another committee, I have to wait two hours to get five minutes of questioning,” Torres continued, adding that oftentimes, committee members don’t even get five minutes, because agency heads or members of the administration who testify “filibuster for three minutes…Waiting two hours for a few minutes of questioning seems like a squander of time.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet it seems some Council members find there is value in spending time at committee hearings even if they’re not the chair. Council Member Kallos remained for the duration of a 40-minute Subcommittee on Landmarks hearing on Feb. 25, and showed up for an hour or more to three other hearings monitored by Gotham Gazette, though he is not a member of the committees holding those hearings.</p> <p dir="ltr">“In fairness, those are hearings on my legislation,” Kallos said. Council members do not always attend hearings on their bills, but, Kallos says, “when my bill is being heard, a lot of the time those are people I’ve invited. It would be impolite for me to not be there.”</p> <p dir="ltr">As Torres admits, it “can be deeply demoralizing” for members of the public to wait several hours for their chance to testify, only to find that just one or two Council members have stayed to listen to them. As almost all City Council hearings take place during normal work hours, it can be difficult for members of the public to attend hearings. Often, those who wish to testify take time off from work in order to speak before the Council.</p> <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/22882021649_6cd92e7491_z.jpg" alt="matteo hearing - william alatriste photo" style="margin: 8px; float: left;" height="186" width="280" />While Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents part of Staten Island, believes attendance at hearings is important and stressed his excellent attendance record, he also said that remaining for the duration of a hearing is not usually the best use of time. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the priority that day?’ Sometime’s it’s spending time in a hearing,” Matteo told Gotham Gazette, “sometimes, I need to be in my district…it’s extremely important to be in the district.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“I’m always asking myself what’s the most efficient use of my time, I can’t be in two or three places at once,” said Matteo (pictured), echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the Council members contacted for this story. Gotham Gazette presented about a dozen Council members or their representatives with detailed instances of their attendance during the 13 monitored hearings and those who responded typically explained their limited hearing presence with specific responsibilities they were attending to.</p> <p dir="ltr">Remaining at hearings for the entire time “takes away from being in the district, but is a big part of what we do,” Council Member Daneek Miller explained. “The hearing part is something that I’ve committed to. I do hearings that are outside of my committees, I did consumer affairs and public safety [budget hearings] because those are issues that impact the community and you need access [to agency commissioners].”</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Members Matteo, Levine, and Rafael Espinal all told Gotham Gazette that when there’s a hearing held on something that has a meaningful impact in their districts, they make sure to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">Miller did spend about an hour and a half at a March 3 housing and buildings hearing, though he is not a member of that committee. At the March 1 finance committee budget hearing, Miller arrived two and a half hours late, stayed for two hours, and then left about an hour and a half before the hearing concluded. Miller explained that he arrived around 11:30 a.m. because he was with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery for a site visit to a daycare center to promote the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion, and left early because he had meetings scheduled in his legislative office.</p> <p dir="ltr">Matteo, Minority Leader of the Council’s three-member Republican minority, arrived 21 minutes late to the 10 a.m. Feb. 23 Committee on Health hearing because he was attending a leadership meeting elsewhere in City Hall, he said, and left before the hearing ended because he had a budget negotiating team meeting to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">Matteo arrived early for the 10 a.m. March 1 preliminary budget hearing held by the finance committee, and left an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing began in order to attend an 11:30 meeting with Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Espinal arrived almost two hours after the start of the March 3 housing and buildings hearing on the preliminary budget, and left less than 20 minutes later. Espinal said he had meetings at 250 Broadway on the proposed East New York rezoning to attend. Earlier, Espinal arrived 50 minutes after the 11 a.m. Feb. 22 Committee on Housing and Buildings hearing began because he had to chair a consumer affairs committee hearing which began at 10 a.m.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I sit on seven committees,” Espinal said. “There are many conflicting committee hearings and we have to make a decision. It’s sometimes impossible to do both.”</p> <p dir="ltr">While Council members may come and go when they want or need to during hearings, members of the public are often left waiting hours for their chance to speak for a few minutes.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It’s difficult for members of the public, particularly the moderate- and low-income tenants we work with,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), a coalition group that often testifies before the Council on housing issues. “If they want to attend, often they have to take off work and find childcare and go to great lengths,” added Goldstein, who testified at the Feb. 22 hearing held by the Committee on Housing and Buildings.</p> <p dir="ltr">Kallos agreed that “for members of the public, it’s often frustrating to be at a multi-hour hearing with only one Council Member, while other Council members show up and leave.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Typically at City Council hearings, representatives of the mayoral administration testify first, often giving opening remarks that run at least 10 minutes, and then are questioned by Council members, regularly for multiple hours. “It really would be good practice if we could get members of the public in more at the front, so they can participate with less disruption to their daily lives, and with more ability to be heard by their elected officials,” Goldstein said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members said that they often get briefed by advocacy groups, are able to read materials sent to them, and have aides who can provide essential information to help them make decisions, craft legislation, or follow-up with an agency official.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Mark Treyger agreed the length of time mayoral administration officials spend testifying could be improved. “We ask the public to condense their statements. But some opening statements [from administration officials] run 10-, 15-, 25-minutes long, which is unnecessary…It’s sometimes redundant to hear information we’ve already been briefed on.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Allowing the public to testify sooner or limiting the amount of time administration officials spend on their opening remarks could make testifying less difficult for regular citizens and potentially cut down on the length of committee hearings, but would do little in the way of improving Council members’ ability to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Council has actually made some strides toward reducing the number of hearings in recent years. As part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, the number of times committees are required to meet per year was halved from ten to five. Some committees, like the Committee on Government Operations, need to meet more frequently than others because they have oversight of many city agencies.</p> <p dir="ltr">But, the City Council has become busier in recent years. As Mark-Viverito wrote in a December <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/quadrennial/downloads/pdf/testimony/submission_and_attachments__speaker_melissa_markviverito.pdf" target="_blank">letter</a> submitted to the quadrennial advisory commission on elected officials’ compensation, “Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session.” With more legislation being put forth, more hearings to introduce, consider, and vote on those bills have been needed.</p> <p dir="ltr">Provided with information gathered by Gotham Gazette about hearing start-times and hearing attendance, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito said that the Council is pleased with the way it is doing its business. “The City Council holds hundreds of hearings a year on issues which matter to New Yorkers and we’re very proud of our strong record,” said Eric Koch in an emailed statement. “Council Members take hearings very seriously, which is why our substantive hearings have led to countless pieces of legislation, land use and budget items being passed. The City Council looks forward to our continued work on behalf of all New Yorkers.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members and good government groups alike say more can be done to improve the scheduling constraints Council members face because they are members of so many different committees. For example, Council Member Treyger needed to leave the Feb. 29 government operations hearing for about 20 minutes in order to vote in a Land Use hearing held at the same time. “Treyger has to vote for land use,” Kallos, who chairs government operations, said at the time, “we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“Part of the problem is that there's too many committees,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform group, told Gotham Gazette. “It’s a complex issue. From the public’s point of view, they want Council members to be present when they testify. “</p> <p dir="ltr">The recent deletion of the Committee on Community Development was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee and resigned last year. After the resolution to delete the committee was approved, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation had “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by other committees that’s really important there?’”</p> <p dir="ltr">Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly because the committee did not have direct oversight of any specific city agency, Lander said. While several Council members told Gotham Gazette they believe the number of committees should be reduced and that some committees could be combined, Lander says further examination of the number of committees is not happening.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think there should be an examination of which committees are worth preserving. There are some committees where the oversight is too broad,” Torres said.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We should probably combine committees that have overlapping jurisdiction,” Council Member Joe Borelli told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we don’t have lulus, and lulus were the reason we have so many committees, why don’t we eliminate some of them?”</p> <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/25875333861_8c05da7bae_z.jpg" alt="lander hearing - william alatriste photo" style="margin: 8px; float: left;" height="187" width="280" />Yet Lander believes the large number of committees is actually beneficial for New Yorkers, because it allows the Council to take on a wider variety of important issues, and allows Council members to hold more focused hearings that “drill down” into the details of a subject.</p> <p dir="ltr">“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” said Lander (pictured). Lander rejected the notion of combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, because he believes it would reduce the amount of time and attention issues and stakeholders get.</p> <p dir="ltr">Kallos is not in agreement with that point, saying “I continue to support reduction of committees and the elimination of lulus will make that easier.” To Kallos, who currently sits on eight committees, fewer committees may not necessarily result in fewer committee hearings, but fewer committee hearings would allow Council members to spend more time on constituent services.</p> <p dir="ltr">Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a former City Council member who works with members in her new role and at times testifies at the City Council. "I think it might help if there weren't quite as many Council committees," Brewer said in a statement. "There are always too many demands on a member's time – especially when committees are often scheduled concurrently – yet hearings are the best way to learn more about the government that's serving the people we represent. In my opinion, stopping by and signing in just isn't enough, yet that's what too many members are reduced to."</p> <p dir="ltr">Of the dozen Council members that Gotham Gazette reached out to, two were not made available for comment, and did not provide an explanation for their attendance at committee hearings monitored for this story.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Laurie Cumbo arrived 50 minutes after the scheduled start time of the Feb. 25 Committee on Youth Services hearing, and departed 16 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another two hours after her departure.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Vincent Gentile arrived on time for a 9:30 a.m. Feb. 25 Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing, though the hearing did not actually begin until 50 minutes later. By that time, Gentile had already left to attend a 10 a.m. health committee hearing on a bill of his.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s spokesperson, Russell Murphy, provided a statement saying “while attending hearings is a major part of the job, members often face competing hearings at the same time, meetings with constituents facing issues or non-profits seeking discretionary funding, district related work such as land-use meetings and more.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Neither Murphy nor Rodriguez specified Rodriguez’s scheduling conflicts for the hearings in question. Rodriguez stepped out twice for a total of nearly four hours during the finance committee’s March 1 hearing on the preliminary budget, though he did not leave the hearing for good until 3:46, half an hour before the hearing officially ended.</p> <p dir="ltr">It is possible that Rodriguez remained in the building and watched the hearing as it was livestreamed, as Council Member Corey Johnson said he was doing for that hearing, though Rodriguez did not clarify this when asked by Gotham Gazette. At 3:41 p.m., while the Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction was testifying, Johnson rushed back into the Council chambers to question the commissioner, apologized, and said that he was watching the testimony downstairs.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet “what is unseen is the hours of deliberation,” Torres warns, “Did I remain at the hearing for ten hours? No. But I wrote four memos and was deeply engaged on the issue. If you’re judging members by the lengths of attendance of the hearing, you’re developing an incomplete picture of productivity.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Other issues, like the hours-long commute to and from City Hall for some Council members, and hearings occasionally being scheduled far apart from each other, affect Council members’ ability to attend. Sometimes, Council members are not given much advance notice of when hearings are scheduled or rescheduled, they say, hindering their ability to plan ahead as far as other meetings they have scheduled.</p> <p dir="ltr">“One thing that I’ve noticed is different from past years is the way the schedules get done,” Council Member Miller said of recent developments. “In terms of hearings, we always knew two weeks in advance and had the calendar come out, and now sometimes, there are hearings that are on Monday morning and you get told about it on Friday.”</p> <p dir="ltr">A number of other city officials and advocates who regularly interact with the City Council did not want to comment on the subject of Council members’ attendance at committee hearings. Asked for comment about his giving his preliminary budget testimony in front of a near-empty chamber, Comptroller Stringer declined to comment through a spokesperson.</p> <p dir="ltr">When Gotham Gazette contacted the Department of Design and Construction’s spokesperson for a comment from Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office sent a statement via email that was unrelated to the question. Both Stringer and Peña-Mora testified at the Mar. 1 preliminary budget hearing. Six advocates who testified at some of the City Council hearings Gotham Gazette monitored also declined or ignored requests for comments.</p> <p dir="ltr">

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p dir="ltr">Samar Khurshid, Maggie Calmes, and Ben Max contributed reporting to this article. Two inset photos by William Alatriste for The City Council.</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: The committees Council members are on may have changed since Gotham Gazette monitored the hearings accounted for in this article. As noted, one committee was deleted, members’ committee assignments shifted around slightly, and Rafael Salamanca was sworn in to fill a vacant seat and assigned to several committees on March 9.</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: this article has been updated with comment from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/van_bramer_alone_hearing.jpg" alt="van bramer alone hearing" height="450" width="600" /></p> <p>Council Member Van Bramer starts a hearing (photo: @JimmyVanBramer)</p> <hr /> <p>On March 1, at perhaps the most important City Council hearing of the year, just three of the finance committee’s eleven members were present when the session began. The Council’s first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion fiscal year 2017 preliminary budget began nine minutes after its scheduled time, at 10:09 a.m., more prompt than typical Council hearings. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, arrived three minutes later, just after the finance chair, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, wondered aloud whether the speaker would be joining in as expected.</p> <p dir="ltr">Mark-Viverito, the key figure in negotiating budget matters with the mayor, left about 50 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another five hours after her departure. Over the course of those hours, the rest of the finance committee’s members arrived at some point, staying for different amounts of time, as did six Council members not on the committee. By the time city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony began, at 4:05 p.m., Ferreras-Copeland was the only Council member there to hear him speak.</p> <p dir="ltr">This scene is typical of City Council hearings, which regularly start more than 15 minutes later than scheduled and see limited attendance by Council members, who are tasked with writing legislation, negotiating the city budget, overseeing city agencies, and tending to a wide variety of issues in their home districts.</p> <p dir="ltr">Gotham Gazette monitored 13 City Council hearings over a ten-day period, from late February into early March, collecting data that shows more often than not, the committee chair is the only Council member that remains to hear testimony from members of the public at the end of a hearing (7 of 13); more often than not, at least one Council member had two committee hearings scheduled for the same time (8 of 13); and committee hearings never start at their scheduled time, with the earliest start time nine minutes after the scheduled time and the latest start time 54 minutes after. The average start time of the 13 hearings was 23 minutes past scheduled start.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We actually have multiple members who stayed for the entire hearing,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a nearly four-hour Feb. 3 hearing he chaired on a package of legislation to raise the salaries of city elected officials, including Council members. “That is incredibly rare.”</p> <p dir="ltr">It can be frustrating for members of the public to miss work and spend hours at committee hearings waiting for their turn to testify, only to find that most Council members have left before they’ve had a chance to speak. Yet to Council members, leaving hearings early or arriving late is often seen as necessary, either due to conflicting hearings or meetings, or to take care of something in their home districts.</p> <p dir="ltr">“If I were to stay the whole time for every hearing…hours and hours of time would be diverted away from district meetings and staff meetings,” Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette, capturing a theme touched upon in several conversations with Council members about hearings.</p> <p dir="ltr">“What substantive cross examination can you conduct in the span of two or three minutes?” Torres asked, referring to the fact that committee members are allotted a short amount of time to ask questions during hearings (multiple rounds of questions are usually allowed by the chair, though). “If I want to question a commissioner in detail, I might as well meet with them in private.”</p> <p dir="ltr">The “real oversight” happens when a Council member runs a hearing as committee chair, Torres added. It as a sentiment voiced by multiple members Gotham Gazette spoke with about the value of hearings and hearing attendance. Many say that they rely upon the chair to conduct strong hearings and are able to be briefed by committee staff, their own staff members, and others.</p> <p dir="ltr">The oversight that comes with conducting and attending hearings “is perhaps the key element” of Council members’ jobs, said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Yet because the City Council has “a huge amount of hearings and committees,” Russianoff says, Council members often have multiple hearings they must attend that are scheduled at the same time.</p> <p dir="ltr">Both good government experts like Russianoff and Council members themselves say they believe the large number of committees is related to the recently-banned practice of distributing stipends, or lulus, for chairing committees, and that the number of committees should be examined and potentially reduced. “I think [the large number of committees] was a result of all the Council members wanting to get these lulus,” Russianoff said of the typically $5,000-$10,000 bonuses Council members received for their work as chairs.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think that with the elimination of lulus, we’ll hopefully see a reduction in the number of committees,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. The 51-seat Council has 36 committees and six subcommittees.</p> <p dir="ltr">With all those committees and members sitting on<a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/quadrennial/downloads/pdf/testimony/submission_and_attachments__speaker_melissa_markviverito.pdf" target="_blank"> an average of six committees</a> each, avoiding scheduling conflicts can be a near impossible task, particularly when hearings go on for four or five hours. Council hearings typically begin at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.</p> <p dir="ltr">On March 9, Council members on the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved a resolution to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6216-city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned" target="_blank">"delete"</a>&nbsp;the Committee on Community Development, but Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, said “there is not a more comprehensive look [at the number of committees] underway.” Lander believes that the number of Council committees helps the Council do its legislative and oversight work better.</p> <p dir="ltr">While the Council’s move to do away with lulus - which came in conjunction with the pay raises and other reforms - may potentially reduce the number of committees, Russianoff says that in the meantime, he “still believes” Council members’ attendance at committee hearings and the scheduling conflicts created by having so many committee hearings “is a key thing and it is something that they should deal with. It should be a top priority. It’s where they hear from and interact with city officials.”</p> <p dir="ltr">For Council members, fulfilling their obligations to attend committee hearings, press conferences, public events, other meetings (such as leadership meetings or policy meetings), and addressing the concerns of constituents in their districts is a balancing act. The decision to miss part of a committee hearing is often the result of prioritizing time in their districts above spending hours listening to testimony.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Most days feel like a sprint,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who represents portions of upper Manhattan. “But there’s no substitute for showing up in person, whether it’s a public event, meeting with a local leader or commissioner, a press conference, or a hearing; so as much as possible, we try to be in two places at once.”&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">Levine, a member of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, was able to spend just five minutes at the committee’s March 3 preliminary budget hearing. This was due to the fact that he had to chair the Committee on Parks and Recreation preliminary budget hearing held at the same time.</p> <p dir="ltr">Generally, when Council members are unable to remain for the duration of a hearing, they have a member of their staff attend, take notes, and fill them in on key information they may have missed, or they get briefed by committee staff. Others, like Council Members Torres and Levine, catch up on what they missed by watching videos of hearings that are posted on the Council’s website, they said, or by reading through parts of written testimony.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members question whether spending several hours at a committee hearing is the best use of their time.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I will confess that it’s not necessarily worthwhile to remain throughout the duration, and here’s why: I often tell people there are no committees, there are only committee chairs. When you’re a committee chair, there’s no limit to the duration or depth of your questioning,” said Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Committee on Public Housing.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Whereas if I go to another committee, I have to wait two hours to get five minutes of questioning,” Torres continued, adding that oftentimes, committee members don’t even get five minutes, because agency heads or members of the administration who testify “filibuster for three minutes…Waiting two hours for a few minutes of questioning seems like a squander of time.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet it seems some Council members find there is value in spending time at committee hearings even if they’re not the chair. Council Member Kallos remained for the duration of a 40-minute Subcommittee on Landmarks hearing on Feb. 25, and showed up for an hour or more to three other hearings monitored by Gotham Gazette, though he is not a member of the committees holding those hearings.</p> <p dir="ltr">“In fairness, those are hearings on my legislation,” Kallos said. Council members do not always attend hearings on their bills, but, Kallos says, “when my bill is being heard, a lot of the time those are people I’ve invited. It would be impolite for me to not be there.”</p> <p dir="ltr">As Torres admits, it “can be deeply demoralizing” for members of the public to wait several hours for their chance to testify, only to find that just one or two Council members have stayed to listen to them. As almost all City Council hearings take place during normal work hours, it can be difficult for members of the public to attend hearings. Often, those who wish to testify take time off from work in order to speak before the Council.</p> <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/22882021649_6cd92e7491_z.jpg" alt="matteo hearing - william alatriste photo" style="margin: 8px; float: left;" height="186" width="280" />While Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents part of Staten Island, believes attendance at hearings is important and stressed his excellent attendance record, he also said that remaining for the duration of a hearing is not usually the best use of time. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the priority that day?’ Sometime’s it’s spending time in a hearing,” Matteo told Gotham Gazette, “sometimes, I need to be in my district…it’s extremely important to be in the district.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“I’m always asking myself what’s the most efficient use of my time, I can’t be in two or three places at once,” said Matteo (pictured), echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the Council members contacted for this story. Gotham Gazette presented about a dozen Council members or their representatives with detailed instances of their attendance during the 13 monitored hearings and those who responded typically explained their limited hearing presence with specific responsibilities they were attending to.</p> <p dir="ltr">Remaining at hearings for the entire time “takes away from being in the district, but is a big part of what we do,” Council Member Daneek Miller explained. “The hearing part is something that I’ve committed to. I do hearings that are outside of my committees, I did consumer affairs and public safety [budget hearings] because those are issues that impact the community and you need access [to agency commissioners].”</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Members Matteo, Levine, and Rafael Espinal all told Gotham Gazette that when there’s a hearing held on something that has a meaningful impact in their districts, they make sure to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">Miller did spend about an hour and a half at a March 3 housing and buildings hearing, though he is not a member of that committee. At the March 1 finance committee budget hearing, Miller arrived two and a half hours late, stayed for two hours, and then left about an hour and a half before the hearing concluded. Miller explained that he arrived around 11:30 a.m. because he was with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery for a site visit to a daycare center to promote the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion, and left early because he had meetings scheduled in his legislative office.</p> <p dir="ltr">Matteo, Minority Leader of the Council’s three-member Republican minority, arrived 21 minutes late to the 10 a.m. Feb. 23 Committee on Health hearing because he was attending a leadership meeting elsewhere in City Hall, he said, and left before the hearing ended because he had a budget negotiating team meeting to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">Matteo arrived early for the 10 a.m. March 1 preliminary budget hearing held by the finance committee, and left an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing began in order to attend an 11:30 meeting with Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Espinal arrived almost two hours after the start of the March 3 housing and buildings hearing on the preliminary budget, and left less than 20 minutes later. Espinal said he had meetings at 250 Broadway on the proposed East New York rezoning to attend. Earlier, Espinal arrived 50 minutes after the 11 a.m. Feb. 22 Committee on Housing and Buildings hearing began because he had to chair a consumer affairs committee hearing which began at 10 a.m.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I sit on seven committees,” Espinal said. “There are many conflicting committee hearings and we have to make a decision. It’s sometimes impossible to do both.”</p> <p dir="ltr">While Council members may come and go when they want or need to during hearings, members of the public are often left waiting hours for their chance to speak for a few minutes.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It’s difficult for members of the public, particularly the moderate- and low-income tenants we work with,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), a coalition group that often testifies before the Council on housing issues. “If they want to attend, often they have to take off work and find childcare and go to great lengths,” added Goldstein, who testified at the Feb. 22 hearing held by the Committee on Housing and Buildings.</p> <p dir="ltr">Kallos agreed that “for members of the public, it’s often frustrating to be at a multi-hour hearing with only one Council Member, while other Council members show up and leave.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Typically at City Council hearings, representatives of the mayoral administration testify first, often giving opening remarks that run at least 10 minutes, and then are questioned by Council members, regularly for multiple hours. “It really would be good practice if we could get members of the public in more at the front, so they can participate with less disruption to their daily lives, and with more ability to be heard by their elected officials,” Goldstein said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members said that they often get briefed by advocacy groups, are able to read materials sent to them, and have aides who can provide essential information to help them make decisions, craft legislation, or follow-up with an agency official.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Mark Treyger agreed the length of time mayoral administration officials spend testifying could be improved. “We ask the public to condense their statements. But some opening statements [from administration officials] run 10-, 15-, 25-minutes long, which is unnecessary…It’s sometimes redundant to hear information we’ve already been briefed on.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Allowing the public to testify sooner or limiting the amount of time administration officials spend on their opening remarks could make testifying less difficult for regular citizens and potentially cut down on the length of committee hearings, but would do little in the way of improving Council members’ ability to attend.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Council has actually made some strides toward reducing the number of hearings in recent years. As part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, the number of times committees are required to meet per year was halved from ten to five. Some committees, like the Committee on Government Operations, need to meet more frequently than others because they have oversight of many city agencies.</p> <p dir="ltr">But, the City Council has become busier in recent years. As Mark-Viverito wrote in a December <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/quadrennial/downloads/pdf/testimony/submission_and_attachments__speaker_melissa_markviverito.pdf" target="_blank">letter</a> submitted to the quadrennial advisory commission on elected officials’ compensation, “Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session.” With more legislation being put forth, more hearings to introduce, consider, and vote on those bills have been needed.</p> <p dir="ltr">Provided with information gathered by Gotham Gazette about hearing start-times and hearing attendance, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito said that the Council is pleased with the way it is doing its business. “The City Council holds hundreds of hearings a year on issues which matter to New Yorkers and we’re very proud of our strong record,” said Eric Koch in an emailed statement. “Council Members take hearings very seriously, which is why our substantive hearings have led to countless pieces of legislation, land use and budget items being passed. The City Council looks forward to our continued work on behalf of all New Yorkers.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Council members and good government groups alike say more can be done to improve the scheduling constraints Council members face because they are members of so many different committees. For example, Council Member Treyger needed to leave the Feb. 29 government operations hearing for about 20 minutes in order to vote in a Land Use hearing held at the same time. “Treyger has to vote for land use,” Kallos, who chairs government operations, said at the time, “we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“Part of the problem is that there's too many committees,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform group, told Gotham Gazette. “It’s a complex issue. From the public’s point of view, they want Council members to be present when they testify. “</p> <p dir="ltr">The recent deletion of the Committee on Community Development was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee and resigned last year. After the resolution to delete the committee was approved, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation had “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by other committees that’s really important there?’”</p> <p dir="ltr">Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly because the committee did not have direct oversight of any specific city agency, Lander said. While several Council members told Gotham Gazette they believe the number of committees should be reduced and that some committees could be combined, Lander says further examination of the number of committees is not happening.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think there should be an examination of which committees are worth preserving. There are some committees where the oversight is too broad,” Torres said.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We should probably combine committees that have overlapping jurisdiction,” Council Member Joe Borelli told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we don’t have lulus, and lulus were the reason we have so many committees, why don’t we eliminate some of them?”</p> <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/25875333861_8c05da7bae_z.jpg" alt="lander hearing - william alatriste photo" style="margin: 8px; float: left;" height="187" width="280" />Yet Lander believes the large number of committees is actually beneficial for New Yorkers, because it allows the Council to take on a wider variety of important issues, and allows Council members to hold more focused hearings that “drill down” into the details of a subject.</p> <p dir="ltr">“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” said Lander (pictured). Lander rejected the notion of combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, because he believes it would reduce the amount of time and attention issues and stakeholders get.</p> <p dir="ltr">Kallos is not in agreement with that point, saying “I continue to support reduction of committees and the elimination of lulus will make that easier.” To Kallos, who currently sits on eight committees, fewer committees may not necessarily result in fewer committee hearings, but fewer committee hearings would allow Council members to spend more time on constituent services.</p> <p dir="ltr">Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a former City Council member who works with members in her new role and at times testifies at the City Council. "I think it might help if there weren't quite as many Council committees," Brewer said in a statement. "There are always too many demands on a member's time – especially when committees are often scheduled concurrently – yet hearings are the best way to learn more about the government that's serving the people we represent. In my opinion, stopping by and signing in just isn't enough, yet that's what too many members are reduced to."</p> <p dir="ltr">Of the dozen Council members that Gotham Gazette reached out to, two were not made available for comment, and did not provide an explanation for their attendance at committee hearings monitored for this story.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Laurie Cumbo arrived 50 minutes after the scheduled start time of the Feb. 25 Committee on Youth Services hearing, and departed 16 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another two hours after her departure.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Vincent Gentile arrived on time for a 9:30 a.m. Feb. 25 Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing, though the hearing did not actually begin until 50 minutes later. By that time, Gentile had already left to attend a 10 a.m. health committee hearing on a bill of his.</p> <p dir="ltr">Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s spokesperson, Russell Murphy, provided a statement saying “while attending hearings is a major part of the job, members often face competing hearings at the same time, meetings with constituents facing issues or non-profits seeking discretionary funding, district related work such as land-use meetings and more.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Neither Murphy nor Rodriguez specified Rodriguez’s scheduling conflicts for the hearings in question. Rodriguez stepped out twice for a total of nearly four hours during the finance committee’s March 1 hearing on the preliminary budget, though he did not leave the hearing for good until 3:46, half an hour before the hearing officially ended.</p> <p dir="ltr">It is possible that Rodriguez remained in the building and watched the hearing as it was livestreamed, as Council Member Corey Johnson said he was doing for that hearing, though Rodriguez did not clarify this when asked by Gotham Gazette. At 3:41 p.m., while the Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction was testifying, Johnson rushed back into the Council chambers to question the commissioner, apologized, and said that he was watching the testimony downstairs.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet “what is unseen is the hours of deliberation,” Torres warns, “Did I remain at the hearing for ten hours? No. But I wrote four memos and was deeply engaged on the issue. If you’re judging members by the lengths of attendance of the hearing, you’re developing an incomplete picture of productivity.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Other issues, like the hours-long commute to and from City Hall for some Council members, and hearings occasionally being scheduled far apart from each other, affect Council members’ ability to attend. Sometimes, Council members are not given much advance notice of when hearings are scheduled or rescheduled, they say, hindering their ability to plan ahead as far as other meetings they have scheduled.</p> <p dir="ltr">“One thing that I’ve noticed is different from past years is the way the schedules get done,” Council Member Miller said of recent developments. “In terms of hearings, we always knew two weeks in advance and had the calendar come out, and now sometimes, there are hearings that are on Monday morning and you get told about it on Friday.”</p> <p dir="ltr">A number of other city officials and advocates who regularly interact with the City Council did not want to comment on the subject of Council members’ attendance at committee hearings. Asked for comment about his giving his preliminary budget testimony in front of a near-empty chamber, Comptroller Stringer declined to comment through a spokesperson.</p> <p dir="ltr">When Gotham Gazette contacted the Department of Design and Construction’s spokesperson for a comment from Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office sent a statement via email that was unrelated to the question. Both Stringer and Peña-Mora testified at the Mar. 1 preliminary budget hearing. Six advocates who testified at some of the City Council hearings Gotham Gazette monitored also declined or ignored requests for comments.</p> <p dir="ltr">

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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</p> <p dir="ltr">Samar Khurshid, Maggie Calmes, and Ben Max contributed reporting to this article. Two inset photos by William Alatriste for The City Council.</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: The committees Council members are on may have changed since Gotham Gazette monitored the hearings accounted for in this article. As noted, one committee was deleted, members’ committee assignments shifted around slightly, and Rafael Salamanca was sworn in to fill a vacant seat and assigned to several committees on March 9.</p> <p dir="ltr">Note: this article has been updated with comment from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.</p>