Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/56 Wed, 14 Nov 2018 07:05:36 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to make a lasting impact on city governance through a charter revision commission that would transform the city’s campaign finance system, promote greater civic involvement in city affairs, and inject new blood into local community boards. But prominent elected officials, most of whom are Democrats like de Blasio, don’t agree with the proposals the mayor’s commission has put on the November 6 ballot and are urging New Yorkers to reject them.

The mayor’s commission put three questions on the ballot for voter approval through a simple majority. The first would significantly reduce individual campaign contribution limits and expand the city’s public matching funds program; the second would create a civic engagement commission with appointments mostly by the mayor to coordinate citywide participatory budgeting and other initiatives such as interpreting services at polling sites; and the third would impose term limits on community board members and alter how those members are recruited and appointed to ensure greater diversity.

Though the mayor appointed the commission and announced its areas of focus, he was not to have direct say over its final report or proposals, but he did announce support for all three and is now campaigning to see them approved by voters.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” he said in a September statement, when the proposals were released. “There's no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.” On Sunday, de Blasio spoke at two churches in Manhattan, urging congregants to flip their ballot and decide on the three questions. “[V]ote yes, yes, yes. So we can open up the doors of democracy wide and make this an even greater city,” he said at Bethel Gospel Assembly.

Other elected officials, however, are not so certain, and are expressing somewhat mixed reviews, though many are opposed to community board term limits.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, for instance, supports lowering contribution limits and creating a civic engagement commission, but not term limits for community board members. “I don’t think term limits are necessary,” Johnson, a former community boar chair, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These aren’t lifetime appointments. They must be reappointed by elected officials who are term limited. I think that provides enough checks and balances to our community boards, while allowing us to keep the good members with experience and wisdom. It is also our job as elected officials to always be looking to appoint new civic minded leaders who are interested in serving.”

It’s an argument that’s also been advanced by four of the five borough presidents -- only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams supports the term limits question.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in fact, led the creation of an independent expenditure committee to oppose both term limits and the civic engagement commission, an effort in which she was joined by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo (Oddo is the lone Republican in the group). “These proposals would be a real—and in some cases dangerous—disruption to the way Community Boards protect our communities,” Brewer wrote in an email to supporters earlier this month, arguing that it could lead to a drain in institutional wisdom and give real estate interests and lobbyists a leg up in discussions about community development. The proposal does include a provision whereby individuals term-limited off of community boards are eligible to serve again after a one-term, two-year “cooling off period.”

“Our community boards are the eyes and ears of our neighborhoods and are often the first line of defense against unwanted projects as well as the initial point of contact between city agencies and our neighbors,” said Diaz Jr. “We should be working to strengthen their role, not strip them of the knowledge and historical focus that makes them so important in the first place.”

Katz said the current appointment process allows “ample opportunity” to pick diverse candidates “for a dynamic mix of talent,” while Oddo worried that the “one-size-fits-all solution” could have unintended consequences.

Adams, however, has argued, “While institutional knowledge is valuable, a reasonable term limit for Community Board members will allow the best of both worlds: institutional knowledge and new voices.”

On expanding the campaign finance system, however, only Adams and Oddo have publicly opposed the question among the borough presidents, though for different reasons. “[Brooklyn BP Adams] opposes the campaign finance reform measure because it doesn’t go far enough as he believes in 100 percent public financing,” said an Adams spokesperson. Oddo, on the other hand, has been a staunch opponent of public financing and simply said, “Hell no!” about proposal one.

Spokespeople for Katz and Diaz Jr. did not respond to requests for comment about the campaign finance reform proposal.

[Read: Brewer Creates Committee to Oppose Charter Revision Proposals]

Comptroller Scott Stringer also opposes the second and third questions while supporting the first on campaign finance reform. “The City must take a serious look at our Charter — it’s critical to tackling the important issues facing New Yorkers,” he said in a statement. Stringer has laid out his own exhaustive plan of charter proposals to the 2019 charter commission, a separate one from the mayor’s that was created through City Council legislation that is taking a far broader look at the city’s governing principles. 

Stringer added, “I support the first initiative because we need a campaign finance system that does everything it can to engage New Yorkers and help people run for office. I oppose proposals 2 and 3 which will weaken communities’ voices in shaping their own development.”

At an October 31 news conference at City Hall, Gotham Gazette asked Speaker Johnson if he would urge the 2019 commission to reverse community board term limits if they should pass. Johnson said he would not. "I think it's important to lice by the will of the voters," he said.  

A spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James did not provide her stances despite multiple requests for comment, one of which was acknowledged.

Among a few rank-and-file City Council Members, reception of the proposals seems to be mixed. Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, for example, supports all three proposals and has in particular been advocating for the creation of the civic engagement commission -- Lander had proposed the idea through legislation and presented it to the commission.

“I truly believe these ballot proposals give us an opportunity to do something important to strengthen our local democracy: To improve our campaign finance rules. To turbo-charge civic engagement. To expand participatory budgeting city-wide,” he said in an email blast to supporters, calling on New Yorkers to pledge their support.

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, also a Democrat, is backing all the proposals as well. Kallos has been a staunch campaign finance reform advocate and the first question would partially achieve what he has in the past tried to do through legislation, to expand the amount of public funds given to candidates running for office. “Democracy in New York City will finally get better,” he said in a September 6 statement, if the first question is passed, “reducing contribution limits and making small dollars more valuable by matching more of them with a greater multiplier.”

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat, is also urging a "yes" vote on all three proposals. City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, has expressed support for the campaign finance proposal, but a spokesperson did not respond to a request for his positions on the other two.

On the other end, there’s Council Member Helen Rosenthal, again a Manhattan Democrat, who opposes all three measures. “The spirit of the first two proposals is positive and some of the substance is even promising, but each raises significant concerns to the point where I cannot support them,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Also noting a criticism that was raised when the mayor first announced his commission, she added, “Of course, all three proposals could be implemented through the current legislative process.”

Even government reform groups appear somewhat split on the ballot proposals. Reinvent Albany is advocating for all three. “Reinvent Albany believes a YES vote on these ballot measures will collectively amplify the voice of everyday New Yorkers and create new opportunities for injecting fresh perspectives into the public debate over how to make our city better for everyone,” the group said in an email blast on Monday.

Citizens Union, another good government advocacy organization opposes the proposal for a civic engagement commission, supports community board term limits, and has not taken a position on the campaign finance question.

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with additional comment from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Jumaane Williams.   

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Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission stringer charter testimony

Comptroller Stringer testifies at the 2019 Charter Revision Commission (photo: @NYCComptroller)


The charter revision commission created through New York City Council legislation concluded its first round of public hearings last month, receiving dozens of suggestions about improving the functions and structure of city government. Unlike the commission established by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which has three proposals on this November’s ballot, the Council-created commission is set to propose changes to the city’s central governing document via the 2019 election.

Among those who testified at the 2019 commission’s initial hearings were several elected officials who presented their own broad proposals that could significantly change how the city conducts its business and how those who hold power can wield it. They included City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, and several City Council members from the five boroughs.

Johnson -- who appointed the commission’s chair Gail Benjamin, the former head of the Council’s land use division, and three other members -- sees in the commission an opportunity to fix the balance of power in the city, which tilts toward the mayoralty and at times can diminish the oversight and accountability role played by the 51-member Council.

In testimony at the September 27 hearing held at City Hall, Johnson noted the Council’s limited ability to review mayoral appointees to head city agencies, and that the body cannot remove an agency head. He also suggested that the commission examine whether the budgets for certain offices “which are uncertain and subject to political considerations as opposed to substantive need, should be fixed or independently set.”

Johnson also recommended the commission look at the structure of the Law Department and the Corporation Counsel. “One lawyer attempting to serve two separate branches of government is an invitation for confusion and disruption and may not be in the best interests of the City,” his testimony reads, in reference to representation of both the executive and legislative branches of city government, an issue that has come to the fore as Council members have sought to join a lawsuit against the city’s property tax system.

Johnson is also pushing for changes to the city’s budget process to give the Council a greater voice and to tie budget allocations more closely to city programs, and also argued in favor of instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting.

The most sweeping reforms that Johnson proposed, however, deal with the city’s land use process, which is almost always contentious and has been recently as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has moved to rezone several neighborhoods -- mostly low-income, communities of color -- to increase density and create more affordable housing. Johnson and other members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus have advocated for a citywide planning framework that gives communities greater say in land use decisions and balances equity with development. They have also called for an independent City Planning Commission, as opposed to the one currently composed largely of mayoral appointees. Council Members Diana Ayala, who co-chairs the caucus, Keith Powers, a vice co-chair, Brad Lander, and Adrienne Adams each testified on those proposals at separate borough hearings. “The status quo of ad hoc planning is just not working…We need a larger vision based on equity, a vision in which low-income communities do not have to slowly bear the brunt of the city’s every housing and infrastructure need,” Ayala said at a September 12 hearing in the Bronx.

Those goals are also in line with a report released in January by the Regional Planning Association, a prominent think tank, in partnership with community advocacy groups, academic experts and partners in city government. The RPA report, titled “Inclusive City”, was also presented to the charter commission and cited by elected officials, including Brewer, who also testified at the Sept. 27 hearing. Brewer, along with Public Advocate Letitia James, was the driver behind the legislation that created the commission and has expressed hope that it can bring a sea change the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1989 charter commission fundamentally altered the structure of city government, giving it its present form.

In her testimony, Brewer emphasized a more thoughtful process for land use decisions that includes early input from community boards and elected officials before applications are certified through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). “With pre-planning we can do more than merely react—we can shape a project,” she said.

She also pushed for more technical improvements to zoning and permitting procedures, in the context of a long-term citywide approach. “There needs to be a citywide comprehensive plan every ten years,” she said. “This planning process could distribute new development equitably across the city, rather than concentrate rezonings in communities of color.”

Similar to Johnson’s testimony, Brewer advocated for increased transparency in the city budget. She also said the Civilian Complaint Review Board should be strengthened and its budget tied to the NYPD’s, to ensure that the watchdog agency has sufficient resources to deal with a growing police body. Additionally, she noted her opposition to term limits for community boards, which have been proposed in a ballot question by the mayor’s commission. Borough presidents appoint most community board members.

Comptroller Stringer’s ideas, in number at least, outpaced other elected officials. In an exhaustive report presented at the City Hall hearing, Stringer recommended 65 revisions to the charter ranging from proposals on city budgeting and procurement to housing, cybersecurity, children’s services, campaign finance and voting reforms.

“Since the last major charter revision nearly thirty years ago, New York City has grown by 1.2 million people and the world has changed around it, yet its charter is not prepared to meet the needs of today’s challenges,” Stringer said in a statement. “The Charter Review Commission is an opportunity for us to build a better government that takes aim at our affordability crisis and builds a fairer city by giving a voice to New Yorkers.”

Chief among Stringer’s proposals was a push for a Chief Diversity Officer in the mayor’s office and in each city agency, to ensure diversity in hiring and in contracting. Stringer has advocated for increased investment in Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs) and he noted that though New York City spends nearly $20 billion on goods and services each year, less than 5 percent of the contracts are given to M/WBEs.

He also proposed a new Office of Inspection independent of the Department of Buildings and the Housing and Preservation Department, which he said play conflicting roles since they both approve new construction and development and are also charged with enforcing housing and construction codes. In line with his role as the city’s chief fiscal officer, Stringer also pushed for reforms to the capital budget, which funds infrastructure projects in the city. He said it should be transparent enough so the public can identify the cost of specific projects and be informed when those costs change.

Several other City Council members also weighed in on proposed charter revisions.

Council Member Ben Kallos, also co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, proposed 72 ideas in total, in updated testimony, including a citizen “Bill of Rights to free higher education, affordable health and mental health care, and, access to parks, libraries, public transit and affordable internet.” He stressed that any revisions to the charter brought about through a ballot referendum should go through further changes only after being presented to voters again. He pushed to give the Council and borough presidents the ability to make appointments to mayoral boards that have land use authority and said the charter should be amended to allow city residents to propose legislation and be heard before the Council. “Our City’s Charter is truly a living document,” he said in a statement, “but it is up to us to make sure it remains alive.”

Council Member Helen Rosenthal pushed for the charter to formally adopt the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW), and also advocated for reforms to the city's contracting process to ease burdensome requirements on non-profits that provide early childhood
education, homeless services, senior services, and mental healthcare.  

At the September 20 hearing in Queens, Council Members Adams and Francisco Moya, who is not a Progressive Caucus member, supported improvements to ULURP. “Displacement in our neighborhoods is no longer a possibility but a fact of life,” Moya said, according to written testimony. He called for the charter to mandate assessments of displacement brought about by proposed development. “We cannot view our city and its neighborhoods in a vacuum,” Moya said.

There were, of course, elected officials with more borough-specific agendas. At the September 24 hearing on Staten Island, testimony by Borough President James Oddo, and Council Members Steven Matteo and Joseph Borelli (all three Republicans, unlike all of the other aforementioned officials, who are Democrats), advocated for greater freedom for the borough from “bureaucrats in Manhattan,” as Oddo and Matteo put it.

Oddo and Matteo, in submitted testimony, said that city agencies should be restructured to give borough commissioners more power over local issues. “Agencies should be restructured in such a way that the chain of command within the agency is clear, and that one individual on the local level is not only responsible and accountable, but specifically empowered within the agency to act,” they wrote.

Borelli similarly pushed for more decentralization of power, expressing concern that the priorities of Staten Islanders are often ignored by city government and that new changes to the charter could adversely affect the borough. “We don’t want to be laboratories for the latest experiments in social engineering as too often seems the case on issues ranging from buses to composting,” he said. He largely argued for giving the borough president greater jurisdiction over local issues, similar to a county executive outside New York City.

He also criticized the city’s public matching funds program for campaign financing, calling on the commission to negate the potential expansion of the program that could happen through a ballot proposal put forward by the mayor’s commission. And, he advanced several other proposals -- mandating that the Independent Budget Office study the fiscal impact of every piece of City Council legislation; reducing duplicative roles played by different city agencies; making it harder to raise taxes in the city; improving the process for holding special elections; and curbing the power of the Board of Standards and Appeals.

***
by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to include testimony from Council Member Helen Rosenthal and updated testimony from Council Member Ben Kallos.  

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Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission Thu, 11 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Progressive Caucus Urges Cuomo to Sign Bill Creating Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7799-city-council-progressive-caucus-urges-cuomo-to-sign-bill-creating-prosecutorial-misconduct-commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7799-city-council-progressive-caucus-urges-cuomo-to-sign-bill-creating-prosecutorial-misconduct-commission progressive caucus 2009

City Council Progressive Caucus (photo via Progressive Caucus website)


The Progressive Caucus of the New York City Council sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo urging him to sign a bill, passed at the end of the legislative session in June, which would create a new state commission on prosecutorial misconduct. The caucus, which includes 21 of the Council’s 51 members, referred to the bill as “the most substantive criminal justice reform passed in the state this year.”

The state bill passed with bipartisan support in both the Assembly and the Senate, and awaits Cuomo’s signature or veto. The commission, consisting of eleven judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys appointed by the state’s chief judge, the governor, and legislative leaders, would be empowered to investigate and recommend disciplinary action against prosecutors in the state accused of misconduct. The commission would be similar in structure and purpose to a commission established in the 1970s to investigate misconduct claims by judges.

Cuomo has not indicated whether he supports the legislation or not, and the state district attorneys association has called it unconstitutional and threatened to sue if the governor does sign it into law. The commission would have oversight of the state’s 62 district attorneys and their assistant district attorneys.

The letter from the Council’s Progressive Caucus notes that, according to the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations, New York is fourth in the nation for wrongful convictions, behind California, Illinois, and Texas.

“Across the United States there is a growing crisis of confidence in prosecutors as the role District Attorneys, historically, played in driving mass incarceration has become better understood by the public,” the letter reads. “The exonerations of wrongfully convicted people have sometimes exposed egregious misconduct by prosecutors, many of whom remain working as lawyers today.”

Misconduct can take various forms, including failure to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense, intimidation of defendants or witnesses by police, and knowing submission of false testimony. Oftentimes, these occurrences can lead to false convictions, including for serious crimes that carry long sentences. In 2017, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded 13 exonerations in New York State, for individuals who had served as little as one year to as long as 28 years for crimes they did not commit. So far in 2018, 12 exonerations have been recorded.

False convictions are such an issue in New York that some district attorneys have formed entire units within their offices dedicated solely to examining past convictions and their validity. The Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit, for instance, requested 24 exonerations for wrongfully-convicted defendants between its creation in February 2014 and December 2017.

The bill is strongly supported by defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates, but is sharply opposed by district attorneys throughout the state. The Staten Island District Attorney told Gotham Gazette in June that oversight measures, such as grievance committees, already exist, and that the bill would hinder the ability of prosecutors to do their jobs and “potentially threaten the safety of those we are sworn to protect.”

The grievance committees, which are bodies within appellate divisions that serve to investigate and censure both prosecutors and defense attorneys, have been characterized as toothless by advocates of the bill on both sides of the aisle, and criminal justice reform writ large. The Progressive Caucus wrote that the committee system in place has “not curbed bad behavior” among prosecutors, and that discipline is a rarity.

“Public officials entrusted with incredible power should be held to the highest of standards,” reads the letter, signed by 12 members of the caucus. “Instead prosecutors have come to expect that there will be no punishment even following a judicial finding of egregious misconduct.”

(Read the full letter here)

The grievance committees rarely discipline prosecutors, but frequently discipline defense attorneys or other attorneys in private practice. In 2016, the First Appellate Division’s Grievance Committee, which covers Manhattan and the Bronx, disbarred 30 attorneys, suspended ten, and publicly censured six; none were prosecutors. When prosecutors are disciplined, sanctioned, and disbarred, it tends to make the news, as occurred with former St. Lawrence County DA Mary Rain.

The Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, meanwhile, told Gotham Gazette that previous working groups, including one led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, found no evidence of “rampant prosecutorial misconduct.”

David Soares, the Albany District Attorney and the new president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY), told host Susan Arbetter of the Capitol Pressroom radio show in June that DAASNY would sue the state if Cuomo signs the bill into law.

For the Council’s Progressive Caucus, a majority in favor leads to an action like the letter. It was signed by caucus Co-chair Ben Kallos and fellow Council Members Jumaane Williams, Anonion Reynoso, Brad LAnder, Carlos Menchaca, Keith Powers, Deborah Rose, Daneek Miller, Justin Brannan, Steve Levin, Carlina Rivera, and Alicka Ampry-Samuel.

Notably, the non-signers of the caucus include Council Speaker Corey Johnson, caucus co-chair Diana Ayala, and public safety committee chair Donovan Richards.

A spokesperson for Richards told Gotham Gazette that Richards is in support of the bill, but was unable to sign it because Richards was out of town when the letter was sent. “I am absolutely in support of creating a state commission to look into prosecutorial misconduct,” he said. “In order to truly reform our criminal justice system, we must root out misconduct in all levels of law enforcement.”

A representative for Johnson did not return a request for comment, while Ayala’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives for Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Mark Levine, among the other members of the Progressive Caucus who did not sign the letter, told Gotham Gazette that they support the bill.

Governor Cuomo has not signaled whether he intends to sign the bill or not. Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said that the governor’s office is still reviewing it.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Progressive Caucus Urges Cuomo to Sign Bill Creating Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission Wed, 11 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayor's Charter Revision Commission Hears Testimony in Manhattan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7665-mayor-s-charter-revision-commission-hears-testimony-in-manhattan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7665-mayor-s-charter-revision-commission-hears-testimony-in-manhattan Ben Kallos Bill de Blasio

Council Member Kallos & Mayor de Blasio at a town hall (photo: Mayor's Office)


A large public turn out and testimony that touched on topics such campaign finance reform, improving voter participation, enhancing police discipline, and the benefits of participatory budgeting marked the Manhattan hearing of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission on Wednesday night at the main branch of New York Public Library.

It was the last of five hearings, one in each borough, to launch the mayor’s charter revision commission, which will hold other listening sessions as it moves ahead with its work -- it plans to prepare a preliminary report early this summer and have a set of proposals by early September that will be presented to voters on their November ballots.

On Wednesday evening, community members delivered their insights into the way the commission can revise the city’s charter, a document outlining municipal governance, to improve democracy in New York City. De Blasio has charged the commission with reforming campaign finance to reduce the influence of big money and increasing voter turnout, though by law it can look at the entire charter. Topics such as police discipline and the role of community boards, among many others, have been discussed at the five public hearings thus far.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents a large swath of the Upper East Side, testified at Wednesday night’s meeting, and though he said the campaign finance system currently in place is “the model campaign finance system in the country,” he also agreed there’s “room for improvement.” Kallos, who last term chaired the Council committee with oversight of the city Campaign Finance Board and has been a longtime reform advocate, said he’d like to see changes to “shift the balance of power away from the wealthy and…back towards the people it was designed to serve,” and he believes those changes can be implemented effectively without “putting this existing system at risk.”

The city’s current paradigm includes a public matching system that provides six dollars of public money for every dollar of private money raised from qualifying donors up to $175.

Kallos' first recommendation outlined on Wednesday night is to move “big money out of New York City politics and empower small donors” by increasing the cap on pubic funding from 55 percent of each candidate’s spending limit, where it currently stands, to 85 percent of the spending limit.

He suggested the city should increase the match of small-dollar donations over larger donations, or “matching small donations of $100 or less at a higher rate than the larger contributions.” When later questioned on the issue by commission Vice Chair Rachel Godsil, he said this change would encourage candidates to “hustle in their own communities for $10 donations” instead of looking outside their district for big money.

Kallos urged the commission to consider lowering the contribution limit from the current $5,100 -- “which is more than you can give to the President of the United States,” he said -- to $2,000 for citywide candidates and $1,000 for City Council candidates. He also touched upon introducing democracy vouchers, a program used in Seattle that provides eligible voters with money to give candidates. And, Kallos discussed ballot access reform, before suggesting the charter should be amended to end the “revolving door” between city and state politics in New York.

In many cases in 2017 and prior city election cycles, he said, “you saw the [state] assembly members coming in as virtual incumbents, raising and spending — I think in one case I think they spent $1 million — and if you have these musical chairs where people are going back and forth.” Replying to a follow-up question from Commissioner Larian Angelo, Kallos continued, “the communities never get an opportunity to have other representation and it defeats the whole purpose of term limits.”

His also encouraged the commission to adjust the charter so each elected official is allowed to serve for “two consecutive terms in an office, period, end of story…You get to be a Council member once for two terms, a public advocate once for two terms, a borough president once for two terms, and so on.” Currently, officials can return to an office they’ve held after they’ve been out of office for an election.

When pressed by Godsil on the top three recommendations he believes are the most important, Kallos said he “would die on a hill” for full public matching. “As a City Council member who is termed out with 38 other City Council members, I am terrified of 2021,” he said, referring to the next cycle election cycle when about three-quarters of the Council (and all of the borough presidents and all three citywide elected officials) will have to leave office due to term limits. “I am terrified of 38 people running for offices and raising $3,850 to $4,950 from people and those dollars coming from real estate,” he said, adding the current system sees city officials “selling out their communities for real estate contributions to their campaign.”

Also discussing campaign finance reform at Wednesday night’s hearing, Alex Camarda from Reinvent Albany, an organization that advocates for government transparency and accountability, recommended moving lobbying enforcement out of the City Clerk’s office into the Conflicts of Interest Board, as well as consolidating all city administrative functions pertaining to campaign finance, ethics, and lobbying under on entity.

“We know of no other locality that has a more fragmented system than the one in the city,” he said. “The City Clerk’s office oversees lobbying in the city; the Conflicts of Interest Board oversees ethics laws; the Campaign Finance Board oversees campaign finance; the Elections Board oversees election administration; and the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services oversees the Doing Business database, which also pertains to campaign finance. We would like to see consolidation of these administrative functions.”

Camarda echoed Kallos’ suggestion to increase the public funding cap for campaigns to 85 percent to “effectively eliminate it.” And recommended the board change the charter so the CFB can only provide six-to-one matching on small campaign donations, not all campaign contributions: “It’s not widely known in this city…you’re actually matched six-to-one on the first $175 of any contribution,” he told the panel. “So if a candidate’s running for office there’s a real incentive to actually just raise large contributions, get the match on $175, and then not be inclined to raise money from smaller contributions.”

charter revision commission hearing Manhattan

Also in Reinvent Albany’s recommendations, there are suggestions to expand the ‘Doing Business’ definition to include clients of lobbyists, which Camarda said is “a fairness issue,” and also subcontractors doing large amounts of work on city contracts. Camarda also urged the commission to strengthen disclosure laws so that limited liability companies (LLCs) making independent donations to campaigns can be identified. When asked by Commissioner John Siegal to elaborate, Camarda said: “We know that in state election law there are provisions that say the donor of the contribution must be provided, so we think requiring that…is something that would be consistent with state election law.”

Regarding the city’s voting system, Camarda said Reinvent Albany is supportive of instant runoff voting, also called ranked choice voting — where, instead of choosing a single candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference to avoid actually holding a runoff election in the event that no candidate hits the required 40 percent threshold in a citywide primary. He said this would improve the outcome of primary elections for citywide offices, all special elections, and for military and overseas voters.

“Military and overseas voters cannot vote in the runoff because there’s not enough time for the Board of Elections to send them a ballot, and have military and overseas voters complete it, and send it back in two weeks,” he said. “And that’s something where other states have sued and actually put in instant runoff voting in response.”

Several others spoke about instant runoff voting on Wednesday night, with founder of the Center of Collaborative Democracy Sol Erdman telling the charter commission ballot reform would help diminish the trend of negative campaigning — “if you have two top candidates for any office, the easiest way to win is simply to undercut the other candidate,” he said — and lead instead to a rise in issue-based campaigning.

“There is a proven technique for eliminating the benefits of negative campaigning, and that’s rank choice voting,” he said. “Why would this city, which is the leader in so many areas, not want to adopt a method of voting that basically will reward candidates for talking issues, for trying to build coalitions across social, economic, and political lines, and will result in candidates who win being much more accountable?”

When the commissioners asked election and campaign finance lawyer Jerry Goldfeder, who had also testified, about how instant runoff voting will enhance voter turnout, he replied: “I don’t know that instant runoff is going to increase voter turnout, I don’t think that’s the purpose. The purpose is to save taxpayer dollars, to make the elections more efficient.”

Goldfeder said the commission should push for better voter registration opportunities, which he believes could lead to a more participatory public. “Allowing people to register up to ten days before a primary, or a special, or a general, will get us more people registering,” he said. This was in response to Siegal’s observation that “The trends are abysmal in this city; the plunge in voter participation since 1969 is more than half the people who voted 40 years ago, don’t vote.”

Opening up party primary elections to independent, or unaffiliated, voters was also discussed at length by members of the public and concerned organizations. “Everyone should be allowed to vote in the first round of voting, regardless if they are registered to a party or not,” a representative from the Queens Independence Club said, adding that one million voters in New York are independent voters.

As in previous hearings, the issue of participatory budgeting — that sees certain City Council members set aside capital funds for community-decided projects — was also raised on Wednesday night by community members hoping to institutionalize the concept. High school senior Ilana Cohen, who founded PB Youth, testified on the issue and was asked by Commissioner Mendy Mirocznik her opinion on the role city schools are playing in increasing civic engagement in young people.

“New York City public schools, in my experience, are incredibly lacking in terms of civic engagement,” she said. “I mean, we learn about the founding of the national constitution, but we learn nothing about state or city government, which is why I love participatory budgeting, because anyone can get involved and you vote starting at age 11.”

Though not on de Blasio’s list of focus areas, police discipline is an issue that’s been raised frequently throughout the charter commission’s initial hearings. On Wednesday night, Commissioner Siegal, while responding to testimony about police violence, admitted there are “real issues with the current system that prevents citizens knowing what’s going on in cases unless it goes to trial.” “That doesn’t make any sense,” he added.

Other matters raised at Wednesday’s hearing include the right to housing for all New Yorkers, expanding paid parental leave to all city employees, and “correcting the injustice” around allocating street vendor licenses.

With a hearing in each borough now behind it, the commission is expected to deliver an initial draft list of recommendations in July.

[Read: Brooklynites Testify at Charter Revision Commission Hearing]

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

photo above: Wednesday's charter revision commission hearing in Manhattan, via the charter commission

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Mayor's Charter Revision Commission Hears Testimony in Manhattan Thu, 10 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Board of Elections To Roll Out ‘Electronically Assisted’ Voter Registration http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7550-board-of-elections-to-roll-out-electronically-assisted-voter-registration http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7550-board-of-elections-to-roll-out-electronically-assisted-voter-registration boe nyc website

(NYC BOE website)


New York’s voting and registration laws have long been derided as onerous and needlessly restrictive, falling far behind most other states that have implemented modern methods to register and cast a vote. While significant changes to state election laws are being debated in Albany ahead of a new state budget, the New York City Board of Elections may improve, albeit incrementally, people’s access to the ballot by soon providing digital aid to register to vote.

The Board of Elections, a quasi-state agency funded by the city, is set to roll out a new website in the coming months which will provide New Yorkers with an “electronically assisted way” to fill out a voter registration form and an absentee ballot application, according to BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, who testified at a budget hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations on Monday. The two electronic forms would still have to be printed and either mailed to the BOE or delivered in person, in accordance with current state law.

The City Council last year passed a law mandating that the BOE implement online voter registration and, in mid-2016, mandated that the BOE create an online voter information portal where New Yorkers can track their absentee ballots, check their registration status and voting history, as well as access other voting and election resources. Both bills were sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee last Council session.

The BOE has often been reluctant to abide by local laws, since it is governed by the state, and has either implemented common-sense measures that do not necessarily require legislation or has been pushed to do so by litigation. Ryan reiterated that fact Monday, setting aside the “mandate-no mandate argument” and laying out the BOE’s plans for this year. He also explained why the BOE had been slow to implement those measures, when Council Member Kallos sought answers about the delay.

“Simply put, 2016 happened,” Ryan said, referring to the 2016 presidential election, during which the BOE faced widespread criticism for mishandling of election operations and settled a federal lawsuit arising from a voter purge in Brooklyn. “We had the issues, painful as it is for me to resurrect, we had the voter registration issues in Brooklyn, followed shortly after that by the cybersecurity issues that arose just prior to the presidential election.”

The BOE was poised to launch a new website prior to the 2016 election, Ryan said, but was discouraged by its cybersecurity team, which warned that the new platform would require more “robust testing” before going public. The federal lawsuit also required the BOE to overhaul it’s software for processing election results.

Ryan anticipates the launch of the new website in the second quarter of this calendar year, with the voter-registration assistance being mandated by the federal government. He also said the BOE’s voter information portal was “pretty far along” in development.

The implementation delay did, however, fortuitously save the Board some effort, Ryan said. In that time, the United States Postal Service launched its own absentee ballot tracking service which they could now implement. “I would envision that since the postal service has already done it, assuming it works, and we’ve been told that it does, that we will help to advertise that so that the folks who really want to track their ballot can do it in a way that the post office can guarantee,” he said.

Ryan’s promise of the new website came out of larger testimony about the BOE’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year, during the hearing led by Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the governmental operations committee.

As with the last few years, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preliminary budget underfunds the BOE at $95.1 million. Ryan projected the Board would need at least $137.6 million to fund its operations, which include conducting two citywide elections -- the state primary in September and the general election in November (June congressional primaries will fall in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30). De Blasio has repeatedly denied employing the “budget dance” practice that agencies had to go through under previous mayors but has continued to use that tactic for the BOE and a few others. In each year under his administration, the BOE receives full funding by the time the budget is adopted.

De Blasio has had a contentious relationship with the BOE, and has been very critical of the board’s operations and management, calling for sweeping reforms to its structure and practices. While most reforms can only result from state legislation, de Blasio has had an ongoing offer of $20 million in additional funds for the BOE in exchange for several reforms to its operations. In his State of the City speech in February, de Blasio reiterated that criticism while announcing that he’d convene a Charter Revision Commission that could, among other things, “empower the city government” to handle some responsibilities of the BOE, including voter outreach.

At Monday’s hearing, Ryan pressed a number of different needs for the agency, including more funds for cybersecurity and higher pay for poll workers, which must be approved by the state or through executive order of the mayor. He also pressed the need for electronic poll books, which 34 other states and the District of Columbia have already implemented. Without electronic poll books, Ryan said same-day voter registration is “absolutely impossible” and early voting would be “difficult to implement,” at the least. Both reforms have been considered in Albany for years with little success but leading Democrats, including Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, have reiterated their support for the proposals this year.

Cuomo, who is currently leading state budget negotiations, put $7 million for early voting in the amendments to his executive budget plan earlier this year.

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Board of Elections To Roll Out ‘Electronically Assisted’ Voter Registration Mon, 19 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Manhattan Democrats Drop Lawsuit Over Nominee to Board of Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7496-manhattan-democrats-drop-lawsuit-over-nominee-to-board-of-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7496-manhattan-democrats-drop-lawsuit-over-nominee-to-board-of-elections Corey Johnson Mark-Viverito City Council

Speaker Johnson and former Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The Manhattan Democratic County Committee is dropping a lawsuit against the New York City Council over a nomination for a commissioner to the Board of Elections.

In December, the Manhattan Democratic Party, led by Chair Keith Wright, filed a legal challenge against then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s attempt to confirm her preferred candidate to a Manhattan BOE commissioner seat over the county party’s choice. A lawyer for the Manhattan Democrats told Gotham Gazette on Friday that Wright and new Council Speaker Corey Johnson had come to an agreement and that Wright had instructed the lawyer to drop the suit.

The BOE has ten commissioners, one Democrat and one Republic from each of the five boroughs, who serve two-year terms and are selected through the political party machinery. Current Manhattan Democratic commissioner Alan Schulkin’s term ended in December 2016 but he has continued to serve on the board since the City Council has yet to choose his replacement.

In late 2016, the Manhattan Democrats nominated Jeanine Johnson, an aide to Wright, to fill Schulkin's seat. But the Council did not act on the nomination, after which state law allowed the Council's Democratic conference to choose their own nominee. In November 2017, the Manhattan Democrats chose another nominee, lawyer Sylvia DiPietro. But Mark-Viverito chose instead to advance her own candidate, environmental lawyer Andrew Praschak, over the wishes of the county, leading to the lawsuit. Mark-Viverito and Wright are known to not get along, and the Manhattan Democratic Party is known as particularly lacking in cohesion compared to other boroughs.

The City Council has traditionally toed the county line on nominations to the BOE and the entire body usually votes along with the county's choice. Praschak's nomination was far more complicated. Council Members from Manhattan at first refused to vote on Praschak, insisting on interviewing him and other candidates. After interviews with both DiPietro and Praschak, the latter emerged as the preferred nominee. But a second attempt to vote on Praschak’s nomination also failed when most Democratic Council Members from other boroughs did not show up, meaning the conference could not get a necessary quorum. To some, this indicated that other county leaders were pulling weight to help Wright.

The Manhattan Democrats’ lawsuit was filed December 4, soon after the failed vote attempts to install Praschak. On December 19, the Manhattan Democrats won a preliminary injunction in their suit against the Council, which was lifted after the Council appealed. But the lawsuit was successful in forestalling a vote till the Council’s term ended and Mark-Viverito’s tenure with it. A resolution fell to the new class of the Council under new Speaker Corey Johnson, who, unlike Mark-Viverito, ascended to the speakership with support of the major county party leaders in the Bronx and Queens.

Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer for the Manhattan Democrats in the lawsuit, told Gotham Gazette that Chair Wright and Speaker Johnson had decided to move forward without a lawsuit hanging over the process. “[Keith Wright] said they’re sorting it out but he wanted me to discontinue the lawsuit,” Schwartz said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon.

Schwartz said he would be sending a “stipulation of discontinuance” later that afternoon to the Corporation Counsel’s office, which is representing the City Council in the lawsuit.

Reached by phone, Wright said, “I’m not ready to comment on anything at this time.”

Robin Levine, a spokesperson for Speaker Johnson, said in an email that she “can't comment on pending litigation.” Mark-Viverito did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear if the nomination of DiPietro will go forward as Wright and Johnson continue to negotiate. “That’s up to them,” Schwartz said. “It’s something Keith’s gotta work out with the Speaker.”

“It’s a friendly relationship,” he said of the two, contrasting it with Mark-Viverito’s dynamic with Wright. “I wouldn’t say that was friendly at all.”

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, who supported Praschak’s nomination after hearing DiPietro voice “misplaced” concerns about voter fraud, said he is hoping to see a reformer on the board. The current commissioner, Schulkin, has also faced criticism in the past for expressing similar unfounded sentiments about voter fraud in the city and the need for voter identification.

Kallos, former chair and current member of the Council’s governmental operations committee, which has some oversight of the Board of Elections, is concerned with election administration in the city, which falls under the 10 BOE commissioners as well as the executive director, Michael Ryan, and staff. The notoriously dysfunctional BOE is governed by state law, and there have been perpetual calls for modernization and professionalization of the board, including removing party politics from the commissioner appointment process. Johnson is opposed to such a reform, but has said he wants to see election administration improved.

“I look forward to working with the new Manhattan delegation chairs and the speaker on getting somebody committed to reform on the BOE,” Kallos said in a phone interview. “Whether its Sylvia DiPietro or another nominee, I hope they’re more concerned with not having lines on Election Day and with a smooth voting process rather than non-existent voter fraud.”

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Manhattan Democrats Drop Lawsuit Over Nominee to Board of Elections Mon, 26 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
400 Old and New Bills Introduced at City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7456-400-old-and-new-bills-introduced-at-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7456-400-old-and-new-bills-introduced-at-city-council Johnson podium stated meeting

Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


After weeks of mostly procedural activity to start its new four-year term, the New York City Council convened Wednesday afternoon for its first legislation-focused 2018 meeting, which included discussion and reintroduction of bills from the previous session that had not passed, as well as the introduction of new bills.

Some of the 408 pieces of legislation reintroduced deal with tenant protection, zoning and scaffolding regulations, and a bill to prohibit people who have been found guilty of a specific set of felonies from holding office.

Following roughly five minutes of formalities, new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced that immigration activist Ravi Ragbir, who a federal judge ruled had been wrongfully detained by ICE on January 11, was in the chamber. Johnson called his detention “brutal” and “unjust;” Ragbir was greeted with a standing ovation from the majority of those in attendance. Earlier, activists and Council members gathered to support him at a press conference on the City Council steps. Two Council members, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams, had been arrested protesting Ragbir’s detainment.

Johnson then led the Council through its vote on legislation that had moved through committee, mostly land use items, outlining two Manhattan locations to be given property tax exemptions, one on West 28th Street, located in District 3, which he represents. “It’s going to create 37 units of supportive housing, which I am really happy about,” he said.

The other building proposed to be granted a property tax exemption is in District 1, represented by Council Member Margaret Chin, which aims to preserve 198 units of affordable housing in the Two Bridges neighborhood. In addition, Johnson briefly mentioned a rezoning along Bedford Avenue.

Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan’s Upper East Side re-introduced a pair of bills, Intro. 85 and 86, aimed at ensuring people who have had cases heard in housing court do not face discrimination from landlords. “[The bill] would require tenant screening companies who make these so-called “tenant blacklists” to provide fair and complete information. Landlords would no longer be able to discriminate against tenants,” he said. “No one should face homelessness suddenly because they’ve been to housing court.”

In a similar vein, Chin introduced a tenant protection measure of her own, Intro. 30. This bill, she said, would mandate that landlords, in the event that residents needed to be vacated, could not put relocation expenses on the city's dime. “We need to continue holding bad landlords accountable for their actions,” she said. “Or in this case, inaction.”

Kallos, who announced his wife is imminently due to give birth and that he is slated to begin paid parental leave until March, spoke about the importance of fathers taking their paid leave and re-introduced a bill designed to limit how long scaffolding could remain in place. “Some scaffolding is almost old enough to vote,” he quipped.

While not discussed during the session, one notable bill reintroduced this week was Intro. 374, which was sparked by former State Senator and former City Council Member Hiram Monserrate, who was convicted for domestic violence, launched an ultimately unsuccessful bid for City Council last summer, which was met with condemnation from elected officeholders and many others.

Asked about the scaffolding bill at a press conference after the Council session, Johnson said he is receptive to the idea of reducing the amount of time scaffolding remains in place, though he did not explicitly state his position on it. “We have to make sure the public is safe, while at the same time not allowing scaffolding to remain up longer than needs to,” he said.

“I don’t know enough about the nitty gritty on the bill itself, but there was an issue yesterday, I believe the Republican House did something to invalidate our scaffolding laws” he added, presumably referencing H.R. 3808, the Infrastructure Expansion Act, designed to undermine New York’s “Scaffold Law,” which is meant to protect workers by placing legal responsibility on property owners when they incur injuries. He went on to label scaffolding a “blight” and “eyesore.”

Johnson was asked about allegations related to Mayor de Blasio allowing a pay-to-play climate to fester in his government. “Every New Yorker, regardless of if you gave money to an elected official or you’re a random person that calls someone’s office or shows up outside City Hall, your local elected official should be responsive to you,” Johnson said.

Asked if mayor de Blasio acts in this spirit, Johnson said, “He says he does that.”

He added, “I don’t know what it’s like for any New Yorker who stops him on the street, but you have to make sure that government is responsive to everyone.”

Johnson was also asked to comment on NYCHA, which has come under fire in recent months for issues ranging from lead paint to malfunctioning boilers, the topic of a hearing set for Tuesday, February 6.

“I’m going to be there the whole time,” he said of the hearing. “Four hours, five hours, however long the meeting goes.”

The speaker had harsh words for management of the authority, but stopped short of calling for the chair, Shola Olatoye, to step down. The problems at NYCHA, he said, could not be blamed solely on Olatoye. “If she left tomorrow, the issues would still exist,” said Johnson.

“This is a long-term issue. It’s taken a lot of time for the neglect that NYCHA has faced to get in this situation,” he explained. “We’re not going to get all the money overnight, we’re not going to fix the developments overnight.”

To that end, Johnson vowed to use the city budget process to ensure NYCHA receives more funding.

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400 Old and New Bills Introduced at City Council Thu, 01 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Favorable to The Bronx, Council Committee Shuffle Also Seen as Retribution http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7452-favorable-to-the-bronx-council-committee-shuffle-also-seen-as-retribution http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7452-favorable-to-the-bronx-council-committee-shuffle-also-seen-as-retribution Kallos Salamanca City Council

Council Members Ben Kallos, left, and Rafael Salamanca (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


When new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson reshuffled committee portfolios earlier this month, Council Member Ben Kallos lost his position as chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations. Sources say the move was punishment for Kallos’ approach to Board of Elections commissioner nominations and because of his support for one of Johnson’s opponents in the speaker race.

By virtually all accounts, Kallos had done an exceptional job chairing the governmental operations committee during last legislative session, from 2014 through 2017. He led the way on a slew of reforms to campaign financing, government transparency and accountability, and was viewed by good government advocates as a valuable partner on the Council. He was praised by many, and snickered at by some, for his independence.

But, with the election of Johnson as speaker, committee portfolios would be changed, with significant influence from the Queens and Bronx Democratic county organizations, which gave Johnson the backing he needed to ascend to what is arguably the second-most powerful position in city government behind the mayor.

Kallos, who multiple sources say wanted to keep chairing the committee, was among a small number of members left out in the cold. His committee chair position went to another member, Council Member Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx, and Kallos was instead assigned to lead the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions, which falls under the land use committee. He was named as a member of the governmental operations committee, among others.

Kallos declined multiple requests to comment for this article.

The Committee on Governmental Operations has a broad purview, overseeing several city agencies including the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the Campaign Finance Board, the city Board of Elections, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, and the Law Department, among others. The committee also has oversight of the city’s 59 community boards.

Government reform groups generally praise Kallos’ leadership of the committee. “He raised a lot of good government issues that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day, and he raised them on the merits,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, in a phone interview. “Maybe that miffed people at times but they were important issues to be raised and I don’t think that warrants removal from the chairmanship.”

As chair, one of Kallos’ priorities was to reduce patronage hires at city agencies, particularly the Board of Elections, a bipartisan body where positions are filled by the county organizations for both parties. Patronage, Kallos said, invariably leads to conflicts of interests and the appointment of subpar employees. The BOE’s ten commissioners -- one from each party in each borough -- are nominated by the county committees and confirmed by the Council. The commissioners play a crucial role in deciding who gets to be on the ballot in elections and in interpreting state election law.

In 2016, Kallos was among those members who rankled the Bronx Democratic County Committee, led by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, by insisting that a nominee for Democratic commissioner from the Bronx be required to give up her registration as a lobbyist in order to be confirmed as an elections commissioner. The nominee, Rosanna Vargas, initially refused but later relented. Vargas is now the president of the Board of Elections.

“The Queens and Bronx county committees felt that Council Member Kallos wasn’t a team player with regards to BOE appointments,” said one source with knowledge of internal county party dynamics, when asked about Kallos losing his committee chairmanship, and speaking only on the condition of anonymity.

Council Member Cabrera told Gotham Gazette that while he did not push to chair the governmental operations committee, he was “excited” to be offered it. “There were different options that were being put forth, but as soon as it was presented to me, I said that I was very eager to do so,” he said at City Hall recently. Cabrera did not serve on the committee in the last term but was co-sponsor of a few bills under its purview.

Cabrera said he would pursue legislation to improve the city’s campaign finance system, which is centered around public matching of low-dollar contributions and is held up as a national model, and would look to expand voter engagement in a city known for low turnout in the last few elections. “I’m a team player,” he said, insisting he will approach legislation and oversight collaboratively with his colleagues, “and so this is not a solo dance that we’re going to be doing here. Working with the administration as well, we want collaboration.”

He said he sees “eye-to-eye” with Kallos. Asked if Kallos was punished for opposing the Bronx County’s BOE pick in 2016, Cabrera pleaded ignorance. “To be honest with you, I have no knowledge, I don’t even know what you’re really referring to, honestly,” he said.

“I do know he did well,” Cabrera added. “I have to tell you he got, and I spoke to him, he got a very good committee. It’s a committee you can do a whole lot with. Anything related to finance. It’s one that has influence and can bring systemic change.”

The subcommittee Kallos now chairs feeds the land use committee now being chaired by Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx, an appointment by Johnson perhaps most indicative of the rewards provided to the county for its support of his speaker bid.

Kallos was a known supporter of Council Member Mark Levine’s bid for the speakership of the Council. Levine was among the frontrunners for the post, but was unsuccessful after the Bronx and Queens County Democrats coalesced around Johnson, who gained the backing of those vote-rich counties in part because he had also secured individual support from about ten other Council members, according to Johnson.

“A land use subcommittee is as important or more important than a lot of full committees, honestly,” Levine told Gotham Gazette at City Hall earlier this month. He refused to speculate on why Kallos lost his chair position but said that Kallos was “amazing” as chair of the committee. “I think reshuffling of committees is a standard practice in any new term. Very few people continued in the same committee...the movement is natural.” he said. “I’ll tell you this about Ben Kallos, he’s going to be a leader in this body, no matter what portfolio he’s handed. He’s one of the smartest and most effective legislators I know. So he’s going to be impactful without a doubt in the next four years.”

Asked about the decision to give the chair position to Cabrera, Council communications director Robin Levine referred Gotham Gazette to Johnson’s remarks at a January 11 news conference immediately after the new committee chairs were voted on by the full Council. She did not address a question about whether Crespo wanted Kallos removed from the position.

At the news conference, in response to a question from Gotham Gazette, Johnson emphasized that the committee appointments were a complicated task. “Every decision that was made...when you moved one piece around, it affected the rest of the matrix,” he said. “So that’s why we spent the whole weekend here. That’s why I met with every individual member. That’s why we were in conversations, of course, with the county leaders.”

“The process was a consultative process that, number one, involved the members,” he continued. “Number two, involved of course having conversations with the county leaders, with the mayor -- he wanted to understand who would be chairing certain committees -- with certain labor unions who played a role in this process, with members of Congress, with members of the Assembly, with members of the state Senate. There were over a hundred people who were calling every day for a week wanting to try and ensure that certain people got certain things.”

“I was really trying to make everyone as happy as I could, by being as flexible as I could, by being as creative as I could and to try and give different people avenues for leadership and avenues to work on issues that matter to them,” Johnson said.

In a statement through a spokesperson, Crespo did not directly respond to a question on whether he pushed for Kallos’ ouster. “As it has been in the past, City Council committee chairs frequently change at the start of new legislative terms,” Crespo said. “Our focus is to always advocate for our members in the Bronx delegation of the City Council and in doing so, providing the city and our constituents sound and steady leadership. The primary focus should be on the fact that an important committee now continues to have strong leadership with Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera as chair.”

One Council member, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the committee appointments, said Kallos was a victim of a combination of factors. “I think it was an accumulation of the running into the counties on BOE, running up against Corey in the speaker’s race, and he’s also got some very complicated land use stuff in his district as well. Probably didn’t help this matter either, he’s seen as very anti-development,” the Council member said.

But, the Council member added, “He could have fared worse.” Indeed, some other Council members who opposed Johnson’s bid or supported his opponents appeared to come away with less. Among those were Council Members Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams, neither of whom was given a committee chair position after having led the rules committee and the housing and buildings committee, respectively, in the last term. Lander did retain his position as Deputy Leader for Policy.

“Is everyone 100 percent happy? No. Are some people happier than others? Yes,” Johnson said at the January 11 hearing where the new committee chairs were confirmed. “I did my best...There was no level of vindictiveness towards any member of this body from me, there was no level of vindictiveness, there was no score-settling, there was no keeping track of what happened during the Speaker’s race.”

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Favorable to The Bronx, Council Committee Shuffle Also Seen as Retribution Mon, 29 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
State Board of Elections Official Says City Must Move to Instant Runoff Voting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7369-state-board-of-elections-official-says-city-must-move-to-instant-runoff-voting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7369-state-board-of-elections-official-says-city-must-move-to-instant-runoff-voting kallos hearing

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo via @NYCCouncil)


Ahead of the September 12 primary, mayoral candidate Sal Albanese seemingly had the Reform Party ballot line locked up. It meant that Albanese would be on the general election ballot even if he lost the Democratic primary to Mayor Bill de Blasio. At the last minute, however, Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis and independent candidate Bo Dietl attempted to snatch the Reform nomination from Albanese through an “opportunity to ballot,” which had effectively opened up the Reform line to write-in candidates. Albanese would prevail with 53 percent of the vote, but the spectacle raised major concerns for elections officials. Had all of the candidates failed to reach the 40 percent mark, it would’ve automatically triggered a laborious and costly citywide runoff election between the top two vote-getters.

New York City “dodged a bullet” in avoiding a runoff election, said Douglas Kellner, Democratic co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, at a Wednesday oversight hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations. Kellner, who was there to give his assessment of the recent municipal elections and other matters, briefed the committee members on steps the Council could take to improve election management.

“The first is something that is really in your lap, and that is dealing with the runoff primary election,” he said, calling on the Council to quickly implement instant runoff voting in which voters get to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. For the three citywide positions of Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller, New York City’s charter instead provides for a runoff to be held two weeks after a primary, burdening local election administrators and costing millions of dollars. Most recently, an expensive runoff infamously occured in the 2013 Democratic primary for public advocate, with the primary costing more than the annual budget for the office.

Urgent action is necessary, Kellner said, since a significant amount of time can go into updating election equipment and planning for the next election cycle. Moving soon, four years out from the next city election, would also prevent individuals and parties from predicting, and gaming, the effects on the election system, he said.

“Now, you dodged a bullet...but, that problem hasn’t gone away,” Kellner said, insisting that there was no significant benefit from a full runoff. “And if you’re not gonna do anything, then it’s your fault,” he joked. “But it’s not realistic to make the decision two or three years down the road.” The 2021 elections, when all three citywide posts will be open due to term limits, are expected to be especially competitive in the Democratic primaries.

Council Member Ben Kallos, the chair of the committee, is himself “incredibly supportive” of instant runoffs, he said Wednesday. “I believe that a certain elected official...in the city is opposing that legislation,” he said wryly, referring to Mayor de Blasio, who opposed instant runoff voting when he was public advocate. “While I here in the Council am willing to do so, I believe we still need to get the mayor to sign it,” Kallos added.

All of the eight candidates to become the next City Council Speaker recently said that they support moving to instant runoff voting, often called ranked-choice voting.

Kellner, who also floated the option of a charter amendment petition, which would go to the voters, said if the city failed to implement runoff voting, then it should abolish runoff elections entirely. “The city was lucky this last year that they didn’t have to spend the money on a runoff election,” he said. “And imagine what the reaction would’ve been if the city had to spend millions of dollars to hold a runoff election for one of the small parties, where they might’ve been spending as much as $30,000 per vote in order to administer a runoff election for one of the smaller parties. And that’s how the statute is set up now and it’s a crazy statute.”

Indeed, in the 2013 race to replace de Blasio as public advocate, Democrats Letitia James and Daniel Squadron went to a runoff election that was estimated to cost around $13 million. Both Squadron and James, the eventual winner of the race, came out in favor of instant runoff voting.

“I think that that is a worthy conversation that needs to be had and we certainly would need to make some adjustments,” said New York City Board of Election Executive Director Michael Ryan, at Wednesday’s hearing. Ryan noted that the potential runoff for the Reform Party, which holds open primaries, would be open to approximately 800,000 unaffiliated voters and the 261 New Yorkers registered with the party itself as of November 1. “It would’ve been a full citywide runoff,” he said, “and considering the paucity of actual enrollees in the Reform Party, its very easy to field candidates when you need such a small number of signatures and then open the Board up to significant elections responsibilities and a potential runoff.”

He said the Board had plans in place to hold the election, and pointed out the multiple hurdles they would face. Between primary day and the day of the runoff, there were multiple religious holidays, and the UN General Assembly was convening, where President Donald Trump was scheduled to speak. “So to say we dodged a bullet is an understatement,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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State Board of Elections Official Says City Must Move to Instant Runoff Voting Wed, 13 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7346-open-budget-economic-development-transparency-bills-become-law http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7346-open-budget-economic-development-transparency-bills-become-law de Blasio public hearing City Council bills

De Blasio at a public hearing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Four government transparency bills that were passed by the City Council on October 31 aged into law on Friday, having gone 30 days without any action in favor or against them by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The bills all relate to increased disclosure by the administration of billions in city government spending and have been praised by good government advocates.

Among the bills was one that requires the administration to publish annual budget documents in a user-friendly, machine-readable format to the city’s online Open Data Portal, allowing the public easier access to information that is currently listed in thousands of line items in the $86 billion city budget. The bill’s lead sponsor was Council Member Ben Kallos.

The three other bills -- with lead sponsors Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Dan Garodnick, and Corey Johnson -- formed a package aimed at improving transparency at the Economic Development Corporation, a city-run entity that manages and promotes the administration’s job-creation and business-development initiatives. The bills allow the City Council added oversight of EDC, which provides many millions of dollars in financial benefits to projects and businesses each year and also handles the sale and lease of city-owned land. They mandate that EDC provide fiscal impact statements and job creation estimates for projects receiving financial assistance; require EDC to detail their efforts to clawback funds from those agreements that fail to meet their goals; and allow the City Council time to review and comment on proposed economic development agreements.

“These new City laws will make it much easier to understand both the big picture of how the City is spending money and the specifics of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy deals the City makes with businesses,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group, in a statement Friday. “It will be much easier to see if the taxpayer is getting a good deal. These new laws are a blueprint for what the state should do.”

The City Charter provides that if the mayor takes no action on a bill after it is approved by the City Council, within 30 days, it automatically becomes law. In fact, it’s “pretty common” for bills to age into law without the mayor’s signature, said mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in an email on Friday. She added that if the mayor signed every bill, “we’d be doing bill signings like every day.”  

Goldstein noted that out of the 25 bills passed by the Council on October 31, all but one aged into law. The only one the mayor signed was Council Member Rafael Espinal’s bill to repeal the city’s antiquated Cabaret Law, which used to require establishments to obtain licences from the city to allow dancing. De Blasio signed the bill on November 27 at Elsewhere, a popular nightclub in Brooklyn.

Often, the mayor holds bill-signing ceremonies at City Hall, affixing his signature to numerous bills at a time. At one such ceremony on October 16, for instance, de Blasio signed a dozen bills into law. “It’s really just a timing thing,” Goldstein said in a later email, estimating that perhaps close to 100 bills have similarly lapsed into law in de Blasio’s first term.

City Council spokesperson Robin Levine declined to comment for this article.

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law Fri, 01 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000