Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/56 Sat, 20 Apr 2019 16:39:02 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Hears Bill to Expand Public Match in Campaign Finance Program http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8452-city-council-hears-bill-to-expand-public-campaign-finance-matching-program http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8452-city-council-hears-bill-to-expand-public-campaign-finance-matching-program Kallos City Council

Council Member Kallos (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations heard testimony on Monday on a bill to expand the public matching funds available to candidates under the city’s campaign finance program.

The campaign finance system incentivizes individuals to seek small dollar donations when running for office, matching those contributions with public funds. Under a recent city charter amendment approved by voters, a citywide candidate can receive public funds at an 8-to-1 ratio for the first $250 of each contribution (an increase from 6-to-1 for the first $175), and they can cover up to 75% of the spending limit for the office through public funds (up from 55%).

That charter change was quickly implemented through local law, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, for all special elections before the 2021 general election, thus applying to multiple races this year.

Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, has also proposed increasing the public funds cap to roughly 89% of the spending limit, effectively allowing candidates to run their campaigns entirely on small contributions and the subsequent public match, and diluting the effect of wealthier, larger donors. And he hopes to put that reform into effect for the 2021 city election cycle, which will feature a massive number of local races, from citywide and borough wide posts through the City Council. Kallos estimates it will lead to roughly $61.7 million in public funds disbursements, about $10.3 million more than if the 75% match is kept in place. His projections are based on participation rates in the 2013 election when the CFB gave about $38 million to qualifying candidates. 

“I think this is a gamechanger,” Kallos said at Monday’s hearing, citing the recent citywide public advocate special election as proof that increasing the public funds match reduced big donations. He pointed to the latest campaign finance disclosures from all the campaigns, which showed that contributions of $250 or less made up 61% of all contributions, up from 26.3% of all contributions in the 2013 public advocate race, according to his office’s analysis of the numbers.

“We have flipped how campaigns are financed, upside down,” said Kallos, who is term-limited and expected to seek higher office in 2021, emphasizing that he believes the system must be expanded to fully eliminate big money donations.

[Read: Council Member Kallos Pushes Next Increase in Matching Funds Available Through Public Campaign Finance System]

Kallos’ bill has the support of the committee chair, Council Member Fernando Cabrera, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is exploring a run for mayor and only taking donations of $250 and under. But other city officials seemed less sure about the exact proposal while supporting its goals more broadly.

Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, the city’s new chief democracy officer who runs Mayor Bill de Blasio’s DemocracyNYC initiative, generally praised the campaign finance program and the recent improvements that were enacted within it by the charter amendment, which was set into motion by the mayor’s formation of a charter revision commission.

She emphasized the need to increase public engagement in the city’s democracy by increasing public trust. “Establishing this trust begins with rooting out corruption and even the perception of corruption by getting big money out of politics,” she said in her testimony. But she said while the administration “support[s] the values” of Kallos’ bill, there would need to be more discussion of its specifics with advocates, the Council, and the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB), which administers the campaign finance program.

Similarly, Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, and Frederick Schaffer, chair of the board, said they were “supportive of the goals of this legislation” but had practical concerns about the current version. For one, Loprest noted, the recent charter amendment imposed a prohibition on early payment of public funds unless a candidate submits a Certified Statement of Need, in order to prevent unserious candidates or those without any opposition from getting public money. Kallos’ bill removes that prohibition, and Loprest said it should find a way to address it.

She also pointed out that candidates who rely overwhelmingly on public funds -- which are subject to fairly strict standards for campaign use -- would lack the flexibility to spend campaign funds on expenditures that do not qualify for the public funds program. For instance, cash payments or post-election spending.

The bill has the support of Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, and Dawn Smalls, an attorney who ran for public advocate in the February special election.

Tom Speaker, a policy analyst at Reinvent Albany, pointed out that with the current 75% cap on public funds, candidates for City Council would still have to raise about $47,000 in private donations and could look to wealthy donors. ‘“Raising the cap can reduce that dependency and allow for more donations from small donors,” he said.

Smalls, who was a first-time candidate in February, emphasized the importance of the small dollar matching program, which she said, “allowed me to communicate with voters and effectively compete in this race.” She did, however, criticize the CFB’s compliance regulations, which she said are "an unnecessary burden on all candidates, but one that falls excessively on candidates that may be new to the process and have less infrastructure." She emphasized her campaign's sophisticated operation and team of professionals, which she said shouldn't be necessary or reasonably expected of first-time candidates.  

Not everyone in the Council is a fan of the bill, of course. Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat and former campaign finance consultant, criticized the proposal and sought to repeatedly poke holes in the campaign finance program more broadly.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify Dawn Smalls' comments.

Note - This article has been updated with cost projections from Council Member Ben Kallos.

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City Council Hears Bill to Expand Public Match in Campaign Finance Program Mon, 15 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Kallos Pushes Next Increase in Matching Funds Available Through Public Campaign Finance System http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8418-city-council-member-kallos-increase-matching-funds-available-public-campaign-finance-system http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8418-city-council-member-kallos-increase-matching-funds-available-public-campaign-finance-system Ben Kallos campaign finance

Council Member Kallos (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


New York City Council Member Ben Kallos is moving forward with a bill to increase the amount of public funds a candidate running for elected office can receive from the city’s campaign finance program, in order to further reduce the influence of big money donors in local political campaigns.

New York City’s voluntary campaign finance program matches small dollar donations in order to afford candidates without deep pockets or wealthy donors a more level playing field in elections. In November, voters approved a ballot question that increased the matching ratio from 6-to-1 for the first $175 of a contribution to 8-to-1 for the first $250 for citywide offices ($175 for all other offices), and increased the maximum amount of public funds that could be paid out from 55% of the spending limit for an office to 75%.

The changes also reduced individual contribution limits across the board and gave candidates running in the 2021 city elections the choice to opt in to the new rules, which otherwise go into mandatory effect beginning 2022.

Following the charter change, Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, quickly advanced legislation that Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law to implement those rules for special elections taking place before the 2021 primaries, giving candidates the same option to choose between the old and new rules. In the February special election for public advocate, a majority of the candidates opted in to the new system and larger donations dropped.

[Read: Report: Under New Law, Small Donors Drove Public Advocate Special Election Campaigns]

Encouraged by those results, Kallos is pushing his new bill, which goes even further and would increase the maximum public funds payment from 75% to 88.8% of the spending limits for the 2021 elections, further encouraging candidates to raise $250 and below from individuals, and effectively leaving no gap for candidates to fill with larger private donations. The 2021 elections will be a massive undertaking with the mayor, comptroller, five borough presidents and about three dozen Council members, including Kallos, term limited out of office. Kallos, who is expected to run for higher office, told Gotham Gazette in an interview that his bill already has 34 sponsors, a super-majority of the 51-seat Council, and is scheduled for a committee hearing on April 15.

“It is going to do what the Charter Revision Commission should have done to begin with but couldn’t,” he said, noting that the bill would also place the new rules in the city’s administrative code. “We’re going to put things where they were supposed to be if we hadn’t had to go around the City Council,” he added, referring to the fact that the charter change approved by voters could have been done through City Council legislation and did not need to be made through referendum.

Mayoral spokesperson Raul Contreras said the mayor’s office would have to review the bill. “The power of your voice shouldn’t depend on how deep your pockets run. Public financing empowers the voices of the average New Yorker, which is a belief the majority of voters reaffirmed when they overwhelmingly voted for public financing in the 2018 general election,” Contreras said in a statement.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office did not return a request for comment but Johnson has previously supported a version of Kallos’ bill that was introduced in the prior legislative session of the Council and that would have accomplished the same result.

Though the bill has plenty of support within the Council, Kallos nonetheless expects some opposition. Any effort to expand the public matching funds program is inevitably criticized with similar refrains about the cost to taxpayers. Public funds payments come with thresholds that candidates must meet to show that their campaigns are serious and viable, and strict penalties for the misuse of public funds.

“Candidates who are not serious would be well-advised to stay away from a full public matching system,” Kallos said. “Candidates who have sought to abuse the system have found themselves fined and had to pay back the public dollars...and I think that is enough of an incentive for people to not do it.”

He continued, “We want our elected officials to work for us and getting in arguments about whether or not somebody’s opposition is credible, or whether they should take public dollars defeats the point that we want elected officials taking clean money from the government that is coming as a multiplier on small dollars instead of spending all of their time raising money from big donors.”

After the April 15 hearing in the Council’s government operations committee, of which Kallos was formerly chair and is now a member, it could be tweaked, and would need to be passed by the committee and then the full Council in order to face approval or veto by the mayor.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

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Council Member Kallos Pushes Next Increase in Matching Funds Available Through Public Campaign Finance System Tue, 02 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Report: Under New Law, Small Donors Drove Public Advocate Special Election Campaigns http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8348-report-under-new-law-small-donors-drove-public-advocate-special-election-campaigns http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8348-report-under-new-law-small-donors-drove-public-advocate-special-election-campaigns  poolnytdebate 001

The first public advocate debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))


Small-dollar donors were behind 63 percent of the first wave of campaign contributions to candidates who ran in the February special election for public advocate, up from 26.3 percent in 2013 when there was an open race for the seat, according to an analysis by New York City Council Member Ben Kallos. The Manhattan Council member sponsored the law to implement in the public advocate special election the new campaign finance rules overwhelmingly approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year.

The public advocate special election, in which City Council Member Jumaane Williams emerged victorious, was the first citywide race under the new rules that lowered contribution limits for special elections for citywide offices from $2,550 to $1,000 (special election limits are half of the regular election limits, which changed from $5,100 to $2,000), increased the ratio of public matching funds given to candidates from 6-to-1 for the first $175 of a qualifying contribution to 8-to-1 for the first $250, and increased the limit for public funds payments from 55 percent of the spending limit for a race to 75 percent. Soon after the referendum was approved -- by just over 80 percent of voters -- the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio expedited legislation in order to apply the rules to elections before 2021, after which they were set to be mandatory. For the special election and those through 2021, the next citywide election year, candidates must choose the old or new system.

Of the 17 candidates on the public advocate ballot, all but one opted into the voluntary public matching funds program, which is administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Only four decided to stick with the outgoing matching program while the rest chose lower contribution limits that came with higher public matching funds. In total, the 11 candidates who eventually qualified for public funds received $7,178,120 via the CFB.

According CFB’s own analysis released the day after the election, the most common contribution amount was $10, down from $100 in previous public advocate elections. “The matching funds give candidates the incentives to raise money the right way, by going to the New York City voters they want to represent in government, not to big-money donors or special interests,” said Amy Loprest, CFB executive director, in a statement on February 27. “If we want a government that is closer and more responsive to the people, it has to start with how candidates fund their campaigns.”

Kallos, the City Council’s resident good government wonk, has pushed improvements to the city’s campaign finance law for years and felt vindicated by seeing the campaign finance numbers behind the election. The ballot question, proposed by a charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio, was largely similar to a bill Kallos had sponsored in the previous legislative session of the Council.

“One of the reasons I was so eager for this to apply in the public advocate’s race is I was worried about the time between the vote in November [2018] and 2021 and I wanted to prove to people that this could work,” he said. There will be another public advocate election this fall to decide who will hold the seat vacated by Attorney General letitia James for the final two years of her public advocate term. Kallos’ bill also lowered the thresholds for candidates to qualify for official debates sponsored by the CFB and for public funds payments.

His analysis, which covers the candidates’ pre-election campaign finance disclosures till February 11 (the most recent filing deadline - final numbers are due March 25), found that contributions of $1,000 and more accounted for 26 percent of the $2.2 million raised to that point in the election, compared with 60 percent throughout 2013. In total, all the candidates raised $2.6 million for the special election, which was “nonpartisan” and did not have party primaries. In 2013, candidates raised $4.9 million running for public advocate in the primary and general.

Kallos has long been critical of big money in elections, particularly donations from the real estate industry which have been a large force at the city and state level. “This is the first time a citywide elected official has been elected without real estate money,” said Kallos, who himself rejects real estate donations.   

Several candidates in the special election similarly refused real estate cash, which is of a piece with broader calls for candidates to rely on small donors. Public Advocate-elect Williams was among those who signed a pledge floated by New York Communities for Change, a housing justice advocacy organization, to refuse corporate and real estate money.

“New York City has changed forever: we will no longer be held hostage by big-money real estate developers and landlords who aim to profit through policies that incentivize the displacement and gouging of low-income tenants,” said Jonathan Westin, NYCC executive director, in a statement calling on other candidates to follow Williams’ lead.

Several candidates running for citywide office in 2021, or exploring a candidacy, have already said that they will rely on the new campaign finance system, including Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Real estate donations are increasingly becoming a litmus test for progressive Democrats, some of whom were elected to the state Legislature last year and are also pushing to implement a public financing program for state elections similar to the city’s model. For advocates and labor leaders, the public advocate election was proof positive that small-dollar financing is effective and should be replicated by the state. “Jumaane Williams's victory, and the public participation in the process, is a glimpse of what we could accomplish if we pass campaign finance reform at the state level,” said Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager for Citizen Action. Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, said, “The major shift towards small donor financing in city wide elections shows that working people in our state want a more democratic system.

Kallos notes that candidates can spend fewer hours dialling for dollars from wealthy donors if they rely on small contributions from the tens of thousands of residents of their districts, or from millions in the case of citywide races. “My hypothesis was that if we increase the public match...that that would halve big money and it actually did that,” he said. “It wasn’t a modest success. It literally cut it almost in half.”

The expanded matching funds program has been widely praised for elevating the voices of everyday New Yorkers. “Normally, a special election for public advocate would probably be very much of an insider’s race. It would be funded by insiders and people who follow politics closely,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government advocacy group. “And I think that what putting this legislation into effect now did was incentivized candidates to reach out to ordinary New Yorkers to campaign.” Camarda also expects this momentum to carry forward and that candidates will feel “real pressure” to participate.

Many of the candidates who ran for public advocate were also first-time contenders, including Nomiki Konst and Dawn Smalls, who were among the ten candidates on stage at the first official debate in the race, and among the seven candidates at the second official debate.

There have been arguments levelled against the public funds system, of course, and it’s hard to predict exactly how it will work for a full-fledged citywide race rather than a truncated special election. Some candidates have said the regulators of the program are sometimes overly harsh and fine them for small, technical violations. Others criticize the cost to taxpayers -- the entire special election is estimated to cost the city around $20 million in administrative and public campaign financing while the annual budget of the public advocate was only about $3.6 million last year. Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who stuck with the old campaign finance rules and came in third in the special election, argued that the new system was being pushed through to prevent her from winning, apparently in part because she was transferring a significant sum of funds from her prior campaign account, an advantage more easily mitigated with the new system.

But there is otherwise broad agreement that the city’s program is a model to be emulated, as other jurisdictions have done across the country, and it is progressively being improved. “I’m still not done yet,” Kallos said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify that total candidate fundraising was $2.6 million for the special election. It has also been updated to clarify the contribution limits for special elections. 

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Report: Under New Law, Small Donors Drove Public Advocate Special Election Campaigns Mon, 11 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
After Reform Commitments, City Council Democrats Appoint Three New Commissioners to Board of Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8318-after-reform-commitments-city-council-democrats-appoint-three-new-commissioners-to-board-of-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8318-after-reform-commitments-city-council-democrats-appoint-three-new-commissioners-to-board-of-elections city council sp co jo

Speaker Johnson (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


The New York City Council’s Democratic conference held on Thursday what officials said was its first ever public vote to appoint three new commissioners to the New York City Board of Elections.

The BOE is a quasi-city agency, funded in the city budget but governed by state law. It has ten commissioners -- two from every borough, with one each recommended by the Democratic and Republican parties and appointed by the City Council for four-year terms. The board’s executive director is chosen by the commissioners.

The three commissioners appointed on Thursday are all women of color -- Patricia Anne Taylor, former president of the Staten Island Women’s Bar Association was appointed as Richmond County Democratic commissioner; Miguelina Camilo, who sits on the board of directors of the Dominican Bar Association, was appointed from the Bronx; and Tiffany Townsend, a Democratic district leader and former senior advisor to Council Speaker Corey Johnson, was appointed from Manhattan.

Both Taylor and Townsend will replace commissioners whose terms have already expired and who have been serving as holdovers for more than two years. Townsend will replace Commissioner Alan Schulkin, who was once caught on a hidden camera suggesting that New York City’s municipal identification program would exacerbate what he claimed was a problem of rampant voter fraud, of which there is no documented or even anecdotal evidence. When former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito attempted to confirm her preferred candidate for Schulkin’s seat in 2017, the Council was sued by the Manhattan County Democratic Party, which had nominated a different candidate. The Party dropped the lawsuit after Johnson became speaker and both the candidates previously sought were sidelined for Townsend.

The three appointments on Thursday were the first made by Johnson under his speakership and the Democratic conference used the opportunity to push the appointees on several reforms in elections processes and the BOE’s internal culture. The BOE has had a checkered history of administrative failures, most visible during several mismanaged elections in the last few years. Critics have often blamed the board’s patronage hiring process for some of those mistakes while others blame the state’s arcane and immensely complex elections and voting laws.

The central point of tension with the City Council has been the Board’s refusal to abide by local legislation, claiming that the Council does not have the jurisdiction to mandate any changes to election administration and that only the state Legislature can force its hand. That tension has played out in various ways in recent years. The Council passed bills allowing online voter registration, mandating the creation of a voter information portal, and a more simple bill that would require the BOE to post signs when a poll site has been moved. The BOE has declined to implement all of them.

To push those reforms ahead, the Council Democrats asked the three commissioner candidates to fill out questionnaires pledging support for those changes and also asking them to make merit hires rather than patronage ones. They also asked the commissioners to agree to allow the BOE executive director to unilaterally hire and fire employees rather than having to obtain permission from the commissioners. All three candidates agreed to the pledge, according to Speaker Johnson and other Council members.  

There was some pushback from Camilo, the Bronx candidate, over the language of the questionnaire, Bronx Council Member Andy Cohen conceded when asked by Gotham Gazette. (Camilo’s appointment was not included on the agenda on the Council’s legislative calendar on Thursday morning that mentioned the other two appointments. It was added before the vote took place sometime before noon.)

But Cohen emphasized that Camilo agreed with the concept of the reforms but could not answer in a way that would contravene her duties as mandated by state law. “There are many, many frustrations as a City Council member of where the state has local control that I think is unnecessary, intrusive,” Cohen said in the Council chambers after the vote. “I think that if the city had control of its own Board of Elections, there’s no doubt in my mind we could do a better job.”

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, who has long advocated for reforms at the BOE, said the Council’s public vote was “a good step in the right direction.” Kallos was the author of some of the reform bills that formed the basis for the questionnaire to the appointees. “For a long time I’ve been asking the Board of Elections to voluntarily do the right thing and it doesn’t matter if the law says they can get away with patronage, we need to live in a post-patronage world where people are hired based on what they know, not who they know.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Reform Commitments, City Council Democrats Appoint Three New Commissioners to Board of Elections Thu, 28 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
After Parent’s ‘Gut-Wrenching’ Testimony, Next Step in City Council School Bus Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8254-after-parent-s-gut-wrenching-testimony-next-step-in-city-council-school-bus-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8254-after-parent-s-gut-wrenching-testimony-next-step-in-city-council-school-bus-reform council mem just brannan irish

Council Member Justin Brannan (photo: John McCarten\City Council)


Sally Kabel was diagnosed with infant leukemia at ten months old, the treatment for which led to seizures, three broken bones, and a weak immune system. She developed epilepsy, and after her third bout of pneumonia she required continuous oxygen support. None of this stopped her from going to school more than complications with her school bus, according to her mother, Nicole Kabel.

After missing the first day at Manhattan Star Academy on the Upper West SIde because she was sick, 5-year-old Sally was ready for her own first day. But, her assigned nurse did not show up to accompany her to school. Three days later, Nicole was informed Sally’s nurse had been reassigned, so Sally couldn’t go to school until she had a new nurse. It took two weeks. After persistent, unfruitful calls to the Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT), a division inside the city’s Department of Education (DOE) responsible for providing transportation by yellow bus and public transit for all students in New York City, Nicole found out Sally’s nurse could not accompany her on the bus, as the bus was only designated for one passenger.

Nicole, who has two other children, took Sally to school herself before a bus with a nurse finally showed up. But then there was no car seat for Sally. Nicole tried calling the DOE, but there was no fix. Sally had an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a personalized plan for the education of children with special needs, which meant she had her own school bus and a supposed shortened commute time. Finally, the bus matron convinced the bus company to put a car seat on the bus, uncleared by the DOE.

“School was her happy place. Psychologically she needed it to stay positive and keep going,” Nicole said during testimony at a City Council hearing of the education committee in October 2018, discussing the many challenges their family faced in trying to get Sally to school at the hearing, which was dedicated to oversight of the Office of Pupil Transportation and a suite of bills to reform it.

Throughout the entire 2017-2018 school year Nicole made consistent calls to the DOE and OPT trying to address the long commute time and the lack of car seat. Sally began at a private school that summer, but the summer bussing company would not give her a car seat as it still violated code. Nicole tried to address the issue, but in the absence of a car seat, the nurse was forced to hold up Sally’s head and body to avoid breathing issues while Sally napped.

In late August 2018, Nicole attempted multiple times to contact the DOE to again address the incorrect coding and the small nurse staff. Sally didn’t start school on time that year either.

“She thrived [at school], whatever pain was happening to her, she forgot about it at school,” Nicole said in an email. “It was her happy place. It breaks my heart she was not able to go to school the first week of September. Her teacher whom she had previously and was going to have again texted me every day hoping busing/nursing issues would be sorted. The school missed her, and she missed them.”

On September 15, 2018, four days after her sixth birthday, instead of going to school Sally was brought into the NYU Langone emergency room where she went into septic shock. She died four days later, on September 19.

“I spent countless hours and days the last month of our daughter’s life battling to get her back to school where she could be happy. Those are hours wasted that should have been spent with her that we can no longer have back,” said Nicole.

Nicole was among the parents and education advocates who testified at the City Council hearing last year, pushing Council members to address problems with the city’s school transportation system, including more transparency from the Department of Education and more efficient bus times.

On January 9 of this year, the Council passed a series of bills designed to update the school bussing system of New York City. The package was spearheaded by Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos and Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger, the chair of the Committee on Education. Legislation dealing with the city’s school bussing system has been kicked around the Council for over 15 years, primarily driven by former Brooklyn Council Member Michael Nelson, who called for tracking capabilities as early as 2005 and two-way radios in buses as early as 2000, but has never made it out of committee.

Most notably in this block of bills known as the School Transportation Oversight Package (STOP) is a bill, Intro. 1099, that mandates that each school bus used to transport students to and from school must be equipped with a GPS tracking device and a two-way radio allowing communication with the operator of the school bus. Furthermore, parents must have access to the real-time location of their child’s school bus.

(According to the City Council Finance Division, about 6,000 out of the approximate 10,000 school buses used for pupil transportation already have GPS technology compliant with the legislation.)

The suite of bills, which Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to either sign or allow to age into law, also mandates that the DOE must report to the Council twice a year specific information regarding bus transportation duration times, detailed information on complaints about school bus service and ensuing investigations, as well as the number of compliant buses, vendors, and students using the system.

The DOE will have to share with parents their student’s bus route, scheduled arrival and departure times, as well as a school bus ridership guide with detailed descriptions of the system and the complaint protocol process. DOE will also be required to share daily if their child’s bus is late arriving or departing their school.

The ridership guide is required to be sent to authorized parents and guardians of general education and special education students.

The Department of Education and the Office of Pupil Transportation have long been criticized for complications in the complaints process and for leadership turmoil. Public criticism reached a height this past November when multiple school buses, including students with special needs, were stuck in the snow and could not deliver some students until past midnight. While getting stuck was apparently not the bus company or drivers’ faults, the lack of ability to communicate with parents or for parents to track their children’s whereabouts was frightening and troubling to many, including parents and City Council members.

But while the package of bills passed by the Council do a lot, they do not address all of the issues faced by Nicole and Sally Kabel, and other families with similar challenges. A new bill is in the works to more directly address those situations.

Nicole said that the doctors at NYU Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital “gave their hearts, they gave their hours, they supported us in every way, shape, and form. And although they could not save her life, I have no anger to them whatsoever.”

“I do, in fact, have anger towards the Department of Education and the Office of Pupil Transportation,” she said.

Council Member Justin Brannan, whose Southern Brooklyn district the Kabels live in, said Nicole’s “testimony at that hearing was just gut-wrenching. I knew the story because I had lived it with her but really hearing her lay it all out in front of everybody was really eye-opening and really moving. I wanted to become an elected official for moments like this.”

“Most people would think [testifying at the Council] would be an insane thing to do after losing a child but there’s so many things that are out of your control that doing something on things you can control makes me feel better,” Nicole said in a phone interview.

The STOP bills most directly address the aspects of Kabel’s testimony dealing with communicating with the Office of Pupil Transportation and lodging complaints against the Department of Education and the OPT. However, the bills don’t really deal with issues related to how parents directly manage Individualized Education Programs and transportation.

Brannan told Gotham Gazette that as a direct result of the Kabel family’s ordeal, he is currently writing legislation to address the school bussing system for students with special needs.

“I’m a big believer in the constituent marching in the office and saying there should be a law and you doing everything you can do to make a change,” Brannan said in a phone interview.

“The idea that came out of her testimony was to find a way so that no other child with additional needs or an IEP has to deal with this type of insanity ever again,” he said.

The Council “listened to a lot of families and have given it a lot of thought on how to make the process better,” Kabel said in the interview.

Brannan’s planned bill, which is being drafted by the Council’s staff, would require the Department of Education to name specific caseworkers for parents and guardians of children with both an IEP and some type of special needs transportation assistance.

“One of the problems Nicole speaks about is she got someone on the phone with a heart and who cared but then was rerouted and had to tell her story again while she should have been playing in the park with her daughter who was dying of cancer,” Brannan said.

Furthermore, Council Member Kallos told Kabel at the October hearing that the OPT “may need a position just focused on special education” and a way to enhance “interoperability in the DOE for the different departments and to share information,” both of which could potentially be part of further legislation.

“I was so angry about the time I wasted in bureaucracy and the amount I had to do to give her a meaningful life in a world in which a child can go to school and have friends and learn,” Kabel said in the interview.

She added she would still like to see the DOE implement a program to assign someone who knows the IEP, is assigned year around, and “makes sure everything is done correctly without putting it back on the parent.”

“This is where bureaucratic dysfunction was impacting real lives,” Brannan said. “When your daughter is sick, and her life hangs in the balance then bureaucracy isn’t just frustrating, it’s life affecting.”

Brannan’s bill will be introduced in the City Council once Council lawyers finish drafting it. He said he expects it to pass the Council quickly, becoming the next step in efforts to improve both the city’s school transportation system and its services to students with special needs, and where the two meet.

“It should not be so hard to send your child to school,” Kabel said.

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by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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After Parent’s ‘Gut-Wrenching’ Testimony, Next Step in City Council School Bus Reform Mon, 04 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As Acting Public Advocate, Johnson Eyes Information Commission Revived by James But Killed by De Blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8200-as-acting-public-advocate-johnson-eyes-information-commission-revived-by-james-but-killed-by-de-blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8200-as-acting-public-advocate-johnson-eyes-information-commission-revived-by-james-but-killed-by-de-blasio Corey Johnson Tish James

Corey Johnson, Laurie Cumbo, Tish James (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


A charter-mandated city commission meant to help New Yorkers access information about their government sputtered to a stop in 2016 owing to a lack of funding, barely three years after being revived by former Public Advocate Letitia James. Now, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is also acting public advocate for the next several weeks, is taking up James’ unfinished business and attempting to raise the commission from its grave.

The Commission on Public Information and Communication (COPIC) was created in the City Charter in 1989 with a mandate of informing the public about data created and maintained by the city and helping New Yorkers access it. Chaired by the public advocate, the commission is meant to regularly examine the city’s information policies as well as monitor agency efforts to comply with them.

The charter requires the commission to hold at least one hearing each year and issue an annual report. COPIC must also annually publish a directory of “computerized information produced or maintained by city agencies which is required by law to be publicly accessible,” though it has not done so since perhaps the 1990s. The commission does not have a website, despite being in existence for 20 years, and records of past meetings and reports are not easily accessible (the public advocate’s website hosted some of this information but was archived once James vacated her seat).

The commission was also tasked with evaluating the implementation of the city’s webcasting law, passed in 2013 and requiring agencies to broadcast meetings online and archive them. In 2015, James’ second year as public advocate, the commission was exploring ways to assist agencies with their webcasting requirements and setting up a central repository of all webcasts.

The body’s membership, all unpaid, is meant to comprise the heads of several city agencies or their delegates including the city Law Department, the Department of Records and Information Services, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications; one City Council member; two other members appointed by the mayor; one member appointed by the public advocate; and one appointed by the borough presidents as a group.

But COPIC hasn’t held a hearing since March 2016 when James was in the midst of her attempt to rescue the commission from bureaucratic apathy only to be denied resources by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. As James’ predecessor in the public advocate’s office, de Blasio himself had only convened one hearing of the commission. The public advocate’s office receives little funding for its own duties, let alone to hire staff for COPIC.

It’s unclear why James did not continue her advocacy for the commission after having revived it with some fanfare early in her tenure (her office even created a new Twitter account just for COPIC). A spokesperson for James did not respond to a request for comment.

When James was sworn in as New York’s attorney general, the public advocate office fell to Speaker Johnson’s stewardship until a new public advocate is chosen by voters in a special election scheduled for February 26. In the limited time available to him, Johnson is eyeing several avenues of his expanded responsibilities. “I absolutely want an active COPIC, and I want to build on the work Tish James did as Public Advocate in this area,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is something she fought for and it’s something I want to keep working on in my time as acting Public Advocate.”

One reason that COPIC has been unable to publish the requisite public data directory is because the Law Department argued in 2014 that the city’s Open Data portal already accomplishes this goal. But Johnson’s office disagrees. A spokesperson said that though the two databases have significant overlap, COPIC’s public data directory could and would go further, identifying new datasets that members of the public can then request under the city’s Freedom of Information law. The Open Data portal, on the other hand, relies on agencies self-identifying datasets that they believe should be subject to the open data law. Earlier this month, Johnson sent a letter to the mayor requesting that information with a February 15 deadline for a response.

“We’ll look into it,” said mayoral spokesperson Eric Phillips, in an email, when asked about the speaker’s letter and the lack of funding for COPIC.

Manhattan City Council Member Ben Kallos, who was the Council’s pick to be on the commission, said the fault for COPIC’s inactivity lies solely with the mayor’s office as he praised James for trying to resuscitate the commission. “COPIC is yet another board that is completely controlled by mayoral appointments, which has a responsibility to be a check on the mayor, which is why it has probably never been funded properly in my recent memory,” Kallos said in a phone interview, noting that the mayor chooses seven of the 11 COPIC commissioners. “COPIC is a powerful agency in the charter which has been written out of the charter by a chronic defunding of the agency as a whole.”

Kallos requested funding for the agency in three successive budgets. In 2015, several civic technology groups and good government advocacy organizations also joined that push, including Common Cause New York, Citizens Union, the New York Public Interest Research Group, BetaNYC, Civic Hall, Reinvent Albany, the League of Women Voters of the City of New York, and the Women’s City Club of New York. “Given the promise of COPIC to increase public accessibility of city government meetings, data and information, we request the modest budget of $250,000 for staffing of COPIC to ensure it is able to fulfill the duties outlined in the City Charter,” the groups wrote in a 2015 letter. That funding is estimated to be sufficient to hire a full-time executive director and general counsel, which the charter mandates.

Kallos was disappointed that those calls went unheeded. “The mayor never included it in the budget. I pushed for it. Tish pushed for it. The good government community pushed for it,” he said. The most impactful role that COPIC could play, Kallos said, is providing advisory opinions to members of the public, elected officials, and city agencies about laws requiring public access to meetings, transcripts and records.

“COPIC has the potential to be the equivalent of the Committee on Open Government at the state level,” he said, referring to the state agency that gives the public, press, and state government advice on the state Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law, and the Personal Privacy Protection Law. Kallos said he would advocate for the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to strengthen COPIC’s powers.

“You can only expect people to work for so long without being compensated for their work, and with the federal government shut down, we’re seeing those limits tested,” Kallos said. “In this case we have COPIC being operated and moved forward for three years without any funding and I hope that people will finally fund this important agency that very few have ever heard of but would have the power to really force the executive to really open up.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Acting Public Advocate, Johnson Eyes Information Commission Revived by James But Killed by De Blasio Mon, 14 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
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.

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

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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.

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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

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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

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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