Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/56 Sat, 24 Feb 2018 02:26:29 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 400 Old and New Bills Introduced at City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7456:400-old-and-new-bills-introduced-at-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=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/?id=7452:favorable-to-the-bronx-council-committee-shuffle-also-seen-as-retribution http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=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, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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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/?id=7369:state-board-of-elections-official-says-city-must-move-to-instant-runoff-voting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=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, City government 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/?id=7346:open-budget-economic-development-transparency-bills-become-law http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=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, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law Fri, 01 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
‘Democracy Vouchers’ May Come to New York City http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7322:democracy-vouchers-may-come-to-new-york-city http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7322:democracy-vouchers-may-come-to-new-york-city Ben Kallos campaign finance reform

City Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


As he ran for mayor this year, former City Council Member Sal Albanese typically didn’t go more than five minutes without mentioning his call to bring additional campaign finance reform to New York City. Despite the fact that the city already has a heralded public-matching system that encourages small donation fundraising, Albanese pointed to the “democracy voucher” program instituted in Seattle, which is even more radical in its efforts to lower individual donation limits, encourage more voters to engage in politics, and push candidates to pay more attention to residents of all financial means.

The Seattle program, passed by voters in 2015 as part of a larger “honest elections” initiative, not only mandates exceedingly low ceilings for individual donations to candidates and for candidate expenditures, it provides eligible residents with four $25 vouchers that they can donate to participating candidates of their choosing. Using public money garnered from a property tax, it encourages more people to participate by giving them the means to donate to candidates and pushes candidates to reach out more broadly to the electorate. Research has shown that people who donate to campaigns vote in very high numbers.

While Albanese fell short in his bid to unseat Mayor Bill de Blasio, the City Council’s resident campaign finance reformer is planning to explore a democracy voucher program in New York City. City Council Member Ben Kallos told Gotham Gazette that he has submitted a request to the Council’s bill-drafting unit for democracy voucher legislation, likely to be introduced next year, after a new class of Council members is seated and a new speaker selected in January.

"I'm exploring anything and everything a jurisdiction in the country or on the planet is using to increase participation," Kallos told Gotham Gazette on Monday.

"The recent court decision upholding democracy vouchers shows a promising option for the city as we investigate ways for candidates to come from a community with community support without having to rely on big dollars from special interests," Kallos added, referring to a challenge to the Seattle system that was dismissed earlier this month.

Putting in a request for legislation is the first step of many whereby a bill can become law, and many bills never get through the City Council to the mayor’s desk. But, Kallos intends to start a serious discussion about whether the city should take a more drastic step toward campaign finance reform. Next year will also see a report from the city’s Campaign Finance Board about its program, as is mandated by law in the year following each city election. The board will make recommendations for ways in which the city can tweak the program, but democracy vouchers are unlikely to be part of its recommendations.

As for drawbacks to a democracy voucher program, one is that there is very limited data on its effectiveness since the Seattle program just got going. Others include the potential cost in public dollars, which could exceed the money the city currently puts toward its program -- the CFB paid out “$17,694,046 to 103 qualifying candidates for the 2017 election cycle,” according to a recent press release -- and whether an accompanying reduction in maximum individual contributions would push more money into independent expenditures.

Before introducing democracy voucher legislation or the CFB post-election report, however, Kallos is looking to see one of his currently-pending campaign finance reform bills passed in the waning days of this legislative session. Co-sponsored by 29 members in the 51-seat Council, the Kallos bill would increase the public matching threshold for how much candidates can receive relative to the spending limit in their races (there are lower thresholds for City Council races than borough-wide and city-wide races).

The bill had a hearing in April and Kallos said he is pushing to see it passed this term. The Manhattan Democrat saw his online voter registration bill passed on Tuesday by the governmental operations committee he chairs. The full Council is expected to pass it on Thursday and de Blasio has indicated he will sign it into law.

The de Blasio administration has indicated support for Kallos’ bill to increase the public matching threshold, which would allow candidates to run their campaigns based more on smaller, matchable donations (eligible donations up to $175 are matched six-to-one, to a certain percentage of the spending threshold, which Kallos’ bill would increase).

A de Blasio spokesperson also expressed some vague support for exploring the ideas of democracy vouchers and lowering contribution limits, when asked by Gotham Gazette. “The Mayor supports moving towards full public financing of elections and reversing Citizens United,” said spokesperson Seth Stein, in a statement. “We are reviewing other proposals and City Council legislation that will help us end the influence of money in our elections.”

Under the Seattle system, the maximum contribution allowed by each individual to a candidate participating in the democracy voucher program is $250 plus $100 in vouchers. For candidates not participating in the program, the maximum individual contribution is $500. These numbers are far lower than those currently allowed in New York City, where, for example, the maximum individual donation to a mayoral candidate is $4,950.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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‘Democracy Vouchers’ May Come to New York City Tue, 14 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Online Voter Registration on Verge of Passage in New York City http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7314:online-voter-registration-on-verge-of-passage-in-new-york-city http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7314:online-voter-registration-on-verge-of-passage-in-new-york-city polling place

Polling place (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


As New York State’s archaic election and voting laws continue to dampen voter turnout, the New York City Council is about to take a step to encourage participation. The City Council’s governmental operations committee will vote on Tuesday, November 14 to approve a bill allowing online voter registration for city residents, Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the committee, told Gotham Gazette on Thursday. The bill is then expected to pass the full City Council on Thursday.

“With the historic low in turnout on Tuesday, online voter registration will be an essential tool to help more residents become voters,” Kallos said in a phone interview, referring to the 22 percent of registered voters who showed up to the polls to vote for mayor. Following the committee vote, the bill will head to the Council floor for a vote at its next stated meeting, he said.

New York’s laws lag behind most other states and voter turnout has been consistently low in recent elections at the federal, state and city level. Nationally, 34 states and Washington D.C. allow some form of online voter registration. Although New Yorkers can submit registration forms online through the Department of Motor Vehicles, only those with DMV-issued identification can do so. “Many people in urban areas, which have higher concentrations of low-income communities of color, may not have drivers licenses because they rely on public transportation,” Kallos said.

Kallos’ bill requires that the New York City Campaign Finance Board, or another agency designated by the mayor, create a website and mobile application where residents can register to vote or update their registration. The agency will have to submit those registration forms to the Board of Elections within two weeks, and the portal will inform applicants when their registration will go into effect. The online form will allow applicants to either upload files with a copy of their handwritten signature, a photo for instance, or directly sign the form using a touchscreen.

“I think it’s long overdue and it’s good to see the City of New York join the 20th century,” Kallos said, hinting that the state’s voting laws require broader modernization. While online registration would make registering easier, to significantly improve turnout -- millions of registered New Yorkers do not vote in local elections -- many point to state-level reforms, such as early voting and same-day registration, which have stalled in Albany, curbed by the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“Anything that can be done to improve New York’s appalling voter participation rate is worth doing,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit that advocates for better election laws. “We live in the 21st century. We shouldn’t have VHS technology in the Netflix age and this makes perfect sense to do what can be done to make it easier for people to register to vote.”

Kallos, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side, credited Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for paving the way for online registration through an informal opinion he issued in April last year. Schneiderman, who was responding to Suffolk County officials seeking clarity on voter registration requirements, wrote that a registration form completed with an “electronically-affixed handwritten signature” would be consistent with state law.

Although the bill would take effect 18 months after it is signed into law, Kallos urged the de Blasio administration to move quickly. As a demonstration of the ease with which a portal can be created, he built his own fully-functional microsite, which he said took only a few hours. “I hope the city doesn’t wait years or months but gets it done in weeks, days or even hours,” he said, also hoping that every city agency integrates links to the portal in online forms, which isn’t mandated in the legislation.

“The Administration worked closely with the City Council in crafting this legislation,” said mayoral spokesperson Seth Stein, in an email. “We support online registration and making voting more accessible to New Yorkers. We look forward to reviewing the final legislation when it passes the Council.”

Kallos is also hoping that the city’s bill will “convince our colleagues in Albany to bring online voter registration to the state.” The New York State Legislature has been consistently averse to electoral and voting reforms. “Elected officials get elected by the voters that exist, not by the voters who might exist,” said NYPIRG’s Horner. “So there’s a natural reluctance to bring new voters into the system.”

He added, “New York needs a soup-to-nuts review of its elections process with a goal toward making it easier for people to register, making it easier for people to vote, not harder, and that’s what New York does unfortunately right now.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Online Voter Registration on Verge of Passage in New York City Thu, 09 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes 'Open Budget' Bill Mayor Has Yet to Support http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7287:new-york-city-council-passes-open-budget-legislation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7287:new-york-city-council-passes-open-budget-legislation 15610942274 2c68194eaf z

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)


The New York City Council passed legislation on Tuesday mandating that the government agency that oversees the city’s $85.2 billion annual budget provide all budget documents to the public in an easily accessible and machine-readable format.

The legislation, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, requires the Office of Management and Budget to post documents released in the annual budget process to the city’s open data portal within 10 days of posting them on their website. OMB produces multiple iterations of the city’s budget each year as the annual expenditure plan is negotiated between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council. These include the preliminary budget proposal, the executive budget proposal and the final adopted budget, each of which contain hundreds of pages with detailed breakdowns of agency spending and city revenues. The agency also issues a budget modification document in November.

“I want to know where every single penny in the budget is,” said Kallos. “We’ve already got a lot of this implemented, but the parts of the budget that matter are still hidden behind thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of pdfs that can’t be searched, let alone analyzed.”

Kallos’ bill would make reams of expenditure and revenue reports searchable online and downloadable in bulk, providing an added level of transparency to city budgeting, he says. “With this legislation, whether it’s a member of the City Council, City Council staff or any resident will be able to actually see where the dollars are being spent and really hold the administration accountable.”

An ardent advocate of government reform and a software developer himself, Kallos has consistently pushed the de Blasio’s administration to increase the amount of data available on the open data portal. The administration, for its part, has made significant progress since the city’s open data initiative was first launched in 2012 by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Kallos believes this latest bill will build on that effort. “We spent years working with the administration, working with the existing financial management system to ensure that it could be done,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of the budget up.”

It’s unclear whether the mayor will sign the bill into law, although he has yet to veto a single bill passed by the City Council. “We look forward to reviewing the legislation,” said Freddi Goldstein, a mayoral spokesperson on budget matters, in an email.  

The bill would go into effect immediately if the mayor signs it, but it would only cover future budget documents and would not apply retroactively. Under de Blasio, the city’s budget has increased by 17.2 percent, from $72.7 billion in the last modification under Bloomberg to $85.2 billion for fiscal year 2018.

Kallos held out hope that past budgets would eventually be included on the open data website. “I would love to be able to compare our city’s budget going back as far as we have records for,” Kallos said.

[Related: City Releases Latest Progress on Open Data Plan]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Passes 'Open Budget' Bill Mayor Has Yet to Support Tue, 31 Oct 2017 21:05:18 +0000
City Council Members Still Navigating Outside Income Divestment Ahead of Deadline http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7234:city-council-members-still-navigating-outside-income-divestment-ahead-of-deadline http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7234:city-council-members-still-navigating-outside-income-divestment-ahead-of-deadline paul vallone by john mccarten

Council Member Paul Vallone (photo: John McCarten)


Legislation barring City Council members from making outside income will go into effect on January 1, forcing several sitting and incoming Council members to make tough decisions about their side jobs.

The regulations, which were linked to a significant pay increase for all city elected officials, including a salary bump from $112,500 to $148,000 for City Council members, were approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council last year. Only three current City Council members, two of whom voted against the new restrictions, continue to be involved in their private sector businesses, and each is still in the process of figuring out divestment as mandated by the new law.

Council Members Peter Koo, Chaim Deutsch, and Paul Vallone -- all still in the process of being reelected to another term -- were required to submit letters to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito by March 1, 2016 indicating whether or not they intended to continue earning outside income and stating an intention to comply with the rules by the January deadline -- in time for the 2018-2021 Council session.

When reached by Gotham Gazette, each of the three Council members or a representative described legal and logistical complexities in divesting from or dissolving a limited liability company (LLC), resigning from a job, or recusing oneself from duties in anticipation of the deadline.

Meanwhile, some still question whether the Council should have gone to a near-complete ban on outside income (small allowances are provided for members who teach a college course, for example), or if the model should have been akin to the cap on what members of Congress are allowed to make outside of their governmental duty -- a small percentage of their salaries.

Vallone, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Eastern Queens, reported earning between $5,000 and $47,999 from his family’s law practice on his 2016 financial disclosure forms. In opposing the new outside income restrictions on Council members, he introduced a last-ditch amendment -- citing a statement made by good government group Citizens Union -- that Council members’ outside income should be capped at 15 percent of their Council salaries rather than eliminated. The amendment did not pass, and a spokesperson for Vallone said he is working with his lawyers to figure out how the rules apply to the family’s legal firm, which was founded by his grandfather Judge Charles J. Vallone in 1932, and where three generations of Vallones have since practiced.

As managing Partner of Vallone & Vallone, the Council member oversees the company’s day-to-day operations and serves as general counsel for corporate clients, according to the firm’s website. The firm also handles estate law, real estate transactions, civil and personal injury litigation, and criminal law.

Also a Democrat, Deutsch represents the 48th Council District, in Southern Brooklyn, and currently makes between $100,000 and $250,000 a year through a real estate management company he owns. He said he intends to shut down the business by January, but has not yet determined the process for doing so.

“It’s going to take some time to shut down the corporation. I don’t know exactly what the process is,” said Deutsch, who voted against the bills. “What I do know, is that I’m not accepting any more managing fees. I could keep the corporation open for the next five years, and maybe reopen it after term limits. But I will not be receiving the outside income.”

Deutsch, like Vallone and Koo, will be term-limited out of office at the end of 2021 if successful on Election Day this year, which each is expected to be.

Koo is a Democrat who owns a chain of pharmacies and represents the 20th Council District in Queens. He reported making between $60,000 and $99,999 as the president of a pharmacy, and another $5,000 to $47,999 at another pharmacy. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but he was the only one of the three who voted in favor of the legislation.

Other newly elected Democratic nominees for the City Council said that they had already quit their jobs to focus on their campaigns and that they have no intentions to returning to work before January.

“I quit in 2017 in April to be a full-time candidate,” said Keith Powers, who won a crowded District 4 Democratic primary and is the favorite to win the seat in November. “No matter what job I had at the time, I would have given it up; you want to make sure you have all the time to talk to voters.”

Like Powers, most candidates for City Council either leave their jobs entirely or take a leave of absence for the key months of the campaign.

Powers, a former government aide and, more recently, lobbyist who ran partly on a reform and transparency platform, said he hopes that the City Council rules can be a model for the state Legislature, where the salaries are far lower but the outside income restrictions are minimal and the job is considered part-time.

“You should be fully committed to the job that you’ve been elected to for the district. In the district that I am in, I don’t know how you would even have time to do both,” Powers said.

State government appeared to be moving toward pay raises for state legislators and others in government last year, but the process was stalled amid disagreements among Governor Andrew Cuomo, members of the Legislature, and appointees to a special panel tasked with determining pay raises and, potentially, other reforms to the relevant jobs. Legislators haven’t had a salary increase in nearly 20 years, with base pay stuck at $79,000, though many legislators receive additional bonuses as well as per diem payouts for trips to Albany.

There were and continue to be criticisms about the requirement that City Council members relinquish virtually all outside income. Some stemmed from concerns that an outright ban on outside income could discourage small business owners from running for office, according to Council Member Ben Kallos, who co-sponsored the legislation and chairs the governmental operations committee. The bill was tweaked to make allowances for passive income and would not force electeds to dissolve their business entities completely.

“It’s just what we could reasonably expect from people. So, if somebody has spent their career as a small business person, and brought that small business experience to the City Council,  which can be invaluable…,” said Kallos. “After four years or eight years, [that person] could return to their community, and continue doing what they did to begin with.”

Rather than stripping a small number of elected officials of their non-governmental livelihoods, the goal was to ensure that Council members focus on their districts full-time, and to avoid any real or apparent conflicts of interest.

“It is a concern for me that someone with business before the city could hire a member of the City Council in the hopes of gaining influence,” said Kallos, who represents Manhattan’s 5th Council District.

Kallos said that before taking office in 2014, he personally retired from the practice of law in three states and dissolved LLCs for companies he had started. He said he is still in the process of dissolving several non-profits he created.

“All of them have had, literally had no business since I got elected. But, it can be a complicated and weird, long process,” he said.

While dissolving these entities is not required by the bill, Kallos said, “I felt that as the author of the law in question, I have to set a good example and go one step further than the law requires.”

Certain passive income, such as interest, dividends, rent, annuities, capital gains, copyright royalties, or retirement payouts are acceptable under the new rules. Council members may also accept compensation for speaking engagements or artistic performances, with advance approval by the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), and income for teaching an accredited college course, “so long as such compensation does not exceed that normally received by others at the institution for a comparable type and amount of instruction.”

The language also leaves room for jobs drawing “minimal income, involving a limited time commitment,” with advance approval by the Office of General Counsel, as long as the role does not interfere with the member’s official duties.

The pay raise at the City Council may have helped attract a number of candidates from state government, where legislative salaries have been frozen since 1999. But, the new city guidelines can also create complications for an Assembly member and state senator earning outside income on the verge of election to the City Council. Three state lawmakers won Democratic City Council primaries in September and are either heavily favored or guaranteed to win the seat in November.

State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., who won the primary for Council District 18 in the Bronx, earns between $5,000 and $20,000 for his role as pastor at the Christian Community Neighborhood Church, which he founded, according to his most recent financial disclosure forms. Diaz Sr. could not be reached for comment.

Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, who won the primary for Council District 13 in the Bronx, has earned between $75,000  and $100,000 from a real estate brokerage firm he owns with a family member. A spokesperson for Gjonai said he has started the process with his lawyers and accountants to take the necessary steps to comply with city law.

“It's difficult for him to comment, because he's learning himself about that process,” said Jennifer Blatus, a spokesperson for Gjonaj. “I can say that it’s something the Assemblyman is happy to do in order to better serve his constituents.”

Assemblymember Francisco Moya, who won the primary in Queen’s 21st Council District, receives between $5,000 and $20,000 in rental income, according to his state disclosure filings, and will not be obligated to give up the income.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Members Still Navigating Outside Income Divestment Ahead of Deadline Wed, 04 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Five Democrats Will Be On The Mayoral Ballot, But Only Two Will Debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7133:five-democrats-will-be-on-the-mayoral-ballot-but-only-two-will-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7133:five-democrats-will-be-on-the-mayoral-ballot-but-only-two-will-debate c8ske5txoaa5ql4.jpg large

Mayoral candidate Robert Gangi (photo:@GangiForMayor)


The first official debate in the Democratic mayoral primary is set for Wednesday, August 23, where Mayor Bill de Blasio will face former City Council Member Sal Albanese. But three more Democrats, all of whom will be on the September 12 ballot, failed to qualify for the debate and are crying foul that the Campaign Finance Board’s eligibility criteria are excluding them from participation.

For candidates to qualify for the first of two official CFB primary debates, they must have raised and spent at least $174,225, which is 2.5 percent of the $6,969,000 primary expenditure limit.

For the second “leading contenders” debate, for Democrats on September 6, a candidate must meet the fundraising and expenditure threshold as well as one of three additional criteria. These include an endorsement from a citywide, statewide or federal elected official who represents the area covered by the election; or an endorsement from a organization with 250 members; or “significant media exposure” in the 12 months before the election, defined in this case as 12 appearances in print, television, digital, or other local media.

Only de Blasio and Albanese have met the criteria for both primary debates. As of the latest filing, for mid-August, de Blasio has raised $4.8 million and spent $2.4 million, and recently received a public funds matching payment of $2.5 million, giving him $4.9 million in cash on hand. Albanese has raised just over $191,000 and spent $185,000, leaving just over $5,000 in his campaign account as of the filing. He has not yet qualified for matching funds.

Candidates who participate in the CFB’s public matching funds program must appear in the debates if they qualify. For non-participants, inclusion in the debates is not guaranteed, the debate sponsors can choose to invite them.

The three other Democratic candidates on the ballot -- attorney Richard Bashner, police reform advocate Robert Gangi, and tech entrepreneur Michael Tolkin -- did not meet the threshold for the first primary debate. Both Bashner and Gangi have struggled to raise the necessary funds; Tolkin is the sole candidate of the bunch to not participate in the public funds program and would need to be invited on to the debate stage by sponsors.

Bashner, Gangi, and Tolkin are all protesting the CFB requirements and the fact that they will be on the outside looking in when de Blasio and Albanese face off. Even Albanese has criticized the requirements, which he barely met after a furious spending spree, and made an argument for a different threshold.

In the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, the debate thresholds were far lower: candidates had to raise and spend $50,000 but they also had to have received 2 percent in either a Quinnipiac University Poll or Marist Poll. Those thresholds were changed late last year through legislation passed by the City Council -- sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee -- and signed by de Blasio that increased the debate standards to the current 2.5 percent of the expenditure limit, as well as disqualifying loans or outstanding liabilities as counting towards that expenditure.

The bill was based on one of 14 recommendations by the CFB in its 2013 post-election report, which pointed out that debate thresholds had remained unchanged since 2005 while expenditure limits had increased more than 20 percent. “An increased standard, tied to the expenditure limit, is a better objective indicator of viability,” the report stated, recommending the increase.

Bashner has taken particular issue with the bill, insisting that it was a conflict for Mayor de Blasio to sign it into law since it has largely benefited him. The Brooklyn-based attorney and community board member has raised about $118,785 and spent $104,000, but $50,000 in contributions were a personal loan he made to his campaign.

In a letter to the CFB on Monday, Bashner called the bill that changed the debate law the “Incumbent Protection Act” and called on the board to allow all the mayor’s challengers to participate in the debates. At the very least, he argued, those who have met the 2013 threshold of $50,000 should be included. “Voters deserve the opportunity to hear where each of these challengers stands on the critical issues facing our city,” he wrote. “To silence the voices of these candidates is to impede democracy.”

Council Member Kallos defended the legislation, saying the CFB’s recommendation to increase the threshold was a “reasonable” one. “The piece that I found to be important was that candidates had to actually be spending money towards winning an election and that loans and liabilities wouldn’t count,” he said in a phone interview, insisting that the effect was two-fold. “Wealthy people couldn’t just write themselves a loan that they intended to pay back fully,” to get into the debates. “It also just changes it from a situation where people could loan and spend money that was illusory as opposed to raising and spending actual dollars.”

At one point, it did seem that de Blasio would commit to an open debate with his opponents. He initially seemed reluctant, insisting in a July interview on NY1, “We’re going to follow the CFB rules.” None of his opponents had qualified for the debates by then. The mayor then changed his position, saying in an August 3 tweet, “Regardless of CFB requirements, I'll be on a debate stage before the Sept 12th primary.”

Albanese criticized the mayor’s flip-flop, saying de Blasio issued the statement “when he saw that I was gonna blow past the threshold.” “I don’t find that to be a good government position, it was more of a political, expedient position,” he added.

It’s unclear if the mayor will end up debating all the candidates on the ballot. "Under Mayor de Blasio crime is at record lows, jobs are at record highs, and New York City is building affordable housing at a record pace. We are happy for any opportunity to talk about the Mayor’s record and we look forward to debating whoever the CFB and debate sponsors decide to include,” said Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for de Blasio's campaign, in an email.

Gangi and Tolkin have directed their ire more towards the CFB, taking turns to condemn the debate requirements and the board itself.

"The CFB's decision is a disgrace,” Tolkin said in a statement Tuesday. “It is reflective of a system virtually designed to keep non-politicians out of the election process. We are studying this decision closely and considering a range of options; however, it is clear that a comprehensive review of the CFB’s decision-making process is long overdue.”

Tolkin has taken a peculiar approach to his campaign finances, showing almost $8 million in personal in-kind contributions to his campaign, which are also counted as expenditures. But the CFB determined that those did not qualify him for the debate. Nevertheless, Tolkin challenged de Blasio to participate in three additional debates before the primary with all the Democratic candidates. “Mayor de Blasio’s unwillingness to participate in debates with the full slate of candidates is an obstruction to a fair and transparent primary process - one that he was afforded as a candidate in 2013,” he said.

For Gangi, campaign fundraising has been an even bigger challenge. He has raised only about $88,000 and spent just over $75,000. But, like Bashner, he lent his campaign a significant sum, $74,000, which would not count towards the contribution limit for the debates.

In a campaign statement on Tuesday, Gangi said the financial thresholds “are inherently unfair and undemocratic” by favoring wealthy candidates and incumbents with access to deep-pocketed donors. He was particularly incensed that he had been excluded after the CFB had issued public funds to de Blasio’s campaign partly based on a de Blasio campaign “statement of need” that pointed to Gangi as one of the mayor’s main competitors. “On what basis does the CFB then decide that de Blasio does not have to debate me?” he wondered.

“If my campaign is part of the rationale for granting the Mayor an extra [$2.5] million in tax payer [sic] matching funds, then it should have sufficient standing to earn a seat at the debate table,” he added.

CFB spokesperson Matt Sollars said in an email that the new thresholds were adopted in advance so all candidates would be aware of them. “City law sets objective, nonpartisan criteria for eligibility to participate in the citywide debates,” he said. “These criteria ensure that voters get a robust debate among candidates who have demonstrated public support.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Five Democrats Will Be On The Mayoral Ballot, But Only Two Will Debate Wed, 16 Aug 2017 02:11:01 +0000
A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7127:a-rarity-city-council-candidate-releases-detailed-reform-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7127:a-rarity-city-council-candidate-releases-detailed-reform-agenda powers petitioning stuytown keithpowersnyc

City Council candidate Keith Powers (photo: @KeithPowersNYC)


Candidates across the city this year are running for City Council on all sorts of issues, but only one has released a detailed list of government, campaign finance, and voting reform proposals. That agenda, called “Sunlight in the City,” has been put forward by Keith Powers, a Democrat competing in the crowded field to replace term-limited City Council Member Dan Garodnick on Manhattan’s East Side.

At a time of widespread distrust in government, continued problems with public corruption and unethical conduct, and low voter turnout, especially here in New York, Powers’ agenda is especially noteworthy. The 22-point platform on government and electoral reform in New York City is something of an amalgamation of longtime goals for voting reform advocates and good government groups. Some of the measures have actually already been passed or implemented; some have to be approved at the state level.

Powers’ reform agenda also comes as he is has been attacked by opponents for his work as a lobbyist -- he was until May a vice president at the firm Constantinople and Vallone. Sunlight in the City includes several planks directly related to lobbying, including more disclosure of lobbying meetings held by City Council members and more detailed lobbyist reporting to indicate, among other things, “who got lobbied, who did the lobbying, and the specific bill or subject matter.”

Some of the mainstay priorities of electoral and government reform advocates that appear in Powers’ platform include a move to instant runoff voting for all city elections and lowering the number of City Council issue committees to diminish patronage and redundancy in the legislative body. These planks have been proposed in the Council and, in the case of instant runoff voting, at the state level, but have gone nowhere.

Powers also calls for lowering the individual contribution limit to Council candidates campaigns from $2,750 to $1,225, “to make small donors and large donors equal in their donation capacity.” Ideally, his agenda says, he wants to see 100% publicly financed elections in the city to replace the city’s current matching funds mechanism, starting with a pilot program for special elections. Kallos introduced a bill to increase the matching funds payout for Council races “to a full match with the expenditure limit,” which is currently in committee.

A few planks in the platform are already in place, such as the closure of the “doing business loophole” that allows those doing business with the city to circumvent donation limits by giving to political nonprofits. The loophole was closed in a bill passed by the Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016, after the mayor himself was investigated for issues related to his own political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, which was shuttered amid controversy.

“I think it’s important we’re always sort of constantly evaluating our process by which we do government or help get people elected or otherwise,” Powers said in an interview, “we can always do better.” He indicated he believes the City Council is, in most cases, a model for transparent government, but that there’s still more that can be done.

In part because of his reform agenda, Powers has received the endorsement of City Council Member Ben Kallos, himself an advocate of open and ethical government and the representative of a neighboring Council district to the one Powers hopes to represent. Kallos also chairs the Council’s government operations committee, which often hears bills related to government and campaign finance reform.

“In terms of his Sunlight in the City report, it is a list of the 22 items that the City Council is currently working on or should be working on to really clean up government,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Kallos said that he hasn’t seen anything like it from anyone running this year.

While few City Council candidates are talking about government and campaign finance reform, Democratic mayoral hopeful Sal Albanese has made the topic central to his attempt to unseat de Blasio. Albanese has proposed a significant campaign finance reform to completely eliminate private money from the system, something de Blasio has said he favors in theory, but has not advanced legislation on.

Powers acknowledges the difficulties in getting some things on his list passed, but said that shouldn’t be a reason to not try.

“I think the City Council reform, I think that is the one where I look at as there being a lot of really achievable ideas in there,” said Powers, citing the creation of an independent bill drafting unit as something that many legislators are clamoring for, despite the existence of such a unit. The unit was part of a package of Council reforms passed in 2014, but Powers believes that these reforms can go further; regarding the drafting unit, Powers believes the current iteration is an improvement, but that it should be even more autonomous in instances such as the number of bills that can be introduced at a given time.

Another Council reform Powers sees as achievable deals with bill aging. Currently, a bill ages seven days after introduction for public input, but Powers claims that it just sits in City Hall and is essentially unavailable to the public. He believes it should publicly age online.

Powers said that the challenge of moving some of the reforms through the state government shouldn’t be a deterrent, that the city shouldn’t be “abdicating our authority to Albany.” Kallos said that the voting reform planks, other than ending patronage at the Board of Elections, don’t have to go through the state Legislature. Many of the other planks need city passage, some can be done through City Council rules.

On closing doing business loophole, which already became law, Powers conceded to have not known the full extent of the legislative package that was passed. He also was largely nonspecific on his proposed additions to the 2014 member item reform, stating that there’s a lot to look at where the Council can “do better.”

The Powers agenda received an enthusiastic response from democratic reform group Citizens Union, which interviews candidates and releases preferences in some city elections based on good government bona fides.

“Keith Powers has put forward an ambitious and wide-ranging plan to increase transparency and accountability, and bring some needed sunlight to the New York City Council. While we do not support all of his proposed reforms, Citizens Union has long been advocating for several of them and will continue to do so in the upcoming session,” said Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s Public Policy director.

For example, Citizens Union is not in support of the full public financing of city elections plank of Powers’ platform -- the organization “feel[s] that candidates should have to raise money in the districts they seek to represent,” Bloom said. However, it is supportive of Powers’ proposed pilot program in special elections. The organization has not yet made its preference in the Council District 4 race or any other.

In the Democratic primary to be voted on September 12, Powers is competing against Marti Speranza, Jeff Mailman, Bessie Schachter, Maria Castro, Vanessa Aronson, Barry Shapiro, Rachel Honig, and Alec Hartman, none of whom have released government reform platforms, though Shapiro called for transparency in lobbying in a campaign video.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

 

The Citizens Union candidate interview and preference process is wholly separate from Gotham Gazette operations. Gotham Gazette does not endorse or support candidates for office.

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A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda Mon, 14 Aug 2017 20:28:30 +0000