Gotham Gazette Sat, 24 Mar 2018 17:50:34 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods east new york planning map

City Planning map of East New York rezoning area

Later this year, the Department of City Planning is slated to release a “draft planning framework” as part of a process to rezone Gowanus, an initiative spearheaded by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander aimed at increasing affordable housing and making a variety of other neighborhood improvements. Rezoning Gowanus, a middle-to-upper income, majority-white neighborhood, would be a departure from the city’s prevailing approach to reimagining a number of neighborhoods across the city.

At the beginning of his mayoralty, Bill de Blasio set an objective to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city, a goal that has since been expanded to 300,000 by 2026. To that end, de Blasio listed about ten neighborhood to rezone, the central purpose of which is to permit added housing density. The community-wide plans that have moved forward or are on the verge of passage through the City Council thus far have include lower-income communities: East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. Downtown Far Rockaway was also rezoned, and plans are moving ahead for Inwood and on the North Shore of Staten Island.

The rezonings include changes to an area’s land use rules, typically allowing for taller residential buildings that must include a certain set percentage of affordable housing units, and promises of amenities like new schools, improved street designs, and other community benefits.

But from the start, questions have arisen around which neighborhoods are chosen for such major changes, and whether those changes accelerate forces of displacement for current residents. A City Limits analysis of East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor found that 85 percent of the residents included in the rezoning areas are black or Latino and over 50 percent of the households take in less than $35,000 annually. Far Rockaway and Inwood are in line with demographic profile of the three main, larger city-led rezonings.

Asked by Gotham Gazette about the pattern of his administration’s rezonings falling in lower-income neighborhoods, de Blasio said in February that the sample size of the rezonings is small, so no sweeping conclusions could be drawn from the pattern. He also reiterated his view that low-income communities are the ones that are most suitable for increased development.

“The opportunities to create more affordable housing have been first and foremost in some communities that have been been underbuilt for a variety of reasons,” he said. “We look for where is the opportunity to make the biggest impact.”

“East New York is the classic example,” the mayor continued. “There was a lot to work with. In some cases, there’s public land or private sites that hadn’t been built out.”’

De Blasio went on to insist that his rezoning plans have been focused on increasing affordable housing stock wherever the opportunity presents itself.   

“So my point would be, one, on the rezonings, we’re still first and foremost going to be focused on affordable housing. That’s the reason we’re doing the rezonings, overwhelmingly. And two, that’s going to be where land and where building sites are,” de Blasio explained. “But at the same time, anything we can get our hands on -- Gowanus is in the pipeline as an example.”

While de Blasio has pushed through different elements of the zoning packages, including the mandatory affordable housing attached to any upzoning, in something of a surprise, de Blasio’s practices have tracked with that of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, in terms of the neighborhoods tabbed for such increases in density. A 2010 Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy study of the rezonings under then-Mayor Bloomberg, for example, found that rezonings in areas with whiter than average populations were more likely to retain restrictive zoning ordinances. In turn, the city allowed comparatively more density in rezonings in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, the de Blasio-led rezonings, which do include many more safeguards for communities than Bloomberg’s, have been embraced by many local elected officials, especially those who’ve been able to negotiate for more local investments from the city. The de Blasio rezonings, however, have also been met with resistance from various affordable housing advocates and some elected officials.

“Overall the neighborhoods that are being rezoned are mostly low-income communities of color,” Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, told Commercial Observer in February. “They’ve all had many years of disinvestment, and now they’re facing this idea that, in order to get reinvestment they’ve needed all along, it has to come with a rezoning. I think there’s huge concern of how these shifts in the market will affect displacement. There’s a question of what’s going to get built and for whom.”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Katie Goldstein, executive director of affordable housing advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors, argued the city's rezonings have created housing that is nominally affordable, but in reality too expensive for the residents in certain neighborhoods. And the location selections, she said, exacerbate displacement pressures and gentrification. “What we’re seeing now is really just city-sponsored gentrification in these neighborhoods that have already been experiencing displacement pressures,” Goldstein told Gotham Gazette.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette last month, Comptroller Scott Stringer voiced similar concerns regarding the mayor’s approach to affordable housing. “Sometimes, there’s disconnect between the housing that we’re building and the people that can access that affordable housing,” he said. The overarching question that many have asked about de Blasio’s larger affordable housing plan, including the housing to be built in rezoned neighborhoods, has been “Affordable for whom?”

For his part, de Blasio argues the rezonings will not spur out-of-character development, nor significant displacement. Instead, the mayor says, creating affordable housing in low-income areas helps to reduce displacement pressures, especially when paired with provisions that require 30 percent of the units to be built under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) guidelines that de Blasio and the City Council passed last term.

New York City must build its way out of the housing crisis, de Blasio believes; sitting on existing housing stock will only lead to higher rents and more displacement. He also regularly reminds critics that the rezonings are not only paired with MIH, but also significant investments in eviction prevention efforts.

In addition, de Blasio offers, the added housing density in rezoned neighborhoods is coupled with improvements to infrastructure, schools, parks, public transportation, job training, and more, allocating resources for the community at hand and its thousands of new residents. Furthermore, low-income neighborhoods, in de Blasio’s telling, have been underdeveloped compared to more affluent areas, as they have not been rezoned for decades.  

Lander, who replaced de Blasio in the City Council almost a decade ago, is helming the Gowanus rezoning, in its early stages, with community input. The process began in fall 2016 with a series of community visioning and planning meetings. As Lander has repeatedly noted, Gowanus would be a different type of rezoning than the ones de Blasio has put forth.

According to the aforementioned City Limits analysis, Gowanus -- a neighborhood bordering Park Slope that shares a name with the canal that runs through it -- is over half white with a annual median income of over $65,000.

Lander believes the city should not only rezone Gowanus but should make it a priority to upzone other more affluent neighborhoods throughout the city. According to Lander, loosening zoning restrictions and building affordable housing in traditionally tightly-zoned, affluent neighborhoods can help desegregate New York.

“I think it is our responsibility to affirmatively focus on upper-income neighborhoods and white neighborhoods [for upzonings],” he said. “We’ve started to have a conversation about Fair Housing and about what we do to combat residential segregation, and build a more integrated city.”

“One central way of doing that,” he explained, “is by rezoning wealthier neighborhoods.”

Moses Gates, director of community planning and design at Regional Planning Association, told Gotham Gazette that it is not as if Gowanus is the sole low-density, tightly-zoned, middle-to-upper-income community throughout the city that could use more affordable housing.

Gates said that, contrary to de Blasio’s claims, lower-income neighborhoods are not necessarily better-suited for upzonings. “If the response is ‘we’re doing it in low-income neighborhoods because this is where we have historically had housing development,’ I’d ask the city, ‘What does that mean?’” Gates said. “It’s not like there’s no people in East New York. It’s not like East New York has less density and better transit access than Forest Hills.”  

Along with Forest Hills, urban planning experts have pointed toward middle-to-upper-income, low-density neighborhoods such as Long Island City, Bayside, Midwood, and Chelsea as opportune locations to upzone. The de Blasio administration has also raised the prospect of rezoning Washington Heights, Bushwick, Chinatown, Southern Boulevard, Flushing, and, as mentioned, the Bay Street Corridor on Staten Island’s North Shore.  

More broadly, Gates contended the de Blasio administration has not been clear on what it is trying to accomplish with its rezonings and it has not chosen optimal locations for them. “I think the city needs to look at transit-accessible places,” said Gates. “I think the city needs to look at places that do not currently have affordable housing opportunities.”

One of the obstacles to rezoning proposals can be opposition from local City Council members, many of whom are loath to invite outcry from constituents and community boards that are often opposed to adding density close to home. Though he has made clear his philosophy is one of ‘getting to ‘yes,’’ new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has also indicated he will continue the tradition of heeding the local Council representative’s wishes on land use matters, including neighborhood rezonings, and involving relevant community boards and other stakeholders. The City Council as a whole has the final vote to approve neighborhood rezonings, or single projects that require a land use approval process.

“Council Member Koo was not happy with the Flushing rezoning, and it didn’t go anywhere,” Johnson said at a press conference last month when asked by Gotham Gazette about the mayor’s neighborhood rezoning selections. “Every district has individual needs.”

He added, “Anytime you talk about rezoning, it needs to be a process that respects the local Council member, the local community board, [and[ the Borough President.”

The Jerome Avenue corridor rezoning moved through committee at the City Council on Tuesday, and will soon be voted through the full Council. The final deal reached between the de Blasio administration and local City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera is projected to bring 4,600 new homes to the 95-block rezoned area, according to the mayor's office, and includes two new schools, about $56 million in parks investments, and other community benefits. According to the mayor's office, all housing built in the area will be affordable and subsidized in the near-term, will measures in place to ensure permanent affordability for about 1,150 of the housing units.

“The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan invests in communities that have never before gotten a fair shake," said Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents Far Rockaway, a community home to a rezoning led by the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and more focused on commercial than residential growth, positioned himself as a cautious supporter of de Blasio’s neighborhood selections. “We’ve seen opportunities and communities like the Rockaways, because there is a lot of land that’s never been tapped into,” he said during a phone interview. “When you look at East New York, also -- neighborhoods with immense amounts of land where the city has never invested.”

But Richards -- who last term chaired the zoning subcommittee and participated in key negotiations to amend zoning codes and on individual projects -- said efforts to increase affordable housing stock should not exclusively “fall on the back of communities like Far Rockaway or Jerome [Avenue] or Inwood.”

“I don’t think the focus should be just in low-income communities,” Richards continued. “We should be looking for opportunities everywhere.”

Additionally, Richards argued New York is “still a very segregated city,” a problem the city’s housing policies need to address. “We need to work toward righting that wrong if we’re going to give low-income residents an opportunity at succeeding in New York City,” he said.

Asked why he believes the de Blasio administration has not adopted this strategy, Council Member Lander said he wasn't sure. “I don’t want to speculate; I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “And I think it’s a fair question.”

Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods Tue, 06 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Oversight Hearing on Policing Protests Dominated by Disputes Ydanis NYPD

City Council Member Rodriguez (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council Committee on Public Safety held an oversight hearing on Wednesday to examine the NYPD’s tactics and procedures regarding protests and crowd control. The perpetually controversial issue has come to the fore once again in the wake of immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir’s detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the NYPD’s subsequent aggressive handling of protesters, culminating in the arrests of two City Council members and 16 others on January 11.

Both Council members who were arrested, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams, Democrats of Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, sit on the public safety committee and questioned NYPD officials at Wednesday’s hearing, which was led by committee Chair Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat.

Williams was released by the NYPD with a desk appearance ticket but Rodriguez was arraigned in court on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, reckless endangerment, and obstructing emergency medical services. Rodriguez, on the day of the protest, tweeted a picture of what he claimed to be an NYPD officer holding him in a chokehold.

Despite this, the hearing focused less on the allegedly brutal tactics employed by the NYPD in protests and focused more on the department’s alleged coordination with ICE. There was some discussion of the department’s approach to crowd control, though, part of a history that includes the NYPD having been accused of inappropriate suppression or brutal tactics against protesters involved with Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, antiwar demonstrations, and opposition outside the 2004 Republican National Convention.

But the hearing largely devolved into exasperated quibbles between Council members and NYPD representatives over the basic facts of what happened on January 11, including whether the department was coordinating with ICE it its detainment efforts.

The hearing is the first public safety hearing to be chaired by Richards, who was named to the post by new Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was part of the January 11 demonstrations but was not arrested. Johnson did have a tense exchange with one officer, who he pursued and reported to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill for aggressive conduct. Johnson and O’Neill discussed the totality of the day, Johnson said soon after, and the NYPD is continuing its internal investigation of officer conduct.

From the moment it began, the hearing was heated, as Council members and the NYPD officials testifying engaged in several disputes of the facts related to January 11 and to policy areas where Council members deemed the NYPD to be inadequately performing their duties.

It was noted that the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a unit of nearly 700 officers that is deployed to maintain crowd control at demonstrations, has under its purview counterterrorism, a combination that worried Council members who feared that empowering officers trained in combating terrorism with monitoring protests would result in overly aggressive policing of the latter.

The department noted that the unit was created, under the direction of former Commissioner Bill Bratton, in response to large-scale terror incidents in places such as Paris and Mumbai. Bratton’s pitch at the time: “Safe from crime, safe from terrorists, safe from disorder.

When Richards asked if the NYPD views peaceful protesters and terrorists as posing similar threats to public safety and order, the NYPD representatives were evasive, saying that the department required a reserve of officers able to respond to terror incidents, trained in disparate areas of policing like making mass arrests and handling hazardous substances.

Stephen Hughes, Commanding Officer of Patrol Borough Manhattan South, stated that in 2017, SRG had made 322 arrests at 109 demonstrations. The NYPD’s legislative director, Oleg Chernyavsky, stated that those are just arrests made by SRG, and that other patrol units can make arrests that are not counted toward that total.

Several Council members all but accused the NYPD representatives of lying under oath in saying they had not been coordinating with ICE during the January 11 incident. The officers repeatedly asserted that they had not been deputized as immigration officers and were not coordinating in any way with ICE, as per department policy. Williams attempted to refute this narrative by showing a picture of NYPD and federal Department of Homeland Security officers appearing in the immediate vicinity of each other.

“I’m hoping that what happened wasn’t intentional,” Williams said. “And I want to prevent it from happening again.”

Chernyavsky rebutted the notion that being in the same vicinity meant the two agencies were coordinating.

“I think the fact that we were physically present standing next to a federal officer who was outside of, I would assume, his or her place of employment, was an unintentional consequence,” Chernyavsky said. He also asserted that NYPD had become more active in crowd control and making arrests when its task became escorting an ambulance, with Ragbir in it, out of the crowded streets near the downtown federal building where he had had a check-in with immigration officials (there is some dispute about whether Ragbir was actually suffering from any ill feelings and in need of an ambulance). Chernyavsky said NYPD officers were unaware initially that the person in the ambulance was in ICE detention, and claimed that they even went to the wrong hospital at first, a point he thought would bolster the notion that the NYPD was not coordinating with ICE.

“What happened that day was some kind of coordination, period,” Williams said, growing increasingly frustrated with the NYPD reps as Chernyavsky asserted that it’s “irresponsible to allege that we coordinated with immigration enforcement.” They instead repeatedly asserted that they were simply enforcing existing local laws related to protest and crowd control management. They said that the events had unfolded quickly and in chaotic fashion.

The Council members signaled that they had hoped to have a more constructive dialogue about the NYPD’s policies and rules of engagement but were instead having a debate over what the facts were.

Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, also grew increasingly frustrated with the NYPD officials as his line of questioning went on. Lander was incredulous towards the NYPD claim that it was not coordinating with immigration enforcement despite having provided ICE, which was transporting Ragbir, with a police escort from Bellevue Hospital to the Holland Tunnel, which occurred after Ragbir had briefly been at the hospital.

“Up to that point, you guys were responding to a protest,” Lander said, referring to the NYPD’s insistence that they were enforcing local laws. “But at Bellevue, there was no protest.” He also noted that there was no health risk for Ragbir at that point, a justification for Ragbir’s transport by ambulance with ICE on scene. The officers contended that they were not escorting ICE, but rather were simply “present at transport” due to the potential presence of protesters, who ended up not following the ambulance Bellevue or federal officials to the Holland Tunnel. Lander contended that there was no difference between the two.

“Really?” he asked, growing impatient with NYPD testimony.

“I’m more concerned walking out of this hearing than I was walking into it,” Lander said before being interrupted several times. Lander chastised the department for failing to own up to its role in Ragbir’s detention, and for not being apologetic and acknowledging the mishaps.

Local Law 228, which forbids city law enforcement officials from cooperating with ICE by being deputized as federal immigration officers, and requires the NYPD to report the number of federal detainer requests it receives, recently went into effect. An NYPD rep noted that the department did not comply with a single detainer request from ICE out of the 1,526 it received in 2017, as President Donald Trump ramped up immigration enforcement. In 2016, Barack Obama’s last full year as president, the NYPD received 80 detainer requests and complied with two.

Law 228 was passed in November but went into effect on January 30, 19 days after the Ragbir detention and subsequent protests. Williams called this “quite a coincidence,” but the NYPD reps assured the Council members that their prior internal department policy was to not coordinate or comply with ICE. They reiterated several times that they had not complied with a single detainer request of the 1,526 that were submitted by federal authorities to the NYPD, and that the only instances where the NYPD actively works with ICE are on task forces that are related to a different policy area that both NYPD and ICE agents happen to work on, such as human trafficking or the opioid epidemic.

The arrest and detention of Ragbir, who has had a detainer against him since 2006 as a result of a fraud conviction, at a routine check-in with immigration authorities has been extremely controversial among New York’s activist and political community. Ragbir, after a stint in ICE detention in Miami, is back in New York but faces another check-in on Saturday during which he could face deportation. With the Trump administration’s significant uptick in immigration enforcement, particularly against undocumented immigrants who have not committed felonies, ICE has been making sweeps in immigrant neighborhoods and at courthouses with or without the NYPD’s cooperation.

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio sent a letter to Thomas Decker, the Field Office Director for New York’s ICE office, extolling Ragbir and pleading that he not be deported back to Trinidad, while also making the case that aggressive immigration enforcement in immigrant communities and courthouses is deteriorating trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement. De Blasio did not mention Ragbir’s prior conviction.

“These activities not only create fear in immigrant communities, but undermine public safety,” the letter read. “New York City is the safest big city in America because of the trust between law enforcement and communities, including immigrant New Yorkers. When ICE takes aggressive action against leaders in immigrant communities, it casts a chilling effect on immigrants’ willingness to engage with government and law enforcement generally, undercutting that trust.”

“The safety and interest of New Yorkers should be central to any determination concerning Mr. Ragbir, or other individuals arrested by ICE,” the letter continued. “Therefore, I request that ICE exercise its discretion to permit Mr. Ragbir to remain with his family in New York.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Oversight Hearing on Policing Protests Dominated by Disputes Wed, 07 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
After Superseding City, Cuomo's Plastic Bag Panel Punts Cuomo climate change

Gov. Cuomo on climate change (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

A task force convened by Governor Andrew Cuomo last year to study plastic bag use by New York consumers, and to propose solutions to reduce their usage, released its report on Saturday, and New York City officials are again disappointed in Cuomo on the subject, to say the least.

It’s been just about a year since the governor signed state legislation invalidating a New York City law to impose a nickel fee on single-use plastic and paper bags. In overriding the city’s legislation, Cuomo called the plan flawed, but acknowledged the problem of plastic bag waste, and announced a task force that would propose actionable ideas once it concluded its work.

“The costly and negative impact of plastic bags on New York’s natural resources is a statewide issue that demands a statewide solution,” Cuomo said at the time, promising that the committee of environment advocates, industry representatives, and elected officials would “bring the experience and knowledge necessary to tackle this problem and safeguard New York’s environment for future generations.”

What came of it, however, was the pros and cons of eight options that the state could pursue, including the continuation or strengthening of existing policies, an outright ban, or a partial ban along with the imposition of new fees. The report did not recommend any one option over the others.

“It’s a cynical cop out,” said City Council Member Brad Lander, one of the architects of the Council’s legislation that passed in 2016 but was preempted by the state Legislature and Cuomo last year before it could go into effect. “The Governor, by his own admission, made this problem his responsibility,” Lander added, noting that the city sends tens of thousands of tons of plastic waste to landfills each month, including nearly a billion plastic bags. “And every one is on the governor’s hands,” he said.

The city bill, co-sponsored by Lander and Council Member Margaret Chin, was a controversial piece of legislation that passed with 28 votes, a slim majority in the 51-member Council. An especially rare level of dissent in a chamber where bills virtually never reach the floor without the votes to pass, 20 Council members voted against the bill, many arguing that it would hurt the pockets of middle-class families and low-income New Yorkers, even though it included carve-outs for people receiving government assistance.

That argument carried the day in Albany, where the Legislature passed legislation preventing municipalities with more than a million residents from passing any new fees on single-use bags. New York City is the only municipality in the state that meets the criteria. A similar 5-cent fee on single-use bags was allowed to stand in neighboring Suffolk County, and went into effect on January 1. (Since localities lack the power to institute a tax on plastic bags, the legislation requires businesses to charge the fee and they get to keep the proceeds, something Cuomo pointed to as problematic.)

Many months later, the governor’s task force seemed to kick the can down the road further, with the report merely restating many facts about plastic bag usage that had already been thoroughly debated by the City Council. “A high school student with internet access could have prepared that report,” Lander said incredulously. “It’s ridiculous. I mean, honestly, what I especially liked is that of the eight recommendations, two of them are ‘do nothing.’”

Cuomo mentioned the plastic bag task force in passing at his budget presentation on Tuesday. The governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether he favored any of the options put forward by the task force or indicate any concrete next steps.

“The New York State Plastic Bag Task Force, and its six independent members, has completed a comprehensive review of options available to address the growing threat of plastic bag waste on the environment,” said Sean Mahar, a spokesperson for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, in an emailed statement. “While the Task Force did not reach a consensus around one specific recommendation, highlighting the complexity of the issue, the administration is currently reviewing the options identified in the report.”

That the task force was a redundant effort seems borne out by one of its own members. Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, publicly issued a “dissent” of the task force’s final report when it was released.

Bystryn insisted on only two “acceptable recommendations,” which involved either a fee on plastic and paper bags or a ban on plastic bags with an accompanying fee on paper bags. “It is the long-held position of the environmental community that a successful solution must include a fee component on all single-use bags,” she said, adding that improved recycling efforts would be insufficient. “We know from countless examples around the world that when consumers take responsibility for their actions by bringing their own bag or paying a fee to cover their environmental impact, single-use bag consumption drops precipitously. I am disappointed the final report fails to convey this position,” she added.

Neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor City Council Speaker Corey Johnson had seen the report as of Tuesday afternoon, but both separately called for stronger measures to reduce bag usage.

“I proudly voted in favor of the plastic bag bill,” Johnson said, when asked by Gotham Gazette at a news conference at City Hall. “I was disappointed that our authority was taken away from us.”

“We have to do something about plastic bags. It is a scourge on the environment,” he added.

The mayor, at a separate news conference Tuesday, reiterated his call for a complete ban on plastic bags. “We’ve tried a previous approach and it didn’t find favor in Albany but the question at hand is, we can’t keep putting plastic bags into our environment, so what are we going to do? I think a ban makes a lot of sense,” he told reporters.

But the City Council can effectively do little short of passing yet another bill that can be struck down by the state. “We have to figure out what the next steps are,” said Lander, decrying the “weak” home rule powers in the state that allowed the Legislature to quash the city’s first attempt. “I feel like trying again here would be like Charlie Brown and the football and it just doesn’t make sense.”

Lander believes the best solution is a hybrid of a ban on thin plastic bags and a fee on thicker plastic and paper bags. An absolute ban on thin bags does not work, he said, citing the example of Hawaii and Chicago where retailers simply started handing out thicker bags and consequently increased the amount of solid waste. And he insisted that the onus for a solution now lies entirely with the governor.

“[Governor Cuomo] took this problem on when he vetoed our bill, when he created the commission, when he announced he was taking responsibility for it,” Lander said. “We took a lot of responsibility. We did the hard work here. We were ready to bear the challenge of doing it. We had robust debate in the chamber. Not everybody was on board but we agreed to do it. This is on the governor.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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After Superseding City, Cuomo's Plastic Bag Panel Punts Tue, 16 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council Speaker Corey Johnson press conference

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, at podium (photos: William Alatriste)

Just after he was elected Speaker of the City Council on January 3, Corey Johnson had some initial business to take care of: naming a temporary rules committee, including a chairperson. And in this first official decision in his new role, Johnson made a relatively small but important move that is emblematic of the broad shift in the City Council and larger city political dynamics at play in Johnson’s election.

Toward the end of an emotional and intense initial meeting of the new City Council class, at which Johnson, a Democrat, won 48 of 49 votes to lead the 51-seat legislative body for the next four years, the new speaker nominated an interim rules committee, including himself, as is customary, to be led by Queens Council Member Rory Lancman.

Johnson had just been elected speaker with the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party and the Queens County Democratic Party, which is led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley, whom he thanked profusely from the floor of the Council chambers as Crowley looked down from the balcony. The situation was unlike that of Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who became speaker in 2014 after winning the support of a unified Council Progressive Caucus, powerful labor unions, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and members of the Brooklyn Democratic County Party. Four years ago, Mark-Viverito named Brooklyn Council Member and Progressive Caucus co-founder Brad Lander as rules chair.

The shift from Mark-Viverito to Johnson can also be seen in the change from Lander to Lancman, a former member of the state Assembly and stalwart player in the Queens County Party. While all four Democrats share political dispositions and most policy positions, the changing of the guard is evident, and other top committee posts appear likely to go to representatives of the county parties and individual members who backed Johnson’s ascension. It appears this will include the Bronx’s Rafael Salamanca as chair of the land use committee and a Queens Council member, possibly Danny Dromm, as chair of the finance committee, according to sources familiar with the process. Last time around Brooklyn's David Greenfield was named land use chair and Progressive Caucus member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens became chair of finance.

Johnson, himself a member of the Progressive Caucus, has been meeting with his 50 Council member constituents and hearing from other stakeholders like the county party leaders, and is expected to outline committee chair and member nominations within the next ten days.

The rules committee will then take up those nominations, approving the chairs and committee members of all of the Council’s 40-plus committees and subcommittees, including the permanent rules committee, before the full Council gives it approval. It is unclear if Lancman will remain rules chair, or whether he requested the position even on a temporary basis. A request to speak with the Council member was declined by a spokesperson.

City Council Rory LancmanAfter approving committee assignments, the rules committee will then be responsible for considering and passing any changes to the Council’s internal rules -- there is a long proposed rules reform agenda that 33 members, including Johnson and Lancman (pictured), signed on to last month -- and vetting and approving nominees to about a dozen city boards and commissions, like the Board of Corrections and the City Planning Commission.

"The Speaker has already met with almost all of his colleagues and is in active conversations with Council Members, stakeholders, city leaders and advocates to ensure the committee chairs best reflect the priorities of this Council and the diversity of our City," said City Council spokesperson Robin Levine, in an emailed statement. Levine did not directly respond to the question of how Lancman was selected as the initial rules chair. During the prior term Lancman, an attorney and regular critic of Mayor de Blasio, chaired the newly created Committee on Courts and Legal Services.

Four years ago, Lander and Mark-Viverito ushered through landmark rules reforms that significantly altered how the Council functions, including how discretionary funding is allocated to individual members, bringing equity and transparency to a system that had been used by prior speakers to reward and punish.

As he ran for speaker and since being elected, Johnson has championed additional reforms, including to the Council’s bill-drafting protocols. He wants to see changes so that members can no longer put indefinite holds on certain legislation and so that there is more information and awareness around who is working on what bills.

The rules reform package that has the backing of 33 members includes changes to the bill-drafting process but also a beefing up of the Council’s Oversight and Investigation Committee, “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary.” It also includes increasing the Council’s budget and staff and staff salaries; and beefing up the land use division specifically, something Johnson has talked about a good deal during his bid for speaker and since being elected.

At one speaker candidate forum Johnson said that he thinks there is room for possibly eliminating some Council committees while also possibly creating new ones -- he said, for example, that the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee should be broken into two. He did not give any examples of committees that should be eliminated. The Council did delete one committee last term, the Committee on Community Development, when its chair resigned from the Council, but most Council members, including Lander, said at the time that there were no plans to look at eliminating any others.

Along with Lancman as chair and Johnson, the other members of the initial rules committee are Council Members Adrienne Adams, Margaret Chin, Robert Cornegy, Jr., Rafael Espinal, Karen Koslowitz, Steven Matteo, Ritchie Torres, and Mark Treyger.

The package of reforms says toward the end that "A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018. The reforms should then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later than June 2018."

[Related: City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council Tue, 09 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Mayor-Made Speaker, Sought a Member-Driven Legacy Mayor de Blasio Speaker Mark-Viverito

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Latina to preside over the 51-member New York City Council, leaves office having shepherded a progressive shift in the city’s direction, in conjunction with fellow Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio, a philosophically aligned partner in government who was the deciding factor in her winning the powerful speaker position four years ago.

As arguably the second most powerful elected official in the city, Mark-Viverito oversaw an agenda of progressivism that significantly moved the needle for causes of social justice, especially related to immigrants, workers, and the criminal justice system, many of which were close to her heart and supported by a Council dominated by progressive members. But when the needle didn’t move fast enough, there were those that said Mark-Viverito too often carried the mayor’s water. It’s a charge she disputes, as do numerous Council members that served under her as they look back at her four years at the helm.

Members broadly agree that she followed through on a promise to give rank-and-file Council members the freedom to pursue their priorities while standing firm against the mayoral administration when it mattered, and that some capitulation to the administration’s priorities was part of the high-wire balancing act that defines the speakership. While they worked together far more often than they were in opposition, it was not always clear to what extent Mark-Viverito and her members, on one hand, and de Blasio, on the other, disagreed, given that the Council speaker often kept negotiations close to the vest and declined to comment in detail as the legislative process unfolded.

Mark-Viverito and her members also rarely aired internal conflict publicly, while members appeared to know that their speaker would support them, even as she very much pursued her own policy priorities and kept a tight grip on what legislation made its way to the Council floor for a vote.

The outgoing speaker made careful decisions about when and how to criticize the mayor, preferring to hold oversight hearings than to make splashy headlines with a sharp quote. She regularly declined to comment about de Blasio’s ethics and transparency problems, instead pursuing legislation to address certain issues or allowing others more willing to be oppositional to fill the space. She mostly stayed out of de Blasio’s feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, another fellow Democrat, though she herself has been part of some tense intra-party political battles with officials like former Assemblymember and current Manhattan Democratic Party leader Keith Wright.

Mark-Viverito assumed the speakership in January 2014 with support from an ascendant mayor, strong labor unions, and a newly empowered Progressive Caucus, bucking the traditional county party-dominated process for selecting a new speaker. The new dynamic led some to be wary of whether Mark-Viverito would be a speaker for the members of the Council or for the mayor, whose politics so closely resembled her own. After taking office, she quickly advanced internal changes at the Council that were meant to empower members, particularly the chairs of the 40-odd committees, while also maintaining sufficient control within the speaker’s office.

“The considerable thing about my leadership is that I made it a member-focused legislative body,” Mark-Viverito said, in a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast hosted by Gotham Gazette and City Limits. “It wasn’t about me centralizing the power, just pushing what my agenda was…[it was about] having the members really have much more of a functional role and ownership for this institution. It belongs to all of us, it doesn’t just belong to the speaker.”

Mark-Viverito beefed up the Council staff to support members’ legislative priorities, she said, which led to greater output. Over the four years, the Council passed 714 bills under her leadership, more than any Council class before it. “I was being respectful to member priorities and the vision that they had and working with them on that...and I think that’s the way a legislative body should function,” she said.

[Listen: Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito]

The first two years of Mark-Viverito’s speakership proceeded amicably with the mayor for the most part. The Council played its part in supporting the mayor’s agenda that included universal pre-kindergarten and expanding the paid sick leave law. City spending ramped up with little opposition from the Council, which also advocated for increased spending on its own policy priorities.

“I think that from the start the speaker was a forward thinking, independent leader,” said outgoing Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, a Queens Democrat. “She brought real fairness and transparency to the Council and made the Council a better place to work, from someone who had been in the Council for five years prior to her leadership.”

An early area of disagreement was Mark-Viverito’s call for an increase in the NYPD’s headcount, which struck many as peculiar given her criticisms of police practices and the larger criminal justice system. She unsuccessfully pressed the issue in 2014, and then renewed her efforts in 2015, eventually convincing a hesitant de Blasio to back the expensive idea. The department ended up adding 1,300 new officers, a compromise among the Council, the mayor, and the NYPD.

Also in 2015, in the city’s fight against the ride-hailing service Uber, Mark-Viverito publicly chastised the mayor for presuming that the Council would do his bidding. The mayor, after giving up his effort to cap the number of new cars run by Uber and its competitors, threatened that a cap was still a tool available to him, even though it would have to be approved by the Council first. “I’m not going to allow anyone to attempt to save face at the expense of this Council,” she said at a news conference at City Hall, raising many eyebrows. “This Council decides what bills we need to discuss, what debates we will have, what will be taken off the table, what will be put on the table. No one else leads that discussion, no one else influences that discussion.”

Higher profile battles would occur later still, as de Blasio’s first term wore on towards a potential second and as the speaker’s final term wound to a close. (Mark-Viverito was early to endorse de Blasio for reelection, but, over the following months, she seemed to show more willingness to resist his politics and policies.)    

“I think first and foremost, she’s been her speaker,” said Council Member Brad Lander, in a phone interview, on whether Mark-Viverito had been the members’ speaker or the mayor’s. “She’s got a strong vision for the city and for the Council and that’s what I think has guided her. I think it’s been a really productive and fair and highly consequential and progressive speakership.”

De Blasio Mark-Viverito City Hall handshake Ed Reed Mayor's OfficeLander, who was a leading proponent for Mark-Viverito to become the speaker and was named chair of the Council’s rules committee by her, praised the internal reforms that Mark-Viverito implemented early on, which he helped write. The reforms made the Council “a more equal and inclusive body in which every member can zealously represent their community and their values, even when those are different, without fear or favor,” Lander said. Perhaps most notably, Mark-Viverito and her colleagues changed the system by which members are provided discretionary funds to disperse to nonprofits, rationalizing a process that had often been used by previous speakers to reward and punish members.

On particular issues, Lander said, Mark-Viverito facilitated legislation championed by members, such as the right to counsel for tenants in housing court, fair work-week legislation, and certain freelancer protections. The most impactful, in Lander’s view, was her successful advocacy for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. Mark-Viverito convened an independent commission to recommend a raft of criminal justice reforms and particularly to look at Rikers. De Blasio, who did not support the closure at first, seemed to begrudgingly accept the inevitable and announced his support just before the commission issued its report. “I believe Rikers is on a path to closure,” Lander said, “and I don’t think that would be true if [Mark-Viverito] had not been elected speaker four years ago.”

Lander noted that while the speaker often agreed and collaborated with the mayor, she was not hesitant to oppose him or break with him when her members dictated she should. For instance, when she pulled a bill she supported from consideration by the full Council that would have curbed the city’s horse carriage industry. It was a prominent campaign issue in the 2013 mayoral race and de Blasio had advocated for and promised a complete ban. But, amid discontent from members on potential compromise legislation in early 2016, the speaker stood with her colleagues.

“I think she’s been independent,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of the de Blasio administration, in a November interview at City Hall. “Each speaker, just like each member, has their own political relationship with the other side of the building here. And no speaker’s going to be completely independent from the mayor or the governor or any other political actor that has influence.”

As the process to select the next speaker of the City Council has played out in the final months and weeks of 2017, de Blasio has repeatedly said how well he thinks his involvement in Mark-Viverito’s victory turned out. De Blasio captured his overall feelings in June, when announcing a final budget deal with Mark-Viverito, saying of the speaker:

“[S]he has been an extraordinary partner over the last four years. We knew each other well before we each assumed these roles. We knew that we had a lot of respect and trust for each other. We knew that we shared values. We didn’t know what it would be like to play these roles. We didn’t know what the times ahead would be or what the issues we’d face would be. But there was a core belief that if you share values, a lot of good things can happen. And many, many conversations over many years – mostly in agreement, sometimes not, but we always found a way to get to a good outcome, and with great support from all our colleagues. So from me, I can tell you I’ll be sorry when these four years are over because it has been such a great and positive partnership. As a progressive, I want to thank Melissa Mark-Viverito for helping to move this city in a new progressive direction. And the things she has championed are going to have a huge impact on this city for many years to come.”

A former Council member, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely, served under both Mark-Viverito and former speaker Christine Quinn and said the process of Mark-Viverito’s election as speaker hampered her ability to distance herself from de Blasio. “Melissa started at a very great disadvantage, the fact that the mayor picked her to be the speaker and only because of him,” the former member said. “He made her. That hurt the whole body and it hurt her ability to really appear to be independent...because people perceived that the City Council is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the mayor. Right off the bat, that’s a bad start.”

This former member did credit Mark-Viverito for giving more leeway than Quinn to Council members to push legislation and pursue their individual agendas, while also breaking with the mayor on controversial items. But even then, the member said, there was a degree of deference. “I think Melissa did check with the mayor on everything, and even when they broke, I think they probably checked with the mayor before they broke. So I think it was a real problem,” the former member said.

On no other issue has that dynamic played out more strongly than criminal justice reform and the Council’s attempts to legislate, and regulate, the city’s police force. Two police reform bills to regulate officers’ interactions with people, collectively named The Right to Know Act, progressed slowly through the legislative process over the years despite having overwhelming support from Council members and progressive advocates. Tensions reached a head in mid-2016 when Mark-Viverito reached a compromise on administrative implementation by the NYPD of partial measures, in lieu of a full Council vote to codify the provisions into law. Advocates saw it as a backroom deal while Council members fumed over the concession to the administration and the police department.

Amended versions of the bills would ultimately pass in a divisive vote at the final full meeting of the Council on December 19, 2017, with numerous Council members and hundreds of community groups coming out in opposition to one bill sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres that had been, in their view, diluted to appease the NYPD and the mayor, who said he’d sign the bill given it had struck the right balance despite his skepticism about too much legislating of NYPD protocols.

Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy coalition, said in a statement that it was “disappointing,” particularly given Mark-Viverito’s progressive credentials on police reform and accountability. “While [Mark-Viverito] was a champion on Closing Rikers, she did not show the same willingness to fight for front-end police reforms that hold the NYPD accountable and systemically change racial disparities in policing and what feeds the criminal justice system,” Bandele said. “She spent three to four years blocking the Right to Know Act, and then helped the de Blasio administration undermine the half of the legislative package of which Council Member Torres was lead sponsor.” Bandele also criticized the speaker’s push to increase the headcount of the NYPD, which Mark-Viverito had argued would help with reforms and implementation of community policing.

Council Member Torres also criticized the administrative compromise in 2016 and he told Gotham Gazette in November that Mark-Viverito had not been sufficiently independent of the mayor in that case. In a separate interview after a November 1 Crain’s New York Business breakfast forum, Torres indicated, amid praise, some dissatisfaction with the speaker’s record. “I support Melissa, I love Melissa as a person and as a speaker. I thought she has struck the right balance between decentralizing greater power to the members while at the same time maintaining the power of the speaker’s office,” he said. “There are a few moments when I felt we were excessively deferential to the mayor and I said so at the time of those controversies.”

Torres had said at the Crain’s forum -- part of his bid to become Mark-Viverito’s successor as speaker -- that the Council was prone to sideshow distractions. “Oscar Lopez, Christopher Columbus, what’s the latest sensation of the week,” he elaborated in the interview afterward. “The Health and Hospitals Corporation could disappear within the next five years. NYCHA has $17 billion worth of capital needs. Those are the things that matter, those are the things that we should be discussing.”

Torres later changed his tune somewhat, perhaps showcasing some of the mixed feelings Council members have about Mark-Viverito’s tenure and her relationships with de Blasio and her members. “She has been responsive to the needs of the members, there’s no question about it. As a member, I could not be more satisfied with the leadership that she’s given me,” Torres recently told Gotham Gazette at City Hall.

As to his earlier comments on her independence, Torres said, “I think it’s a matter of degree. We could always be more effective, we could always be more independent. But has she fundamentally been representative of the needs of the members of the institution? The answer is yes. Not perfect, but fundamentally.” When the Right to Know Act headed to a vote and many of Torres’ colleagues criticized his bill, Mark-Viverito was one of his fiercest defenders, though a number of Council members felt that Torres and Mark-Viverito had capitulated too much to the de Blasio administration. Torres’ bill did pass.

On the Max & Murphy podcast, Mark-Viverito addressed working with de Blasio, and the Council negotiating hundreds of bills with the administration, along with land use deals, budgets, and more. “I can safely say that we’ve had a good partnership and I think that there are a lot of things that I was able to move them on and they had conversations with us and maybe there’s things that they [moved] us on,” she said December 20. “But definitely it was a very productive relationship in that way. And I think that in areas where they may have had concerns about pieces of legislation, really engaging with them and talking to them and exerting ourselves, we were able to get some reconsideration on those items. And that’s in consultation with colleagues...I’m not regretful of anything.”

Mark-Viverito is leaving office proud of the way she led the Council, and not ruling out her own run for mayor down the line. It’s no surprise that even though she is term-limited she did not challenge a sitting mayor of her own party who she is largely aligned with and who helped her reach the height of her power. She’s leaving office having not only ushered in significant changes to city law, but having altered the way the Council functions and how members expect to be treated by their leader.

“Anyone that has to deal with a thousand bills over the course of a tenure is going to have to work to be tremendously balanced when you’re leading a legislative body against, at times, or in conjunction with the mayor’s administration,” said Staten Island Council Member Joe Borelli, one of only three Republicans on the City Council who, more often than not, vote against the types of progressive legislation championed by Mark-Viverito.

“I don’t think you can box her in as being either/or [the members’ speaker or the mayor’s speaker]. I’m sure her critics will say that she’s both at times when it suits their narrative,” Borelli continued. “She’s someone who wore her progressive banner very proudly and that’s certainly going to be her legacy and I think people over the next few years will view her as someone who carried the football for progressive causes a bit further, and people like me and those I represent will see her tenure in the speakership as slightly different.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this article.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Mayor-Made Speaker, Sought a Member-Driven Legacy Fri, 29 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Rules Reform Package Supported by 33 Current and Incoming City Council Members 27078525624 90910e7fa8 z

City Council chambers (photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

A majority of the incoming class of the New York City Council, including newly elected and returning members, has signed on to a newly-released package of internal rules reforms for the next four-year session, which begins in January. The agenda is intended to improve the Council’s budgeting and legislative drafting processes, strengthen the role of committees, bolster internal budgets, and enhance workplace conditions for Council staff, among other measures.

Of the 51-member legislative body, 33 members have expressed support for the reforms, which would have to be first heard through the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections before being incorporated into a rules resolution to be adopted by the full Council, which will elect a new speaker at its first meeting, on January 3. The members, in a draft document released Tuesday, called on the next speaker to support the reforms and ensure their passage by March, and not later than June.

Seven of the eight speaker candidates back the proposals, including Council Members Robert Cornegy, Mark Levine, Corey Johnson, Jumaane Williams, Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Donovan Richards. Council Member Ritchie Torres was the only speaker candidate not to signal support. “The [Council Member] is still considering and deliberating each proposed reform, and their potential impact, before making a decision to sign on,” explained Raymond Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Torres, in a text message.

The proposals included in the package deal broadly with the Council internal culture and processes, seeking to further empower members and provide more transparency and representation in internal decision making. While they are inwardly focused, the reforms could have significant impact on how the Council operates and the work it does on behalf of New Yorkers.

Although the current Council instituted new rules in 2014 that created an independent bill drafting unit for members, legislation continues to be delayed in the drafting process with “first-in-time” bill requests delaying subsequent ones. It is a particularly frustrating issue for members that bills often get stuck in the "legislative services blackhole," said Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, insisting it was not meant that way by design. "Things have evolved over time in a way that has become problematic," he said. The new proposals call for bolstering drafting capacity, setting new rules for drafting requests by prohibiting indefinite delays and creating formalized rules for “first-in-time” requests. 

The reforms also propose seeking more input from members on the Council’s policy priorities and for the speaker’s annual State of the City address, which current and outgoing Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has often used as an avenue to announce sweeping policy proposals. 

The Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations has been called to action over the last four years to scrutinize Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and for high-profile failures of city agencies such as the Administration for Children Services and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. But, the committee did not exercise its subpoena power in any of those cases. The new proposals call for strengthening the oversight committee “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary,” to conduct more regular oversight of city agencies.

The proposals also emphasize improvements in appointment of members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees, and reforming how the Council’s committees function, including giving committee chairs more discretion in hiring committee staff.

The scheduling of committee hearings would also be reformed to ensure more regularly scheduled hearings, adequate disability and language access, and automatically triggering a hearing for a bill with strong support. They would also require committees to publish summaries of testimony from hearings, including the promises made by the administration and requests made by Council members.

"Over the past term, we have made the Council a dramatically more accountable, fair, and democratic body by bringing fairness to discretionary funding, eliminating lulus and outside income, expanding participatory budgeting, and significantly increasing transparency,” Lander said, in a statement accompanying the release. “The new proposals will take us even further.”

The package also deals with the Council’s internal budget, and the process by which members negotiate the city’s now-$86 billion budget with the administration. It calls for expanded Council support for participatory budgeting and community engagement, and increased capital funding given to each member for their districts. It also exhorts the next speaker to ensure that the Council’s budget negotiating team is fully representative of the Council’s composition, with borough and caucus representation and a few rotating seats to allow members to experience the process. “Council Members who chair committees that oversee 10% or more of the budget should automatically be on BNT,” the document states.  

The 33 council members also appeal for an increase in the Council’s budget, bringing it to the same level as the Comptroller’s office, offering salaries to staff in parity with similar positions at city agencies and training and educational scholarships for staff.

The package also proposes reinforcing the prominent and powerful land use division, which is tasked with evaluating and approving land use applications across the city. The reforms seek to provide urban planners and attorneys to assist Council members navigating related issues and also propose allowing individual members and groups on the Council to sponsor land use applications themselves.

Finally, the reforms also advance quality-of-life improvements at City Hall, including sliding scale child care for members and improvements in air and noise quality. A minor proposal also calls for filling gaps in cell-phone and wireless internet service.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note - this article has been updated with additional comment from Council Member Brad Lander. 

Rules Reform Package Supported by 33 Current and Incoming City Council Members Tue, 19 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Evaluates Progress of NYPD Inspector General Mark Peters DOI City Council

DOI Commissioner Mark Peters (photo: William Alatriste)

Four years ago, over the veto of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the City Council passed the Community Safety Act, a landmark piece of legislation relating to policing in New York City. One of the law’s most prominent planks was the creation of the NYPD Inspector General, an independent police department watchdog that would audit NYPD practices and operations and make recommendations on improvements.

With the nation on edge over widely disseminated videos of black men being shot by officers and reform activists continuously criticizing the NYPD’s broken windows policing model and the use of stop-and-frisk as racist, the Community Safety Act aimed to increase the department’s accountability to the public and increase the public’s confidence in the department. In 2014, after Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) appointed Philip Eure, the former head of Washington D.C.’s Office of Police Complaints, to be the first NYPD Inspector General.

On Wednesday, the City Council’s Committees on Public Safety and Oversight and Investigations held a joint oversight hearing to see how, nearly four years down the line, the NYPD Inspector General is accomplishing its stated goals.

The IG’s goals for improving the NYPD were repeated several times throughout the hearing, which saw initial testimony from Eure and his supervisor, DOI Commissioner Mark Peters. Among those doing the questioning were City Council Members Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams, who were the lead sponsors of the Community Safety Act.

“The IG’s mission is to enhance the effectiveness of the police department, increase public safety, protect civil liberties and civil rights, and increase the public’s confidence in the police force, thereby building stronger police-community relations,” Eure said at the hearing. “We believe that we have made important strides towards accomplishing all of these goals in the last four years, and we look forward to continuing to build upon that work in the years to come.”

Since its first publicly released report in January 2015, concerning police chokeholds, the IG has released nine reports on various NYPD practices that have resulted in some significant policy changes, but have also occasionally resulted in no changes. When the IG releases recommendations, the NYPD is pressured but not required to adopt reforms to operations and practices; if the NYPD refuses to take up a reform voluntarily, the City Council can pass legislation to mandate it.

The IG has released reports on NYPD practices such as chokeholds, de-escalation and use of force, quality of life summonses, responding to emotionally disturbed people, body camera use, investigations of political activity, and, most recently, handling of U visa requests for undocumented immigrants who were the victims of a crime.

Although the NYPD has often refused to implement recommended policies, some significant reforms have been voluntarily taken up by the department. For instance, the NYPD's Intelligence Bureau has formalized tracking measures for investigations into political activity, particularly with regard to investigative deadlines that were often ignored by the department's investigators.

However, in a large number of areas, the NYPD has simply ignored the recommendations of the IG, at times displaying open hostility toward the IG’s office. In January, IG’s office released a report showing that the NYPD is not adequately coordinating Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for officers, crucial when responding to calls involving an emotionally disturbed person (EDP).

At Wednesday’s hearing, Council Member Lander asked Eure and Peters what could be done to ensure NYPD compliance with recommendations, highlighting the NYPD’s refusal to streamline and improve its coordination of trained officers responding to the scene of calls regarding EDPs.

Peters urged the Council to step up efforts to codify into law certain recommendations that the NYPD refuses to implement.

“The NYPD has accepted far more recommendations than they have not,” Peters said. “And that’s great. And then the job for us, the DOI, is to follow up and to make sure that they’re implementing that.”

Peters later said that instances where the NYPD refuses to comply are the most crucial places that the IG’s office and the Council must partner.

“At the end of the day, that is the place where it’s most important for us to be partnering with the Council,” Peters said. “Because you have that report, we present that report to the mayor, we present that to the Council. And so the Council has the opportunity to read that report if you have questions.”

Council Member Williams, who represents the district where an NYPD officer recently shot and killed Dwayne Jeune, an emotionally disturbed man, questioned when a task force would be created to investigate and determine best practices for the NYPD in responding to EDP calls. Four officers responded to the Jeune call; Jeune was killed by the only responding officer who did not receive CIT training.

Mayor Bill de Blasio initially refused to set up a task force after Jeune’s death in July, but relented after prodding from the Council, according to Williams.

Although Eure and Peters had earlier said that they shared reports with the NYPD and City Hall before releasing them to the public in order to glean potentially overlooked facts, Peters said that IG is not involved with the task force.

"I think, obviously, it is an important idea. What I would say, the task force is important, but I believe there are already some things that we know need to be done," Peters said.

The IG’s office will also soon be releasing its first report related to Williams’ recently passed bill, Intro 119, requiring compilation of litigation data against officers and for the IG to use that to develop recommendations. The IG will be releasing the report in April, which Williams said he looks forward to.

Williams proudly proclaimed that things are going well, despite the NYPD and pundits saying that the creation of the NYPD Inspector General would "destroy the city, the sky would literally crack open, and brown and black young people were gonna wreak havoc on this city, and the inspector general in particular was going to confuse all police officers, they would have no idea who to listen to: the inspector general or the commissioner."

Crime has continued to fall while the NYPD has adopted some, but not all, of the reforms proposed by the IG. All 23,000 foot patrol officers are scheduled to do their jobs with body cameras on their person by 2019.

And, according to Eure, the NYPD has issued tighter guidelines on use of force as a result of the Inspector General's reports.

"Approximately eight months after this office published its first report on use of force by NYPD, the department released a set of revised policies that more precisely define the use of force, as well as a more detailed tracking form," Eure said. "All uniformed officers are now required to use a 'Threat, Resistance, or Injury Form" (TRI) whenever they use force or witness another officer using force at the scene." Last year, the City Council passed a law requiring the NYPD to publicly report use of force metrics derived from TRI data, and Eure stated that the IG’s office will soon release a report on the NYPD’s compliance with TRI.

Eure also boasted of a 2016 report that found no increase in felony crime concurrent with a dramatic decrease in enforcement of quality-of-life offenses, better known as broken windows offenses. While the NYPD continues to utilize broken windows policing that data shows disproportionately impacts communities of color, arrests and summonses have continued to drop, as has crime.

After Peters and Eure, advocates and service providers testified, offering some ideas for further scrutiny by the IG. According to testimony from Brooklyn Defender Services’ Debora Silberman, 86% of the almost 61,000 low-level marijuana arrests in New York City were of African-Americans or Latinos, despite whites using marijuana at an approximately equivalent rate.

Silberman also criticized the common NYPD practice of “testilying,” better known as police perjury, and the NYPD IG’s failure to address an apparent culture of officers lying on the stand. Recently, The New York Times reported that a Brooklyn judge warned the city that a court hearing on police perjury was imminent.

“As a public defender, I can assure you that such lying is prevalent and the NYPD has made no recognizable efforts to meaningfully address it,” Silberman said. “Likewise, the imbalance of power in the criminal legal system that pressures defendants to accept plea deals rather than go to trial also enables prosecutors to provide cover for police perjury, or ‘testilying,’ by making offers that defendants all-but-cannot refuse.”

Although the NYPD has decided not to comply with many recommendations, the department has not been outright dismissive of the IG. Peters said that, to date, the Inspector General has not had to issue a subpoena to the NYPD for documents related to an investigation.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Evaluates Progress of NYPD Inspector General Wed, 15 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio’s Record on Ethics and Transparency Mayor de Blasio City Hall

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

This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.


It is a source of great frustration for Mayor Bill de Blasio and hangs over his administration and reelection bid as an albatross. Observers across the political spectrum, including Democratic and Republican opponents in this year’s mayoral race, have attacked de Blasio for blurring or crossing ethical lines, and for lacking transparency.

De Blasio rode into power promising the most transparent administration in the city’s history, but his nearly four years in office have been marked by continuing questions and controversies over both his administration’s opaqueness and ethics, highlighted by twin law enforcement investigations into fundraising practices and government favors for campaign donors. The incumbent Democratic mayor, seeking reelection this fall, has repeatedly argued that he and his associates have carried themselves ethically and that he has done more disclosure than his predecessors and other high-level officials.

Yet, along with his electoral opponents, political observers, government reform advocates, and City Council members also say de Blasio’s rhetoric has not been backed by action and that his record on transparency and ethics has been, at best, a mixed bag.

In endorsing him in the Democratic primary, the New York Times editorial board wrote, “A political operative before he ran for public office, Mr. de Blasio has not shaken free of detractors’ suspicions about his ethical compass. He was subjected to both federal and state investigations into whether he presides over a pay-to-play system that favors well-heeled donors seeking favors from City Hall. Ultimately, no charges were brought against him or his aides. Though the mayor declared he had been vindicated, the Manhattan district attorney concluded that some of his fund-raising appeared to have violated “the intent and spirit” of the law. That’s a far cry from Mr. de Blasio’s claim to have been pronounced “innocent.”

De Blasio was indeed chastised by federal and state prosecutors, who, while they did not bring charges against him or his associates, investigated their actions and outlined problematic practices, some of which led to new city laws limiting certain fundraising activities that the mayor and his team engaged in. De Blasio has claimed that he and his aides have held themselves to the highest standards, but he has regularly raised those standards when pushed.

Part of the mayor’s pushback against criticisms has been that he and his associates have always had good motives, like expanding pre-kindergarten, and that a political nonprofit his allies ran to support his agenda disclosed more than required. Though he has been dogged by questions from members of the media, de Blasio readily points out that regular New Yorkers don’t often ask him about his fundraising practices or release of email records when they have the opportunity to question him at town halls or radio call-in segments.

“People never bring up the issues from the investigations, because I think there was a broad understanding in the public that there was an immense amount of scrutiny that found absolutely nothing wrong,” he said in a recent New York Magazine interview, mischaracterizing the facts given that while no charges were brought, prosecutors did indicate that the mayor and his associates had blurred or crossed ethical lines. “Everyday New Yorkers are much more concerned with kitchen-table issues. Some political insiders, maybe they’ve come to certain conclusions. But for everyday New Yorkers? They didn’t see anything wrong, and they’re right, because there wasn’t anything wrong.”

As de Blasio asks New Yorkers for four more years, ethics and transparency will continue to be a focus of criticism from his general election opponents and others, while the mayor will defend himself and attempt to point to stronger aspects of his record. But the record of how he and his administration have conducted themselves when it comes to playing by the rules, separating political fundraising and governing, and providing the public with both ethical and transparent government is very much worth chronicling and examining as voters evaluate their choices this November.

Mayoral spokespeople Eric Phillips and Austin Finan agreed to speak with Gotham Gazette for this story, but, other than a brief conversation to discuss the premise of the article, no comment was provided.

The most recent Quinnipiac University public opinion poll that included a question about de Blasio's ethics, published at the end of July, showed New York City voters saying 52 to 35 percent that he is honest and trustworthy, down from 59 to 31 percent in May. Still, the 52 was up from the lowest rating de Blasio has received in a Quinnipiac poll over his four years as mayor: amid intense controversy in May 2016, 43 percent said he is honest and trustworthy, while 45 percent said he is not. The highest de Blasio's honesty was rated by voters eight months into his tenure, when the balance was 66 to 22 in his favor.

Selective Transparency
In his former role as public advocate, de Blasio championed transparency and took the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to task for its apparent lack thereof. De Blasio disclosed meetings with lobbyists and implemented tools to track Freedom of Information Law requests, while criticizing the Bloomberg administration for its lax FOIL response time.

Fast forward nearly four years and the same official who urged increased disclosure by Bloomberg has been reticent to show the same commitment in his own operations on FOIL responsiveness speed and other things like police discipline records and emails with top non-governmental advisors. For example, as public advocate, de Blasio recommended legislation requiring the mayor to include FOIL response statistics in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, but it is not something de Blasio has done as mayor himself.

Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, de Blasio's second-in-command, recently conceded at a New York Law School breakfast that the administration could improve it's record on FOIL requests. "I don't think we've done as good as job on that as we could have," he said, Politico New York reported. "But I can't tell you we've gotten good enough. ... Our open data initiative has been, I think, one of the stronger ones in the country. ... Fundamentally, the more data that we can put out there so people don't have to say, 'May I,' but can do their own analytics, is the way to do."

On August 23, at the first of two mayoral debates in the Democratic primary, de Blasio was asked by debate panelist and NY1 reporter Grace Rauh about steps he would take to improve transparency in a second term, should he be reelected, or if he considered any improvements unnecessary. As he often does, the mayor disagreed with the premise of the question, and pivoted toward touting his record on transparency. “Anytime a lobbyist lobbied me on behalf of a third party I put that up online so that people know exactly who talked to me when. I did that,” de Blasio said. “No other mayor’s done that before in our history. I’m in favor of the kind of transparency that’s gonna make life different for everyday New Yorkers like body cameras for all of our patrol officers over the next two years. This is one of the ultimate acts of transparency and accountability in government.”

He added, “Past administrations did not disclose all sorts of things. I’ve made it a point to be open about disclosure. Some areas where I disagree specifically I do not think it was appropriate to disclose but compared to previous administrations we’ve gone a long way and a lot farther in terms of openness and disclosure and transparency....No mayor previously had that level of transparency and I’m very proud of the fact that we put that in place in the city. When it comes to tough questions, well it’s a tough job as part of what I’d expect as mayor of New York City.”

It was a far from satisfactory answer for de Blasio’s only opponent on the debate stage, former City Council Member Sal Albanese. “I’m just incredulous,” Albanese responded. “This administration is the least transparent administration in recent history,” he added (it is not an easy comparison to make).

“We should have a higher standard for the mayor than not being indicted,” Albanese said repeatedly during the debates and the primary campaign.

Government watchdog groups have also found that de Blasio reneged on his campaign pledges around core good governance, though there has been acknowledgement that the administration has implemented certain policies that have enhanced transparency, including related to data generated by city government.

For instance, the city has continued and expanded the implementation of the Open Data law, launching a redesigned online portal with thousands of datasets available to the public. The administration has launched OpenRECORDS, a centralized website to file and track FOIL requests with numerous city agencies. These advancements, while notable, do not capture the full picture of mayoral transparency, however.

Early on in his term, the mayor began limiting interactions with the press, eschewing the daily news briefings that previous mayors had traditionally held and restricting occasions when he would take “off-topic” questions. It earned him scorn from detractors in and out of the media, and, almost cyclically, reinforced his derision for reporters who grew frustrated with the dearth of unfettered, unscripted responses to their questions.

“There’s a Trump-like quality in his whining about the media,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, CUNY. “He’s got the same disease as the President.”

“There’s a lot the citizenry could find praiseworthy in his record,” Muzzio added, “but the two main issues are his transparency and political ethics, and his sense of self-aggrandizement where everything is ‘historic’ and ‘transformative.’ The problem is the distance between rhetoric and reality.”

Muzzio also noted that the administration has released a lot more data than previous mayoralties, which has been useful for analysis of city agencies. “It’s the personal transparency, rather than institutional transparency, that’s lacking,” Muzzio said of de Blasio.

One example of rhetoric versus reality was a promotional video put out in December 2016 by City Hall that touted the administration’s accomplishments, as it was mired in the two investigations that had captured headlines for months. Good government groups criticized the mayor at the time for effectively putting out a campaign ad shortly before the start of an election year during which government-funded advertisements would have been prohibited. The mayor fielded questions about the ad for weeks and grew frustrated by another example of what he has perceived as reporters’ fixation on trivial matters at the expense of spreading all the “good news” that is happening as a result of his policies.

At the August 23 debate, prompted by NY1’s Rauh, de Blasio pledged that he would not set up another issue-advocacy nonprofit like the Campaign for One New York, which was at the center of one of the two investigations into his administration. It was something the mayor had previously said he didn’t plan to do and had in fact signed a new law making virtually impossible. In making the pledge, he reiterated that he faced tough questions about his ethical conduct purely because he was willing to voluntarily disclose who had donated to the nonprofit group and how much.

“If you know you did things right you disclose,” he said. “If you’ve got something to hide, you don’t disclose. That’s what we did over and over again with donations that we did not have a legal obligation to disclose but we went ahead and disclosed anyway and I’m proud of that fact.”

But, the mayor’s approach to disclosure has been highly selective. For the better part of two years, media outlets have pushed, and NY1 and the New York Post even sued, the administration for access to emails exchanged between the mayor’s office and unpaid outside advisors. The mayor’s team has shielded those communications, terming the advisors “agents of the city” who would not be subject to disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Law that typically apply to correspondence between government officials and non-government entities. Exceptions to FOIL exist for intra-governmental communication that is part of the decision-making process, but de Blasio and his team argued that the advisors were so close to City Hall and the mayor that they were de facto members of the administration.

Eventually, the mayor relented to an extent, and troves of emails, numbering in the thousands and many of them significantly redacted, have been released on numerous occasions, usually in Friday “news dumps.” The administration is still in court appealing the decision to release the emails, but the mayor pledged in March to release all communications going forward. The emails have not shown wrongdoing, but rather painted the administration, and the mayor particularly, in an unflattering light at times. Some showed de Blasio’s harsh treatment of underlings while others revealed his proximity and degree of access afforded to donors, including controversial ones.

Watchdogs have pointed out that with the Campaign for One New York and the “agents of the city,” de Blasio has created his own problems by blurring lines and limiting transparency. By inviting massive donations to the nonprofit from entities with city business, de Blasio opened the door to pay-to-play allegations, and even the federal investigation. Under intense scrutiny, the mayor wound up promising extensive evidence of donors who did not get favorable treatment from city government -- a promise he eventually admitted he regretted -- but after months of delays, he produced a column on the online publishing platform Medium that left many wanting for more detail.

Big Money for the ‘Right’ Causes
As public advocate, de Blasio urged big corporations to adopt policies against funding political action committees and organized elected officials dedicated to that cause. He filed a legal brief in federal court arguing against the removal of limits to donations to PACs and he railed against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed untold amounts of money from undisclosed donors to flood electoral campaigns.

“Deep-pocketed donors have turned their sights on New York and our best-in-the-nation campaign finance system,” de Blasio said, in a statement on Oct. 3, 2013, when he filed the amicus brief. “They’re determined to upend protections that have safeguarded our democratic process for decades. This is about more than one election. It’s about defending the voices of everyday New Yorkers. It’s a fight we are going to win.”

While de Blasio has continued to rail against Citizens United and call for full public campaign financing, the mayor has not aggressively pursued such a system in New York and the same politician who has long decried wealthy moneyed interests influencing government relied on them to promote his own political agenda while mayor.

De Blasio came into office with a come-from-behind primary win and a general election landslide. He had the wind at his back and attempted to take on the world, so to speak. This led to the creation of the controversial nonprofit and a 2014 effort to swing the state Senate Democratic that got him in trouble, along with other actions that have hurt his reputation for openness and clean government.

Within a month of the mayor’s election, his allies set up a political nonprofit group called UPKNYC, later branded The Campaign for One New York, to promote the goal of universal pre-kindergarten in the city, which in part depended on state-level approval. After achieving its initial goal -- de Blasio favored a tax on the rich to fund the proposal but settled for direct funding from the state -- the group pivoted to promoting the mayor’s affordable housing plan. All along, the 501(c)4 organization solicited unlimited donations, many from wealthy donors and labor unions that also had business with the city. The group did voluntarily disclose its finances and donors every six months.

Scrutiny of its activities, and the mayor’s fundraising for it and possible exchange of government favors, helped trigger one of the two separate corruption investigations, a federal probe into allegations of pay-to-play at City Hall --- the second was a state-level inquiry into whether the mayor’s attempt to sway state Senate races for Democratic candidates in 2014 had violated election law by funneling big donations to candidate campaigns through local Democratic committees.

The mayor maintained throughout that he and his associates had acted under strict legal guidance and had followed the letter of the law, and both probes eventually concluded with no charges. But the stench of scandal remained as the Manhattan U.S. attorney concluded that the mayor, though not crossing into clear criminal activity, had sought contributions from donors and then had “made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies” on behalf of those donors.

De Blasio defended this as typical practice and even good government -- that any constituent, whether a donor or not, who brings a concern to him is directed to someone in the administration who may be able to help, but that the relevant powers make decisions based on the merits, not relationships. What has been abundantly clear, however, is that de Blasio donors have enjoyed special access to and attention from the mayor and his administration.

De Blasio also regularly made the case that the ends justified the means, that because he was fighting for universal pre-kindergarten and affordable housing, his skirting of campaign finance rules and blurring of lines was acceptable. The contradiction became especially evident when de Blasio agreed to sign legislation pushed by the City Council, notably Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a close de Blasio ally, to drastically limit political nonprofits with ties to elected officials. De Blasio would explain that it was “the right thing to do” but did lament that he felt it might hamstring progressive politicians with good intentions like himself in the ongoing fight against opposing big-money interests.

At the second Democratic mayoral primary debate on September 6, debate moderator Maurice DuBois of CBS-2 put the mayor on his heels with the first question, about his apparent ethical failings. “Mr. de Blasio, here’s a true story,” DuBois began. “A political leader and his associates used pay-for-play tactics...but were not charged with a crime. However, state and federal prosecutors insist those people did violate the intent and spirit of the law. While there were no criminal charges, would you want people like that working for you?”

A defensive de Blasio again stood by his administration’s efforts and the policy goals that they achieved, and insisted that he and his associates had been vindicated by the intense scrutiny by prosecutors that nevertheless found no wrongdoing. “I look at everything that we’ve done and I’m very convinced that high standards were kept to and the results speak for themselves in terms of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we’ve improved,” he said. “That’s what I came here to do, make people’s lives better.”

Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, said she is “torn” over the mayor’s first-term scandals. “Part of me is just wondering, ‘is this the cost of doing business as a politician in the 21st century if you’re not a billionaire?’” she said, drawing a contrast with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who did not have to depend on donors for his own campaigns. “Part of me thinks, ‘Well if you don’t have billions to contribute on your own, do you possibly have to get that from unsavory characters and make alliances and depend on people who have resources?’ But the other part of me wonders, ‘Wow, it seems like we’re always asking about some sort of potential wrongdoing.’”

Greer’s conflict seems to be indicative of that of at least several prominent Democrats, including officials like Comptroller Scott Stringer, who criticized the Campaign for One New York as a “slush fund” but wound up endorsing the mayor for reelection, citing his progressivism in fighting inequality. For some time, Stringer was considering a mayoral run, either against de Blasio or in the event de Blasio did not seek reelection due to results from the investigations that did not materialize.

Greer emphasized that de Blasio’s ethics record should not be conflated with his transparency, even though the two are sometimes drawn in “concentric circles.” She noted that de Blasio’s refusal to take questions from the press simply raises more concerns about what else he isn’t being transparent about. “I genuinely do not understand why there are times that de Blasio makes life much harder for himself than he has to...He brought that on himself,” she said. She did agree that perhaps everyday New Yorkers don’t care about issues of transparency that “get into the weeds,” but said he couldn’t dismiss the concerns of those who do. “By you not wanting to answer it, you can’t wish it away by saying nobody’s interested,” she said. “Yes, we are interested.”

De Blasio’s criticism of and condescension towards the media was on full display in the column he wrote on Medium, where he attempted to defend himself against pay-to-play allegations and special access for donors. The column, promised by de Blasio more than a year prior, was meant to illustrate instances of donors who sought favors from the administration but were denied. In the face of allegations and investigations, de Blasio had promised “a whole lot of evidence” of donors not getting the action they desired from the city. De Blasio provided little evidence in his Medium column, but went after the media with gusto.

“Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City,” de Blasio wrote of the coverage of his contact with donors. “Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.”

The column contained few examples and no names, and largely blamed the media for over-inflating the scandals that have plagued de Blasio’s tenure. “It was a non-explanation, he gave a few examples of dubious quality,” Muzzio said with an exasperated sigh, noting how the mayor looked down his nose at the press.

Some top Democratic elected officials have been hesitant to criticize the mayor openly, save for Stringer and a few others. Public Advocate Letitia James, de Blasio’s successor and whose office is meant to serve as a watchdog over city government, declined to comment for this article through a spokesperson. James has largely stayed away from questions about de Blasio’s ethics and transparency issues, explaining her approach as more focused on the substance of agency work and using litigation and legislation to make policy change.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, ostensibly the second-most powerful elected official in the city, deflected when asked about the mayor’s defense of the Campaign for One New York and his transparency, at a news conference on Sept. 7, when the mayor’s ethics record was being argued over both on the primary election debate stage and throughout the ongoing race for mayor.

“We continue to have conversations in this Council and we continue to look at legislation to figure out how we can be more transparent,” she said. “That doesn’t just fall on the mayor, that falls on all of us to be more transparent in government.”

Mark-Viverito emphasized the Council’s measures to improve the Campaign Finance Board’s functioning and the laws governing campaign fundraising and spending. “Being a candidate and being an elected official is not easy,” she said. “The CFB rules are extremely complicated to follow and sometimes to keep track of and so sometimes you can get a little bit lost in them.”

When Gotham Gazette pointed out that the mayor’s Campaign for One New York operated outside of the CFB’s purview and asked if looking back on it she felt it was still ethical for the mayor to have created the group, Mark-Viverito said, “I’m not gonna respond to that at this moment. I haven’t really focused on it as of late. Again, what we strive to do is to be accountable to our constituents and that’s what I have been doing as an elected official, that’s what we do each and everyday and I’m gonna continue to strive down that path.”

Though she was quite reticent to weigh in on the issue when it was most relevant, Mark-Viverito did eventually spearhead the writing and passage of the legislation to rein in groups like Campaign for One New York, forcing the mayor’s hand on a measure that ensures few like it will ever exist in the future, given several new restrictions, like severe limits on what entities with city business can donate to nonprofits closely associated with an elected official. Even during that legislative process, Mark-Viverito, largely a de Blasio ally, took pains not to criticize the mayor directly, while tacitly and legislatively showing her disapproval. In signing the legislation, de Blasio refused to acknowledge that he had made any mistakes, but touted it as good legislation further reigning in money in politics.

Council Member Mark Levine, who is among a number of members running to be the next speaker of the Council, also gave a quasi-defense of the mayor. “I think he has to be judged by the fact that there was extensive scrutiny with considerable resources at multiple levels of government, local and federal, that left no stone unturned and determined there was not ground to charge,” he told Gotham Gazette, “and that at the end of the day is the most important standard and one that he justifiably touts, particularly in light of the months of leaks which gave him bad press for issues which ultimately were not deemed sufficient to charge on.”

But multiple City Council members, who did not wish to be named, felt differently. Separately, they gave similar opinions to one another, criticizing the mayor’s hypocrisy on transparency, his handling of the “agents of the city” emails, and his continued arrogance over escaping an indictment.

One Council member said the mayor was “vulnerable” on issues of transparency and that he faced “justifiable criticism” over his shielding of his emails, which did not seem at all legally defensible. The months of bad headlines, said the Council member, led to a “bunker mentality” and the mayor and his associates dug in their heels deeper. (Indeed, de Blasio has reopened himself to many more press questions since the investigations ended.)

Two Council members said the mayor’s shielding of his emails was largely an exercise in protecting his image rather than hiding instances of corruption. “It’s clear they are well aware of who their friends are,” said one member, of the mayor’s relationship with donors. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the contents of some of the “agents of the city” emails are especially gossipy and embarrassing.

Another Council member commended the press as the institution, more so than the City Council, that has most held the mayor accountable, and criticized the mayor for attacking the media’s reportage. The member noted that the Council did not use its subpoena power and did not act on the Campaign for One New York until after Common Cause NY, a good government group, filed an official complaint with the Campaign Finance Board.

That Council member also critiqued the mayor for not revealing who administration officials hold meetings with, an issue on which de Blasio had campaigned, and for not fully implementing the online FOIL portal. On the mayor’s Medium post, the Council member said, “It’s a little too cute to tell folks exactly who did what without using their names.”

‘Backwards on Police Transparency’
In April 2013, then-Public Advocate de Blasio released a “Transparency Report Card” that evaluated 18 city agencies on their response to FOIL requests. The two agencies that received a failing grade were the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the NYPD. A Village Voice analysis from April of the de Blasio administration’s handling of FOIL records showed that little had changed in more than three years. “A review of thousands of pages of FOIL records shows the city’s system for handling public information requests remains haphazard, under-resourced, and often excruciatingly slow. And the mayor’s own office is the slowest of all,” the report reads.

The mayor’s earlier criticism of the NYPD’s opaqueness perhaps most smacks of hypocrisy to police reform advocates who say his administration has not only not made progress, but actually backtracked on transparency at the police department. The NYPD, and then de Blasio, last year contended that successive administrations had for decades misinterpreted Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Code, which protects the personnel records of police officers from public disclosure. As the department saw it, the law prevents them from releasing “personnel orders” that summarize disciplinary actions taken against officers. These orders had routinely been released until the revised policy was put in place, and the city has fought tooth and nail to uphold its reinterpretation of the law, even appealing an unfavorable judicial ruling, and has pointed to the need for the state to change the law.  

“The de Blasio administration has taken the city backwards on police transparency and accountability with its misuse of state law 50-a to conceal information,” said Lumumba Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups. Bandele noted that, though the mayor released a proposal to change the law in Albany, there was little evidence that the administration made it a priority in this year’s legislative session. “On policing, this administration is misusing the law as an excuse for being less transparent than those of Bloomberg and Giuliani,” she added, “allowing the NYPD to shield police abuse and corruption from public scrutiny, and failing to provide leadership to improve police accountability and transparency.”

The notion -- that the de Blasio administration has been worse about NYPD transparency and accountability -- is one that was also echoed this year by City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is a de Blasio supporter overall.

Scrutiny and Change
Undoubtedly, scrutiny of the mayor’s actions led to change in his behavior. He stopped communicating with top lobbyists who were close to him and began to limit government-related interaction with outside consultants, particularly Jonathan Rosen, a confidante who was involved in the mayor’s 2013 campaign and the Campaign for One New York, and whose firm is again working on the mayor’s 2017 reelection bid. The scandals also prompted the legislation by the City Council -- which the mayor signed into law -- regulating donations to nonprofit groups affiliated with elected officials and requiring disclosure by these groups under the oversight of the Conflicts of Interest Board. And, de Blasio changed his “agency of the city” email transparency policy as he continues to battle in court to keep past emails secret.

But it’s unclear if the mayor, who won his primary handily and is expected to coast to reelection through the general, will take substantive steps to be more transparent. “[If] he gets a second term, I can’t see him as a lame duck being more transparent, so I think that’s a concern,” said Greer.

There’s no doubt that de Blasio’s general election opponents, chiefly Republican Nicole Malliotakis, a state Assembly member from Staten Island, will continue to make de Blasio’s ethics a focus of the campaign. The question remains, though, how much voters care. Political analysts note that most voters do not vote based on transparency and ethics issues unless there is a major scandal that has led someone to jail. Voters often vote based on “pocket book” and “kitchen table” issues like jobs, schools, and crime -- a point de Blasio himself regularly acknowledges at least tacitly.

Council Member Brad Lander, who was one of the co-sponsors of the legislation regulating political nonprofits, said it was more constructive to focus on the political system that allows, and in some way encourages, reliance on wealthy donors. “If we want elected officials in New York City to live up to a higher standard of good government, then the best approach is to strengthen our own rules,” he said. “That’s more valuable than focusing on individuals.”

This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.



November 2013: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio gets elected mayor of New York City after running a campaign in which he promised an unprecedented level of transparency in government. As Public Advocate, de Blasio issued a “Transparency Report Card” evaluating city agencies on their response to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. He chiefly criticized the NYPD for their lax FOIL response times, giving them a failing grade in his report.

December 2013: De Blasio’s allies set up UPKNYC, also known as the Campaign for One New York, an issue-advocacy nonprofit -- classified by the IRS as 501(c)(4)s -- that could solicit unlimited contributions and spend unlimited funds to promote the mayor’s agenda, namely promoting universal pre-kindergarten. Under law, the nonprofit was not required to disclose its donors. The mayor’s associates later set up another nonprofit called United For Affordable NYC, to promote his affordable housing plan. The Campaign for One New York eventually became the locus of two parallel investigations by federal and state prosecutors into the mayor’s fundraising practices and his effort to sway state Senate races in 2014.

July 2014: The Campaign for One New York voluntarily discloses its fundraising and donors to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and to the public, despite not being required to do so, showing $1.76 million in donations, a lot of which came from labor unions that have been big supporters of the mayor and from groups that do business with the city. The mayor faced scrutiny for allowing doing business donors to give unlimited amounts, whereas those same donors would’ve been limited in how much they could contribute to a campaign committee. The Campaign for One New York later shifted its focus towards the mayor’s larger progressive agenda, particularly affordable housing, after having already achieved the goal of funding universal pre-kindergarten in the city.

May 2015: De Blasio heads to Washington D.C. to launch “The Progressive Agenda,” a platform of progressive policies that he attempted to advocate for at the national level to try to influence issues in the presidential race. Another nonprofit, the Progressive Agenda Committee, is set up by October 2015 to helm the project. The group would have little to no impact before shutting down within less than a year, only making headlines for an aborted attempt at holding a presidential candidate forum in Iowa in December 2015.

The same day de Blasio was in Washington, the New York Times reports that the Campaign for One New York has come under scrutiny by JCOPE for not registering as a lobbying entity. In 2014, UPKNYC had registered as a lobbyist to promote universal pre-k.

July 2015: Yet again, the Campaign for One New York discloses its fundraising, showing another $1.7 million in fundraising over a six-month period. The donations came from unions, lobbyists, wealthy donors and real estate executives. A Politico New York analysis in September shows that 46 of 74 donors “either had business or labor contracts with City Hall or were trying to secure approval for a project when they contributed, public records show.” Over the next few months, de Blasio faces constant questioning about potential conflicts of interest and the perception of a pay-to-play culture emerging at City Hall. The nonprofit groups also seem to slow down their operations and fundraising amid increased criticism.

Feb 2016: Common Cause New York, a government reform advocacy group, files a complaint with the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board and the Campaign Finance Board, requesting investigations of the Campaign for One New York and United for Affordable NYC. “The Mayor's unprecedented use of 501(c)(4) fundraising has spawned a shadow government that raises serious questions about who has influence and access to the policymaking process,” Common Cause NY said in a statement at the time. “It has created a perpetual campaign, confusing the role of government and politics, to the detriment of the public interest.”

March 2016: The Campaign for One New York announces plans to close down as the spectre of pay-to-play allegations begins to hound the administration. United for Affordable NYC ends operations in conjunction, but the Progressive Agenda Committee continues to exist with minimal staff.

April 2016: Then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara reportedly begins looking into two de Blasio donors, in connection with a separate corruption case involving the NYPD. Both donors contributed to the mayor’s campaign as well and were part of his inauguration committee. CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reports that Bharara’s office had started focusing on the mayor’s fundraising practices. Mayor de Blasio, saying he was unaware of any federal investigation, says on April 11, “I’m not going to be speaking about this after today.”

On April 22, the New York Daily News reports on a leaked memo from the state Board of Elections regarding the mayor’s 2014 efforts to help Democrats win the state Senate. The memo alleges that de Blasio and his team circumvented campaign contribution limits to benefit three Democratic campaigns, thereby warranting criminal prosecution. (It would later emerge that the memo was released by a Republican BOE spokesperson.)

On April 28, after de Blasio’s counsel confirms having received subpoenas in parallel state and federal investigations into the mayor’s fundraising, de Blasio maintains his innocence. “Everything we’ve done from the beginning is legal and appropriate,” he said. “There’s an investigation going on, we’re going to fully cooperate with that investigation.”

May 2016: A lawyer for the Campaign for One New York tells JCOPE that the nonprofit would stop complying with subpoenas, suggesting that the probe into CONY has become politically motivated.

On May 18, Mayor de Blasio promises to produce a list of donors who contributed to the Campaign for One New York but did not receive favors from City Hall, insisting that his administration makes decision based on merit and not on favoritism.

The same month, de Blasio comes under fire for shielding his email exchanges with five unpaid outside advisers, some of whom have business with the city. The administration terms them “agents of the city” and argues that they are exempt from disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Law.

June 2016: The administration releases selected emails from outside consultants to Politico New York, in response to long-pending FOIL requests.

July 2016: The New York City Campaign Finance Board rules that the Campaign for One New York did not violate campaign finance law and that donations and spending by the group do not count towards the mayor’s 2017 reelection campaign. But, the board criticized the mayor’s fundraising practices, which they saw as circumventing the city’s strict campaign finance restrictions, and called on the City Council to pass legislation to close the loophole.  

“New York City’s system depends on reasonable contribution limits that reduce the appearance that influence can be bought or sold through campaign contributions,” said then-CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn. “It defies common sense that limits that work so well during the campaign should be set aside once the candidate has assumed elected office.”

August 2016: A battle brewing in the background for months over NYPD officers’ disciplinary records came front and center as the New York Daily News reported that the department would no longer release “personnel orders” summarizing disciplinary actions against officers. Then-Commissioner Bill Bratton insisted that the city had long misinterpreted a decades-old state law -- Section 50-A of the New York State civil rights code-- that had led to the release of officer records. The law has been a particular sticking point for police reform advocates incensed over the administration’s efforts to protect the disciplinary record of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose use of a banned chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014. Mayor de Blasio, whose administration has been fighting for well over two years to shield Pantaleo’s record, insisted his hands were tied on 50-A unless the state Legislature took action to change the provision.

At an unrelated news conference in late August, de Blasio said he had stopped meeting with lobbyists, chiefly James Capalino, a top lobbyist and advisor to the mayor. “He, going into the mayoralty, was someone I respected as a friend and who I talked to a lot over the years,” de Blasio said. “But I do not have contact with him anymore.”

September 2016: Two media outlets -- NY1 and the New York Post -- sue the mayor for the release of emails exchanged with Jonathan Rosen, of the consulting firm Berlin Rosen, who is one of the mayor’s “agents of the city.”

That month, the City Council begins drafting legislation to regulate political nonprofits like the Campaign for One New York. Multiple bills were formulated to implement additional disclosure rules for these groups and to bring them under the purview of the Conflicts of Interest Board.

October 2016: After weeks of criticizing the New York Post for their coverage of his administration, de Blasio repeatedly ignores Post reporter Yoav Gonen’s questions at an October 6 news conference. Gonen presses on with questions, leading to heated words from the mayor, who calls the Post a “right-wing rag” before moving on to other reporters. The incident earns the mayor widespread condemnation from local media.

That same month, amid increasing criticism over the administration’s stance on Section 50-A, de Blasio releases a legislative proposal calling on Albany to amend the law to remove confidentiality provisions and make the full disciplinary records of officer available to the public. “Without significant changes to this statute, the city remains barred from providing New Yorkers with the transparency we deserve," the mayor said.

November 2016: The Council introduces legislation to curb political nonprofits, particularly limiting contributions from entities and individuals with business before the city. Nonprofit groups would also have to disclose their donors to the Conflicts of Interest Board.

On November 23, the administration releases thousands of pages of emails exchanged between the mayor’s office and Jonathan Rosen, who was among those classified as “agents of the city” to prevent disclosure.

At a November 29 news conference, de Blasio indicated to the press that he had reduced contact with Rosen. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty rare I’m talking to people, but each situation is individual,” he said at the time.

December 2016: On his weekly appearance on NY1 on December 5, de Blasio tells anchor Errol Louis that his communications with outside advisors and consultants will no longer be shielded from disclosure.  

On December 15, the New York Times reports that two grand juries have been convened to hear testimony on the state and federal investigations into the mayor’s administration and fundraising. De Blasio continues to maintain that he and his associates acted legally and appropriately, following guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board and from campaign lawyers.

March 2017: Federal and state prosecutors jointly announced on March 17 that de Blasio and his aides would not face charges in the dual year-long investigations into the administration. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance criticized the mayor in a statement, saying that de Blasio and his associates violated the spirit and intent of the campaign finance law. Joon H. Kim, acting-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted that the investigation looked into “several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the City, after which the Mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies on behalf of those donors.”

De Blasio, at a news conference that day, said the conclusion of the investigations “simply confirms what I’ve said all along. My staff and my colleagues and I have acted in a manner that was legal and appropriate and ethical throughout. This is something I feel very strongly about in public service – that we have to comport ourselves in the proper manner and we have done that, and that has been confirmed by the results of this investigation.”

Also in March, a Manhattan appeals court rules in favor of the de Blasio administration in the case of Officer Pantaleo’s disciplinary record, superseding two earlier lower court decisions that had allowed the release of some information.

April 2017: After months of delaying his promise to provide a list of donors who did not receive favored treatment from City Hall, de Blasio partly backtracks and insists that he will pen an op-ed by the end of April that would mention certain relevant instances. (He had been hesitant to release the list earlier, citing the ongoing investigations.)

August 2017: The de Blasio administration releases more emails that show two donors who were embroiled in a police corruption scandal had relatively easy access to the mayor.  

At the first Democratic mayoral primary debate on August 23, de Blasio concedes that the op-ed on donors is forthcoming and would be released before the September 12 primary. On September 1, de Blasio delivers in the form of a post on Medium, an online publishing website. The post reads more as a screed against the media and contains only four instances involving unnamed donors to illustrate the mayor’s point. Some of those had emerged from emails released by the administration earlier in the month.

“Media reports on these contacts fixated on their access to me and ignored the fair and transparent outcomes that followed,” the mayor writes. “Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City. Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.”

September 6: The second mayoral primary debate begins with a heavy focus on de Blasio’s ethics.

September 12: De Blasio handily wins the Democratic primary for mayor.

November 7: Election Day


This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio’s Record on Ethics and Transparency Sun, 22 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
4 Interesting Participatory Budgeting Project Winners pb vote via lander

(photo: Council Member Lander's office)

After an 11-day window in which over 100,000 residents of pertinent districts cast ballots, the City Council recently announced the winners of the 2016-17 participatory budgeting cycle. Thirty-one of 51 Council districts participated this year, leading to $34 million in capital funds going towards hyper-local projects chosen directly by the districts’ voters.

A total of 138 projects received funding in this cycle, with most districts backing three to five projects. Some districts awarded funding for many more projects -- District 38, which includes Sunset Park, Red Hook, and Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn and is represented by Democrat Carlos Menchaca, is funding 10 projects. Many project proposals were represented in multiple districts, such as laptops or air conditioning in schools and security cameras for places such as parks, schools, and police precincts, but many were more unique to the respective districts. While participatory budgeting funds are all for capital projects, like equipment or some kind of small construction work, and often show a lot of similarity to each other and to those funded in past cycles, a handful of winning projects stand out this year.

The participatory budgeting movement, which began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as a means of decentralizing budgetary authority and handing power to the people, has since spread to numerous municipalities worldwide. It reached New York City in 2011, when City Council Members Brad Lander, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane Williams launched participatory budgeting projects in their respective districts, dedicating about $1 million of the funds at their disposal to a community process.

While it’s not required of all Council districts, and it hasn’t been implemented citywide, the movement is clearly growing at a rapid pace in the city. Districts participating in participatory budgeting set aside, at minimum, $1 million of their capital budget allocation for public determination.

Participatory budgeting allows issues unique to each community to gain both attention and funding from a city budget process that may have overlooked them without direct citizen input. For instance, one out of four public school classrooms in the city lack air conditioning, which can become not only a health hazard for both students and teachers, but also an impediment to effective learning in the later months of the school term, which ends on June 28 this year.

Several districts voted to allocate participatory budgeting funds toward putting air conditioning in classrooms devoid of it. As it turns out, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his executive budget proposal, unveiled last month, includes almost $29 million to put air conditioning in every public school classroom in the city within five years. Another long-requested but never-delivered service, bus countdown clocks, also won funding in numerous districts. The countdown clocks have a lurid history, with the MTA removing physical clocks from some stops upon the development of a BusTime app by the Authority, which can alienate low-income New Yorkers who don’t possess smartphones.

“This is democracy in action,” City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito said in a statement announcing the results of the cycle, getting at the essence of participatory budgeting, at least for its proponents.

While those like Mark-Viverito, dozens of other Council members, a variety of community groups, and many residents are pleased with participatory budgeting, some critics say that it is a waste of time and Council staff resources (it is a labor heavy program for aides to Council members) and that the projects funded are ones that should really be taken into consideration in the regular budget process. Critics say that Council members are supposed to be gauging their constituents’ needs year-round anyway and influencing the larger budget process and allocating their member item funding accordingly.

The City Council won the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement for participatory budgeting in 2015 from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, winning $100,000 as a means of “replication and dissemination of their innovations.”

This year’s participatory budgeting winners include many typical projects, but a few others stand out.

The highest number of votes for any project in the city went to a proposal in District 39, represented by Democrat Brad Lander, who has been a vocal proponent of PB since he was one of the original four to pilot it in the city. The votes were for providing mobile showers for homeless people. The project received 5,293 votes. The program is administered by CHiPS, a homeless services non-profit that runs a soup kitchen and a residency program, and will be stationed in front of its soup kitchen in Park Slope.

District 39, which includes parts of Park Slope and Gowanus, has a relatively low number of homeless shelter beds. It is one of 18 City Council districts without any family shelter units, but does have nearly 300 adult single shelter beds. Mayor Bill de Blasio may soon change these numbers given that his new homeless shelter plan includes opening 90 new shelters of various types across the city. He has promised more beds for Park Slope, where he used to live and was the City Council member before being elected Public Advocate, then Mayor.

Another winning project is the addition of a courtroom for Benjamin Cardozo High School in District 23, represented by Barry Grodenchik; the school is known for its Mentor Law and Humanities program. All students in the program must participate in either mock trial or model UN in their sophomore year. The courtroom will not be the first in a Queens high school; Maspeth High School opened a student courtroom in February of last year.

In District 22, represented by Democrat Costa Constantinides, the Steinway Branch of the Queens Library will be fitted with solar panels after receiving over 1,000 votes in the district’s cycle. The library will join several other public library branches in the city that have adopted solar energy.

The total votes in Constantinides’ district more than doubled since last year. Constantinides said this shows “that neighborhood residents care about our public and community spaces.”

And in District 32, represented by Republican Eric Ulrich (the only one of three Republican Council districts participating in the program), Shore Front Parkway will be the site of new adult exercise equipment “adjacent to the boardwalk” as well as a “labyrinth/yoga/meditation area.” Projects in Ulrich’s district received the fewest votes of any district participating in the program this year; only 858 votes were cast in total.

The full list of winners of New York City’s 2016-17 Participatory Budgeting Cycle can be found here.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: the article has been clarified to better explain the homeless shelter beds currently in District 39.

4 Interesting Participatory Budgeting Project Winners Tue, 23 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Proposal Would Boost Public Campaign Matching Funds kallos council

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: @NYCCouncil)

A bill heard by the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations on Thursday aims to further limit the influence of big-dollar donations and special interests in city elections. The bill, co-sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, who chairs the committee, would tweak the city’s public campaign finance system by removing a cap on public funds disbursed to candidate campaigns by the Campaign Finance Board (CFB).

The city’s campaign finance system is held up as a national model that incentivizes small dollar donations by matching them with public funds. Each qualifying contribution up to $175 is matched 6-to-1 by the city, through the CFB, allowing candidates with a lack of access to personal wealth or deep-pocketed donors to run competitive campaigns. Currently, the CFB only matches public funds up to 55 percent of the spending limit for a particular seat.

For instance, in a City Council race, for those participating in the matching system, the 2017 spending limit is $182,000 each in the primary and general election, so a candidate could receive up to $100,100 in public funds by raising about $16,800.

Intro. 1130-A, co-sponsored by Council Members Kallos, Brad Lander and Fernando Cabrera, would increase that public funds payment to a full match against the spending limit, minus the amount of matchable contributions raised by the candidate. Effectively, a Council candidate who raises $26,000 could receive a maximum of $156,000 in public funds, for a total budget of $182,000 (in the primary and/or in the general).

If passed by the Council and signed by the Mayor, as written the bill would go into effect in 2018, after this year’s municipal elections.

The current system, says Kallos,, creates a “big money gap” of more than one-third of the spending limit, that would need to be filled through private contributions. For a City Council race, this gap is $65,000 while for mayoral candidates, it is about $2.5 million. “If it works, anyone could run for office entirely on small dollars,” Kallos said in his opening statement at Thursday’s hearing. “If it doesn’t work, candidates could still continue to pursue big money and there would be no added cost. There is literally no downside.”

The hearing drew a large audience outside of the usual good government advocates, including tenant and community preservation groups, immigrant advocacy organizations, NYCHA residents, current City Council candidates, and women’s groups. “This is because no matter what your cause, the road to victory starts with campaign finance reforms that amplify the voices of residents over special interests,” Kallos said.

Amy Loprest, executive director of the Campaign Finance Board, said the bill would have a significant impact on future elections, albeit with a moderate increase in costs, about 17 to 20 percent. In 2013, she noted, 129 council candidates received public funds, and 83 of them received payments within 10 percent of the maximum. In citywide races, however, she said the impact would be minimal since candidates tend to rely on larger contributions, and it would in fact aid established candidates with stronger small-dollar fundraising operations.

Loprest said the Board agreed with the aims of the bill, but she offered a number of alternatives that could effectively accomplish its goals and even go further. She suggested lowering contribution limits across the board, reducing the thresholds for qualifying for public funds, and floated the idea of higher matching funds for those who choose to only receive small-dollar donations. She also pointed out potential inadvertent consequences of the bill, noting that there are strict criteria for qualifying expenditures under the public funds program, and more public funds could make it harder for candidates to justify spending on non-qualifying purposes such as defending a ballot petition in court. Candidates would also have to repay higher amounts of public funds left over after a campaign.

When asked by Kallos how the bill might affect participation in the system, Loprest emphasized that participation has consistently been high, but future behavior is hard to predict. “You want to make sure you have a system where it’s flexible, so you have as many people joining as possible and that they can choose the way they want to participate,” she said. “Allowing people to kinda have the option of the way they can participate in the program is an important aspect to encourage participation.”

A number of government reform advocates came out in favor of the legislation including Common Cause New York, EffectiveNY, Reinvent Albany, and Demos, among others.

“It’s very clear that the campaign finance system here in New York City has successfully encouraged more small-dollar contributions,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “but for the long range goal of diminishing the power of large contributions, it is not as successful as we would like it to be.” She said Intro. 1130-A would be a “significant and strong first step” in strengthening the system.  

Bill Samuels, chair of EffectiveNY, said the bill would encourage participation by women candidates, who tend to rely more heavily on small-dollar contributions because they don’t have the access to deep pockets that men often do. EffectiveNY, with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, recently launched the “21 in ‘21” initiative to elect at least 21 women Council Members in 2021 (there are currently 13 in the 51-seat Council). Moira McDermott, executive director of the initiative, said fundraising is often a significant barrier to women running for elected office. The gap between public funds and the spending limit, she said, is tough to cover through small contributions. “This leaves wealthy donors, political institutions, PACs and special interests, which after decades of the male-dominated structure, few women have the same connections to, and even fewer women of color.”

The bill also received supported as a means to increase class and racial diversity in the Council. Murad Awawdeh, director of political engagement at the New York Immigration Coalition, said, “Perhaps the most important potential impact of this legislation is that it would empower immigrants, low-income earners and people of color, and women, to run for office and seek adequate representation of their communities.”

One testifying organization seemed to demur on the proposal: Citizens Union, a government reform group, which is questioning the timing of the proposal and the financial and documentation requirements it would impose on the CFB. “Despite its intent,” said Rachel Bloom, director of public policy and programs, “the introduction of the bill at this late stage in the municipal election cycle is a deviation of the carefully measured process by which the program is updated and revised.” The group did not state support the proposal, nor did it oppose it. “There are serious issues being raised by this bill that need greater time to evaluate,” Bloom said. “We would be better off looking at the issue right after our 2017 city elections.”

Speaker Mark-Viverito has not yet taken a position on the bill, and said Tuesday that she would wait until after the hearing. In a statement Wednesday, she said, “The city's campaign finance law is one of the strongest in the nation. We continue to look for ways to make it even stronger.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has in the past expressed support for full public financing of elections. At a March 16 appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show, he said, “I believe we should go to full public financing of elections on the city level, on the state level, on the federal level....I think the system is fundamentally broken. And you know, if there are little tweaks around the edges that’s nice, but we’re not being serious about money in politics if we don’t get it out of politics entirely. We should just go to public financing of elections with very stringent spending limits.”

At Thursday’s hearing, Kallos read out part of written testimony submitted by Henry Berger, special counsel to Mayor de Blasio. “After nearly three decades of experience with the city’s matching public funds, this bill starts an important discussion about how to reduce the influence of money in elections,” the statement read. “This is one good step in that direction.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Proposal Would Boost Public Campaign Matching Funds Thu, 27 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000