Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/75 Fri, 22 Feb 2019 06:37:18 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8265-city-s-new-civic-engagement-commission-set-to-be-named-in-april-is-accepting-applications http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8265-city-s-new-civic-engagement-commission-set-to-be-named-in-april-is-accepting-applications city council torres lander levine barron pub

Council Members Lander, Torres, Barron & others (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The Civic Engagement Commission that city voters approved in November is now accepting applications from New Yorkers interesting in serving on the panel that will help craft strategies for getting more residents of the five boroughs engaged in civic life. Though appointments to the commission will be made by top city elected officials, the open application process allows regular New Yorkers to throw their names and resumes into the pool of candidates for placement on the commission that will deal with things like citywide participatory budgeting and election poll-site translation services.

The commission, which is scheduled to be empaneled on April 1, will consist of 15 members: eight appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council speaker, and one by each of the borough presidents. The initial appointees will have either two- or four-year terms to stagger subsequent appointments; later members will serve four-year terms, with the exception of the chair, who would serve at the mayor’s discretion. The commission was created out of a proposal from a Charter Revision Commission empaneled last year by Mayor Bill de Blasio that put three questions on the November ballot, all of which were approved.

New Yorkers have until February 22 to apply through a fairly simple online form that asks several questions about the applicant’s interest in the commission and relevant experience, with a function for uploading a resume. Potential applicants are reminded that the purpose of the commission is “to enhance civic participation in order to enhance civic trust and strengthen democracy in New York City,” and that the commission will do its own work while also partnering with public and private entities to help foster civic engagement across the city.

Applicants are told to “please take note that an application submitted on this site may not be the only method by which candidates for appointment are identified by the appointing authorities, including the Mayor, and does not create a right to any further process or to appointment to the Commission or to any other City position.”

City Council Member Brad Lander, who had introduced legislation to create a similar entity, an office of civic engagement, and championed the Civic Engagement Commission put forward by the mayor's charter revision commission, sent out an e-mail blast to his constituents on Thursday celebrating the launch of the commission and application process, and encouraging people to apply.

"I’m pleased to report that it’s getting started in the right way, with openness and participation," Lander wrote, noting that "unlike any other citywide board or commission" the Civic Engagement Commission has an open application process. "The Civic Engagement Commission has the potential to breathe new life into our local democracy," Lander wrote. "If you know someone with great experience and relationships, who’d make a difference as a commissioner, please encourage them to apply. We are, of course, looking for a Commission that is as diverse as New York."

While many of the commission’s endeavors will be determined by its members, some are prescribed, chief among them a new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding a program that currently exists in 34 of 51 City Council districts at the discretion of local Council members.

Participatory budgeting, first used in New York City in 2011 when four Council members used some of their discretionary funds for the program, allows residents to propose and vote for specific projects in their district to be financed via capital funds allocated to Council members. At least $1 million per district is budgeted via direct democracy, and residents have funded projects ranging from fixing school bathrooms to mobile showers for use by homeless people, among many other projects.

The commission would be required to develop the program by the start of Fiscal Year 2021 on July 1, 2020, when the mayor would implement it.

The commission’s other initially-delegated tasks include improving language access for New Yorkers at poll sites and in other city programs, assisting and training newly term-limited community boards, and partnering with community organizations in their own efforts at enhanced civic engagement. The commission will also develop new civic engagement initiatives in the years to come.

There are few restrictions on who can apply or be appointed to the commission. An applicant must be a resident of the city and a U.S. citizen, and cannot be an “officer of a political party” or a candidate for various elected offices, from mayor to borough president to City Council. The commission seeks candidates “who are representative of, or have experience working with” immigrants and those with limited English proficiency.

With the exception of the city’s non-citizen population, the commission is essentially open to anyone. The report by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission last year said that, besides the immigrant and non-English-proficient communities, the panel would seek applicants representative of “people with disabilities, students, youth, seniors, veterans, community groups, good government groups, civil rights advocates, and categories of residents that are historically underrepresented in or underserved by City government.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications Thu, 07 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
2021 Comptroller Race Now Features Two City Council Members http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8228-2021-comptroller-race-now-features-two-city-council-members http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8228-2021-comptroller-race-now-features-two-city-council-members lander rosenthal

(photos: Emil Cohen & John McCarten/City Council)


New York City Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, has declared his intention to run for city Comptroller in the 2021 election, joining Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat, as the only declared candidates in the race.

The 2021 municipal election will lead to a sea change in city government, with all three citywide positions on the ballot along with the five borough president posts and all 51 City Council seats, about three dozen of which will be “open” due to term limits. Among the citywide posts, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer will be closing out their second terms and unable to run for another term.

Lander and Rosenthal are among the Council members who are serving their final terms, many of whom will be seeking higher office through the 2021 elections. Several Council members facing term limits are currently running in the special election for Public Advocate, which will be held February 26 of this year. The winner of that race will have to run for the office again this fall and, if victorious, will serve the remainder of now-Attorney General Letitia James’ term. That candidate could potentially serve two full terms in that office from 2022 till the end of 2029.

Befitting a race for comptroller -- the city’s chief fiscal officer tasked with auditing city agencies and monitoring city finances, among other responsibilities -- both Lander and Rosenthal are among the wonkier members of city government, with clear devotion to crafting policy, examining budgets, and evaluating contracts. They also both represent especially politically-engaged areas of the city that are often home to high voter turnout -- for Lander, it’s parts of brownstone Brooklyn; for Rosenthal, the Upper West Side.

Lander currently serves as the Council’s deputy leader for policy. He has master’s degrees in social anthropology and city planning, and was elected as one of a younger crop of progressive candidates in 2009 after leading a neighborhood group focused on affordable housing and social services. He was co-chair of the Council’s progressive caucus, which he helped create, and previously chaired the Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges in the last Council session, 2014-2017.

His district, previously represented by Mayor Bill de Blasio, covers Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, and Kensington.

“I love serving this city, I love it,” Lander said outside City Hall on Thursday, when asked about the fact that he had recently filed with the city’s Campaign Finance Board to run for comptroller and his pursuit of the position. “I get up everyday thinking I get to work with my neighbors, with other New Yorkers to try to solve problems that make the city better and I love doing that and I would be really honored to keep serving the city.”

While he was reluctant to talk much about the next election, citing the nearly three years until the votes will be cast, Lander did say he believes his experience in the Council qualifies him for the position. “I think I have built a good track record here in the Council of working together with New Yorkers who are facing problems, helping come up with solutions and getting them implemented,” he said, citing his work on legislation ranging from freelancer protections, workplace scheduling for fast food workers to wages for for-hire vehicle drivers and anti-tenant harassment measures, among others. “Those are all examples of working with different kinds of New Yorkers facing different kinds of problems, many of them caused as a result of the ways our economy is shifting and changing, and coming up with policy solutions that we can implement here in New York that make people’s lives better.”

Rosenthal, who chaired her Upper West Side community board and worked in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget for seven years between 1988 and 1995 before running for the City Council in 2013, filed her paperwork for comptroller last year. This term she chairs the Council’s Committee on Women, having previously headed up the contracts committee through which she conducted several probing oversight hearings, particularly with regard to contracting at the mammoth Department of Education and problems with how the city contracts with human services nonprofits.

“I’m really excited to be running for comptroller,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “I think that the city’s $90 billion budget needs to be kept a close eye on, and I think it’s critical that the money goes to the people who need and deserve it. And it’s been my experience on the City Council that that doesn’t always happen.”

Rosenthal cited her work leading the Council’s contracts committee, particularly the role she played in breaking up an over-inflated contract awarded by the Department of Education in 2015 -- after she raised the issue, it was reduced from $1.1 billion to $472 million. “When I raised a red flag, people listened...Can you imagine having a comptroller who’s qualified to do these types of audits going after our $90 billion budget and making sure it’s fiscally responsible?”

She also said the next comptroller must be independent of the mayoral administration, a quality she said she showed in the school desegregation battle in her district when she stood with elected parent representatives pushing a rezoning plan to desegregate schools.

Rosenthal did not address Lander’s candidacy, though she said she expected several people to run for the seat.

Asked about his potential opponents and the issues he may run on, Lander was reluctant to respond, saying he was focused on a slew of bills he wants passed. “It’s a long time from 2021 and there’ll be time to talk about that race in a way that’s more like it’s a present election which it’s not yet,” he said. “So I’m not gonna start talking about other people running or my policy platform…There will be a time to talk about policy issues in the 2021 race but it is not in January in 2019.”

Lander has just under $137,000 in his campaign account, and has opted in to the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program that was recently approved by the City Council and will provide an 8-to-1 match for the first $250 of every contribution. Rosenthal has nearly $20,000 in campaign funds and is already abiding by the new rules of the public matching funds program. She said she has returned donations that are above the new limits.

Other potential candidates rumored to be mulling a run for comptroller include State Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez of Manhattan. Both are Democrats. No matter who runs, the 2021 race is unlikely to match the spectacle of the 2013 Democratic primary between the eventual winner, Stringer, who was Manhattan Borough President at the time, and former Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was attempting a political comeback after having resigned from office over a prostitution scandal. Stringer won 52-48 percent. Now in his second term, Stringer is all-but-certain to run for mayor in the coming election.

The comptroller’s office, with more than 800 employees, is a big step up from the City Council or state Legislature, where members have roughly ten staffers working under them. As the city’s top fiscal officer, the comptroller’s duties include auditing the work of city agencies, overseeing management of the city’s $160 billion-plus pension system, analyzing city spending and revenues, and reviewing and approving city contracts.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - This article stated earlier that Council Member Rosenthal had begun returning donations above the new CFB limits. It has been updated to clarify that she has already returned all such donations. 

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2021 Comptroller Race Now Features Two City Council Members Thu, 24 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
No, Mayor de Blasio, We Can’t Rely on Amazon ‘To Put Moral Considerations Ahead of Profit’ http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8185-no-mayor-de-blasio-we-can-t-rely-on-amazon-to-put-moral-considerations-ahead-of-profit http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8185-no-mayor-de-blasio-we-can-t-rely-on-amazon-to-put-moral-considerations-ahead-of-profit mbdbgovanmcuomo lic

Mayor de Blasio at the Amazon announcement (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


“I’m concerned about [New York] City being a sanctuary city, and your stated concern for New York City’s immigrants, and the contradiction of inviting one of ICE’s largest tech providers into our city.” That’s how Amy from Queens asked Mayor de Blasio about Amazon’s relationship with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show last Friday.  

Mayor de Blasio told Amy, “If it turns out that Amazon has a contractual relationship with ICE, I’m certainly going to call on them to end that.” But he claimed that he did not have enough information to know for sure.

If the Mayor had watched the New York City Council hearing with Amazon executives (and his own economic development appointee) in December -- where we both asked about this relationship -- he would have little doubt that Amazon sells technology services to ICE, and is a willing for-profit partner in Trump’s deportation machine.

Anyone listening objectively to what Amazon’s VP of Public Policy, Brian Huseman, said under oath at the Council hearing would acknowledge that Amazon effectively affirmed it is providing facial recognition technology and possibly other cloud computing services to ICE.

As was reported in the Daily Beast in October, documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight show that Amazon pitched its controversial facial recognition technology to ICE last summer. In addition, a group of Amazon employees, troubled by the relationship, called on the company to sever its ties to ICE.

Nonetheless, when Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked what relationship Amazon had with ICE at the City Council hearing, Amazon’s Huseman responded, “We think the federal government should have access to the best technology.”

Later in the hearing, we questioned Huseman again directly on this point, making clear that we interpreted Huseman’s answer to be an affirmation that Amazon provides facial recognition software to ICE -- and giving him the opportunity to correct the record. Huseman did not correct the record or deny the relationship. In response to further questioning from BuzzFeed News, Amazon again did not say that it does not work with ICE.

This was more than a “non-denial.” This was a non-denial that anyone listening objectively should take as a confirmation.

Amazon has expressed that it wants to be a “good neighbor” in Queens, one of the most heavily immigrant places in the country. But a good neighbor does not help to facilitate the deportations of family members and neighbors by a xenophobic president for corporate profit.

We also asked Huseman about an ACLU analysis showing that Amazon’s technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress to mugshots in a database. Even worse: the errors disproportionately mismatched people of color. Huseman did not express the slightest concern or remorse, or any intention to make certain their technology does not discriminate. Instead, Husemen placidly said, “We have not been able to replicate the ACLU’s analysis.”

If Mayor de Blasio had listened to the Amazon VP wave so nonchalantly at a study that reveals that the company’s technology might be used by ICE to round up people, some mistakenly, for deportation, perhaps he might have said something stronger than this to Amy last Friday:  

“I think that Amazon should, to the maximum extent possible, explain to people what is going on with this. Tech companies should start questioning themselves what types of government activity they want to participate in. They have to put moral considerations ahead of profit.”

There is absolutely no reason to believe that Amazon has any intention to put moral considerations ahead of profit. Or to voluntarily explain to people what is going on.

But Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo don’t need to rely on their goodwill. If Amazon wants to build a major new campus in Queens, the company should immediately disclose its full relationship with ICE -- and then end it immediately.

If the mayor and the governor are truly committed to New York City being a sanctuary city, they should not proceed in negotiations with Amazon until it does.

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Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca are members of the New York City Council. Lander is the Council’s Deputy Leader for Policy; Menchaca chairs the Council’s Immigration Committee. On Twitter @bradlander & @cmenchaca.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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No, Mayor de Blasio, We Can’t Rely on Amazon ‘To Put Moral Considerations Ahead of Profit’ Tue, 08 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day schools chancellor reg

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Voters approved three ballot proposals on Election Day to amend the New York City charter, the city’s foundational governing document -- the local constitution. The proposals related to the city’s campaign finance system, civic engagement, and community boards. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empaneled a charter revision commission last year that put the proposals on the ballot, argued that the proposals would strengthen democracy in the city.

“The question in front of voters was simple: Are we going to be a city that works for everyone,” de Blasio tweeted after the measures passed. “New Yorkers answered with a resounding ‘YES, YES, YES!’”

Now that all three proposals are to be added to the charter, they will have to be implemented within the next few years. At the same time, another charter revision commission created through City Council legislation is also holding public hearings and is expected issue its own recommendations for the 2019 general election ballot.

Each of the three proposals approved this year included language around implementation, though some aspects will be left to certain individual and group decision-makers.

Proposal 1 - campaign finance reform
Proposal 1, which lowers campaign contribution limits in city elections and enhances the city’s public-matching campaign finance program, passed with 80.3 percent approval.

New York City’s voluntary public matching funds program, often seen as a model for the country, currently matches the first $175 of each campaign contribution at a ratio of 6-to-1. Proposal 1 raises the public match to 8-to-1 for the first $250 of a donation, thus increasing the impact of smaller donations, and will lower individual contribution limits to citywide candidates from $5,100 to $2,000, with lower offices like borough presidents and City Council members also seeing public match increases and lower contribution limits.

The goal is to empower small-dollar donors, giving their contributions a greater impact and disincentivizing candidates from depending on larger, wealthier donors and PACs. In theory, it allows first-time candidates not backed by deep-pocketed donors to run more competitive races.

The percentage of a candidate’s overall spending limit that can be received in public funds will be increased from 55 percent to 75 percent, and candidates will be allowed to receive public funds earlier in their races -- a change that could help insurgent candidates or candidates without deep-pocketed allies, but also could help incumbents rack up higher totals earlier.

Under the text of the amendment, the new campaign finance regulations will take effect on January 12, 2019. But, candidates who choose to participate in the public funds program and run for office in the 2021 primary elections can choose to opt out of the new rules, thus sticking with the current limits and system. Candidates must declare their intentions by July 15, 2019.

For non-participating candidates, meaning those who opt not to participate in the matching program, the limits and thresholds remain the same as they were before January 12.

All candidates participating in the public matching program will be brought under the new regulations starting in 2022.

The language of the amendment also includes a clawback provision should any of the changes to contribution limits and matching fund ratios be struck down in court. In such an instance, all the changes would be nullified except for the expansion of the public matching funds cap from 55 percent to 75 percent.

In all, the charter commission estimated that the new system would increase the amount of public funds disbursed to candidates by roughly 47 percent relative to the very busy 2013 city election cycle, which will in many ways be mirrored for 2021. In the 2013 cycle, the Campaign Finance Board doled out $38 million in public funds. Under the new rules, disbursements would have been an additional $18 million, for a total of $56 million, according to the charter commission’s staff research.

In last year’s elections, when there were fewer competitive races, the CFB gave out about $18 million in public funds, which would have seen an additional $8.5 million in public funds under the amended charter.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who unsuccessfully attempted to increase the public funds cap to 85 percent through legislation, was glad to see voters pass the improvements to the system. In a phone interview, he implied that concerns about the cost of the new system were overblown, and said that enhancing the system is key to eliminating real and perceived conflicts of interest.

“It’s far less than the city lost on Rivington, and whether it was a case of actual corruption or just appeared improper, it had significant cost to our city,” Kallos said, referring to the scandal around the city’s sale of Rivington House and related allegations of pay-to-play involving the mayor. “Just the defense of our city cost about $6 million,” he added in reference to the mayor’s legal bills accrued during law enforcement investigations of his fundraising that saw no charges filed. “So whether it is to save $100 million around Rivington or the $6 million in legal fees, it pays for itself.”

He continued, “When the next mayor’s going to have a budget in excess of $90 billion, [$18 million] to make sure that that elected official would only be accountable to the voters without the influence of big money is worth every penny.”

Gotham Gazette: Proposal 2 - civic engagement commission
Proposal 2, which creates a civic engagement commission tasked with implementing a citywide participatory budgeting program and other initiatives, passed with 65.5 percent approval.

The new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding efforts undertaken annually in City Council districts (currently in 31 of the 51 CDs), would have to be implemented by the commission by July 1, 2020. Participatory budgeting allows residents to vote on projects to spend a certain amount of funds in their Council districts.

The commission will also be tasked with improving translation services at voting sites and providing resources to community boards, as well as more generalized partnerships with community organizations to increase civic engagement.

The commission would remain a fixture after implementing its designated programs, and would be required to report annually on its programs, many of which can be by its own design.

The commission will consist of 15 members: 8 appointed by the Mayor, 2 by the City Council Speaker, and 1 by each Borough President. The mayor’s majority of board picks worried some that it would be a power-grab of sorts, given the wide latitude afforded to the commission with its mission of “enhancing civic engagement and strengthening democracy.” But in that respect, it is actually something of an improvement from the proposed Office of Civic Engagement, which would be completely under the mayor, per a bill introduced by City Council Member Brad Lander, who supported proposal 2 and celebrated its passage.

The commission will be empaneled on April 1, 2019.

Proposal 3 - community board reform
Proposal 3, which establishes term limits for community board members and institutes a set of new requirements around the community board application process and more, passed with 72.3 percent approval.

Community board members, who are appointed by Borough Presidents and currently allowed to serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, will now be allowed only to serve four consecutive two-year terms. At that point, members will be term-limited out, but they will be allowed to be reappointed after a two-year interregnum. Current community board members will be allowed to serve an additional four terms no matter how long they have served as of 2019. Thus, no current member will be term-limited off their board until 2027.

To prevent heavy turnover that year and the following year, appointees commencing their term in 2020 will be allowed to serve five terms.

Borough Presidents will also be required to seek out diverse candidates for community board appointments, ensuring that different geographic areas are adequately represented. The proposal mandates that borough president reach out to community organizations active in the district and also allows civic groups and neighborhood organization to submit nominees to the Borough President. Community boards as constituted today are often criticized for being older and whiter than the communities they serve. Younger and more diverse voices on community boards could lead to very different outcomes. Borough presidents will also be required to make applications for community board member positions available on their websites with detailed requests for information about members, including work and community experience, demographic information (which would be optional) and conflicts of interest disclosures, among other things.

While community boards do not have a binding vote on land use and development matters, local City Council members often strongly consider and align with their home community boards. Four of the city's five current Borough Presidents expressed strong opposition to proposals 2 and 3 (Brooklyn's Eric Adams was the lone exception) and worked unsuccessfully to defeat them.

The civic engagement commission approved in proposal 2 will also be required to provide additional resources to community boards, such as “urban planning professionals and language access resources.”

Though it received a higher vote share than proposal 2, proposal 3 was widely seen as the most controversial of the three during the election season. While proponents noted that community boards are often older and whiter than the communities they represent, opponents said the measure would lead to a brain drain to the benefit of real estate developers. The worry was that an influx of new members without land use knowledge would allow developers to run roughshod over community interests. In the end, voters took the side of the proponents.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Brachfeld contributed to this piece.

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Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day Sun, 02 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7912-mayoral-charter-revision-commission-puts-three-questions-on-november-ballot http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7912-mayoral-charter-revision-commission-puts-three-questions-on-november-ballot charter revision commission 2018

The Charter Revision Commission (photo via Charter Commission)


After months of meetings and deliberations, thousands of suggestions and dozens of hours of public hearings, the charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio voted to put three broad questions on the ballot in November. If approved by voters, the proposals would significantly reduce campaign contribution limits in city elections, create a new agency to civically engage the public, and apply term limits and appointment reforms to community boards.

De Blasio created the commission to review the city charter with an eye on reducing the impact of wealthy donors and special interests in electoral campaigns and drawing more New Yorkers to participate in elections and civic life. The 13-member commission largely stuck by that mandate, though it did consider and reject other significant proposals including independent redistricting of City Council districts and instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, which the mayor does not support. (A separate City Council-created charter revision commission is also beginning public hearings this month and could possibly take up the issues left unresolved by the mayoral commission. It will recommend ballot questions in 2019.)

On Tuesday, the members of the mayoral commission met for the final time, at the New York Historical Society west of Central Park, to approve their final report and three “yes” or “no” questions that will be put to voters on the November 6 general election ballot.

“Our job was to try to figure out what could make our city more just, more fair and more democratic and then to put it on the ballot to see if New Yorkers wanted the city to be run in this new fashion,” said Cesar Perales, chair of the commission, on Tuesday. “That’s what we did. I think we did that well and it’s going to be up to the voters in November to determine whether or not these things would be better for our city.”

The first question proposes expansive reforms to the campaign finance law and the city’s public matching funds program, which incentivizes grassroots fundraising by matching the first $175 of every eligible campaign contribution at a 6-to-1 ratio for candidates who choose to participate in the program.

The proposal would reduce contribution limits for participants from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates, from $3,950 to $1,500 for candidates for borough president, and from $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council seats. The proposed limits for those who choose not to opt in to the program are $3,500, $2,500 and $1,500 respectively.

The proposal also increases the matching ratio to 8-to-1 for the first $250 raised by a citywide candidate and for the first $175 raised for all other seats. It would increase the cap on public funds disbursements from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit for a seat, while also doling out the funds earlier in the election cycle.

There was some clear disagreement about how the new campaign finance rules would be applied. A majority of commissioners agreed that candidates should be able to choose to abide by the new rules for the next citywide primary in 2021, and that the rules would be mandatory thereafter.

Two of the commissioners, John Siegal and Wendy Weiser, disagreed with that implementation plan, though both voted to approve the question. “I do not think it is wise public policy to have a situation in which regulated parties get to make the decision as to whether they will or will not follow new regulations,” Siegal said. “I cannot think of another situation in which a regulatory agency has been put in that position. I do not think its necessary. I actually don’t think there’s any benefit to it.” He did, however, hold out hope that candidates would see the benefit of voluntarily participating, since the lower contribution limits would be accompanied by potentially more public funds.

“While I do share the concern about having a choice, I am heartened by the assurances that this is really unlikely to come to pass,” Weiser said, “that everyone is really likely to follow the new system. It is the one that makes much more sense.”

Carlo Scissura, the commission secretary, was the sole dissenting voice on the campaign finance question. He conceded that the commission published an “overall great report” but has in past hearings expressed doubts about increasing the taxpayer contribution by creating a larger public matching funds program. “I wish that on the campaign finance, that we took a little different approach but it does reflect the will of what we heard and the will of the majority of the commission,” he said.

The second question, which was unanimously approved, would create a new 15-member Civic Engagement Commission, with eight appointed by the mayor -- including the chair and executive director -- two by the City Council speaker and one each by the five borough presidents. The mayor would have to appoint at least one member from each of the city’s largest and second-largest political parties, which, likely in perpetuity, means Democrats and Republicans.

Among the roles the commission would play are administering a citywide participatory budgeting program starting in 2020 (it’s currently employed by City Council members in dozens of districts); providing interpreters at poll sites; working on civic engagement with advocacy groups and nonprofit service providers, with a particular eye on outreach to limited English-language speakers; and providing annual reports on progress on those fronts. The proposal also allows the mayor to delegate more powers and responsibilities to the commission.

The notion of an Office of Civic Engagement has recently been pushed forward by City Council Member Brad Lander, who has introduced legislation to create one. If approved, the charter revision creation of such a commission would appear to negate Lander’s legislation. The Brooklyn Council member testified to the commission about the idea of creating a civic engagement body and has held his legislation as the charter commission proceeded with its work.

The most controversial proposals the commission is putting on the November ballot deal with community boards, the most local form of city government. The third question would establish staggered term limits for community board members, to reduce mass simultaneous turnover. Those members appointed or reappointed on or after April 1, 2019, would be allowed to serve four consecutive two-year terms; those appointed on April 1, 2020 may serve five terms; and those appointed after that would again only serve four terms.

The commission also recommended changes to the appointment process, to make it consistent across the five boroughs and to promote diverse membership. The civic engagement commission, if passed, would also be tasked with providing technical assistance to community boards, particularly urban planning expertise and language access. Eleven commissioners voted in favor of the question, while Commissioner Angela Fernandez abstained from the vote.

The commission’s final report was also approved unanimously, and the questions will be delivered to the City Clerk to place on the ballot, giving the commission two months to educate and inform New Yorkers that they’ll be able to choose more than just candidates in November, when New Yorkers will be voting largely on state-level elected positions, including for Governor and members of the state Legislature.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot Tue, 04 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Working Families Party Puts It All On The Line http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7840-working-families-party-puts-it-all-on-the-line http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7840-working-families-party-puts-it-all-on-the-line Cynthia Nixon, Jummane Williams, and Alessandra Biaggi

Cynthia Nixon (left), Alessandra Biaggi (top right), Bill Lipton & Jumaane Williams (bottom)


The Working Families Party celebrated its 20th anniversary last month at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, with its rank-and-file cheering on a line up of politicians that have served as standard bearers, past and present. But it’s the future of the party that is especially uncertain as the upstart liberal organization lays it all on the line in backing insurgent candidates in state elections this year.

In doing so, especially in its decision to take on Governor Andrew Cuomo by backing Cynthia Nixon, some the party’s longtime allies have turned adversaries, portending a potentially diminished presence in the state’s political landscape if its gamble does not pay off over the next several weeks. At the anniversary celebration, which featured Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others singing the party’s praises for its push to create a more fair and equal New York, there was little sign of uneasiness about its bold choices this election year; an atmosphere of revelry prevailed, possibly the sign of progressive activists happy to be going for it all instead of triangulating with Cuomo and other more centrist Democrats as it had in the past.

There is also a sense among WFP leaders and supporters that the party is already where the Democratic Party is heading, and where it needs to be, with a more progressive vision of left politics reflective of a new post-Clinton, post-Cuomo Democratic era.

Created by community advocates and labor unions with a vision of pulling Democrats to the progressive left, the WFP has played a prominent role in championing the bread-and-butter issues that most affect working, low- and middle-income Americans. Through activism and advocacy around policy and funding, the party battles inequity, whether it be in housing, employment, wages, criminal justice, education, environment, or electoral access. In local and state elections, Democrats eager to brandish their progressive bonafides have coveted and sought the WFP’s endorsement, and the party’s vocal leaders and active network of members and volunteers.

But after years of being let down by elected officials they propped up, the WFP’s leadership made a drastic decision this year to endorse underdogs in key Democratic primaries. They backed Nixon’s challenge to Cuomo, a two-term incumbent seeking reelection, and New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams in his attempt to unseat Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul; and they are fiercely rallying behind progressive candidates who are trying to replace Democratic state Senators who until recently made up the Republican-allied Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).

The reaction to the WFP’s moves has been significant, and potentially crippling. Several unions that had filled the party’s coffers for years pulled their support for fear of angering the governor, who made explicit threats against anyone who would stay, according to a WFP leader. But advocacy groups and a progressive activist base rallied, resolute to take on Cuomo, whom they no longer trusted after a 2014 deal went bad, and the former IDC members, who had betrayed their Democratic party-mates.

While acknowledging its newfound vulnerability, WFP leaders and supporters also had a sense that they were on the right side of history, pursuing their true vision of where the Democratic Party should be (with the necessary help of the WFP), representative of the national trendlines -- the WFP did back Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary -- a feeling only bolstered in recent weeks by events like the shocking congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom the WFP had not endorsed over Rep. Joe Crowley, but quickly sought to align with thereafter.

“I think the unions are dismayed by the way the Working Families Party has chosen to operate this cycle,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in a phone interview. RWDSU was among those unions that left the party this year and Appelbaum is one of several labor leaders who say that Cuomo deserves to be reelected.

“They’re diverting energy and resources from the effort to send more Democratic congresspeople from New York to Washington, [and] our prime responsibility is to work to take back the House of Representatives…Our concern is that the WFP no longer is representing, in its current rendition, the interests of working men and women, despite their name, and that is why unions felt it was necessary to disassociate themselves.”

WFP leaders and allied elected officials say the party made a calculated wager, riding a groundswell of progressive sentiment that has moved the state’s political center, and that no matter how the chips fall on September 13, primary day, the party has already won.

“This is the party they founded 20 years ago...to pull the Democratic Party to the left and with a coalitional approach to building power,” Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander told Gotham Gazette at the WFP’s anniversary gala. Lander spoke of the “radical but also practical vision” of Jon Kest, the progressive organizer who founded the WFP as well as the advocacy groups New York Communities for Change and its predecessor, the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

“The WFP’s always contained this dynamic tension,” Lander said, between “the strength of voice of grassroots activists” and “established but still progressive” institutions such as labor unions. “At this moment, given shifts in the broader zeitgeist...and of course because of the way the governor has approached this, the party is in a more activist movement space,” he said. Like the WFP, Lander is backing Williams for lieutenant governor and several of the challengers to the former IDC members.

Surely, if the WFP notches wins in the many primaries it is involved in -- the WFP offers a general election ballot line, but does much of its work backing its preferred candidates in their Democratic primaries -- it will strengthen the party, and conversely, losses will set them back, Lander said. Though, given the state of New York’s politics, “There’s no choice,” Lander said.

For nearly eight years, the WFP has cried foul about Democratic recalcitrance as key progressive policies have failed to pass the state Legislature. The WFP continues to advocate for issues that include healthcare for all, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, fair wages, fixing the city’s subways, increasing funding to under-resourced schools, the DREAM Act, campaign finance and voting reform.  

Cuomo and the members of the erstwhile IDC largely claim to support that agenda and have repeatedly blamed the Republican-controlled Senate for thwarting its planks. But Cuomo tolerated, if not supported, the presence of the IDC, and critics hold its members up as a major obstacle to full Democratic control of both legislative chambers. Democrats have a comfortable majority in the 150-seat Assembly but, with the return of the IDC to the mainline Democratic conference, hold 31 seats in the 63-seat Senate.

And though the State Democratic Party, at Cuomo’s behest, is focused on recapturing the Senate, which necessitates flipping seats in the general election, groups like the WFP insist on replacing rogue Democrats with candidates who better embody progressive values and they trust to not flee for a deal with Republicans.

The party is taking a “big risk,” Dorothy Siegel, WFP treasurer, conceded on the sidelines of the gala, where Nixon, Williams, de Blasio, and Ben Jealous, the WFP-backed Democratic nominee for governor in Maryland, took the stage one by one to celebrate the WFP’s history. “Because, the power structure doesn’t like to be challenged...and the WFP is a really small organization,” Siegel said. “The people who control the levers of power win. Individual people never win.”

Siegel lamented her belief that the state’s politics, the governor, and state Legislature are powered by special interests, largely real estate developers and Wall Street executives (she left out the extensive influence of labor unions). “The WFP is not powered by any of those powerful people. We’re only powered by people who pay us $5 a month,” she said. “It’s a true David and Goliath situation. If we lose the governor’s race, we run the risk of very powerful people being very angry. They can do a lot of things to us that would make our lives difficult.”

Siegel pointed to the investigation involving the WFP that stemmed from alleged campaign finance violations in the election of City Council Member Debi Rose on Staten Island in 2009. Two campaign workers were accused, and later cleared, of charges that they worked with the WFP’s consulting firm, Data and Field Services, to circumvent campaign finance law. The years-long episode cost time and money that the WFP could ill-afford. “Lots of people got laid off. We almost went out of business,” Siegel said. “They could do that again. Do not underestimate the power of super-wealthy people to trample people who want to take away their power.”

Is it worth the risk? “Absolutely. 100 percent,” she said.

One of the most consequential possible effects of the WFP backing Nixon over Cuomo -- who they endorsed in 2014 after he promised to bring the IDC to an end and enact many of the same policies he’s promising again this year, which he did not follow through on -- is that it could cost the party automatic ballot access. A “third party” like the WFP needs at least 50,000 votes for its candidate for governor to maintain its ballot line into the future, which Nixon could easily attain in the general election. But Nixon losing the Democratic primary would put the WFP in a tough spot. Its leaders claim they won’t play spoiler and risk electing a Republican by drawing general election votes away from Cuomo. The party could feasibly get behind Cuomo while removing Nixon from the gubernatorial ballot line. A back-up plan is in place to move her to an Assembly race, in which she would not run, they say.

[Read: The Cynthia Nixon-Working Families Party Back-up Plan]

“We’re confident that Cynthia’s going to win and that the insurgents running against the IDC are all going to win,” said Bill Lipton, NYWFP political director, in a phone interview. “There’s a progressive wave coming. In the unlikely event that she loses, Cynthia’s agreed to meet with the leaders of the WFP and we’ll have an important decision to make. We’re very confident about any of the possible scenarios.”

A Nixon win would shock the political world, and catapult the WFP to never-before-seen power for a minor party. While initial polls show Nixon losing badly, her campaign argues that polling has been skewed and that polls are unable to capture the insurgent energy among Democrats and behind her candidacy. On the other hand, polling shows Williams to have a very real shot at unseating Hochul, which would also strengthen the WFP and cause major headaches for Cuomo (candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary, but as a ticket for the general election).

If Lipton had concerns about the WFP’s undertaking in this election cycle, he betrayed none of them. “We’re not taking a risk. We’re fulfilling our mission. The risk would be for us if we stray from our mission,” he said, critiquing the Democratic establishment for relying on the same wealthy donors as their Republican opponents. “The mission of the WFP is to break up that cozy relationship between these parties and these oligarchs and demand that there be a party that is truly fighting for working people,” he added. “And Cuomo and the IDC fundamentally made the problem worse by not just taking money from the same wealthy donors that fund the Republican attacks on working people but actually openly supporting and aligning themselves with the Republicans. The danger for us would’ve been not standing up to these Trump Democrats. That would’ve been the greater danger.”

The WFP hasn’t been a pure supporter of every progressive candidate, as evidenced by its choice of Cuomo over Zephyr Teachout in 2014, among others. Though the party derived momentum after the recent primary victory by Ocasio-Cortez, the young democratic socialist who defeated ten-term incumbent Rep. Crowley in Queens, its backing of Crowley left many questioning the WFP afterward. Lipton said the party was now fully behind her and that their earlier decisions owed to the fact that Crowley was moving to his left and the party had already committed to challenging former IDC state senators. “In retrospect, we clearly made a mistake. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has inspired us and working people around New York and the nation,” Lipton said.  

The party also hasn’t made an endorsement in the state Senate District 18 race where Julia Salazar, also a democratic socialist, is posing a primary challenge to Democratic Senator Martin Dilan, an eight-term incumbent. Although, Lipton did not close the door on the prospect of an endorsement. “As of now, the WFP has made no endorsement in the race,” he simply said. The party is backing Andrew Gounardes in a competitive Brooklyn Democratic primary with Ross Barkan, the winner of which will try to unseat one of the few Republican elected officials in the city, Senator Marty Golden.

[Read: Running for State Senate, Julia Salazar Attempts Progressive Primary Upset]

Karen Scharff, co-chair of the NYWFP and, until recently, longtime executive director of Citizen Action of New York, an activist group and member of the WFP, insists the party will come through September 13 with several victories, similarly citing Ocasio-Cortez, among other progressives, who prevailed in the congressional primaries.

“The headline that came out of June 26 was not ‘Democratic establishment wins big.’ It was quite the opposite,’” Scharff said in a phone interview. “I think really that Cuomo and the IDC and the establishment Democrats took a major risk themselves by ignoring the growth of the progressive movement as it really built up steam over the past seven years going back to Occupy Wall Street and then Bill de Blasio’s election in New York City, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Bernie Sanders momentum, and they’re showing that they realize it.”

She noted that Cuomo has moved to his left in the last few months on several fronts, owing to the shifting dynamics of the Democratic base. “I think that the risk we’ve taken in our endorsements this year have already paid off in moving the dominant issues in our state in a direction that is gonna meet the needs of working families instead of the needs of hedge fund donors and real estate donors,” she said, insisting that the governor and state Legislature, no matter who wins, can ill-afford to ignore the WFP’s agenda next year. “I think this is the direction the electorate is moving in and the Democratic Party’s going to have to either move with it or risk being left behind,” she said.

“I don’t think WFP is out on a limb by itself here,” Scharff continued. “This is really part of the establishment versus the entire progressive and resistance movement….We’re definitely acting as part of a broader movement with a lot of allies.”

Public Advocate Letitia James, who first got elected to the City Council on the WFP line in 2003, also attended the 20th anniversary gala, though her presence was more muted. Despite being a longtime WFP poster star, she did not speak to the gathering, choosing to mingle on the sides. James is running for attorney general with the governor’s support and eschewed the WFP’s endorsement, which the party has reserved for either James or one of her primary opponents, Zephyr Teachout, hoping that one of the two prevails September 13. Asked about the party’s risky endeavors this year, which include the challenge against Cuomo, James demurred. “I was with WFP when they had fundraisers at churches and if you didn’t get there early enough, all the cheese and crackers were gone. They’ve come a long way,” she said.

“They took a chance on me several years ago,” she said, “and they are voting their values. I just wanted to come because they are my friends and because when I needed a party to run on, the Working Families Party was there and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

Theodore Hamm, associate professor and chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College and longtime Brooklyn politics watcher, struck an optimistic note about the state Senate candidates that the WFP has endorsed, though he said that Nixon and Williams are unlikely to win. “The question, I guess, is if those people win but Cuomo holds on, then how will the new state Senate take shape with the some of the IDC figures no longer there and the challengers now taking those seats,” he wondered. “But that would certainly give the WFP influence, to a much greater degree than they’ve had thus far in the state Senate. That really should be where they put their energy.”

Even Hamm admitted, though, that after Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking upset, “There’s no certainties anymore of what will happen in the future. In the wake of her victory, even though they didn’t support her, it made it seem like their gamble was worth at least pursuing.”

At the WFP gala, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke early and eagerly. His association with the party goes back to his years as a City Council member from Park Slope. “People try and bet against the Working Families Party all the time, the status quo loves to discount them,” the mayor said to whoops and applause. “But guess what? The Working Families Party is here to stay.”

[Read: New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Working Families Party Puts It All On The Line Thu, 02 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Civic Engagement and Redistricting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7757-mayoral-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-civic-engagement-and-redistricting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7757-mayoral-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-civic-engagement-and-redistricting lander and hidalgo at crc

Council Member Lander and Noel Hidalgo testify


The charter revision commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio held its fourth and final issue-focused forum on Thursday afternoon at NYU, hearing testimony from experts on the city’s civic engagement efforts and hearing proposals for independent redistricting of City Council districts.

The central question before the commission on civic engagement was whether the city should create a new independent, nonpartisan Office of Civic Engagement. The proposal is the brainchild of New York City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, who was among those who testified Thursday. If the commission decides to take up that and other proposals heard at previous hearings, they would be presented to voters as ballot referenda in November. The three previous issue-focused expert hearings were on voting and elections; campaign finance reform; and community boards and land use.

Panellists who spoke before the commission on Thursday sought to define civic engagement, its limits and challenges, and the mechanisms by which it is currently carried out by city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community-based advocates, and comprehensive approaches to combining all those disparate elements.

Naomi Zauderer, chair of the NYC Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, informed the commission about VAAC’s continuing voter engagement and registration efforts, acknowledging a fact that the commissioners were familiar with: the city’s abysmally low voter turnout in recent elections. “[T]he real challenge in New York City is getting people to turn out to the polls,” she said, noting that a lack of information about elections and candidates serves to discourage voters.

Paula Gavin, chief service officer of NYC Service, the city agency charged with encouraging volunteering efforts, said a big challenge is New York City’s low volunteering rate -- only 14 percent, compared with the national average of 25 percent. She said increasing the city’s volunteering and civic participation rate through a “continuum” of agencies and elected officials working together with community-based organizations would also lead to an uptick in turnout. “It is shown that those who volunteer more, vote more. Those who vote more, volunteer more. So the tide will rise,” she said.

But Zauderer and Amy Loprest, executive director of the Campaign Finance Board, where VAAC operates, said voter engagement should continue to be housed under the CFB, which already has a well-established voter information and outreach operation that continues to be improved. They agreed that an Office of Civic Engagement is a laudable idea, but one that should coordinate with the VAAC’s existing efforts rather than subsume its role.

“I think we would support the idea that...any organization that’s called an Office of Civic Engagement be a nonpartisan and independent agency, because I think that insulates it from any kind of political pressures or the desire to follow any particular person’s priorities,” Loprest said.

She added, “There’s many, many aspects of civic engagement...and if we worked on the voter engagement and outreach work that we’re doing, we would work very closely with that office of service to collaborate.”Similarly, Gavin said it would be “unrealistic” to place all those agencies and initiatives at a lone, new agency but supported the idea of a coordinated umbrella of efforts. “I do feel strongly that a framework that brings together the various aspects of civic engagement would be very important,” she said. Citing her agency’s work across the city with other departments, in schools and communities, she said “I don’t know that it has to be everything working within the one framework. I think it’s more of a coordinating effort that would be valuable.”

Beyond the framework, panellists also pointed out blind spots in current civic engagement efforts that they said should be avoided under a newly empanelled agency. Underserved populations -- such as the disabled, low- and moderate-income communities of color, immigrants -- tend to be ignored by civic institutions, they said. Others stressed the need to inculcate a sense of civic duty in New Yorkers, particularly by starting at an early age in the city’s schools.

DeNora Getachew, New York executive director of Generation Citizen, a civics education provider, urged an emphasis on “action civics,” ensuring that young people can actually use the civic knowledge they’re given to enact change in their communities. “We know that too much emphasis is placed on voting as a way to be civically engaged and, rather, there is a spectrum of civic engagement opportunities that we need to be presenting to young people and also to adults,” she said. Getachew urged the commission to consider the OCE proposal, among other things, including allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections and providing more government jobs to young people in city employment programs.

“It’s a two-way street,” said Elizabeth OuYang, a civil rights attorney and member of OCA-NY Asian Pacific American Advocates, insisting that immigrant communities are eager to contribute to the city’s civic life but must see their efforts reciprocated by city government. “If you’re to encourage volunteerism in the immigrant community, it has to be a comprehensive strategy that also includes their involvement in democratic policy decision-making.” The city’s outreach, she said, should occur through existing networks of religious institutions and neighborhood groups that immigrants trust.

Ifeoma Ike, founding partner of Think Rubix, a civic-action oriented think tank, echoed a similar point of caution, stressing the need for equitable, culturally relevant and ongoing outreach to communities of color, and not a “transactional” approach centered around an election that arrives every four years. “We must not dismiss these communities as apathetic,” she said.

Another significant issue that has long been ignored, said Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, is the city’s lack of disability access, which affects everything from voting and civic participation to employment and housing affordability.

“We find retrofitting efforts with accessibility concerns after the fact is a poor way of accomplishing inclusion,” she said of the city’s civic engagement efforts, emphasizing the need for disability literacy training and early phase consultation with disability advocates.

“[P]eople with disabilities feel that they’re being made invisible, We want to go out and vote in a public space like our neighbors because we want to be seen,” she later said, noting that the disabled community faces particular obstacles in accessing polling sites. “It’s terrible to tell people they have a duty to do something that you then prevent them from doing,” she said.

Noel HIdalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology organization, said the OCE could be a “digital steward” for new government services initiatives that he said should be designed in consultation with the people they are serving. He pushed for digital literacy programs, improving the city’s technology infrastructure starting at the community board level, something BetaNYC has been doing with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and for an enhanced participatory budgeting system that employs technology that is broadly accessible.

Council Member Lander similarly pushed for a citywide participatory budgeting program that could be run by the OCE. “We’re really facing a crisis in our democracy in New York City,” he said of the city’s low turnout. “But it’s...part of this broader issue of decline in civic trust in all our institutions, in government especially but across the board. People just don’t think of reaching out to government as a way of getting issues resolved, even where those issues are government issues.”

Though most commissioners asked about how the OCE would work, only one commissioner, John Siegal, questioned why it was necessary. “I’m worried that if we do this...that it will atrophy,” he said, speculating that it would be left to the whims of each subsequent mayor. Siegal also struck a skeptical tone as he noted that none of the panellists had spoken to the role of the private sector in improving civic engagement.

Though civic engagement dominated most of the forum, the other focus issue, and one with a looming challenge, concluded its agenda: independent redistricting. The City Council’s 51 districts are redrawn every ten years after the federal census, which is due to take place in 2020. Currently, law stipulates that the mayor appoints seven members to a city districting commission and the City Council appoints eight members. The charter commission may propose changes to the system.

John Flateau, a professor at Medgar Evers College and a New York City Board of Elections commissioner, made a slew of suggestions at Thursday’s forum. He said the city could create as many as 70 Council districts of smaller sizes and stressed the need for proportional representation for the five boroughs based on populations.

Flateau and other panellists cited California redistricting model as one the city could follow, which prohibits incumbent elected officials from sitting on a redistricting commission and invites applications that are independently screened.

“Think of redistricting...that could be one of those triggers, one of those mass civic engagement exercises, figuring out how to set up this process going forward so that individuals, communities, neighborhoods feel ownership for wanting to participate in this process and learn more about their government,” he said.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, testified on a video call to the commission. Among other ideas, she said there could be a robust list of conflicts of interest to limit who could serve on a redistricting commission, that districting commission members should be diverse and could be picked based on a set of qualifications, with the goal of ensuring the maximum public confidence in how maps are drawn. An application process like California’s, she said, would ensure that a commission attracts participants who are willing to commit their time to a laborious process. And she emphasized several transparency measures a commission should follow.

Flateau and the others did warn that any efforts at independent and equitable redistricting would be predicated on an accurate count in the 2020 census, which is threatened by the Trump Administration’s decision to include a citizenship question that could depress the count in immigrant communities. He also said that previous commissions fell under the preclearance mechanism of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act -- where the federal government would first approve any changes to local voting districts -- which was struck down by the Supreme Court in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In its absence, Flateau said the city could possibly set up its own preclearance system for municipal districts under the corporation counsel’s office.

James Hong, the former co-director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, agreed that applicants should be screened and ideally, the commission would be made of “academics, demographers, people who are really into data and connected with their community, and community members,” and would prohibit past elected officials from serving.

“Redistricting from start to finish needs to be protected from partisan operatives,” he said.

Over the next month, the charter commission will hold another round of public hearings across the city. The commission’s proposals are due by September 7.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Civic Engagement and Redistricting Thu, 21 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Johnson Makes Series of City Council Changes, But Sidelines Formal Rules Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7726-johnson-makes-series-of-city-council-changes-but-sidelines-formal-rules-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7726-johnson-makes-series-of-city-council-changes-but-sidelines-formal-rules-reforms cojo cm team

Speaker Johnson, middle, and Council members (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


In December, several City Council members jostling to become the powerful next speaker of the 51-member legislative body signed on to a broad platform of reforms to the Council’s rules and procedures, which can have a significant impact on city law-making and funding for communities. Both returning and newly-elected Council members, 33 of them in total, backed the proposals, which would make legislative drafting procedures more transparent, bolster staffing for prominent divisions such as land use, and tweak the Council’s internal culture in significant ways, among other more minor adjustments.

But a deadline set in that platform for convening a public hearing on the proposals came and went as new Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was among the signatories, has chosen instead to implement administrative changes in lieu of more formal reforms through the Council’s Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges. Several Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette largely praised those measures but others expressed concern that important promises have been left unfulfilled.

In a process somewhat similar to four years prior when Council members proposed changes ahead of the election of a new speaker, the document signed by the Council members in December of last year laid out broad areas where the Council could improve its functions, including in bill drafting, the role and operations of the 40-plus issue committees, the body’s oversight and investigations capacity, its budget negotiation process, its land use powers, and the quality of working life for members and their staff.

“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,” states the letter, signed by both Speaker Johnson and Council Member Karen Koslowitz, whom he appointed as chair of the rules committee. “The reforms should then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later than June 2018.”

By this time in 2014, then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had ushered in transformative rules changes that made the body more democratic, diluting some of the traditional powers of the speaker and empowering individual members. The changes were spearheaded along with Council Member Brad Lander, who she appointed to chair the rules committee and was instrumental in drafting the reforms.

Discretionary funding -- also known as “member items” that are usually awarded by Council members to local nonprofits in their districts -- was equalized across Council districts, with additional resources allocated to poorer districts, and could no longer be a tool to punish members who might oppose the speaker, as Mark-Viverito’s predecessors had used it. A new bill drafting unit was created to aid Council members and speed up the legislative process, and other changes were made to how bills are introduced and heard in committees.

Johnson has taken a different tack, making significant administrative changes that cover large parts of the rules reform package and were key pledges he made as he ran for speaker.

The Council voted to significantly increase its own annual budget to $81.3 million, up from $64 million, with the new funds pegged for staffing increases in the land use, legislative, and finance divisions. A dedicated 15-member oversight and investigations unit was created to conduct systemic analyses of city agencies and their functioning. According to a Council spokesperson, the central staff has also internally overseen improvements in bill drafting, no longer allowing indefinite delays on bill introductions and impressing on members to move their bills or release them for others. Members can now also electronically access the status of their bills in real time and there is a timely process for staff to express legal concerns with bill language. Members are provided legal memos on their bills on request, which is apparently rare. All moves meant to address major areas of frustration for some members, though key pieces of proposed changes to bill-drafting have not been implemented.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Council also moved rapidly to change its rules to mandate anti-sexual harassment trainings.

“I am proud to have taken important steps on necessary reforms in my first months as speaker, including the creation of the new Oversight and Investigations Unit that will strengthen our capacity for monitoring city agencies as mandated by the charter,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I will continue to discuss with members what reforms should be made in the future to help better serve the people of New York.”

photobyemilyWhen asked for comment, a spokesperson for Council Member Koslowitz (pictured), chair of the rules committee, initially said the Council member was unfamiliar with the rules reform package that she had signed. When presented with the full list of proposals, the spokesperson declined to comment.

By and large, Council members are appreciative of the steps Johnson has taken. Several members said their bills are moving faster and, without making any comparisons with Mark-Viverito, that Johnson is openly seeking member input on the budget and larger strategy.  

“The rules reform this time around, there were a lot of legitimate questions about whether or not these reforms needed to be put into the Council’s rules or they could just be effected,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a member of the rules committee. “A lot of them had to do with resource allocation. So I don’t know if once Corey’s done with putting his administrative imprint on the body, how much of the rules reforms still need to get done. Maybe that’ll be something to assess once we get through the city budget.”

At the same time, some members declined to comment, taking a wait-and-see approach before they evaluate Johnson’s commitment to rules reform. Others only agreed to speak anonymously, fearing what they say is increased scrutiny of public comments by the speaker’s office.

Those members pointed out, for instance, that though there have been changes to bill drafting, the process still falls largely to the discretion of the speaker’s central staff. Under a long-standing process, Council members who made “first-in-time” legislative services requests -- Council speak for when a member asks for a bill to be drafted -- were given priority even if other members may have similar bill requests. Having a “first-in-time” request meant that members could sit on bills indefinitely, which the rules reforms would have amended with an official time-bound process.

A Council spokesperson said that practice has ended and that members have offered positive feedback for the changes that have been made. Members are no longer allowed to sit on bills, and lose them to other members, the spokesperson said, without providing the details of how the new protocols work.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, said that is perhaps the most significant item in the rules reform package. “There’s no known criteria by which they’re making that decision and that needs to change,” he said in a phone interview. “At the very least, the speaker’s office ought to declare the criteria by which they decide which bills are moved.”

Council members who spoke to Gotham Gazette seemed to be in the dark about whether rules reforms were even being discussed. The overarching platform hasn’t been discussed in hearings though some of the issues have been raised in the Democratic conference meetings, said one member who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.  

“The first-in-time issues have not been changed,” the member said. “They did update the database -- truthfully, this was mostly done last term -- you can find out more quickly whether you’re first-in-time or not, but the process itself is still exactly as it was. And the legal concerns issue,” about getting legal opinions on bills in a timely manner, “is still as it was...And some of the disability and accessibility investments [for Council hearings] still need to be advanced.”

Though the Council allocated more money for pay raises for staffers, it hasn’t implemented pay parity with other city agencies where benefits are better and salaries are higher, despite that being a priority outlined in the draft of reforms. “Yeah, I would add that to the list,” the Council member said. Nor is childcare provided to members or staffers, as called for in the reform proposal.

The Council spokesperson noted that audio induction loops for those with hearing impairments were added last year and that language accessibility can be requested. The spokesperson also said that pay parity has been discussed with members when the Council was deciding its own budget, and ultimately members get to decide how they will use the increased funds budgeted for their offices and staff. The spokesperson also acknowledged that the Council does not currently provide childcare options but insisted that the Council is always looking at ways to expand it for all New Yorkers.

Council Member Mark Levine, one of Johnson’s chief rivals for the speakership, said the Council has made major improvements. “[The Speaker] has made progress on a lot of fronts,” he said, pointing to the uptick in the budget, the staffing increases, and more transparency and faster timelines on bill introductions. “It helps tremendously in managing your LS [legislative service] requests to have real-time access to that information. They’ve also staffed up pretty dramatically in the bill-drafting unit,” he said. “And it’s more equitable now. Everybody gets to identify 10 priority LSs which we want staff to work on and that evens it out a little bit more.”

Echoing Lancman, Levine said a formal hearing wasn’t absolutely necessary. “These changes have been possible through a combination of changing internal procedure, through allocation of resources, and that really is a very big deal,” he said.  

Some members are waiting until after budget negotiations have concluded with the administration to see more changes go into effect, particularly with new funding at the Council’s disposal.

“To date, the specifics of the rules reform stuff that we signed on to hasn’t been evidenced,” said Council Member Robert Cornegy, another current rules committee member and speaker candidate of last year. “There has been some efforts, especially in bill drafting, to make sure that bills move faster. But we’re so deep in the budget and I’m on the budget negotiation team, I can’t really see anything. I almost don’t know what’s going on around me as it relates to the legislation or the rules reform because we’re so deep in the budget.”

Cornegy said he wants to see “a bit more latitude” for members in the drafting process so bills can move more quickly.

Council Member Adrienne Adams, also a rules committee member, said very briefly before a Council hearing, “We’re still waiting. It’s been a while. We’re still waiting. I really don’t have anything to add right now.”

Among other items that remain unfinished are changes to the functioning of the Council committees, which hear bills and hold oversight hearings.

Despite being included in the proposed agenda, there’s still no protocol for committee hearing scheduling; there isn’t a standard process for members who want to switch committees midway through the term; hearings are not automatically triggered for bills with popular support; and committee staff aren’t publishing recaps of hearings that summarize testimony, requests made by members and promises made by the administration (though the full testimony from hearings continues to be readily available online.)

It’s likely once the budget is decided, which could be as soon as the coming week, that the Council will ramp up some of the changes put in motion by Johnson and get to other delayed reforms. Yet, Council members and government reform groups say that needs to happen in a public, transparent way. “If the speaker and 32 members made a commitment to pass rules reforms,” said Camarda of Reinvent Albany, “they should honor that commitment and hold public hearings to solicit input and pass meaningful rules changes.”

Camarda also pointed to a New York Post report from May that highlighted Johnson’s partial reversal on a promise to regularly publish his full public schedule and details of his contact with lobbyists. “We hope this isn’t the beginning of a trend that the speaker’s promises on good government issues go unfulfilled,” Camarda said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Inset Koslowitz photo by Emil Cohen

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Johnson Makes Series of City Council Changes, But Sidelines Formal Rules Reforms Fri, 08 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Doesn’t Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One? http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7674-new-york-city-doesn-t-have-a-comprehensive-plan-does-it-need-one http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7674-new-york-city-doesn-t-have-a-comprehensive-plan-does-it-need-one De Blasio city planning

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


New York City is the only major city in the country that has never had a comprehensive development plan, according to Tom Angotti, professor of urban policy at Hunter College.

Facing major, city-wide challenges now and into the coming decades, the city’s approach to development and planning is byzantine, narrow, and somewhat haphazard. The vast, diverse city of 8.5 million residents and millions more visitors every day is often looked at by neighborhood, legislative district, or borough. At the same time, infrastructure investment decisions and project implementation lack transparency and efficiency.

City government has no coherent, overarching plan for growth and the challenges that come with it -- housing, transportation, climate resiliency, school seats, garbage collection, and more -- and city officials don’t believe that one is necessary.

As the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to implement a 12-year affordable housing plan and a 10-year jobs plan, it is also adding to its transportation agenda in piecemeal fashion, and adjusting a wide variety of other policies in at least partial silos of agency planning. The administration is slowly moving down its list of neighborhood rezonings in an effort to create more affordable housing and improve community services, which include infrastructure investments, job training programs, and more -- but they do not fit into a larger connected vision of where the city is heading, leaving those invested in the city’s future with little more than projected numbers of new housing units and jobs, among other numerical goals like lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty and reducing carbon emissions, and largely disparate local projects.

The Department of City Planning, which helps craft the neighborhood rezoning plans, would be the logical place for the creation of a city plan, but none is being drafted there, and top City Planning officials dismiss the notion that one is needed.

In its efforts, DCP works with the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a city-run nonprofit, the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the City Council, community boards, and other agencies and entities, including elected officials like borough presidents and City Council members. While some current and former city officials believe the ongoing approach is more than adequate, other experts believe the city should and could be doing better planning that is more coherent, inclusive, and transparent.

On a recent episode of What’s The [Data] Point?, a podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission, guest Anita Laremont, the general counsel and chief data officer at the Department of City Planning, was asked about the lack of a comprehensive city plan. “We are charged by state law that we must have a well-considered land use plan,” Laremont said, “and what we have maintained historically is that the city zoning framework at any given time is the city’s well-considered plan.”

Laremont was referring to the city’s land use rules, its zoning regulations that, generally speaking, dictate what types of building are allowed to be built where, and to what size. For example, whether an area of the city is zoned for commercial, residential, or manufacturing use, and how big the buildings can be, from small homes to large apartment buildings, for instance. The city’s 100-year-old zoning text has been amended many times, including in sweeping fashion during de Blasio’s first term in order to mandate affordable housing when a developer receives permission to build more densely on a plot of land or during a neighborhood-wide change to the land use rules that allows more height.

According to Laremont, this approach offers a pragmatic, incremental strategy that suits the city. “This is such a dynamic city, in terms of where people live, where they work, we actually believe that it would not be productive to try to sit down and come up with a plan, because that dynamism really leads to a need to be responsive and nimble,” she said when asked why the city doesn’t have a comprehensive master plan.

“The other thing is that our process --...ULURP -- is ultimately a very political process, and we have, I think, at City Planning, some of the smartest people that work in city government, but we don’t have the ability to implement just what we think is appropriate,” Larement continued. “You know there are pushes and pulls and other considerations that go into ultimately what is the land use and zoning resolutions.”

A Regional Plan
Meanwhile, the Regional Planning Association (RPA), a non-profit planning association founded in 1922, recently released its fourth regional plan, which cites significant difficulties currently or soon to be faced by the tri-state region encompassing New York City, and recommends a long series of ambitious infrastructure investments, institutional reforms, and policies. What the RPA produces every generation may be as close as there is to a master plan for the New York City area, but it takes a much wider lens and is not something that city officials endorse, though many of its recommendations are likely to influence government decision-making.

RPA’s new plan aims to combat forces that could undermine the growth and health of the region, including overwhelming population additions, wealth inequality, climate change, crumbling infrastructure, and inadequate public institutions.

It reports a number of alarming figures about the future of the area: based on current trends, the tri-state region is expected to gain 1.8 million inhabitants but only 850,000 more jobs by 2040; for the bottom three-fifths of households, incomes have stagnated since 2000, and more people live in poverty today than a generation ago; in the NY-NJ-CT metropolitan region, a total of 46% of households spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent; and, today, more than a million people and 650,000 jobs are at risk from flooding, along with critical infrastructure such as power plants, rail yards, and water-treatment facilities.

How well prepared the region and, specifically, New York City, are to deal with these difficulties remains an open question.

The latest RPA plan includes recommendations from expanding the subway in New York City to implementing congestion pricing to unclog Manhattan streets to increasing access to healthy, affordable food in every community.

When asked about the feasibility of RPA’s fourth regional plan, Laremont of DCP replied, “I wouldn’t say that it’s not realistic. I would say those kinds of things are very aspirational, and they have the luxury of not having to be responsive to the realpolitik that we live within...we welcome those sort of thought exercises that people do and they give us food for thought.”

City Planning, But No City Plan
The city’s Zoning Resolution was first adopted in 1916 to limit the bulk of skyscrapers because of widespread anxieties that they would block air and light from the streets below. Over the last century, it has been incrementally altered, in part to respond to population growth, technological advancements, and changing industries and trends. Its text establishes the zoning districts for the city and the regulations governing land use and development. Any change to the zoning resolution has to be ratified by the City Council as well as the City Planning Commission, a 13-member body, with seven members appointed by the mayor, five appointed by the borough presidents, and one by the public advocate. The commission is different from the Department of City Planning, though they interact constantly, with the commission voting on many proposals that originate with or come through DCP.

Among other tasks, DCP is responsible for making sure that new development conforms to the Zoning Resolution, reviewing applications for land use, and producing Environmental Impact Reviews to assess how development might affect its surroundings. These represent the first stages of the Uniform Land Use Process (ULURP), which is triggered on a variety of circumstances including significant proposed changes to a plot of land or neighborhood. While local community boards and the borough presidents have formal opportunities to publish recommendations on land-use decisions in their districts, they are only advisory, and the City Planning Commission ultimately has the power to approve or deny each new development, followed by the City Council, which has final say on land use matters. As City Limits reported in 2017, the City Planning Commission rarely stops major developments.

Carl Weisbrod was chair of the City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning from 2014 to 2017, as appointed by Mayor de Blasio. Like Laremont, who worked for Weisbrod before he retired from city government, Weisbrod told Gotham Gazette that a city-wide plan is undesirable. He pointed out that such a plan would be a lengthy and costly exercise, and discussed the last time the city tried to make such a plan, the 1969 Plan for New York City, which was never adopted. Weisbrod said the proposed plan took so long to complete that it was outdated by the time it was finished.

Under Weisbrod DCP made a number of reforms: including adding the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy to the zoning code; creating the Department of Regional Planning, directed by Carolyn Grossman Meagher, in order to connect New York City’s planning process to the wider region; creating a capital budget division to establish cooperation between DCP and the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget; and creating a $1 billion neighborhood development fund to support growth with public investments in parks, transportation, streets and sidewalks, and other improvements.

Weisbrod stressed that a city-wide development plan would be incompatible with the city’s dynamic economy. The problem with making such a plan, he said, is that “the market has to wait to see what the plan is going to be, or it will go in a different direction,” thus disrupting the plan. Laremont said similarly on the podcast. “If, for example, the city were going to get Amazon[‘s second headquarters], anything we were thinking previously about what might be appropriate in various places might be proven completely wrong,” she said, in reference to the notion that big plans can quickly become obsolete.

The city’s approach to development has been to “react to market forces and take advantage of market forces,” said Weisbrod. When asked, he added that the city doesn’t just wait for opportunities presented to it, but also takes a proactive role in shaping development. He pointed to planning initiatives at Hudson Yards, Times Square, Battery Park City, and Willets Point as examples of successful interventions.

A master plan, he said, “suggests a top-down approach to neighborhood development, and it ought to be a bottom-up process...that has been the approach of the de Blasio administration.” Weisbrod stressed that the city’s planning efforts were done with close attention to communities. DCP uses a wealth of detailed information about the demographics of neighborhoods, consults local stakeholders, and collaborates with other governmental entities, such as the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the New York Housing Authority, in order to make planning decisions. “It may seem chaotic from the outside, but planning is a very thoughtful process,” Weisbrod said.

Who’s Really Doing the Planning - And Where
Some community advocates do not share Weisbrod’s confidence in the process. The de Blasio administration, like others before it, has been criticized for not being proactive enough in engaging communities where significant change is being eyed, for not taking enough community input into consideration, and for implementing policies that enhance negative effects of gentrification rather than ameliorate them. Michelle de la Uz -- appointed to the City Planning Commission by de Blasio when he was public advocate, and reappointed by current Public Advocate Letitia James -- has become one of the de Blasio administration’s most ardent critics, often voting against the city’s housing and development proposals because she believes they do more harm than good and that the housing is not at the levels of affordability it should be.

It is a sentiment shared by Chris Walters, the Rezoning Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD), an umbrella organization of around 100 non-profit affordable housing and economic development groups serving low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. Walters has been involved with some of the campaigns opposing the recent neighborhood rezonings, for example the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, providing technical assistance and helping draft policy counter-proposals to those offered by City Planning.

As Gotham Gazette has reported, the rezonings that have passed -- in East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx -- will create more residential districts and allow for higher-density development, a crucial part of de Blasio’s plan to create or preserve 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026. As part of the rezoning plans, these neighborhoods are also slated to receive substantial infrastructure investments in public housing, transit, parks, schools, and other community benefits. However, community advocacy groups and some elected officials and outside experts have expressed frustration at the fact that the rezoned neighborhoods are primarily low- and moderate-income communities of color, that these neighborhoods have had to accept higher density in order to receive investment, and they have voiced concerns that the rezonings will spur displacement.

DCP maintains that the neighborhoods, often led by the local City Council member, volunteered for the rezonings, with Laremont saying that each rezoning is a “collaborative process between the city, members of the City Council, and neighborhoods, in terms of neighborhoods themselves raising their hands and saying, ‘we would welcome a rezoning,’ because they thought there were opportunities in that.” Ultimately, the City Council as a body does defer to the local member, and, after negotiations, each local member has proudly ushered through the neighborhood rezonings that have passed.

But Walters criticized the city’s process for choosing which neighborhoods to rezone as being opportunistic, saying there “was no rationale as to why these neighborhoods have been chosen.” Walters pointed out that neighborhoods like Forest Hills and Bay Ridge are similarly low-density and have good transit access -- reasons given by DCP for rezoning neighborhoods.

“If you had a comprehensive plan, which included projections of population increase and the amount of new housing needed, saying, ‘this is what the future will look like,’” Walters said, “[the rezoning process] would be more accountable.” Advocacy groups have not focused on the issue of a city-wide development plan, he said, because “pragmatically, that’s not where groups want to put their energy,” given that there are more pressing matters on their agenda.

Walters’ main criticism is that the planning process is not adequately inclusive. He pointed out that members of community boards (CB) are not elected, but are appointed by the borough president and by the City Council, and that they disproportionately represent homeowners and business-owners, who don’t necessarily live in the neighborhood. Community boards do have some influence, drafting a “need statement” for the community, which is then examined by DCP to help it draft plans, and it has an advisory vote in ULURP. Walters said that, despite outreach efforts by DCP, people feel as if plans are already determined before they are presented to the community.

He also criticized the methodology of Environmental Impact Reviews. For example, Walters is skeptical of the figures published in the Jerome Avenue rezoning construction report: in the “Reasonable Worst-Case Development Scenario,” the report estimates that 3,228 new dwelling units will be added to the neighborhood. However, Walters said this estimate was arrived at by using the city’s classic lot size of 2,500 square feet, but lots are commonly 5,000 square feet around Jerome Avenue. He also takes issue with the report claiming that the development enabled by the rezoning will not contribute to any rise in rents, on the grounds that market pressures were already driving rent costs up in the area. The executive summary (p. 52) says that, “The Proposed Actions’ contributions to rent pressures in the study areas would be limited by the supply of market-rate and affordable housing resulting from the Proposed Actions, which could serve to offset existing housing demand and rent pressures.”

“The point is often made in communities that they are not saying ‘no’ to increased density, but they are saying ‘no’ to an unregulated market rate that is going to drive displacement,” Walters argued.

From PlaNYC to OneNYC
While the city’s land-use decisions are mediated through ULURP and the zoning resolution, the past two mayoral administrations have published a version of a long-term strategic plan. On Earth Day in 2007, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg released “PlaNYC,” which aimed to address climate change and the city’s fast-growing population, putting in one place a series of strategies, but not forming a comprehensive city plan. Mayor de Blasio has since rebranded it as OneNYC, adding equity to the list of major concerns.

Weisbrod stressed that OneNYC, which he helped write, is not a development plan, but rather “a set of longer-term strategic priorities - a strategic plan.”

Angotti, the urban policy and planning professor at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center, has mixed feelings about these plans. On the one hand, he has seen them as a welcome step towards a more coherent approach to the city’s long-term development, and he praised both Bloomberg for having brought up climate change and de Blasio for having raised equity as primary policy concerns.

OneNYC reports that the city has committed to spending $20 billion on a city-wide resiliency program, which includes helping local businesses prepare for flooding risks, helping building-owners with flood-insurance, and addressing risks to infrastructure. Moreover, following Hurricane Sandy, the city introduced a flood resilience zoning update to the zoning resolution, which allowed for development of flood-resistant construction to occur in areas deemed at risk of flooding.

However, Angotti is critical of the way in which PlaNYC was drafted and said that OneNYC shared the same flaws. He expressed frustration at the speed with which the plans were drawn up, saying that the discussions with local communities were not adequately participatory and “flawed.” Bloomberg hired McKinsey, the international consulting firm, to carry out much of the plan’s analysis. (Angotti has previously written several critiques of PlaNYC for Gotham Gazette, summarized here.)

OneNYC’s original plan, as well as the 2017 Progress Report, show much of it is a summary of various initiatives and achievements of de Blasio’s administration, organized around the themes of growth, equity, resiliency, and sustainability.

The OneNYC website refers the reader to the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the Mayor’s Office for Recovery and Resiliency. Angotti remarked that “the plan is not known by the vast majority of the public, including most politically active people. Perhaps it’s a guidance document used inside City Hall but it’s not a public plan.”

Calls for Broader Planning
City Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn (de Blasio’s successor in the City Council) is an unequivocal advocate for a city-wide development plan and a trained urban planner himself. Lander contributed an essay titled “Rediscovering City Planning and Community Development, Together,” to the volume, Toward a Twenty First Century For All (2013), a compilation of policy recommendations for the incoming mayoral administration. Lander said that it was still relevant, as “not much has changed.”

With regards to Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, Lander pointed out that Bloomberg had initially hired urban planner Alex Garvin to analyze the city’s future population growth and propose appropriate measures. When Garvin’s report found that the city’s population would reach 9 million by 2030, if not sooner, Bloomberg dropped Garvin from the process, fearing the controversy such a number would provoke, Lander said. The report was leaked to Streetsblog before Garvin was dismissed.

Of the lack of a comprehensive plan, Lander said, “I think it is a major failing in the city’s planning process. You can’t connect long-term infrastructure planning, managing the city’s growth, and community equity without a plan.” Lander thinks of “a city-wide plan as being in favor of growth, with equity and sustainability.”

He remarked that NIMBYism -- or people not wanting to see significant development in their communities -- represents an almost inevitable obstacle, saying that, “in the vast majority of neighborhoods, people like their neighborhoods, and they don’t want them to change.” In his essay, Lander writes that planning and development in the city are made more difficult by assumptions that people have about the planning process:

“Developers and administration officials generally believe neighborhoods will oppose  development, so they gird for battle. Rather than creating space for dialogue about shaping  growth or the infrastructure necessary to support it early in the process, they grit their teeth, fight  through opposition, and negotiate concessions at the last minute.
“With good reason, communities believe that the City will ultimately approve plans with little attention to their core concerns about neighborhood preservation, quality of life, amenities,  or infrastructure – so they oppose proposals with a fatalist fervor.”

Lander understands these adversarial assumptions as a cause and a symptom of the flaws of the planning process.

The essay also included a quote from Hope Cohen, an urban planner working at the Manhattan Institute think tank, delivering a harsh indictment of DCP’s environmental review process:

“[it] has lost its connection to good planning. Instead it has become an expensive and time-consuming annoyance to large projects, and a potentially project-ending burden to small ones. Environmental review today is a wide-ranging effort to identify “impacts” for the purpose of legal disclosure only. It is not the planning activity that people commonly assume it to be, nor is it the one that New York desperately needs as its aging infrastructure struggles to meet the demands of an ever-increasing population and citizens move into previously underdeveloped areas of the city - areas that require new access to transportation, sewage treatment, electricity, and schools” (2007)

In his essay, Lander proposes a host of reforms that are aimed at promoting community planning in conjunction with city-wide planning. During the recent interview with Gotham Gazette, Lander highlighted that he supports reforms to community boards, as well as reforms to the city’s “fair share” system, which is supposed to distribute helpful services and infrastructural burdens evenly across the city. Last year the City Council released a report with recommendations for reform of the fair share system. Several of Lander’s preferred reforms would require a change in the city’s charter. There will soon be two charter revision commissions preparing to recommend changes to the charter for approval or disapproval by voters: one is sponsored by the mayor, with recommendations due this fall, and the other by the City Council in partnership with Public Advocate James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, with proposals due in 2019.

Lander said that one “tension in planning is balancing the needs of the city with the needs of a neighborhood,” but that “it needs to be a system which yields to our shared needs.” He expressed his reservations about the fact that under the current system, “we trust the DCP and the Mayor’s Office to represent those needs,” referring to infrastructural needs such as schools or preparations to mitigate the risks of climate change. But in his view, in the current process, “you can’t see the direct connection between our long-term infrastructure planning and our land-use planning.”

Separate from its fourth regional plan, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) in January published a report, "Inclusive City: Strategies to achieve more equitable and predictable land use in New York City."

The report, put together after meetings of a working group that included dozens of individuals from inside and outside government, is focused less on broader planning and more on changing the ways in which the mayoral administration is doing its planning now to make sure that more stakeholders are involved and that community input is more central to the planning process, especially for the neighborhood rezonings that are being proposed and implemented.

However, of the four central recommendations in the report, the first is "dramatically increase the amount o proactive planning in New York City." Noting that "the public remains in the dark" about why certain neighborhoods have been chosen for rezonings and the major changes therein, the report calls for "a comprehensive citywide planning framework" that does not currently exist.

"PlaNYC and OneNYC demonstrate the City’s ability to think long term and holistically, and a citywide comprehensive planning framework would go a step further by including community district level targets, including those for housing creation and public facilities," the report states. "A comprehensive planning framework would greatly ease public concerns around disproportionate impacts by ensuring proposed zoning changes and other actions analyze and disclose how they further or undermine adherence to the comprehensive planning framework, which would in turn have been produced with strong, meaningful public participation."

Capital Spending and Planning
The city’s infrastructure spending is determined by the capital budget, which is drafted by the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The City Council has to vote to approve this budget as well as the annual expense or operating budget. According to the OMB website, the city’s capital budget in the current fiscal year, FY2018, is $16.2 billion, which is funded through a variety of sources, including from the New York City Municipal Water Finance Authority, the New York City Transitional Finance Authority, grants from federal, state, and private sources, and city general obligation bonds. The city’s capital expenditures for the current year and the next three years are programmed in the Capital Commitment Plan, and longer-term capital expenditures are scheduled by the Ten-Year Capital Plan, which outlines $95.8 billion in spending, according to the 2017 plan.

Prior to 1975, the Ten-Year Capital Plan was jointly published by DCP and OMB. Following the fiscal crisis of 1975, the City Charter was changed and OMB became solely responsible for drafting the Ten-Year Capital Plan. Under Carl Weisbrod, however, DCP created a Capital Planning Division, whose website is still in “beta,” in order to once again give DCP more say in how the city determines its infrastructure spending. The most recent plan, published in 2017, was co-signed by Marisa Lago, the director of DCP, who succeeded Weisbrod when he decided to leave city government.

Maria Doulis, vice president of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a non-profit fiscal watchdog, said the current process for deciding the capital budget is misguided.

Primarily, Doulis is concerned about the lack of transparency around the major investments involved. “We have no insight into the projects that agencies are undertaking -- if they meet the city’s most critical needs, or if they are the easiest to undertake,” Doulis said in an interview. She added that this was not the case for all the city’s agencies, pointing out the Department of Education and the Department of Transportation both have satisfactory levels of transparency. On the other hand, the Department of Environmental Protection, for example, “could post better reports,” she said. The current report lacks specificity -- “what are their goals?” Doulis asks.

Earlier this year, CBC published a report, “Rightsizing and Right Timing New York City’s Capital Plan,” which describes how the city has consistently drawn up capital commitment plans that are “overly ambitious” for the city’s agencies, forecasting much more spending than is executed and sowing unnecessary confusion. According to the report, the city’s agencies only attained 54% of their capital commitments. The report concluded that:

“The inability of agencies to meet their commitment targets suggests that their capital plans are either overly ambitious or fail to reflect actual priorities. This overly ambitious schedule leaves the City vulnerable to taking on more capital projects than it has capacity to manage, which has led in the past to delays and increased costs. A 2017 analysis by the City Council found that more than half of city capital projects with budgets greater than $25 million are behind schedule, over budget, or both.”

In the interview, Doulis said that the issues are a result of the fact that those determining the budget have little reason to curb the growth of the capital budget. “[OMB’s] incentive is to improve these [agencies’] projects, the City Council has little incentive to not pass the budget because the short-term effects of debt-servicing are small.” While politically expedient for the time being, Doulis said, the city’s “big outstanding debt liability is a problem because it is paid through the operating budget, and is a fixed cost.” When the next inevitable economic-downturn occurs, “there will be cuts to services,” she said.

Doulis is critical of the general lack of strategic forethought in the city’s capital planning. “There is no eye on what the city can do and what they should do, and in what order,” she said. On the de Blasio administration’s priorities, as reflected in OneNYC, she said, “there’s a specificity that’s lacking.”

To Plan or Not To Plan
Meanwhile, the Regional Planning Association said investments needed to meet the city’s coming challenges are even more far-reaching than the “overly-ambitious” budgeting that is currently occurring. But, the RPA takes a regional frame and includes New York State and other non-city governmental entities like the MTA and Port Authority.

The RPA suggests changing this structure anyway, with a fourth plan call for establishing a new Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation to overhaul and modernize the subway system within 15 years. RPA also wants to see transformation of the Port Authority into a infrastructure bank that finances large-scale transit infrastructure projects; expansion of the existing carbon pricing system, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, to include emissions from transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial sectors; consolidation of the region’s three existing commuter rail systems into one integrated system; expansion of JFK and Newark airports, and more.

Chris Jones, vice president and chief planner at the Regional Planning Association, joined What’s the [DATA] Point? soon after the Fourth Plan was released.

“Each of the plans that we’ve done has really tried to start a conversation about the difficult questions that people don’t think that we can really address because they’re just too hard,” he said.

Acknowledging that many proposals in the plan are extremely ambitious and require a lot of political will, he said, “we put out, ‘here’s what we think the ideal is,’ and in the real political world, it doesn’t end up being that ideal, but you can move towards that in a number of ways.”

In that real political world, Mayor de Blasio recently said that "each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually," when asked a question at a May 3 press conference where he was highlighting the city’s ferry service, which he has focused on expanding.

The comment made planners, urbanists, and transit experts groan, further evidence to some that de Blasio does not value real urban planning and that he does not have a vision for integrated transit options in his expansive city where many struggle to get around efficiently. If de Blasio does not have a cohesive transportation plan, he certainly cannot begin to have a comprehensive city plan, though he has not expressed that as a goal.

De Blasio has described his transportation vision as being about providing more options and reaching new people. A more extensive subway system would be nice, he said, but given the challenges with such a goal, he is working on other modes of transportation, including ferries, bikes, and a planned light-rail streetcar for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the BQX.

“We’ve got to do more than one thing to create a 21st century city with multiple mass transit options that are convenient and that work for people,” he said in response to a question about his focus on ferries.

“If we were planning for a city that wasn’t changing you could have one conversation, but we’re about to pick up an additional population in the next 10, 20 years about the size of the population of Staten Island,” de Blasio later said. “We’re going to add that into New York City. And we need more and better options for people to get around.”

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by Gabriel Slaughter and Ben Max

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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New York City Doesn’t Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One? Tue, 15 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000