Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/79 Wed, 26 Sep 2018 05:16:04 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7486:bronx-electeds-residents-cry-foul-as-mayor-and-council-announce-jail-site http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7486:bronx-electeds-residents-cry-foul-as-mayor-and-council-announce-jail-site Bronx jail site NYPD tow pound

Planned Bronx jail site (photos: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


When Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced last week that they’d reached a deal to speed up the closure of Rikers Island by creating or expanding jail facilities in every borough except Staten Island, it seemed to be a clear sign of a productive partnership between the administration and local elected officials.

The mayor and speaker made the announcement at a news conference at City Hall, alongside four Council members -- Diana Ayala, Karen Koslowitz, Stephen Levin, and Margaret Chin -- willing to accept the political risk of a new or expanded jail in their districts. The city will launch a unified land use review application for all four jails, the mayor and speaker said, combining the arduous and lengthy multi-stage approval process for siting certain municipal facilities.

But the proposal to build the Bronx jail -- the only one of the four that is not either a current or former jail facility -- immediately raised the hackles of elected officials from the borough other than Ayala, a newly elected Council member whose districts spans East Harlem and part of the South Bronx.

“Look the site in the Bronx is a site owned by the City of New York. It is a very smart site in terms of its closeness to the courthouses,” de Blasio explained at the news conference, when asked about a critical statement put out by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who had not been kept in the loop by the administration or the Council. “There is going to be a full community process, but let's be clear, we're going to talk to everyone, we're going to listen to everyone, we're going to try in every way possible address community needs and address other benefits that communities need.”

De Blasio emphasized, “That being said, up here are the people who ultimately have to make the decision – the Council, represented by the Speaker, the members who represent those individual districts, and me and my administration.”

Ayala was aware of the criticism she may face for supporting a site in her district. “We all know that this siting process is bound to be controversial,” she said. “In the Bronx in particular, we are not repurposing an existing detention center but instead building a brand new facility that will require additional careful thought, serious consideration and robust community engagement, and I really wanna underline that…We also know that in the Bronx, too often we see a concentration of city facilities in our borough and there is rightfully some resistance to that. But we in the Bronx also understand the urgent need for criminal justice reform.”

Top Bronx officials were taken aback that this was the first they were hearing of a new jail intended for their backyard. Any consultations that had happened had excluded Borough President Diaz Jr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake, whose district neighbors the one where the proposed site is located at 320 Concord Avenue, currently an NYPD tow pound; and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, the Democratic Bronx County party leader whose support helped Johnson win the speakership.

“I was surprised to learn that the administration has already selected a site for a new jail in The Bronx,” said Diaz Jr. in a statement that preceded the mayor and speaker’s Wednesday news conference. The proposed site had been first revealed by the Wall Street Journal the previous night, just after de Blasio delivered his State of the City address. “I hope that, going forward, this lack of outreach is not a harbinger of the amount of community input the people of my borough will have in this process,” Diaz Jr. said. (At the news conference, Johnson showed some contrition immediately, apologizing to Diaz Jr. and promising a “robust, meaningful” community engagement process.)

“It is simply disrespectful that a decision of this magnitude of proposing to open a new jail in the South Bronx was made behind closed doors, without engaging the broader Bronx community,” said Assemblymember Blake, in a statement released Wednesday night.

Crespo, the Democratic Bronx county boss, took to Twitter, calling out the mayor and speaker. “We spent so much time talking the last few months how did this rikers plan in my district never come up?” he wondered.

“I think we were all caught off guard with how far ahead the city seems to be when no one in the Bronx was informed of the process,” Crespo later elaborated, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “Once you decide on a site, that’s gonna have an impact for generations.”

Crespo and the other electeds aren’t opposed to the administration’s goal: building capacity in the boroughs so that Rikers can close. But, he said the Concord Avenue site is not the best option, and the city should explore alternatives. The community and the borough already host their fair share of municipal facilities, Crespo insisted, echoing widespread criticism that the city has long chosen to place seemingly undesirable facilities such as jails, homeless shelters, and waste treatment plants in low-income communities of color. “Make no mistake about it, this borough has been handling an unfair share already for a long time,” he said.

“There’s major investments and their success would also be endangered,” he said of the Mott Haven neighborhood, where new development is underway literally across the road from where the jail would be situated.

The rapid outpouring of criticism didn’t seem lost on Speaker Johnson, who quickly seemed to equivocate on the Bronx site. “I am committed to facilities in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan,” Johnson told NY1. "We are not wedded to an individual location. If there is a better location I am happy to have that conversation."

Responding to an assertion that he was backpedaling, Johnson said in a subsequent tweet that he is “not at all” backing away from the site, but reiterated that the main goal is closing the jails on Rikers Island and that he is “not wedded” to one location. “If there's a better one,” he wrote, “I'm all ears. No other location has been presented.”

If the Bronx elected officials were stunned by the announcement, it’s little wonder that those who live in the neighborhood around the proposed site were likewise surprised and offended to learn of the plan.

bx jail site 2The site is located in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, north of the Harlem River, with large industrial and manufacturing spaces running between the waterfront and the Major Deegan Expressway.

Residents and others expressed a mix of astonishment, resignation, anger, and resentment as Gotham Gazette told them on Friday that the city intended to build a jail within blocks of their homes and places of work.

“I thought they were gonna do a mall,” said Jesus Ortiz, 50, who runs an auto-repair shop across the street from the NYPD tow pound that occupies the block.

The site is sandwiched between East 141st and 142nd Streets, next to Bruckner Boulevard, in a neighborhood with a mix of housing and commercial properties. Enclosed by metal sheet walls, the tow pound is almost a hill overlooking its neighbors, with impounded cars visible from the street through a peripheral treeline that is leafless in February.

“They’re trying to rebuild the South Bronx to make it nice,” said Ortiz, “That’s not the way to rebuild, by putting a jail here.” Having worked there 15 years, Ortiz said he’s seen rapid development in recent times. Even the building that houses his auto shop was recently bought out, he said, and the landlords gave him a one-year lease till 2019. He’ll soon be gone from the neighborhood too.

“They’re buying all around,” he said.

Adam Bele, 40, loads containers at the lumber supply warehouse that sits behind 320 Concord. “Nobody wants to be near a jail,” he said. His biggest concern, one that others shared as well, is for the children that attend the several schools in the neighborhood.

“You don’t want children hanging around a jail,” said the father of two infants who will likely attend one of those schools, he said.  

As with other residents, Bele was wary of the process for choosing the site. “It’s like they know it’s gonna be unpopular so they tried to hide it and do it quick, quick, quick,” he said. He had a simple piece of advice for the mayor. “Be transparent. Listen to this community, and take our recommendations into consideration.”

But Bele empathizes with the city’s rationale that detainees deserve to be housed closer to their families in humane and modern facilities, and that Rikers needs to close. “You don’t want them treated like animals, they’re human like us,” he said. The mayor and speaker have promised to seek community feedback on the proposed site and, as required by the city’s land use review process, community boards will get an opportunity to hold votes, albeit nonbinding, to approve or reject the proposal. Borough presidents also get to weigh in with advisory opinions.

Along Concord Avenue, in what could eventually be the shadow of a new jail, sit rowhouses, a few of them old and abandoned and showing signs of disrepair. “For Sale” signs hung in a few windows.

In one of those houses lives Nereida Chavez, 38, a stay-at-home mom with four kids. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed on hearing that her biggest neighbor could one day be a jail.

“I don’t like the idea of having a jail here,” she said. “It’s just scary.”

She worried that a jail could mean more traffic along a little-traversed street. “We have our kids and they love to play out here with their bikes,” she said. And, it might also mean that parking, which has become an issue already owing to the large lumber and oil and gas companies around them, might worsen. “We hardly have any parking here. It’ll be even more complicated if they put a jail here,” she said.

But Chavez was more concerned that she hardly had an opportunity to be heard on an issue that quite directly would affect her. “It makes me worried that things happen around us and we don’t know anything,” she said. “They also put shelters around us. They don’t let us know until it’s there.”

bx jail site 3At a bodega on East 141st Street, Mel McKenzie, 33, was buying milk. Gotham Gazette asked if the homemaker knew about the city’s plan to build a jail, three blocks from her home.

“For real?” she said.

“I’m not with it,” she frowned. “It should stay an impound lot....[A jail] won’t bring the community together. It’ll probably make us scared. And it’s too close to home.”

Another shopper, Nancy Lopez, 43, chimed in. “Why move it so close when there’s other areas where they could put it?” she wondered. “Put it across Bruckner where it’s more industrial. There’s kids that walk by everyday on Concord.”

The city’s plan to close Rikers and replace some of its capacity in borough facilities near courthouses entails building for about 6,000 inmates, with the goal of getting the jail population down to about 5,000, according to the mayor.

McKenzie acknowledged that its a laudable objective to help detainees, most of whom are pre-trial and not convicted of any crime, remain connected to their communities. “That makes sense,” she said, but she also expressed concern about what school-going children would take away from it. “That’s the message they’re sending? You’re gonna be close to home if you get locked up.”

“What happens if a prisoner escapes?” said Lopez, who said she is on disability and lives on Concord Avenue in the same row as Nereida Chavez. Instead, she proposed a “positive” alternative. “Why don’t they build affordable housing?”

Both women had one shared concern, however, that neither of them had received an opportunity to weigh in. “They should notify the public,” McKenzie said.

“As it’s happening, not when it’s already decided,” added Lopez. The city will present plans to the public, particularly through the community board, when the site is set for its place in the land use review process. It may be up to local residents to seek out opportunities to hear more and provide their feedback.

Presenting the site as a “fait accompli” would undermine the process, said the Bronx borough president in his statement, but it’s what one resident seemed to expect from the administration. “The city does whatever it wants,” said Hector Camilo, 55. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t argue with the city.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been corrected to note that Assembly Member Michael Blake does not represent the district where the proposed jail site at 320 Concord Avenue is located. He represents a neighboring district. 

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Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site Tue, 20 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Bronx Rezoning Moves to City Council as Negotiations Enter Final Stages http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7446:bronx-rezoning-moves-to-city-council-as-negotiations-enter-final-stages http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7446:bronx-rezoning-moves-to-city-council-as-negotiations-enter-final-stages

Jerome Ave corridor rezoning, via City Planning


The City Planning Commission voted January 17 to approve a comprehensive rezoning plan for the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, putting the proposal before the City Council for scrutiny in the final stretch of the lengthy land use review process. The rezoning would follow four others ushered through by the de Blasio administration as it somewhat controversially seeks to add housing density, including thousands of new affordable units, and make other investments in mostly low-income communities across the five boroughs.

The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan put forth by the administration with local input envisions changing land use regulations in a 92-block area along Jerome Avenue, from East 165th Street to 184th Street, which currently comprises a mix of commercial, industrial, and residential space. The proposed plan would allow mixed-use development along the corridor with the intent of creating more affordable housing, while also funding new infrastructure, quality-of-life improvements, job creation, and economic development initiatives for the community.  

While a deal appears imminent and the clock is ticking, negotiations are ongoing between the administration and City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera, whose districts span the proposed rezoning and who will have the final say in whether the rezoning is approved. Gibson, Cabrera, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. met recently to discuss the changes to the plan that they want to see before it is passed by the Council.

The City Planning Commission’s approval of the plan started the 50-day clock for the Council to accept or reject the proposal. The entire body typically votes with the local Council member(s) on land use issues and has rarely overridden a member’s position. The Council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises is expected to hold a public hearing on the rezoning on Wednesday, February 7.  

“It is and has been very fruitful,” Gibson said of the negotiation process, in a phone interview on Thursday. But there remain a few big ticket items that have yet to be resolved, she said, including preserving more affordable housing and expanding school capacity to deal with the expected increase in population from new housing created under the plan.

jerome ave verticalThe city has promised to create 4,000 new housing units in the rezoned area, which will include affordable units set aside for different income bands under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. The administration is also planning a Certificate of No Harassment pilot program to prevent tenant harassment and displacement, and will guarantee that half of new housing units created by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development will go to existing residents. Additionally, it has committed millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements -- including $4.6 million to revamp Corporal Fischer Park; $4 million to rebuild the Morton Playground; sidewalk lighting; and security upgrades -- and jobs and business development plans through the Department of Small Business Services

As is, the plan will also preserve 1,500 affordable units, a number that Gibson wants to see increased to 2,500 to cope with the gentrification pressures that neighborhoods targeted for rezoning have come to expect. She emphasized that many affordable units currently in those neighborhoods will see their city rent subsidies expire in less than a decade, and that the administration should take preemptive action.

“The city has a very good opportunity to engage those landlords on new programs and tax incentives so they can remain in the affordability program and access some of our resources for the next 30 or 40 years,” she said. “Now if we go over 2,500, I’m not mad. But I think 2,500 should be the floor.”

As with other rezonings that have been approved in the last three years, Gibson expressed larger concerns about displacement of existing residents as zoning changes bring additional density and improvements to the communities along Jerome Avenue. But she maintained that, unlike other areas that have seen luxury developers quickly move in to capitalize on a proposed rezoning, Jerome Avenue will likely not see market-rate housing being built in the short term.

“People are fearful, they have a right to be fearful, but the market in Jerome does not propel luxury housing right now,” she said.

Gibson predicted that recent increases in the minimum wage and residents getting prevailing-wage and union-wage jobs will eventually lead them to be ineligible for deeply affordable housing as they start to earn more than 30 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), a federal measure that includes surrounding suburban counties and the city. The New York City region’s AMI in 2017 was $85,900 for a family of three. Gibson insisted that the MIH set-asides should therefore include additional moderate and middle-income housing.

“It has to be a diverse mixture of incomes, obviously with the majority of those incomes being on the lower end at 30 and 40 percent of AMI as well as set asides for formerly homeless families coming directly from the shelter,” she said.

Jerome Avenue is the latest proving ground for the administration’s neighborhood rezoning efforts, which are part of achieving the mayor’s target of creating and preserving 300,000 units of affordable housing across the city by 2026. The first such rezoning, in East New York, largely set the tone, with the local Council Member, Rafael Espinal, having extracted a slew of concessions from the administration including a new 1,000-seat school and about $267 million in capital investments. Diaz Jr. and the two Bronx Council members are working off of a similar script, as was the case with rezonings in East Harlem and Far Rockaway.

Diaz Jr. signed off on the city’s plan in November, granted the city meet certain conditions that he laid out in his non-binding formal approval in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a multi-step process that also involves non-binding votes by the affected community boards, which also approved it with conditions.

The borough president said in his response that the city had “acted in good faith” in listening to the community’s concerns. But he maintained, “There is still more work to be done.” He called on the city to put in place a minimum of their monetary commitments before the rezoning is approved, an increase in the number of affordable housing units preserved to at least 2,000, enhanced enforcement of housing codes, the establishment of a new community center in Highbridge, and additional funding for improvement of parks and transit infrastructure.

Jerome Avenue is also home to a large automotive industry, and Diaz Jr. urged the city to identify locations where displaced facilities could relocate as well as fund relocation, training, and certification for those businesses. Gibson has made similar demands. The city’s plan would only retain about 20 percent of the 151 auto businesses in the neighborhood, she recently told Gotham Gazette at City Hall, and she is pushing to retain at least 50 percent.  

Diaz Jr. also insisted that the city must address the school seat shortage in the district -- roughly 3,248 seats -- by identifying potential sites for new facilities. That is one of the biggest priorities for Gibson and Cabrera as well. Gibson said she and her Council colleague are pushing for two new elementary schools in school districts 9 and 10.

“The challenge we face is we don’t have large parcels of city-owned land,” she said, emphasizing that the administration will have to work with private landowners to find suitable locations for new schools, while also expanding capacity at existing facilities that can bear it.

“A school that we build of 500 seats is going to help us now but it wont help us in the future if we’re looking at potentially 4,000 units of housing,” she said. “So there has to be some give and take.”

Gibson is confident about securing that pledge from the city before the Council votes on the project. “We’ve been very consistent on what our priorities are and, at the end of the day, we are working as hard as we can to achieve that. I do know that the admin in the past typically waits until the very end to make all of their commitments and announcements and to the best extent that I can, I’m trying to avoid that because I don’t like to operate last minute.”

Asked about the final stages of negotiations, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said in a statement, "We continue to work hand-in-hand with local elected officials and community leaders to build and protect affordable housing while also boosting economic vitality along the Jerome corridor."

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Bronx Rezoning Moves to City Council as Negotiations Enter Final Stages Sun, 28 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Former Informant, Out; Candidate Indicted on Voter Fraud, In http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6436:former-informant-out-candidate-indicted-on-voter-fraud-in http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6436:former-informant-out-candidate-indicted-on-voter-fraud-in Hector Ramirez petitioning

Hector Ramirez petitioning in the Bronx (photo via Facebook)


Bronx Assemblymember Victor Pichardo will no longer be facing former Assemblymember Nelson Castro, a onetime federal informant who helped dig up dirt on fellow electeds in an attempt to reduce charges he was facing for election-related perjury, in the upcoming Democratic primary.

Instead, Pichardo will again be opposed by Bronx activist Hector Ramirez, who is facing a 242-count indictment for voter fraud in relation to his activities in his last race against Pichardo.

According to the Bronx District Attorney’s office Ramirez has a date in court before Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett on September 13, the day of the Democratic primary.

While Castro has dropped his plans to run, Ramirez presents a stiffer challenge to the incumbent as the former districts leader’s name has appeared on ballots in the Bronx for over 20 years and he recently challenged Pichardo in the special election to replace Castro in 2013 and during the Democratic primary in 2014.

Ramirez’s entrance into the race is another chapter for the 86th Assembly District, which has been rocked by scandal and infighting for years. Castro served two terms in the Assembly while also working as an informant before abruptly resigning in April 2013. Ramirez announced his candidacy in a press release on Tuesday night touting that he had filed three times the required signatures to get on the ballot.

Pichardo’s camp is expected to challenge Ramirez’s petitions, with the possibility of knocking him off the ballot.

Castro told Gotham Gazette that he decided to bow out of the race after collecting 2,300 signatures petitioning because it was difficult to raise money. He said he now expects to back Ramirez. “I decided to stay out, but I think I will be endorsing Hector Ramirez,” Castro said. Asked if the indictment against Ramirez concerns him at all, Castro replied: “I haven’t endorsed yet. He’s not guilty until proven guilty in a court of law.”

Ramirez, who has clashed with county Democrats, is positioning himself as a man of the people running against Pichardo, who he has labeled the establishment candidate and an outsider. "[T]he first step in having our voice and concerns heard in Albany is allowing the people of the district to exercise their constitutional right of electing whomever they want fighting for them in Albany, not a poppet [sic] imposed by politicians," Ramirez said in the statement.

Pichardo reacted to Ramirez’s announcement by requesting the Department of Justice monitor the contest. "This announcement is yet another example of both Hector Ramirez’s contempt for the law and his lack of respect for the voters of the 86th Assembly district,” Pichardo said in a statement.

In 2014, dozens of witnesses told the Bronx DA office that Ramirez and his staffers duped them into handing over their absentee ballots - some of which Ramirez’s staff then filed as votes for their candidate. After the first tally Ramirez led Pichardo by 11 votes out of over 3,500 ballots cast. A hand recount put Pichardo ahead by only two votes.

At the time, Ramirez accused Pichardo of election fraud because Pichardo’s mother was active as a poll worker in the district. Further, Ramirez and other candidates complained that levers were missing on voting machines making it impossible to cast a ballot for Ramirez. The Board of Elections said that anyone who encountered a problem was offered a paper ballot.

Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, chair of the Bronx County Democrats, said he believes Pichardo will defeat any challenge because “Victor brings integrity to the job.” He said, “The Bronx deserves better than this continual parade of candidates with clouds around them.”

Crespo added that he thinks candidates should wait to run until “their legal issues are behind them.”

Ramirez was not immediately made available for an interview for this story.

Castro said he feels Pichardo and Ramirez have something to settle. “It’s a matter of principle. Hector won those elections but apparently after they counted paper ballots Pichardo won by two votes. I decided to stay out to let them duke it out. They have something there to work out.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Former Informant, Out; Candidate Indicted on Voter Fraud, In Wed, 13 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 14 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6220:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-march-14 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6220:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-march-14 New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has reason to smile as this week begins. Through negotiations with the City Council and outside critics, de Blasio appears to have gotten just about everyone on board with his citywide zoning changes and they are all-but-certain to be passed through the City Council over the next two weeks - first through committee this week, then the full Council on March 22. The City Planning Commission has to sign off on the tweaks in between. And there are tweaks, but the plans - Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) - will pass in forms close to what the city originally proposed. The two zoning amendments are major pieces of de Blasio's housing plan, which aims for 200,000 units of affordable housing to be built or preserved over ten years.

De Blasio spent part of Sunday speaking at South Bronx and Harlem churches to sell his housing plans. The most significant concerns about the mayor's zoning proposals have come from communities of color worried that the affordability levels of MIH are not deep enough. It appears that some of the tweaks being made to the plan will address these concerns. The de Blasio administration also continues to point to other elements of its housing plan aimed at creating affordable housing for the city's lowest income earners.

The mayor will celebrate movement on his housing plans this week and he'll also hold a town hall on the subject in Brooklyn Monday night, hosted by City Council Member Mathieu Eugene. De Blasio will also travel to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, responding to proposed federal cuts to anti-terrorism efforts - see below for details. And on Wednesday, de Blasio will speak at the New York City premiere of a new film promoting gun control - details also below.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito also spent part of Sunday at two churches, both in Brooklyn, where she discussed her criminal justice reform efforts.
[Read: City Council Bail Fund Moves Through State Process]

Meanwhile, budget business continues this week, with the fiscal year 2017 state budget due by the end of the month. The Assembly and Senate are moving toward passage of their one-house budgets, which will lead to intensified negotiations among Gov. Cuomo and the two majority leaders - Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate President John Flanagan, a Republican. There are a variety of discrepancies around funding levels and policy priorities. It's unclear if anything will be done in the budget on government ethics reform. Not a necessity to passing a spending plan and with significant pushback from Republicans to what Cuomo and Heastie have proposed, ethics could easily be bumped to further negotiations in the legislative session to follow the budget.

City Council preliminary budget hearings on the mayor's $82 billion plan also continue this week. Catch up on our coverage of budget hearings thus far:
-At First City Council Budget Hearing, Concerns About City Savings and State Cuts
-Government Investigator Explains 43% Budget Bump
-Underfunded Conflicts of Interest Board Struggles to Meet Mandates

Before Gov. Cuomo gets back to budget business in Albany this week, on Sunday Cuomo made his first visit to Hoosick Falls since the town's water contamination crisis broke. Cuomo insisted that the state was not slow to act, pointed the finger at federal regulators and the media, and assured all that the state response is on the right track.

And this week: "Comptroller Stringer will be in Israel along with a delegation of Latino leaders from New York City for a trip organized in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. He will arrive in Israel on Sunday evening and will depart on Thursday evening, arriving back in New York City on Friday, March 18."

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

At 7:15 a.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio will appear on CNN to discuss the presidential race. At 1:30 p.m. Monday, de Blasio will be in upper Manhattan to "host a press conference to discuss the preservation of affordable housing." At 4 p.m. de Blasio will hold a bill-signing ceremony at City Hall. At 7 p.m., de Blasio and City Council Member Mathieu Eugene "will host a town hall meeting with Brooklyn residents to discuss affordable housing" at P.S. 6.

At the City Council on Monday: At 10 a.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will hold its preliminary budget hearing.

At 10 a.m. Monday at Newtown High School in Queens, “New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Department of Education, Congresswoman Grace Meng and Education Chair Daniel Dromm announce groundbreaking pilot program that will position New York City at the forefront of a national dialogue on access to feminine hygiene products by providing free pads and tampons in select Queens and Bronx public schools restrooms, supporting better educational outcomes and bringing dignity to girls.” Feminine hygiene product dispensers will be placed in 25 public middle schools and high schools.
[Read more: City Council Members Move to Improve Tampon Access]

At noon on Monday in Albany, “as budget bills advance in both the Senate and Assembly during Sunshine Week, good government and reform groups react to proposed ethics legislation.” Participating groups include Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, League of Women Voters of NYS, NY Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany.
[Read: Heastie Outlines Assembly Ethics Reform Plan]

At 5:30 p.m. Monday, The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will deliver a presentation to the Queens Borough Board, chaired by Borough President Melinda Katz, on two of its new economic growth initiatives: NYC Industrial Developer Fund and Futureworks NYC Growth Initiative. The initiatives aim to provide project financing for industrial real estate development projects in New York City and support the growth of promising companies by providing six early stage companies with $30,000 each over a two-year period, respectively.

On Monday evening in Brooklyn, City Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Jumaane Williams will host their annual "Shirley Chisolm Women of Distinction Celebration." Public Advocate Letitia James will deliver keynote remarks. 

Tuesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan, who represents Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, will chair a hearing on President Barack Obama’s proposed cuts to anti-terrorism funding. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has strongly criticized the cuts, is expected to testify.

At noon Tuesday, Greater New York City for Change and allies will rally in Albany to raise the minimum wage to $15.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet to discuss granting special permits in regard to the enlargement of an existing property in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. The committee will also discuss amendments “concerning the use, bulk, and parking regulations in Brooklyn.”
  • At 9:30 a.m., the Committee on General Welfare will meet for its preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to discuss previous amendments to property tax laws and a current urban development project in Manhattan.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Juvenile Justice the Committee on Women’s Issues will meet for their joint preliminary budget hearing.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Daniel Dromm will host a Celebration of Irish Heritage and Culture in Council Chambers at City Hall.

Wednesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, New York Law School will host a breakfast panel covering the future of New York City real estate. The panel will feature experts from Blackstone, Cushman and Wakefield, Related Companies, and Downtown Alliance, and will be moderated by Gerald Korngold, New York Law School Professor and The Center for Real Estate Studies Program Chair.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the Council transportation committee, will lead the launch of  “Car Free NYC” at New York University’s Kimmel Center, which will lead to a “car-free” Earth Day in April.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, the South Bronx Leadership Forum will hold a discussion with Vicki Been, Commissioner of New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committees on Small Business and Economic Development will meet for a joint preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Education will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, The Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) will host a public forum addressing how police reforms “preserve the racist status quo.”

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Carmen Fariña, New York City Schools Chancellor, “will discuss the changing state of public education” with Pace University President Stephen J. Friedman at the University’s Lower Manhattan campus.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, "Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom, the co-authors of Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies that Transformed a City host a free, public panel discussion on the future of a livable New York City for the other 99%."

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA,” from Brave New Films, will premiere in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio will deliver introductory remarks before the premiere.

Thursday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Thursday in Albany.

At 1 p.m. Thursday, The Rockefeller Institute of Government will host “Facing the Global Immigration and Refugee Crisis” in Albany. The forum will reflect on past conflict and violence that has led to mass immigration and feature Maher Nasser, director of the Outreach Division for the United Nations’ Department of Public Information; Jill Peckenpaugh, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; and Sana Mustafa, Bard College Student and Syrian Refugee.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet on results of subcommittee meetings held recently and conduct other general business.
  • At noon, the Committees on Land Use and Technology will meet for a joint preliminary budget hearing.

Friday
Friday is the second annual Student Voter Registration Day in New York City, which aims to get newly eligible voters registered in time to vote in April’s New York State presidential primary.

At 8:15 a.m. Friday, Chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Shola Olatoye will be speaking at a CityLaw Breakfast at New York Law School.

At noon Friday, state Senator Jesse Hamilton, colleagues, and partners will hold a press conference at the Howard Houses Community Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn to announce the “first technology and wellness center at a public housing site in the United States.” The “CAMPUS” will serve as a resource center for technology, health, and career development. Hamilton will be joined by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Assembly Members Latrice Walk and Nick Perry, and other officials, residents, partners, and organizations.

At the City Council on Friday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Youth Services will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Health will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.

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Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

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by Leanna Carroll and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 14 Sun, 13 Mar 2016 06:00:00 +0000
City Council Raises Provoke Questions About Staff Pay http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6211:city-council-pay-raises-provoke-questions-about-staff-pay http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6211:city-council-pay-raises-provoke-questions-about-staff-pay city council members budget announcement

Members of the City Council (photo: William Alatriste) 


As New York City Council members voted on a package of legislation that increased their salaries from $112,500 to $148,500, aides to two Council members stood silently in the balcony of the Council chambers, wearing white t-shirts that read, “Paycheck to Paycheck, Pay Raises for All.”

The $36,000 salary bump for Council members is about the same amount of money that many of their staff members make in a year. These are aides filling roles such as communications director, scheduler, and community liaison. Chiefs of staff usually make quite a bit more. At a hearing on the bills two days before the vote, several Council members spoke in support of also providing pay raises to their staff members. The silent demonstration by staffers from the offices of Council Members Inez Barron and Rosie Mendez was itself a coordinated effort done with the support of Barron and Mendez.

City Council members set the salaries of their staff members and decide how many aides to employ - the average staff size is about seven. The amount Council members choose to spend on salaries comes out of their office budgets, which are set by the Council Speaker’s office.

City Council members say that a push to increase member budgets was initiated when it became clear that Council members themselves would be getting raises. In early February, at about the same time the Council was voting through raises for all city elected officials, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito provided Council members with about $29,500 each in additional funding for their offices.

“In my tenure, I have increased the budgets of Council members, and I plan to do that again,” Mark-Viverito said at a Feb. 18 event organized by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

According to information obtained by Gotham Gazette through a Freedom of Information Act request, most Council members are now receiving a total of $409,000 to run their offices in the current fiscal year (FY 2016).

That $409,000 is used by Council members to pay the rent for their district offices, the salaries of their staff members, and OTPS, or other than personal services, which include supplies, equipment, contractual services, and other operating expenses. The recent $29,500 bump will allow Council members to give raises to their staffers, if they so choose.

Even with an increase to staff salaries, aides and Council members alike criticize current dynamics, which, they say, leave staff members significantly underpaid and overworked. Members argue that they are forced into a no-win decision whether to hire fewer staff members or pay more aides less and decry a situation where they lose staff to higher-paying government jobs at city agencies. They also say that current pay structures diminish the professionalism of Council staff and some call for more drastic increases to their office budgets.

“The mayor’s office and city agencies can easily poach employees from the City Council, draining it of institutional memory,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres, himself a former Council aide. “You have City Council staff who are performing professional functions on complex matters of budgeting, land use, and policy, without professional salaries. You have City Council staffers who do overtime without receiving overtime. And if you were to divide the salary of a dedicated Council staffer by the number of hours worked, the City Council may very well be guilty of wage slavery.”

Council Member Helen Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette that “as soon as the Mayor said he was calling for the quadrennial [compensation] commission and they started to meet…one of the things I started pressing for in the Council among ourselves as a body is if we’re going to be put in a situation where we’re giving ourselves raises, I’m not sure I can do that without giving my staff a raise.”

As mandated by law, Mayor de Blasio appointed an independent commission to review the salaries of elected officials last September, setting off a process that concluded on Feb. 19, when the mayor signed into law a package of legislation raising the salaries of all New York City elected officials. This includes the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, five borough presidents, five district attorneys, and 51 City Council members.

The City Council held a hearing on the legislation Feb. 3, and approved the package of raises and reforms on Feb. 5.

Rosenthal and other Council members expressed concern about the salaries of their aides to Mark-Viverito, and say that the speaker has responded to those concerns. “Members have been speaking on behalf of our staff,” said Council Member Jumaane Williams, “this is something that I’ve brought up before, and I’m very happy that the speaker is receptive.”

“The speaker is adding money - the same amount of money to each of our lump sums [office budgets],” Rosenthal said. “I will be allocating that for staff salaries, and I’m relieved and grateful for that.”

The budget increase, like Council members’ salary increase, is retroactive to Jan. 1, making it part of the current fiscal year 2016 budget. Council members and Mark-Viverito may look to include another increase during fiscal year 2017. The FY17 city budget is being negotiated and will go into effect July 1.

Equalizing most members’ office budgets is a part of Mark-Viverito’s efforts to reform and democratize the City Council. In fiscal year 2015, about half of the City Council received $382,000 for their office budgets, while other members received $377,000. Council sources say this is another example of Mark-Viverito moving away from the practices of her predecessors, who used funding levels - both for office budgets and discretionary money to award nonprofits - to exercise control, reward allies, and punish those who were seen as out of step.

Under Mark-Viverito, five Council members have received more than others for their office budgets. For the current fiscal year, chair of the finance committee Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the land use committee David Greenfield, and Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer all receive about $70,000 more to run their offices, with an annual budget of $479,000. Each of these three is provided increased funding based on heightened levels of responsibility.

Council Member Donovan Richards, whose district includes the Rockaways and requires him to run two offices, receives $454,000 this year. Council Member Alan Maisel has the highest office budget of any Council member - $489,000 annually - $80,000 above the majority of Council members.

When asked why his office budget was so much higher than that of the average Council member, Maisel told Gotham Gazette, “I have no idea. I don’t know what the reason is - maybe something built in from a previous Council member? I don’t know.” Maisel seemed surprised to hear he receives a larger office budget than other Council members, and asked what others receive.

The speaker’s office was also unable to specify why Maisel receives a significantly higher office budget, saying only that the speaker retains the discretion to provide additional resources in limited circumstances - such a leadership positions, committee responsibilities, and hardship. Maisel succeeded Lew Fidler on the Council starting in 2014, the same year Mark-Viverito became speaker.

In a statement, Council Member Richards explained to Gotham Gazette that he receives more for his office budget because “In District 31, we cover a large diverse constituency that has vastly different needs, from Southeast Queens, all the way to the Rockaways. The geographical distance between the two areas requires two district offices to handle the constituent caseload and day-to-day services more efficiently, which also requires additional staff to meet the needs of residents throughout the district.”

Simply increasing Council members’ office budgets does not guarantee their staff members will receive a raise. Some Council members may choose to distribute the added $27,000-$32,000 in a way that gives each of their aides a pay raise, others may use the money to hire one additional staff member. Some Council members may not even use the added funds for salaries, but rather, to pay rent for a better office space or an additional office, or use it for OTPS.

The $409,000 most Council members currently receive to run their offices creates a certain sense of equity, but does not take into account differing needs. Office rent may be higher on the Upper East Side than on Staten Island, for example, while Council members serving poverty-stricken districts may have cause to provide more robust constituent services than others, requiring them to hire additional constituent liaisons. Some Council members may need to offer different language services to their constituents.

“My rent, I’m pretty sure, is twice as high as some of the members in the Bronx,” Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, said. “And certainly, my staff, who mainly live in the district, probably need a little bit higher salaries to be able to stay, as opposed to someone in the Bronx. It’s a reality that I find challenging.”

“Some of us have more demands on our staff than others, and there’s no recognition of that,” said Council Member Barron, who represents Brownsville and other parts of Brooklyn. Though office rent in poorer districts may be more affordable, Barron says, Council members representing “the Upper East Side, Upper West Side don’t have the same kinds of problems in terms of dealing with their constituents, agencies, and the problems that some of us in the more impoverished neighborhoods have. I think there should be some consideration of that.”

Council Member Williams, who represents Flatbush and other parts of Brooklyn, also points to differences in demands on district offices. “Some districts have a high, high volume of constituent services, some districts have a lower amount, there are some districts that focus more on legislation,” Williams explained. “The needs of every district’s very different, you may have a constituent liaison that sees one person every day, and another that sees one person every hour.”

Council members may hire as many staffers as they see fit, and the number of people they employ as well as the positions they name largely depend on the differing needs of their districts. Staff listings indicate Council members employ an average of seven aides, with some employing as many as nine or as few as four.

Council members must choose between hiring a smaller staff and paying each aide more, or hiring more and paying each less.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Council Member Antonio Reynoso, a former Council staffer himself, told Gotham Gazette. “Either we have three staff members and pay them a good amount for what they’re worth, or we have eight members and everyone’s taking a hit.”

Council Member Torres, who represents parts of the Bronx, told Gotham Gazette he is currently experiencing some staff turnover, which he is “using to prioritize pay increases for existing staff. Even though there’s a real need for added capacity and more staffers.” Torres says he is choosing not to hire additional staff “because I cannot allow my staffers to earn what is an abysmal wage. It’s a death wage in some senses.”

Staffers often end up filling numerous roles, with aides in many offices serving as both legislative director and budget director, legislative liaison and scheduler, or director of communications and legislation. Council aides are often in their twenties, working long hours, and eyeing other, higher-paying positions in government.

Salaries for the same position can vary widely across offices, with Council members’ chiefs of staff - the highest paid staff position - receiving between $37,700 and $92,000 annually, according to 2015 payroll records compiled by The Empire Center. Most communications directors received between $28,700 and $50,000.

During the only hearing on the package of bills that raised the salaries of Council members by $36,000 and modified rules by which members earn additional money, Council members defended the raise by pointing out how hard they work, that their responsibilities have increased over the years, and that they work long hours. The workload of Council aides has increased as well.

“We work more than 60 hours a week,” Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said during the Feb. 3 hearing. “For me, this is a big compromise that we’re doing…our salaries should be $175,000,” added Rodriguez, who in 2015 paid his seven staffers at least $15,038 and at most $56,231.

In December, Speaker Mark-Viverito submitted a letter to the quadrennial commission describing the Council’s workload and reasons why Council members deserve a raise. “Each Member represents on average about 160,000 New Yorkers,” Mark-Viverito wrote, and “the time commitment for Council Members is considerable and most describe their jobs as ‘24/7,’ requiring them to be available around-the-clock.”

“Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session,” Mark-Viverito added.

Given Council members’ rationale that their workload has increased and they therefore deserve a raise, Joy Simmons, chief of staff for Council Member Barron, told Gotham Gazette she believes “staff members should also get raises, because the burden of that work falls on our shoulders…there’s many staff members living paycheck to paycheck."

“Many Council members work ’24/7,’ but their staffs do as well,” said Simmons, who was one of the staff members to stand in silent protest at the Feb. 5 vote - she also testified before the Council on Feb. 3. “We’re working way more than 40 hours and not getting overtime, and there’s no provision to make more, and if you don’t work those hours they’ll find someone else who will.”

“My staff definitely works more than 40 hours a week,” Reynoso said. “My staff works just as hard, if not harder, than me, they’re out there every day, in meetings, in the nighttime. They represent me, so when I can’t go somewhere, they’re out there.”

“There are staffers that are coming in the office at 9 a.m. and are done at their community board meetings at 9 p.m.,” Torres said, “and you’re receiving $25,000, $30,000, $35,000 a year? That’s absurd. That’s unlivable.”

Low wages aren’t only hurting staffers - they diminish the professionalism of the City Council itself, Council members argue, and lead to a high turnover rate. Torres, Williams, and Reynoso believe Council members are given too few resources to adequately compensate their aides, causing Council members’ offices to become “a training ground for other agencies or other companies, because they see the work that the staff does, and they come and get them and we just can’t compete because there’s not enough money,” in Williams’ words.

Reynoso says staffers often leave for similar positions in the mayor’s office that pay $60,000 a year - nearing the high end of what Council aides are paid. Other opportunities in city government abound. The Department of Education has six employees who do communications work - the highest paid among them (senior advisor to Chancellor Fariña for communications and external affairs) earned $177,235 in 2015. The DOE’s top press secretary earned $114,987, while the three deputy press secretaries made $69,065, $44,603, and $25,992, according to Empire Center payroll records. A DOE assistant press secretary made $54,685

“We’re like the minor leagues,” Reynoso said. “Many of our staff members get taken away from us to work in jobs that pay substantially more, we can’t compete. So we end up doing all the training, all the development, and then after a year, they’re gone…It takes away from the professionalism that we have at our office.”

Reynoso said that for certain types of work Council members do, such as land use, it would be ideal to hire a planner with a Master’s degree, yet because Council members are unable to offer them a competitive wage, they end up hiring someone who may not be a planner, but knows about planning, meaning the city ends up without “the top professionals to do these things that are an important part of our job.”

Though the added funds to Council members’ office budgets may “help us get closer to fairness,” Reynoso says, “it’s still nothing that can help us get competitive with the mayor’s office. Outside of doubling our staff budgets, it’s not going to be competitive.”

Ultimately, it is up to the Council speaker to set the office budgets for members. Yet, some question why Council members don’t push more aggressively for a significant increase to their office budgets to be included in the city budget.

“These Council members have supported other workers out there looking for pay increases and looking for protections within their industries - you know, airport workers, retail workers,” Ndigo Washington, legislative director for Council Member Barron, told Gotham Gazette, expressing dismay at the fact that Council members will so readily push for higher wages for other workers, but leave their own staffers poorly compensated.

More could be done to address the wage situation beyond simply increasing Council members’ office budgets. There should be standards, some Council members argue, for a minimum salary for a chief of staff, legislative director, budget director, deputy chief of staff, and all typical staff positions.

“I think there’s an argument for a minimum,” Torres said, which he said would likely require a change to Council rules.

A minimum standard could help, Council members and staffers say, though setting a uniform pay rate for certain positions is something to “be wary of,” according to Williams, given the vastly different roles and responsibilities of staffers from office to office.

In the state Assembly, members’ office rents and utilities are paid through the central office. If the City Council were to alter the rules to allow rent to be paid centrally, it could free up money in Council members’ office budgets to be used to better compensate staffers, assuming significant deductions in those budgets would not be made.

“Maybe the rent could be paid centrally,” Torres said, “so that it has no impact on the individual budgets of members.”

Another issue raised by Washington and Simmons, both aides to Council Member Barron, is ensuring raises for staffers. “We’ve been told in the past that we might get a cost of living increase,” Washington said, “but we don’t know.” There is also the lack of job security or protection, as staffers are considered at-will employees. Council sources say they was a cost of living increase in 2015, one that applied to Council employees (working on the Council central staff and for members) with qualifying longevity.

“What you have is a tale of two cities at City Hall,” said Council Member Torres. “You have egregious pay disparities in pay between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council...A poorly resourced City Council with poorly paid staff cannot possibly live up to its charter-mandated roles as a co-equal branch of government.”

“It’s a professional position and we’re reducing it to the status of a glorified internship,” he added, of aide roles.

Simmons says that she and her colleagues hope that the mayor and the Council will “pass a budget that includes raises for members of Council staff, and even central staff.”

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Raises Provoke Questions About Staff Pay Tue, 08 Mar 2016 00:01:45 +0000
Voters to Fill Vacant Bronx Council Seat in Special Election http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6185:voters-to-fill-vacant-bronx-council-seat-in-special-election http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6185:voters-to-fill-vacant-bronx-council-seat-in-special-election salamanca

Rafael Salamanca meets voters before Tuesday's election (via @JohnJrBX)


Residents of District 17 in the Bronx will vote for a new City Council Member on Tuesday in a special election to fill the vacancy left by former Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who resigned and the end of last year. As with all special elections for the City Council not held on regularly scheduled election days, it is a nonpartisan contest, meaning no candidate will appear on the major party ballot lines. Instead, each candidate had to create his or her own “party.”

Voter turnout is expected to be low and the winner will likely be decided by level of institutional support - from labor unions and the Democratic Party apparatus - and access to campaign funds. The winner is all but certain to enter the Council as a Democrat - the Bronx is overwhelmingly Democratic in terms of party registration and the party identification of elected officials (every elected official representing the Bronx at all three levels of government is a Democrat).

There are six candidates still in the running, down from eleven initial contenders after several were knocked from ballot contention for various mistakes. Those who will be on the ballot include small business owner George Alvarez; Marlon Molina, a community activist and banker; Joann Otero, former chief of staff for del Carmen Arroyo; Julio Pabon, an activist and entrepreneur; J. Loren Russell, a financial consultant; and Rafael Salamanca, Jr., district manager at Bronx Community Board 2.

In this crowded field, Salamanca, Jr. seems to be the frontrunner, with the backing of the Bronx Democratic County Committee, support from Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and virtually all of the City Council members from the Bronx, as well as the endorsement of Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s mother, Carmen Arroyo.  

Salamanca, who was also endorsed by the District Council 37 labor union, has far surpassed his opponents in raising campaign funds. He has raised $70,107 and has received $36,732 in public matching funds. Other candidates have raised $7,000-$20,000. Russell and Pabon are the closest - Russell has raised $15,795 and received $42,846 in matching funds; Pabon has raised $15,813 and received $33,432 in matching funds.

“Usually the candidate with the most institutional support wins a special election,” said Jerry Skurnik of Prime NY, a political consultancy. He pointed out that the short timeframe within which special elections are held are an advantage to candidates like Salamanca, who have the local political machinery behind them. City Council special elections are usually held on the first Tuesday after a seat has been vacant for 45 days.

Skurnik also said that other candidates only stand a chance if they can outspend opponents or invoke wide grassroots support. “There have been some upsets in special elections, but there’s usually some kind of special circumstance which doesn’t look like it’s happening in this Bronx special election,” he said.

One major issue in specials is getting people out to vote. “Between 5 and 10 percent of registered voters is relatively good for a special election,” Skurnik said. The numbers bear this out.

Three recent elections to City Council seats give an indication of what turnout looks like. Donovan Richards won the 31st Council District in Queens in a special election held on Feb. 19, 2013. There were 76,866 active voters enrolled in the district in 2012 (the number increased to 81,165 as of April the next year). Of those active voters, 9,147 - or 11.89 percent - cast their ballots in that special election, with 2,646 voting for Richards.

The other two elections, for District 51 in Staten Island and District 23 in Queens, were technically not special elections, in that they weren’t nonpartisan, but they were held this past year to replace two Council Members who resigned midway through their terms. A primary was held in September followed by the general election on November 3, Election Day. But the voter statistics are comparable.

Held in a low-key election cycle in an off-year, turnout was low, but relatively higher than with Richards’ election. In District 23, there were 11,305 votes cast (13.9 percent of the 81,027 active voters in the district), with 6,156 going to the winner, Barry Grodenchik, a Democrat.

In District 51, Republican Joe Borelli received 9,111 votes out of the 13,002 cast (14.2 percent of the 91,224 active registered voters) even though he ran unopposed.

To reach out to the 71,795 active registered voters from District 17 to get them to vote in Tuesday’s special election, the Bronx-based nonprofit Nos Quedamos Community Development Corporation partnered with the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s voter engagement arm, NYC Votes.

Nos Quedamos organized a community forum last month, livestreamed by BronxNet, to inform residents of del Carmen Arroyo’s resignation and to introduce the candidates who wanted to replace her. Ten of the eleven initial candidates were present.

Nos Quedamos has also been holding a voter registration drive for the last two weeks, first targeting the large concentration of homeless shelters in the district, whose residents are often overlooked when it comes to registering to vote. As election day approaches, they have been focused on reaching out to the nearly 4,000 housing units in the 19 buildings in their organization’s network.

“For special elections like this, (turnout) is a concern for us because it’s not on everyone’s radar,” said Jessica Clemente, CEO and president of Nos Quedamos. She said the resignation announcement being made over the holidays meant that very few people were aware that their Council representative had resigned and Nos Quedamos had little time to tell them. “Forty-five days is a blink of an eye,” Clemente said, pointing out that grassroots door-knocking is crucial in such a short time frame to inform voters and bring them to the polls.

“You are always going to have low voter turnout when a special election is held,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government advocacy group. “But better it’s held in an open nonpartisan way than a closed partisan way because voters at least have a choice of candidates in City Council special elections.”

Citizens Union last year called for state legislature vacancies to be filled through nonpartisan elections so that they are no longer “party-controlled coronations.”

Dadey conceded that party support does still have a role to play in nonpartisan elections. “The major political parties still exercise a great degree of control because of their ability to pull out voters and support candidates,” he said. “But we’ve seen time and time again where the favorite candidate does not always win. So there’s an opportunity for community leaders unaffiliated with a political party to win an election.”

[Related: Special Election Spotlights Machine Politics in the Bronx]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

Note: this article has been updated to clarify that it is Carmen Arroyo, not Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who has endorsed Salamanca; and to add campaign finance information for candidate J. Loren Russell.

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Voters to Fill Vacant Bronx Council Seat in Special Election Mon, 22 Feb 2016 03:24:54 +0000
Special Election Spotlights Machine Politics in The Bronx http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6091:special-election-spotlights-machine-politics-in-the-bronx http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6091:special-election-spotlights-machine-politics-in-the-bronx heastie diaz jr crespo

Heastie, Diaz Jr., Crespo (l-r)


By the time Julio Pabón got called in for his interview with the Bronx Democratic County Committee, he had heard all the chatter. Political insiders were saying that party leadership had already chosen a candidate. What's more, Pabón had seen a telling flyer for a Christmas event to be held at a local public school. It had been emailed, on Dec. 8, from the state Senate account of Ruben Diaz Sr. At the head of the flyer were portraits of New York Republican Party Chair Ed Cox and the senator himself, alongside a relatively unknown community board manager—Rafael Salamanca—the rumored choice of the county organization in the upcoming special election for the District 17 City Council seat, from which Maria del Carmen Arroyo recently resigned.

Present at the interview, conducted on Dec. 11 at the Bronx Democratic County Committee headquarters, were a handful of elected officials, including Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, the committee chair, Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, City Council Member Annabel Palma, along with other committee members and Democratic club members. Stanley Schlein, a Bronx attorney and long-time Democratic operative, made an appearance toward the end of the interview, according to Pabón.

In Pabón's retelling, Crespo opened the interview with an assurance that, contrary to what he may have heard, the committee was yet to settle on a candidate. It was how the interview ended, however, that further cemented Pabón's belief that the opposite was in fact true. Crespo asked him, Pabón recalled to Gotham Gazette, whether he would step aside if the committee chose to support another candidate.

BX Christmas Cox Diaz Sr Salamanca Flyer BX Three Kings flyer Salamanca Crespo others

One week later, on Dec. 18, at a holiday event hosted by party leaders in the Bronx, Diaz Sr. and Crespo all but endorsed Salamanca, whose candidacy was still unofficial, before the assembled crowd. Pabón, in the meantime, got word from an influential stakeholder that the county chair had called to solicit support for the district manager. On Dec. 29, Diaz Sr. sent another flyer, this one for a Three Kings Day event, with Rafael Salamanca alongside the senator, Crespo, and Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda. 

Salamanca, who was officially endorsed by the county committee on Jan. 6, told Gotham Gazette that he received no preferential treatment.

"I put in work to get to where I'm at," the Community Board 2 district manager said. "And I'm pretty sure...I went through the interview process just as everyone else went through the interview process, and I had to wait to get a phone call to tell me, 'Hey Raf, the committee has met and decided that you are the best-qualified individual for the seat.' I was home sweating like, 'Oh my God, what's going on?'"

For Pabón, however, there was never any suspense. Earlier in the year, he had met Crespo for lunch to discuss his interest in running for the District 17 seat in 2017, when Arroyo would have been term-limited. During that meeting, Pabón told Gotham Gazette, the newly minted Democratic chair asked him: "What would happen if we were to endorse you and you have a different position than the borough president or my own?"

"They are totally afraid of differences," said Pabón (pictured below), a community activist and entrepreneur who, in 2013, challenged the incumbent Arroyo in the Democratic primary for the District 17 seat. "They want a candidate they can easily mold, rather than one who thinks independently. They think their plan for the Bronx can only happen if they have total control."

pabon

Assemblymember Crespo did not respond to a request for comment about the interview process for the vacant District 17 seat. Given the advantages in resources they normally enjoy, county-backed candidates rarely lose local elections—and institutional support can prove even more critical in expedited special elections, which are typically marked by low voter turnout.

In the Bronx, concerns around open democracy, which have been present for decades, surfaced anew last November, when Democratic county leadership was widely criticized for orchestrating a backroom deal to replace then-District Attorney Robert Johnson. With Johnson resigning from the ballot after he had won the district attorney primary, Democratic leaders were allowed to handpick a candidate to replace him on the ballot. Current DA Darcel Clark was added to the district attorney ballot while Johnson landed in a judge's seat in the state Supreme Court.

"My contention has always been that it's a facade," Pabón said. "County leadership is trying to show that they are different from past organizations, which were all about exclusion and nepotism. But where else do you have a borough that is essentially run by four families? Where are the reformers in the Bronx?"

The current leadership took control of the Bronx Democratic organization in a 2008 insurgency that came to be known as the "Rainbow" rebellion. The overthrow of former party chairman, Assemblymember José Rivera, would give rise to a new era of party politics, so the new leaders claimed—one more committed to inclusion and welcoming of diversity.

Yet numerous sources interviewed for this article see that promise as unfulfilled. "For the most part, there has not been a major change in terms of how inclusive the whole process is," Angelo Falcón, a political scientist and founder of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, told Gotham Gazette. "It's not necessarily a process of democratization, but more a transition from one set of elites to another. You have a certain disruption: new players come in, old players move out."

"In the Bronx," Falcón added, "you still have a relatively small number of politicians controlling everything, and mechanisms like community boards are not very strong."

Critics of the Bronx establishment argue that community boards serve as rubber stamps for the borough president, currently Ruben Diaz Jr. "Salamanca is, in essence, already an employee," said Aubrey-Eric Smith, vice president of the South Bronx Community Association, who is advising the Pabón campaign. "[Salamanca] serves at the pleasure of the borough president."

In a Jan. 7 phone interview, Gotham Gazette asked Salamanca whether he had ever been in disagreement, philosophically or on a particular project, with the borough president. "I can tell you what I disagreed with the mayor on," Salamanca responded. "That I can speak on."

Salamanca, who cited affordable housing and public safety as centerpieces of his platform, did not provide any instances of past disagreement with Diaz Jr.

Since the "Rainbow" rebellion, the leaders of the Bronx Democratic party have catapulted to the fore of city and state politics. Assemblymember Carl Heastie, Crespo's predecessor as county chair, is currently the speaker of the Assembly, and Sen. Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference in the state Senate. Ruben Diaz Jr., the borough president, is seen by some as a potential mayoral candidate. As the leaders of the "Rainbow" coalition have grown in stature, a handful of their candidates have been elected into public office, further strengthening the base from which they were able to take control of the party apparatus.

County leadership, many believe, is looking to solidify its base and consolidate all the players in the Bronx, to control policy and programming, and in preparation for a future Diaz Jr. run for higher office.

"They need to have as many individuals beholden to them as possible," Smith said.

In the 2013 primary for the same City Council seat, Pabón, the only Democratic challenger to the county-backed Arroyo, received some 2,000 primary votes—slightly over 30 percent of the total. That race is mostly remembered, however, for drama that played out in the courts, when the Pabón campaign challenged thousands of Arroyo nominating petitions, which included fraudulent signatures of "Derek Jeter" and "Kate Moss," among other public figures.

Pabón succeeded in invalidating more than half of Arroyo's 3,200 petition signatures as forgeries committed by three campaign employees (including an Arroyo nephew), two of whom had worked for the candidate and her Assemblymember mother in previous elections. Pabón's attorney at the time argued that the extent of the forgery should have been enough to knock the incumbent off the ballot based on "permeation of fraud," and his campaign maintains that the legal fight, which ultimately went to the Appellate Court for the First Department, raised questions about the independence of the borough's Board of Elections, as well as the separation of its legislative and judiciary branches.

"You're not going to beat a county-backed candidate in court," Aubrey-Eric Smith said. "The judiciary is not set up to make upsets of incumbents."

"The DA [Robert Johnson] could have gone after Ms. Arroyo, or investigated someone other than just the three low-level individuals," Donald Dunn, Pabón's attorney in 2013, told Gotham Gazette. "I think what they did was more of a dog and pony show than any real investigation."
With the Council seat now vacant, a handful of candidates have thrown their hats in the ring. One contender, Amanda Septimo, is district director for Congressional Rep. José Serrano. Septimo, whose age, 25, has grabbed attention, told Gotham Gazette that environmental and social justice are signature issues of her campaign. According to political insiders, a friendly office holder in District 17 could help buttress the increasingly vulnerable congressman against a primary challenge.

"Serrano hasn't had any real challenge in a long time, and if you look at his finances, he's gotten himself reelected with around $30,000, so it's very little money," Angelo Falcón said. "He could be at his weakest politically at this point. He's had for a long time an understanding with the political machine, and they haven't really gone after him, but there have been some threats."

Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. has in the past called on the long-serving congressman to step aside and, more recently, Council Member Palma contemplated her own challenge, but according to some insiders a more serious threat could emerge in the form of the borough president himself. Rep. Serrano reportedly ran afoul of Diaz Jr. for opposing $3.5 million in subsidies for the FreshDirect move to the Bronx.

At the time, the congressman expressed "deep misgivings about this project because of its impact on the health of Bronx residents."

(Septimo told Gotham Gazette that she has no position on the FreshDirect deal.)

Another Council contender, George Alvarez, held his own in a three-way 2014 Assembly race against the eventual winner, former White House staffer Michael Blake, and a candidate endorsed by the Democratic county committee, Marsha Michaels. Alvarez won nearly 1,200 votes, nearly as many as Michaels, and proved himself capable as a fundraiser. Alvarez is expected to garner support among the growing Dominican-American population in this predominantly Hispanic, though traditionally Puerto Rican, district.

Joann Otero, the long-time chief of staff to former Council Member Arroyo, is another leading contender for the District 17 seat. According to sources, Arroyo's first-choice successor was a Cablevision executive whose potential candidacy came against resistance from party leadership. Otero, who believes she is the candidate most able to "hit the ground running" in the middle of budget season, and touted her personal relationship with stakeholders in the district, confirmed to Gotham Gazette that she has not received the endorsement of her former boss. The candidate claimed that instead of succeeding her as a Council member, Arroyo proposed a "Let's go make cookies plan."

"We never really discussed it," Otero explained, "other than that we were going to do something else. With all the knowledge and skills that I've obtained from both the nonprofit and government sector, she said that makes me a very marketable individual to do just about anything."

Arroyo announced her resignation from the Council late last year, citing "pressing family needs," and has since joined the nonprofit Acacia Network. For the time being, it is unclear whether the former Council member will remain on the sidelines throughout the special election.

One of many unfolding subplots of the race is the role of 1199 SEIU. Montefiore health care network, whose employees are represented by 1199, is the largest employer in the Bronx. One declared candidate, Helen Foreman-Hines, was a political project director at the union, but resigned from 1199 after announcing her intention to enter the race. According to sources, Hines is no lock for support of the union that could prove decisive in this special election, to be held on Feb. 23.

As a nonpartisan special election, the District 17 race will last just 45 days in total. Many see the election as the first real test of Assemblymember Crespo's leadership in the Bronx Democratic party. The new chair is a protégé and close ally of the borough president. A defeat to a grassroots insurgent or other outsider could serve, some political insiders believe, as a symbolic blow to county leadership.

"Generally, the machine has the control in a special election, because there's very low voter turnout," Falcón said. "When you have control of the basic machinery, the petitioning process; when you have control even of the judges that rule on the petitions and all that stuff—that's a lot to go up against."

According to Falcón, political change in the Bronx has typically come in the wake of scandal, such as Gustavo Rivera's 2010 electoral victory over the subsequently convicted Pedro Espada Jr. "You need something extraordinary," he said. And even if a grassroots candidate were to buck history, and prevail in a special election, Falcón cautioned that the battle is not over.

"Once you are in, the problem is there are a lot of ways they can control you," he said, "No matter how old you are, you really need to have an independent base." 

***
by Gabe Ponce de León for Gotham Gazette. Ponce de León is a freelance journalist covering politics and policy in New York.
@GothamGazette

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Special Election Spotlights Machine Politics in The Bronx Fri, 15 Jan 2016 01:19:10 +0000
New York City Needs Supervised Injection Facilities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6053:new-york-city-needs-supervised-injection-facilities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6053:new-york-city-needs-supervised-injection-facilities mccray bassett thrivenyc

First Lady McCray & Health Comm. Bassett (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


There is a hot topic trending in the debate over the war on drugs: should there be safe places for intravenous drug users to inject? A panel of experts from around the world convened a symposium in New York City to share their experiences and the panelists and their sponsor, VOCAL NY, called for such a facility in the city. They are completely correct.

There are an estimated 100 supervised injection facilities worldwide and advocates credit them with reducing both overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases (HIV and hepatitis C). These facilities offer clean needles, a sterile environment, and emergency services in the case of an overdose. They also provide education, counseling, access to treatment, and other services that might save users' lives.

Without such refuge, addicts resort to "whatever it takes" to get high and the resulting health problems resonate throughout society by way of the spread of infectious disease and the death of loved ones.

The rise in heroin, the primary drug used via injection, is well-documented and New York is no exception. Staten Island is the borough hardest hit by the heroin epidemic; 74 people there died of overdose in 2014. Many heroin users began by taking prescription painkillers that are chemically similar and after becoming addicted find that heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain.

Mayor de Blasio traveled to Staten Island in early December to announce measures addressing the heroin crisis there. He has made naloxone, an overdose antidote, available in pharmacies without a prescription and promised to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment by licensing more physicians to prescribe maintenance drugs that dull the cravings for heroin.

These are good steps. We still need supervised injection facilities.

Naloxone does not prevent overdoses which can occur from the improvised situations that users often find themselves in. Supervised facilities prevent overdoses by providing an environment that is cleaner and less chaotic than, say, a gas station restroom.

The spread of infectious disease through unsanitary conditions and instruments represents an even deadlier and widespread threat than overdose - infected users spread disease to unsuspecting loved ones, often through sexual intercourse.

One of the thorniest problems in combating illegal drugs is the fact that they are illegal and addicts, because they are punished, deplored, and shamed for their disease, live in the shadows, apart from mainstream society. Supervised facilities provide a place where they are not judged. Staff, often recovered addicts who understand their dire situation, can offer users a path out of their misery and provide education on infectious diseases and methods of prevention.

Supervised injection facilities are one example of the "harm reduction strategy" towards substance abuse. Needle exchanges are another example; they accept the fact that users will utilize infected needles if that is their only choice, but respect that users are intelligent and prefer clean needles if they are available. The immediate result of needle exchanges is fewer persons infected with HIV and Hepatitis C, thus the harm of addiction is reduced. New York City has 15 needle exchanges, but only one on Staten Island and, sad to say, no one is asking for more.

The harm reduction strategy is the polar opposite of the 50-year-long "war on drugs" which was lost long ago, though few will admit it. Throughout the world opinion is shifting towards decriminalizing all drugs. A recent draft United Nations report recommended decriminalizing drugs and Portugal did so about ten years ago with no discernible detriment to civil society.

A recent editorial in the Staten Island Advance excoriated the idea of safe places like supervised injection facilities, saying that they encourage more drug use - but they do not; they encourage safe drug use.

It is the plain fact that many thousands of people, without any encouragement, are seeking out heroin for any number of reasons. On Staten Island, and throughout New York City, it is time to tear down the walls that separate us, bring users in from the cold, and offer them whatever help we can.

***
Christopher Beall works at a criminal justice nonprofit in the Bronx and is on Twitter @JailedintheUSA.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

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New York City Needs Supervised Injection Facilities Wed, 23 Dec 2015 16:01:24 +0000
A Family-Centered Approach to Homelessness Policy http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6050:a-family-centered-approach-to-homelessness-policy http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6050:a-family-centered-approach-to-homelessness-policy ralph homes for the homeless

Ralph da Costa Nunez, the author


The first two years of the de Blasio administration have been marked by a continued rise in the number of homeless children and adults, along with the resignation of both the deputy mayor for health and human services and the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. The Mayor's announcement of a comprehensive operational review of the city's homeless programs may be labeled by some as a sign of a system in crisis. However, the administration may actually be poised to seize this opportunity and radically overhaul the ineffective policies and practices of the past. The key question is: to what end?

Homeless children and their parents make up 70 percent of all the homeless individuals in the system. Tonight over 17,000 homeless parents with almost 24,000 children will call a shelter or a welfare hotel home. The sensational aspects of their problems routinely make headlines and overwhelm politicians, civic leaders, and taxpayers alike. It is time for those responsible for delivering the city's homeless services to face the facts about families—the majority of the city's homeless—who presently spend an average of 15 months living in shelter.

After serving 140,000 individuals over the past 30 years, most of whom were children, we at Homes for the Homeless have faced the facts. We've learned a thing or two about who homeless families are and what it takes to move them permanently into stable housing. The central lesson, contrary to popular belief, is that simply doling out government rental assistance or housing vouchers will not solve homelessness for most families. Our policymakers have to stop pretending that putting a roof over a family's head for a few months or even a year 'ends homelessness.' It doesn't. Over 60 percent of the families rehoused by the city have returned to shelter.

Truly solving homelessness will require we move from an emergency response to a triage response.

There are essentially three types of homeless families: (1) those parents over 25 who have work, tenancy, and life experience; (2) those parents under 25 who want to complete their education, start a work life, and get help with parenting; and (3) those parents who are first and foremost confronting severe challenges such as domestic violence, child welfare and neglect, substance abuse, and mental health issues. For the past 30 years, every administration's policies to combat family homelessness have been based on a 'one size fits all' rehousing strategy. The untainted truth is that homeless families are not all alike, their challenges and opportunities are not the same.

Anyone who has worked on the front lines in family shelters will tell you that the current system does not work and never will.

Providing housing to families not prepared to obtain, maintain, and retain their housing or their job results in repeated returns to the shelter system, which is both disruptive to the family and costly to the taxpayer.

The entire shelter system must be triaged into a network of specialized facilities that meet the needs of the three types of homeless families: (1) short-stay shelters to rapidly rehouse families who have work and tenancy experience and the highest probability of a successful transition; (2) intermediate-stay sites would provide mandatory literacy and job training to improve job readiness and retention, as well as job placement; and (3) highly specialized facilities would be equipped to tackle the severe chronic social issues plaguing the most vulnerable homeless families who find themselves homeless over and over again.

The efficiencies to be gained by such a reorganization would be enormous: the demand for shelter, the length of stay in shelter, the rate of return to shelter, and the cost of shelter would all decline.

So while the truth about homeless families is a bit more complicated than one would like, reorganizing the existing system to meet their actual needs is ground in common sense. Redirecting a misguided system requires strong political will and bold leadership. The time for a new and sensible approach is here.

***
Ralph da Costa Nunez is president and CEO of Homes for the Homeless, a social services provider that serves about 430 homeless families each night in the Bronx and Queens. Ralph is also president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, a nonprofit that studies the impact of public policies on homeless families, particularly children.

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A Family-Centered Approach to Homelessness Policy Mon, 21 Dec 2015 22:27:22 +0000
Discussion of New York's 'Broken Bail System' Comes to Brooklyn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5930:discussion-of-new-yorks-broken-bail-system-comes-to-brooklyn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5930:discussion-of-new-yorks-broken-bail-system-comes-to-brooklyn de Blasio Lippman

Mayor de Blasio testifies in front of Judge Lippman (photo: Demetrius Freeman, Mayor's Office)


New York's “broken bail system” puts an estimated 50,000 people behind city bars each year simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. These people are accused of low-level, non-violent offenses, many of whom wind up not even seeing trial or being convicted of a crime. But, they do not have the means to pay bail, part of system being questioned by many of late, including the state’s chief judge, elected officials at various levels, activists, and the experts who spoke on a panel Tuesday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The panel was titled, “Why New York? Our Broken Bail System.”

"Money bail fails to distinguish between those who are the most dangerous and those who are low risk,” said panel moderator Shaila Dewan, of the New York Times, “but it easily distinguishes between those who have money and those who don’t. New York State’s own chief judge has called this system ‘ass backwards.’”

Tuesday’s discussion occurred just days after Jonathan Lippman, the very New York State chief judge Dewan referened, announced a series of initiatives aimed at addressing what he called the “unsafe and unfair bail system,” including an automatic review of all misdemeanor cases in which the defendant cannot pay bail within ten days of arraignment, and new training for judges to encourage them to use some of the other types of bail that are already available, rather than predominantly using cash bail for defendants.

The purpose of bail is to ensure that defendants return for their court dates, but for various reasons, in New York bail has overwhelmingly become something that keeps poor people in jail as they await their trials.

Panelists in Brooklyn discussed the human, economic, and criminal impacts of the way the system is being run.

Kicking off the conversation, Dewan said, "The Supreme Court has said, ‘in our society liberty is the norm, and detention without trial is the carefully limited exception.’ It has become, unfortunately, in practice, the norm."

Dewan pointed out that there are several different bail options available, such as allowing defendants to pay ten percent of the bail to the court up front and sign a paper promising to pay the rest later, or simply releasing defendants pending trial.

One key issue criminal justice reform advocates have with the cash bail system is the fact that those who are held in pretrial detention tend to have worse outcomes to their cases. "They get longer sentences, they get less favorable plea deals, they’re more likely to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit," Dewan said, "and - perhaps most importantly - they are more likely to commit new crimes. So, we think we’re holding people in jail before trial to protect the public, but in fact we may be increasing the crime that’s out there."

Judge George Grasso, a panel member, said now is the perfect time to evaluate "the issues impacting the fairness of our criminal justice system. I think Judge Jonathan Lippman really hit the heart of this bail issue this past Thursday, I think he used the term ‘Alice in Wonderland’ - referring to the fact that we have a system that metes out punishment first."

"There are far too many people in jail who are really pretrial and who pose no threat to society," Judge Grasso continued. "Without waiting for state legislature to act, we can and we must make substantive changes to this system."

To that end, New York City officials recently announced new measures to assist nonviolent offenders stuck in the city's bail vice. In late June, the City Council approved Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito's proposal to set aside $1.4 million of the city's budget for a citywide bail fund to help pay bail for low-level defendants whose bail is set at $2,000 or less.

Though some taxpayers may rebuke the idea of their money being used to bail people out of jail, Mark-Viverito argues that the bail fund would actually save the city money, given the fact that it costs the city a little over $450 a day per inmate to keep people locked up. According to Mark-Viverito, a defendant who cannot afford bail stays in jail for an average of 24 days for nonviolent offenses, like jumping a turnstile or marijuana possession.

Similar initiatives, like the Bronx Freedom Fund and the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, have had excellent results.

Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, told the crowd gathered at the Brooklyn Historical Society, "In the past five months, the bail fund has paid for 133 clients, at a cost of about $110,000. Ninety-seven percent have made their court dates, even though they had no financial incentive to return. These are individuals who would have been jailed, perhaps for months, for the lack of a few hundred dollars. Out on bail, they’ve had significantly improved case dispositions. Fifty percent have had or will have dismissals. Not a single client has been sentenced to additional jail time. Clients who are out have not been coerced to plead guilty."

In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a separate $17.8 million initiative to reduce unnecessary jail time for those awaiting trial. The program aims to help roughly 3,000 low-risk defendants per year by substituting cash bail with a "supervised release" program, which would allow poor defendants to be released and supervised until their trial, rather than detained on Rikers Island.

Judge Grasso, speaking of his own involvement in the development of city-wide initiatives to reform the broken bail system, said, "We are in the process right now of expanding supervised release for indigent defendants tried with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. They will use a risk assessment instrument and focus on linking defendants with appropriate services, and a contact regime in lieu of cash bail, to release people on their own recognizance. That’s what we’re working on expanding right now through Mayor de Blasio’s task force - I happen to be a co-chair of the subcommittee that recommended that."

When asked why judges don’t use the many alternative forms of bail that are available more often, Judge Grasso’s answer made a solution to the problem sound shockingly simple, “Frankly we need more training in the court system. Not only do the judges need to be trained, but the court clerks who prepare the paperwork for the judges and the court need to be trained in that.”

“There’s about seven other types of bail,” Judge Grasso continued, “What we really need to do is embark upon top-to-bottom training, so the paperwork is available, clerks know what’s going on, and the judges are trained in how to use different types of bail for different types of situations. That’s something that Judge Lippman said this past Thursday that he’d make a top priority.”

As Dewan pointed out during the question and answer portion of the discussion, typically, judges set bail for two reasons: “one, so that person will return to court; two, to protect public safety in the meantime.” Yet “in New York State, the law says you can only consider their likelihood of returning to court; you can’t consider public safety?” Dewan asked.

“One of the problems in the state of New York is the fact that we’re not supposed to take public safety into consideration [when setting bail],” Judge Grasso said. “You can consider community contacts, you can consider the strength of the charges, but can’t consider public safety directly.”

As a result, wealthy, dangerous people may get out of jail to await their trial, while nonviolent, poor people must remain behind bars until their day in court. “It’s been a real serious problem in the State of New York,” Judge Grasso said. “Judge Lippman has been proposing legislation to change that, and so far it has stalled.”

Some criminal justice reform advocates want the city to entirely do away with money bail for low-level offenses, which officials in Washington D.C. did in the 1990s, opting instead for a system in which most defendants are either detained because they are considered a flight or safety risk, or let go without bail.

However, in New York, such an overhaul would need to be approved by state lawmakers in Albany, where legislation to change the bail system has gone nowhere time and again.

When asked by the Brooklyn Historical Society crowd what the obstacle to ending money bail in New York City is, criminal justice reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA Glenn Martin, who was previously incarcerated on Rikers Island, remarked, “the bail bondsmen have a very strong lobby, and they give money to our elected officials in New York State, which influences their decision making.”

Speaking to the larger issue of mass incarceration, public defender Josh Saunders told the crowd on Tuesday, “Let’s not forget that we are the world leader in incarceration - the United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Are there people who need to be incarcerated? Sure, but are we also all participating in this kind of diseased fiction that the way we solve problems is to put people in cages? I think we’re doing that too.”

With 50,000 people - the population of Hoboken, New Jersey - locked up annually on Rikers awaiting trial solely because they cannot afford bail, the human cost of putting those “people in cages” can easily be forgotten. Panel member Miguel Padilla spent over a week at Rikers because he did not have the $1,000 he needed to buy his freedom. While driving his intoxicated brother-in-law home from a family gathering, Padilla was pulled over for a broken tail light, then arrested for driving with a suspended license. Desperate to see his wife and three children again, Padilla said he pleaded guilty “just so I could come home.” As a result of his brief stint in Rikers, Padilla lost both of his jobs and gained a criminal record, which in turn left him struggling to find a new job for over a year.

"We should ask ourselves,” Judge Gasso said, “what is the primary purpose of our criminal justice system? Do we want a system that is based primarily on the concept of punishment, or primarily on the concept of justice?

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13

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Discussion of New York's 'Broken Bail System' Comes to Brooklyn Fri, 09 Oct 2015 20:15:23 +0000