Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1017 Mon, 19 Nov 2018 07:23:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Council Member Uses Campaign Funds to Sue City, Raising Questions http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8018-council-member-uses-campaign-funds-to-sue-city-raising-questions http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8018-council-member-uses-campaign-funds-to-sue-city-raising-questions city cm mark gjonal 5 emil cohen

City Council Member Mark Gjonaj (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


Bronx City Council Member Mark Gjonaj is using two campaign accounts to fund a lawsuit against New York City, raising questions about how candidates can spend their campaign money.

Over $17,000 from Gjonaj’s 2017 and 2021 City Council campaign accounts have gone to pay Dunnington, Bartholow, & Miller, a law firm representing then candidate Gjonaj in a suit where he is listed as the lead plaintiff against the City of New York, according to campaign finance records through July 2018.

Then a state Assembly member, Gjonaj initiated the suit during his campaign for City Council two weeks before the Democratic primary, alleging that the Bronx was overburdened with more homeless shelter and mental health patient beds, more so than any other borough. Specifically, the complaint argued that the Bronx pays more than its “fair share,” which is a provision in the city Charter providing for shared responsibility across the five boroughs for some of the most burdensome facilities.

The case has lasted for more than a year, and state court records show that Gjonaj switched attorneys in February to the firm of Edmond Pryor, his senior government advisor, according to LinkedIn. Gjonaj’s 2021 campaign account closed Dunnington, Bartholow, & Miller’s tab with a $9,372 payment in the latest filing over the summer.

City and state election law holds that campaign expenditures should be campaign-related. City elections are overseen by the Campaign Finance Board (CFB), where most of its regulations exist for candidates who opt-in to the board’s highly-praised matching funds program. Candidates who opt in get subjected to higher scrutiny and tighter rules as part of the deal for accepting public money.

It is unclear if the lawsuit constitutes campaign activity, with Gjonaj apparently pushing the boundaries by using campaign funds for a lawsuit that does not appear directly related to the act of running for office.

“I can’t see any way that funding a lawsuit with no relevance to a campaign can be a legal use of campaign funds, whether the candidate is participating in the matching funds program or not,” said election attorney Sarah Steiner. “The NYC Campaign Finance law is clear that campaign funds may be used only to defend matters related to campaign activity, and not at all to bring lawsuits.”

The CFB offers little guidance on these specific circumstances. For candidates who do not opt in to the matching funds program, there are fewer restrictions because they are not using public funds.

Council Member Gjonaj, a Democrat, did not opt in to the matching funds program, self-funding much of his past campaign, during which his campaign spent roughly $1.3 million, a record sum for a City Council campaign. The CFB rules document a wide variety of legal and illegal expenditures, but only if the candidate is using public funds. Nonparticipants are still subject to CFB jurisdiction and certain rules, and campaigns are audited by the CFB.

Two-thirds of all citywide candidates opted into the program in 2017, with 89 candidates, including Gjonaj, not participating. Many nonparticipants were incumbents facing limited or no competition who preferred to spend campaign funds by looser rules, at times to support government activity like participatory budgeting, though one Council member paid to air his own weekly radio show.

In 2016, the CFB changes were made, loosening some spending rules and adding one specific measure of oversight to police expenditures beyond those relating to matching funds. The rule states that the board monitors a non-exhaustive list of factors to check if campaigns are acting in bad faith, including “whether the campaign has demonstrated a pattern of making other expenditures not in furtherance of the campaign or impermissible post-election expenditures.”

A representative from the CFB told Gotham Gazette that it has not completed its cycle of audits of city campaigns where specific incidents can be investigated.

“Per CFB policy, we will not provide comment on issues associated with any candidate’s regular post-election campaign audit until after it has been completed,” said Eric Friedman, Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs for the CFB, in a statement.

Gjonaj’s suit itself had a lot to do with the planks of his campaign, and he was glad to use those raised funds to pursue his agenda, according to his office.

“From public safety to recreational funding, Councilman Gjonaj made the case throughout the 2017 campaign that the Bronx wasn’t getting its fair share. It was a message that Bronxites inherently understood and rallied behind on Election Day. He’s a fierce advocate for the Bronx, and if he has to go to court to protect our community from City Hall’s unfair policies, he will, as he did,” said Reginald Johnson, Chief of Staff to Gjonaj, in a statement.

The Bronx Council member’s lawsuit, where several other Bronx community and business leaders are also listed as plaintiffs, calls for the city to halt further construction of homeless shelters in the Bronx and to release indexes to measure “beds to population.”

“The disproportionate number of Residential Facilities sited in the Bronx interferes with and causes damage to Bronx community residents; interferes with the community's use of public resources; and has subjected and will continue to subject the community, including plaintiffs, to significant hazards and risks to health, safety and property,” reads the complaint.

The city has sought to dismiss the suit, arguing that the plaintiffs do not cite a specific enough harm beyond the community at large.

Because Gjonaj filed his suit as a candidate and as a private individual, he is not subject to regulations handed down by a State Supreme Court judge in February. That ruling found that City Council members cannot sue the city in their official capacities because members are supposed to be represented by the city’s Law Department, which is already representing the city.

The CFB allows for suits from candidates to be paid for with public funds when the campaign’s eligibility for public funds is challenged in court. While Gjonaj’s suit relates to policies of his campaign, he is not subject to the same rules as those using matching funds and there are no specific city rules pertaining to his situation.

“It sounds like the lawsuit relates to governmental policy but was not brought in connection with his holding of office or campaigning for office,” said Jerry Goldfeder, a special counsel with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, specializing in campaign finance law. “As such, it is not proper to use campaign funds for such legal representation.”

***
by Jake Shore for Gotham Gazette
  

Read more by this writer.

 

 

]]>
Council Member Uses Campaign Funds to Sue City, Raising Questions Thu, 25 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board Report Shows Small Donors with Large 2017 Footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7904-campaign-finance-board-report-shows-small-donors-with-large-2017-footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7904-campaign-finance-board-report-shows-small-donors-with-large-2017-footprint  cfb chart


As a mayoral charter revision commission readies to release proposals that would, if approved by voters in November, reduce the impact of large donors in municipal elections, a report released Thursday by the New York City Campaign Finance Board highlights how small donors are increasingly playing a larger role in city elections.

The CFB’s 2017 post-election report examined last year’s citywide election, in which the three citywide positions, five borough presidents, and all 51 City Council seats were on the ballot. The CFB administers the city’s campaign finance law and its public matching funds program, which currently matches the first $175 of every qualifying donation at a 6-to-1 ratio, incentivizing candidates, especially those who lack deep pockets or access to moneyed donors, to run for election on grassroots campaigning and fundraising. The program is considered a national model and has been emulated in municipal elections in other states.

In 2017, the eighth citywide election under the program, small donors played a bigger role than they ever have before, the report found. About 73 percent of contributors to mayoral candidates were small donors, giving $175 or less. That number was 43 percent in the 2013 election cycle and 70 percent in 2009.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Republican general election opponent, state Assembly member Nicole Malliotakis, both participated in the public funds program last year. De Blasio made a concerted effort to court small donors for his reelection after having faced allegations -- which also prompted official investigations that closed with no charges filed -- that his administration took favorable actions for donors with city business who gave large contributions to his campaign and two extra-governmental nonprofits he created to promote his agenda.

Notably, though the number of small dollar contributions were overwhelming -- 13,767 out of 18,796 contributions to mayoral candidates -- they only accounted for $783,699 or 11 percent of the total value of fundraising by all mayoral candidates. For comparison, there were only 656 contributions of the maximum-allowed value -- $4,950 for the last cycle -- which accounted for $3.24 million or 45 percent of the total fundraising by mayoral candidates.

Participation in the public funds program was also widespread, with 84 percent of candidates opting in for the September primary and 64 percent participating in the general election. In 2013, 91 percent of primary candidates and 62 percent of general election candidates were participants, with the larger primary percentage than 2017 likely due to the greater number of open seats in that cycle. In 2017, for instance, five out of 41 City Council incumbents did not face a challenger in the primary or general election.

In total, the CFB doled out $17.7 million in public funds, $5.9 million of which went to de Blasio and Malliotakis. The report also found that City Council candidates got more than 50 percent of their funds from the public matching program.

“For 30 years, New York City’s Campaign Finance Program has shaped the landscape of city elections and strengthened New Yorkers’ relationship to their government," said Amy Loprest, CFB executive director, in a statement. “Our 2017 Post-Election Report highlights why our program continues to be a model for citizens across the country who want to reduce the impact of big money in politics.”

The report also includes several proposals to improve the campaign finance program through legislation. The board recommends lowering contribution limits, increasing the matching fund ratio and the cap on public funds, lowering both the threshold for citywide candidates to qualify for public funds and the lowest matchable contribution.

The CFB issued these same recommendations to the mayor’s charter revision commission in June, and the commission has taken some of them into consideration as it creates its final proposals, which will be released in the coming weeks and put before voters on Election Day in November. Among other suggestions, the commission will recommend lowering contribution limits for citywide candidates to $2,000 for those who participate in the public funds program and $3,500 for those who do not. The current limit is $5,100. The commission is also proposing increasing the ratio of matching funds to 8-to-1 and matching the first $250 of every contribution for citywide candidates. Under another proposal, the public funds cap would increase from 55 percent of the spending limit for a position to 75 percent.

The charter commission is set to meet on Tuesday to vote on the final language of questions that will be placed on the ballot for voters. Should any of the CFB’s recommendations fail to make the grade, they will likely be taken up by the City Council in the form of legislation or by a separate Council-convened charter commission that will start to hold public hearings in mid-September and is planning to put recommendations before voters in 2019.

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

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Campaign Finance Board Report Shows Small Donors with Large 2017 Footprint Thu, 30 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Former and Current Elected Officials Discuss Potential Changes to City Campaign Finance System http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7854-former-and-current-elected-officials-discuss-potential-changes-to-city-campaign-finance-system http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7854-former-and-current-elected-officials-discuss-potential-changes-to-city-campaign-finance-system nyccfb twitter

Schaffer, Ulrich, Torres, Quinn, Gotbaum, Cho (l-r) (photo: @NYCCFB)


Former and current New York City elected officials broadly praised the city’s campaign finance system at a panel at New York Law School on Wednesday, while acknowledging that it could be improved to incentivize more reliance on small donors and streamlined to encourage first-time candidates to run for office.

The panel was hosted by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) and moderated by Daniel Cho, assistant executive director for candidate guidance and policy at the CFB. The panellists included sitting City Council Members Ritchie Torres and Eric Ulrich, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who shared their divergent experiences in running for elected office, raising campaign money, and navigating the city’s campaign finance program.

The CFB administers the system and its widely lauded public matching funds program, which intends to level the playing field in elections by matching the first $175 of every qualifying contribution at a 6-to-1 ratio. The rationale is simple: It motivates candidates for local and citywide office to cast a wider net and seek smaller individual donors rather than depend on wealthy contributors giving larger donations.

But, even as other jurisdictions have begun to model programs after New York City’s, the CFB is hoping to strengthen its system, further limit the size of maximum donations, and encourage pursuit of small donors, recommending a slew of reforms for consideration by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission, which will soon announce the proposals it will put before voters on November’s Election Day. CFB Chair Rick Schaffer gave opening remarks before the panel, during which he outlined the history of the campaign finance program and the CFB's new recommendations.

Those reforms include drastically lowering contribution limits, increasing the matching fund ratio to 8-to-1 and the value of matchable donations to $250, changing the thresholds for qualifying for matching funds -- including the addition of a geographic requirement where a citywide candidate would have to get at least 50 donations from each borough -- and lowering the minimum qualifying contribution from $10 to $5. In the coming weeks, the charter commission will issue its final report, and the proposals it lands on will be presented to voters on the November general election ballot.

[Read: Campaign Finance Board Proposes Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing]

Council Member Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, said the matching fund system was instrumental in his special election campaign in 2009, which he ran without help from labor unions or the local party establishment. “The critical factor in me deciding to move forward and to run was in fact the campaign finance program,” he said.

Torres, a Bronx Democrat, similarly said the program gave him “sufficient resources” to run his City Council campaign in 2013, but with one caveat. “The cost of running a campaign seems to vary widely from Council district to Council district.You could win a district like mine on the sheer strength of door-to-door campaigning,” he said.

Quinn -- who is the only mayoral candidate to ever max out on public matching funds, Cho later said -- subsequently noted that rent for campaign offices in particular is one cost that can be drastically different depending on the district.

Gotbaum, who is now executive director of government reform group Citizens Union, said that when she ran for public advocate in 2001, she raised large numbers of maximum donations -- currently $5,100 for citywide candidates -- because of a crowded field and because the CFB’s matching funds tend to be doled out late in the campaign. The program does appear to serve its intended purpose better for City Council candidates as citywide candidates continue to raise a majority of their funds from large donors.

Gotbaum supports the public funds program but worries about the public reaction to the cost of public financing if the matching amounts are raised, though she also acknowledged that not enough New Yorkers even know the program exists. “I think if you put the match up terribly high, those few people that participate may start to complain...I’m just throwing that out there as a point of discussion,” she said.

The CFB gives out public funds twice in an election in most cases, for the primary and then for the general. But Ulrich pointed out that for Republicans, who tend to be involved in far fewer primaries owing to Democrats’ heavy voter enrollment advantage in the city, matching funds are usually only disbursed once. In some cases, Ulrich argued, this gives Democratic candidates advantages in terms of getting their message out to voters and attacking their Republican opponent. “So I think the board should probably look at that,” he said. “It doesn’t affect most participants but...certainly in my part of the city, it does.”

All the panellists agreed that a big challenge to ensuring ordinary voices are reflected in elections is that voter participation and engagement is far too anaemic in New York City. They not only stressed the need for more voter education but also the dire necessity of reforming the state’s antiquated voting and election laws which are widely held responsible for low voter turnout.

“The reliance at the state level is on these big donors, corporate donors in fact,” said Ulrich, who ran for state Senate in 2012 and said he received dozens of large, unsolicited donations. “I would much rather if there was any way possible for state, federal, and city candidates for public office to be participating in a matching funds program. It’s a much more transparent, fairer, and I think ethical approach to running for political office.”

Ulrich’s Republican colleagues who control the state Senate have not had the same opinion, however, as the chamber has opposed most campaign finance reforms supported by the Democratic Assembly and Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as most voting and election reforms.

Quinn took particular issue with state election law’s LLC loophole, which allows hidden donors to legally circumvent the already high state contribution limits through multiple limited liability companies. As Council speaker, Quinn ushered in campaign finance reforms which included a prohibition against LLC donations in city elections. She also said the practice of intermediaries “bundling” donations from several contributors for a single candidate tend to be more corrupting than a single, maxed-out donation.

“That’s really where the amplification of corporate interests comes into place,” she said, urging the CFB to go beyond simply lowering contribution limits.

Torres also wanted to see “bolder” reforms. “Some of these improvements do feel incremental,” he said, pointing out the heavy reliance on large donors, particularly in the mayoral race. He wants to see a drastic reduction in the contribution limits. “I think it would create a system that is purely powered by small donations,” he said.

The Council member also noted that the recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- who ran on a platform opposed to corporate donors -- over Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in the June congressional primary shows a “millennial outcry” against excessive money in politics. “If the mayor’s charter commission were to radically reduce contribution limits in response to the national zeitgeist that’s taking hold, I think it would be a legacy achievement for the mayor,” he said.

The panellists also agreed that perception matters in politics, and that constituents need to be reassured that government is not for sale, with some discussion around the “doing-business” limits on donations from entities seeking or holding city contracts.

“For me, the standard is whether you contribute to the appearance of corruption,” Torres said, noting that Council members can raise substantial sums of money from industries that they regulate and that individual members also hold an almost “veto power” over land use matters that could be worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. “I’m not suggesting that this happens but the fact that it’s even a theoretical possibility is problematic,” he said. “A member could leverage the power you have over the [Uniform Land use Review Procedure] to extract sizable contributions. So why not foreclose that possibility.”

Ulrich blamed the negative perceptions that the public holds of New York politicians on the long and constant stream of state-level elected officials, mostly in the state Legislature, who have been convicted of corruption. “I think until Albany gets their act together and enacts some form of real and robust ethics reform and campaign finance reform,” he said, “that is going to overshadow...all the wonderful and great work that the CFB is doing.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Former and Current Elected Officials Discuss Potential Changes to City Campaign Finance System Wed, 08 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7744-mayor-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7744-mayor-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-campaign-finance-reform charter comm rev2

The Charter Revision Commission


The Charter Revision Commission empaneled by Mayor Bill de Blasio met on Thursday at NYU for the second of four expert advisory issue forums, discussing what could be the marquee issue for this year’s commission: changing the city’s campaign finance system. The first meeting, held Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform.

Like the first hearing, Thursday’s saw the commission hear from invited experts on the topic at hand, and was broken into two sections. For campaign finance, the first panel discussed context and perspective of the city’s system from politicians and experts, and the second provided recommendations.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by de Blasio, including Chair Cesar Perales, will finalize a list of proposed changes to the city Charter by early September that will then appear on the general election ballot in November for voters to approve or disapprove.

Representatives from the city’s nonpartisan Campaign Finance Board provided five recommendations to the commission for improving the city’s public campaign finance system and its centerpiece, the public matching funds program. The board recommends:

  1. Lowering individual contribution limits from $5,100 to $2,250 for citywide offices, from $3,950 to $1,750 for boroughwide offices, and from $2,850 to $1,250 for City Council seats.

  2. Increase the matching funds rate from 6-to-1 (for every dollar under $175 raised via an individual contribution, the city disburses $6) to 8-to-1. This would be coupled with an increase of the maximum matchable amount, from $175 to $250.

  3. Increase the cap on public funds as a percentage of a campaign’s total spending limit from 55 percent to 65 percent.

  4. Lower the threshold to qualify for matching funds for citywide races, from $250,000 from 1,000 eligible contributors for mayor and $125,000 from 500 contributors for public advocate and comptroller, to $125,000 and $75,000 respectively with the same number of contributors.

  5. Lower the minimum individual contribution counted toward the public match threshold, from $10 to $5.

Others, including advocates, elected officials, and academics, also provided recommendations to the commission, with some differing from the CFB and others in line with it.

The city’s public election financing system, whereby donations to candidates of up to $175 are matched by public dollars at a rate of 6 to 1, has been cited as a model nationwide for placing more power in elections in the hands of the average voter. City Council Member Carlos Menchaca testified to the committee that he never would have been able to mount an insurgent campaign without the system, and that it also allowed him to spend more time with voters rather than donors from out of the district.

“What the system allowed me to do was to have a conversation with donors at $5, $10, and my branded experience of $38 for the 38th District, about the campaign finance,” Menchaca said. “That was my beginning part of my conversation with everyone, that their dollars would multiply by six. That allowed folks to feel empowered in a challenger, and for people that were not entrenched in the system, which is where I had to go build my political support, became possible.” Menchaca said his average contribution amount for his 2013 campaign, in which he pulled off the rare feat of unseating an incumbent, was “around $100.”

The public matching program came into being in 1989, after a wave of corruption scandals in city, state, and federal government led to the passage of Local Law 8, which established a 1:1 match. The match was increased to 4:1 through the 1998 Charter Revision Commission, and was increased again to the current 6:1 in 2007.

The system has significantly lowered candidate reliance on political action committee (PAC) money and other “big money” donations found at other levels of elected government, including state-level elections in New York. The CFB presented data comparing an unnamed City Council member’s finances with that of a member of Congress and of the state Senate. The member of Congress raised 77 percent of their money from PACs and 0.6 percent from small contributions of $200 or less. The state senator raised 89 percent from PACs and 7 percent from small contributions. The City Council member, on the other hand, raised 25 percent from PACs, and 62 percent from small contributions when matching fund allocations were taken into account.

However, for citywide offices, the contribution percentages can be a red herring. In 2017, while 73 percent of contributions to mayoral candidates participating in the public match program came from donors who contributed under $175, 45 percent of the actual dollar value of the total contributions came from 650 individuals who donated the maximum for the 2017 election, which was $4,950 (it has since risen automatically, per law, to $5,100). For the City Council, the distribution is more equal, and in fact, Council candidates as a whole received more money in 2017 from small donors than from contributors of the maximum amount allowed by the program.

Non-participants in the program can take the form of a rich self-funder like Michael Bloomberg, but can also take the form of an incumbent without serious competition not wanting to use taxpayer funds for a formality election or interested in looser restrictions on their spending. Non-participation in competitive races is fairly rare, though. According to the CFB’s Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs, Eric Friedman, 28 out of 64 non-participants in the public finance system in 2017 reported raising $0.

Others who testified were largely in line with the CFB on raising the match rate and reducing the maximum allowable contribution by about half. Advocates broke with the CFB on the issue of the match cap: while the CFB recommended that the cap be lifted to 65 percent, Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany and Michael Malbin of SUNY Albany’s Campaign Finance Institute recommended that the cap be eliminated entirely, which would have the city provide more public funds relative to the spending limit.

“I don’t see what purpose that serves,” Malbin said of the matching cap. Camarda and Malbin both endorsed raising the rate of matching funds rate above 6-to-1, but did not recommend a specific rate.

For the 2021 election, the spending limit for a City Council candidate is set at $190,000, and the maximum public funds disbursement is $104,500, or 55 percent of the spending limit. Eliminating the cap would mean that a candidate could spend up to 85 percent of the spending limit using public funds. City Council Member Ben Kallos recently re-introduced a bill that would eliminate the matching funds cap.

CFB representatives were asked by Commissioner Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at NYU’s Brennan Center, why the board is endorsing a 65 percent cap instead of elimination. CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest said that raising it to 85 percent would be impractical.

“We make public funds payments to candidates who are on the ballot and who are opposed on the ballot, therefore we can only make those payments once the ballot has been set,” said Loprest. She noted that according to state election law, ballots could only be set after the end of petitioning. “The ballot is set roughly at the end of July, beginning of August. Which means that we make our first public funds payments at the beginning of August, which leaves about five weeks before the primary.” She noted that this would cause campaigns to be constrained to spending most of their money in the five weeks before the primary.

Camarda agreed in part.

“I think that in citywide races, 65 percent is plenty because citywide candidates don’t often hit the cap,” he said. “Our concern would be for City Council, because as I mentioned, 30 percent of the candidates in 2013 actually hit the cap.” The CFB stated that it wouldn’t oppose eliminating the cap, but that it was not its first preference.

The commissioners, including Chair Perales, a former Secretary of State under Governor Andrew Cuomo, appeared receptive to the changes proposed by the CFB and the other testifiers, for the most part. Most lines of questioning were of an inquisitive rather than adversarial tone. The commissioner who was most skeptical and critical of the proposed changes was John Siegal, an attorney and a de Blasio appointee to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“The reason, clearly, that mayoral candidates rely more on big contributions is because it takes a lot of money to run an effective mayoral campaign,” said Siegal, who donated $4,500 to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign. “And while it sounds good and feels good to say ‘let’s lower the contribution limit,’ that is going to have consequences. Candidates are going to have to work way harder to raise money. They’re going to have to spend a lot more time raising money.” He noted that there is an “efficiency to getting on the phone and getting 500 people to give $4,500 or $5,100 that is going to be lost here.”

The CFB’s Chair, Frederick Schaffer, said that he would agree with Siegal if the only recommendation made by the Board was to lower the contribution limit.

“That’s why we want to increase the match for citywide officials from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1, and increase the actual amount from $175 to $250,” Schaffer said. “We crunched those numbers precisely with this problem in mind, and we think that the overall effect of those three things together meets the concern that you have just expressed.”

Siegal was also critical of a proposed “geographical requirement” for citywide candidates, which would force them to fundraise around the city. Malbin’s presentation to the commission noted that most money raised for citywide contests comes from only five City Council districts, representing Manhattan around Central Park and Brownstone Brooklyn. For citywide candidates, Malbin recommended that they must show a minimum number of contributors in 20 of 51 Council districts to qualify for public matching funds. The CFB suggested that citywide candidates raise 50 contributions from each borough.

Siegal called this a “fundamentally different requirement than we’ve ever had in the system,” saying that previous campaign finance law was limiting the money candidates can raise rather than explicitly saying who it must be raised from, which he said would set a bad precedent, “engineering campaign fundraising.”

“Have you actually looked at how many Republicans raise 50 matching contributions in [the] Bronx? Or how many Democrats actually raise 50 contributions in Staten Island? And do we really want to tell candidates that they have to go out and introduce themselves to communities where they have no background and no ties, and the first thing they have to do is go ask for money. That doesn’t seem to me that it’s getting money out of politics, it seems to me like it’s pushing the fundraising race into places for other reasons,” he added.

Schaffer dismissed the notion that 50 contributions per borough was unattainable for a seeker of citywide office.

“We’re trying to identify people who are reasonably likely to be real candidates, and so we thought the number 50 was really quite minimal, even for a Democrat in Staten Island or a Republican in the Bronx,” Schaffer said. There are currently three citywide elected offices: Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller.

Other commissioners also had questions and concerns. Dale Ho, of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, questioned whether it was appropriate to put such specific numbers, limits, and thresholds into the city charter, which he characterized as difficult to change and rarely brought up for debate, versus the easier-to-change city code.

“As you can see from all this machinery here, [the charter] is quite difficult to amend,” Ho said. “If it turns out that the number should change over time, maybe the limits need to be reduced even more, maybe the match numbers need to go up even higher, maybe we miscalibrate something and we need to adjust something. If these changes are in the city charter, that kind of ties the hands of the city in a way that if they’re in the code, maybe they’re a little easier to adjust.”

Schaffer, a former top appointee in the office of the city’s Corporation Counsel, its top lawyer, said he believed that the City Council can amend the charter “just like ordinary legislation,” which Perales agreed with.

Other issues beyond those encompassed by the CFB’s recommendations also arose.

Government reform group Citizens Union remained neutral on increasing public funds disbursement to candidates, but gave suggestions for transparency measures if the commission decided to increase the disbursement. Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s director of public policy, called on the commission to prohibit public funds disbursed to candidates to be used to pay consultants that also lobby the city, subject candidate coordination with union members to campaign finance regulations, tighten Local Law 181, which regulates the nonprofits of elected officials, restrict the transfer of campaign funds running for one office to another office, and to transfer lobbying reporting and enforcement to the CFB.

When asked by Siegal if the CFB was interested in regulating lobbying, Loprest was ambivalent on whether the organization’s independence lent itself to being a watchdog on lobbying.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams advocated for eliminating money from politics entirely and moving to a 100 percent publicly funded system. Adams said that candidacies receiving public funding could be gauged by petition signatures, or by reaching a threshold through $1 donations that would end up in the public finance system. He also suggested that the members of the commission, none of whom have held elected office, were not fully equipped to know what raising money as a politician is like, and that they should hold a “mock election” to gain fuller experience.

“I think a good mock exercise is for everyone at CFB, everyone who’s making these decisions, to run a mock election,” Adams said. “Those who have never felt what what you go through to run an election can never really understand. I think to run a mock election, give them the task of calling people and giving them $500, if ever you want people to lose your number, try to raise that $500.”

Adams has already made his own appointee to the charter revision commission empaneled through City Council legislation, which will begin its business soon and put forth recommendations next year. Adams has chosen former City Council Member Sal Albanese, who has been a proponent for campaign finance reform, organizing much of his 2017 mayoral run around the “democracy vouchers” program that has been implemented in Seattle.

“Money is the enemy,” Adams said. “It is always going to be the enemy. We are always going to have a problem with corruption until we get money out of campaigns.”

The mayoral charter revision commission will meet twice more next week, on Tuesday and Thursday, to hear expert testimony on community boards and land use, then civic engagement and independent redistricting.

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform Fri, 15 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board to Propose Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7735-campaign-finance-board-to-propose-reforms-at-charter-commission-hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7735-campaign-finance-board-to-propose-reforms-at-charter-commission-hearing mayor cityhall march

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


New York City’s modern campaign finance system is undoubtedly a model program -- it’s being emulated in other municipalities -- that has diversified and democratized the city’s quadrennial local elections since it was created 30 years ago. Among its strengths is that the public-matching program is consistently tweaked and updated with the times, and the Campaign Finance Board is taking the opportunity afforded by a mayoral charter revision commission to propose further reforms to the system.

CFB officials are set to present five proposals to the charter revision commission, empaneled in April by Mayor Bill de Blasio, on Thursday afternoon, at an issue forum at NYU focused on campaign finance reform, which was one of the mayor’s stated goals in creating the commission. The commission has been holding public hearings for the last few months and is now digging deeper into a few core subject areas including election administration, voter access and participation, land use, community boards, civic engagement, and independent redistricting.

The CFB’s proposals are meant to enhance its voluntary public matching funds system, which encourages candidates to seek small-dollar donations that are matched at a 6-to-1 ratio for contributions up to $175, or the first $175 of larger donations. The program aids those seeking public office without the help of wealthy donors or support from political party machinery, and gives everyday New Yorkers a greater voice by boosting the impact of their contributions.

Perhaps the CFB’s most significant proposal involves significantly lowering contribution limits for all offices. Currently, individual donors can give candidates for citywide office up to $5,100; candidates for borough president can receive up to $3,950, and City Council candidates can get $2,850 at maximum. The CFB proposes reducing those limits by more than half to $2,250, $1,750, and $1,250 respectively.   

There’s a clear rationale for these changes. In the 2017 election, the CFB noted, contributions to mayoral candidates larger than $2,250 accounted for only 5 percent of all contributions but 59 percent of the total funds raised by those candidates. Similarly, donations of $1,250 and more made up only 2 percent of contributions to City Council candidates but 32 percent of the money raised.

A few of the proposals are directly targeted at citywide positions -- mayor, comptroller and public advocate -- where large donors tend to play a greater role. The CFB suggests increasing the matching fund ratio for citywides from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1 and increasing the matchable donations from $175 to $250. In essence, candidates would be further incentivized to seek small-dollar donations, which would carry a bigger reward. For instance, a donation of $175 to a participating candidate would currently get them another $1,050 in public funds. The changed formula would mean that a $250 donation would net candidates an additional $2,000 in public funds.

Reforms along the lines of the CFB’s proposals have been advanced in the City Council but members have waited to act as the charter commission carries out its work. The CFB, an independently-operating body whose members are chosen by the mayor and the City Council speaker, releases a mandated post-election report every four years with a series of recommendations that typically leads to City Council legislation and at least some tweaks to the system that are passed into law. Such a report is expected by September, and is likely to include proposals similar to those being presented to the mayor’s charter revision commission. When de Blasio announced his charter revision commission and said he intended it to focus in part on campaign finance reform, some questioned why he wouldn’t allow the usual process to unfold.

The mayoral charter revision commission’s proposals will be announced in early September and placed on the ballot in the November general election, with city voters approving or rejecting them.

A second charter revision commission is being formed after legislation passed the City Council earlier this year. Its work will culminate with ballot proposals in 2019.

One bill currently at the City Council, proposed by Council Member Ben Kallos, would increase the cap on public campaign matching funds from the current 55 percent of the spending limit for a particular seat to 85 percent. The CFB is now proposing a more moderate increase to 65 percent of the spending limit, reasoning that it nonetheless boosts small donations while giving candidates the flexibility to raise and spend funds from private sources since public funds payments are usually doled out in the closing stretches of each election cycle.

Two other new CFB proposals would alter the thresholds for candidates to qualify for public funds. As it stands now, citywide candidates have to raise a minimum amount from a minimum number of donations. As an example, mayoral candidates have to raise at least $250,000 from at least 1,000 donors who gave a minimum of $10, while comptroller and public advocate candidates have to raise $125,000 from 500 donors giving at least $10. The CFB is proposing reducing these thresholds to $125,000 for mayor and $75,000 for the other citywide seats, while also pitching a new “geographic requirement” that each candidate receive at least 50 contributions from each of the five boroughs. They are also proposing lowering the minimum qualifying contribution to $5 for all elected positions.

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

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Campaign Finance Board to Propose Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing Wed, 13 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes Bill Mandating Public Broadcast of Citywide Debates http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7688-city-council-passes-bill-mandating-public-broadcast-of-citywide-debates http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7688-city-council-passes-bill-mandating-public-broadcast-of-citywide-debates Joe Borelli City Council

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


The general election debates in last year’s mayoral race largely lacked substance and order, as Mayor Bill de Blasio twice faced off against two challengers -- Republican Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis and independent candidate Bo Dietl. Perhaps in part because de Blasio was not seen as vulnerable to defeat in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, the debates also lacked a wide audience. But there was another issue at play, for those debates and others mandated as part of the city’s campaign finance system: public accessibility to view them.

City Council Member Joe Borelli and his colleagues seek to expand access to televised city election debates -- which can be held for the three citywide positions in party primaries and general elections -- through a bill passed by the Council on Wednesday.

Borelli’s bill requires that all mandatory debates hosted by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in partnership with numerous local news organizations, be publicly broadcast at no charge on a city-owned or operated television channel to reach the widest possible audience. This would be in addition to broadcast by any selected network as the CFB typically chooses a lead TV station for each debate.

The bill was prompted largely because some of the debates, including the first general election mayoral debate and the lone general election debates in the 2017 races for comptroller and public advocate, were broadcast on television on NY1 and accessible only to those with cable television packages that include the channel. (NY1 did choose to air its debates live for free on its website and social media, as did other debate sponsors, and archived footage is easily available on the Campaign Finance Board website.)

“This may not be priority one and we’re likely three years away from any city-wide debates, but the fact that we spend so much public money to increase voter turnout to then only allow a small percentage of city residents to see the debate seemed counter-productive,” Borelli said, in a statement after the passage of the bill. “I can’t believe this would have even been allowed in the first place and I’m glad I’m changing the rules.” 

He said that more than half of the city’s residents did not have access to certain debates because they either could not afford or refused to subscribe to Spectrum, NY1’s parent company. In the 2017 election cycle, the debates not televised by NY1 were broadcast on TV by CBS-2 New York, a network typically part of all basic television packages. This included the second of two general election mayoral debates.

A press release from Borelli’s office said the bill is expected to be signed by the mayor. Seth Stein, a mayoral spokesperson said in a statement, "We look forward to reviewing the final version of this bill that was passed by the Council. The Mayor supports measures to make our democratic process more open and accessible to New Yorkers."

The bill has general support from government reform groups. At an April 26 hearing of the Committee on Governmental Operations, Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, said, “Generally speaking, we encourage civic participation in our democracy through the use of modern technology.”

Camarda also urged the committee to consider webcasting debates on one or several city government-run sites. “We think that that’s advantageous, not only because it’s less expensive, it allows for archiving at much lower costs, and it can be watched on smart phones which, more and more, is what people watch their content on these days,” Camarda said. Those proposals weren’t reflected in the final legislation.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Camarda said, “It can’t hurt to expand the TV channels that debates are on but we would prefer webcasting and more modern modes of delivery be mandated.”

“Access to information is essential to make elections fair for everyone,” said Assembly Member Malliotakis, in a statement supporting the bill’s passage. “The more widespread debate coverage is, the more prepared voters will be to make an informed decision of who they want to represent them in government.”

The CFB also came out in support of the bill. Executive Director Amy Loprest said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the agency is “committed to getting voters the information they need to cast an informed ballot on Election Day.”

“These efforts include helping all New Yorkers view the official citywide debates to learn more about candidates seeking elected office,” she added. “Today’s passage of Int. No. 14-A, requiring these debates to be simulcast on a city-owned or operated television channel, will help ensure that as many New Yorkers as possible have live access to the debates.”

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

Read more by this writer.

]]>
City Council Passes Bill Mandating Public Broadcast of Citywide Debates Wed, 23 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
James Victory in Attorney General Race Would Trigger Citywide Special Election http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7681-james-victory-in-attorney-general-race-could-trigger-first-citywide-special-election http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7681-james-victory-in-attorney-general-race-could-trigger-first-citywide-special-election Tish James City Hall

Public Advocate Letitia James (photo: Mayor's Office)


Eric Schneiderman’s resignation has triggered what could be a domino effect in New York politics, potentially creating vacancies in local offices and perhaps leading to New York City’s first citywide special election.  

When Schneiderman stepped down from the post of attorney general, it kicked off a mad dash of people interested in becoming the next top legal officer of New York State. Even as the state Legislature moves through a process to choose an interim appointee, others have their eyes set on the fall election. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James quickly announced her candidacy and is the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination, though other potential candidates are weighing whether to enter the fray.

Additional candidates are also seeking or considering pursuing the nominations of other parties, including law professor Zephyr Teachout and John Cahill, the 2014 Republican nominee for attorney general and former chief of staff to Governor George Pataki. The Democratic nominee will likely be the favorite to win statewide in November given that no other party has won a statewide race since Pataki in 2002.

If James prevails in the September Democratic primary and beats a Republican and other opponents in November, she would likely be sworn in as attorney general on January 1, 2019 leaving her current office vacant. That would prompt a special election for the post of public advocate, the first of its kind in a citywide race in New York since the establishment of the city’s campaign finance program.

It’s easy to imagine that James could prevail with strong backing from the Democratic establishment -- including Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie from the Bronx -- as well as labor unions, which have already begun to announce their support for her. Democrats have a significant voter enrollment advantage in New York and this year is expected to be a strong year for Democrats across the board.

According to the city charter, three days after a public advocate vacancy, “The mayor is required to issue a proclamation calling a special election within 45 days,” said Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer and special counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. The election would be nonpartisan, open to any candidate who can create a new party line and gather enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

Just like for vacancies in City Council seats, the victor of the special election will not serve the remainder of the public advocate’s term. Another primary contest and general election would take place in the fall of 2019 for a candidate to hold the seat through 2021.

Such a special election could easily trigger a crowded field as current officeholders -- whether City Council members, borough presidents, or state legislators -- would not have to give up their seats to run. Most of the City Council and all five borough presidents will be term limited from running for reelection in 2021, leading many to already be eyeing their next move.

The timing of the race could also be tricky. The first Tuesday within 45 days would be February 19, just one day after President’s Day. Special elections tend not to be scheduled just after a holiday and in the past, elections have been pushed forward or pulled back by a week. In 2015, for instance, a special election for the 17th City Council district was moved forward to February 23, the week after President’s Day.

The special election would also be the first race to be held in the city since new contribution and spending limits went into effect for the 2021 election cycle.

In a public advocate special election, the contribution limit would be $2,550, half the regular $5,100 contribution limit for the position. Other thresholds remain the same, however. A public advocate candidate is allowed to spend up to $4.6 million in a special election. To qualify for the CFB’s public matching funds program -- which matches qualifying small dollar donations up to $175 at a 6-to-1 ratio -- a candidate would have to raise at minimum $125,000 with at least 500 contributors giving $10 or more. A candidate can receive a maximum of $2.5 million in public funds.

At a City Council budget hearing on Thursday, New York City Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Amy Loprest told Council members on the governmental operations committee that the agency had only budgeted about $1 million for public funds for potential special elections in the next fiscal year that begins July 1 of this year and runs through June 2019.

“Do you believe this is enough?” asked Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the committee. “Let’s suppose we have a citywide race in the city and we were to add a couple of extra Council members who might decide to move on to other aspirations. Would a million dollars be enough, if we were in that situation?”

“We submitted our budget in March. The political landscape changes all the time so I’d have to go back and analyze whether a million dollars will be sufficient,” Loprest said. “The law does allow for emergency appropriations of public funds if the fund that was allocated was not enough.”

A CFB spokesperson said Friday that it’s unlikely any one candidate, let alone several, could raise enough funds in the six-week run up to the special election to qualify for the full matching fund outlay. In the 2017 public advocate campaign, the spokesperson pointed out, James raised $947,530 and received a $756,486 public funds payment. None of the other candidates met the threshold to qualify for public funds.

[Read: Letitia James Launches Campaign for Attorney General]

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

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been corrected to note that a City Council vacancy is filled through the same special election process as a public advocate vacancy. 

]]>
James Victory in Attorney General Race Would Trigger Citywide Special Election Sat, 19 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Brooklynites Testify at Charter Revision Commission Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7662-brooklynites-testify-at-charter-revision-commission-hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7662-brooklynites-testify-at-charter-revision-commission-hearing Mayor de Blasio charter revision

Mayor de Blasio at a hearing at City Hall (photo: Mayoral Photography Office)


Calls for campaign finance improvements, election reform, and changes to the structure and functions of community boards dominated the fourth borough hearing of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission, held Monday night at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Created by the mayor to review the charter, which outlines the city’s foundational governance, the commission is holding a slew of hearings across the city to solicit public input on changes that New Yorkers want to see in the powers and role of the municipal government. Those proposed changes will eventually be included as referenda on the November election ballot. On Monday, over the course of three-and-a-half hours, about two dozen people testified before the commission on concerns both broad and parochial.

With the mayor having formed the commission with particular goals in mind -- improving voter participation and reducing the influence of money in elections -- it wasn’t surprising that campaign finance reform was a large focus of the hearing. Government reform groups urged the commissioners to consider a slew of changes, some controversial, and to further strengthen the city’s campaign finance system, which is considered a national model.  

Among other things, Citizens Union, one of the groups, pushed for a top-two election system regardless of party, instant runoff voting, independent redistricting for City Council seats, and transferring oversight of lobbying disclosure from the City Clerk’s office to the Campaign Finance Board.

Another advocate, Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president of Open Primaries, as his organization’s name suggests, called on the commission to propose allowing all registered voters to cast a ballot in primary elections, which currently are limited to voters registered with a political party and exclude nearly a million independent voters. “Every New York City voter benefits from a healthier, more inclusive political system that encourages competition,” Gruber said, noting the chaos that accompanied the 2016 presidential primary in the state when hundreds of thousands of independent voters were incensed by being shut out of the Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Questions were raised about a few of those recommendations. Commissioner Larian Angelo expressed concern that a top-two election system, in which the top two vote-getters in a primary advance to the general election, might shut out Republicans in a Democrat-heavy city. And nonpartisan open primaries, Commission Chair Cesar Perales pointed out, had been put before the voters in a referendum years ago and was soundly rejected. “I’m playing the devil’s advocate here,” he conceded.

Gruber, though, insisted that the concept was “incredibly relevant” in the current political climate, with voters increasingly alienated from political parties and seeking to exercise their voting rights as independents.

Other ideas that found purchase among the audience and the commissioners were proposals to institutionalize participatory budgeting. Certain City Council members employ the program in their districts, allowing constituents to vote on how to direct $1 million or more in funding towards various programs and initiatives. Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the program could be expanded citywide. She also said members of the Campaign Finance Board should no longer be solely appointed by the mayor, to increase ethics oversight of the agency.

Lerner, and others, also pushed for a move towards full public financing of elections, by first increasing the amount of funds that the CFB provides to candidates under it’s public matching funds system, which incentivizes small-dollar donations up to $175 by matching them at a 6-to-1 ratio. Those who testified included individuals who have unsuccessfully run for City Council in the past, and who said that the current system continues to favor candidates with access to wealthy donors and those with the resources to navigate the CFB’s at-times onerous regulations.

“Everyone deserves a fair and equal voice and now giving that opportunity of raising someone’s voice who is less fortunate can help ensure that their opinions and needs do not fade off into night behind those who can afford to raise their own,” said RJ DeMello, a community activist.

Another popular proposal, put forward by Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander and supported by many of those who testified, involves creating a New York City Office of Civic Engagement, to encourage voter participation and local involvement in civic affairs. Amina Fofana, a member of Integrate NYC, a youth-led organization working towards school integration, said Lander’s civic engagement office was necessary so “youth can be able to voice their opinions and have a part in the decisions that are being made.”

Lander, who has introduced legislation to create the office, also spoke at Monday’s hearing. A nonpartisan, independent citywide Office of Civic Engagement could “truly empower people to engage in shaping their communities, which is really what democracy is supposed to be about,” he said. However, in his State of the City speech in February when he announced plans for his charter revision commission, de Blasio also said he was going to name a Chief Democracy Officer in the mayor’s office, though the scope of that position does not appear as wide-ranging as the office Lander is pushing for.

Several local residents at Monday’s hearing had narrower but substantive concerns about the functioning of community boards, the most localized iteration of municipal government. Some suggested that community board members should be elected rather than appointed, with term limits, and that borough presidents should be removed from the appointment process. “Community boards are their own political entity. Without term limits, their ability to represent constituents goes down,” said one resident and community organizer, Juan Restrepo.

Other suggestions included proportional representation from the population of the local district, a standard regulating structure for boards citywide, and a stronger role in local land use decisions.

Paula Segal, a senior staff attorney in the Equitable Neighborhoods practice at the Community Development Project, advocated for more equitable land use policies, noting that publicly owned land is leased out or sold without being subject to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). She pushed for improvements to ULURP and increased transparency in land use applications, and reforms to the tax lien process for charities and nonprofits. Segal’s boldest proposal was the “enshrinement of a right to housing” for the homeless, as opposed to the state law which provides for a right to shelter and creates what Segal called a “shelter industrial complex.”

There were also some speakers on tangential matters, who urged changes in voter registration and voting laws, which fall under the purview of the state Legislature and cannot be affected by revisions of the city charter. At least two people, including Republican congressional candidate Lutchi Gayot, said that Commissioner Una Clarke should recuse herself from the panel because her daughter, Congressional Rep. Yvette Clarke, is running for reelection and that posed a conflict of interest. Commission members had to repeatedly remind the audience that the commission’s work has no bearing on federal election regulations or practices. “[N]obody ever considered me a rubber stamp for anything,” Clarke retorted to one resident, noting that she and the other members of the commission are independent volunteers.

Yet others seemed slighted by how the commission was carrying out its work. Matt Fairley, who said he is a resident of Lander’s district, critiqued the commission for allowing representatives of established organizations to testify first, which “only increases the sense of alienation that voters in this city feel that people who are connected will be given primacy of place,” he said.

Fairley proposed a sweeping change in city government, insisting that New York City needs to increase the number of elected officials from the 64 that currently hold office across different levels. The idea found support from others as well, including Dr. John Flateau, a professor at Medgar Evers College who also serves as the Democratic Board of Elections commissioner from Brooklyn.

Flateau suggested that the City Council should have 59 seats, up from 51, to match the number of community boards. He had 21 proposals in total for the commission, though he was afforded only enough time to verbally advance a few, including granting legal permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections, reviewing the composition of various city boards and commissions, and advice and consent powers for the City Council on mayoral appointments.  

The Commission will hold its next hearing in Manhattan on Wednesday. An initial draft list of recommendations from the commission is expected in July.

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Brooklynites Testify at Charter Revision Commission Hearing Tue, 08 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Proposes Campaign Finance Changes http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7541-council-member-to-propose-campaign-finance-changes http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7541-council-member-to-propose-campaign-finance-changes cm keith powers cc

Council Member Keith Powers (photo: William Alatriste)


City Council Member Keith Powers, a former lobbyist who ran for election on a platform that included a 22-point electoral and government reform agenda, has introduced a package of legislation to make small but significant changes to the city’s campaign finance program.

Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, is proposing five bills, introduced at the full meeting of the City Council on Wednesday, that will change campaign finance thresholds and reporting requirements, with the goal of making running for elected office easier for first-time candidates and those with little access to wealthy donors.

The city’s campaign finance program is “already a gold standard,” Powers said, in a recent phone interview, but can be even more effective with certain tweaks. The package of bills, he said, were based on his personal experience with the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program -- which incentivizes small-dollar donations from city residents up to $175 by matching them at a 6-to-1 ratio -- and also a recent Council hearing where the CFB testified before the Committee on Governmental Operations, of which Powers is a member.

One of his bills would increase the small-dollar matchable amount from $175 to $250, giving smaller campaigns a boost in fundraising. Any candidate who wants to receive public matching funds must hit two thresholds -- a minimum number of contributions of at least $10 and a minimum amount. For instance, City Council candidates who participate in the program must raise at least 75 contributions from donors within their district and raise a minimum of $5,000. The thresholds are far greater for borough-wide and city-wide races.

A second bill would also reduce the lowest qualifying contribution from $10 to $5. “It makes it easier for candidates to hit the matching threshold,” Powers said.

The third bill in the package would establish a pilot program to provide full matching funds for special elections, where candidates must raise funds in a much shorter period of time. Currently, the CFB's program only provides matching funds up to 55 percent of the spending limit for a particular race. The bill would increase the match to 85 percent, effectively allowing candidates to raise as much as they are allowed to spend.  

Finally, Powers also hopes to ease the burden of complying with the city’s campaign finance law for candidates that tend to run campaigns with limited funds. The CFB requires that all campaigns submit detailed disclosure reports of the money they raise and spend during an election season, a requirement that has at times been criticized as overly onerous for candidates who do not have experience with the program or the help of high-priced professional consultants to help them comply. Candidates who fail to file disclosures, or improperly file them, can incur costly fines sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars from the CFB after an election.

However, “small campaigns” that do not surpass $1,000 in fundraising and expenditure do not have to file these reports under the campaign finance law. The bill Powers is proposing would raise that amount to $3,000, lifting the reporting requirements on dozens of candidates. A companion resolution would also call on the state to do the same. 

The intent of Powers’ proposals overlaps with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s February announcement that he will convene a Charter Revision Commission to explore, among other things, limiting the influence of moneyed interests in city elections and reducing contribution limits. To some, a commission that would look at campaign finance seemed duplicative and Powers is among those who are skeptical about the need for a commission to essentially do the City Council’s job. “We can legislate these issues without a Charter Revision Commission,” Powers said, noting that he also considered legislation to reduce contribution limits, but only for special elections. There has been some talk about reducing the maximum individual contributions allowed, which just recently rose slightly to $5,100 for city-wide candidates and $2,850 for City Council candidates, which de Blasio’s commission may explore.

Powers did praise the mayor for propelling a much-needed debate, and said it was an opportunity to move ahead with more drastic changes to the public financing system. One change, he said, could involve increasing the cap on matching funds available to candidates from 55 percent of the spending limit for their seat to 85 percent. That proposal is currently before the Council in legislation from Council Member Ben Kallos, the former chair of the governmental operations committee.

“I think it’s a totally fine idea to have a Charter Revision Commission and doing contribution limits as one of the topics totally makes sense,” Powers said. But, he added, “I want to have a Commission that includes a conversation about the larger structure of city government...At a moment when we have a need for more representation across the board, especially for women in the City Council, I think it’s important that we look to remove any barriers to running for elected office.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in partnership with Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, is pushing ahead with a separate Charter Revision Commission, with a broader initial mandate. A bill to create that commission is expected to pass the Council this week. 

[Read: With Tweaks, City Council Charter Revision Commission Bill Expected to Pass]

Powers also promised that he has another package of bills he will introduce down the line that relates to contribution limits, matching funds, and contributions from individuals and entities doing business with the city. This may coincide with the typical process by which the Campaign Finance Board issues its post-election report, due in August, with recommendations for changes to the campaign finance system, usually the subject of a government operations committee hearing and subsequent legislation.

And Powers is also introducing a connected bill that would affect the city’s doing business database of companies and individuals that work for or with the city. Entities on the Doing Business Database are significantly limited in the amount of money they contribute to electoral candidates and their donations are not matchable under the public funds program. For mayoral candidates, the doing business contribution limit is $400, and for City Council candidates it’s $250.

Powers’ bill would directly address real estate developers, who have been some of the largest donors in recent elections and have spent millions to support candidates from city-wides down to the boroughs and Council districts. The bill would mandate that developers formally seeking a city contract are added to the doing-business list so that their contributions are reigned in.

Developers who submit land use applications for city-proposed developments would be entered in the doing business database at an earlier stage in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Currently, developers are only included in the database once their application is certified. Powers’ bill would require that they are listed once they apply to start the certification process, moving the timeline of their inclusion in the database up by a few months.

“Sometimes, years before the ULURP, developers can be talking with the administration,” he said, highlighting the necessity of the bill.

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

Read more by this writer.

 ]]>
Council Member Proposes Campaign Finance Changes Mon, 09 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board Begins Formal Review of 2017 Election Cycle http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7450-campaign-finance-board-begins-review-of-2017-election-cycle http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7450-campaign-finance-board-begins-review-of-2017-election-cycle Mayor de Blasio 2017 election voting

(photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


The New York Campaign Finance Board (CFB) held a hearing Monday morning to field testimony on the 2017 New York City election cycle from candidates, operatives, and advocates. The hearing, part of a quadrennial post-election report that must be submitted before September 1 the year after the election, came on the heels of final campaign finance filing of the 2017 cycle. The CFB post-election process will lead to a report that then informs legislation typically introduced by City Council members to tweak the city’s heralded public-matching system that encourages small-dollar fundraising.

Led by CFB chair Frederick Schaffer, Monday morning’s meeting was attended by roughly 35 people and lasted just under two hours. It featured discussion on increasing voter participation, ins and outs of campaign financing, and CFB protocols in working with candidates. As is typical, several candidates who were unsuccessful in the recently completed elections expressed frustration with the process, though the vast majority of candidates did not testify at the hearing. City Council Member Ben Kallos was the lone elected official to testify -- Kallos has been a campaign finance and government reform advocate prior to joining the Council, and for the last four-year cycle chaired the Council committee with oversight of the CFB.

The board took stock of its initiatives during the last cycle -- which featured elections for citywide, borough-wide, and City Council seats -- including the matching funds program, but also the candidate debates that it sponsored, and its other voter education and outreach efforts.

According to the CFB’s data, during the 2017 cycle 73% of candidates received money from the program; the CFB distributed funds totaling $17,694,046 to 105 different people running for office. This past cycle, 46% of spending came via public funds. And in 25 Council races, matching funds comprised of over half of campaign spending.

The first and only of its kind, the hearing is part of a process that may prove pivotal in the next election cycle, ahead of what will be a far more contentious and busy 2021 elections. After the CFB released its report on the 2013 elections in 2014, the City Council subsequently incorporated many of the proposals in about a dozen pieces of legislation that passed ahead of these past elections, along with about another ten campaign finance-related bills brought forth by Council members to modify the system and related processes to their liking.

According to the CFB, of 14 statutory changes the board recommended in 2014, 10 became law, including measures to make determinations about public matching funds earlier in the cycle, clarify eligibilty for debates in the citywide races, and ban anonymous campaign communications. Those that were not enacted into law include instant runoff voting.

On Monday, advocates and others testifying offered several changes they would like to see ahead of the 2021 election. Further encouraging candidates to raise funds via small-dollar donations topped the list of priorities.

Kallos made the case for a bill he sponsored last term and will soon re-introduce this term, which he said would additionally incentivize candidates to pursue small-dollar donations by increasing the threshold for public matching dollars that candidates can earn.  While he called New York City’s “the model public finance system in the country,” he said it can also be improved upon.

Under current campaign finance law, Kallos explained, the CFB matches the first $175 of eligible donations at a six-to-one ratio. Kallos wants to raise the ceiling for matching funds so that candidates can run for office by raising all donations of $175 or less if they so choose, and still be able to hit the spending cap. If his policy in enacted, Kallos said candidates would be able to finance campaigns on mostly small donations. For example, he said, someone would be able to run for mayor collecting 5,689 contributions of $175, raising about $1 million, to be matched six-to-one, garnering a total of $7 million and able “to run a competitive race.”

“The ability to run a 100 percent grassroots campaign, where a candidate is beholden to no one except the voters, will revolutionize city politics and restore confidence in government [that] has been steadily eroding for decades,” he said.

“If candidates pursue a small-dollars, grassroots campaign, we will have elected officials who earned their positions based on their knowledge of the issues,” he said, rather than candidates’ “ability to convince millionaires and billionaires to open their wallets.”  

Asked what the advantage of his proposal is over lowering the contribution limit with the aim of encouraging low-dollar donations, Kallos responded that candidates would still opt not to seek small donations and prioritize larger donors if the contribution limit was reduced. “Whatever the contribution limit is, is what elected officials will seek. Lowering that threshold just makes it a little bit cheaper for those writing those maximum checks under the law,” Kallos said.

Michael Malbin, campaign finance expert and politics professor at the University of Albany, agreed with the thinking behind Kallos’ bill. “If you raise your money from max donors...you’re not going into the neighborhoods to get $50 contributions,” Malbin said during his testimony. “And the goal of this is, or ought to be, to increase participation by a diverse set of people who fully represent the city.”

Caitlin Scherer, of Represent.US, voiced support for Kallos’ legislation. And more broadly, Scherer made the case for increasing the amount of public spending on elections. “Doing so would involve more citizens in the political process and relieve candidates of the pressure to solicit donations from those with the deepest pockets,” she said during testimony.

Reinvent Albany senior policy consultant Alex Camarda also expressed support for Kallos’ legislation. The bill was co-sponsored last term by Council members Brad Lander and Fernando Cabrera, along with 29 others, for a total of 32 sponsors in the 51-seat body, and was discussed at a hearing last April, but did not see a committee vote.

Rachel Bloom, director of public policy at Citizens Union, another government reform group, offered other suggestions on campaign finance reform during her testimony. Before the 2021 elections, Bloom said Citizens Union wants to see “an increase in spending caps to counteract increases in independent expenditures, banning the use of public funds for campaign consulting services from firms that also lobby; and a further reduction in public funds for candidates facing minimal opposition and the enactment of ‘war chest’ restrictions.’”

Bloom also assessed the voter turnout in the 2017 elections, which was exceedingly low. She pointed toward the lack of competitiveness in many elections across the five boroughs, with incumbents receiving 74% of the vote and only about 10 of more than 50 municipal seats open in 2017 as the factors driving low voter participation. The elections last year, she said, were “notably uncompetitive.” Bloom added that “open” city council races, races without incumbents seeking office, were 12% more likely to participate in the matching funds program.

Matt McDermott, director at Whitman Insight Strategies, mentioned the difficulty of getting younger voters to the polls. “These voters aren’t apathetic. They actually have issues they care about and they actually care about those passionately,” McDermott said. “The difficulty is in correlating those care-abouts to voting in local elections.”

“A lot of younger people just don’t know there’s a primary,” said Caileigh Scott of McEvoy & Associates. “It is partially a communication breakdown.”

Malbin said that though getting millennials to vote it a difficult task, it is also crucial.  “The research show that once you get somebody to vote, it’s really a habit. The first couple are the hard ones,” said Malbin.

While the majority of testimony was focused on specific recommended changes to the CFB system, some who testified -- mainly those who either worked on unsuccessful campaigns or had run themselves -- had harsh words for the CFB.

Angela Disto, who served as treasurer for Liam McCabe’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in City Council District 43, complained that some of the CFB’s verification process of donations was “petty” and “unnecessary.”

“I’m a volunteer, as [are] the majority of campaign treasurers. Who needs it?” she said. “Why does the board make this mostly volunteer role so overwhelming?”

Anthony Rivers, who ran unsuccessfully in City Council District 27, does not think the CFB-led training sessions adequately prepared him for the campaign.

“I feel the training does not put enough emphasis on campaign contribution cards and their importance,” he said. “It should be heavily stressed on the importance of not having a single blemish on the contributions card. Our campaign suffered many setbacks due to minor blemishes on the individual cards.”

For his part, Cary Goodman, who ran in Council District 6, had a different experience with the CFB. “I am here as a poster boy for the Campaign Finance Board,” he said. “There is absolutely no way I would have been able to conduct a campaign against the incumbent -- it was not successful, I got rocked -- but I would not have have [had] the opportunity to do what I did without the Campaign Finance Board.”

The CFB will now proceed with months of internal work to complete its post-election report before September 1. The next filing for the 2017 campaign cycle and first filing for the 2021 cycle is July 15.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Campaign Finance Board Begins Formal Review of 2017 Election Cycle Tue, 30 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000