Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/89 Thu, 21 Feb 2019 06:07:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) E-Scooter Companies Ramp Up Lobbying for State and City Authorization http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8293-e-scooter-companies-ramp-up-lobbying-for-state-and-city-authorization http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8293-e-scooter-companies-ramp-up-lobbying-for-state-and-city-authorization birdride inc

(photo: @BirdRide)


With Governor Andrew Cuomo proposing the legalization of electric bikes and scooters in New York and the New York City Council considering several bills to achieve that goal, the two prominent e-scooter firms looking to do business in the state are ramping up efforts to lobby lawmakers and other officials.

Bird and Lime are barnstorming New York with lobbyists as they seek to expand into what could be a massively profitable market. The e-scooter companies have already established a presence in hundreds of cities across the United States and the globe, presenting their products as affordable “micro mobility” alternatives that get people around while reducing carbon emissions and traffic congestion.

It’s an appealing argument that has been embraced as part of the broader public transit conversation by many elected officials and transit and street safety advocates, particularly in New York City with its crumbling subway system, slow buses, and crowded streets. And that argument is being spread widely through hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lobbying.

At the state level, Cuomo has proposed giving municipalities the authority to legalize both e-bikes and e-scooters, which many, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, argue would need to happen first if the city is to act.

“Authorizing these transportation alternatives in a sensible and safety conscious manner will provide cheaper and more environmentally friendly transit options to New Yorkers and visitors who can use these options for work or leisure,” said Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo, in a statement. The proposal includes mandates for the use of helmets, reflective gear, a bell or horn, and a maximum speed limit.

“It will also attract new businesses and generate job opportunities for New Yorkers, and align the state with many other states and cities that have successfully brought this technology to their residents,” Conwall added.

De Blasio has seemed open to legalizing e-scooters, though he has emphasized that public safety must be the first priority. “If I can see something that will create safety in this city and allow people to use e-bikes or e-scooters, I’m very open to that,” he said at an unrelated news conference in November. But while he is in favor of pedal-assist e-bikes, he has strongly opposed legalizing e-bikes with throttles, citing safety concerns, though without evidence.

At de Blasio’s behest, the NYPD has been cracking down and confiscating e-bikes, which are often used by immigrant delivery workers, and fining individuals and businesses (most of the fines are levied against individuals, as reported by Gothamist in January, contrary to de Blasio’s professed plan to target businesses). Meanwhile, the city launched a pilot dockless-bike program last year in July -- in partnership with Lime, CitiBike, and Jump -- which allowed pedal-assist bikes, which are similar to throttle bikes but run at slower speeds.

Scott Gastel, a city Department of Transportation spokesperson, said the de Blasio administration is reviewing the governor’s proposal. “If the State takes action to provide a local path to legalization, there will be a conversation about what makes sense for New York City,” he said in an email.

The City Council is already pushing that conversation, however, through four bills that were debated at a transportation committee hearing last month where Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg raised concerns about the “unregulated, illegal nature” of e-bikes and “particularly their speeds and irresponsible use by some.”

The bills in question -- sponsored by Council Members Fernando Cabrera and Rafael Espinal -- would remove restrictions against e-scooter and e-bike use, create a program to help throttle-bike owners to convert them to pedal-assist bikes, and create a pilot scooter-sharing program.

“Legalizing electric scooters and throttle electric bikes may seem like distinct issues, but they share a common theme: transit equity,” said Espinal, in a statement, “the principle that all people – particularly marginalized communities – deserve affordable, accessible, and safe transit options that get them where they need to go, whether that be for a job, a social engagement, or anything else.”

For certain City Council members, lobbying by e-scooter firms has presented a golden opportunity to attach e-bikes to the conversation, providing what they say is much-needed justice for immigrant delivery workers who have suffered under de Blasio’s crackdown.

“There’s no doubt that the reason that we’re talking about e-bikes today again is because of the money and the power that has been wielded by these tech companies, these e-scooter companies,” said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, in a brief interview outside City Hall. Menchaca has been among the most vocal critics of the mayor’s enforcement policy on e-bikes, calling the crackdown “discriminatory.”

Over the last year, Bird Rides Inc. has hired several firms to represent its interests including Blue Suit Strategies, Connelly McLaughlin & Woloz, the Mirram Group, Dickinson Avella Vidal, and Tusk Strategies, which has close ties to Council Speaker Johnson and is known for its successful effort in helping the ride-hailing service Uber avoid new regulations in New York City in 2015 (those regulations did pass in 2018).

David Estrada, Bird’s chief legal officer, is among several Bird employees who have also registered as lobbyists in New York. By the end of 2018, Bird had spent about $142,000 on its lobbying effort, according to city and state lobbying records.

Those efforts are ongoing and Bird signed retainer agreements with several of firms to work throughout this year. Blue Suit, for instance, signed an agreement to be paid $3,000 each month through March 2019 to lobby before city officials. Connelly McLaughlin & Woloz signed on for a $6,500 monthly retainer through the end of the year. The Mirram Group’s contract, which extends till August, is expected to cost $10,000 per month. Ostroff Associates is expected to receive $5,000 each month till the end of July. And Tusk Strategies’ contract was the costliest, at $25,000 per month for the full year.

Neutron Holdings, Lime’s parent company, similarly hired James F. Capalino & Associates, Urban Strategies, and Yoswein New York to lobby local and state officials for both e-scooter legislation and for expanding its dockless bike share service into New York.

“We are working with both state and city officials to improve transportation options for all New Yorkers,” said Phil Jones, Lime’s senior director of East Coast Government Relations & Strategic Development, in a statement. “Shared dock-free scooters can make transportation reliable and affordable for all New Yorkers—especially underserved communities that do not have easy access to mass transit.”

The company had already spent about $146,000 by the end of last year and plans more. Capalino & Associates’ contract runs through the end of 2019 with a $10,000 monthly retainer. Urban Strategies was retained to work for the company through the end of May for $5,000 each month.

Menchaca is adamant that e-scooter legalization should only happen along with e-bikes, and the e-scooter firms also seem on board since it advances their interests. “I was very clear from the beginning...that we’re not even talking about e-scooters till we figure out what’s going on with the e-bikes and fix that problem,” he said. “They understood that so they’re gonna play...They’re savvy. We’ll do it together.”

And he seemed to partly excuse the de Blasio administration, even as he criticized the “discriminatory focus from the NYPD” on immigrant workers. “We can’t move that much because of the state, the state needs to move to unlock our ability to legislate this,” he said. “So I wouldn’t say that the administration’s not listening.”

Does the mayor really care? “I think we’re gonna make the mayor care,” Menchaca said.

Council Member Antonio Reynoso sees the issue as indicative of a larger de Blasio problem. “The way we’re thinking about it is we’re gonna leverage the lobbying effort made by the e-scooters to make sure that we get justice for the e-bike folks,” he said in a brief interview in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

“I think it’s less about whether or not the mayor cares about lobbyists and immigrants and more about the mayor just being bad on transportation policy,” he added. “Let’s put it in perspective. Who it affects, how it affects them is kind of second to the mayor not understanding that he’s a proponent of car culture in a significant way. So whether it’s e-scooters or e-bikes, I think to him, who’s advocating for it is second to just bad policy.”

De Blasio finds himself increasingly isolated in his position. E-scooters and e-bikes are one of those rare issues where the interests of transit and street safety advocates on the ground line up with those of large firms with a profit incentive.

“It is indeed disturbing to continue to see Mayor de Blasio...continuing to criminalize the use of an e-bike which is an efficient, sustainable mode of transportation,” said Marco Conner, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, in a phone interview he gave while riding a CitiBike, the bike-sharing program that de Blasio has expanded and which started to offer pedal-assist bikes as part of the city’s L-train shutdown mitigation plans. “Meanwhile, he’s en route to inviting e-scooter-share companies and has also legalized pedal assist e-bikes.”

Conner said the mayor’s argument that e-bikes are illegal and so the NYPD must enforce the law doesn’t hold water, particularly considering the mayor’s rhetoric about making New York the “fairest big city in America” with strong “sanctuary city” protections. The crackdown, he noted, exposes low-wage immigrants to the criminal justice system, opening them up to potential interactions with immigration authorities. “Every New Yorker jaywalks daily. Police officers jaywalk daily,” Conner said. “That’s illegal under local statute but you don’t see that kind of targeted crackdown.”

He also suggested that the city should institute a buy-back program for e-bike owners, similar to the NYPD’s regular gun buy-backs that take guns off the streets.

Conner did have concerns, however, about the governor’s legalization proposal, particularly the helmet and reflective clothing requirements, which he said are “well-intended” but would discourage the use of e-bikes and e-scooters. It would also harm the existing CitiBike program, which doesn’t require either, he pointed out.

“Helmet sharing is not a thing and will never be a thing,” he said, while the reflective clothing rule is “a recipe for subjective and racially disparate enforcement.” The governor’s proposal also gives motor vehicles the right of way over e-bike and e-scooter riders, which Conner said should be reversed.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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E-Scooter Companies Ramp Up Lobbying for State and City Authorization Tue, 19 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8190-proposed-changes-to-public-charge-and-access-to-city-benefits-what-to-know http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8190-proposed-changes-to-public-charge-and-access-to-city-benefits-what-to-know 24128710992 658f50cdcf z

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


New Yorkers know that it is the city government’s job to make sure that they’re taken care of. We fill potholes, pick up the trash, clean the streets, clear the drains, prune the trees - you name it.

But that’s not all we do. And while we faced many challenges as a city and as a nation in 2018, New Yorkers continue to step up and help their neighbors in need.

Through our public health facilities, tens of thousands of dedicated professionals help their fellow New Yorkers put food on the table, help expectant mothers get access to critical health care, help seniors make ends meet, and so much more. We even helped non-English speaking eligible voters participate in our democracy, by expanding our poll-site interpretation program. We work to serve New Yorkers every day because that’s our number one job. It’s why we’re here.

Back in October, the Trump administration announced a proposal concerning “public charge,” a complex aspect of immigration law. If implemented, the proposal would make it easier for immigration officials to prevent an otherwise eligible person from getting a green card or certain kinds of visas. They could make that life-changing decision just because one day, the applicant could find herself or himself down on their luck and in need of important public resources.

Over 200,000 public comments were submitted to the federal register – a truly remarkable display of civic participation and responsiveness from residents of all walks of life. We thank you, and every single New Yorker who took the time to make their voice heard on this issue.

We can all agree that in this country – in this city – of immigrants, no one should have to choose between relying on the help for which they’re legally eligible and pursuing the American Dream.

In the past few months, we’ve heard from folks across the five boroughs, some scared or confused, and even more who want to know how to help their fellow New Yorkers.

So let’s get some facts straight.

First: the public charge proposal is not in effect, and nothing about eligibility for benefits has changed. New York City’s doors remain open to those in need. The Department of Social Services is continuing to accept applications from all New Yorkers for benefits, and is continuing to deliver benefits and services to all who are eligible. The same is true for all of the public hospitals and community clinics operated by NYC Health + Hospitals. If you’re in need of health care, you’ll be able to find it there.

Second: many immigrants would not be impacted by this proposal. If you are a naturalized citizen, a refugee, an asylee, or a green card holder thinking about renewing or becoming a U.S. citizen, this proposal would not apply to you. This is also true for many other categories of immigrants.

That leads us to the next – and very important – point.

Third: If you are concerned about this proposal’s possible impacts on you or your family, don’t make any decisions without getting safe and trusted legal advice first.

You can get help in many languages by calling the Office of New Americans hotline, operated by Catholic Charities, at 1-800-566-7636. You can also call the city’s 311 and say “ActionNYC” to schedule a free consultation with a trusted immigration legal services provider, funded by the City of New York.

If New Yorkers begin to disenroll from health care, nutrition, or housing programs for which they’re eligible, the consequences could be dire. We could face a public health crisis and lose hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity annually.

As public servants, our job is to serve you. And in the fairest big city in America, no one should struggle alone. We’ve got your back.

***
Bitta Mostofi is the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Steven Banks is the Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is chair of the Immigration Committee, City Council Member Mark Levine is chair of the Health Committee, City Council Member Stephen Levin is chair of the General Welfare Committee.

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

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Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know Wed, 09 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
No, Mayor de Blasio, We Can’t Rely on Amazon ‘To Put Moral Considerations Ahead of Profit’ http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8185-no-mayor-de-blasio-we-can-t-rely-on-amazon-to-put-moral-considerations-ahead-of-profit http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8185-no-mayor-de-blasio-we-can-t-rely-on-amazon-to-put-moral-considerations-ahead-of-profit mbdbgovanmcuomo lic

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No, Mayor de Blasio, We Can’t Rely on Amazon ‘To Put Moral Considerations Ahead of Profit’ Tue, 08 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Flip Your Ballot, Vote Yes on 2 for Democracy http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8048-flip-your-ballot-vote-yes-on-2-for-democracy http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8048-flip-your-ballot-vote-yes-on-2-for-democracy participatory budgeting

(photo: @pb_nyc)


On Election Day -- Tuesday, November 6 -- New Yorkers have a unique opportunity to vote for democracy. By voting “yes” on three ballot proposals, we can turn New York City into a beacon for democracy.

The ballot proposals will make it easier for ordinary New Yorkers to run for office, vote in elections, have a say in city decisions, and serve on community boards. They will make our government better and our voices stronger.

Proposal 2 is especially powerful. It will create a Civic Engagement Commission, dedicated to building a more participatory democracy, one that extends beyond any election day. By investing in civic engagement, we can create space for millions of residents to get more involved, step up as leaders, and help make decisions.

The Commission would create a citywide participatory budgeting (PB) program, giving New Yorkers a greater say in how our how tax dollars are spent. Through PB, residents brainstorm spending ideas, turn these ideas into proposals for a ballot, and then vote to decide which proposals get funded.

In New York City Council’s PB program, 100,000 people have decided how to spend around $40 million per year. Residents - including non-citizens and people as young as 11 years old - have developed and approved hundreds of improvements to public schools, parks, streets, libraries, hospitals, and housing. Voters have been more representative of the city than in local elections, with low-income people, women, and people of color participating at higher rates.

This engagement has broad and long-lasting impacts on our democracy. Years of PB proposals for school air conditioning and bathroom repairs sparked city-wide campaigns, which won $180 million to install air conditioning and fix bathrooms at schools across the city. PB has turned hundreds of residents into community leaders, boosting their civic skills and knowledge. It even increases electoral turnout, making people 7% more likely to vote in other elections.

The charter revision would build on this success, allowing more people to make bigger decisions. Other global leaders in democracy, such as Paris and Madrid, have successfully launched similar programs. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has committed 500 million Euros for residents to allocate - for school, district, and citywide projects. In Madrid, the city launched citywide PB and an office of participation, and 400,000 people have gotten involved (in a city not much bigger than Brooklyn).

In New York, PB voters consistently tell us that they want to make bigger decisions. City Council members and their staff tell us that they need more resources and support to engage their communities. Proposal 2 will do both.

The Civic Engagement Commission will be an opportunity for us all to shape the city’s future. While city agencies typically only report to the Mayor, in this case the Mayor, City Council Speaker, and Borough Presidents will each appoint Commission members. The ballot proposal also requires the Commission to partner with community organizations. The Commission will not be perfect (what institution is?), but it will make our city better, by inviting neighbors to decide how their tax dollars are spent and providing more staff support and resources for civic engagement.

If we want to fix our democracy, we need to expand how people can participate. Vote yes on November 6 to show your support for our democracy.

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Josh Lerner is Co-Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a national nonprofit that empowers people to decide together how to spend public money. Carlos Menchaca is a New York City Council member representing District 38 in Brooklyn. On Twitter @joshalerner & @cmenchaca. (For more information, visit yesyesyesnyc.com and participatorybudgeting.org)

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

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Flip Your Ballot, Vote Yes on 2 for Democracy Sun, 04 Nov 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
New York City Must Protect Due Process for All in The Trump Era http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7725-new-york-city-will-protect-due-process-for-all-in-the-trump-era http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7725-new-york-city-will-protect-due-process-for-all-in-the-trump-era mayorsoffice rikers island

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Under the Trump administration, we are seeing escalated attacks against immigrant communities across the country. Raids, workplace sweeps, and the detention of Dreamers, asylum seekers, and other immigrants have led to the daily separation of families.

More than any other city, New York City has been proactive in responding to these attacks. At the center of our efforts to support our immigrant community is the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) — the nation’s first universal legal defense program for immigrants facing deportation.

Over the last four years, NYIFUP has set the national standard for protecting the due process rights of immigrants and keeping families together.  

Research shows that detained immigrants with access to legal counsel have a 48% probability of success in immigration court, as compared to 4% without access to counsel.  

Moreover, the New York City Council has made significant investments in complementary initiatives, including providing representation to immigrant children, survivors of domestic violence, asylum seekers, and those applying for U.S. citizenship.  

Our comprehensive legal services effort ensures income is not a barrier to obtaining quality, trustworthy representation for many immigrants at risk of deportation.

Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio has dangerously limited due process to many more at risk of deportation by quietly implementing a policy that excludes immigrants, including veterans, with certain convictions from qualifying for representation through our legal defense programs.

New York City already mandates universal appointment of counsel in Family Court and Housing Court. Appointed counsel in those courts is based on financial need, not on a person’s criminal record.

A criminal record may, at times, be a factor for a judge deciding the merits of the case, but it’s never a factor in deciding who deserves an attorney. We must have the same standard in our immigration courts that we do in family and housing.

Elected officials, especially those who proclaim a progressive identity, should not fuel the nation’s deportation machine by limiting due process at a time like this.

Instead, we have a duty to do everything in our power to ensure a level playing field in a system that is heavily weighted against people of color and immigrants, who all too often are ensnared by a system set up to criminalize them.

The mayor’s approach is dangerous. We reject his exclusionary policy and urge him to restore our legal services programs to universal representation models without discriminatory exclusions.

Our legal services programs do not determine who gets to stay in the country and who doesn’t — that is the role of our courts. Instead, our publicly funded programs help immigrants understand the proceedings they are in, as well as their legal rights and obligations.

Making certain individuals ineligible for legal services strips them of a meaningful opportunity to have their day in court — leaving immigrants subject to deportation to countries where their lives may be at risk and allowing for the senseless separation of families.

We would do well to remember the words of retired Immigration Judge Paul Grussendorf, who explained, “it is un-American to detain someone, send them to a remote facility where they have no contact with family, place them in legal proceedings where they are often unable to comprehend, and not to provide counsel for them.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that states are the laboratories of democracy. We add that cities are the spark of genius that drives innovation in our democracy.

New York City has led the way in protecting the rights of immigrants. We must expand on that progress — not turn back. Other cities across the nation are looking to us as beacons of progress.

As descendants of immigrants and LGBTQ members of the New York City Council, and as New Yorkers, we are committed to eradicating inequality, discrimination, and barriers to fairness in our great city.

We are committed to universal representation and due process for all immigrant New Yorkers.

Justice is on our side.

***
Carlos Menchaca and Daniel Dromm are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. Menchaca chairs the Council’s immigration committee, while Dromm is chair of the finance committee. On Twitter @cmenchaca and @Dromm25.

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

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New York City Must Protect Due Process for All in The Trump Era Fri, 08 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Incumbent Brooklyn City Council Rep Attempts to Fend Off Prominent Challengers http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7144-incumbent-brooklyn-city-council-rep-attempts-to-fend-off-prominent-challengers-menchaca http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7144-incumbent-brooklyn-city-council-rep-attempts-to-fend-off-prominent-challengers-menchaca Carlos Menchaca

City Council Member Menchaca (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


As he runs for reelection this fall, Carlos Menchaca, the City Council member for District 38, which includes Red Hook, Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace, faces several challengers in the Democratic primary. In a rare occurrence, one of his opponents is another sitting elected official from the same party, Assemblymember Felix Ortiz.

Though he was not an elected official at the time, Menchaca himself challenged and unseated an incumbent from the same party in a contentious 2013 primary that focused on then-Council Member Sara Gonzalez’s insufficient response to the devastation Superstorm Sandy wrought in the waterfront district. In another twist to the exceptional storyline of the 2017 race in this district, Gonzalez is back and also challenging Menchaca in the primary.

Also among Menchaca’s primary opponents this year are Gonzalez, Delvis Valdes, an attorney and former community board member, and Chris Miao, a real estate attorney. (Carmen Hulbert is the Green Party candidate in the race, awaiting the Democratic nominee in the general election.)

Ortiz appears to be the most dangerous threat to Menchaca, and the race between the two has become especially pointed as it nears the September 12 vote.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Menchaca mostly spoke in positive terms about his candidacy and campaign, touting accomplishments related to adult literacy funding, immigrant legal services, the city’s IDNYC municipal identification card program, and new schools opening in the district, along with new city investment to spur jobs along the waterfront. He did have a few sharp words for Ortiz, though.

“I’m the only one that has a true sense of vision that is connected to the community of the district,” Menchaca said earlier this week. “What I’ve done is not only to be incredibly visible and vocal on issues that matter to the community, but to bring resources, like five new schools, and more jobs being created in this district than anywhere in the city. This is testament to my leadership and holding the line for the community.”

Of Ortiz he said, “This is someone who is going to challenge a sitting incumbent of his party, someone distracted from the job he was just elected to do. Voters are soon going to say, ‘Go back and do your job that we just elected you to do.’”

When Gotham Gazette asked Ortiz why he would take on a member of his own party in a primary, he said, “The biggest motivating factor was a group of constituents across the Councilmatic district” who came to him multiple times over the past year to encourage him to run. He said constituents were frustrated with Menchaca, who they felt had been unavailable. “I listen to the constituents,” Ortiz said, “when the people ask me to do something, I listen.”

The constituents pushing him to run were “regular, normal people, senior citizens, people who’ve lived in the community a long time...most of these people are not involved in politics,” Ortiz said on Thursday.

Ortiz, who, like several other state legislators running this year, is seeking to leave behind the regular trips to Albany for the much better pay of the City Council (without having to risk his seat), accuses Menchaca of inflating his record. “The New York City ID was not his bill,” Ortiz said. “You’re talking about someone who lies like crazy.”

“I’ve been in this business long enough to know not to lie,” he added.

While Menchaca touts his role in passage of the IDNYC bill, it’s not clear that he has claimed it as his own legislation, which it was not. He did sign on to the bill as a co-sponsor and usher it through committee, though, and he was an outspoken promoter of the highly popular program in its early phases.

Asked about other elements of the record Menchaca is running on, including the new schools, Ortiz continued to be dismissive. “The only thing I give credit to him, is to approve the budget to use the money we gave from Albany,” he said, with reference to the school funding in particular. “He can take credit, but the money came from the state.”

Dominant issues in the district that must be tackled include immigrants’ rights and protections, jobs, affordable housing, transportation, and education. Development of city-owned land and potential private development along the waterfront are also key issues.

Menchaca has promised to protect the waterfront, which is a key landing strip for industrial jobs and has been expanding as renovations continue to be made to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which is becoming a key hub in the 38th district. He knows, though, that many of his constituents are wary of development, gentrification, and displacement, which have hit some parts of the district, especially Red Hook.

“I’ve shown time and again that I’m holding the line in preserving Sunset Park and Red Hook for what it is,” Menchaca said, adding that he says “‘no’ a lot.”

“I’ve not just said ‘no’ to developers, I’ve said ‘yes’ to city investment,” Menchaca added. “Hundreds of millions of dollars is coming to the waterfront for our community. Countless times developers have come to me with beautiful renderings of luxury towers on the waterfront, I’ve told them basically that this is not something that resonates with our community. They’re waiting for me to leave.”

And trying to push Menchaca out is Ortiz, the assistant speaker of the state Assembly, who has been in the Assembly since 1995, and has touted efforts such as the passage of Briana's Law, which he introduced and was signed into law last week by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The law requires state police and NYPD officers to receive CPR training at the police academy and every two years after that. It is named for 11-year-old Briana Ojeda who died in 2010 after suffering a severe asthma attack. Briana's mother was pulled over by an NYPD officer on the way to the hospital, but the officer was not trained in CPR and could not administer aid.     

Ortiz is also proud of having introduced legislation to create a $2 billion bond act to repair infrastructure throughout the state, which did not pass, and of his successful efforts to recover back wages for unpaid workers that had been denied by factory owners when he was a part of the Subcommittee on Sweatshops. He does not, however, have an official campaign website with a policy platform for what he hopes to accomplish should he be elected to the City Council.

Asked by Gotham Gazette what he hopes to accomplish as a Council member or what his campaign policy agenda is, Ortiz did not offer any specific policies, but remained focused on “constituent services” as the essence of his run. “What I have done and what I will continue to do, is what the CIty Council needs at this point: someone with the knowledge, the experience, the leadership, someone who knows how to listen and to get results,” Ortiz said. “The district needs me now,” he added.

According to information he provided to NYC Votes for its official voter guide ahead of the primary, Ortiz's top three issues are housing, a living wage, and education. In the section of the guide where candidates are able to be more specific, Ortiz provided only a few vague sentences about "a proven record of leadership" and "a record of taking action and getting results." He did specifically cite defending "the rights of all New Yorkers from consumer fraud to Immigrant rights," but did not provide specifics.

Among a number of endorsements, Ortiz is being backed by 1199 SEIU and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), two of the city’s biggest labor unions, and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents police officers. “I am very proud to be endorsed by the finest men and women of the PBA,” Ortiz said in a press release upon receiving the endorsement. “As someone that has family members in the law enforcement, I truly understand the sacrifices that they bring to the job.” He’s also received support from other uniformed unions. Menchaca is known to be among the furthest left in a City Council often not seen as supportive of police and corrections officers.

Menchaca is doing quite well in terms of institutional endorsements himself: he’s been backed by many labor groups and elected officials, including the local union chapters for transportation, auto, and communications workers; SEIU 32BJ, RWDSU, the Teamsters Joint Council 16, the Hotel Trades Council, and others. He’s backed by Congressional Reps. Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velázquez, Assemblymembers Jo Ann Simon and Yuh-Line Niou, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and many of his City Council colleagues.

“Almost every union has endorsed my reelection, because they know I’ve been fighting for the working families of my neighborhood,” Menchaca told Gotham Gazette, “whether it’s day laborers or the Teamsters...or the carwasheros in the northern part of the district.” Menchaca has been a regular at labor rallies and protests in favor of workers and raising the minimum wage.

The incumbent regularly points to a handful of key issues, including two of the main themes of this entire city election cycle: Democrats running against President Donald Trump and the issue of affordability. Of Rep. Velázquez, Menchaca said, “the congresswoman is even more committed that I stay in the Council to continue as a partner, with the local and the federal, as we see the chaos out of Washington.”

In an immigrant-heavy district with many Chinese and Spanish speakers who have limited English proficiency, demographics will be a key piece of how the race plays out. While Ortiz does hope to win a large portion of the Latino vote, Menchaca, who is of Mexican descent, has worked to build relationships in both of the large blocs of the district: the Latino bloc and the Chinese bloc, with the latter largely based in the Sunset Park section of the district.

Getting the district’s growing Asian community to turn out to vote will be key. Chris Miao is the only Chinese-American in the race, and while he has not been able to raise enough funds to pose a threat to Menchaca, Ortiz, or possibly even Gonzalez, he could deprive the other top candidates from earning as many Chinese votes as they may otherwise.

Miao listed "protecting the rights of immigrants," "educating the community on politics," and "involving Chinese-Americans in politics" as his three focus issues for NYC Votes. He promises voters "passion and commitment" if elected, but does not spell out any specific proposals for the voter guide or on his campaign website.

For the NYC Votes guide, Menchaca listed immigration reform, economic development and local jobs, and education as his three main focus issues. He touted his work on the legislation creating IDNYC and securing funding for immigrant legal defense and adult literacy services. He writes that "he has transformed the relationship between New Yorkers and city government," but does not explain how he did that. He told Gotham Gazette he is working on additional legislation around adult literacy to make sure that the increased funding is being spent as well as possible.

Another contender in the race is Valdes, an attorney who was involved in a local business improvement district. He has never held public office before but says he has been an activist in the community for decades. He had scathing remarks about his opponents on Facebook: “For 4 years the councilman and for 23 years the assemblyman who I am opposing have done nothing to fix the repair problems at Red Hook and the loss affordable housing that is threatening the very survival of Sunset Park.”

Valdes has raised a good amount of money, enough to compete and, as of the mid-August filing, put him just behind Menchaca in funds raised. He told NY1 that Menchaca -- who has been an outspoken Trump critic, especially on immigrant issues -- is "more concerned about national issues, and we need someone who's going to represent the people here locally." For Menchaca, federal threats to immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are serious issues for the immigrant-heavy district.

For NYC Votes, Valdes listed "gentrification displacement of Sunset Park," "lack of repairs - NYCHA buildings," and education as his top three issues.

For her part, Gonzalez, the former Council member, listed affordable housing, defending and supporting immigrant communities, and more public school seats as her top three issues for NYC Votes. She did not explain a more developed campaign platform in the guide space provided and does not appear to have a campaign website.

The only non-Democratic candidate running in District 38 is Hulbert, an activist on the Green Party ticket. Hulbert told Gotham Gazette, “We want an improvement of the current transportation system we already have in place, a modernized R train and more buses, but nobody is listening.”

Hulbert was a delegate for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign in 2016 and is the co-founder of LatinosforBernieNYC. She has said she is championing a progressive platform and her main focus, similar to that of Sanders, is income inequality, which she thinks is the most pressing issue in the community.

“The Democratic Party no longer represents American workers. They have become a corporate party,” she added. “Sunset Park is still uniquely a walk to work community, but high paying, stable jobs are becoming difficult to find in the neighborhood. People cannot support themselves just in a service economy with minimum wage jobs, not with rent increasing as it is throughout Red Hook and Sunset Park.”

Hulbert will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November.

***
by Ben Max, with reporting by Amanda Tukaj

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Incumbent Brooklyn City Council Rep Attempts to Fend Off Prominent Challengers Thu, 31 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7163-mass-mailer-loophole-gives-state-legislators-advantage-in-city-council-races http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7163-mass-mailer-loophole-gives-state-legislators-advantage-in-city-council-races ortiz mailer crop

The top of Assemblymember Felix Ortiz's recent constituent mailer


Members of the New York State Legislature have a key resource at their disposal to communicate with their constituents: mass mailers. Both the Senate and Assembly allow lawmakers to send public communications through different media -- chiefly employed in the form of direct printed newsletters and mailers -- to inform residents of their districts about recent legislation or special events, or to alert them of emergencies, and more. While these mailers are subject to certain restrictions in the run up to an election, differences between state rules and city regulations mean that state legislators running for City Council have a distinct advantage over their opponents at the local level.

In at least three City Council races where sitting state Assemblymembers are candidates, separate complaints have been filed with the city Campaign Finance Board alleging that each of them has violated prohibitions against using government-funded mass mailers within a mandated 90-day communication blackout period before the September 12 primary. Copies of the complaints were provided to Gotham Gazette.

The rules governing mass mailers are adopted by each legislative chamber, but they differ from the rules and guidelines established by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which oversees expenditure by campaigns in the city. Each set of rules establishes ‘blackout’ periods ahead of an election, during which communications funded through government resources are prohibited unless they meet certain exceptions.

The New York City Charter states that “public servants” may not use government funds or resources for mass mailers within 90 days of a primary or general election. (The law also prohibits officials from appearing in government-funded advertisements in an election year.)

There are certain exceptions, for instance allowing one mailer to be sent out within 21 days of the passage of the city’s budget, and permitting communications required by law or those necessary for public safety or health emergencies, among others.

For City Council candidates currently working for New York City -- including incumbent Council members and even community board members -- the CFB blackout period began June 15, roughly three months before the September 12 primary.

But since the City Charter only applies to “all officials, officers and employees of the city,” state officials and legislators are out of reach of those provisions and prohibitions. The state Assembly’s blackout period, in comparison, is only 30 days before a local, special or primary election and 60 days before the general. This effectively allows state legislators to use their offices to promote their image and build greater name recognition, enhancing the already-significant power of incumbency and giving them an additional leg up over their opponents who would have to rely on campaign funds to communicate with voters.

“It’s a clear loophole,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government reform organization. “The problem is that city law is always subordinate to state law. So the CFB cannot tell a state legislator what they can or cannot do.”

ortiz mailer cropIn District 38, incumbent Democratic City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is facing a slew of challengers, including sitting Assemblymember Felix Ortiz. A complaint filed with the CFB earlier this month alleged that Ortiz had violated the CFB’s blackout provisions by sending out four mailers from his government office over the summer. But these mailers, a regular function of state legislative offices, are exempt from the CFB’s purview.

“Part of Felix’s job as an Assemblyman is to inform his constituents, whether he’s running for office or not,” said Robinson Iglesias, Ortiz’s campaign treasurer. “He has been in full compliance with the CFB and he will continue to do so.”

“For sure, it’s unfair. For sure, it’s an advantage,” said Kaehny of the loophole. “It hasn’t been effectively exploited until now. The reality is, an incumbent already has an advantage in name identity. Using their mail privileges helps reinforce that name identity...This is a real unfairness under the law.”

Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, the frontrunner for the District 13 seat being vacated by Council Member James Vacca, similarly sent out a legislative update to his constituents at the end of June.

Of Gjonaj’s four opponents in the Democratic primary, John Doyle has been his most vociferous critic and lodged objections with the CFB over potential violations regarding mass mailers and government-sponsored communications. When informed that the communications were largely permitted under the Assembly’s rules, Doyle directed his ire at both the state Legislature and Gjonaj. “We have a culture of corruption in Albany that allows this,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “This is the state Legislature that can’t seem to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform.”

gjonaj mailer cropDoyle also insisted that Gjonaj has ample campaign resources at his disposal to get his message out and should have eschewed the Legislature’s mass mailing resources. “He’s against public funds to augment the voice of ordinary citizens,” Doyle said, referring to Gjonaj’s decision to not participate in the CFB’s public matching funds program, “but he has no problem using public funds when it supports his interests.”

Gjonaj’s campaign spokesperson Jennifer Blatus pushed back against Doyle’s complaint. “Let's be clear, there was no unfair advantage in the District 13 council race,” Blatus said in an email. “This is another ridiculous attempt by John Doyle to distract voters and continue his negative and divisive campaign.” Insisting that the CFB allows elected officials to conduct ordinary communications with constituents, she added, “In the final days of this election, while Mr. Doyle continues to complain over the experience Mark Gjonaj brings to this race, our campaign remains focused on the issues at hand, which is quality of life, public safety, education and transportation.”

In District 21, where Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is stepping down at the end of her current term, two Democrats are facing off in the primary: Assemblymember Francisco Moya and Hiram Monserrate, a disgraced former state Senator and Council member who is attempting a comeback after a checkered recent past that includes separate criminal convictions on fraud and assault charges.

Monserrate claims that Moya misused government resources to send mass email blasts within the 90-day period, including references to events Moya attended outside his district. Moya’s Assembly district overlaps with parts of Council District 21 but excludes large sections. “Moya is a liar and a fraud,” Monserrate said in a statement. “He lies about where he lives. And now we know he's committing fraud by using tax-dollars illegally to campaign.”

moya mailer cropIn a written response to the CFB on Monserrate’s complaint, Moya noted, correctly, that “as an Assemblymember my mail cut off deadline is different than sitting City electeds.” In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Moya had harsher words for his opponent. “My opponent is a convicted felon who has zero credibility on this or any other issue in the campaign,” he said. “He is using these baseless claims to attack my record of public service, and direct attention away from his corrupt, violent history. These charges have been easily refuted by my campaign, and simply bear no resemblance to the facts.”

Moya went on to criticize Monserrate for his own misuse of taxpayer funds. “The questions voters are asking are, ‘Hiram, where is our money that you stole and how can we ever trust you again?’”

The CFB and the City are mostly powerless to bridge the gap in the law. “Obviously we provide extensive guidance on how candidates should handle constituent communications in the days leading up to an election, It’s certainly something we monitor,” said Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson.

Reinvent Albany’s Kaehny says closing the loophole would require the state Legislature to take action, “which it seems very unlikely to do.” In the absence of legislation, he said, “The best thing CFB could do is keep track and include as much information in their post-election report to note how much of a problem it is and bring attention to that.”

The CFB issues a comprehensive report after each city election that includes numerous recommendations on improving the campaign finance and election system. Many of the recommendations from their 2013 report were passed into law by the City Council.

Two other state Legislators are also running for “open” City Council seats, though no apparent complaints have been lodged against either. Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, who has also sent out mass mailers from his office, is running for the District 8 seat currently held by term-limited Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito; and in District 18, state Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., famous for his constituent e-blasts, which have continued apace, is vying for the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Annabel Palma.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, another good government group, conceded that the CFB has no authority over the state and insisted that the Legislature should increase its own communication blackout periods to undo the advantage that accrues to lawmakers.

“Legislators wouldn’t send [mailers] out if they didn’t think it will bolster public good will,” Horner said, adding that perhaps it will fall to voters to ensure a level standard. “I think it’s fair for the public to urge state elected officials running for City Council to follow the same rules,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races Tue, 29 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
State Electeds Insult City Criminal Justice While Reform in Albany is Minimal at Best http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6837-state-electeds-insult-city-criminal-justice-while-reform-in-albany-is-minimal-at-best http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6837-state-electeds-insult-city-criminal-justice-while-reform-in-albany-is-minimal-at-best Cuomo prison break

Gov. Cuomo at Dannemora correctional facility (photo: Governor's Office)


Last week, State Senator Jesse Hamilton mailed a flier to his constituents strongly denouncing broken windows policing. The senator, who represents Crown Heights and surrounding neighborhoods in Brooklyn, called on the city to end arrests for minor quality-of-life offenses that “are often used to police black and brown bodies.”

The week before, during a speech in Manhattan, Governor Cuomo disparaged Mayor de Blasio for failing to close the notorious Rikers Island jail, accusing the mayor of “impotence.”

These criticisms of the city come as the state government, led by Cuomo, struggles to make its own reforms to New York’s criminal justice system. Current state budget negotiations include a push to “raise the age” of criminal responsibility so that 16- and 17-year-olds are largely prosecuted as juveniles, not adults. But the measure, which is seeing new daylight this year, has faced strong opposition from Senate Republicans for years, despite the fact that New York is now one of just two states that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

Senate Republicans want teenagers charged with violent crimes to be tried as adults and they want all 16- and 17-year-olds tried in criminal, not family, court.  

The Republican Conference holds a plurality in the Senate—and the power that comes with it—in part because Senator Hamilton and the seven other members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) do not caucus with the Democrats. Nominal “Democrat” Senator Simcha Felder caucuses with Republicans, giving the GOP a 32-seat bare majority in the 63-seat chamber.

But Senator Hamilton says that far from diluting the “raise the age” effort, his position in the IDC empowers progressive reform like it. “I, along with my colleagues in the IDC, have pushed Raise the Age further than ever before in the New York State Senate,” he said. “My advocacy around broken windows policing is motivated by my support for Raise the Age.”

For their part, city officials are defending their approach and pointing the finger back at the state. At a recent press conference, Mayor de Blasio was asked about Cuomo’s Rikers comments, and said, “Our job is to address this crisis [on Rikers Island]. We’ve been doing it for three straight years…The state’s job is to take care of the state prison system."

City Council Member Carlos Menchaca exchanged sharp words with Senator Hamilton on Twitter, asking him, “What law are you advancing at the state level to curb the impact of Broken Windows policing?”

Since that exchange, Senator Hamilton has introduced a bill to make turnstile jumping -- perhaps the prototypical broken windows offense -- a violation instead of a misdemeanor. Evading the subway fare is a charge the NYPD disproportionately brings against young black and Latino New Yorkers. Since city police enforce state laws, that is one avenue state legislators could use to influence city criminal justice.

Senator Hamilton, who is black, spoke of his son as a motivation for opposing broken windows policing and for supporting raising the age. “He’s at an age where ‘the talk’—about young black men, safety, and interactions with police—is not an abstraction.”

If the state raises the age of criminal responsibility, it will be the first major criminal justice reform legislation since the law ending the shackling of pregnant inmates in 2015. Executive action on prison reform has also slowed recently. After closing 13 prisons in his first term, Governor Cuomo has not closed any since 2013, even while the state prison population has continued to decline.

Last year, the governor also vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have increased funding to public defenders in the state. Cuomo insists he’s open to similar legislation but that it must be done through the budget.

And a New York Times report about rampant racial bias in New York State’s parole system led Cuomo to launch an investigation, but no findings have been made public and the parole system is unchanged.

Parole reform is on the list of criminal justice changes that advocates have long hoped New York State would take up. The list also includes reform to the bail system, ending the use of solitary confinement, and a bill to accelerate trials. Republican control of the Senate, aided by the IDC, makes further reforms less likely.

“The speedy trial bill, Kalief’s Law, should be a no-brainer,” said gabriel sayegh*, the Co-Executive Director of Katal, an organization fighting mass incarceration. “It would reduce pre-trial detention in jails.” The bill passed the Assembly unanimously, but has stalled in the Senate. “Even common sense bills that have bi-partisan support don’t get done,” sayegh said.

“I don’t think it’s a problem when state folks speak out on city issues, or vice versa,” continued sayegh. “We are eager to have the governor support the speedy trial bill, which would help us close Rikers. We want to see Senator Hamilton follow through by advancing legislation at the state level that addresses disparities in policing practices and arrests. They should connect their comments to action.”

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Brenden Beck is a PhD candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center researching police, suburbs, inequality, and housing. On Twitter @BrendenBeck.

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

*sayegh spells his name with all lowercase letters

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State Electeds Insult City Criminal Justice While Reform in Albany is Minimal at Best Tue, 28 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
New York: A Sanctuary City with A Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6660-new-york-a-sanctuary-city-with-a-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6660-new-york-a-sanctuary-city-with-a-plan ferreras-copeland menchaca press conference

The authors: Council Members Menchaca, left, & Ferreras-Copeland, center


New York’s immigrant families are waking up terrified as President-elect Trump, his supporters and growing administration spew hate. In spite of his new stance to “work something out” for Dreamers, Trump’s words are met with lack of trust. As the children of immigrants, we take attacks from Trump and his supporters personally and are filled with the courage needed to fight harder and smarter than ever to protect the rights and freedoms of diverse immigrant communities throughout New York City.

To this end, the New York City Council passed a resolution this week affirming our commitment to remain a sanctuary city for immigrants, and we personally delivered it hours later to Trump Tower. Our resolution codifies past commitments to sanctuary while signaling to everyone that we will invest the time, energy, and resources required to make good on our promises.
Our resolve is clear: we are here to stay.

Our City Council, like those in municipalities across the country, will play a lead role in this fight by redoubling our efforts to keep New York City a true sanctuary city. With the support of our Council colleagues, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mayor Bill de Blasio, fierce advocates, and brave New York families, we commit to immigrants that this city will remain a safe home.

This week’s sanctuary city resolution memorialized our commitment, and we will ensure it through, in part, the following:

First, we will defend our victories by preserving existing policies, initiatives, and programs that protect immigrants.

Detainer Law: The Council’s 2014 detainer discretion law has protected between 3,000 and 4,000 New Yorkers per year from deportation. The law draws a bright line between municipal law enforcement and overly aggressive federal immigration enforcement. All New Yorkers are safer when there is trust between immigrants and the NYPD because crimes are more likely to be reported and witnesses feel safer. Under the Trump Administration, we commit to gear up for legal challenges to this law, and we expect to prevail.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Program (NYIFUP): NYIFUP provides legal services for New Yorkers who are detained and facing deportation. It has been highly successful and serves as a blueprint for other progressive municipalities. Continued funding for NYIFUP is not guaranteed by the city. The de Blasio administration must increase NYIFUP funding and make it permanent.

CUNY Citizenship Now!: Since 1996, the City University of New York lawyers, paralegals, and volunteers have assisted hundreds of thousands of immigrants with legal advice, representation, and referrals. Programs like this are worthy of celebration and require our continuing support.

IDNYC: IDNYC is the largest municipal ID program in the country with over 900,000 subscribers. It promotes civic participation, the economy, and public safety. We will ensure it continues to thrive. We call on the de Blasio administration to do everything in its power to protect the personal data of IDNYC cardholders. Entities like the NYPD, banks, and cultural institutions must continue to honor this government-issued ID. We will do our part in the Council, and in conversations with the mayor, to protect and defend the privacy of current and future IDNYC cardholders.

Second, we must expand protections and investment for New York City immigrants.

We are committed to building upon our victories, expanding existing initiatives, and creating new services, through efforts such as:

Expanding Funding for Immigration Legal Services: Today, NYIFUP is limited to individuals who are detained and do not have a prior order of removal. In anticipation of the Trump administration, the program should be expanded to provide representation to other classes of immigrants facing deportation. The City Council and the de Blasio administration have also recently invested in legal representation in complex immigration cases. The demand for this type of representation will likely expand under a Trump presidency, requiring increased funding for these services, as well. We commit to fighting for these increases in funding for immigration legal services in the fiscal year 2018 budget negotiation process.

Right to Immigration Counsel Law: A right to immigration counsel enshrined in law would help ensure that all individuals going through immigration court proceedings are represented by competent lawyers. While this might be expensive, we cannot let that deter us from doing what is right. We commit to working with our colleagues in the Council and the mayor to further assess the feasibility of a Right to Immigration Counsel Law.

Protection from Notario and Immigration Attorney Fraud: One of the clearest ways to protect immigrant families is to ensure they are not victimized by unethical “notarios” (notaries who present themselves as immigration legal service providers) and incompetent or sham attorneys. Notario and attorney fraud harms vulnerable New Yorkers seeking immigration assistance. Our constituents encounter fake lawyers, scams, inflated fees, and predatory providers daily. Often, in addition to bilking families out of thousands of dollars, these bad actors cause serious harm to their legitimate immigration cases. We commit to working with the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and advocates on continuing to protect immigrants from notario and immigration attorney fraud.

Expanding Participatory Budgeting: Each year, through Participatory Budgeting (PB), Council members voluntarily cede capital budget allocation decisions to residents of their districts who collaborate to decide which projects best serve their communities. We have repeatedly seen an overwhelming number of PB ballots in languages other than English, which demonstrates the engagement of immigrants in this process. This also indicates to us that while many immigrants cannot vote in other types of elections due to their immigration status, many are eager to participate in our city’s democratic process. The city all immigrants and other residents love, contribute to, and call home should welcome civic participation. We commit to strengthening PB in our districts and supporting its growth across the city.

We are prepared for a Trump era during which immigrant communities will likely be under attack. New York City will stand as a beacon of welcome, hope, and protection for immigrants.

In the New York City Council, we commit to defending our history of hard-won victories, while also expanding protections for immigrants. We know cities will need to hold the line against Trump administration attacks. As New Yorkers, we embrace that challenge together.

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Carlos Menchaca is the City Council Member for District 38 in Brooklyn and Chair of the Committee on Immigration.
Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is the City Council Member for District 21 in Queens and Chair of the Committee on Finance.
Follow them on Twitter: @cmenchaca & @julissaferreras.

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

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New York: A Sanctuary City with A Plan Thu, 08 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000