Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/163 Tue, 11 Dec 2018 22:33:09 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Considers De Blasio Nominee for Department of Investigation http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8102-city-council-considers-de-blasio-nominee-for-department-of-investigation http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8102-city-council-considers-de-blasio-nominee-for-department-of-investigation mg headshot

Margaret Garnett (photo via City Hall)


Margaret Garnett, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pick to replace recently fired Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, received praise from City Council Members and the support of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at a Monday hearing on her nomination. Currently serving as the Executive Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice in the New York State Attorney General’s office, Garnett’s nomination hearing came amid significant controversy over de Blasio’s firing of Peters, who claimed on his way out that de Blasio’s behavior and motives in taking the unprecedented step of letting him go were highly questionable.

The DOI commissioner, charged with running the agency that independently investigates corruption and wrongdoing in city government, is the only mayoral department-head appointee that requires approval by the City Council. Peters, the treasurer for de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign, used his position to examine systemic failings in the mayor’s administration and issued several scathing reports on the public housing authority, the police department, and the children’s services department, among other agencies. But Peters’ work drew the ire of the mayor, who reportedly considered removing the commissioner for months.

The mayor was presented with a justifiable opportunity after an independent investigator, prosecutor James McGovern, issued a report that said Peters had exceeded his legal authority in attempting to take over an independent office that conducts oversight of the Department of Education, among other transgressions.

In responding to the report and his termination, Peters questioned the mayor’s motives in a letter to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations. Peters pointed to instances where the mayor and his aides had sought to suppress critical reports by DOI and speculated that de Blasio was attempting to bring an end to potential ongoing investigations into the mayor’s office. Those actions, he said, could chill the independence of the next DOI commissioner.

De Blasio responded that Peters was fired for cause and alluded to other troubling behavior not in the McGovern report, while adding that he regretted nominating Peters in the first place and saying the former prosecutor had delusions of grandeur. A BuzzFeed News report on Monday appeared to poke holes in Peters’ critique of the mayor, citing unnamed former and current DOI employees who said that Peters himself quashed a report about NYPD officers who lied in official statements and were not disciplined.

Naturally, Peters’ conduct and the saga around his dismissal by de Blasio formed the basis of Monday’s City Council hearing, held by the Council’s Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges, chaired by City Council Member Karen Koslowitz. Council Members questioned Garnett on the approach she would take if she was confirmed to replace Peters in leading an office with dozens of investigators and the power to make arrests, and pressed her on how she would withstand influence from the administration and handle investigations, if any, that are already underway related to the mayor’s office.

“To do its job, It is imperative that DOI remain independent from the entities it is obligated to monitor, including and especially the mayor,” Speaker Johnson said in his opening statement. “The DOI commissioner must not be beholden to any political figure and she must be capable of withstanding political pressure that would affect the integrity of DOI’s work.”

Garnett emphasized her prosecutorial experience and her apolitical beliefs in her testimony. She also said that the findings of the McGovern Report, based on which Peters was fired, were “very shocking” and said she herself would expect to be terminated under those circumstances.

The Council members and Garnett seemed reconciled to a degree of professional tension between the legislative body and the independent agency. The McGovern report, Johnson said, raised the question of whether there needs to be structural changes to prevent the types of actions for which Peters was removed. “Who watches the watchman?,” Johnson asked.

But Garnett seemed to reject that idea, emphasizing rather that DOI remain independent and create an internal culture of integrity to prevent even the commissioner from abusing their power. “It’s very important...that prosecutors and law enforcement investigators be independent from political influence or political control, partisan concerns,” Garnett said, “and in order for that independence to be effective, that often means limited oversight by elected officials and other bodies.”

Garnett said she could cite “dozens of examples” from her career of withstanding political pressure into investigations, and said bluntly that if she was ever asked to end a particular inquiry or affect its outcome, “The first thing I’d do is hang up the phone.”

“I’m not a political person, I have no political ambitions...I would much sooner risk being fired than risk damaging my professional reputation,” she later said. Garnett is a veteran prosecutor and previously served as Assistant United States Attorney for the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. She has prosecuted tax fraud, embezzlement, narcotics cases and violent crimes, supervising the Violent and Organized Crime Unit for four years. She was later appointed Chief of Appeals for the Criminal Division. In the Attorney General’s office, besides heading the criminal division, Garnett oversees investigations of deaths of unarmed civilians in police interactions through the Special Investigations and Prosecution Unit.

Council members also used the hearing as an opportunity to delve further into Peters’ actions as commissioner, seeking assurances from Garnett that she would not make the same missteps. Among Peters abuses of power was the firing of a whistleblower in his own department, which Johnson said, and Garnett agreed, might necessitate strengthening whistleblower protections through legislative action.

Garnett shared the Council members’ apprehensions about Peters’ disclosure, in his letter to the Council, of the possible existence of investigations into the mayor’s office. But she also promised to look into any such investigations and said she would follow the facts and evidence without backing down as Peters’ letter suggested.

“I can assure you that I will not be chilled,” she said, “and to the extent that anyone, Mr. Peters or in the administration or otherwise, thinks that I will be intimidated or chilled, I think they’ll be sorely disappointed.”

Peters’ actions also prompted Council members to seek clarity on DOI’s role and authority over the NYPD inspector general, which is housed at DOI, and the Special Commissioner for Investigation at DOE, which Peters had tried to bring under his control. Garnett shared their concerns and was asked repeatedly about SCI’s structure in relation to DOI, even though she said she could not adequately address the question since she had yet to examine it. Council Member Mark Treyger in particular questioned whether that structural relationship should be reimagined considering that SCI has not conducted any systematic review of DOE for years despite the agency accounting for the largest share of the city budget.

Council Member Torres, who was critical of the mayor’s decision to fire Peters, said Garnett was “exceptionally qualified” to replace him. He said his “greatest frustration” with DOI was the lack of acknowledgement of the Council’s requests for probes of city agencies or particular issues. Garnett made no promises about instituting a formal reporting structure, as Torres proposed, but she agreed to have conversations with members about their concerns.

Members praised Garnett’s testimony and lengthy resume and, in the end, her confirmation to the post seemed assured (a vote is likely to be taken in committee then the full Council in the coming days). Shortly before departing the hearing, Johnson said he was impressed with Garnett’s testimony and qualifications and would support her nomination. “I feel confident in your ability to lead this agency,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Considers De Blasio Nominee for Department of Investigation Mon, 26 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Pushes Board of Elections on Another Round of Issues at the Polls http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8093-city-council-pushes-board-of-elections-on-another-round-of-issues-at-the-polls http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8093-city-council-pushes-board-of-elections-on-another-round-of-issues-at-the-polls citycouncil jcommhearing

BOE ED Michael Ryan (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Embattled City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan testified before the City Council's Committees on Oversight and Government Operations on Tuesday, explaining that a perforated two-page ballot, never before used anywhere in the United States, was primarily to blame for the issues at polling sites across the city on Election Day.

In a combative hearing initially presided over by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Ryan apologized, after being asked to do so, for the poor administration of the general election but defended the BOE by noting it was forced to work under tight timelines and restrictive administrative law, which required the center perforation on the two-page ballot and did not allow ballot questions, of which there were three this year proposed by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission, to appear on the same side as candidates.

“The board has been advised that an initial analysis points to the perforated ballot requirement as the major cause of the increased ballot jams,” Ryan said in prepared testimony to the joint committees. “Such a ballot configuration has not been attempted in any jurisdiction in the United States for use with a poll site scanner. The perforated two page ballot presented a series of problems never before experienced by the Board or anywhere in the country.”

These problems included malfunctioning scanners without adequate tech support to fix them and lines so long that some voters simply went home without casting a ballot.

The timing of the submission of the ballot questions proposed by the Charter Revision Commission caused the ballot to not be finalized until October 9, and the hundreds of different "ballot styles" across various different overlapping jurisdictions for different offices, prevented adequate testing and the ability to upload different styles on the same machine, Ryan said.

In Manhattan alone, there were 924 different ballot styles, Ryan testified, owing to the various different combinations of overlapping districts for different offices such as Senate, Assembly, and Judgeships, among others.

Staten Island was the lone borough with a single sheet ballot, and did not experience the poll site issues that the other four boroughs did on Election Day.

Though still only about 38 percent, voter turnout in New York City for the general election was substantially higher than in recent non-presidential elections. Ryan said that state law dictates that there must be one scanner for every 4,000 voters, while BOE protocol stipulates one scanner for every 1,400 voters.

Because of both the abnormally high turnout and the two-page ballot, which when separated doubled the amount of paper that machines needed to process, “ballot bins” in the voting machines filled up much quicker than normally. In fact, most of the issues were related to simple overcapacity of ballots in the bins, rather than technical malfunction, Ryan said.

Ryan noted that about 4,000 scanners were in use on Election Day, while about 1,000 were left in the warehouse; they could not be brought out to poll sites due to transportation issues and the fact that individual ballot styles take an hour to upload onto the machine’s ballot reading software.

Ryan said that a two-page ballot was considered a possibility in 2016, but was ultimately not used. Nonetheless, Ryan was criticized for not testing a "generic" perforated ballot in that two-year span.

“There’s nothing that prevents you from testing the machines for a generic two-page perforated ballot,” said City Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Oversight Committee. “For about two years, you’ve had the opportunity to test your equipment for a two-page perforated ballot, and it sounds like over the course of those two years, you’ve failed to do so.”

In fact, Ryan said that the Board did not test for potential malfunctions at all, citing a lack of adequate time between the ballot finalization and Election Day and the inability to predict voter behavior.

“We had just enough time to test the DS200 scanners for functionality,” he said, referring to the scanners that the state has used since switching from lever voting in 2010. “We did not have any time to do any kind of random testing to try to replicate the voter experience.”

Speaker Johnson, who called on Ryan to resign during the Election Day fiasco, expressed displeasure and distrust in Ryan but also condemned the election process in New York generally.

“I am embarrassed as a New Yorker about what happened on Election Day,” Johnson said. “I feel like this happens over and over and over again. I can’t remember an election where people said ‘you know what, it was done in a thoughtful, calm, professional, easy manner.’ New Yorkers deserve that. I don’t have confidence that that is gonna happen.” Johnson noted that he is not confident that the Board can competently administer the upcoming special election for Public Advocate, likely to occur in February.

Johnson was just one of several Council members to detail his own experience voting, noting that his polling place had only a single functioning scanner by 11 a.m., resulting in a significant line that stretched outside into the rain, which was another factor in the day’s issues.

"I expect to hear a plan forthcoming from the city and the state to rectify the issues of this election, and to improve tenfold the election operations for the next election, and the one after that, and the one after that," Johnson said.

Another problem beyond ballot design and machine capacity was staffing, which failed on multiple levels on Election Day, ranging from poll workers unable to handle the influx of voters or scanner malfunctions or a greatly deficient number of tech support workers to fix the mounting issues with the machines. The BOE supplied tech staff commensurate with the number staffed in the 2016 presidential election, which Ryan called a bad idea in retrospect.

"There was an avalanche early in the morning and we just could never catch up,” he said.

Ryan disclosed that the BOE had received nearly 10,000 calls on Election Day, with most related to technical issues, a number he said was much higher than previous elections.

The problem was most significant in Brooklyn, where the Board fielded 3,362 calls and wait times for a technician averaged an hour and 15 minutes. The average wait time citywide was 52 minutes.

Ryan, who is hired by the city BOE to run operations and be non-political, did not take an explicit position on some of the more talked-about election reform proposals for the state, such as early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, or automatic voter registration. However, he urged Council members on multiple occasions to work with the Board to establish a municipal poll-worker program modeled on a similar program in Los Angeles, where municipal workers at city agencies would get a bonus or a day off to work the polls. This could include techs from the city’s technology department, DoITT, or other agencies, who could supplement the existing tech support workers.

In the meantime, however, Ryan wants to staff poll sites in future elections with workers trained to fix malfunctions, rather than relying on a finite number of outside techs.

Brooklyn Council Member Kalman Yeger questioned why the existing poll workers themselves couldn’t be trained to clear ballot jams, comparing the issue to a printer malfunction.

"You make a straightforward and reasonable suggestion. The reluctance going back to 2010 was that we were losing poll workers because of their fear of the new machines,” Ryan said. “So a decision was made in that moment, which carried through to this election, have the poll workers do less with the machines, not more. This election, in a very hard way, taught us a difficult lesson."

Other testifiers, such as Douglas Kellner of the State Board of Elections, agreed with the municipal poll worker suggestion, while also suggesting that staffing in general needed to be improved to comply with the “30-minute rule,” a federal rule which stipulates that no voter should wait more than 30 minutes to vote.

“New York City has not complied with this regulation in its presidential general elections since the regulation was adopted in 2007,” Kellner said. “And I see no meaningful efforts by New York City to come into compliance in 2020.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Pushes Board of Elections on Another Round of Issues at the Polls Tue, 20 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
With Nod from De Blasio and Push from Johnson, Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8062-with-nod-from-de-blasio-and-push-from-johnson-momentum-for-ranked-choice-voting-in-new-york-city http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8062-with-nod-from-de-blasio-and-push-from-johnson-momentum-for-ranked-choice-voting-in-new-york-city bdb at voting machine

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


With all three of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision proposals approved by voters by wide margins on Tuesday, eyes are now on the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, empaneled by the City Council and other officials, which will, in some respects, pick up where the 2018 commission left off, possibly considering issues that the mayor’s commission did not act on.

Key among those is ranked-choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting), an alternative method of voting wherein voters rank their candidate preferences rather than simply voting for one. For whichever races it is applied to, if no candidate wins the required percentage of the vote on initial count, the last place candidate is eliminated, and the second preference of the eliminated candidate’s voters receives those votes. This continues until one candidate secures the required percentage, often set at 50 percent.

As of now, New York City only holds runoffs for citywide positions -- mayor, public advocate, comptroller -- and if no candidate receives 40 percent of the vote. Mayor Bill de Blasio narrowly avoided a runoff in the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor, but there was one that year for public advocate.

That runoff, in the Democratic primary between eventual winner Letitia James and Daniel Squadron, led to heightened calls for ranked-choice voting, especially given the high cost of the runoff relative to the budget of the public advocate’s office.

Increasing support from elected officials and among the public led to ranked-choice voting being considered and discussed by the 2018 charter commission; in its final report, the commission said that it had received a “considerable volume of public comment about ranked choice voting.” In the end, the commission demurred on ranked-choice, arguing that more research and time were required and recommending that a future commission tackle the issue.

It may not take long; that commission may well end up being the 2019 commission, which has already met six times, twice in Manhattan and once each in the other boroughs, and has a much longer timeline on which to tackle issues. It is expected to continue deliberations, solicit online feedback, and hold hearings and meetings throughout the first half of next year, with its ballot proposals likely due by early September.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who got to name several commissioner including the chair, Gail Benjamin, testified at a recent hearing in favor of ranked-choice voting, urging the commission to look into it. De Blasio, meanwhile, singled out ranked-choice voting when asked by Gotham Gazette at a press availability what he would like the 2019 commission to tackle, though he did not endorse the idea outright.

“There was a very vibrant discussion in this charter revision commission, for example, about ranked-choice voting,” the mayor said. “For me, the jury’s still out on ranked-choice voting. I grew up with it in Massachusetts. I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses. And I’d sure like to see a lot more research on it. But there’s a lot of people who believe it might be very beneficial in New York City.”

Despite not taking an affirmative stance on the issue, de Blasio’s answer is a signal of his evolving position on ranked-choice, according to Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government group that supports ranked-choice voting.

“I think it’s significant,” Camarda said. “I think what’s telling is we’ve now seen, in the last few months, the mayor last week and the Council speaker at the Manhattan charter revision commission hearing, both called on the commission to consider instant runoff voting, and ‘here are the different arguments for it.’ And I think that’s a signal to the commission that they should seriously look at this.”

“I think there’s a new openness to it on their parts that at least wasn’t public in the past,” he continued. “De Blasio in 2013 went on The Brian Lehrer Show and actually took a position against IRV, and said at the time that the starkness of two candidates in the runoff, he thought was clarifying for voters. So clearly, his position seems to have evolved.”

Aside from good government groups, which almost uniformly support it, ranked choice also has the support of other prominent city elected officials: along with Johnson, support comes from Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate James, who was elected State Attorney General on Tuesday and in May called herself “the face of instant runoff” given her 2013 race. City Council Member Brad Lander has sponsored a bill to implement "instant run-off voting" (James is a co-sponsor) in the Council.

"As the upcoming Public Advocate race shows, Ranked Choice Voting is an idea whose time has come for New York City," Lander said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Stronger majority support, better outreach to diverse communities, less negative campaigning, and it even saves money. What's not to like?"

Advocates, including those in New York, note that ranked-choice both makes third parties more viable (by limiting the need for “strategic voting”) and forces candidates to appeal beyond their base, in the hope of attracting voters as second preference. Ranked-choice would also allow city elections to avoid costly, low-turnout runoff elections when no candidate secures the required threshold of votes.

“We think that enabling voters to rank candidates creates an environment where there's more substantive policy debate, and there’s less negativity in campaigning, because candidates have to appeal to second choice and even third choice votes,” Camarda said.

In 2013, the runoff between James and Squadron was estimated to cost about $13 million, for a position with a $2 million budget, in an election with 6.5% turnout. In a report released the following year, the city’s Campaign Finance Board recommended that New York City adopt ranked-choice voting for municipal elections.

Advocates also claim that ranked-choice increases turnout, though studies have been conflicting on the matter. Some have charged that it can be confusing to voters, decreasing turnout and the diversity of the electorate. Turnout in San Francisco, the largest American city using ranked-choice, has been generally depressed since the implementation of ranked-choice, while in Minneapolis, the results have been far more promising.

Ranked choice has taken a higher political profile after Maine voters adopted the system by referendum in 2016, after a string of gubernatorial elections going back to 2002 where no candidate received a majority of the vote. The measure survived several legal and legislative challenges and was used in this year’s midterm elections; the Democratic gubernatorial candidate won an outright majority, but the race in the 2nd Congressional District is currently being decided by instant runoff.

Along with San Francisco and Minneapolis, ranked-choice is used in cities such as Oakland and Memphis, where voters approved ranked-choice in 2008 but it has not yet been implemented. On Tuesday, voters in that city rejected a ballot proposal to abandon ranked-choice, and it will be used in 2019. And de Blasio’s hometown of Cambridge has used ranked-choice since the 1940s; Cambridge’s system is a unique hybrid of ranked-choice and proportional representation.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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This story has been updated.

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With Nod from De Blasio and Push from Johnson, Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City Thu, 08 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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

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Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission stringer charter testimony

Comptroller Stringer testifies at the 2019 Charter Revision Commission (photo: @NYCComptroller)


The charter revision commission created through New York City Council legislation concluded its first round of public hearings last month, receiving dozens of suggestions about improving the functions and structure of city government. Unlike the commission established by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which has three proposals on this November’s ballot, the Council-created commission is set to propose changes to the city’s central governing document via the 2019 election.

Among those who testified at the 2019 commission’s initial hearings were several elected officials who presented their own broad proposals that could significantly change how the city conducts its business and how those who hold power can wield it. They included City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, and several City Council members from the five boroughs.

Johnson -- who appointed the commission’s chair Gail Benjamin, the former head of the Council’s land use division, and three other members -- sees in the commission an opportunity to fix the balance of power in the city, which tilts toward the mayoralty and at times can diminish the oversight and accountability role played by the 51-member Council.

In testimony at the September 27 hearing held at City Hall, Johnson noted the Council’s limited ability to review mayoral appointees to head city agencies, and that the body cannot remove an agency head. He also suggested that the commission examine whether the budgets for certain offices “which are uncertain and subject to political considerations as opposed to substantive need, should be fixed or independently set.”

Johnson also recommended the commission look at the structure of the Law Department and the Corporation Counsel. “One lawyer attempting to serve two separate branches of government is an invitation for confusion and disruption and may not be in the best interests of the City,” his testimony reads, in reference to representation of both the executive and legislative branches of city government, an issue that has come to the fore as Council members have sought to join a lawsuit against the city’s property tax system.

Johnson is also pushing for changes to the city’s budget process to give the Council a greater voice and to tie budget allocations more closely to city programs, and also argued in favor of instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting.

The most sweeping reforms that Johnson proposed, however, deal with the city’s land use process, which is almost always contentious and has been recently as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has moved to rezone several neighborhoods -- mostly low-income, communities of color -- to increase density and create more affordable housing. Johnson and other members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus have advocated for a citywide planning framework that gives communities greater say in land use decisions and balances equity with development. They have also called for an independent City Planning Commission, as opposed to the one currently composed largely of mayoral appointees. Council Members Diana Ayala, who co-chairs the caucus, Keith Powers, a vice co-chair, Brad Lander, and Adrienne Adams each testified on those proposals at separate borough hearings. “The status quo of ad hoc planning is just not working…We need a larger vision based on equity, a vision in which low-income communities do not have to slowly bear the brunt of the city’s every housing and infrastructure need,” Ayala said at a September 12 hearing in the Bronx.

Those goals are also in line with a report released in January by the Regional Planning Association, a prominent think tank, in partnership with community advocacy groups, academic experts and partners in city government. The RPA report, titled “Inclusive City”, was also presented to the charter commission and cited by elected officials, including Brewer, who also testified at the Sept. 27 hearing. Brewer, along with Public Advocate Letitia James, was the driver behind the legislation that created the commission and has expressed hope that it can bring a sea change the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1989 charter commission fundamentally altered the structure of city government, giving it its present form.

In her testimony, Brewer emphasized a more thoughtful process for land use decisions that includes early input from community boards and elected officials before applications are certified through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). “With pre-planning we can do more than merely react—we can shape a project,” she said.

She also pushed for more technical improvements to zoning and permitting procedures, in the context of a long-term citywide approach. “There needs to be a citywide comprehensive plan every ten years,” she said. “This planning process could distribute new development equitably across the city, rather than concentrate rezonings in communities of color.”

Similar to Johnson’s testimony, Brewer advocated for increased transparency in the city budget. She also said the Civilian Complaint Review Board should be strengthened and its budget tied to the NYPD’s, to ensure that the watchdog agency has sufficient resources to deal with a growing police body. Additionally, she noted her opposition to term limits for community boards, which have been proposed in a ballot question by the mayor’s commission. Borough presidents appoint most community board members.

Comptroller Stringer’s ideas, in number at least, outpaced other elected officials. In an exhaustive report presented at the City Hall hearing, Stringer recommended 65 revisions to the charter ranging from proposals on city budgeting and procurement to housing, cybersecurity, children’s services, campaign finance and voting reforms.

“Since the last major charter revision nearly thirty years ago, New York City has grown by 1.2 million people and the world has changed around it, yet its charter is not prepared to meet the needs of today’s challenges,” Stringer said in a statement. “The Charter Review Commission is an opportunity for us to build a better government that takes aim at our affordability crisis and builds a fairer city by giving a voice to New Yorkers.”

Chief among Stringer’s proposals was a push for a Chief Diversity Officer in the mayor’s office and in each city agency, to ensure diversity in hiring and in contracting. Stringer has advocated for increased investment in Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs) and he noted that though New York City spends nearly $20 billion on goods and services each year, less than 5 percent of the contracts are given to M/WBEs.

He also proposed a new Office of Inspection independent of the Department of Buildings and the Housing and Preservation Department, which he said play conflicting roles since they both approve new construction and development and are also charged with enforcing housing and construction codes. In line with his role as the city’s chief fiscal officer, Stringer also pushed for reforms to the capital budget, which funds infrastructure projects in the city. He said it should be transparent enough so the public can identify the cost of specific projects and be informed when those costs change.

Several other City Council members also weighed in on proposed charter revisions.

Council Member Ben Kallos, also co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, proposed 72 ideas in total, in updated testimony, including a citizen “Bill of Rights to free higher education, affordable health and mental health care, and, access to parks, libraries, public transit and affordable internet.” He stressed that any revisions to the charter brought about through a ballot referendum should go through further changes only after being presented to voters again. He pushed to give the Council and borough presidents the ability to make appointments to mayoral boards that have land use authority and said the charter should be amended to allow city residents to propose legislation and be heard before the Council. “Our City’s Charter is truly a living document,” he said in a statement, “but it is up to us to make sure it remains alive.”

Council Member Helen Rosenthal pushed for the charter to formally adopt the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW), and also advocated for reforms to the city's contracting process to ease burdensome requirements on non-profits that provide early childhood
education, homeless services, senior services, and mental healthcare.  

At the September 20 hearing in Queens, Council Members Adams and Francisco Moya, who is not a Progressive Caucus member, supported improvements to ULURP. “Displacement in our neighborhoods is no longer a possibility but a fact of life,” Moya said, according to written testimony. He called for the charter to mandate assessments of displacement brought about by proposed development. “We cannot view our city and its neighborhoods in a vacuum,” Moya said.

There were, of course, elected officials with more borough-specific agendas. At the September 24 hearing on Staten Island, testimony by Borough President James Oddo, and Council Members Steven Matteo and Joseph Borelli (all three Republicans, unlike all of the other aforementioned officials, who are Democrats), advocated for greater freedom for the borough from “bureaucrats in Manhattan,” as Oddo and Matteo put it.

Oddo and Matteo, in submitted testimony, said that city agencies should be restructured to give borough commissioners more power over local issues. “Agencies should be restructured in such a way that the chain of command within the agency is clear, and that one individual on the local level is not only responsible and accountable, but specifically empowered within the agency to act,” they wrote.

Borelli similarly pushed for more decentralization of power, expressing concern that the priorities of Staten Islanders are often ignored by city government and that new changes to the charter could adversely affect the borough. “We don’t want to be laboratories for the latest experiments in social engineering as too often seems the case on issues ranging from buses to composting,” he said. He largely argued for giving the borough president greater jurisdiction over local issues, similar to a county executive outside New York City.

He also criticized the city’s public matching funds program for campaign financing, calling on the commission to negate the potential expansion of the program that could happen through a ballot proposal put forward by the mayor’s commission. And, he advanced several other proposals -- mandating that the Independent Budget Office study the fiscal impact of every piece of City Council legislation; reducing duplicative roles played by different city agencies; making it harder to raise taxes in the city; improving the process for holding special elections; and curbing the power of the Board of Standards and Appeals.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to include testimony from Council Member Helen Rosenthal and updated testimony from Council Member Ben Kallos.  

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Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission Thu, 11 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Vacancy in the Public Advocate's Office? Call the City Council Speaker http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7918-vacancy-in-the-public-advocate-s-office-call-the-city-council-speaker http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7918-vacancy-in-the-public-advocate-s-office-call-the-city-council-speaker tish james co jo cityhall

Letitia James and Corey Johnson (photo: Gotham Gazette)


Two former speakers of the New York City Council -- Melissa Mark-Viverito and Christine Quinn -- are on the list of possible contenders for a potential vacancy in the office of public advocate should the current occupant, Letitia James, win the post of attorney general in this fall’s elections. But it’s the sitting Council speaker, Corey Johnson, who will get to do the job first if that scenario came to pass.

James is competing against three other Democrats to win the party’s primary nomination for attorney general on September 13. She has been the presumed frontrunner for months, with the blessing of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Democratic Party, though one of her opponents, Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, has picked up strong momentum and several prominent endorsement in recent weeks.

If James prevails in the primary then the general, assuming she is sworn in an attorney general at the start of 2019, it would trigger a nonpartisan special election to be held roughly 51 days later. And for those seven weeks or so, the City Council speaker would assume her duties.

Under Section 44 of the City Charter, in the event of a vacancy in the public advocate’s office, “the speaker shall act as public advocate pending the filling of the vacancy pursuant to subdivision c of section twenty-four, and shall be a member of every board of which the public advocate is a member by virtue of his or her office.”

It would be the first time since the creation of the office of public advocate and the current office of the speaker, through a charter revision in 1989, that the clause would go into effect. It’s unclear how the speaker would approach the dual role, even in the interim, as he would both lead his 51-member legislative body and large central staff, and, as the title suggests, an office that advocates for the interests of everyday New Yorkers and keeps a watch on the functions and failures of city government. Both Johnson’s and James’ offices declined to comment for this article. Johnson has endorsed James for attorney general.

“If you get a vacancy, you want to get it filled by someone. Elections are gonna take a long time. A short time but a long time,” said Eric Lane, the Eric J. Schmertz Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Public Service at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law, Hofstra University. Lane served as executive director and counsel to the 1989 charter revision commission, which overhauled the structure of city government and created the positions that James and Johnson now hold.

“We definitely didn’t want the mayor to make that appointment,” Lane said, explaining the thinking behind the line of succession for public advocate. “In an intensely administrative government, where the mayor holds so much power, it’s the public advocate’s function to be a watchdog on that power.” The public advocate is also next in line to the mayoralty if a sitting mayor is removed from office or unable to carry out his or her duties. 

The public advocate was formerly known as the City Council president, but the position’s powers were stripped by the 1989 commission through the creation of the City Council speaker. The commission then decided to retain and re-envision the public advocate’s office in its current form, Lane said. “It was, in some ways, the least significant, most controversial topic we considered in the 1989 commission,” he said, noting that there was hotly-contested debate over the necessity of another citywide office. The rationale behind it was two-fold, he insisted. To have another set of independent eyes on the city bureaucracy and to allow minority communities to have a more participatory role in city politics.

Given the public advocate’s connection with the City Council, it then made sense for the vacancy to fall to the speaker. “We could’ve appointed the comptroller,” Lane conceded, “but at the time, we thought it would be more consistent with what the Council does. The Council had a relationship with that office, historically.”

[Read: Potentially Crowded Public Advocate Special Election Could Feature Two Former Council Speakers]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Vacancy in the Public Advocate's Office? Call the City Council Speaker Thu, 06 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Extending the Human Right of Health Care to All New Yorkers http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7853-extending-the-human-right-of-health-care-to-all-new-yorkers http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7853-extending-the-human-right-of-health-care-to-all-new-yorkers c johnson brooklyn credit

Speaker Johnson, the author, visits a health care facility (photo via John McCarten)


Health care for all is a human right. This means no one should be denied care based on their ability to pay.

The World Health Organization recognized this fundamental truth 70 years ago, most countries around the world have been putting it into action for decades now, and doctors and nurses live it out professionally every day.

Truly achieving this moral imperative means we need a universal health care system supported by taxes and administered by one provider. Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s also more practical and less expensive than the status quo.

A recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation shows that single-payer is likely to save our state health care system $15 billion by 2031 compared to our current system. Other estimates project savings of up to $45 billion.

For these reasons I introduced a resolution Wednesday urging our state government to approve a law that would lay the foundation for single-payer healthcare in the Empire State. The proposal would create the New York Health program, which, if fully implemented, would result in 90 percent of New Yorkers spending less on health care than they currently do.

The plan would help save New Yorkers money by cutting administrative costs and simplifying the present system. Approximately one million New Yorkers are without any health insurance and have essentially been priced out of the market, which is another practical reason why I support this legislation. Also, you, the patient, would pay no premiums, deductibles or co-payments when visiting a doctor under the new system.

According to the RAND study, New Yorkers could spend half as much money out of their own pockets under the New York Health program than they do within the current system. In fact, according to a relatively conservative scenario, New Yorkers with an annual household compensation of less than $105,300 would save about $2,800 per person every year. Other estimates project even greater savings.

Single-payer is traditionally viewed as a progressive cause, but it has earned support from conservative quarters too. RAND, which was originally founded to provide research to the armed forces, isn’t exactly a progressive endeavor.

It is also worth noting that New York is a relatively wealthy state. Our economy is the third largest in the nation, behind California and Texas. And with a gross domestic product of $1.56 trillion, our economy is comparable to Canada’s, which has a $1.65 trillion GDP.

That kind of prosperity is an advantage few states – and few countries, for that matter – enjoy, and it’s one we should leverage so as many New Yorkers as possible have access to good health care. Failing to do so would be an abdication of our responsibility as elected representatives.

The current landscape is complicated and there are a lot of moving parts, but complexity shouldn’t be the enemy of what is right.

President Trump’s administration has signaled it would oppose single-payer plans from state governments seeking to bring sanity to their respective health care landscapes, so it is unlikely his administration will grant New York the federal waivers needed for a single-payer system to be fully implemented here.

However, even without a waiver, the state could still ramp up the program on a partial basis and, in the process, save money for current Medicare and Medicaid recipients through improved, wrap-around coverage. It would also lay the framework for full implementation of the plan under a new president.

Critics on the other side of this debate have also argued that adequate health care shouldn’t be considered a right – that it is a finite resource and can’t be placed in the same category as voting or free speech.

I disagree.

Many human rights we now take for granted in the United States weren’t considered rights at all during various periods of history. But eventually we evolved to see them as such.

The right to vote, freedom of speech, the right to assemble – these are now encoded into our nation’s DNA, but over the course of world history this wasn’t always the case.

Even today, not everyone on earth has the right to vote. Many Americans didn’t have that right immediately after our nation was founded.

But we’ve made progress – often that progress comes too slowly, but there is no progress until we take the first steps forward.

Adopting single-payer healthcare in New York State would be an enormous step in the right direction. This is why I am standing with my colleagues in state government who support it, and I hope you will too.

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Corey Johnson is the Speaker of the New York City Council and represents the Council’s 3rd District, in Manhattan. On Twitter @NYCSpeakerCoJo.

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

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Extending the Human Right of Health Care to All New Yorkers Wed, 08 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7798-new-york-democrats-season-of-choosing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7798-new-york-democrats-season-of-choosing corey johnson jessica ramos robert jackson cityhall

Corey Johnson endorses IDC challengers (photo: Gotham Gazette)


As progressives aggressively attempt to wrest control of the Democratic Party from the hands of those they call centrists and establishment politicians, elected Democrats across New York find themselves in an unenviable position. Abiding by their self-professed progressive values to support insurgent Democratic primary challengers could mean bucking the state party establishment and its leader, Governor Andrew Cuomo, while, on the other hand, toeing the party line risks opening them up to accusations of hypocrisy and betrayal -- and perhaps even a future primary challenge -- levelled by an enraged and engaged base.

A battle that played out during the 2016 presidential primary between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State and New York Senator Hillary Clinton has only intensified since Donald Trump’s victory. The 2018 election cycle is offering many opportunities across the country for Democrats, elected officials and otherwise, to decide between what is essentially two wings of the party. The Democrats’ season of choosing is easier for some than others, but many prominent party figures find themselves in uncomfortable situations. At stake is nothing short of political careers, the fate of activist organizations, the policy agenda and future of the Democratic Party, the outcomes of current and prospective elections, and their aftermaths in terms of government policies that affect millions.

At the center in New York is Cuomo, his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, and the state Senate’s erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, eight senators who chose power over party for as many as seven years by empowering Republican control of the legislative chamber, what has been the GOP’s only stronghold in state government. In April, the renegades returned to the fold with assurances from Cuomo, who long tolerated and allegedly enabled their infidelity, that their seats were secure, at least from other Democrats. Under the accord brokered by the governor just after a new state budget was passed, the state Democratic Party machinery, fellow state-level electeds, and prominent labor unions would support these former IDC members -- who were time and again blamed for obstructing the passage of progressive legislation -- and would refuse to aid their challengers.

Though Cuomo and the former IDC members have professed support for progressive priorities -- voting, elections and campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, women’s reproductive rights, stronger rent regulations, immigrant protections, to name a few -- they have failed to pass legislation along those lines, blaming staunch opposition by Senate Republicans. Their progressive challengers instead say they have been the obstacles to progressive bills by empowering Republicans.

Cuomo, at the top of the Democratic ticket, faces an aggressive challenge from actress and activist Cynthia Nixon in the primary. Nixon’s candidacy, from the left of Cuomo, parallels Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid four years ago, except it comes in a more heightened atmosphere of displeasure on the left following Trump’s election, amid disappointment with Cuomo’s relatively centrist record, and with increased awareness of the IDC. Nixon also has other advantages Teachout lacked, like name recognition and fundraising prowess, though Cuomo has worked over the past four years to make amends with some of his past critics, such as those in certain labor unions.

A similar fight is being replicated in the race for lieutenant governor, between incumbent Democrat Hochul and her progressive challenger, Jumaane Williams, a City Council member from Brooklyn.   

All eight former IDC members face primary challenges ahead of the September 13 vote. Five of those districts fall squarely in New York City while another is split between the Bronx and Westchester, with two others upstate.

In District 13, in Queens, Jessica Ramos is taking on Sen. Jose Peralta; in Brooklyn’s District 20, Zellnor Myrie is challenging Sen. Jesse Hamilton; on Manhattan’s west side, Robert Jackson is going up against Sen. Marisol Alcantara; in District 23, which spans Staten Island’s north shore and parts of Brooklyn, Jasmine Robinson is confronting Sen. Diane Savino; in District 11 in Queens, Sen. Tony Avella will again face former city Comptroller John Liu, who earned 47 percent in a losing 2014 bid to unseat Avella; and in District 34 that covers Westchester and the Bronx, Alessandra Biaggi is attempting to unseat the leader of the what was the IDC, Sen. Jeff Klein, who now serves as the deputy leader in the unified Senate Democratic Conference.

Outside the city, in District 38 that spreads across Rockland and Westchester, Sen. David Carlucci faces a challenge from Julie Goldberg; and in District 53 covering Madison County and parts of Onondaga and Oneida, Sen. David Valesky faces Rachel May in the primary.

For Cuomo and the state party, maintaining what Democratic seats they have in the Senate is paramount as they seek to flip the chamber by picking up more. Republicans have recently held control of the 63-seat chamber by a one-seat margin thanks to their own ranks and a single rogue conservative Senator from Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, a registered Democrat who won his most recent reelection on the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative Party lines -- Felder is also facing a Democratic primary this year, from Blake Morris.

But while they also want to see Republican seats flipped in November, many progressive activists insist that the party needs to elect better, “bluer Democrats” than Cuomo, Hochul, and the former IDC members. Nixon has explained that it is her motivation to run for governor, saying that in the age of Trump not any Democrat will do. Cuomo and his supporters argue that not only has the governor been a progressive powerhouse, but that Democratic energy of all kinds would be better spent working in concert to flip red seats to blue.

That argument has largely fallen on deaf ears among those displeased with Cuomo, Klein, and other Democratic incumbents.

The shiny veneer of the Senate Democrat reunification deal and its accompanying pact of nonaggression has seemed to be wearing off as challengers to the IDC senators pick up endorsements from top Democratic incumbents and, in one candidate’s case, from an influential labor union that helped broker the merger of the Senate Democrats. Meanwhile, Nixon and Williams have picked up far more support from elected officials and organizations than Teachout and her lieutenant governor running mate, Tim Wu, achieved in 2014.

Democrats across the spectrum are taking sides, and others will be expected to do so over the next few months, in decisions that could be determinative for those they endorse, for their own political trajectories, and for the larger map of New York’s Democratic world currently dominated by one set of elected and appointed officials, consultants, labor leaders, and the networks of power they control.

Mayoral Hopefuls
On June 28, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced his endorsement of Biaggi, Jackson, Ramos, and Myrie, providing them a boost at a time when progressives were already feeling emboldened by the congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier that week.

A declared democratic socialist with a deeply progressive campaign platform, Ocasio-Cortez defeated Democratic giant Rep. Joe Crowley, a ten-term incumbent and the powerful boss of the Queens Democratic Party who was among the chief drivers of the Senate Democratic reunification and a possible next speaker of the House of Representatives. The stunning upset shook the foundations of the Democratic Party and undercut the conventional wisdom of the primacy of incumbents and machine politics, and its ramifications will likely be dissected for years. In New York, it’s immediate effects were quickly felt. Johnson, who had endorsed Crowley in the race, insisted the result did not affect his decision to endorse the four IDC challengers, which he said was in the works for months, but that did not stop observers from drawing a connection.

“Whether it’s in Washington, D.C., or in Albany, the status quo isn’t working and that is why I’m here today in supporting four amazing candidates,” Johnson said at the steps of City Hall. “They are Democrats, they are progressive Democrats, they will caucus with the Democrats and they will support all the issues that Democrats support.” On Saturday, Johnson said on Twitter that he was ready to fully support Liu. At a Tuesday event in support of Biaggi, Johnson said, “It feels really good to be able to tell the truth and for too long, people were not telling the truth about the IDC and the damage that they’ve done to the state of New York. And that damage was all in their own self-interest, putting their own self-interest above the entire state of New York.”   

In a statement following Johnson’s endorsement, Barbara Brancaccio, a spokesperson for Klein, said, “Frankly we are surprised that our opponent would accept the endorsement of such a radioactive figure coming on the heels of his endorsement of Joe Crowley. We are sure that Johnson will do for this challenger, exactly what he did for Joe Crowley."

At the same time, Johnson has also endorsed Governor Cuomo for reelection over Nixon, who continues to criticize the governor for supporting the IDC and whose platform largely resembles those of the IDC opponents. She shares stark similarities with Ocasio-Cortez and others seeking to upend incumbent Democrats who insurgents believe are too close to big-money interests and not in touch with their constituents who most need them. Nixon has begun to align herself more closely with those IDC challengers, cross-endorsing with Ramos earlier this week, for example.

The same day as Johnson’s endorsement of the IDC challengers, 32BJ SEIU, the prominent building workers union, endorsed Biaggi, though their president Hector Figueroa had months ago been among those who proposed the Democratic reunification deal and the union is among several that have endorsed Cuomo and had also backed Crowley. “Jeff Klein and the IDC have empowered obstructionist Republicans set on blocking key reforms for too long,” Figueroa said in a statement announcing the endorsement. “Never again.”

And just one day prior, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer also endorsed Biaggi, a few months after he had already announced his support for Ramos and Jackson. The endorsements by Stringer, well before the Ocasio-Cortez win and its initial fallout, have won him much praise from liberal activists.

Since his union came out for Biaggi, Figueroa has also addressed the Democratic split in New York, writing on Twitter, “Dems upset about IDC folks being primaried ‘for it may lead to the GOP winning a majority of NY Senate’ do not blame the ‘left’. The ones to be blamed are IDC incumbents themselves & those STILL defending them. IDC betrayed voters creating a big political mess. Time to clean up.”

Along with the number and strength of the progressive primary challengers to established incumbents and Ocasio-Cortez’s win, these endorsements, headlining still others, are the clearest cracks in the Democratic foundation that Cuomo and other state leaders have tried to set.

“I think it’s fascinating because we do see a lack of cohesion as to whether or not people are going to support the IDC members or their challengers,” said Dr. Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “And I think this debate is sort of reflective of a larger debate that’s going on in the Democratic Party, for the soul of the Democratic party…‘Are we centrist, conservative-leaning Democrats or are we progressive?’”

To some, these moves may smack of political opportunism, particularly in the case of Johnson, who is supporting progressives on the one hand while propping up establishment centrists like Crowley and Cuomo on the other. But in the New York political landscape, Greer said these endorsements are equally driven by philosophical considerations as they are by pragmatic ones. “These are politicians…I think that they can genuinely care about an issue and I think that they can also be calculating and strategic about it,” she said.

For some, there is also a difference between backing a less experienced candidate for state Senate based on ideological reasons as opposed to the chief executive of the state.

Both Johnson and Stringer are widely expected to run for mayor in 2021, the next city election cycle, when Mayor Bill de Blasio will be term-limited out of office, and tapping the progressive energy that Ocasio-Cortez rode to power, and that is now propelling Nixon, Williams, the IDC challengers, and others, would likewise boost their own political fortunes.

“I think in the Democratic primary, the progressive energy in the city, that’s what you want to tap into if you’re running for mayor,” said Eric Koch, managing principal at Precision Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm, and former director of communications for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “So it makes sense to endorse the folks running against the IDC people because in terms of the activists and the people who are organizing against the IDC versus who is a Democratic primary voter in a mayoral election, there’s a pretty big overlap there.”

It’s important to note that the IDC incumbents themselves have powerful backers, including unions like 1199 SEIU, many of which are in Cuomo’s corner as well.

While Stringer and Johnson have decided to buck Cuomo and those involved in the unity deal, other likely 2021 mayoral candidates have not. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. is a Cuomo ally and closely aligned with the Bronx Democratic Party apparatus, led by its chair, Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, and its former chair, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who signed onto the unity deal.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has been critical of Cuomo over the course of years, but has not made endorsements yet. His approach is complicated given his alliance with Senator Hamilton, formerly of the IDC. Adams did invite Nixon early in her campaign to tour a Brooklyn NYCHA complex and the two went to Albany Houses together. The Brooklyn borough president has voiced strong criticism of Cuomo, but has not embraced Nixon beyond the NYCHA visit, nor has he weighed in on Williams’ challenge to Hochul or the IDC races.

“They’re looking at these challengers and their districts, I’m sure, to sort of see what kind of coalition they would need to put together,” Greer said. “When they run for mayor, Andrew Cuomo may or may not still be in office...but a great campaign marketing slogan is, ‘We fight Albany. We fight Albany to make sure that New York City gets the money and resources we need.’”

“Sure they care, but it’s also a very strategic move,” Greer said, “to make sure that they’re distancing themselves from the status quo to say that, ‘When tough decisions needed to be made, I didn’t just go along to get along.’”

Statewide Case
Public Advocate Letitia James, who is running in the Democratic primary for attorney general (and had been a likely 2021 mayoral candidate), is charting a course similar to Diaz, Jr., but with a much higher profile given her bid for statewide office. James quickly jumped at the opportunity when Eric Schneiderman resigned the post after facing allegations of physical and emotional abuse by several intimate partners. Seen as an early frontrunner, with the blessing of the state Democratic Party and the governor, James rejected the possible endorsement of the progressive Working Families Party that had helped launch her political career as a City Council member.

The WFP has been closely aligned with the IDC challengers, as well as Nixon and Williams, supporting their insurgent bids for office, while James has in the past supported at least one member of the IDC, Senator Alcantara, though she has come to criticize the IDC and called for reunification well before her attorney general bid.

“I would essentially argue, if I were in these progressive groups that used to support Tish very openly, well what now gives you progressive bonafides?,” said Greer. “So her messaging has to be very clear for her supporters. Because they have progressive choices.”

“Two days after Schneiderman resigned, it was essentially reported that Tish would be heir apparent and that’s the way much of the press is writing about the race...and I don’t necessarily see that to be the case anymore,” she added.

James faces three other primary contenders: former Cuomo aide Leecia Eve, congressional Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, and Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who challenged Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary and lost, but managed to get a significant share of the vote, at 34 percent. Teachout, like Nixon, has been severely critical of the IDC and endorsed five IDC challengers as part of the TrueBlueNY coalition months before the attorney general position became available and she decided to run. When Schneiderman resigned, Teachout was at the time Nixon’s campaign treasurer, a position she has since vacated to run for attorney general.

Among the four Democratic attorney general candidates, Teachout is undoubtedly furthest to the left. At the WFP nominating convention, delegates chose Nixon and Williams, and opted to install a placeholder for attorney general until, they hope, either James or Teachout emerges from the Democratic primary victorious and is offered the additional ballot line for the general election. James has expressed her love for the WFP despite initially shunning its endorsement and has said she believes everyone will coalesce again in the near future.

While James has aligned herself with Cuomo and his unity deal, Teachout, who endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in May, is staunchly behind IDC challengers and has recently campaigned alongside Williams.

Koch doesn’t believe her endorsements will give her a significant edge, however. “I do think that there might be some benefit in endorsing some of the folks against the IDC because that’s where the progressive energy is,” he said, “but at the end of the day, people who are voting for attorney general aren’t basing their votes on just the issue of the IDC, they’re coming at it from a much more holistic spectrum.”

The experts who spoke with Gotham Gazette noted the significance of the ‘Ocasio effect.’ Both Teachout and Nixon had endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in the run up to the congressional primary and seized on her victory to emphasize that progressive challengers can defeat machine-backed incumbents. “There’s very much a movement that’s energizing the left and politicians who ignore it or who fall too far behind are really doing so at their own peril,” said a Democratic consultant who wished to remain unnamed so he could speak freely.

“There’s certainly a lot of parallels between Cuomo and Crowley, you know, representing the old guard, like white-working class Democrats,” said the Democratic consultant. “But that being said, I wouldn’t read too much into the Ocasio win as portending a loss for Cuomo because Cuomo’s still extraordinarily popular among African-Americans, particularly African-American women, and Cynthia Nixon hasn’t to this point been able to show the ability to break into that base of support, which is really what you’re seeing here. It’s a combination of minority voters and very young, progressive voters.”

For their part, top Nixon campaign aides cite Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in expressing their belief that public opinion polls can no longer be trusted to capture the progressive energy that has largely emerged since the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

Koch said activist pressure against the IDC and its supporters has been building but “at the state level, people are gonna hedge their bets a little bit more because, one way or another, they’re gonna have to work with some of these folks.”

Greer seemed more bullish about how far the momentum behind Ocasio-Cortez would carry into state elections. She conceded that Democrats across New York are not as progressive as they are in New York City, but that the win gave a much-needed confidence boost to IDC challengers as well as Nixon and Teachout, not to mention obvious opportunities to add volunteers and donors. “It’ll be fascinating to see if, all of a sudden, Cynthia and Zephyr can ride the coattails of Alexandria,” she said, a notion that, before the congressional primary, “would’ve sounded like crazy talk.”

“But the reality here is...Alexandria’s getting national attention for the message that Cynthia and Zephyr have been championing,” she said.

Other Democrats Choose
Virtually every elected Democrat in New York is expected to pick sides: Cuomo or Nixon; Hochul or Williams; James or Teachout or Eve or Maloney; Klein or Biaggi; and so on.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of the most powerful Democratic officials in the state by virtue of his position, has so far stayed on the sidelines, regularly declining to comment on the 2018 New York elections, but promising to weigh in at some point. Given that Nixon was a fervent supporter during his winning 2013 campaign for mayor and again supported him for reelection in 2017, and his ongoing feud with Cuomo, de Blasio’s decision in the gubernatorial race is especially interesting. In 2014, before their feud had really escalated, de Blasio backed Cuomo for reelection, even helping broker him the Working Families Party nomination. He has indicated it did not work out as planned.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, not facing a primary challenge himself, has backed Cuomo and Hochul, but says he’s likely staying out of the attorney general primary, even though the state party is behind James.

While many Democratic officials have already or are expected to back Cuomo, there are local electeds who, beholden neither to the governor nor their respective Democratic machines, have chosen to break from the pack. New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca was the first of his colleagues to endorse Nixon’s bid for governor, and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Antonio Reynoso later followed suit. Williams, running for lieutenant governor, is also an apparent Nixon backer, but the two have not formally linked up as a ticket, so to speak (the two positions are elected separately in party primaries, but together in the general election).

Reynoso and Menchaca, and Council Members Brad Lander, Adrienne Adams, and I. Daneek Miller have also backed Williams for lieutenant governor. Williams has also announced the backing of state Senator Kevin Parker, and across the state he has picked up endorsements from legislators in Albany and Syracuse, while Nixon was recently endorsed by more than a dozen Hudson Valley elected officials.

Nixon’s most prominent recent endorsement came from the former City Council Speaker, Mark-Viverito, a progressive in the same vein who drew parallels between Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez. “These two boldly progressive women share the same values and priorities,” Mark-Viverito wrote in the New York Daily News. Nixon also cross-endorsed with Ocasio-Cortez the day before the congressional primary, and in the last week, has done so with Ramos, who is seeking to unseat Senator Peralta, formerly of the IDC, and Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist challenging Democratic state Senator Martin Dilan in northern Brooklyn.

On Wednesday, Senator Hamilton's challenger, Myrie, announced four new endorsements from Assembly Members Walter Mosley, Diana Richardson, Jo Anne Simon and Robert Carroll, who represent Central Brooklyn.    

Democratic Unity?
“It goes back to the basic tenet: a house divided against itself can’t stand,” said Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate Democratic leader, in a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast hosted by Gotham Gazette and City Limits. The senator was addressing the Senate unity deal and whether Klein would be loyal to it. “How are we gonna do this?...I’m not gonna be sitting there having people somehow undermine the efforts that we have to be a team. That’s always been the case.”

Sen. Michael Gianaris, the chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, has ruled out endorsing the former IDC members, according to the Daily News -- Gianaris has had a long running feud with Klein, the IDC head -- and has been noncommittal on whether he may support their opponents. “Everyone seems to be on their best behavior on both sides and there seems to be genuine effort to work cooperatively and get to where we’re trying to go, so hopefully that continues,” Gianaris said in a separate Max & Murphy interview.

Lieutenant Governor Hochul, in her own appearance on the podcast, said Democrats attacking each other only serve to polarize voters and that the party would be better off expending that energy against Republicans. “We can all be purists about everything when we have a Democrat in the White House, when we have the House and the Senate, and when we have New York State Legislature,” she said. “Then we can fight each other on the nuances.”

Along with the decisions facing them now about who to back in the primaries, one major question for New York Democrats is what happens after September 13, and whether party members can coalesce for the general election. Republicans have completely avoided primaries for all four state-level statewide races of governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, and attorney general, and in virtually every state Senate district held by an incumbent.

“I don’t think [the Democratic Party] fractures,” said the Democratic consultant who didn’t want to be named. “I think that’s the evolution of the party. That’s the direction that you’re seeing the party, and it’s largely driven by a local reaction to federal issues. It’s very largely a reaction to Trump on a number of things, on immigration, on labor, on health care, on taxes, on women’s rights.”  

The frustration with Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, the consultant said, means that Democrats want “a much more aggressive stance and debate” from their own leaders.

Koch from Precision Strategies said the party will likely come together in the face of a larger enemy to sweep the major statewide races -- governor and lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller. “The Democratic Party has always been a very big tent party, it’s always run the ideological spectrum from the progressive wing through to a more centrist wing,” he said, “and that’s why the party has been successful…After these primaries are done, Democrats will come together and unite because there are bigger threats and what unites us is definitely stronger than what divides us.”

“I think the relationships will by and large repair themselves,” Koch added, “I suspect that after the primary, folks will get together and hash out whatever needs to be hashed out.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This story has been updated to include mention of endorsements received by Zellnor Myrie from four state Assembly members.

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New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing Wed, 11 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Charter Revision Commission Takes Shape http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7795-city-council-charter-revision-commission-takes-shape http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7795-city-council-charter-revision-commission-takes-shape gg city council hearing committee

(Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)


The New York City Council’s commission to review the city charter -- a separate effort from an existing commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio -- has been fully appointed and is set to begin its work next Monday, July 16.

The City Council passed a bill in April, spearheaded by Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to create a commission to analyze the city’s governing document and recommend potentially significant changes to the structure and functions of city government. Although any such commission is allowed to consider the entire composition of the city charter, Brewer, James, and Johnson have pointed to a few broad priority areas including improving the city’s land use policies, strengthening the City Council’s ‘advise and consent’ role in approving mayoral appointees to city agencies and commissions, enhancing the Council’s power over city budgeting, and implementing stronger oversight of the mayoral administration.

At a March 17 hearing on the bill, James emphasized that the commission could achieve groundbreaking improvements similar to the 1989 charter commission that upended the entire structure of city government. She contrasted it with the mayor’s approach, which she said suffers from “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.”

The Council’s commission, composed of 15 members, is meant to carry out its work over the next 16 months, presenting ballot referenda to voters during the November 2019 general election. The mayor’s commission, created by de Blasio through an executive order, has a shorter timeline and a narrower brief, and will be proposing its own recommendations on Election Day this year.

The Council commission’s members include four appointees of the speaker, including the chair, four mayoral appointees, and one each chosen by the public advocate, the comptroller, and the five borough presidents.

Johnson picked Gail Benjamin, the former director of the Council’s land use division, to serve as commission chair. His other appointees include Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former de Blasio deputy mayor and the former chair of NYC Health+Hospitals, the city’s municipal hospital system; Rev. Clinton Miller, pastor at Brown Memorial Baptist Church; and Merryl Tisch, the former chancellor of the state Board of Regents and current vice chair of the SUNY board of trustees.

“The appointment of these members of the Charter Revision Commission is the first step towards bringing the City Charter into the 21st century,” said Johnson in a statement announcing the full commission. “All of these individuals represent civic engagement at its best, and I am so grateful for the time they are giving to make our city a better place…The City Charter is in good hands.”

In a phone interview, Benjamin said she was "excited" about leading the commission. "This is kind of the culmination of my career as a government official,” she said. Benjamin drew a distinction between the work she will oversee and that of the mayor's commission, which is expected to release its preliminary report soon. “This commission has a much broader mandate than the mayor gave to his commission and I think that all of the 15 members who have been appointed are excited about the broadness of the mandate and the ability to really examine how this city functions governmentally and what we can do to move it into the future," she said.   

Though the two commissions will not overlap substantially, Benjamin said the Council's commission will review the testimony presented to the mayor's commission, as well as the reports and testimony from every commission convened since 1989. "There are lots of issues that [the mayor's] commission, I don’t think, has had the time to really flesh out," she said, citing city procurement practices, non-citizen voting and instant run-off voting as a few examples. "I would think that we would want to look at those kinds of issues also and that we’ll have the time to do that because we’ve got over a year and not just a few months," Benjamin said. 

Mayor de Blasio mostly plucked his Council commission appointees from his own administration. Among them are Lisette Camilo, the commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services; Paula Gavin, the city’s Chief Service Officer who heads up NYC Service, the agency tasked with promoting volunteering efforts; Lindsay Greene, a senior advisor to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen; and former City Planning chief Carl Weisbrod, currently a de Blasio appointee to the MTA board.

Most other elected officials had already announced their selections to the commission or had quietly appointed members with little publicity.   

In late May, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams chose former City Council Member and repeat mayoral contender Sal Albanese to represent him, citing Albanese’s outspoken positions on campaign finance reform. “I have called for, and am reiterating again now, for 100 percent publicly-financed campaigns where every candidate has an equal footing to express their ideas,” Adams had written in testimony at the March hearing before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which was considering the charter commission bill. “Fully publicly-financed elections will see more women running for office at a time when representation in the City Council has decreased since our last election. Fully publicly-financed campaigns have shown to increase minority participation in elected politics. A fully-funded system also takes away the quid pro quo corruption and will help restore faith in our electoral system.”

Albanese, in a statement accompanying his appointment, said, “Charter revision is an opportunity to make our government more democratic and responsive to its citizens.” During his 2017 primary challenge to de Blasio, Albanese’s top policy plank was the “democracy vouchers” program that would drastically reduce the influence of private money in municipal elections.

Last month, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. appointed former City Council Member James Vacca to the commission. “Jimmy has a wealth of experience in government and cares deeply about our borough and our city,” Diaz Jr. tweeted at the time.

More recently, Public Advocate Letitia James tapped Sateesh Nori, a Legal Aid Society attorney, as her representative on the commission. “Mr. Nori brings with him the wisdom and expertise necessary for the role, as well as a lifelong commitment to public service and to his City,” James said in a statement. Comptroller Scott Stringer’s pick was Alison Hirsh, the vice president of 32BJ SEIU, the prominent property services workers union.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer chose her general counsel and director of land use, James Caras, to serve as her representative. “After three decades, it’s time for a thorough, expert review of how our City Charter is serving New Yorkers and how to make our government work better,” Brewer said in Monday’s announcement.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz picked Eduardo Cordero Sr. And Staten Island Borough President James Oddo’s choice is Richmond County Clerk Stephen Fiala, who was previously a City Council member.

While the Council-created commission is about to begin its work and will take an extended timeline before its ballot proposals are announced next year, the mayoral charter revision commission is in the final two months before it makes its recommendations public by early September, in time to be included on the November ballot. That commission recently made clear its areas of focus -- voting and election reform, campaign finance reform, land use decision-making, community boards, civic engagement, and independent redistricting -- and held relevant expert hearings.

[Read: Chair Says Mayoral Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Charter Revision Commission Takes Shape Mon, 09 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Push for Budget Transparency Falls Far Short http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7756-city-council-push-for-budget-transparency-falls-far-short http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7756-city-council-push-for-budget-transparency-falls-far-short De Blasio City Council members

Johnson, de Blasio, Dromm (l-r) (photo: John McCarten)


At several budget hearings earlier this year, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson took a hard line on transparency. He insisted that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration was being less than forthcoming on how money is spent and was hampering the Council’s charter-mandated authority to review and approve the city’s spending plan. To wit, in its official response to the mayor’s preliminary budget in April, the Council proposed adding 123 new units of appropriation -- budget lines that explain expenditures -- in order to more clearly and specifically show what the city is spending money on.

When the city’s new $89.2 billion budget was approved last week, however, the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget only added a total of five new units.

“We’re going to work with the Council,” de Blasio promised at at the release of his executive budget proposal in late April, two weeks after the Council’s response, when Gotham Gazette inquired about the push for more units of appropriations. “We have, over the years, been adding. We’re open to adding more. That’s an ongoing discussion, which we’ve had again today with the Council. Stay tuned.”

But there was little news to stay tuned for. The five new lines in the adopted budget include four under the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications -- two each for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MoME) and the NYC Cyber Command office which both fall under DoITT’s purview. Those units are for personal services (PS) which covers salaries and wages of agency employees, and other than personal services (OTPS) which includes costs such as office supplies, equipment, maintenance, and the like. In total, those budget lines cover $25.2 million in expenditures for MoME and $65.8 million for the Cyber Command.

The fifth unit of appropriation was created under the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, to allow the Council to look at expense funding allocated for the New York City Housing Authority, about $255.4 million for the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1 of this year.

It should be noted that the separate capital budget, which outlines city spending on infrastructure,includes six new budget lines -- one for the Brooklyn Public Library and five within Parks Department expenditures.

In April, at a hearing on a mid-year modification to the current annual expense budget, the Council first showed indications that it wouldn’t approve OMB’s requests without greater disclosure from the administration. Then, at a May hearing on the executive budget, prior to the new units of appropriation being added, Council Member Daniel Dromm, the chair of the Council’s finance committee, which leads the budget process at the Council, excoriated OMB officials for their refusal to be more transparent, insisting that the administration “must discontinue the longstanding practice of using vague and overbroad units of appropriation” over more specific ones.

Dromm continued, “While such a shift is understandably resisted by the Mayor because it would restrict his ability to transfer funds between programs without oversight and to avoid seeking budget modification approval from the Council, it is necessary to facilitate the Council’s and the public’s understanding of agency spending and performance and to more transparently track the Administration’s priorities.”

But the Council’s response to Gotham Gazette’s queries about the units of appropriation were more tempered. “[The] Council is very pleased with the end results of this budget process and is committed to more transparency measures, including continuing the push for more lines of appropriation,” said Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for the speaker, in a statement.

A spokesperson for Council Member Dromm did not respond to a request for comment.

Maria Doulis, vice president of Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog that advocates for increased budget transparency, among other changes, said the Council’s push for transparency likely fell by the wayside as it negotiated larger priorities such as discounted MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers.

“It might be best to come to some sort of agreement about this outside the budget because when you’re negotiating a budget, it’s all about the dollars and cents and not necessarily how the dollars and cents are presented,” Doulis said in a phone interview. She said the five new units are a “micro step forward” and that the Council must remain committed to a long-term approach, which could happen through a dedicated working group.

She also noted that the City Council has failed to push for transparency at crucial moments. She pointed out, for instance, that the mayor announced a new labor deal with the United Federation of Teachers on Wednesday but without details of how the spending will be reflected in the city budget. “So all these Council members are on this press release and they’re happy to laud and support this effort,” Doulis said, “but I didn’t hear any of them saying, ‘And we’d like to see a full accounting of what exactly the city will be paying for on this.’ So I don’t know that transparency is any better or worse than it was last year, or a couple of years ago under Mayor Bloomberg. In my mind it’s pretty much the same or marginally better.”

Although Doulis did say that the city’s budget is enormous and complex, and that the administration does publish more budget documents than other local governments, she said there should nonetheless be improvements. “The question is, can the average citizen ask a basic question about services that he or she cares about and their costs and look in the budget to find an answer fairly simply and easily,” she said, “and the answer to that is ‘no.’”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Push for Budget Transparency Falls Far Short Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000