Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/163 Wed, 24 Apr 2019 18:08:24 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) We Must Seize Today’s Path to Actually Closing Rikers; It May Not Be Here Tomorrow http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8465-seizing-path-to-actually-closing-rikers-jails-corey-johnson-lippman http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8465-seizing-path-to-actually-closing-rikers-jails-corey-johnson-lippman city council speaker

Speaker Corey Johnson, one of the authors, with Mayor de Blasio (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Three years ago, the idea of closing the nine jails on Rikers Island was widely considered impossible. But in April 2017, after an intense campaign by advocates and the findings of an independent commission convened by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and chaired by Judge Jonathan Lippman, Mayor de Blasio committed to the goal.

Today, we are within hailing distance.

The starting point for closing the Rikers jails is dramatically cutting the number of people who are incarcerated, and we have made real strides towards this goal. Thanks to reforms to policing and prosecution, investments in alternatives to incarceration, and continuing pressure from advocates, there are 1,800 fewer people in city jails than there were two years ago—all while the city remains safer than ever.

The total number of people in jails is now under 8,000, the lowest it has been in many decades and representative of a lower incarceration rate than any other major United States city. Reforms recently enacted in Albany to bail, discovery, and speedy trial laws will reduce that number further and bring us much closer to the goal of 5,000 or fewer people incarcerated that would eventually permit the end of Rikers jails.

But to actually shutter the Rikers jails, and not just talk about it, it is imperative for the city to build a smaller system of facilities located in the boroughs to hold those who remain. Today there are three operating non-Rikers jails, including a 1950s-era tower in downtown Brooklyn and a 30-year-old barge docked in the Bronx that would be closed along with Rikers. None are examples of humane design, and together they have space for fewer than 2,400 people. 

New York City has launched the land use process that will determine whether Rikers jails can be shut down. If successful, it will lead to the authorization of four redesigned facilities to hold 5,000 people or fewer in total. Three of the planned facilities—in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan—are on the site of existing jails, next to borough courthouses. The fourth, in the Bronx, is on an NYPD tow pound lot in Mott Haven. The Bronx site is farther from the courthouse than the others, but still exponentially closer and more accessible than Rikers.

Of course, a plan of this scale and impact has critics.

Some say that closing Rikers is impossible. These are the same voices that said, two years ago, that everyone in city jails deserved to be there. They are the same voices that said, five years ago, that ending the policy of widespread stop-and-frisk that was devastating communities of color would lead to an outbreak of crime. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

Then there are those who oppose borough facilities for the exact opposite reason. They argue that borough jails would “normalize” incarceration. Nothing could do more to normalize incarceration and to perpetuate a toxic culture of violence and mass incarceration than continuing to warehouse New Yorkers on a hidden penal colony.

Others have said that we must pause this process. But every day that we wait is an extra day that the Rikers jails will remain open, harming the people who work and are incarcerated there. And many who call for delay understand that it would squander the once-in-a-generation opportunity the city has to move towards closing Rikers now, ultimately derailing the project. 

Finally, some people who live near the proposed facilities are concerned about the impact on their neighborhoods. These concerns, which include traffic, safety, and size, are understandable and must be thoroughly assessed, and that is what is happening in the land use process now underway. Yet we must remember: there are jails currently operating in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn without any negative impact to property values or crime.

The plan that the mayor has put forward is an essential step in the path to close the Rikers jail complex. Conversations with communities have already led to initial reductions in the height and density of the planned facilities and more thoughtful plans regarding the treatment of incarcerated women. Moving forward, we expect to see more work from the administration to improve the plan—such as finding non-jail, hospital-based alternatives for people with serious mental health diagnoses—and to address neighborhood concerns.

Equally important, the administration must invest in the socio-economic needs of the communities that historically have been hit hard by the inequities of the criminal justice system. And to demonstrate his seriousness about changing the justice system, Mayor de Blasio should raze the jail on Rikers that he closed last summer.

The land use process that began is necessary to put an end to Rikers, but it is not the end of the road. We will still need to determine crucial issues like how the facilities will be operated and what services and programs they will provide. Finishing the job will require the same focus and advocacy that got us to this point.

The misery of Rikers has been well-known, and well-documented, for decades. The reason those jails continue to exist today is that closing them was always considered too difficult. But to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we are not doing this because it is easy; we are doing it because it is hard—and absolutely necessary for a justice system that is worthy of our city.

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Corey Johnson is the Speaker of the New York City Council. Jonathan Lippman is a former chief judge of New York State, of counsel at Latham & Watkins LLP, and chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

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

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We Must Seize Today’s Path to Actually Closing Rikers; It May Not Be Here Tomorrow Mon, 22 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Response to De Blasio Budget Includes Investment in Workers, Cut to ThriveNYC, & Ferry Spending Transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8443-city-council-response-de-blasio-budget-calling-for-investments-in-workers-ferries-thrive-nyc http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8443-city-council-response-de-blasio-budget-calling-for-investments-in-workers-ferries-thrive-nyc city council point prelim mayor

The Mayor and the Council in a budget briefing (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The City Council on Tuesday released its response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fiscal year 2020 preliminary budget, calling its own outline “a fiscally responsible plan that safeguards the city’s financial future and secures the city’s social safety net for New Yorkers.” Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council members are calling for additional reserves and targeted investments, while also saying they’ve identified roughly $1 billion in savings that can be achieved between the end of the current fiscal year and the next one, which begins July 1.

The Council spent most of March focused on the mayor’s $92.2 billion preliminary budget plan and the separate capital budget, holding over 30 hearings, at which leaders of 55 city agencies gave hundreds of hours of public testimony, according to the Council. The formal preliminary budget response is the culmination of this stage of the budget process -- and it comes just after the adoption of the new state budget, which significantly impacts how the city plans its spending. The Council will next move into negotiations with the mayor ahead of the release of his executive budget later this month, which will trigger another round of Council hearings, more negotiations, and a deal expected sometime in June.

Appearing on Wednesday’s Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio, Johnson highlighted three areas of the response: growing the city’s reserves, strengthening the social safety net, and achieving pay parity for some sectors of the city workforce.

First, the Council is requesting $250 million be added to the budget reserves, noting that the Council was able to secure $225 million during the last budget negotiations. Johnson said the city economy continues to look strong, but that a recession could be on the horizon. “We don’t entirely agree with the Office of Management and Budget” on revenue forecasts, he said, indicating that the mayoral administration’s budget office is being typically conservative in its estimates. Johnson said numbers over the next two months, as more tax receipts come in, will inform what will happen in the final budget.

The city has billions in reserves but Johnson is worried that given the size of the city budget it may not be enough to weather a recession. Still, he did not indicate too much concern about the budget’s continued growth under de Blasio and the Council, with another $3 billion or so in spending expected for the coming fiscal year about the current one.

The Council’s response also includes a request for pay parity for certain sectors of city workers, specifically human services providers, daycare workers, assistant district attorneys, and indigent defense attorneys. The request includes $109 for the indirect cost rates of human services providers and $89 million to increase daycare worker salaries. Additionally, the request includes $5 million to boost pay for assistant district attorneys and $15 million for indigent defense attorneys.

Third, as he said multiple times throughout the preliminary budget hearings, Johnson reiterated on Max & Murphy that “we have to strengthen the social safety net in this city.” Within the Council’s budget response there are several proposals to increase funding for programs to help New Yorkers in need.

Programs that the Council wants to better support include the New York Immigrant Family Unit, senior meals, childcare services at CUNY, Fair Futures for those leaving foster care, and social workers for families with children at each of the 57 Department of Homeless Services-contracted hotels.

The Council is also requesting for $580 million more in education funding, which will go to fair student funding, an expansion of the Comprehensive After School System (COMPASS), security cameras in all schools, and renovations for school bathrooms.

The response also calls for $40 million to fund the city’s efforts surrounding the 2020 Census, an expansion of pre-arraignment programming, a funding increase for the NYPD Collision Investigations Unit, expansion of evidence collections teams, the opening of a community justice center in Far Rockaway, and the prioritization of the Department of Homeless Services Peace Officers for crisis intervention training.

The City Council wants to expand the pre-arraignment programming and calling for $2.2 million, increase the NYPD Collision Investigation Unit, and expand evidence collection teams with $1.2 million in funding, open a community justice center in Far Rockaway, and prioritize Department of Homeless Services Peace Officers for Crisis Intervention Training.

In addition to Mayor de Blasio’s $750 million PEG (Program to Eliminate the Gap), which is set to find that amount of savings across city agencies in time for the executive budget, the Council is also recommending an additional $972 million in savings over two fiscal years. These savings come from agency efficiencies, additional revenues, and expense budget re-estimates, according to the Council’s budget response.

The Council found several ways to make city agencies more fiscally efficient. It wants the current partial hiring freeze expanded to include 870 additional vacancies that it says should be frozen for fiscal year 2020 or eliminated altogether as planned spending.

The Council also wants a $50 million cut to the planned spending on the ThriveNYC initiative, which is estimated at $250 million next year. ThriveNYC, First Lady Chirlane McCray’s signature initiative, has recently come under increased scrutiny for unclear benchmarks and a lack of transparency and accountability. The initiative was recently criticized by several Council members at a March 26 hearing and has been the subject of a great deal of press examination. The Council writes that a $200 million allocation for next fiscal year would better match the plan’s actual growth over the last few years as it has ramped up, consistently spending less than budgeted.

Other efficiencies include reducing energy usage, uniform overtime, the city’s vehicle fleet, and the Entertainment Incentive Fund.

The Council also wants to see better budget transparency and clearer accounting. “The Council asks the Administration to increase the number of units of appropriations and capital budget lines, create a comprehensive capital project tracking system, and establish a NYC Ferry Budget Report,” the Council’s response reads.

“However, new units of appropriation will not solve the problem of being unable to clearly track multi-agency initiatives or offices,” the response says. “For programs such as ThriveNYC, Universal Pre-K, and the Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, the Administration must commit to supplemental reporting with each financial plan and consistent budget labeling to show all relevant budgetary information for these wide-ranging programs. In addition, the Council calls on the Administration to provide additional reporting on particularly opaque parts of the budget, such as Department of Homeless Services shelter spending and NYC Ferry, which is operated by the Economic Development Corporation.”

Additionally, the Council believes that there are several revenue streams that the preliminary budget does not take into account, such as additional state and federal funding for the Department of Social Services. A planned expansion of the city’s school-zone speed camera program could also generate up to $30 million in additional revenue, the Council estimates. The Council also believes that the mayor’s budget estimates for various fines and fees should be revised upward, and also recommends re-estimates to the costs of various city obligations, such as interest costs on the city’s debt service and holiday pay at some agencies.

On the capital side, the Council budget response calls for a “sizeable investment” to increase bus lanes, bike lanes, and pedestrian areas. These investments would be part of a master plan for New York City streets, which Johnson said he will introduce legislation requiring “in the next month or so.” That master plan is part of Johnson’s proposal for improving the city’s transportation and livability, as he laid out in his State of the City speech last month. “Transit is the lifeblood of New York City,” Johnson said on Max & Murphy.

The Council’s response calls for installation of 50 miles of new bike lanes and 30 miles of new bus lanes per year. The Council is also requesting a doubling of the Department of Transportation’s Pedestrian Plaza program.

Raul Contreras, a deputy press secretary for Mayor de Blasio, said in a statement that “we look forward to working with the City Council throughout the budget process to build on our success, including collaborating on ways we can grow our historic reserves. We also look forward to evaluating new needs while being mindful of the City’s mandatory savings targets and any economic uncertainty the City faces.”

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Response to De Blasio Budget Includes Investment in Workers, Cut to ThriveNYC, & Ferry Spending Transparency Wed, 10 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8441-max-murphy-podcast-city-council-speaker-corey-johnson http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8441-max-murphy-podcast-city-council-speaker-corey-johnson lead emil cohen

Speaker Johnson with Max & Murphy at City Hall (photos: Emil Cohen/City Council)


April 10, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson

inset emil cohenCity Council Speaker Corey Johnson joined Max & Murphy for an extended, wide-ranging onversation about his leadership of the City Council, his relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio, city budget negotiations, housing and transit policy, and much more. The converstion also included a discussion of the speaker's exploration of a run for mayor in the 2021 election and his initial pitch of his vision, the issues that matter most to him and what the election may be all about.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson Wed, 10 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Grodenchik Faces Formal Consequences for Harassment of Aide http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8428-council-member-grodenchik-faces-formal-consequences-for-harassment-of-aide http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8428-council-member-grodenchik-faces-formal-consequences-for-harassment-of-aide nyccouncil grod

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


New York City Council Member Barry Grodenchik, a Democrat from Queens, will face formal disciplinary charges after a complaint of sexual harassment against him was found to be credible by the Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics on Thursday.

Council Member Steven Matteo, chair of the standards and ethics committee, announced at a hearing Thursday afternoon that the committee would initiate formal disciplinary proceedings against Grodenchik regarding Section 10.80 of the Council’s rules, specifically in relation to anti-discrimination and harassment.

According to Matteo, the complaint against Grodenchik alleged that the Council member “paid unwelcome attention” to a Council aide over the course of a year, including making comments about her weight and repeatedly greeting her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. In one instance, at a work meeting with several other people present, Grodenchik allegedly blew a kiss at the staffer and, when the meeting ended, walked around the table to give only her a hug and kiss on the cheek.

In a statement prior to the hearing, Grodenchik appeared to reference only the last incident, though without full details, and apologized. “It is never my intention to make any person feel uncomfortable, and I sincerely apologize if my actions had that effect,” he said. “For me, as is true for many of my colleagues, a hug is a common greeting for people I have known for a long time, but as others do not feel that way, I will certainly be more sensitive to that in the future.”

Grodenchik said he had decades of exemplary public service, including working under “four amazing and strong women. Those women included an Assemblywoman and three Presidents of the Borough of Queens.”

He also stated that Council Speaker Corey Johnson had “decided that I should be punished by being stripped of my Chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee,” which he said was “an over-reaction, with an excessive punishment that is harmful to this body.”

But Johnson’s office said no action had been taken to remove Grodenchik as chair of the committee, as he claimed. “No one should ever be made to feel uncomfortable in the workplace and singled out for unwanted attention,” Johnson said in a statement. “The Standards & Ethics Committee investigated and deliberated over this matter very carefully. In light of their decision to formally charge Council Member Grodenchik and launch disciplinary proceedings against him, I am immediately removing him from the Budget Negotiating Team, pending the results of the disciplinary hearing.”

Following the Thursday hearing, the standards and ethics committee will issue a “formal notice of charges” to Grodenchik, who appeared before them in a closed session earlier in the day. Further deliberations and a vote on the charges will happen in a closed-door session, Matteo said, before a report is issued. If the committee finds that Grodenchik must be sanctioned, its recommendations will be sent to the full Council for a vote.

The committee also dismissed one other matter on Thursday regarding allegations against a member who allegedly asked a staffer to participate in political activities. The committee ruled the claim “unsubstantiated” and closed the matter. The committee has been particularly busy in this session, and there appear to be multiple ongoing investigations into alleged wrongdoing by Council members. Speaker Johnson has said this is in part because he is quick to refer complaints to the committee rather than attempting to resolve them internally.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Member Grodenchik Faces Formal Consequences for Harassment of Aide Thu, 04 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Preliminary Budget Hearings End with City Council Clamor for More Detail on Agency Cuts http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8410-preliminary-city-budget-hearings-end-with-council-clamor-for-more-detail-on-agency-cuts http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8410-preliminary-city-budget-hearings-end-with-council-clamor-for-more-detail-on-agency-cuts council holds prelim

OMB Director Hartzog testifies (photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)


As usual, the City Council’s March agenda was mostly dominated by preliminary budget hearings, evaluating the mayor’s initial spending plan for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. This stage of the city budget process started and finished with a general hearing held by the Council’s Finance Committee, along with its Capital Budget Subcommittee, with a series of more specific agency- and service-related hearings in between.

The preliminary budget hearings finished where they began, with Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, and other Council members looking for more details about cuts and efficiencies the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to make across city agencies. When he presented a $92.2 billion preliminary budget in early February, de Blasio said he was instituting a $750 million PEG (program to eliminate the (budget) gap), the first PEG of de Blasio’s tenure, during which a very healthy economy has allowed the mayor and Council to increase spending very quickly, while also keeping reserves fairly high.

But where will that $750 million come from? De Blasio and his top budget officials said they would give each agency, from the NYPD to the Department of Education, targets to meet and there would be more detail by the mayor’s executive budget, which is due toward the end of April. Yet City Council members want more detail now.

The PEG was brought on, the mayor said, because the city’s recent revenue collections have not met the Office of Management and Budget’s growth projections. The city collected $46.5 billion in revenue for the previous fiscal year, which was a 1.2% increase from the year before. However, OMB had forecasted a 2.6% growth rate.

At the City Council’s final preliminary budget hearing, Jacques Jiha, the commissioner of the Department of Finance (DOF), attributed this to the “weakness” in personal income tax collection (especially senior payments) and the “softness” of unincorporated business tax collection. Jiha also noted the recent inversion of the bond yield curve, which could signal a potential recession, as another sign that “the budget should be approached with caution.”

City budget director Melanie Hartzog later echoed Jiha’s cautionary tone, highlighting three “economic risks” that led to the PEG. She clarified -- and repeatedly stressed -- that OMB and economists are forecasting an “economic slow-down,” not a recession, amid a national economy that has appeared vulnerable in recent years. Still, she called such a slow-down “a substantial threat to the budget.” Second, she also attributed the slowing of city revenue growth to a decline in income tax collections, noting recent changes to the federal tax code.

Finally, Hartzog also discussed OMB’s expectations that state and federal contributions to the city budget would decline. According to Hartzog, the mayor’s executive budget will include cuts to health care and education programs unless the city can secure additional funding from the state. Also, while President Trump’s budget proposal would be detrimental to the city, OMB does not believe that it will pass through Congress. Hartzog said OMB would work with the city’s congressional representatives to secure federal funding.

Council Finance Chair Danny Dromm, a Queens Democrat, said that he hoped Hartzog’s testimony would answer questions that came up in previous budget hearings over the past month. Speaker Johnson summarized the previous month’s hearings by saying that “most agency heads were unwilling or unable” to discuss what would be affected by the city’s $750 million PEG. When Hartzog said that these details would appear in de Blasio’s executive budget, Johnson said that he was “incredibly frustrated to be stonewalled.”

Many questions that Council members had at the first preliminary budget hearing still went unanswered at the final preliminary budget hearing. Hartzog said that it was “too early in the process” for the Council to be given details about what particular cuts will be made at each agency. Agencies have submitted their preliminary drafts for savings, but the OMB still has to review those proposals. Similarly, Hartzog could not yet answer what percentage of the cuts would affect services and programs.

Dromm said that cuts to programs such as summer employment for students and adult literacy “will be a non-starter.” Johnson agreed that the Council would not support cuts that would affect “vulnerable New Yorkers.” He warned Hartzog, “I don’t want a level of game-playing” over cuts and said that it would “be a big waste of time.” Hartzog said that “neither I nor the mayor want to play that budget dance.”

When asked if she was confident that the city’s reserves would be able to prevent budget cuts to programs during a potential recession, Hartzog reiterated that economists were forecasting an economic slow-down not an economic recession and that she had confidence in the city “weathering an economic slow down” without programmatic cuts.

Hartzog appeared less concerned about the potential for a recession than Johnson. Like Jiha previously stated, Johnson noted that an inversion of the bond yield curve is usually an indicator of an approaching recession. Hartzog conceded that a recession was “certainly possible,” but said that economists were forecasting a slow down, which would not be as severe. She also took the opportunity to state that the city has “built up our reserves and continued to have savings plans” during economic growth periods.

Johnson brought up a Citizens Budget Commission report, which said that a recession could cause revenue shortfalls of $15-20 billion over three years. This would use up the entirety of the city’s reserves. When asked if the administration thought that more should be added to the reserves, Hartzog reiterated that the reserves were sufficient to weather an economic slow down and said that the city was planning to add to the reserves moving forward.

Johnson also called out a New York Post article that claimed the city “is careening closer to all-out financial bankruptcy.” Johnson called the article “irresponsible” and Hartzog concurred. “We think there does need to be a level of improvement in transparency,” Johnson said, suggesting that OMB should provide “best estimates” of future revenue reserves because of OMB’s tendency towards conservative estimates. Hartzog said she does not believe that would be necessary.

Between the testimonies of Jiha and Hartzog, Lorraine Grillo made her first appearance before a City Council committee as commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). Grillo has also retained her role as head of the School Construction Authority (SCA), therefore leading the two main city agencies responsible for construction projects. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the Capital Budget Subcommittee, praised the SCA under Grillo’s leadership for its “strong capital delivery.”

Grillo told the committee that the varied scale of projects, which include everything from sewers to playgrounds, presented a challenge for the DDC, which she said “should not neglect smaller projects,” because many affect New Yorkers’ quality of life. She also expressed frustration that the state has not granted “blanket design-build authority” for the city’s capital projects, saying that it would streamline the capital delivery process.

Jamie Torres-Springer, the first deputy DDC Commissioner, said that the state’s granting of design-build authority for the construction of four community-based jails, which are planned to replace the Rikers Island jails is “a really important opportunity for the city “to demonstrate the effectiveness” of design-build. Grillo added, “but imagine if we could use it for all projects?”

Grillo also noted that there are “layers of policy and red tape” at DDC that SCA does not have. She has ordered an agency-wide review. She also pointed to the DDC’s Strategic Blueprint, which she labeled a “far-reaching plan” and “broad outline of improvements” with “common-sense fixes.” One area of improvement that she highlighted was front-end planning. The DDC has expanded its front-end planning unit and now works with agencies before they submit their project initiation requests. According to Grillo, “we are beginning to see a difference.”

With preliminary budget hearings over, the next steps in the city budget process are seeing the results of the new state budget, due by April 1, followed by the City Council releasing its formal preliminary budget response. Soon after, the mayor will release his executive budget plan, setting off another round of Council hearings as well as public and private negotiations.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Preliminary Budget Hearings End with City Council Clamor for More Detail on Agency Cuts Fri, 29 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Where Top Officials Stand on the SHSAT and Specialized High School Admissions http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8406-where-top-city-officials-stand-on-the-shsat-and-specialized-high-school-admissions http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8406-where-top-city-officials-stand-on-the-shsat-and-specialized-high-school-admissions de Blasio SHSAT

Mayor de Blasio announces specialized high schools plan (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


In June of 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a plan to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) for New York City’s specialized public high schools, in an effort to increase diversity, especially for black and Latino youth, at the city’s eight elite test-based institutions. Joined for a press conference in Brooklyn’s JHS 292 school by a Hunter College student, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, and a number of City Council members and State Assembly members, he hosted a rally-like announcement, where he initiated a call-and-response: “Time for change?” de Blasio asked three times. “Yes!” the audience yelled back.

“For thousands and thousands of students and neighborhoods all over New York City, the message has been these specialized schools aren’t for you,” de Blasio said in June. “So, the solution is simple: the test has to go.”

But it’s not simple. He received swift backlash from the city’s Asian-American community––especially those of low income, who comprise a significant portion of the specialized public high school student body. Though his plan was celebrated by some local politicians, as months passed, some began to shy away from their support for de Blasio’s plan and insisted on a more broadly palatable path.

De Blasio had not gotten much of the necessary buy-in to move his plan in the state Legislature -- state law dictates that the SHSAT is the sole criteria for entry into the three largest specialized high schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech -- the mayor did little else to push his plan, and the discussion fizzled.

Then came the news earlier this month that of the 895 students offered admission to Stuyvesant High School, the city’s most rigorous and exclusive public school, only seven of those students were black. The controversy reenergized the debate around school admissions, the SHSAT, the city’s larger school system, and other key issues, embroiling not only city politicians, but also those who work in Albany.

The latest data for admissions to Stuyvesant and the other specialized schools set off a new round of questioning the use of the SHSAT (few if any other learning institutions at any level across the country use a single test to determine admissions) and reinvigorated interest in plans put forth by de Blasio and others to ensure more racial and ethnic diversity at the schools. While those who prefer the current system dug in.

Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed the lack of diversity at the schools is a problem and said the city should change admissions at the five schools it controls and then put pressure on state legislators to follow suit for the other three. He did not offer any specifics on what he believes to be the right admissions criteria.

Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie nor Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has taken a concrete position on the SHSAT and specialized high school admissions. Heastie did say on March 8 that he wants to see “more specialized slots” and the schools "more reflective of the city's population," but he did not go further. He said the Assembly majority would take the issue up at some point.

A group of state senators called for “open dialogue and consensus-building on school diversity and admissions.” Queens Senator John Liu, who chairs the Senate’s New York City schools subcommittee, said de Blasio’s plan exacerbates racial tension, but brought together colleagues to announce a plan to hold hearings later this year.

“What we need is open-mindedness and open dialogue in order to build a consensus for a plan going forward,” Liu said. Other senators echoed Liu, decrying the city’s diversity statistics and calling for a series of community forums, but neglecting to offer any other concrete solutions.

De Blasio said he looked forward to future dialogue. A couple of weeks later, on Thursday, he acknowledged that he did not roll out his plan well, and pledged more engagement with the city’s Asian communities.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote an op-ed in Chalkbeat NY on Thursday in which he called for the eventual elimination of the use of the SHSAT for admissions to the city’s specialized high schools and for “additional City-designated elite high schools, separate from the eight test-based high schools governed by state law.” Johnson wrote that this process “would allow the [Department of Education] to pilot new admissions criteria that will promote diversity without needing state approval.”

Johnson also wrote that City Council will soon consider new legislation addressing diversity in specialized high schools and beyond, including a task force to determine new admissions criteria, codification of the School Diversity Advisory Group, establishing District Diversity Working Groups in each school district, and the creation of an oversight role housed in the city Human Rights Commission called a School Diversity Monitor.

"The problem with the specialized high schools’ admissions process runs much deeper than one test," said Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the education committee, in a statement, noting that he will hold a hearing on school segregation next month. Treyger also cited an op-ed published in the New York Daily News on Wednesday by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who argued against eliminating the test and pushed for expanding gifted-and-talented programs citywide.

"I won’t support a plan that solely abolishes an exam, which was essentially the Mayor’s plan," Treyger said. "I’m open to a plan that includes revamping and expanding enrichment programs, adding more crucial seats, across all districts, particularly in communities of color. We must engage with all marginalized communities as we examine how to better integrate schools, from pre-k to high school. We need full integration, which means examining evidence-based multiple measures to enter specialized schools, and the pipeline of schools that populate them and the rest of our school system."

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams initially backed de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the use of the SHSAT and move to multiple measures for admissions to the specialized schools, even appearing at the announcement to lend his support, but he then backtracked.

Adams penned an op-ed in the Amsterdam News last July voicing his support for the SHSAT––with caveats. He called for “free preparatory services for every student who wants to take the SHSAT but faces economic hardship,” funded by the city, in addition to expanding middle school gifted and talented programs. Additionally, he advocated creating five new specialized high schools, one per borough, and incorporating other academic metrics like class performance into the admissions process. This week, Adams’ office told the Gotham Gazette that his position remains the same.

After de Blasio announced his plan, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. also voiced his support, calling it a “welcome step forward” and a “validation of the diligent work of so many elected officials, educators, activists and parents whose efforts have focused on this issue for years, if not decades.” Like Adams, he has since walked back his support, telling the Max & Murphy podcast this week that he favors a more holistic admissions approach that includes the SHSAT in addition to a number of other academic criteria.

Asked for her position by Gotham Gazette, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer advocated for methods of improving diversity beyond eliminating the entrance exam and also called for community forums. The city should engage in “a back and forth with students and parents about the many options to reform the admissions at these specific high schools,” she said.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has not responded to a request for comment.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Committee on Education.

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Where Top Officials Stand on the SHSAT and Specialized High School Admissions Thu, 28 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Needs Real Criminal Justice Reform from Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8408-new-york-city-needs-real-criminal-justice-reform-from-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8408-new-york-city-needs-real-criminal-justice-reform-from-albany city council rikers jail coreyjohnson

Speaker Johnson, the author (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


In New York, you can be locked up based on purported evidence that isn’t even disclosed to you, until a trial that can be postponed indefinitely, unless you are wealthy enough to pay your way out. That is the reality under our state’s antiquated laws governing cash bail, discovery, and speedy trial. With Democrats truly controlling both houses of the state Legislature and the governorship for the first time in decades, we now have a meaningful opportunity to modernize these regressive laws and bring justice to our criminal justice system.

We have made great strides in criminal justice reform in New York City. We have reduced arrests and eliminated prosecutions for low-level offenses that have no impact on public safety. Through bail funds, supervised release programs, and ability-to-pay assessments, we reduced our jail population from over 11,000 in early 2014 to just under 8,000 by the end of 2018. Despite these efforts, every day thousands of New Yorkers charged with a non-violent felony or a misdemeanor await trial on Rikers Island. They have not been found guilty of anything -- they simply cannot afford to pay bail. We need the state to act to end this gross injustice.

Our discovery law compounds the injustice of indefinite detention by forcing people charged with crimes to make crucial decisions about their cases without knowing what evidence the government has or doesn’t have. It allows District Attorneys to withhold even basic evidence, such as police reports, until the eve of trial, a form of institutionally-sanctioned sandbagging. Currently, defense investigators must scramble at the last minute to locate favorable witnesses or secure video evidence that could exonerate someone, but which may be long gone by the time of trial. By hamstringing the defense through New York’s blindfold law, we have turned “innocent until proven guilty” into “guilty until it is too late to prove otherwise so you just give up.”  

Lawmakers in Albany have nothing to fear from discovery reform. New York is one of only four states – the others are South Carolina, Wyoming, and Louisiana – that do not allow a defendant to know anything about the witnesses against them before starting a trial. But we don’t even need to look outside our city to see how progressive discovery practices can work -- for decades the Brooklyn District Attorney's office has committed to open discovery without compromising the safety of witnesses.

Our state’s bail laws are as antiquated as our discovery laws, but our city’s programs designed to reduce the jail population have proven that we don’t need to derail people’s lives by setting cash bail in order to ensure that they return to court. Eighty-eight percent of people released on their own recognizance return to court, as compared to 91% released on bail and 92% placed into supervised release.

We cannot justify spending $250,000 per year to incarcerate someone for a 3% higher chance they come to court, especially with a cheaper alternative that produces better results. Cash bail takes people away from their families, from their jobs, and from their lives, and forces family members to choose between putting food on the table and paying exorbitant fees to a bail bond industry that profits off of their poverty.

Cash bail is nothing more than punishment for the poor. Harvey Weinstein simply paid his way to freedom, while Kalief Browder languished on Rikers for years, because of a system that, as New York Times bestselling author Bryan Stevenson wrote, “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”

Our speedy trial laws are controlled entirely by the state. Under New York law, there is no right to a speedy trial -- there is only a right to have prosecutors state they are “ready” for trial within 90 days for a misdemeanor and six months for a felony. This framework encourages prosecutors to manipulate the system by using procedural maneuvers to postpone cases when they are not “ready” in order to minimize their speedy trial obligations.

In many instances these three nightmares coalesce: a person can’t make bail, can’t start their trial, and can’t get access to the documents that provide the basis for their prosecution and defense. We continue to do what we can in New York City to right these wrongs. But the truth is that we need the state to act right now to reform its laws and achieve real justice in our criminal justice system.

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Corey Johnson is the Speaker of the New York City Council. 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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New York City Needs Real Criminal Justice Reform from Albany Fri, 29 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City’s Flawed Capital Project Process the Subject of Renewed Scrutiny, and Some Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8381-city-s-flawed-capital-project-process-the-subject-of-renewed-scrutiny-and-some-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8381-city-s-flawed-capital-project-process-the-subject-of-renewed-scrutiny-and-some-reform mayor bdb 200

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Many New Yorkers know the city has trouble completing construction projects on time and under budget. Projects like school renovations and the build-out of park facilities are capital projects, the subject of increasing scrutiny and some reform, with more promised, as frustrations persist and residents, watchdogs, lawmakers, and other city leaders seek answers.

Top officials from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to Comptroller Scott Stringer have taken a fresh interest in improving the capital projects budgeting and delivery processes. The mayor’s office has released several plans promising to do just that. After forming a new subcommittee on the capital budget last year, the City Council has proposed reforms and Council members have been critical of the city’s handling of capital spending during this month’s annual budget hearings.

Stringer has proposed three city charter revisions to improve accountability, recommendations to a charter revision commission that will soon propose changes to the city’s central governing document.

There are some areas of agreement among the parties involved, but it is currently unclear if there will be any major substantive changes to the current system, wherein the city’s long-term capital budget planning is lacking in transparency and widely seen as unrealistic, and projects are consistently falling behind schedule and over budget.

Much of the recent attention has come through this year’s city budget process. As part of the reviewing the preliminary expense budget put forward by Mayor de Blasio, the City Council also assesses the preliminary capital budget for next fiscal year as well as the ten-year capital strategy.

At the first preliminary budget hearing of this cycle, Melanie Hartzog, the city’s budget director, said that the top priorities for capital projects over the next decade would be education, environmental protection, housing, and transportation.

In two recent hearings and several recently-released plans, city officials have promised to address many of the long-standing issues associated with capital project delivery, including planning, process, and transparency.

“We have doubts,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, at the Council’s initial budget hearing. Johnson and other Council members raised several issues about the capital budget and the ten-year plan. He said that the latter half of the ten-year plan “does not take into account the city’s needs,” including both its current commitments and new needs that will arise.

Multiple Council members brought up that the ten-year plan does not include any new school construction after fiscal year 2024. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the capital budget subcommittee, called this “unrealistic planning” and noted the city’s history of frontloading its ten-year capital plans.

Gibson specifically cited the budget planning for the NYPD’s capital needs. The current proposal allocates $850 million in capital spending for the first three years of the plan, and only $160 million in the next seven. Hartzog acknowledged the history and said that the city is working to improve. Council members did acknowledge some progress in clarity for what is outlined.

In addition to problems with planning, capital delivery from conception to completion has its own set of obstacles. Recognizing the past-due and over-budget trend, the city’s Department of Design and Construction earlier this year released a strategic blueprint that promises to “fundamentally reevaluate the status quo in City capital project delivery.”

As of the time of the report’s release, DDC was managing 834 active projects valued at $13.5 billion. Since 2004, the annual capital budget has grown by $1 billion to $3 billion each year to keep pace with a growing city, which has also added nearly a million jobs in the same period. DDC deals with most city capital projects outside of the School Construction Authority, which is its own entity dealing with its eponymous subject matter. SCA is known to be far more successful in its planning and delivery than DDC.

The blueprint identifies three internal and external impediments within the delivery process, including DDC’s own business practices, burdensome procurement process rules, and the engineering challenges that come with underground infrastructure that “all complicate efficient delivery of capital projects” in the city.

The report also identifies climate change as a necessary factor to consider in all future planning. Capital projects need to both protect the city from rising sea levels and natural disasters as well as minimize the city’s contributions to global warming, according to the report. The agency is under relatively new leadership as it embarks on this ambitious plan. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Lorraine Grillo, who has also continued leading the School Construction Authority, as the new DDC commissioner last July. Grillo has been widely praised for her leadership of SCA, including by City Council members, though the city continues to struggle with school space in many neighborhoods.

DDC is currently undergoing an agency-wide review of its practices and external challenges. Through this review, DDC promises to “modernize how we do business.” These modernizing reforms include standardizing project initiation, managing projects more effectively, enhancing management capacity, and updating internal systems and technology. The plan promises to better identify and prioritize needs, streamline procurement, and restructure contracts to promote meeting deadlines, among other improvements.

Contracts and contractor diversity are also a primary concern for the mayor’s office and the Council, they say. DDC wants to get more out of its contracts and diversify and expand the pool of applicants. Daniel Steinberg, the Senior Advisor to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said that many minority- and women-owned business do not apply for contracts because of the city’s history of untimely payments. This can also dissuade newer and smaller businesses from participating in the bidding process. Timely payment of contracts is a larger issue that DDC is also seeking to address.

During a February joint hearing, the City Council’s finance committee and capital budget subcommittee considered two bills that aim to improve transparency in the capital projects process.

The City Charter mandates certain reporting on the process to the Council and the public, but Council Member Gibson said these reports “often do not relate to one another or the city’s real spending in a meaningful way.” The two bills, which had the support of the Council members present at the hearing, are intended to address these issues. Gibson said that the proposals would give the Council and public “a wholistic and detailed look at all capital projects that are in progress throughout the city.”

The first, Intro. 32, sponsored by Council Member Andrew Cohen, a Bronx Democrat, would require city agencies to provide electronic notification of any delays or cost changes for capital projects. This is very similar to one of the charter revisions that Comptroller Stringer is proposing. The second, Intro. 113, sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, would create a database to track citywide capital projects. Finance committee chair Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat, said that “transparency in the capital process is key to providing assurances to the public that city resources are being put into good use in an efficient and effective manner.”

While most of the hearing focused on these two bills, it was clear that the Council members had larger issues in mind and thought of the bills as first steps to larger-scale reform and improvements.

Steinberg, of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said during the hearing that his office agreed with the two bills “in spirit,” but was concerned with components of each bill that he would consider to be “impractical.”

He voiced concern that Intro. 32 would require reporting for all capital projects, which includes everything from equipment acquisition (such as of paper shredders) to building or repairing massive water tunnels. In regards to Intro. 113, he said that it “would be incredibly burdensome to implement while providing little new information.”

Intro. 32 currently has ten Council sponsors, while Intro. 113 has 35 sponsors, well above the threshold required for passage in the 51-seat Council.

Nonprofit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission submitted testimony in support of Intro. 113 at the February hearing, saying that “the capital budget is just as important as the operating budget and should be subject to the same monitoring and scrutiny.” Gibson brought up the bills again at the initial preliminary budget hearing.

The two bills are focused on transparency in the capital projects process, but the sponsors and other Council members also contextualized the proposals as necessary for the eventual improvement of the entire system and not a distinct issue of bureaucratic transparency. During the hearing, Cohen said that “the inability of the city to deliver on capital projects is an epidemic.”

Council members frequently expressed their personal frustration with the process and the length it takes for many capital projects to be completed, some spanning multiple Council member terms. Cohen, who is in his second term, said that he “spends a significant amount of my time on projects that were funded by my predecessor.” Gibson similarly expressed frustration over parks projects commonly taking as long as eight years to complete, which presents an oversight challenge to Council members, who are term-limited to eight years in office over two terms.

A source of frustration for Council members was that only capital projects costing $25 million or more are required to be reported on the capital projects dashboard, a publicly-available transparency tool on the city’s website. Capital projects of that size account for only 300 of the over 10,000 ongoing projects for a year. Steinberg said that the Mayor’s Office of Operations would be open to expanding the scope of the dashboard’s reporting to be more inclusive than the current threshold. After learning that the city does not have an employee assigned specifically to data entry for the dashboard, Gibson said that it was evidence that capital projects transparency “is not a priority in this city.”

Another area of agreement between the Council and Comptroller is the need for individual budget line items for each capital project. This proposal was one of Stringer’s suggested charter revisions and Gibson brought it up at both recent Council hearings pertaining to the capital budget. Stringer is also proposing that the city regularly report on the condition of capital assets, a requirement he wants added to the charter.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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City’s Flawed Capital Project Process the Subject of Renewed Scrutiny, and Some Reform Thu, 21 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Tale of Two Transit Plans: Johnson’s Is Real, Cuomo’s Is Likely http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8349-tale-of-two-transit-plans-johnson-s-is-real-cuomo-s-is-likely http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8349-tale-of-two-transit-plans-johnson-s-is-real-cuomo-s-is-likely  mta cuomo cojo

Gov. Cuomo (governor's office) & Speaker Johnson (William Alatriste/City Council)


On February 26, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio released a 10-point plan to “transform and fund” the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The vague, crisp proposals are designed to centralize splintered MTA operations to further State control, formally unify support for revenue-generating policies like congestion pricing, and establish external monitoring of the struggling authority, which runs the New York City subways and buses, as well as regional rail networks.

One week later, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced a transit plan of his own, several months in the making. The speaker’s 104-page white paper has a slew of ideas to reform governance, financing, accessibility, and surface-level transit.

The boldest proposal in Johnson’s very bold plan is the City take over subway and bus mass transit -- which it hasn’t managed since 1968 -- plus local bridges and tunnels, while leaving control of commuter rail, suburban buses, and capital projects to the MTA.

This would streamline transit accountability by making the mayor directly responsible for the subway and buses (like in London). Johnson also wants congestion pricing, whether the State passes it or the City enacts its own measure, and several tax hikes.

To be clear: neither plan has all the details. That’s the nature of politicians creating policy, and needing subject-specific experts to chime in. The difference is the Cuomo-de Blasio 10-point proposal lacks the basic necessities of a policy plan, whereas Johnson’s is a well-thought out series of policies, just without some next-level details.

It’s unclear the joint Cuomo-de Blasio plan, which needs approval from the state Legislature, will actually help alleviate deeper MTA problems with performance, operations funding, capital expansion, labor costs, or debt service. In his Signal Problems newsletter, journalist Aaron Gordon noted there’s a “fundamental misunderstanding” of different technological options for upgrading the signal system.

Johnson’s white paper glazes over politically-challenging aspects like labor costs that the Cuomo-de Blasio plan ignores entirely, and takes a radical stance on taxes generating permanent operations revenue. In response, Cuomo outright mocked Johnson’s proposal, while de Blasio dismissed it as an impossibility before the April 1 state budget deadline.

Plenty in the transit world is already being debated, and that fast-approaching state budget deadline brings a Legislature more focused on fiscal policy than urban planning into the conversation. Especially since all three leaders -- Cuomo, de Blasio, and Johnson -- agree congestion pricing needs to happen, the actual proposals are less significant than the policymaking tenor with which they’ve been proposed and discussed, and what the differences mean for governance of the city’s mass transit system.

Johnson’s plan is a substantive, comprehensive proposal, while Cuomo’s plan (I’ll call it Cuomo’s, because his stamp is on practically the entire thing) is dangerously short on details relative to what one should expect from a government leader impacting millions of people. Details are a precursor to meaningful dialogue about transit reform, and the rigor simply isn’t there in 10 bullet points. (Clearly, that’s not just a local problem.)

Cuomo’s team insists they’ll throw together enough details in the state budget. The governor often waits until the last hour to force budget changes, like when his team ushered in a congestion surcharge of $2.75 for rideshare vehicles and $2.50 for taxis last year.

Cuomo’s transit input isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a troubling indicator of dictatorial, politically-driven decision-making in transit, an excessively technical endeavor at its core.

It’s hard to trust the New York details will be as substantive as plans in Berlin, London, Paris, or Singapore, considering the simplicity of the toll shoved through last year’s state budget. A $2.75 surcharge on ride-share vehicles is the price of a city transit fare, while the $2.50 surcharge for taxis was simply less than the $2.75.

What accounts for the differences in rigor? Cuomo “expects” his plan to be approved behind closed doors in Albany, whereas Johnson is promoting transparency and accountability. Cuomo’s already in charge, Johnson wants the City to be.

The governor acts as if he can change practically anything atop the MTA without pushback. Maybe he’s onto something. Neither advocates and journalists outside government, nor MTA leadership and legislators within government, have consistently scaled back Cuomo’s transit proposals, even those that overstep his bounds or are not economically sensible.

Consider the new L train tunnel repair plan: despite wild uncertainty in changing plans three years in the making at the last second, the MTA Board acted handcuffed in even exercising due diligence. Criticism simply didn’t manifest into meaningful resistance.

It’s less about dialogue, since the governor’s tactics don’t really invite public discourse or any semblance of democratic norms. Cuomo’s threatening a 30 percent fare hike should he not get his way with congestion pricing, and the governor’s response to Johnson’s plan was to withdraw the State’s $10 billion in funding should the City control the subway.

Effectively, it’s Cuomo’s way, or the highway. A plan this vague and politically-driven, yet still likely to pass given the governor’s power in changing the MTA and influencing the state budget process, can only exist in an accountability vacuum (a phrase I wrote in an earlier version of this article that Johnson used in his State of the City speech).  

It’s clear the speaker’s 104-page plan takes governing, accountability, and rigor seriously. Johnson’s plan sets clear, quantifiable expectations for improvements, makes the mayor the subway’s political figurehead, reforms transit government boards, and specifically references a multitude of programs to expand. The spirit of Johnson’s white paper mirrors that of Berlin’s comprehensive proposal in late February to inject billions of euros into its already-heralded system.

However, it doesn’t mean Johnson’s proposal is the right one for New York. Former head of the MTA Richard Ravitch, who is credited for resurrecting the authority and its subways in the early 1980s, said of Johnson’s plan, “It’s a very thoughtful proposal, I just don’t agree with it.” Having the City take over mass transit is a massive undertaking, and the taxes he proposes may drive business out of the City, a delicate subject any time, especially post-Amazon.

That’s why the devil is in the details. Without knowing what Cuomo’s plan really entails, how can the MTA Board, State Legislature, City Council, journalists, and the commuting public decide what to make of the two plans side by side?

The tale of two plans is a stark reminder New York’s political landscape needs reforming, just as much as its transit system needs an overhaul. In essence, there’s only one real plan on the table: Johnson’s. Yet, the plan without plans—Cuomo’s—is what New Yorkers should expect to happen.

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Tim Lazaroff is a freelance journalist specializing in transit.

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

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Tale of Two Transit Plans: Johnson’s Is Real, Cuomo’s Is Likely Tue, 12 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
With Williams in Office, Will Public Advocate Get Budget Boost? http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8338-with-williams-in-office-will-public-advocate-get-budget-boost http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8338-with-williams-in-office-will-public-advocate-get-budget-boost citycouncil corey johnson jumaane williams

Jumaane Williams (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Jumaane Williams, the City Council member elected public advocate in a special election last month, has vowed a renewed push for increased funding and an independent budget to bolster the meager resources of the office he now occupies.

Over the course of the six-week long special election that Williams won, virtually all of the 17 candidates who were on the ballot argued that the public advocate’s office needs more funding. One of just three elected positions with citywide responsibilities, the public advocate’s office currently has a budget of $3.6 million for the year, giving it little leeway to pursue the grand promises that each candidate made, whether it involves investigations of city agencies or creating new deputy public advocate offices in the boroughs, as Williams himself has pledged.

“I haven’t met too many people that said the money they have is sufficient to do the work they have to do. So the short answer is, you can always use some additional funds,” Williams said when asked about the public advocate’s budget at his first news conference at his new office on Thursday afternoon. Williams was sworn in by the city clerk at a private ceremony on Wednesday and will be transitioning into the role over the next few weeks (results of the special election still need to be certified and Williams must resign from his City Council seat).

Renewed focus on the office’s budget thanks to the special election comes in the early stages of city budget season, with a new spending plan due by July 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year, and as a charter revision commission considers an overhaul of the city’s foundational laws. The commission’s work will include reevaluation of the role of the public advocate and consideration of independent budgeting for various offices.

Williams appears ready to simultaneously push for more funding for next fiscal year and independent budgeting for the long-term, something that the charter commission would have to propose and voters would have to approve in November, when Williams is expected to again be on the ballot to attempt to earn the rest of the current four-year term through 2021.

In a subsequent Thursday phone interview with Gotham Gazette, Williams said, “Two things that would make this office immediately strong are subpoena power and independent budgeting. As the watchdog-ombudsman, it would make sense that this office would have a budget that’s not subject to the whims of the government that we’re supposed to be an ombudsman over.”

Williams did concede that he doesn’t have a budget figure in mind and that he has yet to figure out “the most pragmatic and effective way to do that.” He added, “I do feel like people understand why it’s necessary.”

Currently, the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city-funded fiscal watchdog, is the only city government agency or entity with a budget pegged to another existing one rather than being allocated by the mayor or the mayor and the City Council through the annual city budget process. By law, IBO’s annual budget cannot be less than 12.5 percent of the annual funding for the mayor’s Office of Management and Budget. That precludes any mayor from slashing IBO’s budget at their whim.

The public advocate’s budget, on the other hand, is set by the mayor and City Council, which is what allowed former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to cut funding to the office when he was in power. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a former public advocate himself, restored that funding and has incrementally increased it each year. In turn, calls for independent budgeting also seemed to fade away and then-Public Advocate Letitia James, now the state Attorney General, did not take a position on it.

The mayor’s preliminary budget for the 2020 fiscal year beginning July 1 proposes increasing the budget again, to $3.8 million, up from $3.1 million in de Blasio’s first adopted budget in 2014. When he was public advocate, de Blasio led a push for independent budgeting for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police officer misconduct, indicating that he’s open to the concept of separating funding for a government watchdog.

“We look forward to reviewing a proposal for an independent budget for the Public Advocate’s office,” said Raul Contreras, a de Blasio spokesperson, in an email. “It’s worth noting that this administration has significantly increased the Public Advocate’s budget by 66 percent since taking office.”

Even at the proposed $3.8 million for next fiscal year, the public advocate would be tasked with keeping watch over a city government de Blasio has said will spend roughly $92.2 billion during the same time period.

The circumstances of the special election had other elected officials also clamoring for greater resources for the city’s ombudsperson, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who served as acting public advocate while the seat was vacant for seven weeks.

“I think independent budgeting is key for this office so it’s not on the whims of whoever the City Council speaker is or whoever the mayor is and that it can be a truly independent watchdog,” Johnson told reporters as he walked Williams to his new office at 1 Centre Street last week. “I know that’s what Jumaane would do with whatever budget he has but it’s beyond one public advocate, it’s beyond one speaker of the Council. It’s really about checks and balances.”

The City Council has also called on the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to consider a charter amendment to give the public advocate the ability to submit a proposed budget into the mayor’s executive budget, the second iteration of the annual spending plan.

[Read: City Council Seeks Expanded Power, Sweeping Change in Recommendations to Charter Revision Commission]

In its report to the Charter commission, the Council noted that the mayor sets the public advocate’s and comptroller’s budgets though both are independently elected citywide officials. “This budgetary relationship can become more political than practical and may significantly hamper the ability of these elected officials to do their work — particularly if their priorities conflict with the Mayor’s priorities,” the report reads.

The comptroller’s budget is currently $107.5 million for this fiscal year.

The charter commission is currently holding hearings to solicit expert testimony on various focus areas, including on independent budgeting for entities such as the public advocate and whether to propose modifications to the public advocate’s powers or perhaps eliminate the office entirely.

At a January 31 hearing where the commission voted on those focus areas, Commissioner James Vacca, a former City Council member, did raise concerns about independent budgeting. “I think that you will have a lot of people knocking at your doors and they will be saying that they want to establish their own budgets, too, and I don’t know if that’s fiscally possible or responsible,” he cautioned.

Williams has promised that he’ll make the most of his limited resources. “As a Council member, I didn’t have nearly this kind of budget and I think I was able to be effective,” he said. “And now, in this position, I think I’m able to amplify [issues] even more...An independent budget just makes it that much more effective. So we’re going to continue to push but we’re going to get the job done either way.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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With Williams in Office, Will Public Advocate Get Budget Boost? Thu, 07 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000