Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/163 Sun, 17 Feb 2019 22:13:25 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Strips Diaz Sr. of Committee After Latest Homophobic Remarks http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8283-city-council-strips-diaz-sr-of-committee-after-latest-homophobic-remarks http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8283-city-council-strips-diaz-sr-of-committee-after-latest-homophobic-remarks ruben diaz sr comm vehicles

(Photo: John McCarten/NYC Council)


In a rare move on Wednesday, the New York City Council voted to dissolve a standing committee after its chair, Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., made homophobic remarks in a recent radio interview and repeatedly refused to apologize for them in the days after.

Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister with a long history of anti-LGBT positions and actions, said last week in the radio interview that the City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community," as reported by NY1. The comment drew a swift backlash from dozens of elected officials, including several openly gay members of the Council, and others demanding that he apologize. But Diaz Sr. doubled down, leading many Democrats, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to call for his resignation.

On Wednesday, the Council voted 45-1 to dissolve the For-Hire Vehicles committee chaired by Diaz Sr. The committee was created at Diaz Sr.’s request last year to oversee the burgeoning ride-hailing service industry and has passed 16 bills in that time, including measures to increase wages paid to for-hire vehicle drivers. It’s jurisdiction will be transferred to the transportation committee under Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

At Wednesday’s vote, Council Member Chaim Deutsch, who also holds anti-LGBT views, was the sole dissenting voice, saying the Council should educate Diaz Sr. and “bring him closer than further and let him know that words are very strong.” Council Members Rodriguez, Andy King, and Fernando Cabrera (also a conservative member from the Bronx) abstained from the vote. Diaz Sr. himself was not present in the chamber.

For Johnson, who is openly gay and openly HIV positive, the vote was an emotional moment as he grappled with his own personal experiences and the hurt he said Diaz Sr.’s comments had caused to Council members and staff. Johnson has spent days apologizing for having given Diaz Sr. the benefit of the doubt and elevating him to committee chair, considering the reverend’s long history of anti-LGBT positions and actions. “I will apologize again, deeply, for making a mistake and having a blind spot to begin with in trying to give everyone a fresh start...I made a mistake. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to all the people who came before me and allowed me to be here today, and I'm sorry to gay and lesbian New Yorkers who deserve so much better,” he said.

Johnson’s comments do not necessarily tell the whole story, though, given that his ascent to the speakership included support from the Bronx Democratic Party, where Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the Council member's son, is especially powerful, and after he had courted Diaz Sr.’s backing.

The resolution to dissolve Diaz Sr.’s committee moved swiftly through the Council. The Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges met on Wednesday morning at a hastily convened hearing and unanimously approved the measure before it was voted on by the full Council. Separately, the Committee on Standards and Ethics is also probing Diaz Sr.’s remarks and could recommend disciplinary action ranging from censure to removal from office.

Council Members Ritchie Torres, Daniel Dromm, Carlos Menchaca, and Jimmy Van Bramer, all of whom are openly gay, took turns critiquing Diaz Sr. and commending Johnson for taking the necessary steps to hold him to account.

“This behavior is not new,” said Dromm, speaking just after Council Member Deutsch. Dromm cited his own decades-long opposition to Diaz Sr.’s homophobia and said, “I don’t think any amount of education at this point is really going to help him.”

Torres, with tears in his eyes, emphasized that Diaz Sr.’s comments were not reflective of the politics of the Bronx, which he also represents, and he said he was “naive to expect redemption” from Diaz Sr. based on his record. “Imagine if someone said the Council was controlled by a black cabal or a Jewish cabal. The Council would take action,” he added.

Diaz Sr. has announced that he is holding a rally with supporters on Thursday in the Bronx. The Council member is eligible to run for another term in the Council in 2021. One of his 2017 Democratic primary opponents, Amanda Farias, has already announced her intention to run for the seat.

Van Bramer, who spoke about struggling with suicidal thoughts as a young gay man, condemned Diaz Sr.’s “hate speech.” “Demonizing people causes real and permanent pain,” he said. “When elected officials speak with such hate, young people internalize that hate. That in and of itself is a form of violence.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Strips Diaz Sr. of Committee After Latest Homophobic Remarks Wed, 13 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In Second 311 Oversight Hearing, City Council Examines Agency Responsiveness http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8271-in-second-311-oversight-hearing-council-examines-agency-responsiveness http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8271-in-second-311-oversight-hearing-council-examines-agency-responsiveness Holden Yeger City Council

Council Members Holden, right, and Yeger (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The City Council recently held its second in a two-part oversight hearing on the city’s 311 system, the country’s largest non-emergency call center. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, the chair of the governmental operations committee, led both hearings. While the first hearing focused on system upgrades to 311 that are in process and language access, the second was organized around examining responsiveness by 311 to New Yorkers’ complaints and questions, often through how city agencies take up issues that come through the call center.

Cabrera stressed the importance of the second hearing, saying that “New Yorkers should be able to trust that a complaint filed with 311 will not languish in a void.” Joe Morrisroe, the executive director of 311, testified at the first hearing and returned for the second. He was joined at the second hearing by officials from seven city agencies.

Johnson’s primary concerns at the hearing were the quality of the data that 311 collects and transparency in regards to the status of complaints and service requests. “We see extensive data-quality issues,” he said, arguing that data errors prevent the public from following the progress of complaints, and ambiguous complaint resolution descriptions create confusion over agency responses. Johnson said poor data quality meant that the Council could not determine how or if many cases were resolved. He cited the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOMHM), Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), Department of Finance (DOF), and Department of Transportation (DOT) as city agencies with ambiguous resolution statuses.

The DOMHM and TLC each have 99% of their cases that are technically marked closed, but many also appear to be ongoing. Mark Lee, the TLC’s assistant commissioner for licensing and standards, said that he needed “to look into this data further” and that TLC is “proactively communicating to complainants, but we do need to get that reflected to the public.”

About 20% of rodent complaints to DOMHM were listed as resolved on a date before the complaint was filed, to which Johnson incredulously asked, “how is that possible?” Jeff Hunter, DOHMH assistant commissioner for environmental health and administration, said that this could be because multiple complaints were filed for the same location and the resolution date reflected the response to the first complaint.

The DOT and DOF had 46% and 74% of their respective complaint responses determined to be vague by the Council committee. Rebecca Zack, DOT’s assistant commissioner for intergovernmental and community affairs, said that the department’s vague responses directed customers to the DOT website for more information, instead of being resolved within the 311 system. Sheela Feinberg, DOF’s director of intergovernmental affairs, said that the vague responses were due to the sensitive nature of DOF service requests, which include personal information, and that DOF’s direct responses to complaints provide more information that what may be reflected in the Council’s data.

Johnson expressed frustration at how confusing the whole thing is, labeling the agencies’ differing response system to be “ad-hoc.” He suggested an inter-agency working group to work with the Council to improve the whole response system, and to “stop the insanity, there needs to be a better way.” He also expressed the importance of having the two hearings on 311, because “if people lose trust, they stop trying.”

Another major issue that came up frequently at the hearing was how agencies decide the order in which they respond to service requests. Most of the agencies outlined an internal system of prioritization based on a request’s impact on public safety. For example, Patrick Wehle, the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) deputy commissioner for external affairs, said that DOB typically responds to high-priority complaints within nine hours, the next level of priority can take up to 11 days, while lowest-priority complaints sometimes take up to three months. Most of the agencies present followed a similar prioritization hierarchy, representatives said. However, there were some exceptions, such as DOT, which schedules maintenance work, such as refilling potholes, for efficiency rather than by another priority, according to Zack. Council Member Cabrera asked if the volume of calls received about a particular issue affects an agency’s responsiveness. Zack said it depends on the issue, that DOT determines whether to adjust on a case-by-case basis.

The Committee on Governmental Operations also considered one bill proposal, sponsored by Council Member Robert Holden. Holden’s bill would require 311 to indicate if an agency is unable to respond to a service request or complaint. Morrisroe said that his agency “cannot support the bill’s intent in its current form.” He explained that the bill “would drastically change 311’s operations and would not allow it to fulfill its role of providing New Yorkers with the information they seek or help them submit and monitor their service request.” Morrisroe asserted that providing this information would go beyond 311’s “core competency” of making referrals to other city agencies. The bill was laid over by the committee, perhaps for tweaking or further consideration in the future.

Council Member Kalman Yeger voiced his frustration with the city agencies present, saying that 311 was not at fault, but the agencies are failing, calling it “a management problem at every agency.” He expressed particular frustration over the fix rate for rodent problem complaints, which is currently 30%. He said rodent complaints should have a “100% success rate and a picture of the dead rat in the response.” He ended his remarks (he didn’t ask any questions) by telling the officials present to “go back today to the office and say ‘that crazy guy from Brooklyn once again is letting loose with his microphone and maybe we could figure out a way that we don’t have this again.’”

Two agencies notably not represented at the hearing were the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Department of Sanitation, a fact noted by Holden. These two agencies interact most with the public, he said, so their responses to 311 complaints need to be reviewed. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Holden said in the hearing, about the absences of the NYPD and Sanitation.

During the hearing, Johnson did say that “despite these troubling issues, we do see some very positive things,” highlighting Sanitation for its clarity and responsiveness.

[Read: City’s 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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In Second 311 Oversight Hearing, City Council Examines Agency Responsiveness Sun, 10 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Seeks Expanded Power, Sweeping Change in Recommendations to Charter Revision Commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8249-city-council-seeks-expanded-power-sweeping-change-in-recommendations-to-charter-revision-commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8249-city-council-seeks-expanded-power-sweeping-change-in-recommendations-to-charter-revision-commission johnson council

(Photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York City Council wants a voice in picking the commissioner of the NYPD, more independence for ethics and oversight agencies, and greater power over the city budget.

Those are among the recommendations that the City Council made in a new report to the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, seeking amendments to the city’s governing document that would broadly strengthen the powers of non-mayoral elected officials and require changes to how the city budgets, decides land use changes, and plans for the future.

The 2019 commission was created last year through legislation passed by the Council and spearheaded by then-Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Its members are appointed by a variety of public officials, including the mayor, comptroller, borough presidents, and City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, who also appointed the chair.

A separate commission, conducting its work in 2018, had previously been appointed by the mayor and put three questions on the November ballot that were overwhelmingly approved.

On Thursday evening, the Council-created commission finalized a list of focus areas that will be the subject of several public hearings in the next few months before its final report is due in September. Ultimately, its recommendations will be on the ballot for voters to approve or disapprove this November.

The City Council’s 37-page report to the commission details several recommendations in key areas on the balance of power in government, voting processes, police oversight, city budgeting and contracting, and land use and planning policy. The report is authored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who chairs the Council's government operations committee, and Brad Lander, the deputy leader for policy.

“It’s been almost 30 years since the last comprehensive Charter Commission and based on the public participation in the 2019 Commission’s process, it is clearly time for change,” Johnson said in a statement. “In formulating the Council’s proposals, we took into consideration all of the public testimony given as well as Council Member input, and we are confident that our recommendations will improve the way our City is governed and make life better for New Yorkers.”

Balance of Power
The report proposes requiring advice and consent powers for the City Council in appointing the city’s corporation counsel, the NYPD commissioner, City Planning Commission chair, the chief administrative law judge and the executive directors of the Campaign Finance Board and Conflicts of Interest Board (none of these positions are currently subject to Council approval). It also proposes implementing three-year terms for each of those positions.

It also proposes requiring the City Council’s approval before the mayor can remove the commissioner of the Department of Investigation, currently the one department commissioner the Council must approve after mayoral nomination. That proposal may be a response to the controversy involving the termination of former DOI Commissioner Mark Peters, who had been a thorn in the side of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. Though Peters was removed for overstepping his authority, Council members at the time raised concerns about the agency head’s ability to stay independent and investigate the very mayor who appoints them without worrying about retaliation.

The Council also recommends giving the City Council, the public advocate, and the comptroller one appointment each on the Conflicts of Interest Board, which is currently made up entirely of members appointed by the mayor. “No single elected officer should be solely responsible for the appointment of COIB and by dividing the appointments between all the branches of City government, COIB can more effectively meet the goals of its mission,” the report reads.

Other recommendations include giving the Council a direct appointment to the city’s Art Commission and changing the structure of the Landmarks Preservation Commission

A few of the proposals would also increase the authority of other elected officials, including the public advocate, an office with a small budget and limited powers but a strong bully pulpit. The Council proposes allowing the public advocate to direct DOI to conduct investigations and giving the office an appointment at the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which probes NYPD officer misconduct. The report also recommends independent budgets for the public advocate and comptroller — the two offices would be able to submit their own budget proposals into the mayor’s executive budget — and guaranteed “non-negotiable” budgets for borough presidents and community boards based on a percentage of an existing, related budget.

Voting and Elections
The upcoming special election for public advocate on February 26, with 17 candidates on the ballot, illustrates cause for some of the issues that the Council’s report addresses, it says. It advocates for establishing ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, in all primary and special elections. Without ranked choice -- which allows voters to pick their preferences by ranking and distributes second-rank votes if no candidate initially meets the required vote threshold -- a candidate in a crowded special election could win with a small total vote and percentage of the ballots cast.

The report also notes that establishing ranked-choice voting would eliminate the need for costly primary and general elections that are held after a special election -- for instance, the winner of the public advocate special will have to defend their seat later this year. The report recommends doing away with those contests since ranked-choice would ensure that a candidate with deep support is elected to the seat and serves the remainder of a term.

Police Oversight
The Council recommends giving the public advocate the power to appoint one member of the CCRB, reducing one of the mayor’s appointments, and also proposes that the agency’s chair be chosen jointly by the mayor and the Council.

It also pushes for putting into law the CCRB’s Administrative Prosecution Unit, which conducts civil trials for officers accused of severe misconduct. The APU was created in 2012 through a memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and the CCRB, which the report points out could be revoked by the police commissioner, threatening the independence of the oversight agency.

The Council also proposed strengthening the CCRB in other ways, tying the agency’s budget to the NYPD’s, giving it subpoena power, and establishing a time-bound process for the NYPD to respond to the agency’s disciplinary recommendations.

Budgeting and Contracting
One of the more prominent roles of the City Council is its power to approve the city’s annual budget in negotiation with the mayor. For years, Council members have cried foul about the imbalance in those negotiations and the “budget dance” -- purposefully underfunding an item in initial proposals only to fully fund it later on, knowing all along the plan is to do so -- that mayors past and present have used as leverage.

In his first year as Council speaker, Johnson pointed to the imbalance and put forth a new focus on the city’s capital budget and made the level of rainy day funds put away each year a priority. The Council would put new related measures into the charter.

Among other things, the report proposes requiring the mayor to submit revenue estimates at a fixed date in the budget process, allowing the Council to estimate how much the city should be spending, and calls for increased transparency in the expense budget, particularly by tying spending to performance measures.

It also proposes limits on the mayor’s control over appropriated funds, and more efficiency and transparency in the long-term capital planning process.

Perhaps the biggest budgetary change the report recommends is the creation of an explicit Rainy Day Fund, which is currently prohibited by a law in place till 2033. The Council recommends establishing the fund in the charter as well as seeking state authorization for it.

On city contracting, the report recommends several improvements including setting time limits for specific processes, such as requiring that oversight agencies review contracts within 30 days (the same limit applied to the Comptroller’s office), and involving the comptroller’s office at an earlier stage.

Land Use and City Planning
The report advances several suggestions for making the city’s land use process “more equitable and rational,” chiefly by requiring a comprehensive plan for the city every ten years, created with community feedback, to inform policies on land use and infrastructure.

The Council also seeks to enhance the “fair share” system which determines how municipal facilities and infrastructure is sited across the city. The current “fair share” guidelines have often been criticized as inadequate and have not prevented the concentration of undesirable facilities, often in low-income communities of color. The Council’s report proposes changing those guidelines into binding rules to be followed and updated regularly along with other improvements to the siting process.

The Council is also attempting to wield more power over land use applications, giving them the ability to modify city-sponsored land use project during the approval process.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Seeks Expanded Power, Sweeping Change in Recommendations to Charter Revision Commission Thu, 31 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In Amazon Debate, Atlantic Yards Lessons Beyond Those Aired at First City Council Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8229-amazon-debate-atlantic-yards-lessons-city-council-queens http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8229-amazon-debate-atlantic-yards-lessons-city-council-queens barclays center ground

An Atlantic Yards groundbreaking (photo: Spencer T Tucker)


More public participation might help. So might ULURP. But rigorous skepticism is more important.

It was fascinating, having watched in 2004 and 2005 two New York City Council subcommittee hearings on the announced Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project, to see the Council's Committee on Ecomomic Development, with the Speaker prominent, on December 12 take a distinctly adversarial stance toward the proposed Amazon campus in Queens.

Back then, not only were the Governor and Mayor gung-ho for “jobs, housing, and hoops,” many Council members, despite their questions, were essentially enthusiastic. Meanwhile, the developer and supporters got significant time from the hearings’ start, relegating opponents to later slots.

And it was curious to hear both proponents and opponents of the Amazon deal rather tritely invoke lessons from Atlantic Yards (now called Pacific Park), suggesting the need for either broader public participation or the importance of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which gives the Council the final say (rather than using the state General Project Plan, which puts the Governor in charge).

Don’t get me wrong: neither broader participation nor ULURP are necessarily bad things. But they’re hardly saviors when big money and powerful players are at work, and when projects unfold over time and multiple economic cycles.

For example, promises made in Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), or even in state approval documents, as we’ve learned, can be followed by contracts that offer crucial slack. For example, the fine print allowed Atlantic Yards, estimated to take ten years, a 25-year buildout.

So, while these massive development projects differ significantly, the Atlantic Yards experience makes clear that, as the Amazon deal unfolds, more muscular, and consistent, skepticism and oversight is needed. We’ll see how much surfaces at the next hearing, held by the City Council's Committee on Finance, scheduled for January 30.

Circumventing ULURP?
In December, at about an hour into the first of several promised Council hearings on the Amazon deal, Council Speaker Corey Johnson confronted James Patchett, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, about a line he’d truncated—for faster delivery—from his prepared statement: “this is by no means an attempt to deliberately circumvent the ULURP process.”

“Former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff was asked, when he left city government” about the avoidance of ULURP for Atlantic Yards, recounted Johnson. “If I had to do it over again,” Johnson said, paraphrasing Doctoroff, “I would bring Atlantic Yards through ULURP…because it's the right process to get community buy-in, and the public review is worthwhile.”

“Now, I don't agree with Dan Doctoroff on everything, but I thought that was an interesting comment,” Johnson continued, pressing Patchett on “why it was important…to facilitate the subverting” of ULURP.

Patchett replied that the “UDC Act”—referring to the Urban Development Corporation, the state authority that can override local land use—“is available to do more comprehensive planning,”  and is “more powerful” than ULURP for certain projects. Certain things, he said, can’t happen with ULURP, like having the state hold title to project land. Hmm—similar tactics were used with Atlantic Yards, but Doctoroff, in retrospect, would’ve used ULURP.

So when Patchett said the city’s primary focus was getting the promised 25,000 jobs, it sounded like the end justifies the means. “More powerful” also translates as “certain passage by appointees who answer to the governor.” With Atlantic Yards, that meant not only initial passage of the project, but steady agreement regarding revisions of the timetable and thus promised public benefits.

Empire State Development, the successor to the UDC, has, in my observation, steadily affirmed the governor’s (and developer’s) will regarding Atlantic Yards. Only at state legislative oversight hearings have ESD officials faced hard questions. That key state authority, we should remember, avoided the first City Council hearing on Amazon, just as it sidestepped those Atlantic Yards hearings held by the Council.

Community buy-in?
“We certainly did take lessons from Atlantic Yards,” Patchett continued, citing “the importance of community input, the importance of genuinely involving people in the way the project ultimately looks. That's why we set up the Community Advisory Committee.”

Pre-empting the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) announcement, state Senator Michael Gianaris and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer announced on November 21 that they would boycott such a body, calling it “a thinly veiled attempt to present the Amazon development as a fait accompli.” That’s hard to doubt, though it is possible that the CAC -- supposed to advise on issues like workforce development -- could have some impact.

The CAC has 45 members (though one’s already resigned), appointed in consultation with local elected officials and stakeholders, and is supposed to meet quarterly; its three subcommittees -- including one that will advise on local infrastructure spending -- are supposed to meet monthly. Town halls should be held two weeks after each quarterly meeting, reported Christine Chung of The City. That could add some sunlight.

Given the very low bar, this has more legitimacy than the Atlantic Yards CAC, which was not set up until some 28 months after the project was announced and barely met. When Atlantic Yards opponents, in a lawsuit challenging the project’s environmental review, called the CAC illegitimate, a judge disagreed, saying the law is so slack it’s even legit to establish such a committee after a project is approved.

A somewhat transparent CAC also seems better than the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a private contract that purported to guarantee such things as job-training and affordable housing, but had crucial loopholes; for one thing, the developer never hired the required Independent Compliance Monitor.

The CBA was used as a political wedge. The developer gained support from groups -- some with track records, others astroturf -- led in large part by black leaders in Central Brooklyn, who had legitimate grievances about past developments and could help a large corporation to argue that middle- and upper-class opponents living closer to the project site, largely white, were selfish NIMBYs.

So it’s surprising that Amazon has not already organized some Queens stakeholders to vouch for the company’s intentions to lift up some of the borough’s struggling precincts. After all, Amazon has already taken a page from the big-developer playbook, buying ads in the tabloids (and mailing several flyers to New Yorkers) repeating, for example, the dubious claim that the project would bring $27 billion in new tax revenues.

Keep in mind that even seemingly robust public consultation may only go so far when the state’s in charge. In 2014, a volunteer body, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), was set up to advise ESD, as part of a 2014 settlement to avert a potential lawsuit on fair housing issues. However, it’s mostly toothless.

A few now-departed AY CDC members have raised questions about the project, while most -- the board is controlled by the governor -- are there to nod yes. Though the AY CDC is supposed to meet quarterly, last year it held its second meeting -- essentially to support an ESD contract renewal -- with just one day’s notice on March 30, and hasn't met since.

How good is ULURP?
Though ULURP offers more public input, and New York City legitimacy, than the state process, it typically leads to tweaks, not significant changes. Doctoroff has said the Bloomberg administration at the time doubted its rezoning prowess, so it pursued the expedient route around the City Council. “With twenty-twenty hindsight,” he wrote in his 2017 memoir, “I am positive we could have placated our opponents in negotiations and gotten the process through ULURP.”

Well, not quite; some people adamantly opposed the arena (now Barclays Center), or the project’s density. But ULURP would at least have put the debate in the public sphere, and empowered the local Council member, then Letitia James.

It should be noted that the two Council committee hearings regarding Atlantic Yards came under the leadership of then-Speaker Gifford Miller. After the project was approved, while the Speaker was Christine Quinn, known for her closeness to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Council wouldn't green-light future oversight hearings requested by James and colleague Brad Lander.

Today, compared to the Atlantic Yards history, the Council Speaker is less beholden to the mayor; the economic impacts of the 9/11 attacks are more distant; we don’t have the distraction (and lure) of professional sports; and we’ve seen the explosion of gentrification near the waterfront. Moreover, Amazon is a lightning-rod company, to say the least.

(Still, it would be interesting to see whether an office project at the Long Island City waterfront without subsidies -- or Amazon -- would generate such pushback. After all, the Amazon site was once to encompass two huge mostly residential rezonings -- Anable Basin, Long Island City Innovation Center -- arguably adding more neighborhood burdens.)

Yet, Johnson surely knows that ULURP is its own political game. Consider the Council’s recent approval of a giant two-tower project, 80 Flatbush, at a site that bridges Downtown Brooklyn and low-rise streets. After the project’s developer sought to nearly triple the allowable density, Council Member Steve Levin expressed concern, while the local community board was staunch in its opposition.

Eventually the project was approved with only modest reductions, and Johnson, according to Levin, was very much in the loop. While the public learned a lot about the expected benefits -- affordable housing, a replacement school, a new school -- ULURP never ventilated a key question: the value of the additional square footage the developer gained via an upzoning.

Regarding Amazon and ULURP, not everyone sees a silver bullet. As urban planner Sylvia Morse tweeted, “The people are shouting NO AMAZON, not ‘we want 7 months of procedural theater, during which speculators will drive up housing prices in LIC, followed by a bad deal getting rammed through anyway after council members get to pretend they tried.’”

A better planning process
Last September, Council Member Lander offered some cogent criticism before the Council-spurred 2019 Charter Revision Commission, suggesting that, with challenges like affordability, sustainability, and aging infrastructure, “our highly reactive ULURP process just is not getting the job done."

"Each application is brought either by a private developer or by the administration,” Lander said, “and it's not judged against a broad set of goals we've collectively agreed to, for sustainability or affordability or how to share and distribute the challenges and benefits of growth.”

He suggested "a comprehensive and proactive planning process.” What might that mean regarding Amazon? Perhaps the city and state should’ve set some goals for transit and other infrastructure for Long Island City beforehand, beyond the modest $180 million announced by the city on October 30. Remember, the two percolating rezonings were not being judged in that proactive way. (See criticism from the Municipal Art Society.)

A broader effort at planning might have put the city and state “incentives” (subsidies) in context. Sure, we’re not necessarily shoveling cash, outside a state construction grant that could be worth $505 million, as a special favor to Amazon, given that most of the subsidies are as-of-right and performance-based.

But some dialogue and data might clarify, as critics have argued, whether such subsidies are wise and deserve to be perpetuated. After all, Amazon admitted that the prime, not sole, driver was the talent pool.

Stronger analysis
There are also other murky parts of the deal, such as a seemingly low fee for public land and generous lease terms, as I wrote last month for Gotham Gazette. It was interesting to see Speaker Johnson scorn the state projections that saying Amazon would be a financial boon for the city and state, and argue for an independent study.

New York has a vehicle for such analysis; it’s called the city’s Independent Budget Office and, when called in 2005 and 2009, IBO raised serious skepticism about Atlantic Yards (and should probably do an update). With that project, however, government officials and many in the press embraced a study paid for by the developer, which was wrong from the start and which is now clearly way off (in part because the project wasn’t built in ten years).

Another analysis is needed, too. At one point during the Amazon hearing, Council Member Francisco Moya requested an independent study to report on such things as the project’s economic, infrastructure, and housing impact. The NYC EDC’s Patchett, nonplused, responded that, of course, the state process requires a study.

But that’s not a truly independent study. In projects like Atlantic Yards, such environmental reviews, however sufficient to pass legal scrutiny, serve the interests of the project’s sponsors and the agency boosting it.

The Council could fund a such an independent study. Sure, this doesn’t address the question of Amazon-the-company, with business practices that, to some, disqualify it. But, at the very least, if the chief executives of New York City and State are going to offer pre-cooked ambitious plans, the obligation of the legislative branches should be continued oversight.

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Norman Oder is a Brooklyn journalist who writes the watchdog blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report. On Twitter @AYReport.

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

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In Amazon Debate, Atlantic Yards Lessons Beyond Those Aired at First City Council Hearing Sun, 27 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City's 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8225-city-s-311-upgrade-set-for-mid-year-launch http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8225-city-s-311-upgrade-set-for-mid-year-launch maybloocustomer

former Mayor Bloomberg at 311 (photo: Edward Reed)


The city’s 311 non-emergency call center for information about city services and to lodge complaints is nearing a mid-year re-launch, its first major overhaul since being introduced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2003. The revamped system, estimated to debut in July, will modernize 311’s currently outdated system that limits its capability to assist New Yorkers. The next iteration of the system will eventually allow for increased language access, user accounts to track inquiries and complaints, and a better app experience.

The City Council’s Committees on Government Operations and Technology held a joint oversight hearing on 311 last week, the first of two such hearings that will be held over the course of several months. The January 17 hearing was focused on the functions and management of 311, and also dealt with two Council bills related to the call center, while the second hearing will focus on city agencies’ responses to 311 complaints and service requests.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson led the hearing, alongside Government Operations Committee Chair Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx Democrat, and Technology Committee Chair Peter Koo, a Queens Democrat. Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, began the hearing by saying that “the solutions and technology of 2003 are serving New Yorkers in 2019 and that I believe is unacceptable” and that “other cities are moving past us.”

The implementation of 311’s new “customer relationship management” (CRM) platform was a focus of the hearing. The new system 311 is transitioning to is back-end first, so callers will not immediately notice a difference from the old platform. The update is meant to provide a foundation so that 311 will then be able to offer new features to the public, including better language access, a second major focus of the recent hearing.

According to 311 Executive Director Joe Morrisroe, 311 fields over 120,000 calls per day and 42 million contacts per year. This is more than all other municipal 311 systems combined. Morrisroe said “the 311 team is focused on meeting the customers where they are.” He said that 311 conducts two customer surveys per year. One of the surveys, conducted once a year by the CFI Group, a consultancy, showed that “311 ranked equal to or better” than private sector contact centers. 311 also conducts quarterly in-house surveys.

However, as Koo noted, the surveys are only conducted in English. This may skew the results because of the disparity of service between English-speaking callers and non-English-speaking callers, a key theme of the oversight hearing, which included discussion of a bill related to 311 and foreign language access.

The language barrier faced by many New Yorkers when contacting 311 was the most frequent issue brought up at the hearing. Under the current system, callers are asked through an automated message to select their language, but all callers, even those who select one of the six non-English options provided, are then directed to an English-speaking 311 operator, who has not been informed of their language selection. Callers must then communicate their language preference to the operator, who can then connect them to a translator in one of 182 languages.

As several Council members noted, this requires the caller to know some English to then be able access 311 in their preferred language, a protocol that may lead many callers to give up and not access the information they are seeking when they first dial -- an issue that a Council bill is seeking to explore through new reporting requirements. Johnson called the language barrier “unacceptable.” The speaker said that he had an Armenian staff member attempt to call 311 and it took 17 minutes for the staff member to be connected with the proper translator.

To address the issue, Council Member Carlos Menchaca, a Brooklyn Democrat, has sponsored a bill, Intro. 1328, which would have 311 develop a new protocol for the languages spoken by callers and would require 311 to track and report calls dropped seemingly because of insufficient language assistance. Menchaca said the bill is important because “everyone has a dignity to be heard and every day we’re trying to figure out how that can happen in their preferred language.”

“I can empathize,” Morrisroe of 311 said, adding that “311 wholeheartedly agrees with the spirit of the legislation.” However, Morrisroe gave two reasons for opposing the bill. He said that 311 already has a protocol in place to identify languages and the technology to support the bill’s requirements is not currently available. He called operators not knowing about a caller’s language selection a “limitation” of the current system and said that 311 would make solving the issue a “priority” going forward.

Menchaca was not satisfied with that answer, stating that the City Council creates policy and city agencies are meant to implement that policy. He then said “the fact that this does not exist out there right now has nothing to do with the fact that we can pass this bill and really force you all in a room to figure this out with the [telecommunications] industry.”

Another language-related issue brought up at the hearing was that currently the automated message that begins every 311 call includes options for six languages. This offering is below the ten-language requirement from a previous city law. Morrisroe said that the languages were chosen and sequenced based on the volume of calls received and that current technology limited the number of languages that can be included.

During the discussion of the transition to the new customer relationship management (CRM) platform, Samir Saini, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Information, Technology, and Telecommunications (DoITT), said the new platform will be ready to be rolled out by “the middle of the year.” Saini said that the platform upgrade will focus on the back-end of 311’s system, which will modernize a system that hasn’t been updated since it was first installed in 2003 and allow the agency to offer new features later. These features, like potentially 10 language options instead of the current six, will not be available right away when the new platform debuts later this year, but will gradually be added to the new system.

DoITT currently has a 12-month, $24 million contract with IBM to transition from the old system, dating back to 2003 when 311 was created, to a new modern system for receiving and tracking service requests and complaints. After the roll-out, DoITT will be able to manage the system on its own without IBM’s assistance.

The platform upgrade will allow customers to create online accounts to track the progress of their complaints and service requests, which Johnson had brought up as an example of 311’s current system being outdated. The upgrade will also allow 311’s mobile app to be offered in languages other than English, along with needed flexibility for new features on the app. Currently, the options to make complaints on the app are limited (Johnson pointed out that New Yorkers are unable to report mold through the app). Saini said that there was a “queue of enhancements” already planned to be made, but did not elaborate further.

Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, said that homelessness was the top 311 complaint for his Upper East Side district. He pointed out that the current mobile app does not allow for a specific location for a seemingly homeless person on the street, and instead locates them by the nearest address. Saini said that changing this will be a top priority for the new mobile app.

The second bill discussed at the hearing was Intro. 0188, which is intended to stop harassment of property owners through 311. The bill would have 311 stop referring anonymous calls about a property that has been harassed with repeated complaints “that cannot be substantiated or that are substantiated but not illegal.” Morrisroe of 311 objected to this bill, stating that “while 311 understands the intent of the proposed bill, we believe that what this bill proposes will have two unintended consequences.” He said that landlords could potentially game the system to get a temporary reprieve from complaints and that the bill risks a citizen’s right to report a complaint without fear of retaliation, citing immigrants and tenants as vulnerable populations.

Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, took an issue with Morrisroe’s objections to the bill, telling the 311 director that “not everything that comes out of this Council is dumb.” He told Morrisroe that he’d like to “roll the dice” and see if abuse Morrisroe predicted would actually happen. On the second objection, Yeger said he did not think it would be a concern and did not see a correlation between the bill and an increased risk of retribution. He also said he thought the bill wasn’t harsh enough on abuse, saying that he would like to make it a crime to make repeated unsubstantiated complaints about the same property.

Council Member Cabrera asked about the ten-second increase in wait times for 311 callers in the past year. In 2018, the average wait time was 28 seconds, which is just under the 30-second industry standard for 311. Morrisroe said it was in part due to the extreme cold temperatures of January 2018, which led to an increase in complaints about problems with heat or hot water. Additionally, he pointed to 311 taking on the responsibility of handling appointment requests for bulk item collection as a cause of increased wait times.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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City's 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch Thu, 24 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As Acting Public Advocate, Johnson Eyes Information Commission Revived by James But Killed by De Blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8200-as-acting-public-advocate-johnson-eyes-information-commission-revived-by-james-but-killed-by-de-blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8200-as-acting-public-advocate-johnson-eyes-information-commission-revived-by-james-but-killed-by-de-blasio Corey Johnson Tish James

Corey Johnson, Laurie Cumbo, Tish James (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


A charter-mandated city commission meant to help New Yorkers access information about their government sputtered to a stop in 2016 owing to a lack of funding, barely three years after being revived by former Public Advocate Letitia James. Now, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is also acting public advocate for the next several weeks, is taking up James’ unfinished business and attempting to raise the commission from its grave.

The Commission on Public Information and Communication (COPIC) was created in the City Charter in 1989 with a mandate of informing the public about data created and maintained by the city and helping New Yorkers access it. Chaired by the public advocate, the commission is meant to regularly examine the city’s information policies as well as monitor agency efforts to comply with them.

The charter requires the commission to hold at least one hearing each year and issue an annual report. COPIC must also annually publish a directory of “computerized information produced or maintained by city agencies which is required by law to be publicly accessible,” though it has not done so since perhaps the 1990s. The commission does not have a website, despite being in existence for 20 years, and records of past meetings and reports are not easily accessible (the public advocate’s website hosted some of this information but was archived once James vacated her seat).

The commission was also tasked with evaluating the implementation of the city’s webcasting law, passed in 2013 and requiring agencies to broadcast meetings online and archive them. In 2015, James’ second year as public advocate, the commission was exploring ways to assist agencies with their webcasting requirements and setting up a central repository of all webcasts.

The body’s membership, all unpaid, is meant to comprise the heads of several city agencies or their delegates including the city Law Department, the Department of Records and Information Services, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications; one City Council member; two other members appointed by the mayor; one member appointed by the public advocate; and one appointed by the borough presidents as a group.

But COPIC hasn’t held a hearing since March 2016 when James was in the midst of her attempt to rescue the commission from bureaucratic apathy only to be denied resources by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. As James’ predecessor in the public advocate’s office, de Blasio himself had only convened one hearing of the commission. The public advocate’s office receives little funding for its own duties, let alone to hire staff for COPIC.

It’s unclear why James did not continue her advocacy for the commission after having revived it with some fanfare early in her tenure (her office even created a new Twitter account just for COPIC). A spokesperson for James did not respond to a request for comment.

When James was sworn in as New York’s attorney general, the public advocate office fell to Speaker Johnson’s stewardship until a new public advocate is chosen by voters in a special election scheduled for February 26. In the limited time available to him, Johnson is eyeing several avenues of his expanded responsibilities. “I absolutely want an active COPIC, and I want to build on the work Tish James did as Public Advocate in this area,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is something she fought for and it’s something I want to keep working on in my time as acting Public Advocate.”

One reason that COPIC has been unable to publish the requisite public data directory is because the Law Department argued in 2014 that the city’s Open Data portal already accomplishes this goal. But Johnson’s office disagrees. A spokesperson said that though the two databases have significant overlap, COPIC’s public data directory could and would go further, identifying new datasets that members of the public can then request under the city’s Freedom of Information law. The Open Data portal, on the other hand, relies on agencies self-identifying datasets that they believe should be subject to the open data law. Earlier this month, Johnson sent a letter to the mayor requesting that information with a February 15 deadline for a response.

“We’ll look into it,” said mayoral spokesperson Eric Phillips, in an email, when asked about the speaker’s letter and the lack of funding for COPIC.

Manhattan City Council Member Ben Kallos, who was the Council’s pick to be on the commission, said the fault for COPIC’s inactivity lies solely with the mayor’s office as he praised James for trying to resuscitate the commission. “COPIC is yet another board that is completely controlled by mayoral appointments, which has a responsibility to be a check on the mayor, which is why it has probably never been funded properly in my recent memory,” Kallos said in a phone interview, noting that the mayor chooses seven of the 11 COPIC commissioners. “COPIC is a powerful agency in the charter which has been written out of the charter by a chronic defunding of the agency as a whole.”

Kallos requested funding for the agency in three successive budgets. In 2015, several civic technology groups and good government advocacy organizations also joined that push, including Common Cause New York, Citizens Union, the New York Public Interest Research Group, BetaNYC, Civic Hall, Reinvent Albany, the League of Women Voters of the City of New York, and the Women’s City Club of New York. “Given the promise of COPIC to increase public accessibility of city government meetings, data and information, we request the modest budget of $250,000 for staffing of COPIC to ensure it is able to fulfill the duties outlined in the City Charter,” the groups wrote in a 2015 letter. That funding is estimated to be sufficient to hire a full-time executive director and general counsel, which the charter mandates.

Kallos was disappointed that those calls went unheeded. “The mayor never included it in the budget. I pushed for it. Tish pushed for it. The good government community pushed for it,” he said. The most impactful role that COPIC could play, Kallos said, is providing advisory opinions to members of the public, elected officials, and city agencies about laws requiring public access to meetings, transcripts and records.

“COPIC has the potential to be the equivalent of the Committee on Open Government at the state level,” he said, referring to the state agency that gives the public, press, and state government advice on the state Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law, and the Personal Privacy Protection Law. Kallos said he would advocate for the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to strengthen COPIC’s powers.

“You can only expect people to work for so long without being compensated for their work, and with the federal government shut down, we’re seeing those limits tested,” Kallos said. “In this case we have COPIC being operated and moved forward for three years without any funding and I hope that people will finally fund this important agency that very few have ever heard of but would have the power to really force the executive to really open up.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Acting Public Advocate, Johnson Eyes Information Commission Revived by James But Killed by De Blasio Mon, 14 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In First Year as Council Speaker, Johnson Establishes Countervailing Force http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8180-in-first-year-as-council-speaker-johnson-establishes-countervailing-force http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8180-in-first-year-as-council-speaker-johnson-establishes-countervailing-force Corey Johnson Mayor de Blasio

Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste)


One year ago, New York City Council Member Corey Johnson was near-unanimously elected speaker of the 51-member legislative body, becoming the city’s second-most powerful elected official behind the mayor. In an emotional inaugural speech, he spoke of the heavy burden the Council bears in tackling the issues that face everyday New Yorkers. “There has never been a more important time to ensure that our City has a strong, unified and independent Council to take on these challenges,” he said.

In the year since, Johnson has indeed led a chamber that has drawn a stronger line between itself and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, while Johnson has established himself as a new force in New York, operating with an obsession for politics, an enthusiasm for his job, and a wear-it-on-your-sleeve penchant for empathizing with the plights of New Yorkers. Johnson’s style and instincts have drawn a clear counter-figure to de Blasio, though the speaker and the mayor have appeared on good terms throughout Johnson’s first year in the new job, even as he has publicly disagreed with the mayor on numerous occasions and taken a harsh tone with several de Blasio administration officials.

Johnson’s chosen a few areas of legislative focus, but has yet to put forth a clear policy agenda that signals his true priorities, though he said upon taking the speakership that strengthening the “social safety net” was of utmost importance to him. He has made transit a major focus, riding the subway daily, voicing his displeasure with the system's reliability, and even calling for municipal control of the trains and buses.

The City Council was particularly active in 2018, passing nearly three times as much legislation in the first year of this new four-year session as the previous Council class did in 2014. Though there are mitigating factors at play -- like the fact that most of the current Council is holdovers from the past session -- legislative productivity is an apt defining feature for the body under the stewardship of Johnson, the outgoing, outspoken speaker who has quickly established himself as a formidable opposite — not oppositional, he says — force to de Blasio and who has injected a different energy into the city’s political landscape, even shaking up discussions around the next mayoral race.

“One of the things that’s just sort of in my DNA is, I like to work...I get bored if I don’t,” Johnson said in a phone interview about his first year as speaker, “I’m not good at downtime. So that kinda means that I live and breathe this every single day.”

Johnson’s path to the position and approach once in office have been poles apart from his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, though both are groundbreaking officials. Mark-Viverito was the first Latina to be speaker and Johnson is it’s first openly gay male and openly HIV-positive one.

Mark-Viverito in part owed her ascendance in 2014 to de Blasio, himself newly-elected and especially powerful, who helped put her over the finish line in a tight contest with City Council Member Daniel Garodnick. With the mayor’s help, Mark-Viverito and her allies corralled a newly-elected group of progressive City Council members and bucked the traditional bastions of county party power in Queens and the Bronx.

A Democrat representing the west side of Manhattan, Johnson became speaker despite the mayor, emerging above a crowded field of candidates and receiving support from those two counties. In what looked to be an almost overt rejection of the mayor, leaders of the Democratic machines in the two boroughs announced their decision to back Johnson when de Blasio was out of town, while much of the discussion around Johnson’s colleagues support for him was not about working with de Blasio to pass sweeping progressive programs, as it had been in 2014, and more about independence from the mayor.

Johnson repeatedly vowed that he would not be beholden to the other side of City Hall, an allegation that dogged Mark-Viverito for her tenure as she balanced her support for the mayor’s policies with occasional rejection of them and very much charted her own agenda, often bringing de Blasio along, like on the closing of the Rikers Island jail complex.

A City & State profile of Johnson published in December — titled “Is Corey Johnson already mayor?” — noted that he had made converts of several City Council members who had opposed him during the race for speaker and who worried that he may exact revenge on them if elected. “If Corey had an approval rating in the City Council, I suspect it would be nearly 100 percent,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres, quoted in the article. Torres said Johnson was filling a vacuum of leadership left by the mayor, who is increasingly absent from City Hall and who seems more intent on building a national profile than running the city. It’s an observation that’s been thrown around more and more even though Johnson disagrees with it.

Part of the apparent discrepancy stems from their different approaches to communicating with the public — Johnson is an open book and known to say what’s on his mind, often on Twitter, and responds immediately to virtually every significant event related to public life in New York and with compassion to the plight of suffering New Yorkers. De Blasio, on the other hand, seems to struggle to express empathy and often has a measured, almost academic response to any given crisis. Johnson appears to relish being a New Yorker, holding public office, and doing any and all part of the job, even if some are less fun or interesting than others. De Blasio appears to dislike most aspects of his job.

There are times when the speaker has been more outspoken than the mayor -- his response to the city’s handling of the November snowstorm; his immediate call for the resignation of Board of Elections executive director Mike Ryan after the abysmal administration of the general election; and his more direct statements on incidents of apparent police misconduct. But Johnson has pushed back against the narrative that he is playing the role that the mayor should, as emotional leader of the city and its cheerleader, as the elected official who cares about every detail of city government and how it performs.

“We have one mayor. He was elected twice and I do not think I’m mayor,” Johnson said, echoing remarks he had made earlier in a television interview when asked about the City & State profile, which had the city political scene buzzing. “I do not have the powers of the mayor. I do not have the everyday responsibilities of the mayor.” He repeatedly emphasized that his relationship with de Blasio has been productive and collaborative, rather than combative. “It’s flattering in some way,” he said of the comparison with the mayor, “but I don’t think it comports with reality.”

It was early on in 2018, as budget season was kicking off, that Johnson showed he would test the mayor’s mettle. He dug his heels in on funding Fair Fares, reduced-price MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, a program that de Blasio had repeatedly dismissed as a state obligation that shouldn’t burden the city’s coffers. Johnson spearheaded an advocacy campaign, sending Council members into the field to talk with commuters outside subway stops and heavily spotlighting the push on social media.

It became the Council’s top priority in budget negotiations with de Blasio, and the mayor eventually relented, a six-month Fair Fares pilot program was approved in the budget — and is launching this month, though the de Blasio administration has apparently dragged its heels on implementation, rolling it out late and in phases that have left some questioning the mayor’s commitment to the program. In a telling decision, Johnson has chosen not to publicly criticize the mayor for his approach to the program, the speaker’s signature accomplishment thus far.

Johnson also flexed the Council’s muscles to push the mayor on several other priorities -- more fair student funding for city schools, deeper savings and greater set asides in the city’s reserves -- though he did not win a desired property tax rebate that was at the top of the Council’s wish list; and has taken a clearly more critical tone in public comments. While he regularly stresses that “it’s not personal,” Johnson has made pointed comments about the mayor’s attention to matters, city agency performance, and policy priorities he believes the mayor should adopt, such as an outspokenness about reducing the city’s deference to cars in its public policies and his call for municipal control of the subways and buses (something he told the New York Times he would soon have more to say about).

“To see him emerge as such a strong and confident leader has been really exciting to watch,” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, a close Johnson ally and first African-American woman to serve as the Council’s majority leader. She cited two successful legislative efforts that she sponsored under Johnson of which she is particularly proud -- the “Mother’s Day” package aimed at helping pregnant women, new mothers, and parents more broadly; and a bill that just passed to mandate that the administration report on pay levels in the city’s workforce, disaggregated by race and gender. “He’s just done an extraordinary job of raising the issues that members are really concerned about, solidifying our place as an equal branch of government to balance out the powers of the mayor.”

Among Johnson’s first acts as speaker was to bolster the City Council’s resources and staff, to be better able to hold its own with the mayor’s administration. Johnson increased the Council’s budget by millions of dollars, raised salaries across the board, beefed up several divisions — land use, finance, bill drafting (which helped to increase legislative productivity) — and created new committees to reflect the changing issues affecting the city (and reward supporters). Those include a subcommittee dedicated to the massive capital budget and a committee dealing with for-hire vehicle services such as Uber and Lyft. And he added new life to the oversight and investigations committee, now helmed by Torres, which has allowed the Council to more deeply scrutinize the failures of the de Blasio administration and city agencies.

Johnson, who often leads the hearings in tandem with Torres, has repeatedly called on agency heads at those hearings to apologize for their failings, though he insists he is not trying to embarrass the administration or pander to the cameras. “I think we’ve been an independent branch of government and independent not in a way just to score cheap political points or grab a headline,” he said, “but independent to serve the city as a whole and our constituents that expect results.”

But he has aggressively demanded answers from the administration, most recently by convening the first of a series of hearings on the joint state-city deal with Amazon to build a massive new campus in Long Island City. Critics pointed out that while it may be right for Johnson and his colleagues to ask questions after the announcement, they were silent as the well-known but secretive negotiations were happening.

Johnson doesn’t have a legislative agenda that can be summed up easily. Where Mark-Viverito’s chief concerns were immigrant rights and criminal justice reform, Johnson says he’s just trying to make the city fairer, strengthening the social safety net, and working on issues “that affect the most number of people and the most vulnerable.”

“I would love for us to be the fairest city in America,” he said, using a similar phrase to what the mayor has adopted as a second term goal, “but to do that, it’s not easy, it can’t be done overnight. It has to be done in collaboration with the state government and with the federal government. We don’t solely control our own destiny.”

The Council’s legislative record under his leadership is growing, though the political landscape is very different given what Mark-Viverito worked with de Blasio to advance during the first four years of the new Democratic era in the city and the latest policies out of the Cuomo and Trump administrations. Mark-Viverito spearheaded or worked with de Blasio on a long list of accomplishments, from a city bail fund to a municipal identification card program to shifting how low-level, non-violent offenses are policed in the city.

Still, the hundreds of bills the Council passed in 2018 include a landmark package of anti-sexual harassment laws, new rules for the for-hire vehicle industry (which Johnson had opposed under Mark-Viverito but came around on, admitting fault for prior opposition), a waste equity bill aimed at reducing the environmental burden on low-income communities of color, and regulations aimed at illegal short-term rentals through Airbnb. The Council’s efforts also pushed the mayor to change the NYPD’s policy on marijuana arrests and added to the significant cascade of criticism about how NYCHA has been run, eliciting new plans from de Blasio. Johnson worked with de Blasio and the Cuomo administration on a creative city-based solution to the state Legislature allowing authority for speed cameras in school zones to expire, reviving the program.

He’s also allowed members to drive the agenda more than in the past when some raised concerns that the speaker’s office throttled their priorities in service of its own, Johnson says.

“Part of my role is to amplify and support the voices of all Council members while at the exact same time balancing a citywide agenda that I believe in,” Johnson said. Members agree. To some, it’s been an entire year of the Council stepping in where the mayor and his administration have dropped the ball.

“I think the first year has been a good year, it’s defined our Council leadership style in a world where the mayor continues to make himself irrelevant,” Brooklyn Council Member Carlos Menchaca told Gotham Gazette, shortly before a hearing in the Council chambers. He pointed to a “vacuum” of leadership amid the policies emanating from the federal government and even the lack of state action, and said the Council has been taking up the charge by championing the issues raised by their communities. “And that’s the kinda participatory democracy that I know the speaker believes in…and you’ll see that as a defining pillar of this Council,” he said.

Council Member Joe Borelli, one of only three Republicans in the 51-member body, drew sharp comparisons between Johnson’s management style and Mark-Viverito’s “top-down approach.”

“We go to him and say ‘this should be, this must be, this oughta be,’ and there’s a receptive ear,” he said. “That’s a lot different than the Melissa Mark-Viverito approach where it’s ideology and personal ambition first and good government second.” 

In a statement on Monday, Mark-Viverito had tough words for Borelli. "When you’re a woman in power who has a vision to make this city more fair and just, you end up with Trump-loving men like Joe Borelli calling you a mean, ambitious woman," she said. "It's no surprise that the Councilmember who wholeheartedly defends pussy-grabbing Donald Trump has a problem with women who speak their mind. What a joke."

Borelli also said Johnson had been taking on a more prominent role in the absence of leadership by major citywide officials. “The major political issues of the day fall on Corey Johnson because the mayor has not always been a voice on the right side and the public advocate has been running her campaign and doing what she needs to do to be attorney general,” he said.

Freshman Council Member Bob Holden, a Queens Democrat elected on the Republican line, had effusive praise for Johnson. “He does more than any other human being that I know,” Holden said. “He just operates on another level. I can’t say enough about him.”

Johnson’s looking forward to the year ahead, with several large packages of legislation awaiting passage including tenant protection bills, legislation to require energy efficiency retrofits on the buildings in the city with the greatest carbon footprint, and one that would eliminate non-disclosure agreements when city officials negotiate economic development deals with private firms, prompted by the secrecy around the Amazon deal. There will also be the next phases, including ballot proposals, from the 2019 City Charter Revision Commission, the creation of which Johnson helped spearhead, and which could propose significant changes to how city government is structured and functions.

He also teased a reshuffle of committee memberships to come in January, based on requests from Council members, including a few chair positions. Several sitting members are also running for public advocate in a special election expected in February, which could create a vacancy that would need to be filled.

Not everyone is happy that the Council has been quite so active. “I think more than...in the years before term limits, the agenda of the Council is very diffuse and is set by individual members who have far more discretion to introduce legislation,” said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit group that represents the business sector. Term limits put pressure on Council members to achieve big legislative victories very quickly, she said, as they look to their next job in government. “I think what the current speaker is doing is using his bully pulpit and his personal style and relationships to set a tone and to affirm the interests of the Council as a whole,” she added. “But there’s such a cacophony of legislative initiatives, 18 bills on the crisis du jour, that he’s in a tough spot. It’s hard.”

Though Wylde did say that she’d like to see “more collaboration, less confrontation,” as has been apparent at some of the oversight hearings, she said Johnson has created a healthy counterpoint to the mayor. “In New York City, where there are so many different interests, I think it’s positive that Corey Johnson feels comfortable putting out his ideas even when they’re not in sync with the mayor,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Johnson has suggested bringing the MTA’s subways and buses (New York City Transit) under the control of the city, and has supported a congestion pricing plan for the city and legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults long before the mayor or governor did.

There have been bumps in the road for Johnson. Early on he tried his hand at negotiating with the governor over funding for city public housing (NYCHA), only to publicly be undermined by the Cuomo administration (in what seemed to be a tactic aimed at leverage over de Blasio). He was also elevated to his position with the help of Joe Crowley, the Queens county boss and Democratic giant who lost his Congressional seat to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now a national political star. Johnson endorsed Crowley, a move that earned him some criticism, particularly as he later went on to support several insurgent and unabashedly progressive Democrats running competitive primaries against more moderate incumbents at the state level, though those races did have the added element whereby the incumbents had formed a rogue conference and governed with Republicans.

Johnson also endorsed Cuomo for reelection, over Cynthia Nixon, another insurgent Democratic primary challenger, though at times he seemed to support Nixon’s ambitious agenda, including single-payer health care. He also backed City Council Member Jumaane Williams for lieutenant governor over Cuomo's running-mate, incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, angering Cuomo's inner circle and likely getting the governor's attention.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, has known Johnson since before he took elected office. “I believe that Corey has remade city government, with the City Council playing a crucial role in decisions impacting all New Yorkers,” Appelbaum said in a phone interview.

Johnson appears to be a likely contender for the 2021 mayoral race, though he hasn’t expressed direct interest in the position, nor has he ruled it out. He would join a field likely to include Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, among others who may throw their hats in the ring (including, possibly, Mark-Viverito).

“I think that the most important thing he’s done is the way that he’s elevated the role of the City Council to have a real voice in decision making and I think that the Council is adding transparency to government in the city,” Appelbaum added. “We’ve seen the most professional City Council operation since I’ve been a New Yorker and that has resulted in important victories.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. 

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In First Year as Council Speaker, Johnson Establishes Countervailing Force Sun, 06 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
The 10 Most-Read Gotham Gazette Stories of 2018 http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8165-the-10-most-read-gotham-gazette-stories-of-2018 http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8165-the-10-most-read-gotham-gazette-stories-of-2018 Cuomo Stewart-Cousins Klein

(photo: The Governor's Office)


As 2018 comes to a close, we’re looking back at some of our “best” and most-read articles of the year. In a separate post, we’ll highlight some of the “best” pieces we reported that aren’t among our top ten most-read articles, which are listed below. This list does not include articles like election guides or candidate lists or even our summaries of voter turnout numbers, all of which are often among our most-read posts, as was our article that reported on the mayor's charter revision commission announcing which questions it would put on the November ballot.

The list below also does not include opinion pieces, though several of the op-ed columns that we published this year did qualify in terms of page-views. But this list is for reporting done by Gotham Gazette, and here it is, our ten most-read articles of 2018:

   myrie rally

1. Conflict Escalates Between Working Families Party and Independent Democratic Conference
by Ben Max, March 2018
In late February the Working Families Party announced a series of candidates it was backing to challenge members of the Independent Democratic Conference in state Senate primaries. While a lot changed from February to the September primaries, in the end six WFP-backed candidates defeated members of what had been the eight-member IDC, with the WFP working alongside an extremely organized and energized group of other activists set on unseating IDC members and flipping the state Senate to Democrats.
Read the March article about the WFP escalating its efforts to unseat IDC members.

   marc molinaro

2. In Run for Governor, Marc Molinaro Will Make A Character Argument
by Ben Max, March 2018
As Republican Marc Molinaro launched his campaign for governor, this profile outlined how he would pitch himself to voters as a person of integrity and good leadership, and juxtaposed as such to the image he would portrary of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The Dutchess county executive ran a spirited and earnest campaign, regularly hitting the themes of this initial Gotham Gazette look at his candidacy, which was based on an hourlong interview with Molinaro while he was deciding whether to run or not. In the end, Cuomo dispatched Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary, then beat Molinaro and others in the general election, winning a third term.
Read the March article about how Molinaro would present himself to the statewide electorate and his stances on several key issues.

   rezoning de blasio

 3. Questions Arise as De Blasio Administration Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods
by Sam Raskin, March 2018
Mayor de Blasio's administration has pushed through several neighborhood rezonings aimed at adding housing density, building affordable housing, and making neighborhood improvements. All of them have occurred in low-income neighborhoods, a phenomenon not lost on many. In this piece, we examine the trend and what it means as areas like East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx are rezoned.
Read the March article about the de Blasio administration's approach to neighborhood rezonings, and which areas of the city appear to be off limits in terms of seeking added housing density.

   cuomo state senate

4. Major Cuomo Supporters Don’t Want a Democratic State Senate
by Ben Brachfeld, April 2018
As Governor Cuomo professed his full support for helping to flip the state Senate to Democrats, this article examined the fact that many of Cuomo's biggest supporters were also supporters of a Republican Senate. The Democratic governor had, after all, himself been seen as supportive of a split Legislature, with Democrats in control of the Assembly, so that he could triangulate, carefully craft which progressive policies he wanted to pass, and keep fiscal restraints in place, while also pushing ahead a charter school and real estate friendly agenda that aligned with his beliefs.
Read the April article outlining the main Cuomo backers who also backed a Republican state Senate.

   cynthia nixon

5. Is Cynthia Nixon Qualified To Be Governor?
by Ashley Hupfl, April 2018
From the moment she declared her candidacy for governor, Cynthia Nixon was dogged by one key question: what makes you qualified to lead the state of New York and run its government? Nixon gave various answers to the question, mostly saying that she had the right values and the right policy plans. In this article, we explored her qualifications and the general question of what makes someone qualified to be governor.
Read the April article discussing Nixon's resume and what it means to be qualified to become governor.

   hamilton adams

6. Senator Facing Tough Primary is Spending $1 Million from Brooklyn Borough President
by Daniel Yadin, August 2018
State Senator Jesse Hamilton, who became a member of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, was the preferred successor to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams when Adams left the Senate to take his borough presidency position. The two close friends remained tight as Hamilton fought for his political life against a variety of forces looking to unseat him and other members of the IDC, and Adams was helpful to Hamilton in an unprecedented move of providing city funds for Hamilton to dedicate to projects in his Senate district.
Read the article that exposed the fact that Senator Hamilton was generously allocated participatory budgeting money by his close ally Borough President Adams as the senator was in a tough reelection campaign that he ultimately lost to Zellnor Myrie.

   corey johnson

7. Now Pursuing Diversity, New City Council Speaker Has Employed Mostly White Men
by Samar Khurshid, January 2018
During the race to become the next speaker of the City Council, questions were raised about diversity in city government leadership given the fact that the mayor and comptroller were both white men, along with top statewide positions. As Corey Johnson won that race, he talked about both the diversity he would bring to the role as an openly gay and HIV positive person, and the diversity he promised he would bring to the Council under his leadership. But a review of Johnson's hiring as a City Council member showed a track record of largely employing white men.
Read the January 2018 article that examined new Speaker Corey Johnson's past staffing demographics and his pledge to hire a diverse staff as speaker amid questions about the elevation of another white man to a powerful city government position.

   klein gjonaj

8. Close Ties Among Bronx Electeds, Campaign Consultants, Lobbyists and Donors
by Jake Shore, October 2018
There are often blurry lines in politics, especially when government and campaigns are concerned, involving lobbyists, consultants, donors, and elected officials who have various relationships. Some of the closest ties in New York politics have included State Senator Jeff Klein and City Council Member Mark Gjonaj, along with consultants and lobbyists who have worked with them, and donors who have given to their campaigns.
Read the October 2018 article that examined the close ties among Klein, Gjonaj, campaign consultants and donors, and others in their orbits.  

   de blasio bratton oneill nypd crime

9. Why Does Crime Keep Falling in New York City?
by Samar Khurshid, January 2018
While New York City has seen decades of declining crime numbers, part of a national and international trend, do we really know why? In this article we explored the theories and the facts about New York City's remarkable crime decline.
Read the January 2018 article that examined the decades-long crime decline in the city, which has continued under Mayor Bill de Blasio, some of the reasons experts provide for the trend, and what can actually be supported by data.

   cuomo vital brooklyn

10. A Closer Look at 'Vital Brooklyn,' Cuomo's Plan for 'One of the Greatest Areas of Need in the Entire State'
by Rachel Holliday Smith, December 2018
Governor Cuomo surprised many people when he first announced in 2017 a state investment of $1.4 billion in Central Brooklyn, with the governor explaining that "Vital Brooklyn" was a program to bring much-needed resources to an area of the city and state with some of the most significant challenges facing New Yorkers, including poor health, bad schools, lack of park space, and more. The program hadn't been a heralded or even named part of the prior state budget deal, but Cuomo explained it as a major initiative and went on to make many Vital Brooklyn announcements, including several in the lead up to the 2018 primary election wherein he was attempting to defeat Cynthia Nixon while relying on a political base including Central Brooklyn voters.
Read the December 2018 article that examines what exactly Vital Brooklyn is, where the money comes from and is going, and how Cuomo has used the program to make those many announcements.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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The 10 Most-Read Gotham Gazette Stories of 2018 Sun, 30 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
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