Gotham Gazette Sat, 21 Oct 2017 15:43:25 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda powers petitioning stuytown keithpowersnyc

City Council candidate Keith Powers (photo: @KeithPowersNYC)

Candidates across the city this year are running for City Council on all sorts of issues, but only one has released a detailed list of government, campaign finance, and voting reform proposals. That agenda, called “Sunlight in the City,” has been put forward by Keith Powers, a Democrat competing in the crowded field to replace term-limited City Council Member Dan Garodnick on Manhattan’s East Side.

At a time of widespread distrust in government, continued problems with public corruption and unethical conduct, and low voter turnout, especially here in New York, Powers’ agenda is especially noteworthy. The 22-point platform on government and electoral reform in New York City is something of an amalgamation of longtime goals for voting reform advocates and good government groups. Some of the measures have actually already been passed or implemented; some have to be approved at the state level.

Powers’ reform agenda also comes as he is has been attacked by opponents for his work as a lobbyist -- he was until May a vice president at the firm Constantinople and Vallone. Sunlight in the City includes several planks directly related to lobbying, including more disclosure of lobbying meetings held by City Council members and more detailed lobbyist reporting to indicate, among other things, “who got lobbied, who did the lobbying, and the specific bill or subject matter.”

Some of the mainstay priorities of electoral and government reform advocates that appear in Powers’ platform include a move to instant runoff voting for all city elections and lowering the number of City Council issue committees to diminish patronage and redundancy in the legislative body. These planks have been proposed in the Council and, in the case of instant runoff voting, at the state level, but have gone nowhere.

Powers also calls for lowering the individual contribution limit to Council candidates campaigns from $2,750 to $1,225, “to make small donors and large donors equal in their donation capacity.” Ideally, his agenda says, he wants to see 100% publicly financed elections in the city to replace the city’s current matching funds mechanism, starting with a pilot program for special elections. Kallos introduced a bill to increase the matching funds payout for Council races “to a full match with the expenditure limit,” which is currently in committee.

A few planks in the platform are already in place, such as the closure of the “doing business loophole” that allows those doing business with the city to circumvent donation limits by giving to political nonprofits. The loophole was closed in a bill passed by the Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016, after the mayor himself was investigated for issues related to his own political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, which was shuttered amid controversy.

“I think it’s important we’re always sort of constantly evaluating our process by which we do government or help get people elected or otherwise,” Powers said in an interview, “we can always do better.” He indicated he believes the City Council is, in most cases, a model for transparent government, but that there’s still more that can be done.

In part because of his reform agenda, Powers has received the endorsement of City Council Member Ben Kallos, himself an advocate of open and ethical government and the representative of a neighboring Council district to the one Powers hopes to represent. Kallos also chairs the Council’s government operations committee, which often hears bills related to government and campaign finance reform.

“In terms of his Sunlight in the City report, it is a list of the 22 items that the City Council is currently working on or should be working on to really clean up government,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Kallos said that he hasn’t seen anything like it from anyone running this year.

While few City Council candidates are talking about government and campaign finance reform, Democratic mayoral hopeful Sal Albanese has made the topic central to his attempt to unseat de Blasio. Albanese has proposed a significant campaign finance reform to completely eliminate private money from the system, something de Blasio has said he favors in theory, but has not advanced legislation on.

Powers acknowledges the difficulties in getting some things on his list passed, but said that shouldn’t be a reason to not try.

“I think the City Council reform, I think that is the one where I look at as there being a lot of really achievable ideas in there,” said Powers, citing the creation of an independent bill drafting unit as something that many legislators are clamoring for, despite the existence of such a unit. The unit was part of a package of Council reforms passed in 2014, but Powers believes that these reforms can go further; regarding the drafting unit, Powers believes the current iteration is an improvement, but that it should be even more autonomous in instances such as the number of bills that can be introduced at a given time.

Another Council reform Powers sees as achievable deals with bill aging. Currently, a bill ages seven days after introduction for public input, but Powers claims that it just sits in City Hall and is essentially unavailable to the public. He believes it should publicly age online.

Powers said that the challenge of moving some of the reforms through the state government shouldn’t be a deterrent, that the city shouldn’t be “abdicating our authority to Albany.” Kallos said that the voting reform planks, other than ending patronage at the Board of Elections, don’t have to go through the state Legislature. Many of the other planks need city passage, some can be done through City Council rules.

On closing doing business loophole, which already became law, Powers conceded to have not known the full extent of the legislative package that was passed. He also was largely nonspecific on his proposed additions to the 2014 member item reform, stating that there’s a lot to look at where the Council can “do better.”

The Powers agenda received an enthusiastic response from democratic reform group Citizens Union, which interviews candidates and releases preferences in some city elections based on good government bona fides.

“Keith Powers has put forward an ambitious and wide-ranging plan to increase transparency and accountability, and bring some needed sunlight to the New York City Council. While we do not support all of his proposed reforms, Citizens Union has long been advocating for several of them and will continue to do so in the upcoming session,” said Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s Public Policy director.

For example, Citizens Union is not in support of the full public financing of city elections plank of Powers’ platform -- the organization “feel[s] that candidates should have to raise money in the districts they seek to represent,” Bloom said. However, it is supportive of Powers’ proposed pilot program in special elections. The organization has not yet made its preference in the Council District 4 race or any other.

In the Democratic primary to be voted on September 12, Powers is competing against Marti Speranza, Jeff Mailman, Bessie Schachter, Maria Castro, Vanessa Aronson, Barry Shapiro, Rachel Honig, and Alec Hartman, none of whom have released government reform platforms, though Shapiro called for transparency in lobbying in a campaign video.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.


The Citizens Union candidate interview and preference process is wholly separate from Gotham Gazette operations. Gotham Gazette does not endorse or support candidates for office.

A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda Mon, 14 Aug 2017 20:28:30 +0000
Crowded Field Competes to Represent Manhattan City Council District garodnick east midtown model

City Council Member Dan Garodnick (photo: @DanGarodnick)

Due to term limits, popular City Council Member Dan Garodnick is not allowed to run for reelection this year, leading to a crowded field of competitors vying to replace him representing the politically active Manhattan district that includes East Midtown, Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.

Ten candidates, mostly Democrats like Garodnick, competed in a debate at Waterside Plaza on June 22. The event, hosted by news publication Town & Village and Waterside Plaza Tenants Association, featured nine Democrats and two Republicans who made their pitches to over 150 attendees sitting outside along the East River. After delivering their opening statements, during which they gave biographical information and a sense of why they are running for elected office, the 11 candidates spoke predominantly on the topic of housing affordability, and touched upon senior citizen and small business related policies. While it did not come up during the candidate forum, the rezoning of East Midtown, a major focus for Garodnick in recent years, is likely to pass this year, with implementation one of the most pressing issues facing the next Council member.

The crowded field includes both seasoned New York political operatives and political neophytes, all seeking to replace Garodnick, who has represented the district for nearly 12 years and whose constituents regularly push him to seek city- or state-wide office, which he may eventually do.

The seat is one of eight “open” City Council races this year. While all 51 Council seats are on the ballot, there are 43 incumbents eligible and seeking reelection, partially a function of the one-time extension of term limits passed ahead of the 2009 elections, which is allowing some to seek a third and final term this year, while others, like Garodnick are now completing their third terms, and those elected in 2013 (and beyond) are only eligible for two terms.

Several of the open seats are attracting deep fields of candidates, but the District 4 race is among the most crowded.

Vanessa Aronson, a public school teacher on the Upper East Side, started the June 22 event by describing a student in her class who uses a wheelchair and is only able to attend class because the adjacent subway stop to the school and school itself are both handicap accessible. This situation, she contended, is unfortunately the exception, not the norm, throughout the city.

“I'm running for City Council because I know New York can do better,” she said in her opening remarks. Aronson made education and her care for New York’s downtrodden central components of her message. The teacher, a Democrat, later referenced another student who lost a parent and subsequently became homeless due to a lack of immediate affordable housing, a topic at the forefront of the race, if the debate is any indication. In order to prevent such situations from occurring, “we need to make all the noise possible to put pressure on Albany,” she said, pointing to the fact that state law controls key city housing regulations.

Fellow electoral politics novice Barry Shapiro presented a declinist view of the southern part of the district. Shapiro, a retired former American Express employee, said he entered the race as a response to these developments. “The reason I’m running is that for the past 10 years I’ve been pretty disappointed in what’s been happening in Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, the way our community has been treated, the way in which apartments have been partitioned, the way in which many aspect of quality of life has gone down,” he said.

In addition to the political outsiders, Marti Speranza, who has served as director of Women Entrepreneurs NYC, and Democratic State Committeewoman for the overlapping 74th Assembly District, is also vying for the seat. Speranza is branding herself a staunch protector of low-income New Yorkers and progressive values in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Our city is a sanctuary for immigrants, for women, for the LGBT community, for working families, and we must spare no effort in keeping it that way,” she says on her campaign website.

As of the most recent filing period, which ended May 11, Speranza was atop the field in funds after raising over $176,000, with over $111,000 cash on hand, giving her a financial advantage as the race heads into full swing leading to the September 12 primary. In a heavily Democratic district, the primary winner is highly likely to win the general election.

Keith Powers, second to Speranza in total contributions as of late May, has also emerged as a leading Democratic candidate in the race, fusing a message of local activism and political savvy. “I believe that City Council candidates need to be vocal and be local,” he said at the candidate forum, adding that an effective City Council member is active and “walks the walk every single day.” Powers is well-connected in city and state politics, having been employed by former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone as a lobbyist and chief of staff for former Assemblymember Jonathan Bing, and endorsed by Bing and neighboring Upper East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos.

“I think it's the right type of experience to bring to the job,“ Powers said of his political background. “I was proud to grow up in a rent stabilized apartment and to continue to fight for the tenants association,” Powers said, referring to his early residence in Stuyvesant Town.

Jeff Mailman, a lifelong New Yorker and graduate of nearby Cardozo Law School, has spent most of his career in public service. The Democrat has worked in the Attorney General's office under Andrew Cuomo and served as attorney and legislative director for Queens-based City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. “Over these past six year I’ve gained extensive knowledge in a lot of issues,” Mailman said at the candidate forum.

He suggested his experience, relationships, and political knowhow make him uniquely suited for the job of Council member. “I’m running to use my City Council experience to represent you best from the very first day on the job,” he said. ”I know most of the Council members and their staff members. I know how to get things done.”

Mailman drew attention to his commitment to the city transit system, touting his endorsement from the Transport Workers Union, and voiced support for investing in mass transit. Once elected to office, he said one of his priorities would be to protect the safety of transit workers. “I really believe in supporting hardworking New Yorkers,” he said.

Coming off a stint in state Senator Liz Krueger's office, activist and Democratic State Committeewoman Bessie Schacter articulated the anxieties she understands many in the area have been feeling. “Our communities are in transition,” the candidate said. “A lot of people are finding it difficult to live here.” She referenced rising costs of living and problems with education and transportation.

“It's important to recognize that we reinvest in our housing, in our services, and education and transportation,” said Schachter. “I know exactly how to fix those problems. I know how to change the laws.” Schacter also plugged her endorsements from Upper West Side City Council Member Helen Rosenthal and East Side Assemblymember Dan Quart.

Business consultant and Democratic hopeful Maria Castro, a late entry into the race, proudly proclaimed she was not a government operative nor a politician. “I have been a businesswoman for the past three decades,” she said. Given her outsider status, business acumen, and commitment to the community, Castro said she would take on the big-money interests and advocate only for her constituents. “The developers can no longer be allowed to be given all the tax credits,” she said of one problem she would seek to fix if elected. Instead of developers being given special favors to build luxury buildings, Castro said, Manhattan needs “affordable housing for the regular people, the working people that are not making Manhattan their playground and are going to live here like us full-time.”

Similarly, Democrat Alec Hartman, CEO of five-year-old technology startup Tech Day, called affordable housing “the glue of our community” and floated the idea of having a uniform database New Yorkers would use to find affordable housing options. It was this type of tech-world outside-the-box thinking he says would make him an effective legislator. More conventionally, Hartman proposed repealing the Urstadt Law, a state law signed in 1971 barring city officials from enacting more stringent rent control laws.

Aronson echoed calls for Urstadt Law repeal (a popular stance among many city Democrats) and vowed to crack down on illegal hotels she alleged have been driving up housing prices in the area. (Airbnb has been a frequent target of District 4 residents.)

Sounding like Mayor Bill de Blasio, Speranza called affordable housing the “number one challenge” in New York City. “Communities that were havens for middle-class families are now at risk,” she said, referencing Stuyvesant Town. “We see seniors that are not longer being able to age in place.”

“I think we need to think more boldly,” Speranza said. As a fix, she proposes to use city-owned vacant land to build additional affordable housing. “The Comptroller did a report and in his audit he found that there are over a thousand empty lots,” she said, referring to a report from Comptroller Scott Stringer that has been disputed by the de Blasio administration, which claims that the city-owned lots suited for housing are almost all in the development pipeline.

In a similar vein, Schacter suggested picking through housing budget with a fine-tooth comb would unearth squandered funds that could be put to use elsewhere. “I’m talking first about an audit of our housing,” she said. “We’re actually spending $1.4 billion every year on affordable housing projects and we’re not checking to make sure those units are there.”

Democrat and small business consultant Rachel Honig though she spoke favorably about her opponents’ housing plans, she had a different priorities on the issue. For Honig, pressuring city government to conduct enforcement of laws already on the books should be the top priority. “The first thing we have to do is hold City Hall accountable to the protections that are in place,” she said. “After which, then we can start, or on a parallel path, frankly, we can start building affordable housing,” she said.

Honig also raised the issue of local, “mom-and-pop” stores being priced out of the expensive real estate in the heart of Manhattan. “We not only have a small business problem,” she said. “We have a small business crisis.” While she was complimentary of Garodnick’s work, Honig emphasized the need for the district’s next representative to push for change on issues such as small businesses, senior care and affordable housing. “We need quality leadership to carry the baton,” she said. (None of the candidates brought up Garodnick’s push to reform the commercial rent tax, a Manhattan-only tax that has been blamed for hurting many small businesses in the borough, especially below 96th Street where it applies.)

In such a crowded Democratic primary with several candidates that have political experience, connections, and endorsements, the margin of victory could be quite small, with getting out the vote essential to winning.

The pair of Republican hopefuls touched upon similar themes at the forum, putting their own spin on the topics at hand, though without the conservative orthodoxy one might hear from many GOP politicians.

Rebecca Harary detailed her experience opening up schools for special needs students and her role in the Propel Network, an organization that helps women without formal job skills find employment. Harary, coming off an unsuccessful bid for State Assembly in the fall, told the audience about her large family including eight grandchildren. “You can say that I’ve been a mother my whole life which means that I’ve really become accustomed to putting other people before myself,” she said. “When I see problems, I like to solve them.”

Harary’s opponent for the Republican nomination, Melissa Jane Kronfeld, a self-styled “progressive Republican” who promotes what she calls a “post-partisan agenda,” also described the importance of helping others. “Service is an obligation, it's simply not a choice,” she said. Kronfeld, who reported for the New York Post’s city desk while studying at New York University, according to her website, recently ran a social impact consultancy called Party For a Purpose that “empowers individuals, governments, and organizations to make the biggest impact that they can have on their communities,” she explained.

Due to her recent work outside of politics, Kronfeld felt she would bring a necessary perspective and mentality to the City Council and City Hall. Kronfeld promised a take-no-prisoners approach to the issue of housing affordability, the most common topic discussed at the debate. "I have no problem shaking every tree to overhaul this system once I get into office,” she said.

Crowded Field Competes to Represent Manhattan City Council District Mon, 10 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers Subcontractors Bill of Rights 12331075774 34a53d8c6d z

Council Member Helen Rosenthal (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)

The City Council’s Committee on Economic Development and the Committee on Contracts held a joint hearing on Thursday to discuss proposed legislation that would create a bill of rights for subcontractors working with the city.

Intro.1615, sponsored by Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Robert Cornegy, Jr., and Helen Rosenthal, would require the Department of Small Business Services to create a bill of rights that clearly lays out expectations for prime contractors and subcontractors, and makes it easier for subcontractors to find out what services and resources are available to them should they have a problem or concern with their contract. The legislation would apply to any contracts worth more than $100,000.

“[Contracting] is the heart of so much of what we do here -- construction of public infrastructure and affordable housing, a whole range of human services from pre-K all the way up to senior services,” said Rosenthal, chair of the contracts committee, in her opening statement. “The contracting process is an essential part of how New York City government works.”

The city has registered 12,949 expense contracts worth $20.3 billion in the 2017 fiscal year, which runs through June 30, and subcontractors accounted for $558 million of that sum, according to data available on the comptroller’s Checkbook NYC website. These subcontractors often face a number of hurdles including a lack of access to adequate legal representation to navigate contracts, receiving late payments, and not being able to apply for loans. This is especially true for subcontractors working in human services.

“Contractors often pay subcontractors late because they cannot disburse government funds prior to completion of the service they are paying for, and they themselves are paid late,” explained Tracie Robinson, a senior policy analyst at the Human Services Council of New York, in her testimony. HSC represents thousands of nonprofits in New York and advocates for human services providers as a whole. “[Subcontractors] operate in the context of a broken contracting system. Only if we address the underlying causes of subcontractor instability -- problems at the government-contractor level -- will we be able to set prime contractors and subcontractors alike up for success.”

Many subcontractors are nonprofit organizations and small businesses that are overshadowed by larger entities and do not have the same access to credit and fundraising. Intro. 1615 would make sure that subcontractors get an overview of the payment process, know the points of contact between government agencies, and can get the appropriate documents necessary to get the information and assistance they need.

“Many smaller nonprofit organizations do not have in-house attorneys or staff with experience understanding and administering government contracts,” said Laura Abel, senior policy counsel for Lawyers Alliance for New York, a provider of business and legal services for nonprofits. “City contracts are long, dense, and full of legalese. As a result, nonprofit organizations may take on obligations that they do not understand and cannot fulfill.”

Abel also added, “I have asked clients dealing with an unexpected development what their contract says about that issue, only to hear, ‘Oh, it’s all boilerplate, it’s no help.’ A subcontractor bill of rights can help by encouraging subcontractors to consult counsel before entering into a contract, and whenever they have questions during the life of the contract.”

In addition, subcontractors are frequently minority- and women-owned businesses, commonly referred to as M/WBEs. The city has been trying to encourage the growth and development of M/WBEs to ensure a more equitable distribution of city money. M/WBEs also tend to be more familiar with local community needs compared to larger contractors. M/WBEs accounted for $245.8 million in subcontracts registered in fiscal 2017. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan includes a commitment to award at least 30 percent of city contract dollars to M/WBEs by 2021 and to award $16 billion in city contracts to M/WBEs by 2025.

Michael Owh, director of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services and the city’s chief procurement officer, said the de Blasio administration supports the bill and that it “is a step in the right direction toward providing information to businesses and connecting them with resources.”

When asked by Council Member Daniel Garodnick, the chair of the Committee on Economic Development, if the bill warranted any changes or edits, Owh emphasized that it would need input from all the stakeholders. “[We] want to make sure that we get enough feedback from not just our agencies but also the community, the contracting community, as well as the subcontracting community to make sure that we are able to take in all of the various factors,” Owh said.

City Council Considers Subcontractors Bill of Rights Thu, 22 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Where’s the Mayor’s Jobs Plan? de blasio jobs tour

Mayor de Blasio in the Bronx (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Kicking off his week in the Bronx, Mayor Bill de Blasio said May 22 that his administration’s efforts to fight inequality are working and that while unemployment has dropped significantly in the borough, there is more work to be done. “The Bronx has borne the brunt of that inequality crisis in many ways,” the mayor said, but what his administration is doing is “disproportionately benefiting the Bronx.”

The mayor told those sitting with him -- senior administration officials and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. -- and any others paying attention that his administration is focused on “maximizing economic opportunity.” “[N]ot just any jobs,” the mayor said, “but in fact an increasing focus on good paying jobs, which is what I devoted the State of the City to.”

De Blasio was referring to his February 13 speech, during which he announced that the city would invest in creating 100,000 permanent private sector jobs that pay more than $50,000 a year. It would be a ten-year plan, the mayor said, and while de Blasio offered a few examples of the economic sectors that would see some of that job growth -- tech, life sciences, renewable energy, manufacturing -- his announcement included few details. Soon after his State of the City, de Blasio explained that his administration would be releasing a detailed policy book, as it had done in 2014 with his 200,000-unit ten-year affordable housing plan and a few other major initiatives, to show where the jobs would come from and how.

On and off for several weeks, the mayor defended setting the 100,000 goal without a roadmap to get there, saying that it was the target city experts could ambitiously but reasonably forecast and that the specifics would follow. He also found himself defending it as ambitious enough -- critics pointed out that the city has been adding jobs at a much more rapid pace over the last ten years, but the mayor explained that job growth was already slowing and that he is focused on the wage threshold.

De Blasio has been asked about the plan, and when the public would see the details, at press conferences and his top aides were asked about it at multiple City Council budget hearings. At a late April news conference, Gotham Gazette asked when the jobs plan could be expected, whether it was imminent. “Not imminent in the sense of the next few weeks,” de Blasio said. “But, at some point this year I'll give you a better read on when."

At a May 9 City Council budget hearing, the head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, James Patchett, told Council members that de Blasio administration officials are working diligently on the plan.

City Council Member Dan Garodnick, chair of the economic development committee, said, "We continue to have little clarity on the sources of jobs in the mayor's jobs plan.” Patchett said, “We can expect to have a plan very shortly,” but would not give an exact deadline, instead saying, “Certainly, I would love to have it come by the end of the summer. Hopefully sooner.”

As Garodnick pressed for details and whether the 100,000 goal is the right one, Patchett said, “I think you’re right to ask for the plan, I think when you see it you’ll be able to better judge that. Broadly speaking, the 100,000 jobs target is focused on the specific ways the city is encouraging job growth, as opposed to more broadly in the economy.” Almost 300,000 jobs were created over the last three years, he added, but what the de Blasio administration is focused on is jobs created through city intervention and at the “good paying” threshold of $50,000 per year.

According to City Hall, top de Blasio officials under Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who oversees housing and economic development, continue to meet weekly and a detailed jobs plan is indeed expected sometime this summer. Glen’s portfolio includes the Economic Development Corporation; Small Business Services, which runs workforce development programming; the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment; and other agencies that will be integral to the jobs plan.

“Senior leadership from across the administration has met weekly on the jobs plan for months now, and our work is in an advanced stage,” said Melissa Grace, a de Blasio spokesperson, in a statement. “This is a major undertaking that will improve the earning power and professional opportunities of thousands of New Yorkers. From Vision Zero to ThriveNYC to Housing New York, we’ve consistently delivered on these big multi-agency initiatives because we take the time to do them right.”

The de Blasio administration has already released pieces of the plan, including an investment in the life sciences sector; manufacturing, garment, and fashion jobs in Brooklyn through enhanced use of both the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Brooklyn Army Terminal; and a new technology hub in Union Square. As those pieces and others have indicated, the plan will include both industry-specific initiatives and place-based efforts, leveraging city-owned land.

Another example was announced Tuesday, with the Economic Development Corporation releasing “the next phase of the Futureworks NYC advanced manufacturing initiative.” It will create more than 2,000 jobs over five years, the EDC announcement says, through “a series of partner networks and programs to increase access to advanced manufacturing technology, support startups, and help traditional manufacturing companies implement new technologies to help them remain competitive.”

De Blasio has repeatedly stressed that his government is investing and intervening in order to help New Yorkers find good-paying jobs, part of the mayor’s fight against inequality, attempt to make the city more affordable, and efforts to lift hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers out of poverty. While de Blasio has celebrated that unemployment in the city is hovering around an impressively low 4%, there are not necessarily enough middle-income private-sector jobs. The mayor argues that the city must take action to spur important types of job growth that will benefit New Yorkers.

But, as with many headline-grabbing announcements by de Blasio, the key will be planning, execution, return on city investment, and proper metrics for evaluating the program’s efficacy. It’s still not clear exactly how the 100,000 number was pegged.

When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor at a February news conference, he said, “The 100,000 plan emerged from looking at the strands that were already starting to move and asking how far we could take them, and what was a fair numerical stretch-goal to reach for. And that’s very consistent with how we did the affordable housing plan, how we did the pre-K plan – you name it. You know the question on the table is always what’s in motion, where can we take it, and then push it to its farthest extent. And I thought it was an important thing to focus on and really give people a sense of where we were going and what we could achieve.”

Pushed on whether the 100,000 number over 10 years is really a big goal, de Blasio said that critics are not really looking at the last 10 years fairly, noting that the economic crisis that began nearly 10 years ago made the subsequent job growth numbers unsustainable for many years.

“[W]e had huge job loss, and then we had impressive rebounding," de Blasio said. "We’ve gotten a little comfortable because we had such extraordinary success over the last couple of years. The first two years alone that I was in office was about 250,000 jobs. The difference now is the keep generating an intensive pace of job creation, but to focus more on the high-paying jobs. That’s going to take government stimulative effect, if you will. That’s going to take us doing smart, strategic things to keep growth high.”

EDC’s Patchett at the May 9 City Council budget hearing said the plan won’t “identify every sub-initiative of like 17 jobs here and 14 jobs there, because it’s over the next 10 years and...we need to be aware of the fact that the plan will change and the economy will change over time. But we are going to go sector by sector and talk about specific job targets and a series of specific initiatives that we can announce right away that will make up a significant portion of those jobs.”

“OK, we’ll look forward to seeing that,” Council Member Garodnick responded.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Where’s the Mayor’s Jobs Plan? Tue, 30 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
For a More Accountable NYPD, Improve Information Sharing on Police Misconduct Garodnick City Council

Council Member Dan Garodnick, the author (photo: William Alatriste)

For decades, the New York City Police Department has had an early intervention system to identify officers prone to violence, based on their discipline and complaint history. Yet through leaks last month, we learned that the officers who killed Eric Garner and Ramarley Graham had extensive records of complaints against them. Despite so many documented problems, the officers remained in a position to harm the very people they were sworn to protect. In these cases, the early intervention system did not do its job.

We must do better and hold the NYPD more accountable for ensuring that its officers and the public are receiving all the benefits of a robust early intervention system. Several city agencies, from the Law Department to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), oversee the NYPD to some extent. Each of them should have complete access to the information that exists on police misconduct -- but today they do not. Officers with unusually high rates of alleged misconduct should be well known not only to the police department but also to all the entities that do oversight.

To accomplish this, I have written a bill that would require the Police Department, the Law Department, the Comptroller, the CCRB, and the Inspector General for the NYPD to share with each other information regarding civil actions, complaints, and other data points relating to allegations of police misconduct by officers.

Such information-sharing is key. In the absence of reliable and consistent access to this information, these oversight entities cannot properly discharge their responsibilities. Ultimately, an early intervention system that fails to intervene is not much of a system at all.

And we desperately need that system to work. Studies have found that a very small percentage of officers are responsible for the overwhelming majority of problematic interactions with civilians. Identifying those officers, and correcting their behavior or removing them from interaction with the public, would go a long way to rooting out the problem of excessive use of force by the police.

More eyes on police misconduct will mean greater accountability for the NYPD’s early intervention system. With a better system, we could ensure that the NYPD acts faster to address festering issues, and to protect the public. We would also ensure that our many talented and capable police officers do not have to be partnered with people who are going to put anyone’s life in danger.

We could also save the city a lot of money. In Fiscal Year 2016, New York City paid out $228 million in settling and paying out police misconduct judgments. Effective interventions to remove or retrain the few officers who are responsible for the most problems would reduce the city’s exposure to litigation and consequently reduce the costs associated with police misconduct.

Most importantly, this legislation could prevent tragedy. If a better information sharing system is in place, the NYPD will have to be more responsive to addressing misconduct of officers with histories of complaints. In the tragic case of Eric Garner, the NYPD knew Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s history, but did not take sufficient steps to address the underlying issues. In Pantaleo's previous disciplinary proceedings, the NYPD failed to follow the CCRB's recommendations for punishment. Further, they allowed him to continue to work on the street. If other oversight agencies also knew of the complaints and the recommended consequences, there might have been more pressure on the NYPD to heed these warning signs and work to prevent future incidents.

Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill have made significant progress in bridging divides between communities and police. They have an opportunity to continue this progress by supporting this bill, which will be the subject of a public hearing in front of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Thursday, a hearing chaired by bill co-sponsor Vanessa Gibson. If we want to better protect civil liberties and to better identify officers that have a history of violence, let’s give all the oversight bodies the tools they need to conduct real analysis. It very well may save lives.

Daniel Garodnick has represented the fourth district in the New York City Council since 2006, and chairs the Economic Development Committee. On Twitter @DanGarodnick.

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For a More Accountable NYPD, Improve Information Sharing on Police Misconduct Wed, 05 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Hear Bill Mandating Publication of NYPD Patrol Guide Garodnick NYPD

City Council Member Garodnick, in NYPD hat, & colleagues (photo: William Alatriste)

A bill introduced by City Council Member Dan Garodnick to require the NYPD to publish its patrol guide online will be heard for the first time by the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety next week. The hearing, set for Thursday, September 15, follows shortly on the recent controversy over the Right to Know Act, a package of police reform legislation that Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito put on the backburner in favor of related changes the NYPD agreed to implement through training and its patrol guide.

The compromise struck between Mark-Viverito and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton upset some Council members and police reform activists, while also drawing renewed scrutiny to the NYPD patrol guide.

While Mark-Viverito has insisted the Right to Know Act bills are not off the table permanently and some call for Council members to push for their passage without her agreement to schedule a vote, Garodnick’s patrol guide bill is moving forward, and appears to have widespread support. After being heard in committee the bill can be amended and then voted through committee and the full Council - if it has enough support.

While police and government reform advocates alike call for more transparency around police officer conduct, publishing the patrol guide online may be one fairly simple measure that most, if not all, stakeholders can agree on.

The NYPD patrol guide lays out procedures and codes of conduct for police officers, including protocols for interactions with the public. Free but outdated versions of the guide are available online. In 2014, Shawn Musgrave, a reporter for MuckRock, obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information Law request, albeit after significant back and forth with the department. (Local writer and political organizer Keegan Stephan also posted the same version on his blog in April this year.) The current guide can also apparently be purchased online, at this officer uniform store and through this publisher, for between $55 and $70. Garodnick’s bill, introduced in March of 2015, would require the police department to make the full patrol guide available on their website free of cost, but would exclude portions on non-routine investigative techniques, confidential information or any information that would compromise an officer’s safety or that of the public. The police department would have to update the guide each time an amendment is made, clearly noting the changes along with their effective dates. The bill would go into effect 90 days after it is signed into law. 

“The Police Commissioner supports posting the Patrol Guide on the Department's website,” said an NYPD spokesperson in a statement to Gotham Gazette, also confirming that department personnel will testify at the Sept. 15 hearing. (Coincidentally, Bratton’s last day at the NYPD is set for Sept. 16; he announced his retirement earlier this summer. Bratton has often clashed with the Council on police reform and oversight.)

Garodnick called his bill an “important transparency initiative” for the police. “This bill will help build the trust that some feel is lacking between the police and communities,” he said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “It will also add accountability because New Yorkers will be able to know what to expect in interactions with the police and be better equipped to speak up” if there are any violations, he said.

It will also help the police department, Garodnick said, in ensuring that the public understands the rules. Mark-Viverito appears to be backing the bill. “This is part of our continued push to reform the NYPD to make it more transparent,” said Eric Koch, spokesperson for the speaker, in a statement.

Publishing the patrol guide is unlikely to quiet those calling for passage of the Right to Know Act, but it would bring more light to the new directives being given to officers for carrying out street stops, among other updates that have recently been agreed upon, such as the use of civil summonses instead of criminal summonses or arrests for a variety of non-violent, low-level offenses.

Incoming Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who will take over the department when Bratton departs, has said he is fully supportive of the Right to Know compromise.

The legislation in the Right to Know Act would require police officers to identify themselves by name, rank, and command if a street stop does not result in an arrest and requires an officer to obtain consent to search a civilian, a vehicle or house and inform a civilian of their right to refuse consent for a search if there is no probable cause. The bills were strongly opposed by Bratton on behalf of the NYPD, and thus the de Blasio administration. Mark-Viverito did not agree to schedule a vote on the bills, which had a committee hearing on June 29, 2015.

Instead, Mark-Viverito struck an administrative compromise with Bratton to implement aspects of the two bills through department training and the patrol guide. In a recent interview with Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito defended the compromise as progress, explaining that the Council had moved the NYPD from its strong opposition toward middle ground. Police reform advocates have criticized the agreement, pointing out that the NYPD is particularly opaque when it comes to its patrol guide.

“Editing training and patrol guide language will never deliver real change on the ground to end the police abuses that the Right to Know Act would help end, and the Speaker’s deal to gut and seek delay of the reforms certainly will not,” said Anthonine Pierre, lead community organizer for Brooklyn Movement Center, in a statement.

Brooklyn Movement Center is a part of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition. “Transparency is needed on a range of fronts with the NYPD and Council Member Garodnick’s efforts to advance that regarding the patrol guide are positive, but it’s troubling that this transparency bill was not provided with a hearing until public scrutiny of Speaker Mark-Viverito’s deal that lacks transparency and deficiently relies on the patrol guide,” Pierre said. There is no evidence that the hearing comes as a result of the Right to Know Act compromise.

Amid the criticism of the deal, Politico New York recently reported that the NYPD was speeding up its estimated timeline for implementing the compromise by six months. According to Politico, NYPD sergeants were to receive training on updated search protocols as early as August 26 and would relay that to officers in the next few weeks. A second “reinforcement” training was planned for September, with the department expecting the patrol guide to be updated by October 15.

At a recent news conference on the steps of City Hall, government reform group Citizens Union pointed to the lack of transparency with the patrol guide. The group released a set of proposals to improve police accountability; among them, making the patrol guide freely accessible to the public.

“I’m surprised that it even takes a law,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal proponent of police reform and a co-sponsor of the bill. “It seems obvious that it should be available to the public except in rare circumstances where that compromises public safety.”

Lancman said making the patrol guide public has been an issue for years, and not just since the Right to Know controversy. “One would have thought that de Blasio, on taking office, would have published it without needing to be forced through legislation three years into his term, to do so.”

Lancman expects the hearing to go smoothly and that the bill will receive overwhelming support. “There’s no reason the NYPD shouldn’t be transparent in this way,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Council to Hear Bill Mandating Publication of NYPD Patrol Guide Tue, 06 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Officials Discuss Gender Equity, Sexism at ‘Diversity’ Conference on diversity panel

The "On Diversity" panel; photo via William Alatriste for the City Council

What are "women’s issues"? When should men recognize their privilege and stand down? Speak up? How do women in public life talk about everyday sexism and engage men in that dialogue?

These were just a few of the questions asked on Tuesday during one panel discussion at City & State NY’s annual “On Diversity” conference. Elected officials, business professionals, journalists, members of academia, and others gathered to discuss issues of race and gender in public life, especially related government and doing business with it.

City & State columnist Alexis Grenell moderated the panel discussion on gender equity, norms, and policies with New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Member Dan Garodnick, State Assembly Member Nily Rozic, and Michael Kimmel, professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook College. The discussion revolved around gender equality both in the workplace and the home, as well as how gender issues are defined within government, the press, and the broader public.

Grenell started the conversation by quoting Professor Kimmel himself: “White men are the single greatest beneficiary of the [greatest] affirmative action of the history of the world. And that’s called the history of the world.”

Kimmel jumped in to discuss the traditional belief that men don’t have a say or a place in conversations on gender. “We think that gender - the word gender itself - is a woman’s issue," he said. "When you hear the word gender, the word, what comes into your mind usually is women. Most men don’t think that gender really matters to us.”

While the discussion addressed what is often a divide between men and women on certain political issues and how they are framed in public discourse, the dynamics of the discussion itself also reflected these issues. In a conversation fraught with potential landmines, the three elected officials on the panel spoke from differing personal experience, but all with a largely common perspective. Throughout, Garodnick and Kimmel - the two men on the stage - stressed the importance of redefining women’s issues as gender or family issues and the importance of recognizing men as stakeholders within the framework of these issues. The women - Grenell, Rozic, and Mark-Viverito - agreed.

Meanwhile, Mark-Viverito and Rozic also focused on the importance of having women in elected office and that of including women’s perspectives when discussing issues that directly affect women. Mark-Viverito is the first Latina to be Speaker of the City Council; Rozic was the youngest woman in the Assembly when she was elected.

“How do we include, get more women into politics - because our perspective is essential - but do we give men the toolkit to understand when to back off a little bit of that privilege, right? So when do men have to stand down when a woman is speaking, perhaps? And also maybe when do we not include men enough when they should be stakeholders? So how do we walk that fine line?” she asked the panel at one point.

Kimmel discussed the role men have as stakeholders when it comes to what are traditionally referred to as women’s issues, such as paid parental leave, reproductive rights, and sexual assault on college campuses. He emphasized the need to redefine the issues to include men by saying that “we cannot fully empower women and girls unless we engage boys and men.”

Garodnick discussed his experiences with gendered expectations and stereotypes. He recalled the period in which he took paid parental leave, and despite being fully engaged in the parenting process during that time, he said he also felt pressure to project a certain image to his colleagues and peers while doing so, namely that he was still busy with work while on leave.

Agreeing with Kimmel, Garodnick emphasized the need to change the perception that certain issues are strictly women’s issues when, in fact, “they’re family issues, they’re societal issues, they’re economic development issues. These are big picture issues.”

Kimmel also called for the politicization of the familiar relationships men already have with women. “We don’t enter [the conversation on gender issues] as men,” he said. “We enter as sons and as fathers and as husbands and as partners...every man in this room knows what it feels like already to love a woman and want her to thrive. We need to just make that political, public.”

While Mark-Viverito and Rozic both acknowledged the importance of men recognizing their place as stakeholders on certain issues, they both maintained that having women in positions of power and continuing to challenge sexism present within government and the workplace in general are the most effective ways to achieve gender equity.

Rozic discussed the sexist assumptions that continue to pervade the culture in Albany, where the state Legislature she is a part of conducts its business. She recalled incidents of sexism, including an occasion when she was denied access to the Assembly floor during a roll call vote by a Sergeant in Arms who assumed, because of her gender in combination with her age, that she was not an Assembly member despite her having been in Albany for several months. Rozic also discussed multiple occasions of having been mistaken as male colleagues’ staff member, girlfriend, or wife when standing next to them during a conversation while in the workplace.

“Believe it or not, Albany is a little backwards,” Rozic said wryly early in the discussion.

“It is a very fine line maneuvering gender, in particular as a young woman, because I face...a dose of sexism but also ageism, which is a lethal combination at times,” Rozic said. “When I got elected, I was the youngest woman ever elected to the state Legislature, I get that. With that comes a lot of responsibility, but it also comes with a challenge of understanding what leadership looks like, and sort of, countering what leadership is supposed to look like.”

While Garodnick spoke from recent personal experience in taking parental leave, Mark-Viverito also discussed her personal life and choices.

“I am a 47-year-old woman who does not believe in traditional marriage...And I don’t have children," she said, framing her other comments. "I made a choice in my life that I wasn’t going to have children, and the expectations or the approach that I get as a woman, right, is that somehow I’m supposed to be in that box: 'You have children, right?' And when I say "no, I made a choice that I’m not"...So I never approach a woman from the assumption that she has children because I know my own experience...And you ask, 'do you have children?' You don’t assume that they have children."

Mark-Viverito said it is essential to break down normative expectations of women. It is "not only my responsibility," she said, "it’s also men, our allies.”

The Speaker expanded the conversation to sexism faced by women in positions of power by discussing the sexism she has experienced during her career, especially in that role leading the City Council, perhaps the second most powerful position in city government. She said that the media’s perception of her decision-making and independence is indicative.

“I feel that still when you talk about issues and decisions, I still get a little bit appalled at times at the perspective of the press, that there’s this assumption that when a tough decision has to be made, somehow I made a decision, I’m in the pocket of the mayor, right?” Mark-Viverito said, referring to how the media has portrayed her working relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio was influential in Mark-Viverito’s ascension to the position of speaker and there has been an ongoing narrative in news articles and political discourse that Mark-Viverito is not independent from the mayor. The speaker and her allies push back that her collaborative leadership style can be misinterpreted as weakness or a lack of independence.

“I couldn’t possibly have arrived at that decision on my own, right?” Mark-Viverito said Tuesday. “A controversial, difficult decision - somehow I had to be forced into that because I could not have made that decision on my own. That’s sexist...And when I say it’s sexist, what do I get back? ‘Oh you’re always throwing the sex card around’ or ‘the sexism card around.’ Right? ‘The women’s card,’ ‘the race card,’ whatever it is, and it’s usually men saying that.”

by Libby Wetzler, Gotham Gazette

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Officials Discuss Gender Equity, Sexism at ‘Diversity’ Conference Wed, 20 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Hear One of Two Police Accountability Bills NYPD training

photo via @NYPDNews

NOTE: this article was originally published June 7, but the hearing discussed was postponed to June 28; it has been edited to refllect the new date and other recent news

Following on the heels of passing the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which diverts the prosecution of a number of low-level nonviolent offenses to civil rather than criminal avenues, the City Council will hear a bill on Tuesday that also addresses criminal justice reform, but this time by targeting bad actors within the NYPD.

The bill, Intro. 119, is sponsored by Council Member Jumaane Williams and was first heard in May 2014 by the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations. Tweaked ahead of this second hearing, the bill would require the inspector general for the NYPD to review police misconduct, including civil cases against police officers, to identify systemic issues in the department. With input from the Law Department, the NYPD and its Internal Affairs Bureau, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, the IG would then recommend systemic changes in discipline, training and monitoring of officers.

Williams, along with Council Member Brad Lander, was one of the two lead sponsors of the Community Safety Act, which established the NYPD Inspector General and was passed in 2013 over a veto by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His new police accountability bill currently has eight sponsors in the 51-member Council. The NYPD IG was in the news last week after the office released a new report discrediting the claim that broken windows policing, which relies on rigorous enforcement of low-level crimes to prevent larger ones, does indeed prevent felonies. A war of words ensued between the Department of Investigations, which includes the NYPD IG, and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, the leading proponent of broken windows policing, which he is credited with implementing.

At one time, Tuesday’s hearing was to be held earlier this month and jointly with the Committee on Public Safety to consider another bill, Intro. 927, which is sponsored by Council Member Daniel Garodnick. That bill, which mandates that the NYPD create an early intervention system to identify aggressive police officers for enhanced training or monitoring, was taken off the docket for this hearing, which itself was postponed. A representative for Garodnick said the bill was still being worked on and would be rescheduled for a hearing. The two bills are seen as complementary, but Garodnick’s is newer, having been introduced in September, and has not had a hearing yet.

For police reform advocates, these bills show efforts in the right direction. Michael Sisitzky, policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said Williams’ bill is “a good way to exercise the inspector general’s ability to look into abuses of power” and identify systemic problems that can be addressed through systemic changes in the department. The NYCLU has also long advocated for an early warning system to identify potentially abusive police officers, he said.

Other advocates, while supportive of the bills, shared a lukewarm sentiment for the Council’s effort by large. “The kind of reforms being proposed and that have been enacted are not going to make much difference in terms of day-to-day practices on the ground,” said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP). He said meaningful reform could only come from abandoning Broken Windows policing, abolishing quota systems for tickets, and taking strong executive action against errant officers. He likened the Council’s “superficial effort” to a house in a state of collapse being slapped with a single coat of paint.

“It might help policy-makers claim they’ve made significant changes,” Gangi said, “but might actually fool some segments of the public that meaningful change has happened.”

Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, shared the same concern. BMC is a member of the Communities United for Police Reform coalition, which has been pushing for more extensive legislative reform, particularly the Right to Know Act. Under that act, police officers would be required to identify themselves, let people know the reason for stopping or questioning them, and inform them of their right to deny a search where probably cause does not exist. Griffith believes that should be the priority rather than the Williams and Garodnick bills, which are politically “easier and safer,” but not necessarily designed to have a critical impact. In spirit, Griffith supports the two bills, but worries that there seems to be significant discretion involved. “It seems good on paper but it’s only as good as it’s execution,” he said.

Neither Williams nor Garodnick was made available for an interview for this article.

When Garodnick introduced his bill last year, he told WNYC at the time that the bill was in part a response to the case of James Blake, a professional tennis star who was forcefully arrested by NYPD officers when at least one mistook him for a suspect in an investigation. The officer who arrested Blake was facing two federal lawsuits for the use of excessive force. In late 2014, WNYC reported extensively on issues related to officers’ use of force.

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton was particularly emphatic in pushing back against Garodnick’s proposal. “It’s exactly what the cops resent about the City Council,” he said after speaking at an event on September 22. “These continual efforts. They say they want to support the cops, and then they keep coming up with new ways to try and effectively micromanage the police department. It’s not needed. It’s a waste of time and energy, and it’s grandstanding, being quite frank with you.”

Bratton stressed that the NYPD was already implementing its own risk assessment system. Garodnick responded, telling the Daily News that if the commissioner was supportive of the concept of his bill, he should work with the Council to "strike the right balance for the sake of the NYPD and the public." Discussions between the parties may ongoing and appear to have led to the delay in the hearing on Garodnick's bill.

Eugene O’Donnell, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD officer, believes the Council is overstepping. “The City Council has to knock it off,” he said. “It’s getting ridiculous. The cops are totally risk-averse at this point. Recruitment is destroyed and [the Council is] still going.”

The hearing comes as a federal investigation into corruption in the NYPD continues and several high-ranking officers have been arrested and others disciplined, while some are filing retirement paperwork, seemingly to secure their pensions before other indictments are handed down. None of the allegations involved appear to be related to use of force. There continue to be questions of low morale at the NYPD, dating to well before news of the federal probe, something Commissioner Bratton has discussed on several occasions and Mayor Bill de Blasio has sought to downplay.

O’Donnell said the Council was “beating a dead horse” and would create a less proactive police force that would be too concerned about civil and criminal liability to do their jobs effectively. Noting that there are already numerous oversight entities -- the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, the District Attorney, the Internal Affairs Bureau -- he said there was no need for additional cumbersome oversight legislation. “The net effect is that anyone who thinks of becoming a New York City cop should be disqualified,” he said, “because you’d have to be insane to consider joining the NYPD.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Council to Hear One of Two Police Accountability Bills Sun, 26 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
With Few Reservations, Council Finalizes New $82 Billion City Budget Council Mayor budget

The Mayor & the City Council (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council chambers at City Hall were filled with grief on Tuesday. Before the Council would conduct its business for the day -- approving an $82.1 billion budget for the city’s 2017 fiscal year -- members first paid their respects to the 49 people killed by a terrorist who shot patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday. One by one, Council members read out the names of victims and placed small electric candles on the dais at the front of the chamber. Almost every Council member expressed solidarity with the LGBT community by placing a small rainbow flag on their desks.

The somber mood soon turned celebratory, though, with the earliest adoption of the city’s budget in 15 years. Following months of hearings and negotiations, after funding for a number of Council priorities was added to the mayor’s final proposal, and amid concerns of a widely expected economic slowdown and potentially insufficient savings, the Council approved a plan that increases city spending by about $3.6 billion over last year’s adopted budget. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

“With this budget agreement, once again this City Council has proven itself to be a champion for all New Yorkers in all five boroughs,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, at Tuesday’s vote. “This is a budget for everyone. We’re investing in jobs. We’re investing in youth. Above all else, we’re investing in New Yorkers and we’re investing in our future.”

The final budget is $100 million lower than the mayor’s executive budget (but almost the exact amount of the preliminary budget proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in January). It makes targeted additional investments in the city’s youth, seniors, immigrants, cultural institutions, public safety, healthcare, social services, and education, among other areas. However, there are some concerns from within and outside the Council that the city budget is growing too quickly and that there is not enough being put aside in reserves, though rainy day funds are at their highest levels ever.

“Today’s Council vote marks the earliest adoption since 2001,” said de Blasio in a statement, “and further highlights the good work that can be done when the Administration and City Council come together. The adopted budget is responsible, progressive, and honest.”

At the insistence of the Council, the budget was geared to creating larger savings and setting aside more reserve funds. The Citywide Savings Plan of $2.7 billion over the next two years is the largest it has been in five years. The city reserves stand at $3.9 billion, with $250 million added to the Retiree Health Benefits Trust fund before the final budget agreement.

Nevertheless, multiple Council members who voted to approve the budget and one who didn’t expressed reservations, mostly with the increase in spending and what they viewed as an inadequate level of reserves. Budget watchdogs and fiscal monitors have praised the city’s budgeting and fiscal health, but concerns about an eventual economic slowdown remain. Comptroller Scott Stringer has also stressed that the city needs to reach higher reserve levels, between 12 and 18 percent of expenses. Currently, the city stands at just over 10 percent.

At the vote, Council Member Dan Garodnick warned that the massive increase in spending and the ballooning of the city’s workforce would mean trouble in the future. Citing a possible budget deficit of $3.8 billion in fiscal 2019, he said, “As a city we must take steps now in good times to prepare for the inevitable bad times ahead. Progressive, honest and responsible budgeting protects people not only when revenues are strong but when they are weak. We should better protect ourselves from having to lay people off and cutting core services when that happens.” Council Members Corey Johnson and Ben Kallos expressed similar concerns.

Council Member Rosie Mendez was the only member to vote against the budget, which passed 48-1 in the 51-seat Council. Mendez cited spending increases, a rushed process, and issues with funding that was supposed to go to her district in the current budget.

A number of Council members voted to affirm the new spending plan and explained the specific area or areas of funding they were most happy with. Council Member Margaret Chin, chair of the Committee on Aging, was particularly proud of the budget’s increased funding for seniors. But, she said, “we still have a way to go before the Department for the Aging’s core funding fully reflects the needs of all seniors.” She pointed out that the Council will contribute a large chunk, $21 million, to DFTA’s $330 million budget in the coming fiscal year.

Chin’s sentiment was echoed in a statement by two of the largest senior advocacy groups in the city, AARP NY and LiveOn NY, which criticized the budget for cutting senior homecare services by $2.2 million and other changes. “Today’s enacted budget agreement is short-sighted and clearly insufficient to ensure a livable city for New Yorkers of all ages,” said Beth Finkel, state director, AARP, in the statement. LiveOn NY’s director of public policy, Bobbie Sackman added, “The inability and unwillingness of the de Blasio administration and City Council to reach an agreement to fully fund these programs creates a hardship and a dangerous reality for seniors who so desperately need and rely on support.”

Throughout the budget process, Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the contracts committee, has been calling for increased funding for human services nonprofits that contract with the city but struggle to meet costs of salaries, administration, equipment, rent, and maintenance. While voting for the budget on Tuesday, Rosenthal again decried that this funding hadn’t been included and said the city’s commitment to these providers, who operate shelters, food pantries, adult literacy programs, and more, “could be better.” Without the government’s help, she said, “we’re setting these providers up to fail.”

Another major item that remains somewhat unresolved is the administration’s plan for the city’s municipal hospital system, New York City Health + Hospitals. Speaker Mark-Viverito said at the “budget handshake” announcement with the mayor last week that the plan was still under discussion. At the budget vote, Council Member Ritchie Torres criticized the administration for acting too late. While supporting the city’s infusion of about $2 billion into the ailing system, he insisted that the problems in the system were foreseeable and a plan should have been in place three years ago. “The city’s late and lackadaisical approach hardly inspires confidence about the future of Health + Hospitals,” Torres said. “I am concerned and low-income New Yorkers should be as well.”

The budget vote came quick on the heels of the Council’s Monday release of the “Schedule C,” a document listing the Council’s adjustments to the budget, terms and conditions set on spending, and $59 million in discretionary grants or member items sponsored by individual Council members and the Speaker. The discretionary funding supports programs at nonprofits throughout Council districts “in order to meet local needs and fill gaps in City agency services,” according to the document. Each Council member received $400,000 in base funding, with additional pots of $25,000, $50,000, $75,000 and $100,000 depending on poverty levels in their districts. The Council again identified five areas for discretionary funding -- spending on the aging, youth, anti-poverty programs, local initiatives, and borough-wide needs. Each year, Council members are able to submit their plans for allocating these funds to their chosen organizations and initiatives.

A separate “Speaker’s Initiative” for citywide needs, totaling $3.39 million, is also included under the funding.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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With Few Reservations, Council Finalizes New $82 Billion City Budget Tue, 14 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Tunnel Controversy Prompts Closer Look at Water Infrastructure waterfall via nystateparks

(photo via @nystateparks)

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently faced an embarrassing situation and had to act quickly to remedy it. Seemingly out of nowhere, there was a lack of clarity around the city’s investment, or apparent lack thereof, in water infrastructure - namely the long-under-construction third water tunnel. The tunnel, along with other elements of the city’s water system are nearer the top of the Spring political agenda. City Council members want answers about what the city is doing to protect and ensure its clean water supply, and will push for them in upcoming executive budget hearings.

On April 5, The New York Times reported that the mayor withheld capital funds and therefore postponed construction on a crucial pipeline that will bring water to Brooklyn and Queens, while providing insurance for the city’s two current water tunnels. City Water Tunnel No. 3, work on which has been in progress since 1970, was originally slated for completion by 2021. It will act as a measure against the possible failure of either of the first two tunnels, which have been in operation since 1917 and 1936, or provide an opportunity to proactively shut one of the two down for maintenance.

A day after the Times’ front-page story, which caused widespread uproar, de Blasio said the report was wrong and that work had not been delayed. He laid blame on his staff for the confusion. “There are times when my team does not do a good job of explaining something, and I think it’s as simple as that,” he told reporters after an unrelated event at a school in Bushwick.

De Blasio explained that the capital funds for later years were temporarily put on hold. “We didn’t think that the estimate was accurate so we pulled it back awaiting a more accurate estimate,” he said. “I could say very comfortably that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do in terms of showing people the ongoing commitment. But what we did do in the preliminary budget was started to add the money back because we got very specific numbers. So if you look at the preliminary budget, $52 million was now added back to keep things on the 2021 schedule.”

In what seemed like an attempt to fully undercut any criticism, he went further, announcing that the city had in fact moved up its deadline for the tunnel by a year, bringing it to 2020. He also committed another $305 million to the project’s completion.

At least three City Council members were concerned enough with what they were hearing to act. Council Member Costa Constantinides, chair of the environmental protection committee, and his colleagues Dan Garodnick and Brad Lander wrote to the mayor asking for clarification about the timeline and funding for the project. “The importance of this tunnel for Brooklyn and Queens residents cannot be over-stated,” reads the letter, issued after the Times’ initial article. “Should we have a failure of existing tunnels before this final leg is complete, it could have devastating economic and human consequences for millions of New Yorkers.”

Garodnick reiterated the point when asked for comment. "While we appreciate that the Mayor has committed to completing this project, we continue to have questions," he said in an emailed statement. "Given how crucial this water tunnel is for millions of New Yorkers, we need to know when and how the Mayor intends to follow through on that commitment."

Lingering questions will carry forward into next month’s executive budget hearings, as the Council evaluates the de Blasio administration’s $80-plus billion plan. Before the water tunnel flare-up, the Council recently issued its response to the mayor’s preliminary budget - de Blasio’s updated spending plan is due shortly.

“Our slated budget hearings for May will have a strong focus on infrastructure,” Constantinides told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview, “including a deeper dive into the third water tunnel and all the water and sewer infrastructure under the Department of Environmental Protection.” As chair of the environmental protection committee, Constantinides has oversight of DEP and he intends to carry on this conversation consistently with the administration.

Although he stressed that capital budgeting can be complicated, he wants to ensure that people understand the intricacies of the often-overlooked issue. “We’re gonna really prioritize an understanding for the public,” he said. “We want to make it as clear as possible. We need a precise timeline and targeted completion date” for the tunnel.

Acknowledging some of his own inattention to the water tunnel issue, Lander said that the Council must bring all parties to pay attention to infrastructure. “One of the great challenges is focusing public attention and the city’s attention -- including the City Council and the administration -- on infrastructure investment,” he said. “Water, electricity, streets, bridges are all absolutely fundamental to our shared lives together. There’s not always public attention on those issues.” He pointed out that the Council held a dedicated hearing last year on the capital plan, and “almost no one came.”

Lander also admitted that he could have done a better job of asking questions of the administration on the issue. The Council member was among those present at the preliminary budget hearing where DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd indicated a delay in completing the third water tunnel.

Part of the issue around capital spending on water infrastructure is that budgets are allocated each year while capital budgets plan for future years. Each year, the Mayor’s preliminary budget includes a preliminary capital budget, which proposes funding for projects for the coming fiscal year and projected allocations for the following three fiscal years. It includes input from city agencies and community boards. The CBs and Borough Presidents then hold public hearings on the preliminary capital budget, after which recommendations for modifications are sent to the mayor. The City Council also weighs in through the preliminary budget process.

Following that, the executive capital budget is released along with the executive expense budget in April, and after another round of comment from BPs and council hearings, it is eventually adopted by the City Council. The Council can also choose to add new capital projects to the budget. As opposed to the expense budget, which is paid for through city revenue and taxes, capital commitments are funded through the sale of city bonds and from state and federal funds.

The Adopted Capital Commitment Plan then lays out the schedule for projects to be implemented under the adopted capital budget. Although projects may be funded, they might not necessarily start or finish within the first year of the plan itself.

The City Charter also mandates the creation of a ten-year capital strategy, which is reiterated by the Department of City Planning and the Office of Management and Budget in November of every even-numbered year, according to the Independent Budget Office’s guide to the capital budget. It goes through a public hearing after which the City Planning Commission issues a report. The final capital strategy is then released with the executive budget in odd-numbered years. According to the City Charter, the Mayor is required to document any variances between the ten-year plan and the adopted capital budget within 30 days of adoption. “In practice, the Mayor’s budget office considers the Adopted Capital Commitment Plan as fulfilling this requirement,” says the IBO guide.

Capital projects are expensive and often lack federal funding that municipalities rely on to make them a reality. Adam Forman, senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future, pointed to these issues and more in a March 2014 report about the city’s infrastructure. The report was titled “Caution Ahead” for a reason.

“Capital budgets are always moving goal posts,” Forman told Gotham Gazette. “There are shifting expenditures in out-years…The water system is financed by the water authority, rates are determined by the water board. It’s complicated.”

Forman said is encouraged by the mayor’s commitment to the water tunnel project, despite the confusion, but speculated that the city expects to reign in capital costs once older projects initiated under former administrations are completed.

Besides Water Tunnel No. 3, Forman listed what he thinks should be the city’s biggest priorities: replacing internal water mains and sewer lines, and addressing the ongoing problem of combined sewer overflow (which results in 25 billion gallons of untreated water entering the city’s watershed each year).

Despite expensive competing demands and insufficient funding, he believes DEP has done a “fantastic” job. “New York’s waterways are much cleaner than they were 10 to 15 years ago,” Forman said.

According to Forman’s report, the average age of New York City’s 6,400 miles of sewage mains is approximately 84 years. Of the 6,800 miles of water mains, more than 1,000 miles are over 100 years old, leading to “frequent and disruptive breaks.” In 2013 alone, there were 403 water main breaks.

Perhaps the silver lining to the water tunnel issue is that it has people talking about capital infrastructure, especially water-related, and the dire need for adequate investment on the city’s part. At least, that’s what Council Member Lander believes. “I think it’s productive that we’re having this conversation and I hope that in the context of the executive budget hearings that the Council and the administration can focus more broadly on key infrastructure priorities and making sure those projects are on track and we have the resources we need,” he said. “These are the kinds of questions we have to ask to keep the city strong into the future.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Tunnel Controversy Prompts Closer Look at Water Infrastructure Wed, 20 Apr 2016 04:00:00 +0000