Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/185 Sun, 22 Oct 2017 21:03:22 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) High Participation in Campaign Matching Funds, But Several Big Name Opt-Outs http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7041:high-participation-in-campaign-matching-funds-but-several-big-name-opt-outs http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7041:high-participation-in-campaign-matching-funds-but-several-big-name-opt-outs kallos council street presser

Council Member Kallos (photo: City Council)


As the September 12 primary elections approach and campaigns kick into high gear, a vast majority of candidates for the city’s elected offices will have their coffers bolstered by the Campaign Finance Board’s (CFB) public matching funds program, which matches eligible donations at a 6-to-1 ratio.

Most candidates, but not all. According to data provided by the CFB, 14 of 51 incumbents this cycle are not participating in the program, which was created by the city in 1988 in part to allow challengers to compete on a more level playing field with incumbents, who are usually better able to raise money. The deadline for certifying in the matching program was June 12, three months before primary day, September 12. There will be 51 City Council, five borough president, and three citywide seats on the ballot this fall.

While there are several prominent elected officials not participating, there is plenty of good news for the program at large. ”Overall participation rate remains very high this cycle,” said Campaign Finance Board spokesperson Matt Sollars. “In fact, it may end up higher than in 2013 when 79 percent of all registered candidates participated in the program.” Current participation stands at 82 percent of all candidates.

Supporters of the program contend that it both incentivizes political participation from potential candidates that are not independently wealthy and do not have the connections and fundraising chops of others, especially incumbents, and it incentivizes incumbents to focus their efforts on courting large numbers of possible donors from their own constituencies as opposed to going after a few big-dollar contributions.

To qualify for the matching program, candidates must hit contribution and contributor thresholds and are subject to stringent spending caps. For example, participants running for City Council must raise contributions of $10 or more from 75 donors in their district and $5,000 in the matchable portion (the first $175) of contributions from any city resident. Participants are limited to spending $49,000 in out-years – the years preceding the election year – and $182,000 for each the primary and general election. Funds spent in excess of the cap during off years are counted against the election year caps.

Gotham Gazette reported in April that 10 City Council incumbents had surpassed the out-year limits and several were not planning to participate in the matching program. Of these, eight – Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Andy King, Peter Koo, Jimmy Van Bramer, Brad Lander, David Greenfield, and Jumaane Williams – ultimately are not using the program in their reelection campaigns.

At least four of them have been open about their desire to replace term-limited Melissa Mark-Viverito as Speaker of the City Council, a separate campaign in its own right, albeit one that courts fellow Council members as opposed to district constituents. This usually involves hiring consultants and campaign staff, and occasionally making contributions to Council colleagues and other influential figures, all as part of the cycle’s overall raise and spend efforts.

Council Member Costa Constantinides surpassed the off-year spending cap, with just over $64,000 in spending, but is still a participant in the program. Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who spent over $269,000 in off-years and had been considered a front-runner in the Speaker race, announced recently that she is not running for reelection.

Told of his colleagues’ reticence to participate, Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the Governmental Operations Committee and one of the matching funds program’s most steadfast defenders, expressed frustration and said he was “surprised to see so many elected officials not taking part.”

“Those public dollars are there to incentivize elected officials, perhaps more importantly than candidates, to take small-dollar donations instead of the more corrupting checks for $2,750,” he said, referencing the individual donation contribution limit for City Council races.

A Gotham Gazette analysis of campaign finance data found that the three Council candidates who have received the most max contributions of $2,750 this election cycle -- Greenfield, Van Bramer, and Johnson -- are also not participating in the program. Greenfield, who has spent a total of over $350,000 this election cycle – partly to air a weekly radio program – has received the most: 163, well over double the next highest amount of max donations to a Council candidate.

A spokesperson for Greenfield said, in an emailed statement, “the out-year limits make it impossible for elected officials in leadership positions in the Council, including over a dozen Council Members seeking re-election, to participate.” While Greenfield is chair of the powerful Committee on Land Use, it is not clear why it was necessary to spend over six times the off-year limit, a limit adhered to by, for example, Deputy Leaders Deborah Rose and Ritchie Torres, who are both running for reelection.

Five Council incumbents – Andrew Cohen, Rafael Salamanca, Jr., Rory Lancman, Daniel Dromm, and Rafael Espinal – did not hit their spending caps but still opted not to participate in the program. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams similarly did not hit his off-year spending cap – which for borough president races is $146,000 – but did not opt in to the program.

A Gotham Gazette analysis of campaign finance data, based on the zip codes of the neighborhoods that the Council members represent, found that Cohen and Salamanca do not appear to have yet hit the district contributor threshold of 75 individual donors in this election cycle. Matt Sollars, a spokesperson for the CFB, stressed that the threshold does not need to be met as of yet, but until the candidates begin receiving public payments in August, after the ballot is set.

Lander, Cohen, and Dromm do not have registered opponents. While payouts from the program require candidates to have an opponent on the ballot, candidates can still join in anticipation of incoming challengers.

According to Kallos, any step back in participation is “a side effect of not having proper incentives.”

To create some of these incentives, last year he introduced a bill, Int. 1130, that would increase the public funds disbursement cap, currently 55 percent of the spending limit, to the full amount of the spending limit. This would mean that if a candidate raised enough funds from their constituency, they could receive matching funds that would bring them to the full spending limits for the primary and general elections – $182,000 each for Council candidates, more for borough and citywide offices. The bill is currently in committee – if it were to pass it would not be in effect for this city election cycle.

No candidates have yet hit election year spending caps for program participation; the Council incumbent closest to the cap is Corey Johnson, who has spent $121,174 so far this year, but he is not a participant in the program.

Council Member Williams defended opting out of the program, saying that he didn’t need the funds and “you don’t always want to spend the public’s money if you don’t have to.” He also drew attention to his candidacy to the Speaker role, and argued that part of the problem was “no allotment for that,” and mentioned the possibility of a legislative fix.

According to Sollars of the CFB, participants in the program can elect to turn away payments if they don’t feel that they need them, a strategy that was employed by several officials in the last cycle.

“I don’t intend to spend more than the cap anyway,” Williams said, adding “I fully intend to make sure I have the small donor amounts that I would have if I was taking public funds.”

One source familiar with the Council and the CFB system who spoke on the condition of anonymity pointed to a bill passed last year by the Council, Local Law 189, as a potential dissuasive force to candidates entering the program. The law standardizes a process for transferring campaign funds between "political" and "principal" committees, essentially allowing candidates to roll campaign funds from one election into the next and effectively enabling them to build up large campaign war chests over time.

Aside from Brooklyn's Adams, the other four borough presidents, all also seeking reelection, have opted in. As have the three incumbent citywide elected officials: Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Letitia James. Republicans seeking those positions, even some who have criticized the public campaign finance system in the past, are also participating.

The CFB, for its part, is happy with the overall triumph of its initiative. “This outstanding participation rate demonstrates the strength of New York City's small-donor matching program to encourage more fair and equitable city elections,” said Executive Director Amy Loprest in a statement.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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High Participation in Campaign Matching Funds, But Several Big Name Opt-Outs Wed, 28 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Members Question Campaign Finance Board Audit Process http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6934:city-council-members-question-campaign-finance-board-audit-process http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6934:city-council-members-question-campaign-finance-board-audit-process greenfield nyccouncil

City Council Member David Greenfield (photo: @NYCCouncil)


At a City Council hearing on Friday, representatives of the city’s Campaign Finance Board expected to answer questions about their proposed budget for the next fiscal year but instead found themselves defending their processes for post-election auditing of campaigns.

One of the Campaign Finance Board’s prime functions is to perform detailed examinations of how candidate campaigns utilize funds and whether they adhere to the strict requirements of campaign finance law. These post-election audits sometimes take years to complete and can involve hefty fines, in the range of thousands of dollars, for campaigns that are found to have committed campaign violations. They can also involve repayment obligations for candidates who receive public matching funds from the CFB.

Of the 234 campaigns from 2013, the last city election cycle year, the CFB has completed audits on 214, with a few more slated for completion next month, according to testimony at the hearing from CFB executive director Amy Loprest. Some of those 214, including that of Mayor Bill de Blasio, were completed earlier this year. Audits of two campaigns from the 2009 election cycle also remain incomplete, Loprest said, owing to a long-running investigation in one campaign and a legal challenge by another.

For City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, and City Council Member David Greenfield, a committee member, those delays in audits are just one reason that they believe the CFB’s system is flawed and in need of change. In December, Kallos, Greenfield, and other Council members ushered through nearly two dozen campaign finance related bills, some of them tweaks to how the Campaign Finance Board operates. Several of the measures were based on recommendations from the CFB, others were seen as addressing problems with the CFB identified by Council members and their consultants.

The Friday hearing did touch on the CFB’s budget needs for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1 and in which there will be a citywide election with a primary in September and a general election in November. These city elections account for a massive increase to $56.7 million for the 2018 fiscal year from last year’s CFB budget of $16.17 million.

About half of the proposed budget, $29 million, is allocated to the public matching funds program, which provides participating campaigns with 6-to-1 matches of small contributions up to $175. Another $11 million will go to printing and distributing a voter guide for the upcoming election.

But Kallos seemed more concerned that the board was spending more money, and time, on auditing campaigns than the money they received from resolutions of those audits. When Loprest told the committee that the CFB’s candidate services unit has seven full-time employees and the audit unit has 26, Kallos insisted that the CFB should dedicate more resources to candidate services and campaign liaisons, so campaigns can preemptively steer clear of missteps in navigating a complex campaign finance system, and avoid fines and penalties down the line.

“We’re trying to balance the needs of the work and be fiscally responsible,” Loprest said, welcoming the idea of more personnel funding for candidate services.

“I guess I have an overarching concern here,” Kallos responded, “just that you’re spending four times more on auditing and penalizing candidates than you are on supporting them and your candidate-to-liaison ratio far exceeds what would be allowed in a public school at this point [for student-to-teacher].” He said the candidate services unit should at least be on par with the audit unit, to provide more personal attention to campaigns, and later floated the idea of legislation to mandate it. “I feel a bill coming up,” he said.

Kallo also questioned the CFB’s spending on lobbying the state Legislature to push election and voting reforms, arguing that perhaps it needs to focus its attention closer to home in the city. The CFB’s mandated voter outreach arm, NYC Votes, engages in efforts around voter awareness, voter registration, and election law lobbying.

Greenfield was more vociferous in his rebuke of the system, repeatedly interrupting and talking over Loprest as she sought to defend the necessity of the in-depth auditing process.

Loprest told Greenfield that more than half of the 214 campaigns from 2013 that had been audited received some or the other penalty or a repayment obligation, which is not always considered a violation since it can involve leftover funds in a campaign’s account. Greenfield wasn’t pleased with the answer, seeing it as an indication that the program is faulty. “Either there’s a program that is designed for people to fail...or you’re not spending enough time and resources helping people through the program,” he said.

He added, “To me that’s a very serious concern about how the system works. If we have a system where most people who are part of the system end up failing the system, then the reflection is not on the people, rather it’s a reflection on the system.”

Greenfield said the system was unfair, painting candidates as having committed wrongdoings, as opposed to minor accounting mistakes. “Every time one of these things happens, our very capable reporters...they blow it up,” he said, pointing to the press section in the City Council chambers to illustrate his point (Greenfield repeatedly gestured toward the press section and referred to stories that look like more than they really are).

Loprest refuted his contention about CFB violations. “Many of these things are more akin to parking violations,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s fair, it’s very high stakes,” Greenfield said, interrupting Loprest and insisting that CFB violations are not as “benign” as parking tickets. “To compare it to parking tickets, I don’t think that’s really fair because you’re a government agency and the implication is that these people are engaged in some sort of wrongdoing and it gets blown out of proportion.” He pressed the point that the CFB’s audit process is in fact discouraging electoral participation, particularly for first-time candidates, and needs to be simplified.

Although Loprest pushed back, she did concede near the end of the hearing that the process could be better and that the CFB was already taking steps to that end. “One of the things we’re engaged in right now is a review of our audit processes in order to to make the audit process simpler and more streamlined,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Members Question Campaign Finance Board Audit Process Mon, 15 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6882:city-council-members-opt-out-of-campaign-finance-program http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6882:city-council-members-opt-out-of-campaign-finance-program Lander Council members

City Council members, with Brad Lander center (photo: William Alatriste)


A first-time entrant into the New York City electoral system stands almost as much a chance of running a solid campaign as long-time political insiders and incumbents. That’s because the New York City campaign finance system includes a public matching funds program, which helps levels the playing field by incentivizing local small-dollar contributions, matching them at a 6-to-1 ratio. In doing so, it also reduces the influence of special interests in elections and helps prevent conflicts of interest or pay-to-play arrangements. The program, run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, is seen as a national model.

This year, with few competitive races in the 2017 city election cycle, a number of sitting City Council members seem to be eschewing the program, with some having spent significant sums in the past three years and others having already raised more than they could legally spend if they participated. The level of non-participation may to some degree undermine the overall system, though the vast majority of candidates will still participate, and raises questions about those Council members choosing not to opt in. A potential wave, however small, of Council members not participating also drew a rebuke from Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday.

Those who opt to participate in the CFB’s public matching funds program must meet two fundraising thresholds -- a minimum number of contributions from the district or other geographic area covered by the office they seek, and a minimum amount of matchable contributions. For instance, City Council candidates who opt in to the program must receive at least 75 contributions from residents of their district, and contributions up to $175 are matchable with public funds.

The CFB usually issues matching funds the month before the primary, which is on September 12 this year. It also matches a maximum of 55 percent of the spending cap for the seat. For the City Council, the spending cap for candidates who participate in the system is $182,000 each for the primary and general elections. Candidates who do not have an opponent do not receive public funds.

In the 51-seat City Council, more than 40 members are seeking reelection this year in something of a quirk given that some members are pursuing their third term, grandfathered in through the term-limit extension passed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council in 2008.

At least 10 Council members have already surpassed the out-year (the years prior to election year) limit of $49,000 on campaign spending for participants in the program, campaign finance filings show. If any of them were to participate in the program, their over-the-limit spending would be deducted from the election year spending cap.

Certain Council members, such as Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and David Greenfield, have even spent more than the primary limit already and are effectively precluded from participating in the matching funds program since they then would have zero dollars to spend on the first leg of the race. In out-years, Ferreras-Copeland, who is pursuing the position of City Council Speaker, which is elected among Council members in January, spent more than $277,000. Her total spending is $318,000. Greenfield spent nearly $308,000 in out-years, with a total spending of $326,000, largely to air the Council member’s radio program. Greenfield’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

[Related: Council Member Airs Weekly Radio Show Through Campaign Funds]

“Councilwoman Ferreras is not participating because the Councilwoman has successfully raised enough money to communicate effectively with voters,” said a campaign spokesperson in an email, insisting that her choice to not participate in the program “in no way means that she doesn't support it. Quite the contrary. By voting for a stronger program it shows a commitment to increasing participation in the electoral process for challengers regardless of the effect it may have on her own election.”

The public funds program, adopted in 1988, has consistently encouraged competition and allowed candidates with a lack of access to deep pockets, either their own or their donors, to run against wealthier ones. Participation in the program has been overwhelming in the last few cycles. In 2013, 92 percent of candidates in the primary were participants, and 54 of the 59 city elected officials participated. In 2009, participation was 93 percent, and 56 of 59 officials were participants.

It’s currently unclear which members may or may not opt in -- only Council Members Stephen Levin and Robert Cornegy Jr. have officially indicated to the CFB that they will participate. The official deadline for opting in is June 12, less than two months away.

Incumbent Council members who won’t be participating presented varying rationale for their decisions, even as they all acknowledged the public funds program as a model for campaign finance systems nationwide.

“I can raise money without the matching funds,” said Queens Council Member Peter Koo. “Why use public funding if I can do it privately?”

Koo praised the program as an equaliser for first-time candidates. “It’s good, for some people it’s necessary,” he said. “Especially for newcomers, they want to try politics. Their ability to raise funds is not as good as some businesspeople. The system is good as long as they use it fairly and they obey all the rules.”

Council Member Brad Lander doesn’t envision taking matching funds, he said, and has spent $228,000, with just over $219,000 in out-years. But he said he would voluntarily commit to the $182,000 spending cap that applies to participants. “It is a great system and it makes it much more possible for people to run,” he said of the matching funds program, “and if an opponent runs against me in the primary or general election, this system will make sure that they can run against me on an equal playing field.”

“It’s not as simple as participating and not participating,” added Lander, who said he has spent the bulk of his money for “useful, pedestrian public purposes.” Campaign filings show that he has paid at least $80,000 to one firm for fundraising services. “By voluntarily committing to the funding cap, I’m making sure that my race will be fair and competitive and that any opponent who participates in the matching system will be able to utilize it and spend the same amount that I am.”

Last year, the Council moved through a robust set of reforms to the campaign finance system, some of which were prompted by complaints by Council members and candidates who have participated. Some of the nearly two dozen reforms, on the other hand, were those asked for by the Campaign Finance Board after its analysis of the 2013 election cycle and championed by good government groups.

[Related: City Council Rushes Through Campaign Finance Bills]

Lander was one member at the forefront of Council hearings on the proposals, insisting that the reforms would encourage participation and make it easier to run for elected office. Asked if that push for reforms was at odds with his decision to not participate, Lander said, “I don’t think so. I think by committing to the election-year spending cap, I’m fully honoring not just the spirit but the entire goal of the system, [which] is to enable challengers to run against incumbents, everybody to participate on a level playing field. All of that exists in my race.”

A few reasons can explain why Council members may spend significant amounts of money and not participate in the public funds program. It is no coincidence that of the 10 Council members who have passed the outyear limits, at least five have indicated their interest in running for Speaker of the City Council next year. For others, a lack of an opponent might mean that participation is irrelevant.

“Over the years, a number of incumbents who did not face significant opposition have opted not to participate in the program,” said Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson, in an email. “Other incumbents join the Program, but decline public funds. But almost every member of the Council has experience with the program; of the 51 members of the City Council, 50 were first elected as program participants.”

Council Member Corey Johnson is one of the members running for Speaker and he conceded that if he faces a primary opponent, he would be hard pressed to participate in the matching funds program because of his $136,000 in spending, with $78,000 of it in the out-years. He also hasn’t thought of whether he will voluntarily abide by the spending cap. “I don’t know at this point,” he said in a brief phone interview.

Johnson also defended the bills passed by the Council last year that tweaked the campaign finance system, some of which seemed to a number of observers, including good government groups, as potentially self-serving. “I think they were smart bills,” he said, “responding to concerns not only raised by incumbent Council members but also by candidates and elected officials who are no longer in office but participated in the program.”

Among the reforms were new restrictions and monitoring mechanisms for nonprofits affiliated with elected officials; elimination of matching funds for contributions bundled by those who do business with the city; greater disclosure requirements for entities with city business; earlier disbursement of public matching funds; and prohibitions on contributions from non-registered political committees to candidates who don’t join the public funds program.

The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which has oversight of the CFB, is set to hear a bill on April 27 that would raise the cap on matching funds from 55 percent of the spending cap to a full match of the cap. The bill is sponsored by the committee’s chair, Council Member Ben Kallos, who is a participant in the public funds program and has spearheaded campaign finance reform in the Council. Kallos had reservations about some of the bills that were expedited through the Council late last year and believes his bill will significantly shift the election landscape.

“I was concerned with recent amendments and their impact on the campaign finance system,” he said, “and as we get closer to the June deadline for opting in or out of the system, we will learn just what impact that legislation had and whether it improves participation in the system or actually discourages it. And whatever the results, I hope to create new incentives for people to participate.” The CFB is reviewing Kallos’ proposal and will testify at the hearing.

Government reform advocate Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, expressed concern about incumbents relying heavily on large private donations, instead of public funds. “The city’s campaign finance program with public funds was put in place not just for challengers but for incumbents so that there was not any kind of advantage given to either,” he said. “The fact that some incumbents are also going to abide by the spending limits is a good thing but the source of money is always a concern. Public money lessens the risk of undue influence and corruption. More private money increases that risk.”

Citizens Union was among those that questioned the rationale behind some of the campaign finance reforms that were pushed through the Council, such as allowing non-public campaign funds to be used for broader purposes supporting an elected official’s public duties, and another that prohibits CFB staff from being present in adjudications of campaign violations. Many of these supposed complaints seemed novel and presented solutions to problems that weren’t entirely apparent, critics said.

“That some of these Council members pushed changes to make the program more candidate friendly and then they did not participate when it was accomplished, makes me wonder why they pushed these changes so aggressively if they weren’t going to participate themselves,” Dadey said.

Council Member Mark Levine, another contender for Council Speaker has spent nearly $100,000, and feels comfortable that he is well below the combined out-year and election year spending limit of $231,000 for participants of the program. His participation in the program, he said, “depends on what kind of race I have. I would not take matching funds if I have something less than a viable opponent so I’m waiting to see how the field shapes up.”

He added, “If someone has only a token opponent and takes taxpayer money, I don’t think that’s appropriate and that’s the standard I’m gonna hold myself to.”

At an unrelated news conference on Wednesday, Gotham Gazette asked Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is a proud participant in the public matching funds system, about Council members choosing not to opt in to the program. “I would discourage it,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake. One of the best campaign finance systems in the country. I’ve said many times that one of the reasons I’m mayor is because of that system. I would never have been able to raise the kind of money my competitors were able to raise. Only because of matching funds am I here. I believe it is a tremendous reform. I believe it’s democratizing and everyone should participate in it.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.]]>
City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program Wed, 19 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Airs Weekly Radio Show Through Campaign Funds http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6719:council-member-funds-weekly-radio-show-through-campaign-funds http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6719:council-member-funds-weekly-radio-show-through-campaign-funds greenfield mic 2

City Council Member David Greenfield (photo: William Alatriste)


For elected officials, there is no shortage of means to communicate with constituents and the broader public, whether through modern lines of social media or more traditional newspaper op-eds or television appearances and ads. But even now, radio is one method of communication that has endured as a choice for elected officials in New York City and beyond. One City Council member, though, has taken a novel approach to radio by hosting a weekly show paid through campaign funds.

Council Member David Greenfield, a power broker from Brooklyn who chairs the Council’s land use committee, has been hosting a weekly radio show since 2013 on 620 AM. In the current election cycle, Greenfield has thus far spent $136,500 in campaign funds hosting the show, per the latest disclosures filed with the Campaign Finance Board for 2014-2017 activity.

On the show, which airs every Thursday at 7 p.m., Greenfield takes calls, interviews guests, and covers local issues germane to his constituents in Council District 44, as well as national and international politics, much of it concerning Israel and the Jewish community.

The show has touched on everything from the presidential election and terrorist attacks in Belgium to local housing policy, the 421-a real estate tax break, and even holiday cooking tips.

Greenfield, who was not made available to discuss his show and its funding, has hosted a number of prominent guests on the show, including state and local elected officials, religious leaders, and journalists and commentators. Governor Andrew Cuomo appeared on the program once, in 2014, as have other top electeds including Comptroller Scott Stringer and several of Greenfield’s City Council colleagues.

In 2010, Greenfield began to appear on what was then the Nachum Segal Radio Show on 620 AM. In early 2013, he started guest hosting episodes of the show and took over the program later that year. What makes Greenfield’s approach unique is both that he is a sitting elected official hosting a weekly program and that his show is paid for directly from his campaign fundraising. Greenfield, a prolific fund-raiser, especially as chair of the powerful land use committee, was elected to the Council in a special election in 2010, re-elected in 2013, and is likely to cruise to reelection for another term this year.

In the last election cycle, between April 2011 and January 2014, he spent $49,675 cumulatively on those radio appearances and radio advertisements.

The Council member, who often promotes the show on his Twitter account, does not receive any compensation for the show or allow any advertisements. His expenditure on radio airtime counts for a significant portion of his total campaign spending of $307,000 so far in the current cycle. He has raised more than $822,000 -- far above his Council colleagues -- leaving him a balance of about $502,000. Interestingly, Greenfield has yet to declare which office he will run for in 2017. Though it is likely he’ll run for reelection to his City Council seat, Greenfield is among the “undeclared” Council members who may be eyeing a run for Comptroller, Public Advocate, or a Borough President position if any of the current officeholders were themselves to vacate.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the Councilman decided before launching his show not to allow advertisers to pay for the actual cost of the show to prevent even the appearance of a possible conflict of interest with potential advertisers,” said Stephen Snowder, a Council staff spokesperson for Greenfield, who also tweets about the show from his private account. “Instead, the Councilman pays for the show out of his campaign and even carries a disclaimer before the show that explains that it is a paid radio show.” Greenfield's payments go from his campaign account to Talkline Communications Network.

A campaign spokesperson separately said Greenfield sought out and carefully followed advice from the Conflicts of Interest Board when setting up the show. A COIB spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.

Many elected officials have relied on radio for outreach, of course, though rarely as the host of a show. In a medium famous for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, Mayor Bill de Blasio started appearing on WNYC for a weekly “Ask the Mayor” segment in May of last year, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, who regularly appeared on the radio airwaves.

And Greenfield is not the only sitting City Council member with a radio show, although his is the longest running. Just last Friday, Council Member Andy King, from the Bronx, launched “King Talk Radio Show,” a 30-minute weekly segment broadcast Friday evenings through Blog Talk Radio, an internet radio service.

“When I first got in office, I made a commitment to my constituents that I’ll keep them engaged in every way possible,” King said in a brief phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “I wouldn’t say this is a constituent service. It’s just a way to communicate with the residents of the 12th District.”

King said, in the lead up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he hoped to increase his outreach and to spread the word on his annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day open house, where he meets and greet constituents. As with Greenfield, King hopes to address constituent concerns and debate public policy.

King’s show isn’t connected to his campaign. He announced the show in an email sent out from his City Council office, which would likely preclude him from addressing campaign-related questions. “I never thought to ask [the Conflicts of Interest Board],” King said, when Gotham Gazette asked if he’d sought guidance on the radio segment. But he insisted that he would address the issue if it arises and that his intent is not to campaign but to communicate. “I really don’t want anyone to take an apple and turn it into an orange,” he said. “Everything doesn’t have to revolve around politics in an election year.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Member Airs Weekly Radio Show Through Campaign Funds Wed, 18 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
22 Campaign Finance Bills to Move Through City Council 'Soon,' Speaker Says http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6647:22-campaign-finance-bills-to-move-through-city-council-soon-speaker-says http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6647:22-campaign-finance-bills-to-move-through-city-council-soon-speaker-says mmv nypl

Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: @NYCCouncil)


Within the next two months, the City Council is expected to vote on a large legislative package that would alter the city’s campaign finance system in a variety of ways and regulate donations to political nonprofits, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said this week. Some of the proposals and the timing of their likely passage have raised concerns, though, that the Council is weakening the city’s model campaign finance system, pushing some reforms through after too long a wait and rushing other, newer bills through just in time for the next municipal election.

The Council has before it 22 bills relating to campaign finance law and elections, 14 of which were heard just last week by the Committee on Standards and Ethics. It was the first hearing on legislation for the committee under this Council, which took office in January 2014, owing to the fact that the main bill in that bundle deals with conflicts of interest. The 13 others relate to the campaign finance system.

The other eight bills of the 22 were heard in May by the Committee on Governmental Operations, which has oversight of the Campaign Finance Board, and were introduced about one year ago. They have awaited a committee vote since, but have not moved.

Mark-Viverito, who largely controls which bills are heard and voted on, has promised that the two bundles of bills will be lumped and voted on together. “We will be moving ahead with an extensive package,” she said at a news conference on Tuesday, in response to Gotham Gazette’s questions about the concerns raised at last week’s hearing. “We’ve been going through a lot of deliberations, a lot of conversations with stakeholders and others, so I’m very confident about what it is that we will be presenting.”

When asked when the vote could happen, she said, “It’s gonna be soon. Probably within the next month or so, without a doubt.”

Although a common theme unites 21 of the 22 bills, they have taken vastly different trajectories in the Council’s legislative process. The first package was only heard six months after it was introduced and has since languished in committee. Those proposals came straight out of the Campaign Finance Board’s 2013 post-election report, which recommended improvements to the campaign finance law. These proposals mainly seek to tighten gaps in the campaign finance law, including the elimination of public matching funds for contributions bundled by people with city business, enhanced disclosure rules for entities that do business with the city, and a prohibition on contributions from non-registered political committees to candidates who don’t participate in the public matching program.

The second package has not been as thoroughly vetted, it seems, including the 22nd and most high-profile bill, Intro. 1345, which would limit donations to political nonprofits affiliated with elected officials.

That bill is a direct response to the Campaign for One New York, a now-defunct nonprofit affiliated with Mayor Bill de Blasio that accepted large donations from people who have business with the city. Those activities have led to multiple investigations and allegations of a pay-to-play culture at City Hall, with federal authorities investigating whether government action was offered or done in exchange for donations to the Campaign for One New York. De Blasio has denied any wrongdoing and no one has been charged. 

Intro. 1345 and the accompanying 13 bills were introduced on November 16 and were heard just one week later. Although Intro. 1345 was embraced by the Campaign Finance Board, which is an independent city entity, the de Blasio administration, and government reform groups, the rest of the bills are seen as a bit more problematic. Even representatives of the city Conflicts of Interest Board, which would be tasked with implementing Intro. 1345, expressed doubts about COIB’s ability to do so and questioned whether it is the appropriate agency to be assigned the job. Meanwhile, representatives for the Campaign Finance Board critiqued several of the bills relevant to its operations and the city’s well-regarded public campaign finance system.

In contrast with the first legislative package, some of the new bills are more friendly to Council members and candidates in general, and would ease certain elements of campaign finance regulation including documentation requirements for contributions and the current restriction on the use of non-public campaign funds for official purposes.

Government reform groups have questioned the overall approach the Council has taken with the most recent bills, which they say are being rushed along and are based on Council members’ personal experiences with the system rather than objective analysis that would usually be identified by the Campaign Finance Board.

In written testimony submitted to the committee, Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group, said it was “perplexing” that the 14 bills were heard by the Standards and Ethics committee when only one of them dealt with conflicts of interest.

“These bills are, in major part, detailed technical changes that, unlike previous revisions, have not grown out of the Campaign Finance Board’s statutorily required reports and recommendations, which result in revisions of the system which are openly discussed, negotiated and considered far in advance of the City’s next election cycle,” Lerner wrote, stressing that they could inadvertently weaken the CFB’s independence.

She also said the bills “appear to be on a fast track,” while the older bills based on recommendations in the Campaign Finance Board’s 2013 post-election report have languished. Taking issue with the timing, right on the eve of a city election year, she said the Council should wait till after the 2017 elections to reconsider most of the campaign finance bills and do so through the appropriate committees.

The CFB itself criticized the bills as hampering its ability to enforce the campaign finance law, calling them “poison pill” measures in testimony at the November 21 hearing.

At a public meeting on December 1, CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn reiterated those concerns. “This legislation has been considered on an accelerated schedule,” she said, stressing that the “hastily drafted” proposals would undermine the board’s oversight of the campaign finance system. She specifically called on the Council to reject one of the bills, Intro. 1355, sponsored by Council Member David Greenfield, which allows candidates or their committees to complete or correct contribution cards. “The board believes this bill will enable fraud,” she said, “and remove a weapon for the CFB to detect and prevent it.” Council Member Greenfield was not made available for comment for this article.

In urging the Council to delay the bills till after the 2017 elections, Hearn did promise to work with the Council on improving the campaign finance program and commended Council members for Intro. 1345, the political nonprofit donation limits bill. This bill is sponsored by Mark-Viverito, who was not present for the hearing on the bill, which was chaired by standards and ethics committee Chair Alan Maisel. 

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, stressed that the bills need more time to breathe. “We hope we have at least a month or two to make some needed changes to these bills that represent new ideas and are a marked shift in the management of the campaign finance board,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Dadey said the new package “does feel rushed to us” and that “there’s some question as to whether these will actually strengthen or weaken the program and a much fuller discussion needs to be had before these move forward.” While he acknowledged that Council members should have a significant voice in improving the campaign finance system, he said they should avoid imposing solely their own concerns. “[The campaign finance law] needs to reflect the public’s interest in protecting taxpayer dollars while making it a workable program for the candidates themselves,” Dadey said.

Council Member Maisel said the timeline of these newer bills, from drafting to hearing to a possible vote, may be short but is necessary. “There’s an effort to try to get these bills voted on sooner than later because the election is next year,” he said in a phone interview, adding that he was not given a specific timeline to push through the bills. “Whether it’s done before December 31 or the first week of January, I can’t tell you,” he said. Maisel is meeting this week with Council staff to review feedback from the hearing to amend and tweak the bills, he said.

Maisel also pushed back against the criticism that the bills might weaken the CFB’s authority, insisting that they’re aimed at making the system more reasonable to encourage participation. “They’re protecting their turf,” he said of the CFB. “If these bills are passed, their powers are intact. I don’t see how [the bills] undermine their authority.”

When asked if his committee was the appropriate venue for the campaign finance bills, he said it was the speaker’s office that made the decision. “I have no experience with campaign finance bills, I deal with ethics issues,” he said, in a sense echoing the critique made by others who’ve questioned why campaign finance bills were heard in his committee as opposed to their typical place, government operations, the committee chaired by Council Member Ben Kallos.

The proposals have created some degree of internal tension within the Council for multiple reasons, including the committee venue. Additionally, before the bills were introduced, Council Member Kallos was openly skeptical of the effect they might have, telling the New York Times, “I am concerned about undermining the best parts of a system that has worked for the people.”

Council Member Brad Lander, sponsor of one of the new bills, disagrees. First, Lander told Politico New York that the Times report had mischaracterized the bills under consideration. On Tuesday, shortly after the speaker’s news conference, Lander told Gotham Gazette the concerns over the bills would be addressed through amendments and that criticism of their timing was unfounded. That the bills were heard through the standards and ethics committee rather than the governmental operations committee made little difference, he said, since the same people and advocacy groups would testify even if there were separate hearings. He also noted that Kallos, the governmental operations chair, was present at the hearing as well.

Lander also sought to dispel the notion that the bills were being expedited through the Council. “That’s a silly thing to say,” he said, noting that discussions on Intro. 1345 in particular have been in the works since the shutdown of The Campaign for One New York was announced months ago. And while there was not the same urgency with the eight campaign finance bills from last year, he said, “I think if we get a good package that combines a lot of good reform and sensible legislation, that’s a good legislative process.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
22 Campaign Finance Bills to Move Through City Council 'Soon,' Speaker Says Thu, 01 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Legislative Package on Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6635:city-council-hears-legislative-package-on-conflicts-of-interest-and-campaign-finance http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6635:city-council-hears-legislative-package-on-conflicts-of-interest-and-campaign-finance berger council

Henry Berger testifying (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council heard testimony Monday on a broad package of bills that would prevent conflicts of interest between elected officials and political nonprofits, limit the electoral influence of those who do business with the city, and make it easier for first-time candidates to navigate the city’s campaign finance system.

The Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics heard 14 bills on Monday in what was the current Council’s first hearing of the committee focused on legislation. Of the 14, the headlining bill, Intro. 1345, was the Council’s direct response to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Campaign for One New York, a nonprofit formed by the mayor’s allies to promote his agenda that has been at the center of controversy, criticism, and law enforcement investigations.

The Campaign for One New York, since disbanded, skirted the city’s campaign finance law, in part by raising major sums from entities with city business. Federal investigators have been looking at whether government action was exchanged for donations. The mayor has maintained that he, his administration, and the organization followed the law and sought guidances from the Conflicts of Interest Board throughout. His activities were probed by the city Campaign Finance Board, which let him off with a slap on the wrist but stressed the need to close the loophole in the law that he took advantage of in fundraising for his group.

The bill at hand is sponsored by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a de Blasio ally. It takes aim at that exact loophole and limits donations from those who are lobbyists or have business before the city to nonprofits created or controlled by elected officials or their agents. The limit of $400 currently applies to donations made by such categories of donors directly to candidate committees. Under the bill, if an organization spends more than 10 percent of its annual budget on “public-facing communications that feature the name or picture of the elected official who controls them” contributions to the nonprofit would be limited and it would have to disclose its donors to the Conflicts of Interest Board.

Mark-Viverito did not attend the hearing, which was led by Standards and Ethics Committee Chair Alan Maisel. Mark-Viverito’s spokesperson, Robin Levine, said in an email that Council staff was monitoring the hearing and will brief the speaker as she reviews the testimony.

While there was broad support for Mark-Viverito’s bill, there were questions about its language and the implementation that it requires. As it currently stands, the bill seeks to prevent actual and perceived conflicts of interest by preventing business interests from donating large sums of money to a nonprofit to ingratiate themselves with an elected official. But concerns were raised that the bill paints with a broad brush and would include nonprofits that are affiliated to an extent with public officials but aren’t involved in public fundraising to benefit those officials. The bill also doesn’t include high-ranking public officials in city agencies, only elected officials. Council Members sought feedback on how they could amend and improve the proposal, and agency heads suggested more clear definitions of the organizations that would be covered.

The rest of the bills being heard Monday aim at streamlining campaign finance disclosure requirements and tweak certain aspects of the city’s campaign finance law. These bills would usually be heard by the Committee on Governmental Operations, which has heard another package of campaign finance reform bills that awaits a vote, but were lumped together with the first proposal concerning conflicts of interest, which is under the standards and ethics committee’s jurisdiction.

“All these bills are designed to ensure we streamline the process of running for office without sacrificing the safeguards that ensure integrity of our democratic process,” said Council Member David Greenfield, sponsor of five of the bills, in his opening statement.

The campaign finance bills cover a lot of ground. One bill shortens the deadline for candidates to choose a hearing before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings for alleged campaign violations and penalties. Currently, most candidates go through a more informal hearing before the Campaign Finance Board. Another bill requires campaign contributions to be deposited within 20 business days, and cash contributions to be deposited within 10 business days.

A bill sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander would allow non-public campaign funds to be used by public officials for their official duties. One of the proposals that the CFB particularly opposed would prohibit CFB staff from being present at an executive session of the board where campaign finance violations are being adjudicated. This bill would prevent the CFB’s own executive director from attending such a session.

The main bill, Intro. 1345, received support, with certain caveats, from the de Blasio administration, the Conflicts of Interest Board, the Campaign Finance Board, and private government reform organizations that favor more transparency in campaign finance.

Henry Berger, special counsel to the mayor, testified in support of all the bills but expressed certain doubts about the scope of Intro. 1345 and about one provision in Intro. 1355, one of Greenfield’s bills.

On Intro. 1345, Berger said the administration was “generally supportive of the intent of this bill,” but said the definition of an organization affiliated with an elected official was “overbroad and may be problematic.” He warned that it could also raise legal concerns over free speech of private entities. “These concerns would need to be addressed in future discussions at a staff level,” he said.

Berger cited the precautions that the mayor’s team took for the Campaign for One New York, including the willing disclosure of donors, which the new bill would require, and he agreed that limits should be placed on nonprofits that create a perception of helping a particular candidate. “[Intro. 1345] provides very strong assurances that would avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest,” he said. “And that’s important. Confidence in our government requires that.”

But he worried that the bill would also apply to nonprofits that don’t raise funds and are already subject to extensive reporting requirements, such as the Economic Development Corporation, or programmatic organizations that don’t benefit an individual but may raise funds such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “We’re looking for some tightening but....we think this bill comes very close to drawing the line,” he said.

Once a bill is heard in Council committee, behind-the-scenes negotiation usually occurs to tweak bill language, before a bill is voted on in committee and then, if it passes, the the full Council. At times, like the other package of campaign finance reform bills that was heard months ago by the government operations committee, bills do not receive a committee vote soon after a hearing, if at all. Council sources do indicate, though, that they plan to move the bills heard today quickly, while also moving the other campaign finance bills.

Changes to the campaign finance system would already be late in the four-year election cycle as the election year of 2017 is fast-approaching and candidates have already been raising money.

The political nonprofits bill also expands the definition for those who do business before the city to include family members, which, Berger said, would create logistical and technical issues for the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, which maintains the city’s doing business database. MOCS would need time to adjust to the bill, he later told Council members.

Addressing Intro. 1355, which relaxes certain documentation requirements for campaign contributions, Berger said there was a potential for fraud since the bill removes the obligation for a candidate committee to collect contributor cards if they receive a check or money order with the name and address of a donor on them.

Berger’s biggest complaints, however, were that certain necessary proposals were not included in the package of bills. He said the Council should consider legislation that would overhaul the process for post-election campaign audits, to ensure they are concluded faster; proposed that legal fees for responding to campaign finance issues should not be counted against a campaign’s expenditure limits; and suggested that candidates who must raise money for a general election during primary season be allowed to attribute fundraising expenditures to their general election spending cap instead of the primary one.

Representatives of the Conflicts of Interest Board commended the Council on Intro. 1345, but said they are unsure about being charged with implementing it. Executive Director Carolyn Lisa Miller said the board “remains uncertain whether we are the right agency to administer the legislation,” but expressed willingness to work with the Council and the administration.

Miller listed 20 possible issues arising from the legislation, ranging from the definition of the nonprofits covered to the substantial penalties levied and the timeframe of disclosures required by organizations. She also cited issues with enforcement and investigation. COIB is a small city agency, with 26 full-time employees, and has no investigators of its own, relying instead on the Department of Investigation which is an independent agency. Miller said COIB would likely require additional staff and funding to comply with the legislation.

What might complicate things further is that COIB cannot enforce fines on City Council members, if one should choose not to accept a violation found and penalty assessed by the board. In such a situation, which Miller said has never arisen to date, the board could only make recommendations to the Speaker and the Council which would have to decide to refer the case to the standards and ethics committee.

Council Member Lander, co-sponsor of Intro. 1345 and a prime sponsor on another one of the bills, pushed back against Miller’s uncertainty. “To me the reason to put this legislation and its enforcement with you is it is an issue of conflicts of interest,” he said. “Even though we are concerned about the public-facing communication, what we’re guarding against here is public corruption. That’s the goal, making sure that people who have business interests with the city don’t have an avenue into giving that influences public officials. That’s not primarily campaign finance. That’s primarily conflicts of interest.”

With 13 bills out of the package dealing directly with the Campaign Finance Board, much of the hearing focused on testimony from Amy Loprest, CFB executive director. Loprest, like COIB’s Miller, praised Intro. 1345 but had strong apprehensions nonetheless. “We note the several concerns regarding the bill’s drafting and implementation raised by our colleagues at the Conflicts of Interest Board,” Loprest said in her opening statement. “We urge the Council to take those into account, and we will be available to assist in any way they or the Council deems appropriate.”

She also criticized the legislation’s accompanying “poison pill” measures which would “significantly weaken the CFB’s oversight of the matching funds program.”

“These measures should not be the cost of implementing a commendable and necessary reform,” she said, taking issue with the timing of many of the proposals, saying they would be disruptive to the board’s preparations for the 2017 city elections.

In a cordial back-and-forth with Council Member Greenfield, who argued that the Council’s proposed changes to CFB procedures were warranted, necessary, and justified under its jurisdiction, Loprest attempted to explain her broader concerns.

“It is important for us to review how we do operate, how we do our audits, how we do our procedures,” she conceded. “I do however think that this kind of piecemeal, finger in one part of a complicated process will have unintended and unwelcome consequences and will make things more complicated when our goal is to try and make things less complicated.”

Greenfield pushed back. “I think that’s where we’re going to come to agree to disagree,” he said. “Just like your job is to audit candidates, our job is to audit the CFB, for lack of a better term.”

Good government groups testified in support of the bills, but had reservations about both the timing and the manner in which they were drafted and introduced. Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, approved of the bills but said it was late in the game to consider changes to the city’s campaign finance system, with the next election so close.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, applauded the Council, but insisted that the bills should have included more public discussion when they were being drafted. Intro. 1345, in particular, addresses concerns that Citizens Union raised earlier this year in a proposal to regulate nonprofit organizations affiliated with elected officials. “We believe the proposed bill can effectively bring needed oversight to these organizations,” Dadey said at Monday’s hearing.

The only testimony that rejected most of the proposals outright came from Dominic Mauro, staff attorney for Reinvent Albany, an advocacy organization. Mauro said his organization supported the intent of Intro. 1345 but questioned how it could be implemented. The entire package of bills, Mauro said, “add up to a huge step backwards.” Admitting that the CFB is “imperfect, he said, however, that his organization thinks “Many of these bills seem like petty retaliation and an expression of irritation by Council members who are annoyed with CFB nitpicking.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Hears Legislative Package on Conflicts of Interest and Campaign Finance Mon, 21 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
In Unexplored Territory, City Council Members Bundle Campaign Donations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6604:in-grey-area-city-council-members-bundle-campaign-donations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6604:in-grey-area-city-council-members-bundle-campaign-donations greenfield city hall alatriste

Council Member Greenfield and colleagues at City Hall (photo: William Alatriste)


The bundling of campaign contributions by elected officials for fellow candidates in New York City is not new or illegal, but it raises questions about an unexplored area of campaign finance law, especially as the City considers updates to the rules of its heralded campaign finance system.

In New York City electoral campaigns, individuals often lump together contributions from multiple donors to show their support for a single candidate. These bundlers, or intermediaries, as they are termed by the Campaign Finance Board, are monitored to ensure that they comply with the strict disclosure requirements. The act of bundling itself is recognized as a method of potential influence or a means to curry favor with a candidate. It’s not surprising to see real estate developers and lobbyists in the CFB’s bundler database.

Included among the bundlers, though, are even elected officials themselves. City Council members and members of the State Assembly have, in the past and in the current election cycle, bundled donations, throwing up questions about the city’s campaign finance framework that haven't been dealt with in the past.

Council members can bundle donations from others, donate their own personal money, or donate from their campaign accounts to other city campaigns. Members use these tactics to support current or potential colleagues, at times in apparent interest of advancing their prospects for the prized position of being elected Speaker of the City Council by fellow members.

For the still-young 2017 election cycle, two City Council Members have bundled contributions for other members and candidates. Brooklyn Council Member David Greenfield has collected $16,250 in total for four other candidates, all of whom are currently members of the City Council -- Karen Koslowitz, Mark Levine, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and Dan Garodnick. Garodnick is term-limited next year, but has raised money, it seems, for a potential future run for another position. Council Member Corey Johnson has also bundled nearly $15,000 for Carlina Rivera, legislative director to term-limited Council Member Rosie Mendez. Rivera is running for the seat Mendez will vacate, which neighbors Johnson’s seat in Manhattan.

“Councilman Greenfield is proud to support outstanding colleagues in government and believes it's appropriate to do so in the most transparent manner,” said Stephen Snowder, Greenfield’s communications director, in an email. Council Member Johnson was not made available for comment.

Greenfield and Johnson’s bundling is not novel. In the 2013 cycle, a number of elected officials were bundlers, although the practice is not widespread. For instance, in the last cycle Garodnick bundled $7,250 for Scott Stringer’s campaign for Comptroller and $1,500 for City Council Member Andrew Cohen’s campaign; then-State Assembly Member (now Congresswoman) Grace Meng bundled $4,000 for then-Comptroller John Liu’s mayoral campaign; there were other smaller bundles for as little as $75 for a candidate. In the 2009 elections, then-City Council Member (now State Senator) Simcha Felder was a prolific bundler, raising as much as $30,000 for six City Council candidates.

(CFB records show Greenfield has bundled before, when he was head of the Sephardic Community Federation, a few years before joining the City Council in 2010.)

The city’s campaign finance rules don’t cover the scenario of elected officials bundling funds for candidates; it is perfectly permissable. A CFB spokesperson declined comment but said the agency would consider the issue.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations, was unsure of where bundling by elected officials would potentially fall in the city’s legal or ethical statutes. “It’s an area we haven’t legislated or really dug into,” he told Gotham Gazette. “Ultimately I think what’s most important is that people are able to see who is bundling, for whom, how much, and are able to see the influence that might come from that.” Legislation related to campaign finance falls under the purview of Kallos’ committee.

There is currently a package of eight such bills under consideration, including one that would prevent contributions bundled by those who do business with the city from being matched with public funds -- though it is unclear if City Council members or other city electeds would be classified as "doing business" entities. “I think that anytime there’s bundling, regardless of who it is, we don’t want to match that with public dollars,” said Kallos, who also indicated that those bills, which have been dormant for some time, might soon be voted upon by the committee, which would pave the way for a full Council vote and movement into law -- perhaps in time for the 2017 election cycle.

When asked if elected official bundling might be an area that needs to be examined from an ethical standpoint, Kallos responded, “I’ve been pretty cautious with my campaign account and I’ve always been concerned with how campaign accounts are used. On the state level they’re used for criminal defense, they’ve been used to pay for personal items, for personal trips, for vehicles. Ultimately I believe that campaign contributions and campaign funds should be used for electoral purposes.” 

From a good government perspective, while the practice is legal, it is questionable. “While I may find it somewhat problematic that they are currying favor with colleagues and/or other elected officials by becoming a bundler, there’s nothing inherently illegal or wrong about it,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “That elected officials are doing this now seems a bit unseemly because it’s really about amassing power in front of another elected official,” he added.

Council members eyeing the speakership of the City Council do use campaign funds to contribute to other candidates, as well as bundle for current or prospective colleagues. The City Council Speaker is elected by his or her fellow Council members. Council Members Levine, Ferreras-Copeland, and Johnson are all being discussed, among others, as candidates to be the next Speaker, which will be decided in January 2018, after the 2017 elections. It is unclear if Greenfield has his eyes on the speakership, though he is already a power broker in the Council as chair of the land use committee.

Dadey said it may be a simple show of support among colleagues in government and politics, and that they shouldn’t necessarily be treated any differently than private citizens. “In regulating this business, we have to be careful not to overregulate and solve a problem that may not necessarily exist,” he said. “This is an example where we’re assuming improper motives when there may not be any.”

But, Dadey does worry about the use of bundling to “curry favor” for a speakership bid. “I would like to think that the Speaker is going to be chosen not on the basis of who has raised the most money but who has the capacity, the talents and the insight to do it.

“No one raises money for a candidate for office without some understanding that they will be there when the fund-raiser needs them,” Dadey said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

Note: this article has been updated to clarify some of the language around bundling and to remove reference to Anthony Weiner, whose inclusion was related to a time before his scandals of the past several years, which nonetheless color any mention of the former Congressman.

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In Unexplored Territory, City Council Members Bundle Campaign Donations Tue, 01 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Serving the Last Generation of Holocaust Survivors in New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6355:serving-the-last-generation-of-holocaust-survivors http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6355:serving-the-last-generation-of-holocaust-survivors levine klein holocaust survivor city council

Mrs. Klein, a Holocaust survivor, with Council Member Levine (William Alatriste)


“If our stories do not survive when we are gone, then six million Jews were murdered in vain.” That sobering call to action from Mrs. Klein, one of the 4,700 Holocaust survivors served by Selfhelp Community Services each year, rings especially true as we marked Yom HaShoah, the annual commemoration of Jewish survival through last century’s great tragedy.

At this time of the year, we are once again reminded to share the stories of the past to prevent atrocities of this kind from happening again. The time to share the memories and lives of the remaining survivors is fleeting. This is the last generation of Holocaust survivors – a sad fact that is painfully real.

To pass these stories to the next generation, Selfhelp recently concluded seven performances of Witness Theater, a program that Selfhelp brought to New York, with the support of UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Communal Fund, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Now in its fourth year, the program utilizes drama therapy as a vehicle through which high school students work with local Holocaust survivors to re-enact critical moments from the survivors’ lives, creating a moving and educational performance to share with fellow students, parents and the community.

As I watched the survivors on stage, it was hard not to notice how time is taking its toll. A small twitch in their hand, their walkers and canes, and the assistance they need from the students to move across the stage, all remind us how much support they need. And as this last generation grows older, their needs become more intense, more costly.

New York is home to more than half of the approximately 110,000 Holocaust survivors living in the U.S., with the majority residing in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester. Of the 55,000 survivors living in New York City, about half live at or below the poverty line. Many of them lack the means for even the most basic necessities, including proper housing and health care, and they live on fixed incomes that do not accommodate escalating food prices, water and utility bills, the cost of medications, and other vital supports. Niceties such as a show, a new dress, a visit to the museum are unimaginable when rent must first be paid.

The circumstances under which many Holocaust survivors live, along with the nature of the challenges they confront as they age, require special attention. Normal aging is complicated by unique problems not generally experienced by elderly persons. They have brittle bones and serious dental problems caused by malnutrition and stress experienced during their youth and early childhood. Traumas of dislocation, as well as the loss of loved ones and communities, can cause sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, or an inability to trust. Some survivors may keep food nearby at all times. Others may bathe or permit sponge baths, but will not take a shower.

To address the needs of this population, the New York City Council created the Holocaust Survivor Initiative last year, with the leadership of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Members Rafael Espinal, David Greenfield, and Mark Levine. This $1.5 million allocation supported 11 non-profits around the city to provide case assistance, socialization programs, and entitlements and benefits enrollment to the 55,000 Holocaust survivors living in New York City.

These city funds helped Selfhelp to serve almost 300 low-income survivors with case assistance. Our social workers helped clients enroll in a range of benefits and entitlements, such as Medicare and Medicaid, rental and nutritional assistance, and Meals-on-Wheels. In just one fiscal year, we conducted a total of 343 home visits and provided almost 1900 hours of case management. The funding allowed our staff to help clients access and save close to $1.5 million. When more than half of the city’s survivors live at or below the poverty line, the money they save goes straight towards food, medication, and rent.

Two years ago, Selfhelp testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on the needs of Holocaust survivors. At that hearing, Senator Bill Nelson, the chair of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, noted, “I am proud that the United States has a legacy of caring for the needs of aging Holocaust survivors. But, we must recognize that the demand for care is still there – and only becoming more challenging.”

I am so grateful that our leaders on the city, state, and federal levels of government have raised the needs of this population and started to allocate funding. However, as Senator Nelson noted, the demand for care is increasing, and an increased investment is needed.

Our elected officials often remark that a budget is a statement of priorities. With about 30,000 survivors living at or near the poverty line, struggling to get by, one of our city’s top priorities should be caring for our survivors and providing assistance so they can age with dignity, independence, and the support they need.

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Stuart C. Kaplan is CEO of Selfhelp Community Services. On Twitter @selfhelpny.

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

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Serving the Last Generation of Holocaust Survivors in New York Thu, 26 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
East New York Deal Sets Precedent for Wave of Rezonings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6287:east-new-york-deal-sets-precedent-for-wave-of-rezonings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6287:east-new-york-deal-sets-precedent-for-wave-of-rezonings espinal lander

City Council Member Rafael Espinal (second from left) (photo: William Alatriste)


Colleagues heaped praise on City Council Member Rafael Espinal last week as the deal he negotiated with the de Blasio administration to rezone a portion of his Brooklyn district was passed through committee. The process and the agreement were being watched closely by Council members, especially those whose districts are in the pipeline for rezonings under Mayor de Blasio’s larger housing plan.

Espinal, who represents most of the area being rezoned, which includes part of East New York, managed to extract significant concessions from the city to get to a framework that he said he could be proud of, taking back to his community a robust plan for new housing and infrastructure, job training, tenant protections, and other community amenities.

“From the start, I told my community I would fight for a better plan,” Espinal said at the first of the two committee hearings on Thursday. “One that wasn’t just about housing, but about developing a neighborhood that had been neglected for decades.”

The package of changes in land use rules, levels of affordability for new housing, and planned investments in East New York sets an important precedent - it is the first of 15 neighborhoods that the de Blasio administration will target for rezoning as part of a plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years. Next on the list: part of Flushing, corridors in the Bronx and on Staten Island, a portion of East Harlem, and other areas of the city where there is room for additional housing density and neighborhood improvements.

Espinal’s fellow Council members expressed widespread approval of the deal he reached, while some members who will soon be in his position are looking at what lessons they can learn. Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the zoning subcommittee that first voted on the plan, said Espinal had done “a phenomenal job,” while Council Member Vincent Gentile commended him on “a job well done.” Council Member Antonio Reynoso said, “I’ve never seen units that affordable and that much at any city-owned sites.” Council Member Ritchie Torres quipped, “Rafael, you’re the man.”

“The East New York Plan represents a new way of planning for New York City," said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement outlining the benefits included in the deal. "I thank Council Member Rafael Espinal for his staunch commitment to his constituents in putting forth a plan that truly meets the needs of East New York,” she said.

Perhaps the most effusive was Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee, which voted second, who called Espinal the “superstar of the day” and characterized the East New York plan as “quite literally the best community affordable housing plan ever in the history of new york.”

While each plan will be different, de Blasio is aiming to add thousands of units of housing to a variety of under-developed areas throughout the city in order to create more affordable apartments, while also adding new school seats, improving retail and green spaces, and more. In each case, City Council members and other local stakeholders aim to see how much community benefit they can secure as part of agreeing to major changes to their neighborhoods.

Fear of gentrification and displacement often top the list of concerns when an area is identified for rezoning, while many also worry that an influx of additional residents to an area will overwhelm existing infrastructure - transportation, schools, parks, and other public services. These are the issues hanging over discussions between local representatives and the mayoral administration, including city agencies like the City Planning Department and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

East New York is the first application of the newly-approved zoning amendments -- Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability -- which allow taller buildings and denser neighborhoods while mandating that developers set aside a certain ratio of affordable housing units in new developments, making it easier to build affordable senior housing, and creating more attractive retail space.

The proposal, which will head to a full council vote on Wednesday, April 20, is an expansive neighborhood development plan that includes $267 million in capital investments in addition to school and sewer construction funded through other streams.

“I’m actually calling this the unicorn deal,” Greenfield said. “And the reason I’m calling this the unicorn deal is because quite frankly you’re never gonna see a deal like this again. This is the new standard that’s being set in the city that quite frankly everybody else will chase. But rest assured I can tell you, as the chair of the land use committee, they’re not gonna capture it.”

Council Member Deborah Rose hopes that’s not true. One of the next few rezonings is the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, in Rose’s district, and the East New York plan has bolstered her confidence about the process. “I hope that my rezoning turns out to be the best plan with the most amenities for my communities,” Rose said. She recognizes the “herculean task” of a neighborhood rezoning and navigating the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, saying, “It’s quite stressful and often contentious. Council Member Espinal really wanted to get the deepest affordability he could under the MIH amendment. I only have accolades for him to get that level of affordability.”

Rose will be looking for more mixed affordability in her rezoning efforts, she said, not necessarily looking for the lowest income and rent thresholds available under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, which created several choices for Council members overseeing a rezoning. The MIH bands for creating affordable housing dictate the percentage of new units that must be affordable to households with certain income levels. For instance, the East New York plan, as selected by Espinal, has two of the four options, which developers will be able to choose -- one would require 20 percent of new housing units to be set aside for households making up to 40 percent of Area Median Income ($31,080 for a household of three) and another option would require 25 percent of units at 60 percent AMI (including 10 percent at 40 percent AMI).

Rose might select one or more bands that require more affordable units at higher rents - for example, 30 percent of units at 80 percent AMI.

What Rose really wants, though, are the second- and third-order investments that come with rezoning. “I see this as an opportunity to address the infrastructure issues that we’ve been trying to remedy since I’ve been in office,” she said, citing improvements that are necessary for increased density, including hospitals, schools, recreational facilities, and, most significantly, transportation. “Through this rezoning, the resources will be available to do that,” she said.

While Bay Street corridor might be much smaller than East New York, which is likely to be one of the largest neighborhoods of the 15, Rose isn’t going to hold back on her demands. “My list is as long, probably longer than Espinal’s,” she said.

“We’re a manufacturing, residential and commercial area and we’re gonna have to support all those communities,” she added. “I’m eager to get started.”

The differences in neighborhoods are definitely going to play an important role in how the city and the Council members approach the rezoning process. Queens Council Member Peter Koo, whose district includes the next neighborhood on the rezoning calendar, said as much.

“I applaud Council Member Espinal and the Mayor for negotiating a long, hard-fought list of investments that addresses many of the needs of East New York,” Koo said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “As the focus turns to Flushing, we must remember that every rezoning area has different and distinct needs. Flushing West is on the waterfront which limits depth, and the LaGuardia flight path limits height. We are also already in the middle of a real estate boom, so the city must find a way to balance affordability with infrastructure, particularly to ensure new development does not compound our existing problems with traffic, 7 train capacity and the pollution of the Flushing Creek.”

The East New York plan saw several modifications to accommodate demands from community advocates and Espinal, who, along with the Council’s land use director, Raju Mann, led the negotiations with the de Blasio administration, for deeper affordability, anti-displacement mechanisms, and job creation measures.

Among the key changes to the plan from the original version proposed by de Blasio’s City Planning Department is removal of the Arlington Village housing development. Residents and activists had expressed concern that the owner, Bluestone Group, which had purchased the property shortly after the proposed rezoning was announced, would take advantage of the upzoning without creating sufficient affordable housing units.

The city will also dedicate 500 LINC vouchers to help move about that number of families from homeless shelters into affordable housing, while at the same time moving to close three homeless shelters and encouraging the owners to convert those units into affordable housing. The city has committed to closing two by the end of June and the third in the next fiscal year.

A working group of elected officials, community stakeholders and multiple agencies will also look into helping homeowners legalize basement units. If conversions of these units is impractical, the plan sets aside $12 million to support conversions and home repairs. It also mandates a Homeowner Helpdesk to provide financial and legal advice to help homeowners modify mortgages, prevent foreclosures, access loans for repair or weather-proofing, and fight housing scams.

To preserve affordable housing, the plan will fund free legal representation to tenants facing harassment, for five years. The plan will fund the acquisition or renovation of a childcare center with $2.8 million in capital funding.

While the original proposal had provided for the creation of a new 1000-seat school, it was modified to include another $17.45 million to fund school improvement projects for existing schools.

Additionally, the plan also addresses issues of economic and community development, including large infrastructure investments and capital spending. A key part of the proposal is the East New York Industrial Business Zone which will receive $16.7 million in funding to renovate buildings for business use, improve street infrastructure and provide high-speed broadband to businesses. The city will also create a Workforce1 Career Center to provide job recruitment, placement, training and counseling services to residents. The Housing Preservation and Development department will also initiate a Neighborhood Retail Preservation Program to create discounted space for local retailers in new developments. The plan also makes investments to renovate and upgrade two neighborhood parks, create a new NYPD community center, repave streets and replace water and sewer mains.

Community advocates and neighborhood groups had protested the East New York plan for not providing deeper levels of affordability for low-income residents. Till Wednesday, the day before the initial Council votes, protesters were pushing Espinal to reject the plan and a few were even arrested outside his district office. The final plan added an option for more affordable housing set asides at public sites but not in private units or to the levels the groups had demanded.

Espinal has repeatedly acknowledged this criticism. “The plan isn't perfect,” he said after the hearing, “but this is the best possible plan I was able to get for my community.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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East New York Deal Sets Precedent for Wave of Rezonings Mon, 18 Apr 2016 23:25:48 +0000
Green Jobs Gone Missing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6116:green-jobs-gone-missing-city-limits-cuny-j-school http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6116:green-jobs-gone-missing-city-limits-cuny-j-school SolarCity photo

Solar City


***The following is an investigative series by our partner City Limits News, with CUNY Graduate School of Journalism***

In 2009, New York State officials said the Green Jobs/Green New York program would retrofit a million houses and create 14,000 jobs. The results fell well short. Are there lessons to be learned for Gov. Cuomo's new wave of energy innovation?

Albany Debate Hemmed Hopes for a Green-Work Revolution

By Patrick Donachie and Jessica Bal

When the Green Jobs/Green New York bill was signed in 2009, there was talk of delivering both energy efficiency and economic justice. But prospects for real progress were narrowed by negotiations over the law.

NYS's Green-Energy Loans Played Hard to Get

By Annamarya Scaccia and Brooke L. Williams

Some borrowers report positive experiences—and significant savings—under the Green Jobs/Green New York program. But others had a frustrating time with the loan program's rules and processes.

Flaws Plagued Pioneering Plan to Upgrade Homes of the Poor

By Samuel Lieberman, Annamarya Scaccia and Brooke L. Williams

New York charted a new path to energy efficiency, using "on-bill financing" so low-income homeowners could get retrofits they couldn't afford up front. But utility companies, lenders and ratings companies all made demands and decisions that made the approach a poor fit for households of limited means.

Video: One Man’s Path to a Green Job

By Olivia Leach

James Eleby turns discarded scrap wood into new tables at a Brooklyn factory. Learn how he got a foothold in the green economy.

Why a Green Jobs Program Produced So Few Jobs

By Rose Itzcovitz

Some hoped the Green Jobs/Green New York program would produce as many as 14,000, but it appears to have generated but a few hundred. People who worked with the initiative said abundant paperwork and an under-developed market were part of the problem.

Video: Inside a Green-Jobs Training Program

By Olivia Leach 

Go inside the classroom and hear from an instructor who's helping to train the new green workforce.

After Hope and Hype, Green Jobs Numbers Have Proved Elusive

By Maura Ewing

A few years ago, from New York's City Hall to the state house to the Obama administration, everyone was excited about the prospect of creating thousands of green jobs. The result differs from the rhetoric.

Audio: The New Math on Green Jobs

By Jack D'Isidoro

It isn't that green jobs don't exist. It's that instead of new jobs materializing, existing jobs got greener.

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Green Jobs Gone Missing Tue, 26 Jan 2016 22:13:51 +0000