Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/223 Fri, 17 Aug 2018 09:52:03 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) NYPD Pushes Back Against Calls to Reform Special Victims Division http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7602:nypd-pushes-back-against-calls-to-reform-special-victims-division http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7602:nypd-pushes-back-against-calls-to-reform-special-victims-division nypd council hearing rape

NYPD reps at Monday's hearing (photo: @NYCCouncil)


At a tense oversight hearing examining the NYPD's response to sex crimes on Monday, the NYPD opposed all four bills introduced by the City Council in response to a Department of Investigation report released two weeks earlier.

The bills seek to require evidence-based models to determine staffing levels for the Special Victims Division, more training for sex crimes detectives, and a digital, searchable case management system for the SVD.

On March 27, following a year-long investigation, the DOI released a report stating that the NYPD's Special Victims Division has been chronically understaffed for years, with only 67 detectives available to investigate roughly 5,600 sex crimes per year (ranging from rape to groping).

As a result, “a full exhaustive work effort [for every sex crime investigation] has not been possible," wrote Michael Osgood, Deputy Chief of the Special Victims Division, in one of the many internal correspondences Osgood sent to NYPD higher-ups asking for more investigators and included in the DOI report.

Osgood did not testify at the hearing.

Advocates, sexual assault survivors, a former Special Victims sergeant, and other members of the NYPD testified before the City Council regarding the NYPD's handling of sex crimes. While survivors, advocates, and the former Special Victims sergeant say the NYPD needs to act to improve the experience of victims who report their assaults, the NYPD claims no need for improvement.

The hearing was led by Council Members Donovan Richards, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, and Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Women.

Officially, the NYPD has 90 days to respond to the DOI's findings, which NYPD officials repeated several times at the hearing when asked specific questions.

But in an informal response issued on its website, the NYPD rebutted the DOI's findings, calling its report "an investigation in name only" and stating there are 85 detectives available to investigate adult sex crimes, not 67.

"The number of detectives assigned to actively investigate adult sex crimes is 67 (not 85) and the NYPD did not dispute that number last Friday when we discussed the report with NYPD officials," the DOI said in a statement issued in response.

By Monday morning, the NYPD had added another 20 detectives to the Special Victims Division, 15 from patrol, five from detectives squads. Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said that brought the total number of detectives assigned to investigate adult sex crimes to 100 (but did not account for the 100 being less than the 20 he said they added and the 85 the NYPD previously asserted).

Boyce’s testimony indicates the city now has 100 detectives to investigate 5,600 sex crimes annually.

For comparison, homicide investigations are similar in length and complexity to sexual assault investigations, and the city's homicide squads had 101 detectives to investigate 282 homicides in 2017, according to the DOI report.

The DOI made 12 recommendations, including that the NYPD hire 73 additional detectives "to meet the minimum investigative capacity required by an evidence-backed and nationally-accepted staffing analysis model" known as the Prummel model.

The DOI also said the NYPD should increase training for adult sex crimes detectives, invest in a new case management system, and renovate or relocate the facilities of all the special victims units that handle adult sex crimes.

"Investigators are not properly trained, facilities are not suitable, and wait times are extensive. It is no wonder that victims don’t report more often," said Council Member Richards at Monday’s hearing. "And it seems that NYPD leadership is just fine with victims of sex crimes being ignored."

Chief of Patrol Terrence Monahan, Deputy Commissioner of Collaborative Policing Susan Herman, and Director of Legislative Affairs Oleg Chernyavsky testified before the Council. Chief of Detectives Boyce, who is on the verge of retirement from the NYPD, was also seated at the table and fielded questions. Though Council members said they wanted to hear from Chief Osgood as head of the Special Victims Division, the four NYPD officials seated at the table took virtually all of the questions, along with some terse interjections from Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Larry Byrne.

By and large, NYPD officials asserted that the department takes rape seriously, that both staffing and training are adequate, and that their electronic case management system is sufficient.

Chernyavsky said that the bills requiring additional training would "dilute the police commissioner’s authority by dictating a particular method and duration of training."

In response to Council Member Debi Rose's bill requiring the NYPD to use evidence-based models to determine appropriate staffing levels for the Special Victims Division, Chernyavsky said, "The requirements of this bill, however, erode and encroach upon the most basic responsibilities of the police commissioner to manage this agency and its personnel."

However, Chernyavsky's response ignores the fact that the head of the Special Victims Division requested additional staffing from multiple commissioners over the course of years. The DOI report includes dozens of pages of internal NYPD communications wherein Osgood repeatedly requests additional investigators to be added to the division.

As the DOI report notes, the caseload of the city's adult sex crimes detectives has increased by 65.3 percent since 2009, when there were 72 detectives.

"I cannot understand how anyone can argue with these recommendations," said retired Special Victims Sergeant Michael Bock, who worked with the division for years. "None will be detrimental to investigations. What are we afraid of?"

Bock appeared before the Council after the NYPD representatives, none of whom stayed to hear his testimony. The department left behind two people to monitor the rest of the hearing.

Despite assurances from the NYPD that the SVD is adequately staffed, that training is sufficient, and that the division's electronic case management system is adequate, the testimonies of many sexual assault victims and advocates indicate otherwise.

As one woman, Desdemona Meck, testified, "Two months after moving to New York City, two men attempted to rape me in the Bronx." A few hours after the assault, she received a rape kit and reported the rape to the precinct.

"The detective told me I have to learn to be smarter in New York City, that I should toughen up, and in the future not be so nice to strangers. She went on to ask me if I was positive I hadn't somehow made it seem as though the sex was something I had wanted."

Meck said the detective's reaction made her feel "shameful." Meck went on to identify both of the assailants through mugshots. The detective deterred Meck from bringing the case to trial. "She seemed confident in her belief that spending more time on the case would be a waste."

Advocates who testified at the hearing like Mary Haviland, Jane Manning, Christopher Bromson, and Angela Fernandez have worked very closely with both the NYPD and sexual assault victims for years. Some attend private meetings with NYPD officials, have attended trainings for Special Victims detectives and have likewise had those detectives attend their advocate trainings.

Haviland, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, is currently involved in an audit of closed sex crimes cases. Bromson, the executive director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, and Manning, head of Women's Justice NOW, have assisted many sexual assault victims who have come to their organizations for help, often after reporting their rape to the NYPD goes awry.

"The fact that Chief Boyce could sit without a smile on his face and say that the SVD could follow up with victims is just not the reality," Haviland said. "They are not able to follow up with victims who come in. They are not able to give explanations for dropped cases or the results of rape kits."

"This issue of inadequate staff and inadequate training is something that advocates have been bringing up to the NYPD for years, we've been pleading for those things for years," said Manning.

Fernandez represents a different group of advocates who were largely not present at the hearing -- ones who work in hospitals running programs for sexual assault survivors. As the DOI report notes, sexual assault victims often have to wait hours to see a detective after reporting their assault and getting a rape kit done in a hospital. Detectives are supposed to come to the victim in the hospital, but that doesn't always happen.

"One service provider described how a client spent the entire night at a hospital waiting for an SVD detective to arrive," DOI investigators wrote in their report. "When no detective showed up, the victim, thoroughly discouraged, decided against reporting the crime to the police and went home."

Over the weekend, the NYPD rolled out a public awareness campaign aimed at increasing reporting of sex crimes.

Yet without more detectives assigned to investigate reported sex crimes, some victims who report their assaults will continue to suffer in the ways advocates and victims described at the hearing.

Both Council Members Rosenthal and Rose expressed concern over the NYPD's mixed messages -- at the same time they have put out a public awareness campaign to get more people to report their sexual assault, they have also been reluctant to add more staff to the division responsible for investigating those sexual assaults.

"With the increase in reporting, will there be enough personnel to handle these cases?" Rose asked. "It is imperative that they have enough staff to investigate these cases, to avoid the re-victimization of the people who step forward."

The NYPD's refusal to allocate adequate resources to the Special Victims Division has far-reaching consequences for victims of sexual assault and discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward to report what happened to them. NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill did say recently that when he names a replacement for the retiring Boyce as chief of detectives, that person will do a full review of the SVD.

While the NYPD currently maintains that they have an adequate number of investigators staffing the SVD, Bock, the recently retired Special Victims sergeant, says otherwise.

"I really believe the DOI report nailed it. The NYPD's denial is upsetting," Bock said. "For a long time, the running joke in the [Special Victims] office was, 'Can I have another cinder block as I'm swimming in the pool?'...Having 20 open cases on your screen doesn't feel good."

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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NYPD Pushes Back Against Calls to Reform Special Victims Division Mon, 09 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7521:questions-arise-as-de-blasio-rezones-series-of-low-income-neighborhoods http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7521:questions-arise-as-de-blasio-rezones-series-of-low-income-neighborhoods east new york planning map

City Planning map of East New York rezoning area


Later this year, the Department of City Planning is slated to release a “draft planning framework” as part of a process to rezone Gowanus, an initiative spearheaded by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander aimed at increasing affordable housing and making a variety of other neighborhood improvements. Rezoning Gowanus, a middle-to-upper income, majority-white neighborhood, would be a departure from the city’s prevailing approach to reimagining a number of neighborhoods across the city.

At the beginning of his mayoralty, Bill de Blasio set an objective to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city, a goal that has since been expanded to 300,000 by 2026. To that end, de Blasio listed about ten neighborhood to rezone, the central purpose of which is to permit added housing density. The community-wide plans that have moved forward or are on the verge of passage through the City Council thus far have include lower-income communities: East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. Downtown Far Rockaway was also rezoned, and plans are moving ahead for Inwood and on the North Shore of Staten Island.

The rezonings include changes to an area’s land use rules, typically allowing for taller residential buildings that must include a certain set percentage of affordable housing units, and promises of amenities like new schools, improved street designs, and other community benefits.

But from the start, questions have arisen around which neighborhoods are chosen for such major changes, and whether those changes accelerate forces of displacement for current residents. A City Limits analysis of East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor found that 85 percent of the residents included in the rezoning areas are black or Latino and over 50 percent of the households take in less than $35,000 annually. Far Rockaway and Inwood are in line with demographic profile of the three main, larger city-led rezonings.

Asked by Gotham Gazette about the pattern of his administration’s rezonings falling in lower-income neighborhoods, de Blasio said in February that the sample size of the rezonings is small, so no sweeping conclusions could be drawn from the pattern. He also reiterated his view that low-income communities are the ones that are most suitable for increased development.

“The opportunities to create more affordable housing have been first and foremost in some communities that have been been underbuilt for a variety of reasons,” he said. “We look for where is the opportunity to make the biggest impact.”

“East New York is the classic example,” the mayor continued. “There was a lot to work with. In some cases, there’s public land or private sites that hadn’t been built out.”’

De Blasio went on to insist that his rezoning plans have been focused on increasing affordable housing stock wherever the opportunity presents itself.   

“So my point would be, one, on the rezonings, we’re still first and foremost going to be focused on affordable housing. That’s the reason we’re doing the rezonings, overwhelmingly. And two, that’s going to be where land and where building sites are,” de Blasio explained. “But at the same time, anything we can get our hands on -- Gowanus is in the pipeline as an example.”

While de Blasio has pushed through different elements of the zoning packages, including the mandatory affordable housing attached to any upzoning, in something of a surprise, de Blasio’s practices have tracked with that of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, in terms of the neighborhoods tabbed for such increases in density. A 2010 Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy study of the rezonings under then-Mayor Bloomberg, for example, found that rezonings in areas with whiter than average populations were more likely to retain restrictive zoning ordinances. In turn, the city allowed comparatively more density in rezonings in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, the de Blasio-led rezonings, which do include many more safeguards for communities than Bloomberg’s, have been embraced by many local elected officials, especially those who’ve been able to negotiate for more local investments from the city. The de Blasio rezonings, however, have also been met with resistance from various affordable housing advocates and some elected officials.

“Overall the neighborhoods that are being rezoned are mostly low-income communities of color,” Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, told Commercial Observer in February. “They’ve all had many years of disinvestment, and now they’re facing this idea that, in order to get reinvestment they’ve needed all along, it has to come with a rezoning. I think there’s huge concern of how these shifts in the market will affect displacement. There’s a question of what’s going to get built and for whom.”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Katie Goldstein, executive director of affordable housing advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors, argued the city's rezonings have created housing that is nominally affordable, but in reality too expensive for the residents in certain neighborhoods. And the location selections, she said, exacerbate displacement pressures and gentrification. “What we’re seeing now is really just city-sponsored gentrification in these neighborhoods that have already been experiencing displacement pressures,” Goldstein told Gotham Gazette.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette last month, Comptroller Scott Stringer voiced similar concerns regarding the mayor’s approach to affordable housing. “Sometimes, there’s disconnect between the housing that we’re building and the people that can access that affordable housing,” he said. The overarching question that many have asked about de Blasio’s larger affordable housing plan, including the housing to be built in rezoned neighborhoods, has been “Affordable for whom?”

For his part, de Blasio argues the rezonings will not spur out-of-character development, nor significant displacement. Instead, the mayor says, creating affordable housing in low-income areas helps to reduce displacement pressures, especially when paired with provisions that require 30 percent of the units to be built under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) guidelines that de Blasio and the City Council passed last term.

New York City must build its way out of the housing crisis, de Blasio believes; sitting on existing housing stock will only lead to higher rents and more displacement. He also regularly reminds critics that the rezonings are not only paired with MIH, but also significant investments in eviction prevention efforts.

In addition, de Blasio offers, the added housing density in rezoned neighborhoods is coupled with improvements to infrastructure, schools, parks, public transportation, job training, and more, allocating resources for the community at hand and its thousands of new residents. Furthermore, low-income neighborhoods, in de Blasio’s telling, have been underdeveloped compared to more affluent areas, as they have not been rezoned for decades.  

Lander, who replaced de Blasio in the City Council almost a decade ago, is helming the Gowanus rezoning, in its early stages, with community input. The process began in fall 2016 with a series of community visioning and planning meetings. As Lander has repeatedly noted, Gowanus would be a different type of rezoning than the ones de Blasio has put forth.

According to the aforementioned City Limits analysis, Gowanus -- a neighborhood bordering Park Slope that shares a name with the canal that runs through it -- is over half white with a annual median income of over $65,000.

Lander believes the city should not only rezone Gowanus but should make it a priority to upzone other more affluent neighborhoods throughout the city. According to Lander, loosening zoning restrictions and building affordable housing in traditionally tightly-zoned, affluent neighborhoods can help desegregate New York.

“I think it is our responsibility to affirmatively focus on upper-income neighborhoods and white neighborhoods [for upzonings],” he said. “We’ve started to have a conversation about Fair Housing and about what we do to combat residential segregation, and build a more integrated city.”

“One central way of doing that,” he explained, “is by rezoning wealthier neighborhoods.”

Moses Gates, director of community planning and design at Regional Planning Association, told Gotham Gazette that it is not as if Gowanus is the sole low-density, tightly-zoned, middle-to-upper-income community throughout the city that could use more affordable housing.

Gates said that, contrary to de Blasio’s claims, lower-income neighborhoods are not necessarily better-suited for upzonings. “If the response is ‘we’re doing it in low-income neighborhoods because this is where we have historically had housing development,’ I’d ask the city, ‘What does that mean?’” Gates said. “It’s not like there’s no people in East New York. It’s not like East New York has less density and better transit access than Forest Hills.”  

Along with Forest Hills, urban planning experts have pointed toward middle-to-upper-income, low-density neighborhoods such as Long Island City, Bayside, Midwood, and Chelsea as opportune locations to upzone. The de Blasio administration has also raised the prospect of rezoning Washington Heights, Bushwick, Chinatown, Southern Boulevard, Flushing, and, as mentioned, the Bay Street Corridor on Staten Island’s North Shore.  

More broadly, Gates contended the de Blasio administration has not been clear on what it is trying to accomplish with its rezonings and it has not chosen optimal locations for them. “I think the city needs to look at transit-accessible places,” said Gates. “I think the city needs to look at places that do not currently have affordable housing opportunities.”

One of the obstacles to rezoning proposals can be opposition from local City Council members, many of whom are loath to invite outcry from constituents and community boards that are often opposed to adding density close to home. Though he has made clear his philosophy is one of ‘getting to ‘yes,’’ new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has also indicated he will continue the tradition of heeding the local Council representative’s wishes on land use matters, including neighborhood rezonings, and involving relevant community boards and other stakeholders. The City Council as a whole has the final vote to approve neighborhood rezonings, or single projects that require a land use approval process.

“Council Member Koo was not happy with the Flushing rezoning, and it didn’t go anywhere,” Johnson said at a press conference last month when asked by Gotham Gazette about the mayor’s neighborhood rezoning selections. “Every district has individual needs.”

He added, “Anytime you talk about rezoning, it needs to be a process that respects the local Council member, the local community board, [and[ the Borough President.”

The Jerome Avenue corridor rezoning moved through committee at the City Council on Tuesday, and will soon be voted through the full Council. The final deal reached between the de Blasio administration and local City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera is projected to bring 4,600 new homes to the 95-block rezoned area, according to the mayor's office, and includes two new schools, about $56 million in parks investments, and other community benefits. According to the mayor's office, all housing built in the area will be affordable and subsidized in the near-term, will measures in place to ensure permanent affordability for about 1,150 of the housing units.

“The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan invests in communities that have never before gotten a fair shake," said Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents Far Rockaway, a community home to a rezoning led by the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and more focused on commercial than residential growth, positioned himself as a cautious supporter of de Blasio’s neighborhood selections. “We’ve seen opportunities and communities like the Rockaways, because there is a lot of land that’s never been tapped into,” he said during a phone interview. “When you look at East New York, also -- neighborhoods with immense amounts of land where the city has never invested.”

But Richards -- who last term chaired the zoning subcommittee and participated in key negotiations to amend zoning codes and on individual projects -- said efforts to increase affordable housing stock should not exclusively “fall on the back of communities like Far Rockaway or Jerome [Avenue] or Inwood.”

“I don’t think the focus should be just in low-income communities,” Richards continued. “We should be looking for opportunities everywhere.”

Additionally, Richards argued New York is “still a very segregated city,” a problem the city’s housing policies need to address. “We need to work toward righting that wrong if we’re going to give low-income residents an opportunity at succeeding in New York City,” he said.

Asked why he believes the de Blasio administration has not adopted this strategy, Council Member Lander said he wasn't sure. “I don’t want to speculate; I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “And I think it’s a fair question.”

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Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods Tue, 06 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Oversight Hearing on Policing Protests Dominated by Disputes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7466:city-council-oversight-hearing-on-policing-protests-dominated-by-disputes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7466:city-council-oversight-hearing-on-policing-protests-dominated-by-disputes Ydanis NYPD

City Council Member Rodriguez (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council Committee on Public Safety held an oversight hearing on Wednesday to examine the NYPD’s tactics and procedures regarding protests and crowd control. The perpetually controversial issue has come to the fore once again in the wake of immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir’s detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the NYPD’s subsequent aggressive handling of protesters, culminating in the arrests of two City Council members and 16 others on January 11.

Both Council members who were arrested, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams, Democrats of Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, sit on the public safety committee and questioned NYPD officials at Wednesday’s hearing, which was led by committee Chair Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat.

Williams was released by the NYPD with a desk appearance ticket but Rodriguez was arraigned in court on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, reckless endangerment, and obstructing emergency medical services. Rodriguez, on the day of the protest, tweeted a picture of what he claimed to be an NYPD officer holding him in a chokehold.

Despite this, the hearing focused less on the allegedly brutal tactics employed by the NYPD in protests and focused more on the department’s alleged coordination with ICE. There was some discussion of the department’s approach to crowd control, though, part of a history that includes the NYPD having been accused of inappropriate suppression or brutal tactics against protesters involved with Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, antiwar demonstrations, and opposition outside the 2004 Republican National Convention.

But the hearing largely devolved into exasperated quibbles between Council members and NYPD representatives over the basic facts of what happened on January 11, including whether the department was coordinating with ICE it its detainment efforts.

The hearing is the first public safety hearing to be chaired by Richards, who was named to the post by new Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was part of the January 11 demonstrations but was not arrested. Johnson did have a tense exchange with one officer, who he pursued and reported to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill for aggressive conduct. Johnson and O’Neill discussed the totality of the day, Johnson said soon after, and the NYPD is continuing its internal investigation of officer conduct.

From the moment it began, the hearing was heated, as Council members and the NYPD officials testifying engaged in several disputes of the facts related to January 11 and to policy areas where Council members deemed the NYPD to be inadequately performing their duties.

It was noted that the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a unit of nearly 700 officers that is deployed to maintain crowd control at demonstrations, has under its purview counterterrorism, a combination that worried Council members who feared that empowering officers trained in combating terrorism with monitoring protests would result in overly aggressive policing of the latter.

The department noted that the unit was created, under the direction of former Commissioner Bill Bratton, in response to large-scale terror incidents in places such as Paris and Mumbai. Bratton’s pitch at the time: “Safe from crime, safe from terrorists, safe from disorder.

When Richards asked if the NYPD views peaceful protesters and terrorists as posing similar threats to public safety and order, the NYPD representatives were evasive, saying that the department required a reserve of officers able to respond to terror incidents, trained in disparate areas of policing like making mass arrests and handling hazardous substances.

Stephen Hughes, Commanding Officer of Patrol Borough Manhattan South, stated that in 2017, SRG had made 322 arrests at 109 demonstrations. The NYPD’s legislative director, Oleg Chernyavsky, stated that those are just arrests made by SRG, and that other patrol units can make arrests that are not counted toward that total.

Several Council members all but accused the NYPD representatives of lying under oath in saying they had not been coordinating with ICE during the January 11 incident. The officers repeatedly asserted that they had not been deputized as immigration officers and were not coordinating in any way with ICE, as per department policy. Williams attempted to refute this narrative by showing a picture of NYPD and federal Department of Homeland Security officers appearing in the immediate vicinity of each other.

“I’m hoping that what happened wasn’t intentional,” Williams said. “And I want to prevent it from happening again.”

Chernyavsky rebutted the notion that being in the same vicinity meant the two agencies were coordinating.

“I think the fact that we were physically present standing next to a federal officer who was outside of, I would assume, his or her place of employment, was an unintentional consequence,” Chernyavsky said. He also asserted that NYPD had become more active in crowd control and making arrests when its task became escorting an ambulance, with Ragbir in it, out of the crowded streets near the downtown federal building where he had had a check-in with immigration officials (there is some dispute about whether Ragbir was actually suffering from any ill feelings and in need of an ambulance). Chernyavsky said NYPD officers were unaware initially that the person in the ambulance was in ICE detention, and claimed that they even went to the wrong hospital at first, a point he thought would bolster the notion that the NYPD was not coordinating with ICE.

“What happened that day was some kind of coordination, period,” Williams said, growing increasingly frustrated with the NYPD reps as Chernyavsky asserted that it’s “irresponsible to allege that we coordinated with immigration enforcement.” They instead repeatedly asserted that they were simply enforcing existing local laws related to protest and crowd control management. They said that the events had unfolded quickly and in chaotic fashion.

The Council members signaled that they had hoped to have a more constructive dialogue about the NYPD’s policies and rules of engagement but were instead having a debate over what the facts were.

Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, also grew increasingly frustrated with the NYPD officials as his line of questioning went on. Lander was incredulous towards the NYPD claim that it was not coordinating with immigration enforcement despite having provided ICE, which was transporting Ragbir, with a police escort from Bellevue Hospital to the Holland Tunnel, which occurred after Ragbir had briefly been at the hospital.

“Up to that point, you guys were responding to a protest,” Lander said, referring to the NYPD’s insistence that they were enforcing local laws. “But at Bellevue, there was no protest.” He also noted that there was no health risk for Ragbir at that point, a justification for Ragbir’s transport by ambulance with ICE on scene. The officers contended that they were not escorting ICE, but rather were simply “present at transport” due to the potential presence of protesters, who ended up not following the ambulance Bellevue or federal officials to the Holland Tunnel. Lander contended that there was no difference between the two.

“Really?” he asked, growing impatient with NYPD testimony.

“I’m more concerned walking out of this hearing than I was walking into it,” Lander said before being interrupted several times. Lander chastised the department for failing to own up to its role in Ragbir’s detention, and for not being apologetic and acknowledging the mishaps.

Local Law 228, which forbids city law enforcement officials from cooperating with ICE by being deputized as federal immigration officers, and requires the NYPD to report the number of federal detainer requests it receives, recently went into effect. An NYPD rep noted that the department did not comply with a single detainer request from ICE out of the 1,526 it received in 2017, as President Donald Trump ramped up immigration enforcement. In 2016, Barack Obama’s last full year as president, the NYPD received 80 detainer requests and complied with two.

Law 228 was passed in November but went into effect on January 30, 19 days after the Ragbir detention and subsequent protests. Williams called this “quite a coincidence,” but the NYPD reps assured the Council members that their prior internal department policy was to not coordinate or comply with ICE. They reiterated several times that they had not complied with a single detainer request of the 1,526 that were submitted by federal authorities to the NYPD, and that the only instances where the NYPD actively works with ICE are on task forces that are related to a different policy area that both NYPD and ICE agents happen to work on, such as human trafficking or the opioid epidemic.

The arrest and detention of Ragbir, who has had a detainer against him since 2006 as a result of a fraud conviction, at a routine check-in with immigration authorities has been extremely controversial among New York’s activist and political community. Ragbir, after a stint in ICE detention in Miami, is back in New York but faces another check-in on Saturday during which he could face deportation. With the Trump administration’s significant uptick in immigration enforcement, particularly against undocumented immigrants who have not committed felonies, ICE has been making sweeps in immigrant neighborhoods and at courthouses with or without the NYPD’s cooperation.

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio sent a letter to Thomas Decker, the Field Office Director for New York’s ICE office, extolling Ragbir and pleading that he not be deported back to Trinidad, while also making the case that aggressive immigration enforcement in immigrant communities and courthouses is deteriorating trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement. De Blasio did not mention Ragbir’s prior conviction.

“These activities not only create fear in immigrant communities, but undermine public safety,” the letter read. “New York City is the safest big city in America because of the trust between law enforcement and communities, including immigrant New Yorkers. When ICE takes aggressive action against leaders in immigrant communities, it casts a chilling effect on immigrants’ willingness to engage with government and law enforcement generally, undercutting that trust.”

“The safety and interest of New Yorkers should be central to any determination concerning Mr. Ragbir, or other individuals arrested by ICE,” the letter continued. “Therefore, I request that ICE exercise its discretion to permit Mr. Ragbir to remain with his family in New York.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Oversight Hearing on Policing Protests Dominated by Disputes Wed, 07 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7419:new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7419:new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates City Council Speaker Corey Johnson members

Members of th new City Council with Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The new class of the New York City Council took greater shape on Thursday with the appointment of chairs and members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees that oversee the broad legislative, land use, and oversight roles of the 51-member body. Most returning Council members were reassigned to lead different committees while some remained in the positions they’ve served the past four years. New Speaker Corey Johnson also chose to create a few new committees to boost staff levels in certain areas and to better address specific issues that were subsumed under broader committee purviews.

In their new roles, many of the committee chairs will have to navigate a slate of issues, which in many cases will likely lead them into direct confrontation with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. This holds particularly true for the powerful land use and finance committees, both of which have new Council members at the helm. Speaker Johnson has also pledged broader independence from the mayor than his predecessor, indicating that members will be allowed, and even encouraged, to take the administration to task. He has pledged an enhanced oversight and investigations committee to lead the way in that regard.

Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. of the Bronx was appointed chair of the land use committee, which is tasked with overseeing and reviewing land use applications, zoning amendment,s and landmark preservation in the city. Since the committee has the final say on any development projects that require city government approval, it plays a prominent role in determining the success of the mayor’s affordable housing program, in particular thus far by approving comprehensive, and controversial, neighborhood rezonings in communities such as East New York and East Harlem.

The city is exploring similar rezonings -- to create more affordable housing while also injecting economic energy and other benefits into neighborhoods -- in the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and Flushing, Queens, among other communities. “Our city is at a crossroads, including my community in the South Bronx,” Salamanca said in a statement Thursday. The City Council, he said, “should be on the front lines on shaping the planning, development and all other land use actions in a way that listens to and addresses the concerns of all New Yorkers.” Freshman Council Member Francisco Moya is heading up the subcommittee on zoning and franchises which falls under Salamanca’s purview.

The finance committee, led by its new chair Council Member Daniel Dromm of Queens, also has a tough task ahead as it heads into budget season. Dromm will lead the Council’s negotiations with the administration over the $86 billion-plus city budget. The mayor is expected to release his fiscal year 2019 preliminary budget proposal later this month and the administration has been bracing for cuts in federal funding, threatened by the Trump administration, and a widely expected economic slowdown after years of continuous growth.

Last year, the Council advocated for increased savings and reduced agency inefficiencies even as they called for new funding for Council priorities. “I intend to use this position to move a progressive budget forward working closely with Speaker Corey Johnson who I thank for giving me this opportunity to serve,” Dromm said in a statement.

The Council’s budget hearings will no doubt also touch on the city’s $96 billion capital budget. Numerous Council members called last year for increased transparency in how capital projects are funded and managed, insisting that the city needs to reduce financial waste and cut down on project delays.
Johnson has now gone so far as to create an entirely new subcommittee to oversee the capital budget, chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson. “Many members, including myself, have been frustrated by the capital process itself,” Gibson told Gotham Gazette outside the Council chambers on Thursday. She said the new committee will allow expanded oversight of capital spending, particularly by individual city agencies. “At the end of the day, we just wanna say to the public, to New Yorkers and to all of my colleagues that we are spending your money wisely,” she said.

The transportation committee continues to be led by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the Move New York congestion pricing plan, which would impose tolls on the East River bridges to raise funds for mass transit infrastructure and reduced fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, while also lowering tolls on other bridges.

De Blasio has opposed both congestion pricing and the “Fair Fares” campaign, insisting that fair fares should be funded by the state and that congestion pricing is a “regressive tax” that hurts outer borough commuters. He has instead proposed a so-called millionaires tax, which Rodriguez also supports, that would accomplish both goals - subsidized MetroCards and new transit revenue. However, like congestion pricing, the tax would have to be approved by the state Legislature where it has already been rejected by Governor Cuomo and the state Senate, portending perhaps that the fair fares fight will be fought locally yet again. Cuomo appears on the verge of pursuing some version of congestion pricing.

In keeping with Johnson’s promise to stand up to the de Blasio administration, the Council now has an expanded Oversight and Investigations committee, led by Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. The committee is expected to have a full-time investigation staff made up of professional investigators, former prosecutors, and journalists. In an interview with the New York Times, Torres indicated a number of different issue areas he would approach for added oversight. “The abuse of placards. The use of eminent domain. The disposition of public land. Deed restriction. The disbursement of city subsidies. All of it is on the table,” he said.

On Thursday, Torres told Gotham Gazette that the New York City Housing Authority’s lead contamination issue, which has been a black eye for the de Blasio administration, was a “continuing concern” for him. “I have not set the investigative priorities of the committee just yet, but given my former position as chairman of the public housing committee, given my interest in the subject, NYCHA is going to be figuring prominently in my oversight priorities,” he said.

Torres’ role will crossover with the work of other committees, such as the Committee on Public Housing, which he led last term and will this term be led by Brooklyn Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. The public housing authority needs $25 billion for infrastructure improvements, with few forthcoming state and federal funds this year. The authority’s numerous public failures continue to haunt the administration and invite criticism from the Council and community activists. And although the city has put a NYCHA overhaul plan into motion and seen some successes and promising developments, problems are not likely to abate any time soon.

“As chair, I will ensure that critical issues are addressed, from heat, to lead, to security issues,” Ampry-Samuel said in a statement. “I look forward to visiting every housing development in the city and the opportunity to hear from the residents and the resident leaders.”

Johnson also chose to expand the role the Council plays in scrutinizing the city’s criminal justice system. Council Member Rory Lancman of Queens was chosen to lead the newly formed Committee on the Justice System, which has oversight of city courts, district attorneys, legal service providers and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers will be heading the Committee on Criminal Justice, which has oversight of the Department of Correction and Department of Probation. Both committees will play a prominent part in the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, which is contingent on reducing the city’s jail population to less than 5,000 -- it is currently just under 9,000 detainees -- while also creating borough-based jail facilities. Lancman told Gotham Gazette he expects to “aggressively oversee and try to reform” the city’s justice system. “You’ll see a very robust agenda coming out of my committee,” he said.

Lancman and Powers’ committees were carved out of the earlier Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which Lancman led last term. Powers, who is new to the Council like Ampry-Samuel and others, said that move “recognizes that Rikers Island and the corrections system is really its own issue that needs to be tackled in the next coming years.”

“There are a lot of thorny issues,” Powers said of the closure of Rikers, “and I think a big part of it is really making sure that we put on the right timeline and that we make sure we manage all the different constituencies that are involved here.”

New York City Health + Hospitals, the cash-strapped municipal hospital system, continues to be a big area of concern for the Council and in particular Johnson, who led the health committee for the last four years. Johnson created a separate Committee on Hospitals to oversee the system, appointing new Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera as chair.

Council Member Mark Levine, chosen to be the new health committee chair, noted a number of issues he will address, including the opioid crisis, racial disparities in health outcomes, animal rights and the threat of bioterrorism. He has promised to push for a single payer healthcare system in the city -- a priority for the speaker -- and told Gotham Gazette he expects “there will be times when the Council and the administration are on different sides of an issue,” and that its incumbent on members to advocate for the Council’s priorities. “That’s the job of a good committee chair,” he said.

See the full list of new Council leadership, committee chairs, and committee members.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates Thu, 11 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7368:council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7368:council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections City Council chambers with members

photo by William Alatriste/City Council


The New York City Board of Elections has widely been acknowledged as a dysfunctional agency in need of urgent and sweeping reform, yet the political will for modernizing and professionalizing the board has not existed, at least in part because its current structure benefits those in power.

Its system of appointments based on political patronage has long been a source of criticism and its mismanagement of election operations has frustrated voters and been the subject of City Council oversight hearings. But, when asked, the eight men vying to become the next Speaker of the City Council recently said concerns about the BOE are misguided. To varying degrees, they indicated that the board is effective and efficient, that its failings are isolated rather than systematic, and that its current structure should be preserved.

At a November 20 speaker candidate forum hosted by Citizens Union, other government reform groups, and New York Law School, seven speaker candidates -- Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, and Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan; Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens; and Robert Cornegy and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn -- were present and they mostly took the middle of the road when asked about the steps the City Council, which approves appointments to the BOE, could take to improve the board. The ten BOE commissioners include two -- one Republican and one Democrat -- from each borough.

The Council members hedged their bets and praised the BOE, recognizing that any criticism could potentially be read as directed toward the county party organizations that nominate BOE commissioners and place other employees at the board -- the same county organizations whose support each candidate is seeking in order to become speaker. The eighth candidate, Ritchie Torres from the Bronx, would later give Gotham Gazette a similar response.

None of the members were in favor of a non-partisan restructuring of the board. “That’s a tough question to ask of speaker candidates,” Williams said, to laughter from his colleagues in acknowledgement of the role of the county party machines in both picking BOE commissioners and picking the Council speaker. Williams defended the board but did acknowledge that patronage has played a role in appointments and that the Council could do more to improve it.

“We know that we do have some issues and if we can just do some more thinking through that process and make sure that it’s not as patronage as some folks may think, we can move a lot further,” Williams said, taking the most bold position of the group. “I’m not sure if we push as hard as we can when things go wrong.”

Other candidates spoke generally about reforming election and voting laws, a tangential subject that is mostly the prerogative of the state Legislature, and some staunchly argued in favor of the current partisan composition of the board, which they insisted maintains a balance and prevents one-party hegemony in elections.

“I do not support non-partisan appointments to the Board of Elections,” said Johnson, one of the three perceived frontrunners in the race, along with Levine and Cornegy. “I believe that the parties play a particular role in ensuring that we make sure that any party that’s dominant at a given time cannot run roughshod over another party. If someone came up with a perfect system of a non-partisan way to handle it, maybe I’d entertain it. I’ve never heard of that system, I don’t know how you take political influence out of politics.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Van Bramer said in response.

The city BOE falls under state jurisdiction, like all local boards of election, although the city gets to decide the board’s budget and not much else. The ten board commissioners are nominated by the county party machinery and appointed by the City Council. Representatives from the board testify at City Council hearings, usually during budget season, and receive recommendations and often admonitions from Council members, but are not bound to follow any Council mandates.

The board is often seen as favoring the Democratic Party establishment, given that the vast majority of candidates for city offices are Democrats. Candidates not backed by the party machinery are often challenged in board proceedings and kicked off the ballot, though they are often first-time candidates with fewer resources and without experienced election lawyers.

On Monday, Torres reiterated what his colleagues had said weeks ago. “I suspect you’re misdiagnosing the problem, the problem is a lack of resources,” he told Gotham Gazette at City Hall. “I suspect it’s a lack of resources more than the manner in which the appointments are made.”

He continued, “Does the BOE have inefficiencies? Yes. It’s true of every agency in city government. There’s not a single agency in city government that’s free of inefficiency. So the notion that you would cite inefficiency as an excuse for fundamentally changing the structure of an institution is dubious.” Torres said he would oppose any measures that could weaken the party organizations’ role but conceded that the Council should “study the problem comprehensively” to determine the needs and inefficiencies of the BOE.

There have been studies in the past, and each has found persistent issues.

A 2013 report by the city’s Department of Investigations found a raft of problems in elections management as well as internal board administration. In 2016, the BOE was responsible for a massive voter purge in Brooklyn during the presidential primaries, resulting in legal action by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In November, Schneiderman announced a consent decree with the BOE that requires added oversight of the board’s voter list maintenance.

Less than a week before this year’s general election on November 7, city Comptroller Scott Stringer also released an audit that excoriated the BOE’s dysfunctional election operations. At each step, the BOE has pushed back and has been resistant to change. Even when Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a $20 million incentive for the board to enact major reforms -- recommending the empaneling of a Blue Ribbon Commission to analyze the BOE, more transparency in hiring and improved poll worker training, among other measures -- its commissioners refused.

“The Mayor believes that it is critical that we reform the Board of Elections,” said Seth Stein, a mayoral spokesperson, in a statement on Tuesday. “They have demonstrated time and again that they are unable to perform the basic functions of their office, like keeping eligible voters on the rolls. The Mayor looks forward to working with whoever the next Speaker is to encourage the Board to accept the $20 million we have offered in exchange for necessary reforms.”

State-level BOE reforms have not progressed in Albany.

Those who could take steps or apply pressure to improve the BOE’s abysmal record are the very people invested in the status quo, however, and the City Council, particularly its speaker, falls squarely within that dynamic. Election experts also tend to agree that the Council can pass little meaningful reform, absent legislative action at the state level, and that the bi-partisan BOE composition is appropriate.  

“There’s very little the City Council can do regarding the structural functioning of the agency,” said Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer. “They could maybe fund the board at a higher level so it could function better.”

“In terms of patronage, it’s a bi-partisan agency, not a civil service agency. Unless that’s changed, the county organizations is where the commissioners and employees will come from,” she added. She insisted that most of the board’s employees are, in her experience, qualified and hard-working professionals. “As in any organization, some employees are better than others,” she said. And she warned that a civil service agency running elections could be open to political interference, while the current structure is designed to prevent just that.

Steiner praised, in particular, the speed and accuracy with which the BOE provides election night results. But, she said, “they are less good at some of the work regarding candidates. I think the rules structure for candidates needs substantial revision.” Unlike the state BOE, the city agency doesn’t provide a public comment period for rules changes, she said, which often leaves the candidates and their campaigns unaware and unprepared. “The administrative rules are not as easy as the board thinks they are, and they’re largely a minefield,” she added.

J.C. Polanco, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for public advocate this year, has served as  president of the city BOE and saw the problems first hand and attempted to fix them. He campaigned this year on a platform that included BOE reform. He’s blunt about the Council speaker candidates and why they wouldn’t speak up against the agency. “Each candidate has to try not to offend the county organizations,” he said.  

Though Polanco also agrees that the BOE’s partisan structure may be necessary, he believes it can be better. “One of the things to do is to professionalize the board,” he said, “by forcing every candidate to go through the crucible of the [Council’s] investigations process required of commissioners.” He favors merit-based hiring and called for it when he worked at the board.

“There are professionals at the board that get a bad rap for the failures of the board to modernize,” he insisted, echoing Steiner. “You can definitely have a professionalized partisan agency.” The board should post positions with qualifications online, he said, and more publicly seek employees. “It would require an enlightenment of the citizenry and the board,” Polanco said. He also speculated about giving third parties representation on the board, proportionate to their vote shares in prior elections.

Although the Council members poised to be the next speaker may not agree, the official they are hoping to succeed believes that the BOE needs improvement. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who, in the waning days of her speakership, has waded into conflict with the Manhattan Democratic County Committee over a BOE commissioner appointment, said the Council has discussed reforming the BOE for years. Responding to a question from Gotham Gazette, she said, “There’s obviously a lot more work that has to be done. We’ve seen the reports issued by DOI and others with the dysfunction at the Board of Elections and there definitely has to be a lot more professionalizing of the Board of Elections and being able to implement reforms.”

While much of the conversation around elections and voting in New York tends to revolve around the state’s antiquated laws, there have been local attempts at such reform. Council Member Ben Kallos has been a particularly vocal critic of the board and, as chair of the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, has pushed legislation that can improve elections and voting access. He has time and again urged representatives of the board to move towards merit-based hiring --  “I favor the civil service over the patronage appointment process,” he told Gotham Gazette on Monday. Kallos’ bill allowing online voter registration recently passed the Council. The mayor is expected to sign it into law, and it is considered valid under guidance from A.G. Schneiderman.

We can “find meaningful alternatives that can help fix the BOE at the city level,” Kallos said. “As we learned with online voter registration, with a little bit of creativity and good attorneys, I think a lot can be possible at the local level.”

[Read: City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections Wed, 13 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Speaker Candidates, All Men, Promise Gender Equity if Victorious http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7359:city-council-speaker-candidates-all-men-promise-gender-equity-if-victorious http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7359:city-council-speaker-candidates-all-men-promise-gender-equity-if-victorious City Council speaker candidates

The City Council speaker candidates (photo: William Alatriste)


At the last public forum in the race to become the next speaker of the City Council, seven of the eight men contending for the Council’s top leadership spot took turns making their argument for why they would be the right person to continue Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s legacy of protecting and promoting the cause of women, transgender, and gender non-conforming New Yorkers. Though few new ideas emerged, for nearly two hours, the seven Council members pitched their progressive credentials and promised to champion the city’s underrepresented and underserved populations.

Hosted by a coalition of 14 organizations, at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in Manhattan, the forum capped off a post-election month that has seen the candidates appear at more than a dozen issue-focused debates and discussions on everything from criminal justice to government transparency and accountability. Thursday’s event was moderated by Politico New York reporter Laura Nahmias and Shatia Burks of the New York City Young Women’s Initiative. In attendance were Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Robert Cornegy Jr., Donovan Richards, Jumaane Williams, and Jimmy Van Bramer. Ritchie Torres was the only candidate absent.

Past was prologue as the candidates took turns briefly narrating their individual histories, giving tactful yet heartfelt answers while also lamenting the obvious irony of them all being men after 12 years of the City Council having women serve as speaker.

Council Member Cornegy, who in recent weeks has risen to become one of the perceived frontrunners in the race, spoke as a family man, a husband and father of six. He noted his support for reproductive health bills in the Council, particularly one that created lactation rooms at city agencies that provide family services (he first opened a “lactation station” in his district office). He half-joked that he co-chairs the Council’s “men who get it” caucus.

Johnson, another leading contender, reminded the audience that he is an openly gay man and the only openly HIV positive elected official in New York, and that issues related to transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) individuals are “deeply important” to him. He touted the passage of his bill allowing transgender New Yorkers to receive accurate birth certificates from the city.

“The fact that the people running for Council speaker are all men reflects a failing of the political system in New York City,” said Levine, who is seen with Cornegy and Johnson as one of the three most likely to win the position when the vote takes place in January. “I think it does obligate the eight of us to reign in the hubris a little bit and do more listening than dictating.”

Richards echoed the sentiment, saying “it is shameful that there is not a woman in this race,” while emphasizing that not only would the next speaker have to focus on women’s issues, but also ensure that women are in leadership positions.

Rodriguez cited his experience as an immigrant, in a large family with many sisters. “Women’s issues are trans-sectional,” he said, while promising to continue Mark-Viverito’s legacy.

Van Bramer, who is also openly gay, spoke from the experience of his own coming out. Being an LGBTQ activist meant also being “an activist for choice and a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “The two of them are inseparable.” He proudly touted his successful efforts to open the first Planned Parenthood health center in Queens, and in helping found the first Girl Scout troop for homeless girls.

Williams, who noted early that the seven would likely respond similarly to questions, instead emphasized that he is “battle-tested to move forward” and has passed the most bills of all the candidates. His statement would ring true as there was little daylight between the candidates as they addressed the issues raised at the forum including access to reproductive health services, education, economic development and workplace sexual harassment, NYPD policy, affordable housing, city budgeting, and Council governance.

On abortion access and so-called crisis pregnancy centers -- which NARAL Pro-choice America calls “fake health clinics” that mislead women to block access to abortions -- all seven agreed that the NYPD should play a stronger role in both protecting women from protesters outside Planned Parenthood clinics and in cracking down on predatory crisis centers. Cornegy even floated the idea of a dedicated police unit focused on these centers.

Johnson insisted that Planned Parenthood is always a budget priority for him. He said the Council needed to do more to “reign in” CPCs while calling on the police to be more vigilant to protect women seeking abortions at clinics.

Levine said the Council needs to fight back against the demonization of Planned Parenthood, and use its budgetary resources to provide services for women and TGNC individuals. Should the Republican-led federal government cut contraception coverage, for instance, Levine said the city should step in to fund it.

Richards, of Queens, said there was a need to fund services where “people are living in the shadows” and expand health centers to communities like his that are underserved. And he said the Council should fund local organizations that provide those services.

Rodriguez urged continued support for Planned Parenthood and better reproductive education in schools. Van Bramer insisted that contraceptives should be fully covered and if they’re not, the City Council should fund them. Williams, who jokingly apologized that all the candidates were men, echoed his colleagues and said he looked forward to passing his “boss bill” prohibiting discrimination by employers based on workers’ reproductive decisions.

The candidates varied little on their perspectives on providing a quality education in city schools, particularly for those that face greater obstacles in the system including students in foster care, low-income, undocumented and LGBT and GNC students. Johnson emphasized that schools should not be punitive, but rather supportive and rehabilitative.

Richards, Levine and Rodriguez touted the virtues of community schools that provide wraparound services to students, including physical and mental health and social services. Levine raised the spectre of school bullying and its “frequent entanglement” with anti-LGBT prejudice, which he said the school system and city leadership have failed to acknowledge and address. Rodriguez railed against school segregation, and called for the launch of an “education civil rights movement” under the next Council.

The issue hit home for Van Bramer, who admitted being “near-suicidal” and skipping school to avoid a constant barrage of homophobic slurs. “All of us have to make sure that that stops once and for all and all children are safe to go to school,” he said.

Williams stressed a change in school curriculums to ensure the inclusion of people of color and LGBT and GNC people. Cornegy said school segregation and prejudice based on sexual orientation need to be tackled at the Department of Education, and he lauded the effectiveness of community schools as well.

Given the current national climate on sexual assault and workplace harassment, it was only natural that the candidates for arguably the second-most powerful position in city government would be asked about their perspective on the model policy to deal with the endemic problem.

Levine reiterated three proposals, which he announced earlier in the day, for rooting out sexual misconduct in city government through regular disclosure of sexual harassment claims by city agencies, a evaluation of sexual harassment policy and by elevating City Council staff complaints to bring them under committee oversight. Van Bramer also released details of bills on Thursday that would evaluate sexual harassment at city contractors and embargo those organizations with a history of misconduct. Another member with pending legislation was Cornegy, whose bill would require small businesses to detail what constitutes sexual harassment and provide hotline numbers for victims.

Richards advocated a “zero tolerance” policy and said the Council should have its own independent department or agent to monitor sexual harassment. Rodriguez called for an entire agency to do the same citywide.

Williams expressed support for his colleagues’ legislative efforts and candidly said, “The one thing we could all do immediately is believe” women’s stories of harassment. Johnson bemoaned a culture that allows men to believe they can act and behave in any way in a public setting because of their inherent power. “We have to change that,” he said.

On changes to NYPD policy in interactions with LGBT and GNC New Yorkers, Richards and Rodriguez both stressed that the city needs to fully implement its body camera program and strengthen community-police relationships. Richards said the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints of police misconduct, needs more teeth to hold erring officers accountable. “That’s where the culture shift absolutely needs to happen,” he said.

Williams touted his “demonstrable leadership” against the NYPD’s racially biased use of stop-and-frisk policing, and the Council’s Community Safety Act of 2013, which he co-sponsored. The act created an independent monitor for the police department and added protections against biased profiling by officers. Cornegy subsequently advanced the idea of characterizing negative police interactions with protected classes of people as hate crimes.

Women, trans and GNC communities and domestic violence survivors are at greater risk of becoming homeless in the city, said Burks of the Young Women’s Initiative, seeking the candidates’ ideas on improving access to affordable housing. Again, there were only slight differences in the candidates’ proposals as they called for deeper affordability and more set asides for formerly homeless New Yorkers, while some emphasized increased services and resources for survivors of domestic violence.

The 51-member Council will have only 11 women members in the next term starting January, down from 19 a few years ago, and has not had a trans member yet. In the current Council, debate moderator Nahmias noted, three women of color negotiate the city budget -- Speaker Mark-Viverito, Finance Committee chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and Council finance director Latonia McKinney. Nahmias pressed the seven candidates on how they would ensure representation of cis and trans women, and women of color in particular, in their own senior teams and in the Council’s top leadership positions, namely the powerful chairs of the land use and finance committees.

All the candidates were strongly committed to the task of choosing women and people of color as a majority of their senior leadership, and some said their staffs already reflect that commitment, though some rued the political reality that makes such a pledge necessary. “Women are 50 percent of the workforce and none of us deserves a gold star for making sure that women are in these positions and roles,” said Van Bramer.

“It is appalling that there are only 11 women on the Council,” said Williams. The candidates all interviewed with the Council's Women's Caucus and made commitments to its existing and incoming members.

Cornegy noted that hiring of people of color in the Council central staff had doubled in Mark-Viverito’s tenure, and he vowed to build on that by including women and trans individuals in particular.

Danced around was the fact that the winning speaker candidate will likely have earned the backing of the major Democratic political organizations of the Queens and the Bronx, which will then have a lot of say in staffing and top Council leadership decisions made by the next speaker.

Richards was possibly the only one to acknowledge that the speaker race will be influenced heavily by forces outside of the Council, including county party chairs and the mayor. He wouldn’t say who might be the finance or land use chairs under his speakership since “we all have power brokers that we’re talking to at play,” though he did promise to advocate for women to be chosen for those positions.

Levine stressed the need to support far more diverse candidates for the Council in the 2021 elections, when nearly 40 seats will be up for grabs. Richards said the Council’s efforts need to go further, by making sure each city agency has diverse staff, by hiring gender diversity compliance officers and ensuring that women of color and trans people move up into managerial positions.

In a brief lightning round, all seven candidates agreed to staff their senior teams and central staff with more than 50 percent women and TGNC individuals, committed to support and expand the Young Women’s Initiative, and said they would back the “Solutions out of Struggle and Survival” policy proposals identified by numerous TGNC advocacy groups.

With the last of the speaker forums, the public-facing aspect of the speaker-selection process appears effectively over. Candidates will now spend much of the next few weeks in backroom negotiations and closed meetings before the next speaker will be chosen in January when the next class of the City Council convenes.

The partner organizations for Thursday’s forum included: Girls for Gender Equity, Women of Color for Progress, Brooklyn Movement Center, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, PowHer NY, Planned Parenthood of New York City, National Organization for Women-NYC, New Leaders Council--NYC Chapter, National Institute for Reproductive Health, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, Campaign for Black Male Achievement, Citizens’ Committee for Children, Eleanor’s Legacy, National Association of Social Workers—NYC Chapter.

[READ: Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Speaker Candidates, All Men, Promise Gender Equity if Victorious Fri, 08 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Inside the Fundraising and Spending of the City Council Speaker Candidates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7356:inside-the-fundraising-of-the-city-council-speaker-candidates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7356:inside-the-fundraising-of-the-city-council-speaker-candidates city council speaker

City Council Speaker candidates (photo: William Alatriste)


The eight men running to become the next speaker of the City Council are all Democrats who were re-elected in November to serve a final term in the body. None of them faced a strong challenger in their respective races, either in the primaries, which are largely determinative of overall results, or in the November 7 general election. Nevertheless, a few of the candidates raised significant campaign cash and spent it just as liberally as if they were running competitive races. As Gotham Gazette has reported, several of the speaker candidates have donated heavily from their campaign accounts to those of other City Council members and candidates, in apparent effort to win favor ahead of the speaker vote, which will occur in January.

Among the eight candidates, a few are seen as frontrunners in the race -- Council Members Robert Cornegy Jr., Corey Johnson, Mark Levine and, to a lesser degree, Ritchie Torres -- though it is a notoriously nebulous contest with shifting dynamics. Labor unions may buoy the chances of certain members while county allegiances may supersede that support. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s role remains to be determined. The other candidates -- Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy Van Bramer, Donovan Richards and Jumaane Williams -- are considered less likely to emerge victorious, though one or more may have an outside path to the throne.

This week, the candidates had to final a new campaign finance report, with activity between October 24 and November 30. It is the last filing before the speaker vote, which is likely to occur January 3.

When it comes to campaign fundraising and spending, Johnson remains at the top of the list. His run for speaker began two years ago and the Manhattan Democrat even eschewed the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, which would have limited his expenditures. He has also been the most prolific donor to other members who ran for reelection and fresh faces that will be joining the Council come January.

Johnson raised $505,818 over the race and spent $374,707, the latest campaign disclosures show. He has $131,111 left to spend on future races or charitable donations or supporting other electoral candidates. Of his total fundraising, $209,000 came from 76 contributions of $2,750, the maximum allowable in a City Council race. A total of $73,600 came from political action committees, while a slew of his largest donations came from individuals in the real estate, hotel, and nightlife industries. Some top donors include Barry Diller, the billionaire IAC and Expedia chairman; former Ralph Lauren Corporation CEO John Mehas; and Tony award-winning producer Daryl Roth. Much of Johnson’s spending, $126,300 to be exact, took the form of political contributions, and he spent only about $22,750 with campaign consulting firm Metropolitan Public Strategies.

Levine, another Manhattan Democrat who also did not participate in the public funds program, raised $439,110 over the course of the election cycle. But Levine’s expenditure of $405,802 outpaced the fundraising leader, Johnson, and left just $33,308 in campaign funds at his disposal. There were 45 donors who gave Levine the maximum contribution, for a total of $118,250. He received $86,825 in total from PACs. Among his top donors were employees of real estate firms, law practices, property management companies, and at least one hedge fund. He counts George and Marian Klein of the Park Tower Group among those who gave the highest possible donation.

Levine has been seen as the candidate perhaps most favored by the mayor, which has raised concerns about whether he can be a sufficiently independent leader, and led him to focus many of his public remarks on leading an strongly independent Council. He retained the services of Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno LLP, an influential lobbying firm, to handle his strategy in running for speaker. He has spent $58,200 on campaign consultants, including Kirtzman Strategies and RKM Strategic Consulting, and another $84,985 on political contributions.

Cornegy Jr., the only candidate who isn’t a member of the Council’s progressive caucus, was once viewed as an unlikely next speaker, having done little to cultivate a viable candidacy, spending little money or time helping others campaign, and having a low-key presence at the Council. But with the backing of the Brooklyn county party apparatus and, more recently, support from prominent voices that can influence the race, including U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, he is seen as having better chances of prevailing. Cornegy did participate in the CFB’s public funds program, which meant he had to abide by a strict spending limit of $182,000 for each of the primary and general elections. He ended up raising a total of $184,730, and spent all but $1,722. He received $71,500 from maxed-out donations, and political action committees contributed a total of $40,650 to his reelection. Billionaire supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis donated to Cornegy’s campaign, as did Soly and David Bawabeh, prominent real estate developers in the city. Campaign consultations accounted for $67,450 in Cornegy’s campaign spending, most of which went to Mercury Public Affairs, a well-known consulting firm. He also doled out $35,750 in political contributions.

Torres, a Bronx Democrat and the youngest candidate in the race for speaker, raised $264,819 this election cycle, but he was also a public funds participant and ended up spending $108,851 for his reelection. He has $155,968 in cash on hand. His campaign got $69,400 from PACs and he received less than a dozen maxed-out donations, including one from Council Member Johnson’s campaign.

Torres’ prospects depend largely on support from the Bronx county machine, which will likely negotiate with the Queens county establishment to determine how plum Council committee chair positions are distributed. U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, who chairs the Queens Democrats, is expected to play an outsize role in the entire process this year. The two counties were sidelined in 2014 when the Council’s newly empowered progressive caucus, influential labor unions, de Blasio, and Brooklyn Democratic County chair Frank Seddio collaborated to anoint Melissa Mark-Viverito as speaker.

Queens Council Member Van Bramer, another public funds non-participant, raised $539,560 and spent $278,587, for a balance of $260,973. He received 68 contributions of the max $2,750, equalling $170,500 of his total fundraising. About $66,000 of his total came from PAC donations. Van Bramer has attempted to make public and private overtures to Crowley but is not expected to receive the county backing. Currently majority leader of the Council, Van Bramer could wind up with another top leadership or committee post.

Richards, whose district spans parts of Brooklyn and Queens, participated in the public funds program and raised $171,598, including $39,700 from PACs, and spent $150,948. He has only $20,650 left in his account. Richards is seen as having long odds in the race but was for a time expected to be the mayor’s preferred candidate after Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland announced she would not be running for reelection. She was widely regarded as a strong contender for the speakership and her exit from the Council left the speaker race dominated by men.

Rodriguez was a public funds participant but he had two primary opponents, explaining his expenditure of $242,365 from his total fundraising of $255,423. He has $13,058 in his campaign account. He received $45,175 in PAC money.

Williams, who some say could be a potential primary opponent to Governor Andrew Cuomo next year, or a lieutenant governor candidate as part of a ticket, opted out of the public funds program and raised $226,784 for his reelection to the Council, including $66,100 in PAC donations. He also had a non-competitive primary but he spent nearly all of his campaign cash, leaving just $660 in his account.

The next and final campaign finance disclosures are due January 16.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Inside the Fundraising and Spending of the City Council Speaker Candidates Wed, 06 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Candidates Give Generously to Colleagues http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7343:council-speaker-candidates-give-generously-to-colleagues http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7343:council-speaker-candidates-give-generously-to-colleagues johnson moya crowley c2

Corey Johnson, Francisco Moya, Joe Crowley (photo via @CoreyinNYC)


The eight City Council members, all Democrats, who are competing to lead the 51-member legislative body as speaker for the next four years must convince numerous constituencies of their viability, including some combination of county party leaders, labor unions, the mayor, and other influential politicos. But, when the new Council class convenes in January, the vote will come down to the 51 Council members, and they are not without agency. The speaker candidates, all men, have for months been seeking to curry favor with their colleagues, employing a variety of methods. One such tactic is to donate campaign funds to current and incoming members of the City Council.

All eight candidates -- Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Robert Cornegy Jr., Ritchie Torres, Donovan Richards, Jumaane Williams, and Jimmy Van Bramer -- have made large political contributions from their reelection campaigns, according to an analysis of campaign finance filings by the New York City Campaign Finance Board at Gotham Gazette’s request, though the amounts to vary widely.

Numbers reflect disclosures filed through November 7, the day of general election and the most recent filing deadline. The next deadline is Monday, December 4.

The speaker candidates used money from their campaign accounts to spend on a variety of political causes, but most of their political giving went to other members running for reelection or Council candidates running to replace term-limited members.

Council Member Johnson’s lobbying largesse far outpaces the rest of the members, with $126,300 in political contributions, of which $84,875 went to other current or incoming members. Johnson, who has been aggressively campaigning for the Council’s top spot long before others jumped into the fray, also gave to local Democratic clubs and Democratic county organizations. He made the maximum allowable contribution of $2,750 to 26 candidates (including Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who was unsuccessful in her reelection bid).

Levine, who along with Johnson and Cornegy is seen as a frontrunner in the race, has been second with $84,185 in political contributions, including $69,375 to his colleagues.

Most of the recipients of campaign cash from the speaker candidates has overlapped.

In third place is Rodriguez, whose political contributions to colleagues were $52,750, out of a total $57,761 spent from his campaign account on political donations.

The rest of the members spent far less to build support and help colleagues. Torres only gave $35,000 out of $59,117 in political contributions. Richards contributed $31,500 out of $37,465. Cornegy’s donations were only $27,500, Van Bramer’s were $24,675 and Williams gave just $13,000.

In total, there were 42 Council candidates from across the city who received a political contribution from another candidate, including both sitting Council members and those running for open seats. Among the 42 were a few who were unsuccessful as well as 11 new incoming members of the City Council.

The biggest beneficiary of the political giving was Adrienne Adams, a Democrat who was elected to the District 28 seat in Queens, which was empty following the expulsion of Council Member Ruben Wills after his conviction on corruption charges. Adams received $26,750 from Council colleagues, of which $18,000 was from seven speaker candidates. Cornegy was the only one who did not donate to her. Adams could not be reached for comment. In her run she had the backing of the Queens Democratic Party machine, which is seen as the most influential county party in the speaker race, with Rep. Joe Crowley at its head.

Justin Brannan, another Democrat who won the District 43 seat in Bay Ridge, collectively received $12,250 from five speaker candidates. “Having been a staffer in the Council and a Democratic organizer for many years, throughout my primary and general elections, I was grateful to have the support of many of the members I now look forward to calling colleagues and one of which we will elect as our leader,” Brannan said in a statement. “Personally, I'm looking for a speaker who will empower the members and consider the many diverse voices that make up the body.” He did not say who he would vote for.

As Brannan indicated, it’s not unusual for Council Members to bolster Council staffers’ bids for City Council. This was the case for Carlina Rivera, the former legislative director to outgoing Council Member Rosie Mendez. Rivera won Mendez’s Council District 2 seat in Manhattan. In a statement, Rivera said she was “thankful” for the support from Council members, who gave her $14,483 in total. All but $150 came from speaker candidates, but Rivera insisted that would not affect her vote. She declined to indicate which speaker candidate she may be leaning towards. “My decision on the next Speaker will be made like any other -- with careful consideration of each candidate’s record and policies,” she said. “It won’t be easy given the strength of each candidate, but I look forward to casting my vote based on these merits.”

Even as the speaker candidates’ political giving is tallied, some have helped raise money for their colleagues without raising it directly or bundling it as an intermediary. Some also raised money for or donated to Mayor de Blasio’s reelection bid, even as they attempt to sell their colleagues and others on promises of standing up to the mayor as the next speaker. Speaker candidates, to varying degrees, also went to campaign with members and candidates in their districts. Johnson and Levine were the most active in this respect, too, helping candidates to collect ballot petition signatures, knock on doors, and greet voters.

In Midtown Manhattan’s District 4, Keith Powers was elected to the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Dan Garodnick. Powers received the maximum $2,750 contribution from five speaker candidates. “I’ve known all the candidates for more than a few years,” said the former lobbyist who ran on a good government platform, in a phone interview, “and I’ve worked with them and I think they know I’ll be a good addition to the City Council. I think that’s why they supported me.”

The donations are not considerations in the race for speaker, Powers said, insisting he does not have a preferred candidate yet. “I think for everybody, it’s about the person’s ability to lead the Council, to keep the Council independent of the mayor,” he said. “I think [Council members] choose a speaker based on what’s best for their district and the issues they work on, and someone who shares their values.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Speaker Candidates Give Generously to Colleagues Thu, 30 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7331:city-council-speaker-candidates-address-power-reform-and-transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7331:city-council-speaker-candidates-address-power-reform-and-transparency city spe canidates

the City Council Speaker candidates at a prior forum (photo: William Alatriste)


Seven of the eight candidates vying to become the next Speaker of the New York City Council convened at New York Law School on Monday night for a forum focused on government reform, running the Council, transparency, ethics, voting, and elections.

The candidates made their cases for their leadership prowess, and discussed extending term limits for Council members, greater transparency around lobbying, key questions about campaign finance reform in the city, and much more.

With the city’s election season over, all eyes are now turned toward the race for who will replace Melissa Mark-Viverito as Speaker in what is arguably the second most powerful position in city government behind the Mayor. Mark-Viverito is term-limited out of office and eight men, all fellow Democrats, are in the running to replace her. The next Speaker will be chosen by the 51 members of the Council at the first meeting of the next Council class in January, though a great deal of jockeying is already going on, including influential outside forces, and a deal might be struck before the end of the year.

On Tuesday night, the attending candidates were Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, and Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan; Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens; and Robert Cornegy and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn. Bronx Council Member Ritchie Torres, also vying for the Speakership, was not in attendance due to a district event. The forum was sponsored by Citizens Union along with other good government groups Reinvent Albany, League of Women Voters of New York City, and NYPIRG. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max served as moderator.

To start the event the candidates were asked how they think their Council colleagues think of them.

Levine, the first to speak, said that he is an effective member who gets things done, citing his work with Council Member Vanessa Gibson to pass a right-to-counsel in housing court that Mayor Bill de Blasio had initially pushed back against. Richards, after saying his colleagues think he’s “beautiful,” discussed his even temperament and ability to work with other members. He said he doesn’t think his colleagues would have a negative word to say about him.

Rodriguez cited his work on the transportation committee and having been an advocate for immigrants. Johnson said he has been a leader and that the consistent theme of his tenure has been helping marginalized populations such as transgender people and victims of domestic violence. Williams said he hoped his colleagues thought he was honest, and saw himself as an activist who has guided conversations such as for the Community Safety Act. And Cornegy, who initially joked that his colleagues see the 6’10” Council member as “head and shoulders above the rest,” discussed his “temperament” and having passed bills through five separate committees.

The candidates were then asked a question they didn’t seem to have thought much about: what is the Speaker’s role in terms of oversight of how the other 50 members are doing their jobs? The candidates mostly answered by discussing ways in which to empower members. None addressed issues raised by the moderator around what the Speaker should do about a Council member who isn’t performing well in terms constituent services or attendance at hearings.

At one point, Rodriguez reiterated his call that all Council members be allowed three four-year terms. In 2008, the City Council voted to temporarily extend term limits for the Mayor, the other citywide positions, and City Council members to three terms. The move was done despite multiple public votes for the two-term limit.

All of the other candidates, save for Richards, agreed with the notion of extending term limits for Council members, permanently going to three terms for the legislative posts, while keeping citywide and borough-wide positions to two four-year terms. Some asserted that it should only be done through a public referendum, though, not simply through legislation. Candidates argued that large turnovers at once, as will happen through the 2021 elections when about three-quarters of the Council will be term-limited out, is bad for the city. (Richards later told The Daily News he also supports the measure.)

“One, I think it’s unfair that some of us had a third term and some colleagues didn’t,” Williams said. “Two, as good government, it doesn’t fully make sense that you want us to provide a balance to the mayor, but the entire city government is gonna be up at the same time. Two-thirds of the Council will be up at the same time as the mayor. We have to think about the impact that’s gonna have on how we want the government to function.”

On the issue of the city Board of Elections, a notoriously dysfunctional organization rife with political patronage and undue allegiance to county parties, the candidates mostly avoided calling for major changes to how BOE commissioners are appointed (there is one Republican and one Democratic commissioner from each borough, nominated by the political party establishments and approved by the City Council). Williams was most clear in acknowledging that the BOE has a patronage problem, and said he would be open to non-partisan appointments to the board.

Williams and Cornegy both praised John Flateau, the Board of Elections Democratic commissioner from their borough of Brooklyn.

Other candidates shifted the conversation away from reforming the board and towards New York’s substandard voting laws. Candidates called for early voting and same-day voter registration, avoiding discussion of the makeup of the BOE as they continue to seek support from the same party apparatuses that control current BOE appointments. Johnson veered to an even larger topic, home rule, whereby the state controls numerous major city issues, before disagreeing with the premise of a non-partisan board.

“I do not support non-partisan appointments to the Board of Elections,” Johnson said. “I believe that the parties play a particular role in ensuring that we make sure that any party that’s dominant at a given time cannot run roughshod over another party. If someone came up with a perfect system of a non-partisan way to handle it, maybe I’d entertain it. I’ve never heard of that system, I don’t know how you take political influence out of politics.”

Levine took a similar stance to Johnson, referring to elections as the “ultimate partisan battlefield,” not acknowledging that the BOE is supposed to be a fair arbiter and election administrator. Levine said that the partisan nature of the Board of Elections, and its Democratic-Republican balance, ensures parity between the parties and doesn’t allow one to dominate.

The candidates further refrained from criticizing county party organizations and particularly the party chairs, who are often seen as deciding the speaker’s race in the city. Richards and Van Bramer, both of Queens, praised Queens Democratic Party Chair Joe Crowley, with Van Bramer in particular singling out the congressman for praise.

“In Queens,” Van Bramer said, “we are fortunate to have a terrific leader. And I’ve said that Congressman Crowley would be a great Speaker of the House of Representatives, and I stand by that. Obviously, being a Sunnyside/Woodside guy, we have a lot of local pride in a Woodsider potentially being the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

Rodriguez, who is not a member of the Queens Democratic delegation, also had words of praise for Crowley, who is seen this year as the top “kingmaker” in the speaker process because of his ability to control the votes of many Queens Council members.

“I will be working shoulder to shoulder with County Leader Joe Crowley for immigrants’ rights,” Rodriguez said. “As a leader nationwide, if I become the speaker he will have an ally, and I know that I will count him as an ally.” Rodriguez also said he would be working with Bronx Democratic Leader Marcos Crespo; both Crowley and Crespo are known to run machine-style party organizations within their respective boroughs and together they are seen to control a bloc of speaker votes close to the 25 needed to get a candidate, along with their own singular vote, the majority needed.

None of the candidates acknowledged that part of the deal to crown the next Speaker may include choices of top leadership posts like Majority Leader and chairs of the most powerful Council committees, finance and land use. Given the vote for the next Speaker is still several weeks away, specific discussions of this nature may not have occurred yet, but they are known to have occurred in the past.

All of the candidates argued for greater transparency in lobbying and in general, to some degree. Johnson said that Council members should be required to post their schedules online to allow the public to see who they are meeting with. Van Bramer said that people can get Council members’ schedules through Freedom of Information Law requests (FOILs), but acknowledged that it should not necessarily take such an effort.

Opinions about lobbyists themselves varied. Williams joked that he would be Speaker already if he had built a tunnel to allow members to escape from them; meanwhile, Rodriguez said that many lobbyists represent good people and shouldn’t be universally panned. Williams and Rodriguez were the only two candidates on the stage who said they have not hired a political consultant for the speaker’s race. Other members defended the practice, noting how time-consuming and complicated it has become to run for the post. Levine said it may make sense to examine if there are ways to regulate the speaker’s race in the future. When asked, none of the candidates indicated they would need to take any special steps to ensure that their consultants don’t have undue influence over them if they become the Speaker.

When it came time for the “lightning round” of quick questions-and-answers, it was clear that there were more substantive differences among the candidates. Though all candidates said that the current $4,950 campaign contribution limit to citywide candidates is good and that ranked-choice voting should be adopted to avoid runoffs, the candidates disagreed other items.

Richards broke with the pack to oppose non-citizen voting in municipal elections, explaining that he had “trepidation” with the Trump administration, possibly a reference to the possibility of federal officials being able to obtain new information about those in the country illegally. The others were all in support of the concept to varying degrees, with some saying it should be restricted to legal permanent residents and others not attaching conditions.

The question that most split the field was the question of whether city elections should take the form of open primaries, which would allow any registered voter to cast a vote in the party primary of their choice. Richards, Rodriguez, and Williams all affirmed their support for open primaries, while Cornegy, Levine, and Van Bramer stated their opposition to the concept. Van Bramer said that partisan primaries are the “good government position,” despite many good government groups actively opposing closed partisan primaries. Johnson said that political party affiliation matters, but didn’t firmly answer either way.

Members were also split on whether the Council should have fewer committees (there are currently more than 40 issue committees run in the 51-member body). Surprisingly, Rodriguez said that there should be more committees, so that every member could chair one. Johnson, meanwhile, said that some committees should be folded together but others, such as Fire and Criminal Justice Services, should be separated. Williams said that the reason there were so many committees was because of the attached stipends, which were recently eliminated as part of reforms to the Council member position, including salary raises, and called for an increased use of task forces, like on gun violence.

None of the candidates wanted to answer one lightning round question: who would you back for Speaker if you couldn’t vote for yourself? Johnson, by luck of the draw, was asked first and took a long pause before attempting a roundabout answer without naming anyone. It soon became clear that none of the seven wanted to answer the question, and the round moved on with some laughter from the crowd and the candidates.

When asked for a single idea on how to make city government more transparent, the candidates all gave different answers.

Richards called for strengthening the Council’s investigations and oversight committee to hold agencies more accountable; Rodriguez called for greater transparency in Council discretionary spending; Johnson called for putting the budget online for people to easily find out where money is being spent; Van Bramer called for “gender and race audits” of the Council and city agencies to ensure parity; Williams called for the committee hearing process, and how it’s presented to the public, to be reformed; Cornegy called for city contractors to disclose the demographics of their workforce; and Levine called for greater transparency in budget appropriations.

To close the event the candidates were asked how they would seek to improve Council oversight of the mayoral administration. In their remarks, each candidate answered the question while also mixing in something of a closing argument for their candidacy. Several candidates offered a number of specific reforms they want to push if elected Speaker.

All candidates advocated for a stronger, independent Council, with Williams stating that the lack of any use of a veto in de Blasio’s term may mean the Council hasn’t pushed the envelope enough. Cornegy said that the Council hadn’t exercised its strength given by the dissolution of the Board of Estimate, and that budget issues would continue to be an issue in that regard. Richards once again called for strengthening the oversight committee, while Johnson called for increasing the Council’s central budget to be more in line with city agencies. Levine said the Council should delve into budget issues beyond the marquee items, Van Bramer said the Council should utilize its subpoena power, and Rodriguez pledged to maintain the body’s independence but work with the mayor when possible.

Full video of the forum:

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency Mon, 20 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Top City Electeds Skip Letter Wooing Amazon http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7266:top-city-electeds-skip-letter-wooing-amazon http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7266:top-city-electeds-skip-letter-wooing-amazon wtc orange amazon via edc

One World Trade Center lit up orange for Amazon (photo via NYC EDC)


New York is laying out the red carpet to entice online retail giant Amazon to locate its new corporate headquarters in the state. Governor Andrew Cuomo promised a slew of incentives to support four official proposals from different regions that were submitted to the company on Wednesday, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lit up the city in orange at night as a fawning branding appeal.

New York City’s own bid -- which included four possible business districts -- was backed by about 70 elected officials that represent the city, including members of Congress, state Senators and Assembly members, City Council members, borough presidents, and Public Advocate Letitia James. But at least four notable elected officials were conspicuously absent from the letter of support sent by the mayor’s office to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Members Corey Johnson and Donovan Richards, both contenders to become the next Speaker of the City Council, did not sign on to the letter.

“No city embodies the American traditions of innovation and creativity quite like New York City,” the letter reads. “It has transformed from a Dutch settlement, to the nation’s first capital, to a booming industrial center. It became a port of hope for millions of immigrants looking for a better life, and a model for urban revitalization. From Broadway, the Bronx Zoo and the Brooklyn Bridge, to Citi Field and the shores of Staten Island, New York City is a place where history is made every day. Our tradition of reinvention matches yours, and we invite you to join us in writing our next chapters together.”

A spokesperson for Stringer declined to comment. Multiple messages and emails sent to spokespeople for Heastie were not returned.

“We’re excited about the prospect of new businesses coming to New York City,” said Jordan Gibbons, a spokesperson for Council Member Richards, “but before we support the plan, we need more information about job standards and impact on local businesses.”

Council Member Johnson wrote in a text that he “didn’t sign on to [the] letter because I have concerns about Amazon’s labor record but also recognize 50K jobs would be good for the city.”  

As Johnson noted, Amazon’s second headquarters is expected to create 50,000 jobs and bring in roughly $5 billion in investment. One of the proposed areas for Amazon’s headquarters, Midtown West, falls in Johnson’s Manhattan district. City Council members representing other proposed sites for the headquarters signed on to the letter.

Amazon’s announcement and request for proposals triggered a mad dash by dozens of cities across the country to lure the multi-billion-dollar company. To bolster their bids, some cities and states have promised enormous tax breaks while others have pledged infrastructure investments around a potential Amazon campus. Most have hedged their bets on being able to provide the optimum balance of tech talent, affordable and ample real estate, and an appealing quality of life. One municipality in Georgia even went so far as to propose creating an entirely new city named for the online retailer.

Short of naming a new business district after Amazon, New York City’s pitch includes all those aspects. Culled from more than two dozen proposals from across the five boroughs, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, in collaboration with the Empire State Development Corporation, decided on four city areas that met Amazon’s criteria -- Midtown West, Long Island City, Lower Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. The city is banking on many factors, including its pool of 2.3 million residents who hold a bachelor’s degree and above -- a number higher than the combined comparable workforce of Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

The city has 296,000 workers in the tech industry and is growing rapidly in sectors of the economy where Amazon is diversifying, including media, advertising, fashion, and manufacturing.

And the city is already an attractive destination for Amazon, which has a distribution and fulfillment center, corporate offices and retail space in the city with plans to expand in Manhattan. Amazon’s website says it has 1,000 employees in New York, plus seasonal additions around the winter holidays.

An EDC spokesperson said the city cast a wide net seeking support for the proposal. “Considering how hard it is to get New Yorkers to agree on anything, the fact that we got so many signatures in such a short time was pretty impressive and overwhelming,” the spokesperson said, expressing optimism that New York would outmatch other cities with its bid.

Asked at an unrelated Thursday news conference about his pursuit of Amazon when he has been opposed to Walmart opening in the city, de Blasio called it “apples and oranges.” “Amazon, there are some issues that need to be addressed with labor, there’s no two ways about it. But, at the same time, this is a company talking about potentially fundamentally changing the economy in New York City. Adding 50,000 jobs is a game-changer. And it’s something we need and we need more high-quality jobs for the people of New York City. So we can work on those labor issues and I’m happy to work on those labor issues, but no, I’m convinced that Amazon will be a net gain for New York City, unquestionably.”

Responding to Johnson’s concerns, the EDC spokesperson said that Amazon’s presence in New York would afford the city an opportunity to engage directly with the firm and “work with them to advance our shared values.” Pointing out that it was premature to evaluate a deal that hasn’t yet been approved, the spokesperson said the city would be able to negotiate down the line to add guarantees to ensure the number of jobs created, salary levels and that jobs go to New Yorkers. “It’s pretty clear to us that they want to build the headquarters with the community, not in the community,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s puzzling, I don’t know why you’d want to turn down a shot at 50,000 good-paying jobs,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, when asked why leaders like Stringer, Heastie, and Johnson would not sign on. He conceded that concerns about corporate subsidies are valid, but that the Amazon opportunity is too good to pass up. “It’s a big win for New York City if we can get it.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Top City Electeds Skip Letter Wooing Amazon Thu, 19 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000