Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1005 Thu, 14 Dec 2017 18:51:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 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 non-gender 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 non-gender conforming (TNGC) 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 TNGC 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 TNGC 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 TNGC 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
City Council Members, with Notable Exceptions, Send Letter to MTA Supporting De Blasio Tax Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7278:city-council-members-with-notable-exceptions-send-letter-to-mta-supporting-de-blasio-tax-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7278:city-council-members-with-notable-exceptions-send-letter-to-mta-supporting-de-blasio-tax-plan de Blasio subway tax

De Blasio on the train (Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Amid an ongoing feud -- between the Mayor Bill de Blasio on one side and Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA on the other -- over funding for mass transit infrastructure in New York City, 27 New York City Council Members on Thursday announced support for the mayor’s proposal to tax wealthy New Yorkers to raise money for subway and bus improvements.

The mayor has pitched a tax increase on the top-most earners in the city as part of his “Fair Fix” plan, which would raise about $700 million in 2018 from 32,000 city residents, according to the de Blasio administration. That figure would rise to $820 million annually by 2022, according to city estimates, by increasing the highest income tax rate from 3.876 percent to 4.41 percent for individuals making more than $500,000 a year and couples making more than $1 million.

The revenue would be used for the subways and buses, but also to fund the “fair fares” plan to subsidize half-priced MetroCards for the city’s lowest-income residents, something de Blasio has expressed support for in principle, but refused to fund out of city budget money while saying it should be the responsibility of the state-controlled MTA.

More than half the 51-member City Council, including five of the seven members running to be the next speaker, backed the plan in a letter to MTA Chair Joe Lhota and the MTA board, on which the New York City Mayor has four appointees of the 14 seats (the Governor has a plurality of six and also appoints the chair). However, two leading speaker contenders did not sign, nor did current Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, though she has expressed support for de Blasio’s plan.

“It’s called the Fair Fix because rather than ask working New Yorkers already feeling the pressure of rising fares and bad service to foot the bill on their own, we are asking the millionaires and billionaires in our city to chip in a little extra to help move our transit system that helps make them some of the wealthiest people in the world,” reads the letter, which was sent out by Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer’s office. “This plan is the right approach and it must advance without delay.”

“We need more cost-effective capital construction for the MTA and must think of ways to generate more revenue for the exclusive purpose of bringing our mass transit system to the 21st-century,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the transportation committee, in a statement Thursday. “I am confident that Fair Fix, along with other plans proposed at the city and state levels, would raise desperately needed funds for a sustainable plan of improvements.”

Of the new revenue raised from the mayor’s proposal, $500 million would be dedicated each year to capital infrastructure improvements and the city estimates that it would allow them to borrow about $8 billion more for upgrades. At least $250 million would help provide half-price MetroCards for 800,000 low-income New Yorkers, which is based on the “Fair Fares” proposal created by a group of transit advocates who insisted that the city fund those MetroCards in the budget this year. De Blasio refused to add Fair Fares to the budget, even eschewing a smaller pilot proposal made by the City Council, but included it later in his tax increase proposal, insisting throughout that the state should bear the burden.

Any tax increases are seen as unlikely to move through Albany, especially during a state-level election year, which 2018 is, due to opposition from both Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled state Senate. De Blasio and all 27 signers of the new letter are Democrats.

The 27 Council Members who support that notion include most of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, with a few notable exceptions. Speaker Mark-Viverito did not sign the letter, nor did Council Members Corey Johnson and Mark Levine, both of whom are prominent speaker candidates. Robin Levine, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito, said in an email, “The MTA is in need of immediate fixing and the Speaker has long supported both the millionaire’s and commuter taxes.”

A spokesperson for Council Member Johnson did not return a request for comment on why he did not sign the letter.

“I'm fully supportive of the millionaires tax as I believe we desperately need new revenue for the transportation system, which is also why I support congestion pricing,” said Levine in an email. “I didn't sign on to the letter because Joe Lhota and the MTA board don't control the income tax rate.”

De Blasio has been an ardent opponent of a congestion pricing scheme, some version of which Cuomo has indicated he will offer in January when he unveils his executive budget proposal and the state’s legislative session begins. Congestion pricing typically includes mechanisms to raise money for mass transit while altering the city’s toll system and implementing measures to reduce street congestion in Manhattan.

The fate of de Blasio’s proposal is largely uncertain. It would have to be approved by the state Legislature, and Republicans who control the state Senate and have an acrimonious relationship with the progressive Democratic mayor have already thrown cold water on any tax increases. At the same time, the governor and MTA’s Lhota continue to pressure de Blasio to fund half of a $836 million emergency action plan for the city’s subways that Lhota unveiled shortly after retaking the helm at the MTA at a crisis point in subway service. De Blasio has refused, citing money that Cuomo has raided from the MTA and offering his tax plan.

Cuomo has set up a task force to explore congestion pricing but did not initially invite de Blasio, or any other elected official from New York City, to join it. Cuomo made an invitation to de Blasio during a recent NY1 interview, which de Blasio shot down, with his spokesperson calling the task force a “charade” and the mayor saying it is set up for the governor’s own purposes. De Blasio has consistently rejected congestion pricing as a “regressive tax” that would hurt outer borough commuters, despite the facts that while the most prominent plan, Move New York, would institute tolls on the now-free East River bridges, it would also lower tolls on some bridges, and that car owners tend to be wealthier than those who solely rely on public transportation.

“New Yorkers want real solutions and that's why they're rallying around the mayor's plan to ask the wealthiest 1% to chip in a little extra," said Austin Finan, a mayoral spokesman, in a statement when asked for a response to the City Council members’ letter.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Members, with Notable Exceptions, Send Letter to MTA Supporting De Blasio Tax Plan Thu, 26 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cultural Affairs Funding One Point of Contention as City Budget Finalized http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6374:cultural-affairs-funding-one-point-of-contention-as-city-budget-finalized http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6374:cultural-affairs-funding-one-point-of-contention-as-city-budget-finalized van bramer cultural funding de blasio

CM Van Bramer, Mayor de Blasio, & Dennis Walcott (l-r) (photo via The Mayor's Office)


Members of the New York City Council have joined together with cultural institutions and advocates to petition Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase by $40 million the funding for cultural programming and organizations in the upcoming city budget. With a budget deal due by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, final negotiations are underway between the City Council and the de Blasio administration, and outside groups are making their last gasp lobbying efforts.

The increase would be split between institutions built on city land, like the Queens Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and independent groups, like Harlem Stage. The mayor proposed $144 million in funding for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs in fiscal year 2017 through his executive budget. This number is down about $15 million from the $159 million in the adopted budget for the current fiscal year. (A spokesperson for the department told Gotham Gazette that a significant portion of the decrease is due to electricity savings realized by cultural organizations.)

The petition to increase funding for the Department of Cultural Affairs in the city budget is in part a response to city funding for cultural affairs having stagnated since peaking at $161 million in 2008. Despite economic growth and increased spending leading to a ballooning city budget in recent years, city funding for the Department of Cultural Affairs has actually decreased slightly overall and somewhat significantly as a percentage of the city budget, which will be in the neighborhood of $82 billion for the coming fiscal year.

A coalition of cultural organizations called One Percent for Culture, which was formed in 2010 to encourage the city to increase cultural affairs funding, is working with City Council members to draw the mayor’s attention to the needs of nonprofit cultural organizations reliant on funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs. The coalition is a nonprofit made up of over 1,300 members, including both independent groups and institutions built on city land. The Brooklyn Museum, BRIC, Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, and Harlem Stage are all members, for example.

“We are frustrated that culture and the arts have not seen any increase despite the fact that the money is there,” City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Van Bramer chairs the Council’s cultural affairs committee and has worked closely with One Percent for Culture since 2013.

Van Bramer is leading the current Council petition for a $40 million increase in cultural affairs funding, which has the support of Republican Minority Leader Steven Matteo and 44 other members of the 51-seat Council, all of whom signed a letter submitted to the mayor on May 18, just ahead of the Council’s May 19 executive budget hearing on cultural affairs and libraries.

“We asked the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs some very tough questions about where funding for culture is in Mayor de Blasio’s list of priorities,” Van Bramer said in an interview following the hearing on May 19. “[Mayor] de Blasio has been blessed with a very robust economy and a robust budget with billion dollar surpluses, but he has not increased support for cultural institutions.”

De Blasio did approve a $23 million increase in arts education funding in 2014, $1.4 million of which has gone to cultural institutions through their partnership programs with schools. But this is far from the increase in funding currently sought by the City Council, arts organizations and advocates that would go straight to cultural institutions through the Department of Cultural Affairs.

The commissioner of the department, currently Tom Finkelpearl, advises the mayor on the needs of cultural programs and controls the distribution of the department’s funds. Two department funds exist, one of which goes to support the operating costs of the Cultural Institution Group (CIG) members. This group is made up of the cultural institutions built on city land, which include the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Public Theater, among others. CIG members are receiving $103.8 million altogether through the Department of Cultural Affairs in the current fiscal year, according to a spokesperson from the department.

The rest of the cultural affairs budget goes into the Cultural Development Fund, from which the department distributes grants to independent cultural groups in the city. These groups are receiving $33.9 million in grants from the Department of Cultural Affairs this fiscal year, according to the department spokesperson.

The City Council is asking that the $40 million increase in the cultural affairs budget be split between the two funds, if it is granted. Spokespeople from CIG organizations and independent groups say they need more funding to keep pace with rising operational costs and public interest. Increasing rents in the city have hit independent organizations hard since 2008, while growing membership numbers have raised the operating costs of city-affiliated institutions, they say, without adequately providing more revenue.

“We have already worked to lower expenses,” said Pat Cruz, director of Harlem Stage. The organization receives approximately $125,000 a year from the city, and has reduced its annual operating budget from $3 million to $2 million since 2014, according to Cruz. She also says that corporate support for Harlem Stage has gone down in recent years. “Unless we receive an increase in funding, we are going to see a lot of visionary programming shut down, and I’m not just talking about Harlem Stage.”

Approximately 70 performance venues have closed since 2008 due to insufficient funds, according to Guy Yedwab, the managing director of the League of Independent Theater, an advocacy group representing theater groups in New York City. Many of the League’s members apply for grants from the city each year. Often, groups will receive funding from the city one year, but not the next, according to Yedwab. The New York International Fringe Festival is one of these groups. “They’ve gotten it so many times in the past, I’m sure it doesn’t come down to an issue of quality. There’s just not enough money,” he said.

Half of the $40 million increase in funding proposed by the City Council would go toward the Department of Cultural Affairs’ grant-making capacity, almost doubling it, and directly impacting independent organizations like the members of the League of Independent Theater. Meanwhile, the $20 million increase in funding the City Council suggests be allotted to cultural organizations built on city-owned land, like museums and botanic gardens, would help these institutions keep up with growing attendance due to the city’s municipal identification card program, IDNYC, which comes with free membership to CIG member institutions and other participating cultural organizations.

The size of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum membership pool has almost tripled due to the program, according to the director of external affairs for the museum, Lucy Ofiesh. “The expansion in our membership was a welcome change but surely had some fulfillment need associated with it,” she said. The museum’s operating budget is $5.1 million, $1.6 million of which comes from the city, according to Ofiesh. “We see about 30 percent of our audience for free every year, and that number continues to grow. So our need for public funding continues to grow, as well,” she said.

Likewise, the Queens Museum, which reopened in 2013 after undergoing renovations funded by the city, has added 3,700 new members through the IDNYC program. While welcome, this growth has come with increased personnel costs, according to the museum’s deputy director, David Strauss. “There’s always a private funder who is willing to fund initiative A or exhibition B, what there isn’t is a foundation that is really excited to fund your security guards, your bathroom cleaners,” Strauss said. The funding that CIG member institutions receive from the Department of Cultural Affairs typically goes toward these types of operational costs. “It’s just going to be an untenable situation if more people are coming in and we cannot afford more toilet paper,” Strauss added.

While IDNYC has brought many more people through the doors of the city’s cultural institutions, it has not brought in enough revenue to account for the costs, much less improve bottom lines beyond them, according to several leaders of CIG member organizations.

Asked about the push for more funding for the Department of Cultural Affairs, mayoral spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin said in a statement that the city “is proud to be the largest local funder of arts and culture in the United States.” Boeglin highlighted the IDNYC program, which was implemented by the city in 2015, and the mayor’s 2014 increase in funding for art education in schools. “We look forward to continuing our close work with partner organizations and the City Council to provide access to awe-inspiring and mind-opening cultural experiences for all New Yorkers, and to discussing all of the council's budget priorities as we approach budget adoption,” she said.

This is not the first time de Blasio has been asked to increase funding for cultural affairs in the city budget. Last year, One Percent for Culture asked the mayor to increase the budget by $30 million, without the backing of City Council members.

“The letter from City Council built out of our campaign last year,” said Heather Woodfield, the director of One Percent for Culture, which is a partner project of the 501c3 organization The Fund for the City of New York.  “We came together later in the [budget negotiations] cycle last year, but we found that our strength was aligning together.”

This year, One Percent for Culture launched a public campaign, symbolized by the hashtag #NYCinspire, to build public awareness about the need for increased funding for cultural affairs. The group’s goal is to get more residents of New York City through the doors of all cultural organizations in the city, according to Woodfield. “We are dedicated to increasing access for all New Yorkers to experience and create arts and culture. That means increasing educational opportunities for both youth and for adults and seniors. It also means increasing the workforce in the arts,” she says. (One Percent for Culture is unrelated to Percent for Art, a mandate passed in 1982 that requires one percent of the city’s construction budget go toward public artworks.)

The campaign has brought Council members’ attention to the role of culture in New York City’s economy, according to Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who ran an arts organization in Brooklyn that receives city dollars before running for City Council. But, Cumbo says that this may not be enough to guarantee the petition’s success. “Overall, there is a lack of understanding at this time of the power of the arts in New York City,” she said. “We don’t have a thorough understanding of the power of these institutions as it pertains to employment, tourism, a decrease in violence in our communities, or to the cultivation of artists.”

The City Council passed legislation last year that calls for the development of a Cultural Plan that is intended to answer many of these questions, according to Cumbo. The plan is in development now and will be released in July 2017.

In the meantime, One Percent for Culture will continue to ask Mayor de Blasio to increase the cultural affairs budget, according to Woodfield. “If we don’t get the $40 million this year, we will keep asking,” she said.“We will be talking to lawmakers after the budget is finalized this year and will be formulating a new ask.”

***
by Kate Groetzinger for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that The Public Theater is part of CIG.

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Cultural Affairs Funding One Point of Contention as City Budget Finalized Thu, 02 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
A Series of Rallies Outside City Hall http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6359:a-series-of-rallies-outside-city-hall http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6359:a-series-of-rallies-outside-city-hall Adult Literacy

 Adult Literacy Rally (Sofie Hecht / Gotham Gazette)


 A variety of activist groups and City Council members gathered outside City Hall on Wednesday morning to call for attention to their respective causes. New legislation was to be introduced at the City Council that afternoon and more budget money was being requested, or demanded, as the city’s new financial plan is due by the end of June and negotiations between the Mayor and the City Council continue.

The weather had finally begun to feel like summer and a series of hot rallies sought recognition from the media and lawmakers, especially Mayor Bill de Blasio, who, along with many City Council members, walked into City Hall throughout the morning. The central government building provided the backdrop for what felt like several attempts at the same scene from a movie - different actors in different clothes holding different signs about different causes, crowds of varying sizes trying to get the feel just right.

But, in reality, these were individuals and groups with very serious purposes, attempting to influence the legislative and budget-making process, with the City Council set to hold one of its two full-bodied meetings of the month in the afternoon, where Council members would introduce new bills and vote on previously considered items. Some Council members participated in the rallies beforehand, others may have taken note as they walked by.

The morning in photographs, with explanation below: 

City Hall Rallies May 25, 2016

Deed Restriction Reform
The day began at 9:15 a.m. with a press conference led by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Margaret Chin, who announced new legislation being introduced to the Council that would change the city’s deed restriction practices. The move was prompted by the controversial lifting of a deed restriction by the de Blasio administration that is now being investigated by several entities - the “arcane process...surrounding the sale of Rivington House on the Lower East Side,” according to the Brewer/Chin press release. Council Members Mark Levine, Ben Kallos, and Vincent Gentile voiced their support at the press conference. Increased transparency and oversight are at the center of the reforms being proposed.

Parks Funding
Following the deed restriction press conference, about 25 people gathered on the steps of City Hall to rally for increased funding for parks and green spaces. City Council Parks Committee Chair Mark Levine, New Yorkers for Parks, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and others participated. Sporting signs with the hashtag #pitchin4parks or slogans like “Flowers Not Towers,” the group of gardeners, park enthusiasts, park workers, and advocates made their budget requests clear. Levine has been pushing his Council colleagues and the de Blasio administration for more parks funding before the budget deal is reached.

Library Funding
An even larger and more colorful group came out at 11 a.m. to lobby for funding for libraries. Library workers and supporters of the cause clad in bright orange or green t-shirts stood on the steps behind the speakers. City Council Members Brad Lander, Mark Levine, and Jimmy Van Bramer were among those who voiced their support for a $22 million increase in operating funding and $100 million of capital funding to New York City Public Libraries for restoring and maintaining the buildings. “Public libraries offer New Yorkers opportunities to strengthen themselves and their communities,” New York Public Library President Tony Marx said in a press release, expressing the same sentiment at the rally. Council Member Van Bramer, chair of the Council’s cultural affairs committee, echoed Marx, saying, “Libraries are our lifeblood.”

Adult Literacy Funding
“What do we want?” “Education!” “When do we want it? “Now!”

Approximately 1000 people gathered outside City Hall’s gates around noon on Wednesday, rallying for increased funding for adult literacy. They could be heard blocks away passionately calling for an end to cuts to High School Equivalency (HSE) and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Seven hundred students from over 15 different adult literacy programs attended the rally, according to organizers, calling on Mayor de Blasio to invest $16 million in adult literacy programs this fiscal year so that their programs and education can continue.

Myra Less shared her family’s story, one very similar to many students and attendees of the Wednesday event. Less moved to New York from Ecuador when she was 21 and struggled to find work or enroll in college because she couldn’t speak English. She learned English from newspapers, TV, music, and “practice and practice and practice,” she explained. But others aren’t as lucky as her, she noted. Her mother’s English classes at an organization on her corner stopped because of funding cuts. “My mom wants to help [my sister] with her homework and she can’t because she’s still struggling with her English,” she said.

More than 6,000 adult literacy classroom seats were cut for fiscal year 2015. Of 2.2 million adults in need of either HSE or ESL classes, state, federal and city funding only provides services for 61,000 people, less than 3% of the need, according to UJA-Federation employee Sasha Kesler.

“You guys drive New York City,” Kevin Douglass of United Neighborhood Houses said to the crowd of students and advocates, “We need adult literacy.”

Budget Crunch Time
As negotiations enter their final stages, expect more rallies outside City Hall as advocates and legislators look to push for more funding for their causes. A budget deal is due by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, but many expect it to be completed sooner. Stay tuned!

***
by Sofie Hecht, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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A Series of Rallies Outside City Hall Fri, 27 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 4 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6260:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-april-4 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6260:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-april-4 New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

We're about two weeks from New York's April 19 presidential primary vote. The three remaining Republican candidates and two remaining Democrats have been campaigning in New York, which is more in play than it has been in several cycles. Hillary Clinton is set to hold events in New York City and Albany Monday, including a rally with Gov. Cuomo and a meeting with state Assembly Democrats, and while the candidates are also paying attention to Wisconsin as the week begins, New York already has a great deal of their and the nation's focus. It should be an exciting and dramatic two weeks. As this week begins, the Clinton and Sanders campaigns continue to spar over whether there will be a Democratic debate in New York before the state votes.

All three Republican candidates - Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich - are set to attend the New York GOP's annual gala, set for April 14. The candidates are expected to campaign in New York over the next two weeks.

The day of the New York presidential primaries, April 19, is also the date of special elections in the state Legislature, including the races to replace both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both those races appear competitive two weeks out. The Senate race is especially important given that Democrats are eyeing this year's elections as a chance to take control of the chamber - they already have a wide majority in the Assembly.

Monday will see return to a focus on the recently-passed state budget. Hillary Clinton will rally in New York City Monday with Gov. Cuomo and others to celebrate that the budget includes a path to a $15 per hour minimum wage and a paid family leave policy.

There is sure to be more analysis of the $147-plus billion budget this week, it was passed Friday after much last-minute negotiating (a deal was announced just a few hours before the midnight Thursday deadline, with voting by the Legislature taking place through Thursday evening and into Friday - the state's fiscal year begins April 1). The new budget was met with some criticism, largely over the process by which it was agreed upon and passed with little time for review by lawmakers and the public, and much celebration, especially over the minimum wage and paid family leave provisions, as well as increased funding for education, transportation infrastructure, and more. There is a lot of budget language to digest as the details have been made public.

The Legislature is due in Albany for three days of post-budget legislative session this week. Including this week, there are 27 days of session scheduled between now and its scheduled end on June 16. Issues to address include mayoral control of New York City schools, which expires at the end of June (the Senate will hold two May hearings, it recently announced, at which Mayor de Blasio is expected to testify), a property tax abatement program to spur affordable housing development (renewing or replacing the expired 421-a program), raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16, the Dream Act, and much more - including government ethics reform, which the governor says will be his top priority after none was included in the budget deal.

On Monday we expect the City Council's official response to Mayor Bill de Blasio's $82 billion preliminary budget plan. The Council has held a month of budget hearings and now has the state budget to consider, so it is able to give its response to the mayor, who will take it and the state budget into account as he prepares his executive budget. When de Blasio releases his updated spending plan in a few weeks, it will kick off another round of Council budget hearings as the two sides head toward a deal by the end of June and the July 1 start of the city's new fiscal year. Since major cuts in funding to the city from the state that Gov. Cuomo had in his budget plan were taken out of the final deal, there will be little drama to the city budget process the rest of the way. The biggest bone of contention appears to be whether the mayor is insisting on enough agency savings. There will also be small battles over things like levels of library funding.

Many eyes are also on East New York as the week begins. A large area of the Brooklyn community is set to be rezoned, the first of 15 neighborhoods where the de Blasio administration plans to significantly change land use rules to facilitate more housing and community improvements, but the clock is ticking as the administration and local stakeholders, led by City Council Member Rafael Espinal, negotiate the final details of the plan. There is no zoning subcommittee or land use committee vote scheduled as of Sunday evening, but one could be scheduled if a deal is reached. The parties have until the end of the month to reach and pass a deal.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

The City Council’s preliminary budget response to Mayor de Blasio is expected on Monday.

At 11 a.m. Monday at the Javits Center in Manhattan, The Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice will hold a "victory rally for $15 minimum wage and paid family leave" - participants will include "Governor Andrew M. Cuomo; Hillary Clinton; George Gresham, President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and Chair of the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice; labor leaders; advocates and minimum wage workers." City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is expected to attend the rally, according to her schedule.

On Monday at 1 p.m. at 1 Police Plaza, "Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton will host a press conference to discuss monthly crime stats," according to the mayor's public schedule.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Transportation will meet to discuss several items, such as the provision of certain parking privileges for press vehicles, the requirement of curb extensions at certain dangerous intersections, and the establishment of Earth Day 2016 as a car-free day for private and all non-essential city vehicles.
  • 10:30 a.m., the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to discuss various candidates for appointment to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Board of Corrections, and the City Planning Commission.
  • 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to address several land use applications.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Contracts will hold an oversight meeting on the challenges facing nonprofits in city contracting.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit "a Model Dual Language Program to make an announcement," at High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Manhattan.

On Monday at noon, "At a press conference Monday, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance will release a new report on Mayor de Blasio's OneNYC Plan, his administration's blueprint for increasing the city's environmental sustainability and resiliency. The report shows that six low-income communities of color on the waterfront designated by the city as Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs)—the South Bronx, Sunset Park, Red Hook, Newtown Creek, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the North Shore of Staten Island—are still the most vulnerable to the threats of climate change and not sufficiently protected by the OneNYC Plan. A number of constructive recommendations for strengthening the plan are offered in the detailed report."

At 5 p.m. Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks "at 32BJ Security Contract Rally" at the Wall Street Bull. At 9 p.m., Stringer will appear on BronxTalk with Gary Axelbank (BronxNet TV or Bronxnet.org).

At 7:30 p.m. Monday in Albany, the burgeoning Museum of Political Corruption will host a roundtable discussion and public forum on political corruption following a reception and fundraiser. Speakers include Frank Anechiarico, professor of government and law at Hamilton College; Blair Horner, Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group; Zephyr Teachout, Fordham Law School professor and Congressional candidate; Jimmy Vielkind, Politico NY Albany bureau chief; and Thomas Bass, SUNY Albany professor, who will moderate.

Tuesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m., Bill Mulrow, secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo will discuss the administration’s budget goals and legislative priorities, including a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and infrastructure projects, at a Crain’s New York Business event. Moderating the conversation will be Crain’s New York editor Erik Engquist and Ken Lovett of the Daily News.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday on the Upper East Side, the launch of LinkNYC Kiosks with free Wi-Fi and more, featuring City Council Member Ben Kallos, Assistant Commissioner Telecommunications Planning at NYC Department of Information and Technology Stanley Shor and LinkNYC General Manager Jen Hensley (86th Street and 3rd Avenue, South East Corner).

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 10 a.m., the Committee on Immigration will address a resolution calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a decision in U.S. v. Texas, which overturns the Fifth Circuit’s ruling and upholds the implementation of President Obama’s expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs.

At 2 p.m., a town hall meeting to discuss the 2017 referendum to hold a New York constitutional convention will be held at the University at Buffalo. The event will feature a number of experts, such as Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz and Henrik Dullea, who served as director of state operations and policy management for Governor Mario Cuomo from 1983-91, who will discuss what a constitutional convention would look like and the issues at stake in constitutional reform.

At 6 p.m., The Coalition to End Broken Windows will launch a two-day conference, Breaking Broken Windows, at the CUNY Graduate Center. Participants will evaluate, debate, and debunk Broken Windows policing theory, which “contends that policing disorder leads to reductions in serious crime.” They will also analyze the era of mass criminalization and imprisonment while working towards alternative solutions for a better future for New York City. Speakers include a variety of academics, advocates, and journalists, including Noha Arafa, of New Yorkers Against Bratton, Janine Jackson of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and Professor Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College.

Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Queens, "City Council "Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer and Access Queens will host a Town Hall on the 7 train with New York City Transit President Veronique "Ronnie" Hakim. At this event, 7 train riders, angry and frustrated by seemingly endless delays, overcrowding, and weekend and evening closures, will have the opportunity to ask questions and share concerns directly with the president of New York City Transit."

Wednesday
Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

The Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Institute will host a conference beginning at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to address “The Future of Charter Schools—And School Choice—In NYC,” following a recent study ranking U.S. cities on various school-choice metrics (by the Fordham Institute) finding that local political support for charters in NYC has fallen from 8th to 26th place, and the city’s overall ranking from 3rd to 12th. Speakers include Priscilla Wohlstetter, professor at Teachers College, Columbia University; James Merriman, president of the New York City Charter School Center; Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute; and Charles Sahm, Director of Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Public Safety will meet to address several resolutions on Nicholas’ Law, the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, Congressional funding for gun violence research, safeguards against wrongful convictions, and opposing the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Economic Development will hear a bill requiring a survey and study of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity among the leadership of city contractors.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet to address several issues deferred from the meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will meet to evaluate the structure and content of the preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

On Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Albany, "State Senator Liz Krueger will hold a forum on modernizing sales tax collection in New York State. New York State's current system of sales tax collection has not kept up with changes in retail payment methods and technological innovation. This forum will evaluate proposals for modernizing the collection of sales tax to improve its efficiency for retailers and to reduce the potential for fraud through sales tax suppression. One tax researcher has estimated that sales tax suppression costs New York State $1.7 billion in revenue annually. A number of other states and countries have adopted or are exploring the adoption of new technologies to address these issues."

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host a panel to discuss “Moving Beyond the Rhetoric: Creating a Diverse Workplace in the 21st Century.” Panelists include professionals leading Bloomberg LP’s Diversity and Inclusion group; Kristen Titus, Founding Director of NYC Tech Talent Pipeline; Anthony Crowell, President of New York Law School; Eulas Boyd, Dean of Admissions at Brooklyn Law School; and Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs” and will discuss their experiences in building and instituting workplace diversity policies.

Thursday
At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Columbia’s schools of International and Public Affairs and Law will host a public policy forum about policing, criminal justice reform, and public integrity. Loretta Lynch, the 83rd Attorney General of the U.S., will deliver the keynote address. Former Mayor David Dinkins, who the event is named for and is a professor at Columbia, will deliver remarks. Professor Ester Fuchs will moderate a panel on on "Criminal Justice Reform and Public Integrity" featuring Mark Peters, Commissioner, NYC Department of Investigation; Daniel C. Richman, Paul J. Keller Professor of Law, Columbia Law School; Ken Thompson, Brooklyn District Attorney; Nicholas Turner, President and Director, Vera Institute of Justice. (This event is by invitation only.)

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to address a land use application and introduce a bill establishing a temporary program to resolve outstanding penalties imposed by the environmental control board.
  • 1:30 p.m., the City Council will hold a full-body stated meeting, which will be prefaced as usual by a pre-stated press conference hosted by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

State Legislature hearings Thursday:

  • 10 a.m. in Albany, the Assembly Standing Committee on Insurance and the Assembly Standing Committee on Health will be hosting a public hearing to evaluate the process of modifying or enhancing health insurance coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act.
  • Noon in Oakdale, the Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction will host a public meeting to examine the issues facing communities in the wake of increased heroin abuse.

At 5 p.m. Thursday, the MTA will hold a public hearing about a proposal to restore service to the N and Q lines in connection with the opening of Phase I of the Second Avenue Subway, expected to be completed late this year.

Friday and the weekend
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the New York Press Association Spring Convention, which will begin at 9 a.m. Friday.

At 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Staten Island Borough President James S. Oddo will join the ROLE Call in hosting the NYC Fatherhood and Family Enrichment Conference at Port Richmond High School. This event aims to enhance Fatherhood Engagement by offering seminars and workshops in family and fatherhood services.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Kelly Fan and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 4 Sun, 03 Apr 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Questioning Importance, Council Members Spend Limited Time at Hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6246:questioning-importance-council-members-spend-limited-time-at-hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6246:questioning-importance-council-members-spend-limited-time-at-hearings van bramer alone hearing

Council Member Van Bramer starts a hearing (photo: @JimmyVanBramer)


On March 1, at perhaps the most important City Council hearing of the year, just three of the finance committee’s eleven members were present when the session began. The Council’s first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion fiscal year 2017 preliminary budget began nine minutes after its scheduled time, at 10:09 a.m., more prompt than typical Council hearings. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, arrived three minutes later, just after the finance chair, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, wondered aloud whether the speaker would be joining in as expected.

Mark-Viverito, the key figure in negotiating budget matters with the mayor, left about 50 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another five hours after her departure. Over the course of those hours, the rest of the finance committee’s members arrived at some point, staying for different amounts of time, as did six Council members not on the committee. By the time city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony began, at 4:05 p.m., Ferreras-Copeland was the only Council member there to hear him speak.

This scene is typical of City Council hearings, which regularly start more than 15 minutes later than scheduled and see limited attendance by Council members, who are tasked with writing legislation, negotiating the city budget, overseeing city agencies, and tending to a wide variety of issues in their home districts.

Gotham Gazette monitored 13 City Council hearings over a ten-day period, from late February into early March, collecting data that shows more often than not, the committee chair is the only Council member that remains to hear testimony from members of the public at the end of a hearing (7 of 13); more often than not, at least one Council member had two committee hearings scheduled for the same time (8 of 13); and committee hearings never start at their scheduled time, with the earliest start time nine minutes after the scheduled time and the latest start time 54 minutes after. The average start time of the 13 hearings was 23 minutes past scheduled start.

“We actually have multiple members who stayed for the entire hearing,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a nearly four-hour Feb. 3 hearing he chaired on a package of legislation to raise the salaries of city elected officials, including Council members. “That is incredibly rare.”

It can be frustrating for members of the public to miss work and spend hours at committee hearings waiting for their turn to testify, only to find that most Council members have left before they’ve had a chance to speak. Yet to Council members, leaving hearings early or arriving late is often seen as necessary, either due to conflicting hearings or meetings, or to take care of something in their home districts.

“If I were to stay the whole time for every hearing…hours and hours of time would be diverted away from district meetings and staff meetings,” Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette, capturing a theme touched upon in several conversations with Council members about hearings.

“What substantive cross examination can you conduct in the span of two or three minutes?” Torres asked, referring to the fact that committee members are allotted a short amount of time to ask questions during hearings (multiple rounds of questions are usually allowed by the chair, though). “If I want to question a commissioner in detail, I might as well meet with them in private.”

The “real oversight” happens when a Council member runs a hearing as committee chair, Torres added. It as a sentiment voiced by multiple members Gotham Gazette spoke with about the value of hearings and hearing attendance. Many say that they rely upon the chair to conduct strong hearings and are able to be briefed by committee staff, their own staff members, and others.

The oversight that comes with conducting and attending hearings “is perhaps the key element” of Council members’ jobs, said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Yet because the City Council has “a huge amount of hearings and committees,” Russianoff says, Council members often have multiple hearings they must attend that are scheduled at the same time.

Both good government experts like Russianoff and Council members themselves say they believe the large number of committees is related to the recently-banned practice of distributing stipends, or lulus, for chairing committees, and that the number of committees should be examined and potentially reduced. “I think [the large number of committees] was a result of all the Council members wanting to get these lulus,” Russianoff said of the typically $5,000-$10,000 bonuses Council members received for their work as chairs.

“I think that with the elimination of lulus, we’ll hopefully see a reduction in the number of committees,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. The 51-seat Council has 36 committees and six subcommittees.

With all those committees and members sitting on an average of six committees each, avoiding scheduling conflicts can be a near impossible task, particularly when hearings go on for four or five hours. Council hearings typically begin at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.

On March 9, Council members on the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved a resolution to "delete" the Committee on Community Development, but Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, said “there is not a more comprehensive look [at the number of committees] underway.” Lander believes that the number of Council committees helps the Council do its legislative and oversight work better.

While the Council’s move to do away with lulus - which came in conjunction with the pay raises and other reforms - may potentially reduce the number of committees, Russianoff says that in the meantime, he “still believes” Council members’ attendance at committee hearings and the scheduling conflicts created by having so many committee hearings “is a key thing and it is something that they should deal with. It should be a top priority. It’s where they hear from and interact with city officials.”

For Council members, fulfilling their obligations to attend committee hearings, press conferences, public events, other meetings (such as leadership meetings or policy meetings), and addressing the concerns of constituents in their districts is a balancing act. The decision to miss part of a committee hearing is often the result of prioritizing time in their districts above spending hours listening to testimony.

“Most days feel like a sprint,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who represents portions of upper Manhattan. “But there’s no substitute for showing up in person, whether it’s a public event, meeting with a local leader or commissioner, a press conference, or a hearing; so as much as possible, we try to be in two places at once.” 

Levine, a member of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, was able to spend just five minutes at the committee’s March 3 preliminary budget hearing. This was due to the fact that he had to chair the Committee on Parks and Recreation preliminary budget hearing held at the same time.

Generally, when Council members are unable to remain for the duration of a hearing, they have a member of their staff attend, take notes, and fill them in on key information they may have missed, or they get briefed by committee staff. Others, like Council Members Torres and Levine, catch up on what they missed by watching videos of hearings that are posted on the Council’s website, they said, or by reading through parts of written testimony.

Council members question whether spending several hours at a committee hearing is the best use of their time.

“I will confess that it’s not necessarily worthwhile to remain throughout the duration, and here’s why: I often tell people there are no committees, there are only committee chairs. When you’re a committee chair, there’s no limit to the duration or depth of your questioning,” said Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Committee on Public Housing.

“Whereas if I go to another committee, I have to wait two hours to get five minutes of questioning,” Torres continued, adding that oftentimes, committee members don’t even get five minutes, because agency heads or members of the administration who testify “filibuster for three minutes…Waiting two hours for a few minutes of questioning seems like a squander of time.”

Yet it seems some Council members find there is value in spending time at committee hearings even if they’re not the chair. Council Member Kallos remained for the duration of a 40-minute Subcommittee on Landmarks hearing on Feb. 25, and showed up for an hour or more to three other hearings monitored by Gotham Gazette, though he is not a member of the committees holding those hearings.

“In fairness, those are hearings on my legislation,” Kallos said. Council members do not always attend hearings on their bills, but, Kallos says, “when my bill is being heard, a lot of the time those are people I’ve invited. It would be impolite for me to not be there.”

As Torres admits, it “can be deeply demoralizing” for members of the public to wait several hours for their chance to testify, only to find that just one or two Council members have stayed to listen to them. As almost all City Council hearings take place during normal work hours, it can be difficult for members of the public to attend hearings. Often, those who wish to testify take time off from work in order to speak before the Council.

matteo hearing - william alatriste photoWhile Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents part of Staten Island, believes attendance at hearings is important and stressed his excellent attendance record, he also said that remaining for the duration of a hearing is not usually the best use of time. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the priority that day?’ Sometime’s it’s spending time in a hearing,” Matteo told Gotham Gazette, “sometimes, I need to be in my district…it’s extremely important to be in the district.”

“I’m always asking myself what’s the most efficient use of my time, I can’t be in two or three places at once,” said Matteo (pictured), echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the Council members contacted for this story. Gotham Gazette presented about a dozen Council members or their representatives with detailed instances of their attendance during the 13 monitored hearings and those who responded typically explained their limited hearing presence with specific responsibilities they were attending to.

Remaining at hearings for the entire time “takes away from being in the district, but is a big part of what we do,” Council Member Daneek Miller explained. “The hearing part is something that I’ve committed to. I do hearings that are outside of my committees, I did consumer affairs and public safety [budget hearings] because those are issues that impact the community and you need access [to agency commissioners].”

Council Members Matteo, Levine, and Rafael Espinal all told Gotham Gazette that when there’s a hearing held on something that has a meaningful impact in their districts, they make sure to attend.

Miller did spend about an hour and a half at a March 3 housing and buildings hearing, though he is not a member of that committee. At the March 1 finance committee budget hearing, Miller arrived two and a half hours late, stayed for two hours, and then left about an hour and a half before the hearing concluded. Miller explained that he arrived around 11:30 a.m. because he was with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery for a site visit to a daycare center to promote the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion, and left early because he had meetings scheduled in his legislative office.

Matteo, Minority Leader of the Council’s three-member Republican minority, arrived 21 minutes late to the 10 a.m. Feb. 23 Committee on Health hearing because he was attending a leadership meeting elsewhere in City Hall, he said, and left before the hearing ended because he had a budget negotiating team meeting to attend.

Matteo arrived early for the 10 a.m. March 1 preliminary budget hearing held by the finance committee, and left an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing began in order to attend an 11:30 meeting with Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, he said.

Espinal arrived almost two hours after the start of the March 3 housing and buildings hearing on the preliminary budget, and left less than 20 minutes later. Espinal said he had meetings at 250 Broadway on the proposed East New York rezoning to attend. Earlier, Espinal arrived 50 minutes after the 11 a.m. Feb. 22 Committee on Housing and Buildings hearing began because he had to chair a consumer affairs committee hearing which began at 10 a.m.

“I sit on seven committees,” Espinal said. “There are many conflicting committee hearings and we have to make a decision. It’s sometimes impossible to do both.”

While Council members may come and go when they want or need to during hearings, members of the public are often left waiting hours for their chance to speak for a few minutes.

“It’s difficult for members of the public, particularly the moderate- and low-income tenants we work with,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), a coalition group that often testifies before the Council on housing issues. “If they want to attend, often they have to take off work and find childcare and go to great lengths,” added Goldstein, who testified at the Feb. 22 hearing held by the Committee on Housing and Buildings.

Kallos agreed that “for members of the public, it’s often frustrating to be at a multi-hour hearing with only one Council Member, while other Council members show up and leave.”

Typically at City Council hearings, representatives of the mayoral administration testify first, often giving opening remarks that run at least 10 minutes, and then are questioned by Council members, regularly for multiple hours. “It really would be good practice if we could get members of the public in more at the front, so they can participate with less disruption to their daily lives, and with more ability to be heard by their elected officials,” Goldstein said.

Council members said that they often get briefed by advocacy groups, are able to read materials sent to them, and have aides who can provide essential information to help them make decisions, craft legislation, or follow-up with an agency official.

Council Member Mark Treyger agreed the length of time mayoral administration officials spend testifying could be improved. “We ask the public to condense their statements. But some opening statements [from administration officials] run 10-, 15-, 25-minutes long, which is unnecessary…It’s sometimes redundant to hear information we’ve already been briefed on.”

Allowing the public to testify sooner or limiting the amount of time administration officials spend on their opening remarks could make testifying less difficult for regular citizens and potentially cut down on the length of committee hearings, but would do little in the way of improving Council members’ ability to attend.

The Council has actually made some strides toward reducing the number of hearings in recent years. As part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, the number of times committees are required to meet per year was halved from ten to five. Some committees, like the Committee on Government Operations, need to meet more frequently than others because they have oversight of many city agencies.

But, the City Council has become busier in recent years. As Mark-Viverito wrote in a December letter submitted to the quadrennial advisory commission on elected officials’ compensation, “Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session.” With more legislation being put forth, more hearings to introduce, consider, and vote on those bills have been needed.

Provided with information gathered by Gotham Gazette about hearing start-times and hearing attendance, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito said that the Council is pleased with the way it is doing its business. “The City Council holds hundreds of hearings a year on issues which matter to New Yorkers and we’re very proud of our strong record,” said Eric Koch in an emailed statement. “Council Members take hearings very seriously, which is why our substantive hearings have led to countless pieces of legislation, land use and budget items being passed. The City Council looks forward to our continued work on behalf of all New Yorkers.”

Council members and good government groups alike say more can be done to improve the scheduling constraints Council members face because they are members of so many different committees. For example, Council Member Treyger needed to leave the Feb. 29 government operations hearing for about 20 minutes in order to vote in a Land Use hearing held at the same time. “Treyger has to vote for land use,” Kallos, who chairs government operations, said at the time, “we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time.”

“Part of the problem is that there's too many committees,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform group, told Gotham Gazette. “It’s a complex issue. From the public’s point of view, they want Council members to be present when they testify. “

The recent deletion of the Committee on Community Development was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee and resigned last year. After the resolution to delete the committee was approved, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation had “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by other committees that’s really important there?’”

Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly because the committee did not have direct oversight of any specific city agency, Lander said. While several Council members told Gotham Gazette they believe the number of committees should be reduced and that some committees could be combined, Lander says further examination of the number of committees is not happening.

“I think there should be an examination of which committees are worth preserving. There are some committees where the oversight is too broad,” Torres said.

“We should probably combine committees that have overlapping jurisdiction,” Council Member Joe Borelli told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we don’t have lulus, and lulus were the reason we have so many committees, why don’t we eliminate some of them?”

lander hearing - william alatriste photoYet Lander believes the large number of committees is actually beneficial for New Yorkers, because it allows the Council to take on a wider variety of important issues, and allows Council members to hold more focused hearings that “drill down” into the details of a subject.

“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” said Lander (pictured). Lander rejected the notion of combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, because he believes it would reduce the amount of time and attention issues and stakeholders get.

Kallos is not in agreement with that point, saying “I continue to support reduction of committees and the elimination of lulus will make that easier.” To Kallos, who currently sits on eight committees, fewer committees may not necessarily result in fewer committee hearings, but fewer committee hearings would allow Council members to spend more time on constituent services.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a former City Council member who works with members in her new role and at times testifies at the City Council. "I think it might help if there weren't quite as many Council committees," Brewer said in a statement. "There are always too many demands on a member's time – especially when committees are often scheduled concurrently – yet hearings are the best way to learn more about the government that's serving the people we represent. In my opinion, stopping by and signing in just isn't enough, yet that's what too many members are reduced to."

Of the dozen Council members that Gotham Gazette reached out to, two were not made available for comment, and did not provide an explanation for their attendance at committee hearings monitored for this story.

Council Member Laurie Cumbo arrived 50 minutes after the scheduled start time of the Feb. 25 Committee on Youth Services hearing, and departed 16 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another two hours after her departure.

Council Member Vincent Gentile arrived on time for a 9:30 a.m. Feb. 25 Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing, though the hearing did not actually begin until 50 minutes later. By that time, Gentile had already left to attend a 10 a.m. health committee hearing on a bill of his.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s spokesperson, Russell Murphy, provided a statement saying “while attending hearings is a major part of the job, members often face competing hearings at the same time, meetings with constituents facing issues or non-profits seeking discretionary funding, district related work such as land-use meetings and more.”

Neither Murphy nor Rodriguez specified Rodriguez’s scheduling conflicts for the hearings in question. Rodriguez stepped out twice for a total of nearly four hours during the finance committee’s March 1 hearing on the preliminary budget, though he did not leave the hearing for good until 3:46, half an hour before the hearing officially ended.

It is possible that Rodriguez remained in the building and watched the hearing as it was livestreamed, as Council Member Corey Johnson said he was doing for that hearing, though Rodriguez did not clarify this when asked by Gotham Gazette. At 3:41 p.m., while the Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction was testifying, Johnson rushed back into the Council chambers to question the commissioner, apologized, and said that he was watching the testimony downstairs.

Yet “what is unseen is the hours of deliberation,” Torres warns, “Did I remain at the hearing for ten hours? No. But I wrote four memos and was deeply engaged on the issue. If you’re judging members by the lengths of attendance of the hearing, you’re developing an incomplete picture of productivity.”

Other issues, like the hours-long commute to and from City Hall for some Council members, and hearings occasionally being scheduled far apart from each other, affect Council members’ ability to attend. Sometimes, Council members are not given much advance notice of when hearings are scheduled or rescheduled, they say, hindering their ability to plan ahead as far as other meetings they have scheduled.

“One thing that I’ve noticed is different from past years is the way the schedules get done,” Council Member Miller said of recent developments. “In terms of hearings, we always knew two weeks in advance and had the calendar come out, and now sometimes, there are hearings that are on Monday morning and you get told about it on Friday.”

A number of other city officials and advocates who regularly interact with the City Council did not want to comment on the subject of Council members’ attendance at committee hearings. Asked for comment about his giving his preliminary budget testimony in front of a near-empty chamber, Comptroller Stringer declined to comment through a spokesperson.

When Gotham Gazette contacted the Department of Design and Construction’s spokesperson for a comment from Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office sent a statement via email that was unrelated to the question. Both Stringer and Peña-Mora testified at the Mar. 1 preliminary budget hearing. Six advocates who testified at some of the City Council hearings Gotham Gazette monitored also declined or ignored requests for comments.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Samar Khurshid, Maggie Calmes, and Ben Max contributed reporting to this article. Two inset photos by William Alatriste for The City Council.

Note: The committees Council members are on may have changed since Gotham Gazette monitored the hearings accounted for in this article. As noted, one committee was deleted, members’ committee assignments shifted around slightly, and Rafael Salamanca was sworn in to fill a vacant seat and assigned to several committees on March 9.

Note: this article has been updated with comment from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

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Questioning Importance, Council Members Spend Limited Time at Hearings Mon, 28 Mar 2016 02:40:25 +0000