Gotham Gazette Gotham Gazette is an online publication covering New York policy and politics as well as news on public safety, transportation, education, finance and more. http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/joe-crowley 2018-02-24T05:57:11+00:00 Webmaster webmaster@gothamgazette.com Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council 2018-01-09T05:00:00+00:00 2018-01-09T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7414:initial-johnson-move-signifies-changing-of-the-guard-at-the-city-council Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/38771479474_2c39e60427_z.jpg" alt="Speaker Corey Johnson press conference " width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Council Speaker Corey Johnson, at podium (photos: William Alatriste)</p> <hr /> <p>Just after he was <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7401-corey-johnson-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council" target="_blank" rel="noopener">elected Speaker of the City Council</a>&nbsp;on January 3, Corey Johnson had some initial business to take care of: naming a temporary rules committee, including a chairperson. And in this first official decision in his new role, Johnson made a relatively small but important move that is emblematic of the broad shift in the City Council and larger city political dynamics at play in Johnson’s election.</p> <p>Toward the end of an emotional and intense initial meeting of the new City Council class, at which Johnson, a Democrat, won 48 of 49 votes to lead the 51-seat legislative body for the next four years, the new speaker nominated an interim rules committee, including himself, as is customary, to be led by Queens Council Member Rory Lancman.</p> <p>Johnson had just been elected speaker with the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party and the Queens County Democratic Party, which is led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley, whom he thanked profusely from the floor of the Council chambers as Crowley looked down from the balcony. The situation was unlike that of Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who became speaker in 2014 after winning the support of a unified Council Progressive Caucus, powerful labor unions, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and members of the Brooklyn Democratic County Party. Four years ago, Mark-Viverito named Brooklyn Council Member and Progressive Caucus co-founder Brad Lander as rules chair.</p> <p>The shift from Mark-Viverito to Johnson can also be seen in the change from Lander to Lancman, a former member of the state Assembly and stalwart player in the Queens County Party. While all four Democrats share political dispositions and most policy positions, the changing of the guard is evident, and other top committee posts appear likely to go to representatives of the county parties and individual members who backed Johnson’s ascension. It appears this will include the Bronx’s Rafael Salamanca as chair of the land use committee and a Queens Council member, possibly Danny Dromm, as chair of the finance committee, according to sources familiar with the process. Last time around Brooklyn's David Greenfield was named land use chair and Progressive Caucus member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens became chair of finance.</p> <p>Johnson, himself a member of the Progressive Caucus, has been meeting with his 50 Council member constituents and hearing from other stakeholders like the county party leaders, and is expected to outline committee chair and member nominations within the next ten days.</p> <p>The rules committee will then take up those nominations, approving the chairs and committee members of all of the Council’s 40-plus committees and subcommittees, including the permanent rules committee, before the full Council gives it approval. It is unclear if Lancman will remain rules chair, or whether he requested the position even on a temporary basis. A request to speak with the Council member was declined by a spokesperson.</p> <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/16191294597_378fed8f32_z.jpg" alt="City Council Rory Lancman" width="275" height="183" style="margin-right: 12px; float: left;" />After approving committee assignments, the rules committee will then be responsible for considering and passing any changes to the Council’s internal rules -- there is a long <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7378-rules-reform-package-supported-by-33-current-and-incoming-city-council-members" target="_blank" rel="noopener">proposed rules reform agenda</a> that 33 members, including Johnson and Lancman (pictured), signed on to last month -- and vetting and approving nominees to about a dozen city boards and commissions, like the Board of Corrections and the City Planning Commission.</p> <p>"The Speaker has already met with almost all of his colleagues and is in active conversations with Council Members, stakeholders, city leaders and advocates to ensure the committee chairs best reflect the priorities of this Council and the diversity of our City," said City Council spokesperson Robin Levine, in an emailed statement. Levine did not directly respond to the question of how Lancman was selected as the initial rules chair. During the prior term Lancman, an attorney and regular critic of Mayor de Blasio, chaired the newly created Committee on Courts and Legal Services.</p> <p>Four years ago, Lander and Mark-Viverito ushered through landmark rules reforms that significantly altered how the Council functions, including how discretionary funding is allocated to individual members, bringing equity and transparency to a system that had been used by prior speakers to reward and punish.</p> <p>As he ran for speaker and since being elected, Johnson has championed additional reforms, including to the Council’s bill-drafting protocols. He wants to see changes so that members can no longer put indefinite holds on certain legislation and so that there is more information and awareness around who is working on what bills.</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7378-rules-reform-package-supported-by-33-current-and-incoming-city-council-members" target="_blank" rel="noopener">The rules reform package</a> that has the backing of 33 members includes changes to the bill-drafting process but also a beefing up of the Council’s Oversight and Investigation Committee, “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary.” It also includes increasing the Council’s budget and staff and staff salaries; and beefing up the land use division specifically, something Johnson has talked about a good deal during his bid for speaker and since being elected.</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7331-city-council-speaker-candidates-address-power-reform-and-transparency" target="_blank" rel="noopener">At one speaker candidate forum</a> Johnson said that he thinks there is room for possibly eliminating some Council committees while also possibly creating new ones -- he said, for example, that the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee should be broken into two. He did not give any examples of committees that should be eliminated. The Council <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6216-city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned" target="_blank" rel="noopener">did delete one committee last term</a>, the Committee on Community Development, when its chair resigned from the Council, but most Council members, including Lander, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6216-city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned" target="_blank" rel="noopener">said at the time</a> that there were no plans to look at eliminating any others.</p> <p>Along with Lancman as chair and Johnson, the other members of the initial rules committee are Council Members Adrienne Adams, Margaret Chin, Robert Cornegy, Jr., Rafael Espinal, Karen Koslowitz, Steven Matteo, Ritchie Torres, and Mark Treyger.</p> <p>The package of reforms says toward the end that&nbsp;"A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by&nbsp;good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018. The reforms should&nbsp;then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later&nbsp;than June 2018."</p> <p style="text-align: center;">[Related: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7331-city-council-speaker-candidates-address-power-reform-and-transparency" target="_blank" rel="noopener">City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]</a></p> <p>

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/38771479474_2c39e60427_z.jpg" alt="Speaker Corey Johnson press conference " width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Council Speaker Corey Johnson, at podium (photos: William Alatriste)</p> <hr /> <p>Just after he was <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7401-corey-johnson-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council" target="_blank" rel="noopener">elected Speaker of the City Council</a>&nbsp;on January 3, Corey Johnson had some initial business to take care of: naming a temporary rules committee, including a chairperson. And in this first official decision in his new role, Johnson made a relatively small but important move that is emblematic of the broad shift in the City Council and larger city political dynamics at play in Johnson’s election.</p> <p>Toward the end of an emotional and intense initial meeting of the new City Council class, at which Johnson, a Democrat, won 48 of 49 votes to lead the 51-seat legislative body for the next four years, the new speaker nominated an interim rules committee, including himself, as is customary, to be led by Queens Council Member Rory Lancman.</p> <p>Johnson had just been elected speaker with the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party and the Queens County Democratic Party, which is led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley, whom he thanked profusely from the floor of the Council chambers as Crowley looked down from the balcony. The situation was unlike that of Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who became speaker in 2014 after winning the support of a unified Council Progressive Caucus, powerful labor unions, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and members of the Brooklyn Democratic County Party. Four years ago, Mark-Viverito named Brooklyn Council Member and Progressive Caucus co-founder Brad Lander as rules chair.</p> <p>The shift from Mark-Viverito to Johnson can also be seen in the change from Lander to Lancman, a former member of the state Assembly and stalwart player in the Queens County Party. While all four Democrats share political dispositions and most policy positions, the changing of the guard is evident, and other top committee posts appear likely to go to representatives of the county parties and individual members who backed Johnson’s ascension. It appears this will include the Bronx’s Rafael Salamanca as chair of the land use committee and a Queens Council member, possibly Danny Dromm, as chair of the finance committee, according to sources familiar with the process. Last time around Brooklyn's David Greenfield was named land use chair and Progressive Caucus member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens became chair of finance.</p> <p>Johnson, himself a member of the Progressive Caucus, has been meeting with his 50 Council member constituents and hearing from other stakeholders like the county party leaders, and is expected to outline committee chair and member nominations within the next ten days.</p> <p>The rules committee will then take up those nominations, approving the chairs and committee members of all of the Council’s 40-plus committees and subcommittees, including the permanent rules committee, before the full Council gives it approval. It is unclear if Lancman will remain rules chair, or whether he requested the position even on a temporary basis. A request to speak with the Council member was declined by a spokesperson.</p> <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/16191294597_378fed8f32_z.jpg" alt="City Council Rory Lancman" width="275" height="183" style="margin-right: 12px; float: left;" />After approving committee assignments, the rules committee will then be responsible for considering and passing any changes to the Council’s internal rules -- there is a long <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7378-rules-reform-package-supported-by-33-current-and-incoming-city-council-members" target="_blank" rel="noopener">proposed rules reform agenda</a> that 33 members, including Johnson and Lancman (pictured), signed on to last month -- and vetting and approving nominees to about a dozen city boards and commissions, like the Board of Corrections and the City Planning Commission.</p> <p>"The Speaker has already met with almost all of his colleagues and is in active conversations with Council Members, stakeholders, city leaders and advocates to ensure the committee chairs best reflect the priorities of this Council and the diversity of our City," said City Council spokesperson Robin Levine, in an emailed statement. Levine did not directly respond to the question of how Lancman was selected as the initial rules chair. During the prior term Lancman, an attorney and regular critic of Mayor de Blasio, chaired the newly created Committee on Courts and Legal Services.</p> <p>Four years ago, Lander and Mark-Viverito ushered through landmark rules reforms that significantly altered how the Council functions, including how discretionary funding is allocated to individual members, bringing equity and transparency to a system that had been used by prior speakers to reward and punish.</p> <p>As he ran for speaker and since being elected, Johnson has championed additional reforms, including to the Council’s bill-drafting protocols. He wants to see changes so that members can no longer put indefinite holds on certain legislation and so that there is more information and awareness around who is working on what bills.</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7378-rules-reform-package-supported-by-33-current-and-incoming-city-council-members" target="_blank" rel="noopener">The rules reform package</a> that has the backing of 33 members includes changes to the bill-drafting process but also a beefing up of the Council’s Oversight and Investigation Committee, “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary.” It also includes increasing the Council’s budget and staff and staff salaries; and beefing up the land use division specifically, something Johnson has talked about a good deal during his bid for speaker and since being elected.</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7331-city-council-speaker-candidates-address-power-reform-and-transparency" target="_blank" rel="noopener">At one speaker candidate forum</a> Johnson said that he thinks there is room for possibly eliminating some Council committees while also possibly creating new ones -- he said, for example, that the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee should be broken into two. He did not give any examples of committees that should be eliminated. The Council <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6216-city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned" target="_blank" rel="noopener">did delete one committee last term</a>, the Committee on Community Development, when its chair resigned from the Council, but most Council members, including Lander, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/6216-city-council-deletes-one-committee-but-no-further-reforms-planned" target="_blank" rel="noopener">said at the time</a> that there were no plans to look at eliminating any others.</p> <p>Along with Lancman as chair and Johnson, the other members of the initial rules committee are Council Members Adrienne Adams, Margaret Chin, Robert Cornegy, Jr., Rafael Espinal, Karen Koslowitz, Steven Matteo, Ritchie Torres, and Mark Treyger.</p> <p>The package of reforms says toward the end that&nbsp;"A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by&nbsp;good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018. The reforms should&nbsp;then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later&nbsp;than June 2018."</p> <p style="text-align: center;">[Related: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7331-city-council-speaker-candidates-address-power-reform-and-transparency" target="_blank" rel="noopener">City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]</a></p> <p>

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Corey Johnson Elected Speaker of the City Council 2018-01-03T05:00:00+00:00 2018-01-03T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7401:corey-johnson-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/podcast/corey-johnson-moments-after-being-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council-cfredit-william-alatriste.jpg" alt="corey johnson moments after being elected speaker of the city council cfredit william alatriste" width="600" height="357" /></p> <p>Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)</p> <hr /> <p>City Council Member Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, was elected speaker of the New York City Council with near unanimous support on Wednesday, becoming the first leader of the 51-member legislative body who is an openly gay man and openly HIV-positive.</p> <p>Johnson took the helm at the first charter meeting of the new Council class, after a vote that saw little drama and 48 votes in his favor. Council members, including those who had attempted to run for speaker themselves, took their turns singing Johnson’s praises as prominent elected officials and political influencers from across the five boroughs looked on from the balcony of the Council chambers. Johnson’s mother was there, too, having driven from Massachusetts to see him rise to the Council’s top leadership position.</p> <p>In an emotional acceptance speech, Johnson spoke about the importance of his mother in his life and some of the tough times they had faced. He spoke fondly of his predecessors and the city’s progress in the last four years under Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. But he warned of challenges of “historic proportions” that lay ahead: an affordability crisis that is pushing out residents of the city, an “overflowing” shelter system with thousands of homeless families, struggling mom and pop businesses, a mass transit crisis owing from years of government neglect, continued racial disparities across the city, and potential funding cuts from the state and federal governments. “These problems are incredibly complex and entrenched,” he said. “But the future of our city depends on our ability to confront them. And confront them we will.”</p> <p>In alluding to the many thorny issues that plagued the first term of the de Blasio administration, he promised to tackle them with increased independence from the mayor. “There has never been a more important time to ensure that our city has a strong, unified and independent Council to take on these challenges,” he said, with an emphasis on the word independent. He pledged unending support to his 50 constituents and promised to lead by consensus.</p> <p>Johnson emerged at the top of a crowded field of candidates who had sought the speakership but all of whom dropped out of the race and conceded to Johnson in the days leading up to the vote, after it emerged that he had the support of the Queens and Bronx Democratic county organizations, led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley and Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, respectively. But, in a city where people of color make a majority and that is already led by a white male mayor, there was some criticism around Johnson’s selection to what is considered the second-most powerful position in city government.</p> <p>Numerous Council members representing the Black, Asian and Latino Caucus had insisted that the next speaker should be a person of color. That included Council Member Inez Barron, who attempted a last-minute protest candidacy and voted for herself on Wednesday. “It’s time for a paradigm shift and that’s what I’m here to call for,” Barron had said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall shortly before the vote. “We’ve gotta put an end to the system that has deals that arrange for the speaker to be selected on behalf of what it is that county bosses and district leaders and other powerful players and other rich developers want to see happen here.” Her husband, Assembly Member (and former Council Member) Charles Barron, said, “The process is fraudulent, the process is racist, and the process is corrupt and its been that way for a long time.”</p> <p>Another speaker candidate, Council Member Jumaane Williams, who only conceded the race Wednesday morning, opted for skipping the vote entirely and instead attended Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in Albany, which was scheduled for around the same time (Williams is toying with a bid for governor or lieutenant governor, saying that Cuomo is not a true progressive). Williams had held out longer than most of the other speaker candidates, saying that the next speaker should be a person of color.</p> <p>In a Wednesday statement, Williams criticized the lack of diversity in leadership positions in city government even as he looked forward to working with Johnson. “Equity must be an issue of highest priority to the next Speaker of the City Council,” he said. “Having spoken at length with Council Member Johnson, he is acutely aware of those concerns, and has agreed, in a tangible and accountable way, to work alongside me on issues of equity, both in government and citywide, for people of diverse backgrounds across race, gender, sexual orientation, and more.”</p> <p>Williams and Council Member Debi Rose were the only two absences on Wednesday, meaning Johnson received 48 of the 49 votes cast. In his first remarks from the speaker’s podium on the Council chambers floor, Johnson also nominated members and a chair of the rules committee, which will help establish the new Council’s rules and the chairs and members of the other 40-plus issue committees. Johnson named Council Member Rory Lancman to chair the committee, and the speaker himself will be a member of it, as is customary. Johnson is <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7378-rules-reform-package-supported-by-33-current-and-incoming-city-council-members" target="_blank" rel="noopener">one of 33 members who had signed on to a draft package of rules reforms that are expected to move ahead in some form</a>.</p> <p>The newly elected speaker has not expressed any particular legislative priorities yet, though he has had a focus on public health as a Council member who chaired the health committee. He’s focused more of his public comments on bolstering the Council and how he would lead the body. He again said on Wednesday that he wants to add to the Council’s land use staff, recreate an investigations division, and offer Council members the opportunity to pursue their interests and priorities.</p> <p>Speaking with members of the media during a brief press conference after the formal proceedings, Johnson said he will seek a diverse staff, and said that Council Chief of Staff Ramon Martinez has been asked to stay on. He also said that he will look to female members and members of color to speak and lead on issues that he may not have direct experience with. Johnson said he will be talking with each member to see which committees they are interested in chairing or joining and would do his best to make as much of it work as possible. He is sure to also be guided by Crowley and Crespo, as well as other political heavyweights that helped him win the post, like the leaders of the hotel workers union and the firefighters union.</p> <p>And though many expect him to adopt a more top-down style of leadership than Mark-Viverito, he has insisted that he will sit down with individual members to gauge the needs of their district while formulating a larger agenda for the Council. On the Council floor, he named each member individually, telling them, “I want you to know that in good times and in bad, through thick and thin, I will always have your back. Those of you who supported me, those who didn’t support me, those who ran for speaker and those who have been here in this body and those who are new, I will have your back.”</p> <p style="text-align: center;">[Related: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7398-corey-johnson-s-record-and-promises" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Corey Johnson’s Record and Promises</a>]</p> <p>

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/podcast/corey-johnson-moments-after-being-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council-cfredit-william-alatriste.jpg" alt="corey johnson moments after being elected speaker of the city council cfredit william alatriste" width="600" height="357" /></p> <p>Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)</p> <hr /> <p>City Council Member Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, was elected speaker of the New York City Council with near unanimous support on Wednesday, becoming the first leader of the 51-member legislative body who is an openly gay man and openly HIV-positive.</p> <p>Johnson took the helm at the first charter meeting of the new Council class, after a vote that saw little drama and 48 votes in his favor. Council members, including those who had attempted to run for speaker themselves, took their turns singing Johnson’s praises as prominent elected officials and political influencers from across the five boroughs looked on from the balcony of the Council chambers. Johnson’s mother was there, too, having driven from Massachusetts to see him rise to the Council’s top leadership position.</p> <p>In an emotional acceptance speech, Johnson spoke about the importance of his mother in his life and some of the tough times they had faced. He spoke fondly of his predecessors and the city’s progress in the last four years under Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. But he warned of challenges of “historic proportions” that lay ahead: an affordability crisis that is pushing out residents of the city, an “overflowing” shelter system with thousands of homeless families, struggling mom and pop businesses, a mass transit crisis owing from years of government neglect, continued racial disparities across the city, and potential funding cuts from the state and federal governments. “These problems are incredibly complex and entrenched,” he said. “But the future of our city depends on our ability to confront them. And confront them we will.”</p> <p>In alluding to the many thorny issues that plagued the first term of the de Blasio administration, he promised to tackle them with increased independence from the mayor. “There has never been a more important time to ensure that our city has a strong, unified and independent Council to take on these challenges,” he said, with an emphasis on the word independent. He pledged unending support to his 50 constituents and promised to lead by consensus.</p> <p>Johnson emerged at the top of a crowded field of candidates who had sought the speakership but all of whom dropped out of the race and conceded to Johnson in the days leading up to the vote, after it emerged that he had the support of the Queens and Bronx Democratic county organizations, led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley and Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, respectively. But, in a city where people of color make a majority and that is already led by a white male mayor, there was some criticism around Johnson’s selection to what is considered the second-most powerful position in city government.</p> <p>Numerous Council members representing the Black, Asian and Latino Caucus had insisted that the next speaker should be a person of color. That included Council Member Inez Barron, who attempted a last-minute protest candidacy and voted for herself on Wednesday. “It’s time for a paradigm shift and that’s what I’m here to call for,” Barron had said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall shortly before the vote. “We’ve gotta put an end to the system that has deals that arrange for the speaker to be selected on behalf of what it is that county bosses and district leaders and other powerful players and other rich developers want to see happen here.” Her husband, Assembly Member (and former Council Member) Charles Barron, said, “The process is fraudulent, the process is racist, and the process is corrupt and its been that way for a long time.”</p> <p>Another speaker candidate, Council Member Jumaane Williams, who only conceded the race Wednesday morning, opted for skipping the vote entirely and instead attended Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in Albany, which was scheduled for around the same time (Williams is toying with a bid for governor or lieutenant governor, saying that Cuomo is not a true progressive). Williams had held out longer than most of the other speaker candidates, saying that the next speaker should be a person of color.</p> <p>In a Wednesday statement, Williams criticized the lack of diversity in leadership positions in city government even as he looked forward to working with Johnson. “Equity must be an issue of highest priority to the next Speaker of the City Council,” he said. “Having spoken at length with Council Member Johnson, he is acutely aware of those concerns, and has agreed, in a tangible and accountable way, to work alongside me on issues of equity, both in government and citywide, for people of diverse backgrounds across race, gender, sexual orientation, and more.”</p> <p>Williams and Council Member Debi Rose were the only two absences on Wednesday, meaning Johnson received 48 of the 49 votes cast. In his first remarks from the speaker’s podium on the Council chambers floor, Johnson also nominated members and a chair of the rules committee, which will help establish the new Council’s rules and the chairs and members of the other 40-plus issue committees. Johnson named Council Member Rory Lancman to chair the committee, and the speaker himself will be a member of it, as is customary. Johnson is <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7378-rules-reform-package-supported-by-33-current-and-incoming-city-council-members" target="_blank" rel="noopener">one of 33 members who had signed on to a draft package of rules reforms that are expected to move ahead in some form</a>.</p> <p>The newly elected speaker has not expressed any particular legislative priorities yet, though he has had a focus on public health as a Council member who chaired the health committee. He’s focused more of his public comments on bolstering the Council and how he would lead the body. He again said on Wednesday that he wants to add to the Council’s land use staff, recreate an investigations division, and offer Council members the opportunity to pursue their interests and priorities.</p> <p>Speaking with members of the media during a brief press conference after the formal proceedings, Johnson said he will seek a diverse staff, and said that Council Chief of Staff Ramon Martinez has been asked to stay on. He also said that he will look to female members and members of color to speak and lead on issues that he may not have direct experience with. Johnson said he will be talking with each member to see which committees they are interested in chairing or joining and would do his best to make as much of it work as possible. He is sure to also be guided by Crowley and Crespo, as well as other political heavyweights that helped him win the post, like the leaders of the hotel workers union and the firefighters union.</p> <p>And though many expect him to adopt a more top-down style of leadership than Mark-Viverito, he has insisted that he will sit down with individual members to gauge the needs of their district while formulating a larger agenda for the Council. On the Council floor, he named each member individually, telling them, “I want you to know that in good times and in bad, through thick and thin, I will always have your back. Those of you who supported me, those who didn’t support me, those who ran for speaker and those who have been here in this body and those who are new, I will have your back.”</p> <p style="text-align: center;">[Related: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7398-corey-johnson-s-record-and-promises" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Corey Johnson’s Record and Promises</a>]</p> <p>

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint 2017-08-27T04:00:00+00:00 2017-08-27T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/new-queens-democrats.jpg" alt="new queens democrats" width="600" height="338" /></p> <p>The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)</p> <hr /> <p>When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics.&nbsp;But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.</p> <p>“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.</p> <p>During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.</p> <p>As part of their platform, the <a href="https://www.newqueensdems.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Queens Democrats</a> called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage.&nbsp;“Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.</p> <p>Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”</p> <p>“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”</p> <p>Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a website</a> in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which <a href="http://manhattandemocrats.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">went online</a> in 2013.</p> <p>Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.</p> <p>There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.</p> <p>While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.</p> <p>New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7128-squadron-departure-spotlights-importance-of-county-committee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">effectively decides the winner</a> of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.</p> <p>The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.</p> <p>The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “<a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project-the-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">open seat project</a>” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.</p> <p>Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.</p> <p>“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”</p> <p>When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.</p> <p>How the organizations choose to engage with the public is &nbsp;“a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.</p> <p>Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee <a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project/county-committee-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explainers</a> on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.</p> <p>Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.</p> <p>“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.</p> <p>While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.</p> <p>“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”</p> <p>Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.</p> <p>While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.</p> <p>“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.</p> <p>Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.</p> <p>Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, <a href="http://www.westchesterdems.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">like Westchester County</a>, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.</p> <p>Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP <a href="http://sigop.com/slider/june-2016-update-help-qualify-our-republican-candidates-get-your-petition-packet-today-2/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">is willing</a> send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.</p> <p>In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.</p> <p>While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller). &nbsp;</p> <p>Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.</p> <p>“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”</p> <p>The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.</p> <p>"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.</p> <p>However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.</p> <p>Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5891-rumored-scheme-brings-scrutiny-to-bronx-political-machine" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">backroom deals</a> when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6944-crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reporting</a> in the news media about patronage.</p> <p>The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.</p> <p>Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by <a href="https://cityofnewyork.github.io/opendatatsm/LocalLaw11of2012.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012</a> by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.</p> <p>While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s <a href="https://nyc.councilmatic.org/about/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Councilmatic</a>, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.</p> <p>“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “<a href="https://council.nyc.gov/news/2015/04/15/introducing-council-2-0/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Council 2.0</a>” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.</p> <p>While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.</p> <p>If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.</p> <p>The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.</p> <p>“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”</p> <p>One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.</p> <p>Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, <a href="https://ccsunlight.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">which allows</a> people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.</p> <p>"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.</p> <p>Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.</p> <p>“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”</p> <p>When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/vito-lopez-powerful-brooklyn-assemblyman-stripped-leadership-post-committee-finds-sexually-harassed-2-employees-article-1.1143794" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amid a sexual harassment scandal</a>, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the website</a> was part of that, according to Rizzo.</p> <p>The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.</p> <p>“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”</p> <p>One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/new-queens-democrats.jpg" alt="new queens democrats" width="600" height="338" /></p> <p>The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)</p> <hr /> <p>When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics.&nbsp;But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.</p> <p>“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.</p> <p>During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.</p> <p>As part of their platform, the <a href="https://www.newqueensdems.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Queens Democrats</a> called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage.&nbsp;“Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.</p> <p>Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”</p> <p>“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”</p> <p>Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a website</a> in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which <a href="http://manhattandemocrats.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">went online</a> in 2013.</p> <p>Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.</p> <p>There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.</p> <p>While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.</p> <p>New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7128-squadron-departure-spotlights-importance-of-county-committee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">effectively decides the winner</a> of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.</p> <p>The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.</p> <p>The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “<a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project-the-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">open seat project</a>” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.</p> <p>Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.</p> <p>“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”</p> <p>When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.</p> <p>How the organizations choose to engage with the public is &nbsp;“a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.</p> <p>Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee <a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project/county-committee-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explainers</a> on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.</p> <p>Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.</p> <p>“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.</p> <p>While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.</p> <p>“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”</p> <p>Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.</p> <p>While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.</p> <p>“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.</p> <p>Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.</p> <p>Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, <a href="http://www.westchesterdems.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">like Westchester County</a>, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.</p> <p>Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP <a href="http://sigop.com/slider/june-2016-update-help-qualify-our-republican-candidates-get-your-petition-packet-today-2/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">is willing</a> send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.</p> <p>In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.</p> <p>While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller). &nbsp;</p> <p>Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.</p> <p>“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”</p> <p>The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.</p> <p>"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.</p> <p>However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.</p> <p>Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5891-rumored-scheme-brings-scrutiny-to-bronx-political-machine" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">backroom deals</a> when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6944-crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reporting</a> in the news media about patronage.</p> <p>The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.</p> <p>Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by <a href="https://cityofnewyork.github.io/opendatatsm/LocalLaw11of2012.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012</a> by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.</p> <p>While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s <a href="https://nyc.councilmatic.org/about/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Councilmatic</a>, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.</p> <p>“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “<a href="https://council.nyc.gov/news/2015/04/15/introducing-council-2-0/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Council 2.0</a>” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.</p> <p>While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.</p> <p>If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.</p> <p>The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.</p> <p>“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”</p> <p>One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.</p> <p>Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, <a href="https://ccsunlight.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">which allows</a> people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.</p> <p>"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.</p> <p>Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.</p> <p>“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”</p> <p>When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/vito-lopez-powerful-brooklyn-assemblyman-stripped-leadership-post-committee-finds-sexually-harassed-2-employees-article-1.1143794" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amid a sexual harassment scandal</a>, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the website</a> was part of that, according to Rizzo.</p> <p>The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.</p> <p>“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”</p> <p>One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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</p>
Lawyers of Color Largely Shut Out of Queens Surrogate’s Court Business 2017-06-13T04:00:00+00:00 2017-06-13T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6995:lawyers-of-color-largely-shut-out-of-queens-surrogate-s-court-business Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/14931652922_d93d9c4977_z.jpg" alt="Court room" width="600" height="450" />&nbsp;<br />(<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/kneoh/14931652922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">photo: Karen Neoh</a>)</p> <hr /> <p>For decades, the judicial courts in Queens have been plagued by nepotism and patronage charges, with judges accused of awarding lucrative appointments to a select few.</p> <p>Some of the highest earners of guardianship appointments, doled out by Surrogate’s Court for those who die or become incapacitated without wills, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/nyregion/in-queens-political-center-is-in-surrogates-court.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">frequently</a> have ties to the County Democratic Party machine, headed by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley.</p> <p>A demographic breakdown of the highest earning beneficiaries of Surrogate's Court appointments over the past seven years suggests that a pattern of favoritism may be creating a systemic barrier to entry for lawyers of color, and even amplifying racial disparities throughout the judicial system.</p> <p>Assignments are bestowed by Surrogate Judge Peter Kelly, who was elected to a 14-year term in 2010 after being nominated by the Queens Democratic Party and faced no opponent.</p> <p>Of 929 lawyers who are eligible for Surrogate’s Court assignments, and the fees that come with them, only 153 have received appointments from 2010 through 2016, the vast majority of them -- 129 -- are white. A similar ratio exists on the eligibility list: of 929 lawyers, about 850 of them are white.</p> <p>Of nearly $7.2 million issued to attorneys over seven years of Surrogate’s Court appointments, around $6.4 million (88.1 percent) went to white attorneys, but just $699,249 (9.7 percent) went to black attorneys; $137,325.00 (1.9 percent) went to Latino attorneys; and just $21,795 (.3 percent) went to Asian attorneys.</p> <p>A year-by-year analysis of the data reveals a widening racial gap regarding the frequency and size of appointments. In 2015, almost 92 percent of the guardianship money paid made by the court went to appointees who were white, up from nearly 82 percent white just five years earlier. In 2016, percentage of money earned by whites dipped again to 88 percent.</p> <p>Of the top 10 Queens Surrogate’s Court earners over the last seven years, all were white. Of the top 20 earners, 19 were white.</p> <p>Topping the list is Scott Kaufman, Rep. Crowley’s longtime campaign treasurer and business partner to Crowley’s brother Sean, who has raked in nearly $300,000 from Surrogate’s Court in seven years. Kaufman is currently being investigated by the state courts inspector general, for exceeding the $75,000 cap on how much one appointee may earn in a year, and then continuing to earn appointments the following year, despite being ineligible according to court rules, <a href="https://nypost.com/2017/06/12/joe-crowleys-treasurer-being-probed-in-possible-pay-violation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The New York Post reported</a> on Monday. (Kaufman maintains that he is in compliance with the rules and that no one has contacted him regarding an investigation.)</p> <p>The ninth highest earner is Albert F. Pennisi, a regular financial contributor to the Queens County Democratic Party, whose law license was suspended for five years <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/10/nyregion/court-suspends-whistleblower-in-corruption.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in 1990</a> for his role in an illegal kickbacks scheme.</p> <p>Fifteenth on the list is the son of former Surrogate’s judge Louis D. Laurino. The elder Laurino was censured in 1988 by the Commission on Judicial Conduct after the agency found he had rented offices to three lawyers to whom he granted lucrative appointments. He also was accused of pressuring a lawyer to hire his son, as well as a nephew, and making an improper political contribution to the late, scandal-scarred Queens Borough President Donald R. Manes, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1988/04/07/nyregion/state-panel-censures-a-judge-in-queens-for-ethical-abuses.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">according to The New York Times</a>.</p> <p>Queens Surrogate’s Court judges have long been selected by the borough’s Democratic Party Chair, an arrangement that many see as responsible for the court’s rampant patronage. Judge Kelly, who worked alongside his predecessor Judge Robert Nahman as Acting Surrogate for several years before taking the bench, ran unopposed in 2010. Kelly’s sister, Ann Anzalone, is Rep. Crowley’s district chief of staff and a Democratic district leader.</p> <p>Kelly and Crowley are both white, as are most of the Queens Democratic machine leaders, and while both men have expressed intentions to diversify Queens’ judiciary courts, the money trail shows little headway. Presented with data on the stark lack of diversity of lawyers receiving Surrogate's Court assignments, a spokesperson for Crowley’s office said the party has no influence over the diversity of Surrogate’s Court appointees -- the lawyers that receive assignments from the judge.</p> <p>"The Queens Democratic Party is committed to diversity in all areas of our community. The party does not, nor should it, have a role in the selection of lawyers, but has made a commitment to nominating a diverse slate of judges to stand for election," said a spokesperson for the Queens Democratic Party.</p> <p><strong>‘A Road to Nowhere’</strong><br />Queens is often hailed as one of the most diverse places in the world; more than a quarter of borough’s population identifies as Latino, another quarter is Asian, and about 18 percent is black, according to 2015 U.S. Census data.</p> <p>The borough has become home to more people of color; from 2010 to 2015, the number of Latinos in Queens grew by nearly 5 percent, and the borough’s Asian population rose by over 16 percent.</p> <p>But when it comes to the borough Surrogate's Court, diversity among guardianship appointments appears to be declining, and for those lawyers of Asian or Latino descent, appointments are almost non-existent.</p> <p>In order to get appointments, lawyers must be on the Office of Court Administration’s eligibility list, which itself is lacking in diversity.</p> <p>To determine the ethnic identities of those on the list of eligible lawyers as well as the 153 who received court appointments over the last seven years, their names were run through a&nbsp;<a href="https://www.ngpvan.com/feature/votebuilder">VAN/Votebuilder</a>&nbsp;database, which creates voter profiles based on voter registration, geographic information, public records, and a variety of other resources.</p> <p>Of 929 eligible attorneys, 830 were identified as white, 45 as black, 29 as Asian, and 15 as Latino. Nine more could not be easily identified by VAN’s database.</p> <p>Getting on the eligibility list is not particularly difficult -- lawyers must take a three-hour “guardian ad litem” course with the New York Bar Association and fill out a form demonstrating their competence in the material, then renew their eligibility every two years to remain -- but an apparent bias in the way the assignments are distributed may discourage lawyers of color from even applying.</p> <p>When they do get on the list, it often proves to be “a road to nowhere” for lawyers of color, as one attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, so they choose not to renew their eligibility.</p> <p>A review of all payments disbursed by the Queens County Surrogate’s Court between January 1, 2010 and the end of 2016 found an inverse relationship between the changing demographics of the borough and the racial identities of the court’s beneficiaries.</p> <p>Of the 153 attorneys who received Queens County Surrogate’s Court payments during the seven-year review period, 129 (84 percent) were white, 17 (11 percent) were black, four (2.6 percent) were Asian, and three (1.9 percent) were Latino, according to the data.</p> <p>The percentage of total money paid to black, Latino and Asian lawyers remains lower than the percentage of payments made to black, Latino and Asian attorneys -- a sign non-white attorneys are receiving less lucrative appointments and possibly making less for the same work.</p> <p>One former appointee, Jimmy Wu, was for years the sole Asian attorney assigned “guardian ad litem” cases by the Queens Surrogate’s Court judge. He was assigned to act as a guardian for incapacitated immigrant seniors with no known family members in the United States. The jobs were so complex and the money so insignificant that it amounted to pro-bono work, he said.</p> <p>"A lot of people don't want to take on these kinds of cases. I knew the community needed help so I was willing to give time to it," said Wu, who added he was likely chosen because he speaks Chinese dialect, and previously worked for the court system.</p> <p>The most recent case Wu took on, is still not fully resolved, though he now lives California, where he works as a pro-tem judge in San Mateo County Superior Court. Wu said that at the time, he was not aware that he was the only Asian appointee.</p> <p>"If I was the only one, there should be more," said Wu. “I was told ‘Wait until we trust you and you'll get bigger cases,’ but after five or seven cases, I got tired of waiting.”</p> <p>Currently, there are at least 29 Asian attorneys on the eligibility list, but aside from Wu, only three were paid for Surrogate’s Court work during the seven-year period, most of them in 2016. Most years, there was just one, or zero, Asian attorneys in the pool of appointees.</p> <p>These four Asian attorneys also received disproportionately small appointments. Despite making up 2.6 percent of the total appointees, Asian lawyers benefited from just .3 percent of money paid out by Queens Surrogate’s Court from 2010 through 2016.</p> <p>Similarly underrepresented are Latino attorneys. Over the course of seven years, just three lawyers identified as Latino were paid for appointments. One of them, who received a handful of small payments in 2010, like Wu, appears to have stopped renewing his eligibility, according to the current list. That leaves just two out of at least 15 eligible Latino lawyers who are actively receiving appointments. One of them, Jose Araujo, is also the Queens Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, creating an inherent conflict of interest, and potentially a quid-pro-quo relationship, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6944-crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as Gotham Gazette has reported</a>. In other words, this year there is just one Latino lawyer receiving court appointments who does not appear to have a patronage arrangement with the Queens Democratic machine.</p> <p>Recognizing that Latino lawyers are underrepresented on the list of those eligible, Judge Kelly did reach out to the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County in 2015, and held a Q&amp;A session in an effort to recruit a more diverse pool of applicants -- a gesture that was appreciated by members of the organization.</p> <p>“Our organization is dedicated to increasing the representation of attorneys of color in all areas of practice in Queens. We respect the autonomy of judges and we will continue to work with all parties to make Queens more diverse,” said Catalina Cruz, president of the Latino Lawyers Association.</p> <p>Perhaps these efforts paid off, because there was a slight uptick in total Surrogate’s Court payments going to lawyers of color in 2016. Judge Kelly did not respond to multiple requests for comment.</p> <p><strong>Widened Racial Gap</strong><br />While the number of guardianship appointees who are black is somewhat more representative -- 17 black lawyers have been paid by the Queens Surrogate’s Court from 2010 through 2016, and 41 are currently eligible for appointment -- overall, the cases they have received are fewer and less lucrative than those assigned to their white peers.</p> <p>Of the $7.2 million in payments issued to attorneys over seven years, around $6.4 million (88.1 percent) went to white attorneys, but just $699,249 (9.7 percent) went to black attorneys.</p> <p>Additionally, the year-by-year trend indicates that the racial gap in Queens Surrogate’s Court payments is widening, both in number of appointments per year and profitability of the cases assigned.</p> <p>From 2010 to 2016, the percentage of money paid to white attorneys grew from 81.75 percent in 2010 to 87.79 percent in 2016, down slightly after peaking at 91.9 percent in 2015. At the same time, the percentage of Surrogate’s Court assignment money paid to black attorneys has declined from 14.44 percent in 2010 to 7.19 percent in 2016, after previously falling to 6.86 percent in 2015.</p> <p>The percentage of number of Surrogate’s Court payments made to white attorneys rose from 77.98 percent in 2010 to 85.39 percent in 2016, after peaking at 90.02 percent in 2015.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the number of fees disbursed to black attorneys declined from 18.38 percent in 2010 to 9.82 percent in 2016, after previously falling to a low of 8.27 percent in 2015.</p> <p>Leaders of New York City’s minority bar associations, like the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, say the organizations were founded to help mend systemic problems that lead to racial disparities and create a pipeline to opportunity for more lawyers of color.</p> <p>“Institutionalized bias happens across all kinds of structures,” said Paula Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association.“Whether there is explicit bias or implicit bias, it seems to me that there should be a focus on shifting the commitment to diversity. Because Queens is a diverse borough and we should have representation in the court and access to opportunities to reflect the diversity of the borough.”</p> <p><strong>Lack of Diversity in the Judiciary</strong><br />On a larger scale, New York State’s judiciary has failed to keep up with the changing demographics of the state, according to <a href="http://www.nysba.org/judicialdiversityreport/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a 2014 report</a> from the New York State Bar Association.</p> <p>“The composition of the government, including the judicial branch, must reflect the composition of the governed or risk losing credibility. The lack of judicial diversity in certain regions of New York is incompatible with the egalitarian ideals of our democracy,” the report cautions.</p> <p>In Queens, where nearly half <a href="https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/POP645215/36081,00" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the population</a> is foreign born, the court system’s lag in diversity has had rippling consequences.</p> <p>In March, <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/queens-judges-threaten-jurors-bad-english-article-1.3002840?cid=bitly" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Daily News reported</a> that “at least four Queens judges have made empty threats to potential jurors with limited English skills, telling them they have to take language lessons or return to court to prove their proficiency.”</p> <p>Two of the four judges – Ira Margulis and Kenneth Holder – were elected to their offices as official nominees for the Queens Democratic Party, meaning that they were effectively picked by the Queens Democratic boss, Rep. Joe Crowley.</p> <p>Margulis was a Queens Democratic Party pick in 2003 and again for his Queens County Civil Supreme Court position in 2011. Holder was a Queens Democratic Party pick for Queens County Civil Supreme Court in 2007, when he moved up from his Civil Court position.</p> <p>Campaign finance records show that neither Margulis nor Holder had their own campaign committees the year they were elected, meaning they would have been reliant on the Queens Democratic organization for campaign assistance.</p> <p>Amidst all the scrutiny of Queens Surrogate's Court this year, two state legislators from Queens quietly introduced <a href="http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?default_fld=&amp;leg_video=&amp;bn=A06719&amp;term=2017&amp;Summary=Y&amp;Actions=Y\" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a bill</a> that would gut court oversight by giving Surrogate's Court judges the power to waive annual reporting requirements for court-appointed guardians based on their previous years of service.</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/14931652922_d93d9c4977_z.jpg" alt="Court room" width="600" height="450" />&nbsp;<br />(<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/kneoh/14931652922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">photo: Karen Neoh</a>)</p> <hr /> <p>For decades, the judicial courts in Queens have been plagued by nepotism and patronage charges, with judges accused of awarding lucrative appointments to a select few.</p> <p>Some of the highest earners of guardianship appointments, doled out by Surrogate’s Court for those who die or become incapacitated without wills, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/nyregion/in-queens-political-center-is-in-surrogates-court.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">frequently</a> have ties to the County Democratic Party machine, headed by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley.</p> <p>A demographic breakdown of the highest earning beneficiaries of Surrogate's Court appointments over the past seven years suggests that a pattern of favoritism may be creating a systemic barrier to entry for lawyers of color, and even amplifying racial disparities throughout the judicial system.</p> <p>Assignments are bestowed by Surrogate Judge Peter Kelly, who was elected to a 14-year term in 2010 after being nominated by the Queens Democratic Party and faced no opponent.</p> <p>Of 929 lawyers who are eligible for Surrogate’s Court assignments, and the fees that come with them, only 153 have received appointments from 2010 through 2016, the vast majority of them -- 129 -- are white. A similar ratio exists on the eligibility list: of 929 lawyers, about 850 of them are white.</p> <p>Of nearly $7.2 million issued to attorneys over seven years of Surrogate’s Court appointments, around $6.4 million (88.1 percent) went to white attorneys, but just $699,249 (9.7 percent) went to black attorneys; $137,325.00 (1.9 percent) went to Latino attorneys; and just $21,795 (.3 percent) went to Asian attorneys.</p> <p>A year-by-year analysis of the data reveals a widening racial gap regarding the frequency and size of appointments. In 2015, almost 92 percent of the guardianship money paid made by the court went to appointees who were white, up from nearly 82 percent white just five years earlier. In 2016, percentage of money earned by whites dipped again to 88 percent.</p> <p>Of the top 10 Queens Surrogate’s Court earners over the last seven years, all were white. Of the top 20 earners, 19 were white.</p> <p>Topping the list is Scott Kaufman, Rep. Crowley’s longtime campaign treasurer and business partner to Crowley’s brother Sean, who has raked in nearly $300,000 from Surrogate’s Court in seven years. Kaufman is currently being investigated by the state courts inspector general, for exceeding the $75,000 cap on how much one appointee may earn in a year, and then continuing to earn appointments the following year, despite being ineligible according to court rules, <a href="https://nypost.com/2017/06/12/joe-crowleys-treasurer-being-probed-in-possible-pay-violation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The New York Post reported</a> on Monday. (Kaufman maintains that he is in compliance with the rules and that no one has contacted him regarding an investigation.)</p> <p>The ninth highest earner is Albert F. Pennisi, a regular financial contributor to the Queens County Democratic Party, whose law license was suspended for five years <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/10/nyregion/court-suspends-whistleblower-in-corruption.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in 1990</a> for his role in an illegal kickbacks scheme.</p> <p>Fifteenth on the list is the son of former Surrogate’s judge Louis D. Laurino. The elder Laurino was censured in 1988 by the Commission on Judicial Conduct after the agency found he had rented offices to three lawyers to whom he granted lucrative appointments. He also was accused of pressuring a lawyer to hire his son, as well as a nephew, and making an improper political contribution to the late, scandal-scarred Queens Borough President Donald R. Manes, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1988/04/07/nyregion/state-panel-censures-a-judge-in-queens-for-ethical-abuses.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">according to The New York Times</a>.</p> <p>Queens Surrogate’s Court judges have long been selected by the borough’s Democratic Party Chair, an arrangement that many see as responsible for the court’s rampant patronage. Judge Kelly, who worked alongside his predecessor Judge Robert Nahman as Acting Surrogate for several years before taking the bench, ran unopposed in 2010. Kelly’s sister, Ann Anzalone, is Rep. Crowley’s district chief of staff and a Democratic district leader.</p> <p>Kelly and Crowley are both white, as are most of the Queens Democratic machine leaders, and while both men have expressed intentions to diversify Queens’ judiciary courts, the money trail shows little headway. Presented with data on the stark lack of diversity of lawyers receiving Surrogate's Court assignments, a spokesperson for Crowley’s office said the party has no influence over the diversity of Surrogate’s Court appointees -- the lawyers that receive assignments from the judge.</p> <p>"The Queens Democratic Party is committed to diversity in all areas of our community. The party does not, nor should it, have a role in the selection of lawyers, but has made a commitment to nominating a diverse slate of judges to stand for election," said a spokesperson for the Queens Democratic Party.</p> <p><strong>‘A Road to Nowhere’</strong><br />Queens is often hailed as one of the most diverse places in the world; more than a quarter of borough’s population identifies as Latino, another quarter is Asian, and about 18 percent is black, according to 2015 U.S. Census data.</p> <p>The borough has become home to more people of color; from 2010 to 2015, the number of Latinos in Queens grew by nearly 5 percent, and the borough’s Asian population rose by over 16 percent.</p> <p>But when it comes to the borough Surrogate's Court, diversity among guardianship appointments appears to be declining, and for those lawyers of Asian or Latino descent, appointments are almost non-existent.</p> <p>In order to get appointments, lawyers must be on the Office of Court Administration’s eligibility list, which itself is lacking in diversity.</p> <p>To determine the ethnic identities of those on the list of eligible lawyers as well as the 153 who received court appointments over the last seven years, their names were run through a&nbsp;<a href="https://www.ngpvan.com/feature/votebuilder">VAN/Votebuilder</a>&nbsp;database, which creates voter profiles based on voter registration, geographic information, public records, and a variety of other resources.</p> <p>Of 929 eligible attorneys, 830 were identified as white, 45 as black, 29 as Asian, and 15 as Latino. Nine more could not be easily identified by VAN’s database.</p> <p>Getting on the eligibility list is not particularly difficult -- lawyers must take a three-hour “guardian ad litem” course with the New York Bar Association and fill out a form demonstrating their competence in the material, then renew their eligibility every two years to remain -- but an apparent bias in the way the assignments are distributed may discourage lawyers of color from even applying.</p> <p>When they do get on the list, it often proves to be “a road to nowhere” for lawyers of color, as one attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it, so they choose not to renew their eligibility.</p> <p>A review of all payments disbursed by the Queens County Surrogate’s Court between January 1, 2010 and the end of 2016 found an inverse relationship between the changing demographics of the borough and the racial identities of the court’s beneficiaries.</p> <p>Of the 153 attorneys who received Queens County Surrogate’s Court payments during the seven-year review period, 129 (84 percent) were white, 17 (11 percent) were black, four (2.6 percent) were Asian, and three (1.9 percent) were Latino, according to the data.</p> <p>The percentage of total money paid to black, Latino and Asian lawyers remains lower than the percentage of payments made to black, Latino and Asian attorneys -- a sign non-white attorneys are receiving less lucrative appointments and possibly making less for the same work.</p> <p>One former appointee, Jimmy Wu, was for years the sole Asian attorney assigned “guardian ad litem” cases by the Queens Surrogate’s Court judge. He was assigned to act as a guardian for incapacitated immigrant seniors with no known family members in the United States. The jobs were so complex and the money so insignificant that it amounted to pro-bono work, he said.</p> <p>"A lot of people don't want to take on these kinds of cases. I knew the community needed help so I was willing to give time to it," said Wu, who added he was likely chosen because he speaks Chinese dialect, and previously worked for the court system.</p> <p>The most recent case Wu took on, is still not fully resolved, though he now lives California, where he works as a pro-tem judge in San Mateo County Superior Court. Wu said that at the time, he was not aware that he was the only Asian appointee.</p> <p>"If I was the only one, there should be more," said Wu. “I was told ‘Wait until we trust you and you'll get bigger cases,’ but after five or seven cases, I got tired of waiting.”</p> <p>Currently, there are at least 29 Asian attorneys on the eligibility list, but aside from Wu, only three were paid for Surrogate’s Court work during the seven-year period, most of them in 2016. Most years, there was just one, or zero, Asian attorneys in the pool of appointees.</p> <p>These four Asian attorneys also received disproportionately small appointments. Despite making up 2.6 percent of the total appointees, Asian lawyers benefited from just .3 percent of money paid out by Queens Surrogate’s Court from 2010 through 2016.</p> <p>Similarly underrepresented are Latino attorneys. Over the course of seven years, just three lawyers identified as Latino were paid for appointments. One of them, who received a handful of small payments in 2010, like Wu, appears to have stopped renewing his eligibility, according to the current list. That leaves just two out of at least 15 eligible Latino lawyers who are actively receiving appointments. One of them, Jose Araujo, is also the Queens Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, creating an inherent conflict of interest, and potentially a quid-pro-quo relationship, <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6944-crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as Gotham Gazette has reported</a>. In other words, this year there is just one Latino lawyer receiving court appointments who does not appear to have a patronage arrangement with the Queens Democratic machine.</p> <p>Recognizing that Latino lawyers are underrepresented on the list of those eligible, Judge Kelly did reach out to the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County in 2015, and held a Q&amp;A session in an effort to recruit a more diverse pool of applicants -- a gesture that was appreciated by members of the organization.</p> <p>“Our organization is dedicated to increasing the representation of attorneys of color in all areas of practice in Queens. We respect the autonomy of judges and we will continue to work with all parties to make Queens more diverse,” said Catalina Cruz, president of the Latino Lawyers Association.</p> <p>Perhaps these efforts paid off, because there was a slight uptick in total Surrogate’s Court payments going to lawyers of color in 2016. Judge Kelly did not respond to multiple requests for comment.</p> <p><strong>Widened Racial Gap</strong><br />While the number of guardianship appointees who are black is somewhat more representative -- 17 black lawyers have been paid by the Queens Surrogate’s Court from 2010 through 2016, and 41 are currently eligible for appointment -- overall, the cases they have received are fewer and less lucrative than those assigned to their white peers.</p> <p>Of the $7.2 million in payments issued to attorneys over seven years, around $6.4 million (88.1 percent) went to white attorneys, but just $699,249 (9.7 percent) went to black attorneys.</p> <p>Additionally, the year-by-year trend indicates that the racial gap in Queens Surrogate’s Court payments is widening, both in number of appointments per year and profitability of the cases assigned.</p> <p>From 2010 to 2016, the percentage of money paid to white attorneys grew from 81.75 percent in 2010 to 87.79 percent in 2016, down slightly after peaking at 91.9 percent in 2015. At the same time, the percentage of Surrogate’s Court assignment money paid to black attorneys has declined from 14.44 percent in 2010 to 7.19 percent in 2016, after previously falling to 6.86 percent in 2015.</p> <p>The percentage of number of Surrogate’s Court payments made to white attorneys rose from 77.98 percent in 2010 to 85.39 percent in 2016, after peaking at 90.02 percent in 2015.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the number of fees disbursed to black attorneys declined from 18.38 percent in 2010 to 9.82 percent in 2016, after previously falling to a low of 8.27 percent in 2015.</p> <p>Leaders of New York City’s minority bar associations, like the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, say the organizations were founded to help mend systemic problems that lead to racial disparities and create a pipeline to opportunity for more lawyers of color.</p> <p>“Institutionalized bias happens across all kinds of structures,” said Paula Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association.“Whether there is explicit bias or implicit bias, it seems to me that there should be a focus on shifting the commitment to diversity. Because Queens is a diverse borough and we should have representation in the court and access to opportunities to reflect the diversity of the borough.”</p> <p><strong>Lack of Diversity in the Judiciary</strong><br />On a larger scale, New York State’s judiciary has failed to keep up with the changing demographics of the state, according to <a href="http://www.nysba.org/judicialdiversityreport/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a 2014 report</a> from the New York State Bar Association.</p> <p>“The composition of the government, including the judicial branch, must reflect the composition of the governed or risk losing credibility. The lack of judicial diversity in certain regions of New York is incompatible with the egalitarian ideals of our democracy,” the report cautions.</p> <p>In Queens, where nearly half <a href="https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/POP645215/36081,00" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the population</a> is foreign born, the court system’s lag in diversity has had rippling consequences.</p> <p>In March, <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/queens-judges-threaten-jurors-bad-english-article-1.3002840?cid=bitly" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Daily News reported</a> that “at least four Queens judges have made empty threats to potential jurors with limited English skills, telling them they have to take language lessons or return to court to prove their proficiency.”</p> <p>Two of the four judges – Ira Margulis and Kenneth Holder – were elected to their offices as official nominees for the Queens Democratic Party, meaning that they were effectively picked by the Queens Democratic boss, Rep. Joe Crowley.</p> <p>Margulis was a Queens Democratic Party pick in 2003 and again for his Queens County Civil Supreme Court position in 2011. Holder was a Queens Democratic Party pick for Queens County Civil Supreme Court in 2007, when he moved up from his Civil Court position.</p> <p>Campaign finance records show that neither Margulis nor Holder had their own campaign committees the year they were elected, meaning they would have been reliant on the Queens Democratic organization for campaign assistance.</p> <p>Amidst all the scrutiny of Queens Surrogate's Court this year, two state legislators from Queens quietly introduced <a href="http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?default_fld=&amp;leg_video=&amp;bn=A06719&amp;term=2017&amp;Summary=Y&amp;Actions=Y\" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a bill</a> that would gut court oversight by giving Surrogate's Court judges the power to waive annual reporting requirements for court-appointed guardians based on their previous years of service.</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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</p>
Crowley Appointee to Board of Elections Sees Spike in Queens Court Profits 2017-05-21T04:00:00+00:00 2017-05-21T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6944:crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/crowley_voting.jpg" alt="crowley voting" width="600" height="450" /></p> <p>Rep. Joe Crowley photo: @JoeCrowleyNY</p> <hr /> <p>The Queens Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, who in the past has come under fire for conflicts of interest, is quickly becoming one of the highest earning recipients of Queens court patronage, Gotham Gazette has learned.</p> <p>In 2014, Jose Miguel Araujo, then the newly elected BOE president, <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics/conflicts-board-fines-board-elections-prez-hiring-kin-blog-entry-1.1993052" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">was fined</a> $10,000 by the city's Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) -- the maximum penalty for nepotism -- because he gave his wife Rita Patron Araujo a job as a temporary clerk between 2010 and 2012.</p> <p>The fines issued against Araujo and other BOE employees followed a scathing 2013 Department of Investigation (DOI) report, which found the agency to be rife with nepotism, incompetence, and overall dysfunction.</p> <p>"The imposition of the maximum legal fine on the Board’s President should send a powerful message that this conduct will not be tolerated,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement at the time of the fines.</p> <p>Despite the incident, Araujo was renominated for the position by the Queens County Democratic Party and reconfirmed for a four-year term by the City Council in 2016. Since then, his law practice has become one of the top earners of Queens Court patronage doled out by the Queens Surrogate’s Court and Queens Supreme Court, raising questions about his impartiality as a BOE commissioner and other conflicts of interest this outside business might present.</p> <p>Before he became a commissioner, from 2005 through 2007, Araujo earned significant payments from the Queens Surrogate’s Court, which settles estates of Queens residents who die without wills. The appointments required Araujo to act as a “guardian ad litem,” to advocate for individuals incapacitated by age or mental illness. After Araujo joined the BOE in 2008, the appointments stopped. Several payments trickled in again in 2011, but after the 2014 COIB fine, the appointments escalated from both Surrogate’s Court and also Supreme Court, which gave Araujo work as a court evaluator or counsel for guardians of incapacitated individuals.</p> <p>Of the roughly $140,000 Araujo earned from Queens court appointments since 2005, half of the money -- $69,513 -- flowed to Araujo’s practice in the last two years, according to records obtained from the New York State Unified Court System.</p> <p>Rita Araujo, the commissioner’s wife, has had financial difficulties in her past -- a records search shows she is named in 15 nonpayment eviction lawsuits by a previous landlord between 2000 and 2007 -- and Jose Araujo said during his 2014 COIB deposition that he put her on the BOE payroll to qualify her for health benefits. By 2015, the couple was able to purchase a home in Brookhaven, Suffolk County for $203,000, without a mortgage.</p> <p>The couple’s additional income appears to be no coincidence -- current Queens Surrogate’s Court Judge Peter Kelly owes his position to Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, the chair of the Queens Democratic Party who nominated Kelly before he ran unopposed for a 14-year term in 2010. Kelly’s sister, Ann Anzalone, is Crowley’s district chief of staff and a Democratic district leader, a locally elected party official that comes with no salary but some political clout. As party chair, Crowley also appoints the Queens Democratic representative to the Board of Elections.</p> <p>In most boroughs, Democratic judicial candidates are nominated by the party heads and must pass the scrutiny of an independent judicial screening panel before they make it on the ballot. In Queens, the Democratic Party does not require a screening for judges and the party’s pick is rarely opposed. <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/11/opinion/topics-of-the-times-surrogate-democracy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">For half a century</a>, Queens Democratic Party heads have successfully avoided a primary for the powerful Surrogate’s Court post, but if a rogue lawyer did challenge the party’s preferred candidate, it would be helpful for Crowley to have a friendly Board of Elections commissioner, were anything related to ballot petitions or other matters to arise. This is also the case for virtually all other elected offices, where the county party runs a preferred candidate, whether for seats in the City Council, state Assembly, state Senate, and so on.</p> <p>The fact that Queens court appointments are notoriously handed out to a select few lawyers by judges that have the backing and support of Crowley’s machine makes the arrangement particularly questionable, according to one election attorney who spoke on the condition of anonymity.</p> <p>"There doesn't seem to be any reason that [Jose Miguel Araujo] should to be sitting there as a commissioner while he is getting all these appointments. No one can say getting a job as a surrogate in a particular county is unrelated to the politics of the county," said the lawyer. “They have to like you, or you're not getting that job.”</p> <p>The Queens judicial courts have been plagued by charges of cronyism and patronage <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/nyregion/in-queens-political-center-is-in-surrogates-court.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">for decades</a>. Surrogate’s and Supreme Court judges, hand-picked by party leaders, assign lucrative and easy cases to a small group of lawyers with connections to the Queens County Democratic Party machine. However, besides Araujo, no other sitting Board of Elections commissioner has been handed court appointments since being confirmed to the BOE.</p> <p>John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog group, said the Queens Surrogate’s Courts have been used as a reward system for the party machine for too long and that it’s time for the proper authorities, in this case New York State’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, to step in. “The scandal and corruption risk around Queens Surrogate’s has reached a level of outrageousness that’s unacceptable," he said. "It’s turned into a kind of a punchline in good government and political circles."</p> <p>A Board of Elections commissioner taking payment for these court assignments may also violate the city’s conflict of interest law. <a href="http://www.nyc.gov/html/conflicts/html/law/law_chap_68_dir.shtml" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Chapter 68</a> of New York City’s Charter limits the types of outside work public servants who practice law can pursue. For example, public servants may not use their city positions for “financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect” -- which would be the case if Araujo’s influence at the BOE was the driving force behind his recent appointments -- according to a 2001 advisory opinion from COIB. They also may not represent private clients that have business dealings before the City, according to the same opinion. While Surrogate’s Court and Supreme Court are state agencies, if a Surrogate's Court estate proceeding results in a property sale, that sale would be conducted by the Queens Public Administrator's Office, which is a city agency.</p> <p>The Queens public administrator also has ties to the Democratic party machine. The sole counsel to Queens Public Administrator Lois Rosenblatt is Gerard Sweeney, who takes a hefty percentage of each sale referred by the courts. Sweeney -- who in the 1990s was the party’s law chair, charged with ensuring party favorites wound up on the ballot while insurgents were disqualified -- no longer holds an official position in the Queens County Democratic Party, but was described in <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/lawyers-controlled-queens-dems-party-30-years-article-1.3017007" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a recent Daily News article</a> as its “most important strategist, helping guide the party’s political machinations on the homefront as it jousts for influence in City Hall and Albany.”</p> <p>Sweeney has reportedly earned $30 million since 2006 for administering these sales referred by Surrogate’s Court, according to <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/lawyers-controlled-queens-dems-party-30-years-article-1.3017007" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Daily News</a>. Meanwhile, Rosenblatt was herself fined $3,000 <a href="https://nypost.com/2017/05/10/two-city-officials-slapped-with-ethics-violations/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">earlier this month</a>&nbsp;by the COIB for nepotism.</p> <p>In at least one case, Araujo did represent a client who had business before the public administrator. On November 10, 2011, Araujo was appointed “guardian ad litem” in Queens Surrogate's Court for the estate of Josephine Ralton, a 92-year-old woman who had died in 2009 with no clear heirs. Eight days later, the Queens Public Administrator sold Ralton's luxury Forest Hills apartment. Araujo received a $3,000 payment from Queens Surrogate's Court for his work on the case, according to court records.</p> <p>Reached by phone, Araujo first denied having received court appointments in recent years. After being reminded that in fact the bulk of his appointments occurred in 2015 and 2016, he said some of cases were done pro-bono because of his “expertise.”</p> <p>But court records show that only a single appointment throughout Araujo's career has ever gone unpaid - a guardianship for Dorothy Noto Lewis, a BOE employee, in April 2016. When Gotham Gazette pointed out that Araujo had in fact earned nearly $70,000 from Surrogate’s Court and Supreme Court in the last two years, Araujo cited <a href="https://www.nycourts.gov/rules/chiefjudge/36.shtml#02" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the court’s rules</a>, which limits how much one attorney can earn from court appointments in a calendar year, saying he is “capped out at a certain amount.”</p> <p>Araujo said he sees no potential conflicts of interest which could arise from holding the part-time but influential job as Board of Elections commissioner while also benefiting from Surrogate’s appointments. "There is no conflict for me. I'm able to distinguish between the two and I’m able to recuse myself if necessary, but that hasn't happened and it hasn't been necessary," he said.</p> <p>Like other BOE commissioners, Araujo’s work includes voting on whether candidates are eligible for the election ballot. This often includes petition signature validation and cases of petition fraud or irregularity. Commissioners also supervise recounts and oversee numerous issues that impact the voter turnout for elections, including the viability and location of poll sites.</p> <p>These calls are supposed to be impartial, but the notoriously <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/city/252-understanding-the-labyrinth-new-yorks-ballot-access-laws" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">complex system</a> often favors the incumbent or party’s prefered candidates, while outsiders -- who may be less experienced in electoral requirements or lack resources and access to select election lawyers -- are booted off the ballot.</p> <p>Araujo maintains that the uptick in court appointments was merited because he is an expert in kinship cases. Meanwhile, he chose to keep his Board of Elections commissioner job, which comes with influence and a salary not to exceed $30,000 per year, according to <a href="http://a856-gbol.nyc.gov/GBOLWebsite/GreenBook/Details?orgId=2852" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a city listing</a>.</p> <p>As the election attorney put it, “There are many, many attorneys who could be appointed to do this job. It would be fair to say that if someone is getting these kinds of referrals from Surrogate's Court [and Supreme Court], they shouldn’t be on the Board of Elections. It’s not like BOE commissioners earn $250,000 a year and people are falling over themselves to get that job.”</p> <p>A spokesperson for Rep. Crowley, the Queens Democratic Party chair, declined to comment on the distribution of Queens court appointments.</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/crowley_voting.jpg" alt="crowley voting" width="600" height="450" /></p> <p>Rep. Joe Crowley photo: @JoeCrowleyNY</p> <hr /> <p>The Queens Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, who in the past has come under fire for conflicts of interest, is quickly becoming one of the highest earning recipients of Queens court patronage, Gotham Gazette has learned.</p> <p>In 2014, Jose Miguel Araujo, then the newly elected BOE president, <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics/conflicts-board-fines-board-elections-prez-hiring-kin-blog-entry-1.1993052" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">was fined</a> $10,000 by the city's Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) -- the maximum penalty for nepotism -- because he gave his wife Rita Patron Araujo a job as a temporary clerk between 2010 and 2012.</p> <p>The fines issued against Araujo and other BOE employees followed a scathing 2013 Department of Investigation (DOI) report, which found the agency to be rife with nepotism, incompetence, and overall dysfunction.</p> <p>"The imposition of the maximum legal fine on the Board’s President should send a powerful message that this conduct will not be tolerated,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement at the time of the fines.</p> <p>Despite the incident, Araujo was renominated for the position by the Queens County Democratic Party and reconfirmed for a four-year term by the City Council in 2016. Since then, his law practice has become one of the top earners of Queens Court patronage doled out by the Queens Surrogate’s Court and Queens Supreme Court, raising questions about his impartiality as a BOE commissioner and other conflicts of interest this outside business might present.</p> <p>Before he became a commissioner, from 2005 through 2007, Araujo earned significant payments from the Queens Surrogate’s Court, which settles estates of Queens residents who die without wills. The appointments required Araujo to act as a “guardian ad litem,” to advocate for individuals incapacitated by age or mental illness. After Araujo joined the BOE in 2008, the appointments stopped. Several payments trickled in again in 2011, but after the 2014 COIB fine, the appointments escalated from both Surrogate’s Court and also Supreme Court, which gave Araujo work as a court evaluator or counsel for guardians of incapacitated individuals.</p> <p>Of the roughly $140,000 Araujo earned from Queens court appointments since 2005, half of the money -- $69,513 -- flowed to Araujo’s practice in the last two years, according to records obtained from the New York State Unified Court System.</p> <p>Rita Araujo, the commissioner’s wife, has had financial difficulties in her past -- a records search shows she is named in 15 nonpayment eviction lawsuits by a previous landlord between 2000 and 2007 -- and Jose Araujo said during his 2014 COIB deposition that he put her on the BOE payroll to qualify her for health benefits. By 2015, the couple was able to purchase a home in Brookhaven, Suffolk County for $203,000, without a mortgage.</p> <p>The couple’s additional income appears to be no coincidence -- current Queens Surrogate’s Court Judge Peter Kelly owes his position to Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, the chair of the Queens Democratic Party who nominated Kelly before he ran unopposed for a 14-year term in 2010. Kelly’s sister, Ann Anzalone, is Crowley’s district chief of staff and a Democratic district leader, a locally elected party official that comes with no salary but some political clout. As party chair, Crowley also appoints the Queens Democratic representative to the Board of Elections.</p> <p>In most boroughs, Democratic judicial candidates are nominated by the party heads and must pass the scrutiny of an independent judicial screening panel before they make it on the ballot. In Queens, the Democratic Party does not require a screening for judges and the party’s pick is rarely opposed. <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/11/opinion/topics-of-the-times-surrogate-democracy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">For half a century</a>, Queens Democratic Party heads have successfully avoided a primary for the powerful Surrogate’s Court post, but if a rogue lawyer did challenge the party’s preferred candidate, it would be helpful for Crowley to have a friendly Board of Elections commissioner, were anything related to ballot petitions or other matters to arise. This is also the case for virtually all other elected offices, where the county party runs a preferred candidate, whether for seats in the City Council, state Assembly, state Senate, and so on.</p> <p>The fact that Queens court appointments are notoriously handed out to a select few lawyers by judges that have the backing and support of Crowley’s machine makes the arrangement particularly questionable, according to one election attorney who spoke on the condition of anonymity.</p> <p>"There doesn't seem to be any reason that [Jose Miguel Araujo] should to be sitting there as a commissioner while he is getting all these appointments. No one can say getting a job as a surrogate in a particular county is unrelated to the politics of the county," said the lawyer. “They have to like you, or you're not getting that job.”</p> <p>The Queens judicial courts have been plagued by charges of cronyism and patronage <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/nyregion/in-queens-political-center-is-in-surrogates-court.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">for decades</a>. Surrogate’s and Supreme Court judges, hand-picked by party leaders, assign lucrative and easy cases to a small group of lawyers with connections to the Queens County Democratic Party machine. However, besides Araujo, no other sitting Board of Elections commissioner has been handed court appointments since being confirmed to the BOE.</p> <p>John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog group, said the Queens Surrogate’s Courts have been used as a reward system for the party machine for too long and that it’s time for the proper authorities, in this case New York State’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, to step in. “The scandal and corruption risk around Queens Surrogate’s has reached a level of outrageousness that’s unacceptable," he said. "It’s turned into a kind of a punchline in good government and political circles."</p> <p>A Board of Elections commissioner taking payment for these court assignments may also violate the city’s conflict of interest law. <a href="http://www.nyc.gov/html/conflicts/html/law/law_chap_68_dir.shtml" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Chapter 68</a> of New York City’s Charter limits the types of outside work public servants who practice law can pursue. For example, public servants may not use their city positions for “financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect” -- which would be the case if Araujo’s influence at the BOE was the driving force behind his recent appointments -- according to a 2001 advisory opinion from COIB. They also may not represent private clients that have business dealings before the City, according to the same opinion. While Surrogate’s Court and Supreme Court are state agencies, if a Surrogate's Court estate proceeding results in a property sale, that sale would be conducted by the Queens Public Administrator's Office, which is a city agency.</p> <p>The Queens public administrator also has ties to the Democratic party machine. The sole counsel to Queens Public Administrator Lois Rosenblatt is Gerard Sweeney, who takes a hefty percentage of each sale referred by the courts. Sweeney -- who in the 1990s was the party’s law chair, charged with ensuring party favorites wound up on the ballot while insurgents were disqualified -- no longer holds an official position in the Queens County Democratic Party, but was described in <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/lawyers-controlled-queens-dems-party-30-years-article-1.3017007" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a recent Daily News article</a> as its “most important strategist, helping guide the party’s political machinations on the homefront as it jousts for influence in City Hall and Albany.”</p> <p>Sweeney has reportedly earned $30 million since 2006 for administering these sales referred by Surrogate’s Court, according to <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/lawyers-controlled-queens-dems-party-30-years-article-1.3017007" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Daily News</a>. Meanwhile, Rosenblatt was herself fined $3,000 <a href="https://nypost.com/2017/05/10/two-city-officials-slapped-with-ethics-violations/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">earlier this month</a>&nbsp;by the COIB for nepotism.</p> <p>In at least one case, Araujo did represent a client who had business before the public administrator. On November 10, 2011, Araujo was appointed “guardian ad litem” in Queens Surrogate's Court for the estate of Josephine Ralton, a 92-year-old woman who had died in 2009 with no clear heirs. Eight days later, the Queens Public Administrator sold Ralton's luxury Forest Hills apartment. Araujo received a $3,000 payment from Queens Surrogate's Court for his work on the case, according to court records.</p> <p>Reached by phone, Araujo first denied having received court appointments in recent years. After being reminded that in fact the bulk of his appointments occurred in 2015 and 2016, he said some of cases were done pro-bono because of his “expertise.”</p> <p>But court records show that only a single appointment throughout Araujo's career has ever gone unpaid - a guardianship for Dorothy Noto Lewis, a BOE employee, in April 2016. When Gotham Gazette pointed out that Araujo had in fact earned nearly $70,000 from Surrogate’s Court and Supreme Court in the last two years, Araujo cited <a href="https://www.nycourts.gov/rules/chiefjudge/36.shtml#02" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the court’s rules</a>, which limits how much one attorney can earn from court appointments in a calendar year, saying he is “capped out at a certain amount.”</p> <p>Araujo said he sees no potential conflicts of interest which could arise from holding the part-time but influential job as Board of Elections commissioner while also benefiting from Surrogate’s appointments. "There is no conflict for me. I'm able to distinguish between the two and I’m able to recuse myself if necessary, but that hasn't happened and it hasn't been necessary," he said.</p> <p>Like other BOE commissioners, Araujo’s work includes voting on whether candidates are eligible for the election ballot. This often includes petition signature validation and cases of petition fraud or irregularity. Commissioners also supervise recounts and oversee numerous issues that impact the voter turnout for elections, including the viability and location of poll sites.</p> <p>These calls are supposed to be impartial, but the notoriously <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/city/252-understanding-the-labyrinth-new-yorks-ballot-access-laws" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">complex system</a> often favors the incumbent or party’s prefered candidates, while outsiders -- who may be less experienced in electoral requirements or lack resources and access to select election lawyers -- are booted off the ballot.</p> <p>Araujo maintains that the uptick in court appointments was merited because he is an expert in kinship cases. Meanwhile, he chose to keep his Board of Elections commissioner job, which comes with influence and a salary not to exceed $30,000 per year, according to <a href="http://a856-gbol.nyc.gov/GBOLWebsite/GreenBook/Details?orgId=2852" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a city listing</a>.</p> <p>As the election attorney put it, “There are many, many attorneys who could be appointed to do this job. It would be fair to say that if someone is getting these kinds of referrals from Surrogate's Court [and Supreme Court], they shouldn’t be on the Board of Elections. It’s not like BOE commissioners earn $250,000 a year and people are falling over themselves to get that job.”</p> <p>A spokesperson for Rep. Crowley, the Queens Democratic Party chair, declined to comment on the distribution of Queens court appointments.</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>