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This is part two of a two-part series on the city’s Fair Share rules. Read part one: City May Soon Have More Formal ‘Fair Share’ Discussion

Fair Share Flawed from the Beginning, Some Say
Ronald Shiffman, now professor emeritus at the Pratt Institute and co-founder of Pratt’s Center for Community Development, was appointed to the newly-expanded City Planning Commission in 1990, and was present for the adoption of the Fair Share Criteria. He told Gotham Gazette that the creation of the criteria was compelled in large part by increasing concern over the then-nascent homelessness crisis and the early power of the emerging environmental justice movement.

“The criteria came out of the need to house populations that were more difficult to house at that time: the homeless, people just released from mental hospitals, people with AIDS,” Shiffman said. “Because of statewide deinstitutionalization policies, the city had to find a way to house these people. The criteria were meant in part to prevent communities from discriminating against those populations.”

Shiffman also said that the criteria were kept intentionally vague, so as not to “tie the city’s hands” when shelters and other facilities needed to be sited quickly, and noted the difficulty of achieving an equal distribution of burdens.

“How do you make sure that no area is getting over-concentration due to having more city-owned property or being less powerful than other communities?” Shiffman said. “There is a difficult line between preventing communities from excluding populations in dire need of housing and giving communities tools to protest an over-concentration of ‘burdensome’ facilities. It was a goal, to find a balance, and for everyone to carry their fair share of residential facilities.”

According to Shiffman, the Fair Share Criteria began to lose power as more city services and facilities were taken over by not-for-profit and private entities, because the accountability and mapping requirements set forth by the criteria apply to only city-owned and operated facilities.

“With the privatization of those facilities, city control kind of evaporated,” Shiffman said. “Devolving so much authority to the private sector allowed service providers and the city to do things that were far more inequitable than when we were dealing only with city-owned lots.”

At the same time that the newly-created criteria sought to compel communities to do their part to shelter fellow New Yorkers, the environmental justice movement saw the criteria as a tool to help protect low-income communities of color from becoming dumping grounds for waste processing stations.

Eddie Bautista is the director of the New York Environmental Justice Alliance; in 1990, when the criteria were enacted, he was the Director of Community Planning with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). Bautista said that the criteria emerged at the same time that the environmental justice movement in New York was ramping up.

“Environmental activists saw Fair Share as an organizing opportunity,” Bautista told Gotham Gazette. “We developed a citywide coalition with groups doing different environmental organizing in low-income neighborhoods of color.” Those neighborhoods, Bautista said, had “too much of the bad stuff and not enough of the good stuff.”

Bautista and others in the environmental justice movement at the time hoped that the criteria would increase transparency of the city facility-siting process, and provide an “early warning” to communities whose neighborhoods had been selected for waste processing stations so that they might intervene.

“The Charter Revision in ‘89 put land use in the hands of the City Council,” Bautista said.

While NYLPI was able to prevent the construction of two sludge treatment facilities using the criteria as an argument, Bautista says that, overall, the criteria are too superficial in nature and too opaque in execution to be impactful.

“Fair Share was never designed to get at the root causes of inequity in neighborhoods,” Bautista said. “It was made to look at the symptoms of the problem; it wasn’t going to change the siting dynamic.”

Bautista also points to the lack of penalties levied upon city agencies that do not submit upcoming facilities to the Citywide Statement of Needs; noting that there are no consequences for an agency that does not include plans to open a new facility in a neighborhood. For instance, the Fire Department submitted a site relocation proposal in the Statement of Needs for Fiscal Years 2016/2017 but did not do so for Fiscal Years 2017/2018. At the same time, in 2016/2017, Department of Homeless Services and the Administration of Child Services had no site proposals, but in the next statement, both agencies put forward multiple projects. Not enforcing a complete picture of new facilities in neighborhoods means that communities “never get an accurate view of what’s happening in their areas,” Bautista said.

“We had three administrations where Fair Share was meaningless because the regulatory framework made it so toothless,” Bautista said, referring to Mayors Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg.

A representative for the City Planning Commission confirmed that there are no punitive measures taken against agencies that fail to participate in the annual statement, but that checks and balances on siting decisions occur throughout the ULURP and public comment process. Often, it is left to City Council oversight and public pushback to a Council member or at a Council hearing to hold sway over these types of omissions.

Despite high hopes at the outset, there is no doubt that the Fair Share Criteria have not proved as useful as early proponents had hoped. But, their influence is starting to be felt again in conversations around distribution of facilities. The perception and reality of inequitable distribution are a constant in headlines across New York, as evidenced by the defeated proposal for the homeless shelter in Wakefield, which would have oversaturated the neighborhood, and the agitation over the conversion of the hotel into a homeless shelter in Maspeth, Queens, where the city has limited such facilities. In both situations, the city has had to navigate local concerns while attempting to install services and infrastructure for a growing population. In the case of Wakefield, Council Member Andy Cohen believes Fair Share was definitely a contributing factor in the administration’s final decision. In an interview outside City Hall, he told Gotham Gazette that there is a tension between the city’s need to house the homeless and the needs of communities.

“I think in order to maintain quality of life there just has to be balance,” he said, “and having a disproportionate number of homeless people being serviced out of one community, I think taxes the NYPD.” He cited as an example one of the shelters in the Wakefield neighborhood that he said had generated more than 500 911 calls within the first six months of opening. “The precinct is not able to service the rest of the...precinct if they’re answering all of these calls so that’s the kind of example of why I think it’s important that these facilities are spread out in a proportional and representative way,” Council Member Cohen said. 

Fair Share Flashpoints
Council Speaker Mark-Viverito ignited a firestorm of protest and earned quite a few applause when she spoke hopefully in her 2016 State of the City address of reducing the jail population of Rikers Island so significantly “that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality,” and announced the creation of a special commission to be led by Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. The commission is reviewing the city’s entire criminal justice system, including the possibility of closing the island’s jails and relocating the detainees and inmates.

DNAinfo reported in March that, contrary to earlier claims from the mayor’s office that the closure proposal was a “noble” but “unworkable” concept, city officials had begun examining several locations for new and expanded jails that might house the thousands displaced by shuttering Rikers complexes. As of October 20, Rikers held about 7,500 inmates, many awaiting trial, and other city jails off the island held about 2,200, for a Department of Correction headcount of 9,764, according to a DOC spokesperson.

According to DNAinfo, officials identified possible locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and on Staten Island, “where two new jails — each housing as many as 2,000 inmates — could be built.” According to several proposals that have been around for years, existing detention centers could and should be expanded to also accommodate detainees if Rikers were to be closed -- something Mayor de Blasio has called a long-shot and a many years, multi-billion dollar project if it were to ever come to fruition.

Perhaps even more daunting to the prospect of closing Rikers jails than several billion dollars in costs are the roadblocks thrown up by the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. In the event that the city would need to site small jails to take on the incarcerated population, each site would be subject to a lengthy, complicated, and controversial process that also requires the application of the Fair Share Criteria. Pushback from several City Council members was quick and fierce when DNAinfo reported on potential communities being targeted. No one wants a jail in their district - or “back yard.”

One site on the short list for a hypothetical new jail is Hunt’s Point, where a jail barge holding 800 prisoners is currently moored - and the very neighborhood Mark-Viverito held up as an example of an area already saturated with more than its fair share of burdensome facilities.

“While I understand that we need to make strides in improving corrections infrastructure, primarily Rikers Island, the solution is not building a new facility in the South Bronx,” City Council Member Rafael Salamanca, recently elected to represent the area, said in an April press release, released in collaboration with State Senator Jeff Klein.

City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who represents Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Ridgewood, said in a statement that while he has not been able to verify that the city is considering using a National Grid site in his district as a jail location, “...if it were true, the proposal would need to go through public land use review, and I would never allow it to pass.” The Council is known to defer to the local representative on land use decisions.

City Council Member Joseph Borelli, of Staten Island’s south shore, has advocated for addressing conditions at Rikers in lieu of shutting it down. He put his response plainly in his letter to Mark-Viverito: “No one wants a jail next to their house.” 

Homeless Shelters
In 2013, then-Comptroller John Liu released a report that set out to examine the way the city chooses sites for homeless shelters, and to “determine if the City’s goal of transparency is being effectively achieved by implementation of the Fair Share Criteria.” The answer, in short, was “no,” but the report dove deep into the ways the complex process of siting city facilities is made even more convoluted and opaque when different kinds of shelters and shelter operators are in play.

“Shelters are undoubtedly clustered in low-income neighborhoods,” the report stated. Using data from 2011, the comptroller’s office showed that “family and adult shelters were unevenly dispersed across the city,” with the greatest concentrations found in the Bronx, followed by Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Staten Island was not included, because its six shelters made the borough an outlier that skewed citywide results. The analysis is never as simple as being borough-based, of course, and there are specific communities that are at the heart of fair share issues.

Though the unequal distribution of shelters was stark, the report was more an indictment of the failure of the Fair Share Criteria to ensure transparency in the shelter siting process. The criteria, the report said, should “set the framework for dialogue between communities and government in an effort to achieve optimal levels of efficiency, utility, and fairness in the siting of public facilities,” and were developed “to provide communities with a transparent decision-making process that facilitates adequate planning and takes communities’ needs into account.”

To this end, the report pointed out a litany of shortcomings, chief among them that a large number of homeless shelters are regularly not included on the annual Citywide Statement of Needs. Many DHS shelters are excluded, as are emergency shelters, which by nature are not anticipated, though potential sites could be identified earlier; as well as per diem shelters, “which are not City facilities” and therefore skirt a real public input process. Those exclusions, the report says, prevent communities from offering comment or intervening once a site has been chosen.

The lengthy report contains a thorough critique of and suggestions for improvement to the transparency aspects of the Fair Share Criteria, but the driving conclusions were that “there is poor notification and limited community participation in decisions about siting family and adult homeless shelters” and that “clustering is occurring and that certain neighborhoods across the City have a higher proportion of family and adult shelters than others” - namely, low-income neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville in Brooklyn, Fordham, Morris Heights, Belmont, and East Tremont in the Bronx, and Central Harlem in Manhattan.

If the public notification and input process were improved, the report says, a more transparent process might create a more equitable distribution of facilities.

The problems of transparency and clustering don’t seem to have improved significantly since that data was collected in 2011.

In 2015, the Department of Homeless Services released data showing that the ten community districts with the most homeless shelters contain more shelters than the other 49 districts combined. Of those top ten districts, four were located in the Bronx.

The other areas with the highest concentration of shelters were almost all low-income and predominantly non-white, including Manhattan Community Boards 10 and 3 in Harlem and the Lower East Side, respectively; Brooklyn CB3 in Bed-Stuy; and Manhattan CB11 in East Harlem.

“New York City is legally obligated to provide shelter to any New Yorker who would otherwise be on the streets,” said a Department of Homeless Services spokesperson in an email. “Mayor de Blasio charged the administration with evaluating the breadth of human services located in each community district citywide to identify areas to locate new shelter facilities. We are committed to engaging communities on these issues, listening to feedback and working to address community concerns.”

DHS takes a number of factors into consideration when selecting a new site for a homeless shelter -- rating the bid made for the site, whether the building has the appropriate documentation, including a Certificate of Occupancy, whether it complies with requirements of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), timeframe of availability, potential capacity and saturation, among others. The OTDA also has to approve the expansion of an existing shelter. In non-emergency circumstances, the city ensures that elected officials are informed of a shelter opening at least 45 days in advance. DHS now also creates a Community Advisory Board for every new shelter. These boards, comprised of appointees of local elected officials and community members, hold monthly meetings with DHS staff, the shelter operator, and NYPD to discuss any pertinent issues.

However, the regulatory void in which homeless shelter siting operates became apparent in 2014, when DHS successfully opened a new homeless shelter for adult families without children at 56-66 Clay St. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, despite protests from local officials and community members that a public review process had not taken place.

Assembly Member Joseph Lentol pushed back, citing the four existing shelters in his district, and asking city officials to consider the Fair Share Criteria before making a final decision.

"For more than 40 years we have been our brother’s keeper, and we continue to accept that responsibility on the condition that we are not being unfairly singled out to carry this burden," Lentol said in a letter to Department of Homeless Services about the conflict. "Other communities are not carrying this same burden because Community Board 1 is unfairly carrying this load."

But the shelter on Clay Street was not subject to the Fair Share Criteria, or to any lengthy public review process. It was instated as an emergency shelter, for which DHS must only give seven days notice. While DHS acted legally, the shelter felt as though it had been “smuggled in by the dead of night,” Board 1 chair Dealice Fuller said in a letter to Mayor de Blasio last year. 

Waste Management
On August 17, Mayor de Blasio announced major planned reforms to the city’s commercial sanitation industry, which would seek to reduce truck traffic and emissions, increase recycling and promote environmental justice by creating commercial waste zones that are each served by one private sanitation company. The plan was praised by the Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition, an environmental justice community group that has long advocated against the problem of waste facility clustering in the city.

While city officials are making and eyeing significant strides toward reducing the amount of waste New York residents and businesses produce, processing and transfer stations are concentrated in a handful of low-income communities populated predominantly by people of color.

Transform Don’t Trash NYC released a report in 2015 indicting the city’s “inefficient and ad-hoc arrangement” for waste processing that allows hundreds of private hauling companies to collect waste from restaurants, stores, and other businesses each night and “truck it to dozens of transfer stations and recycling facilities concentrated in a handful of low-income communities of color.”

After collecting data for both city-run and privately-owned waste collectors, the report authors found that 75% of all waste handled in New York City is trucked to transfer stations in just three outer-borough neighborhoods in North Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Northeast Queens.

The 4,000-plus diesel trucks that transport waste to those facilities each day emit exhaust, increase traffic congestion, and add wear and tear to roads, according to the report. The study found that the trucks’ emissions alone have a significant negative impact of air quality in neighborhoods where waste facilities are clustered.

While de Blasio’s new commercial sanitation plan will address these issues, there is no indication if it will also look at the Fair Share Criteria to site new waste management facilities. In March, the New Harlem East Merchants Association wrote a letter to the Department of Sanitation, demanding that the department reconsider its decision to open a sanitation garage in a residential neighborhood on 3rd Avenue, about 1,200 feet away from another garage on East 131 Street, and in close proximity to two schools and a new cancer treatment facility.

According to a statement from New Harlem East Merchants Association, the addition “would place an unfair burden on the East Harlem community,” which already struggles with an asthma rate twice that of the city-wide average (asthma rates in the nearby South Bronx are also quite high). The city has not indicated that community protest will prevent a second garage from going up.

However, where the Fair Share Criteria have failed, local legislators are pursuing alternative projects and policies to prevent low-income communities from handling the vast majority of the city’s waste with a mind toward more equitable distribution.

Building on the 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), which has an environmental justice focus and was adopted by Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council in 2006, City Council Member Steve Levin of Brooklyn introduced a bill in October 2014. Intro. 495, also known as the “Trash Cap,” would cut the daily waste processing capacity in the three most-burdened neighborhoods -- North Brooklyn, South Bronx, and Northeast Queens -- by 50% of the daily trash volume they currently receive, according to Council Member Antonio Reynoso’s legislative director, Lacey Tauber. It would also cap the permitted capacity of waste transfer stations at 10 percent of the average citywide capacity. 

Reynoso, who is chair of the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste, also represents the district with the highest concentration of waste facilities: parts of Brooklyn including Williamsburg and Bushwick. 

Under the trash cap bill, all community districts with solid waste transfer stations would be capped, but not every cap would be the same, Tauber told Gotham Gazette. The bill considers any community district handling more than 10 percent of the city’s waste as overburdened and seeks to ensure that community districts that aren’t already over that threshold are capped at 10 percent and cannot be pushed over it.

“The [10 percent] cap on citywide waste ensures that lessening the burden on one community does not simply transfer that full burden to another similar community,” Tauber said.

Tauber added that pairing prevention of over-saturation of waste facilities with a clear alternative is key to not sacrificing equity in one community to benefit another.

“If we say you can’t bring it here but don’t specify where it can go, that directs waste to other low-income communities of color,” Tauber said.

After negotiations with the de Blasio administration about the bill, which had a hearing early in 2015, it was amended to increase the cap from the original proposal of 5 percent to the current 10 percent. The bill has not yet been voted on in committee.

Another way to decrease truck traffic and associated ills is through the use of marine transfer stations, or MTS, where waste leaves the city via barge, decreasing traffic and consolidating the process. The city is opening MTS in Queens, Brooklyn, and, perhaps most famously, on 91 Street on the Upper East Side. According to the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, the latter, a wealthy and well-connected neighborhood, has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into an opposition campaign. Nevertheless, construction is still underway, and proponents of MTS believe the three will offer significant relief to overburdened communities.

“It will help decrease traffic, congestion, pollution - everything that the trucks bring into those low-income neighborhoods,” Tauber said of the Upper East Side MTS.

Yet, the MTS currently only deal with the residential waste under the jurisdiction of the Department of Sanitation. Incentivizing private truck companies that pick up waste from businesses and restaurants is another challenge that the city appears to be targeting through the neighborhood zoning plan. This model allows the city to consolidate truck traffic and regulate labor standards, truck emissions, and more. The proposal that the de Blasio administration put out has a long way to go before becoming law.

Updating Fair Share
Despite noble intentions, the Fair Share Criteria does not achieve the kind of transparent public input process and equitable city landscape sought by its supporters. While Speaker Mark-Viverito promised in her February State of the City address that the City Council would “empower neighborhoods by working with our partners in City and State government to create tools and improve opportunities for public input in the Fair Share process,” no specific legislation has been put forth. In the August interview with Gotham Gazette, she said the Council was exploring the issue, and may put out a paper on it. 

City Council Member Brad Lander, long a proponent of progressive city planning practices, has clear ideas about how to revamp the criteria.

“Step one is to provide more transparency on both the existing siting of various forms of municipal infrastructure and services that are covered by the fair share rules, and more transparency on each individual application so it will be possible to really evaluate whether it is fair or not fair,” Lander told Gotham Gazette in an interview.

Second, Lander said that the criteria have to be updated. “If City Planning wants to do that, great. But if not, we need to step forward and push them to do it,” he said.

The third objective, Lander said, and one that could be the most challenging legislatively, “is putting some teeth in the laws, having some consequence for unfair sitings, making unfair sitings be more difficult for the city than fairer ones.”

“Developing a system that has at least a thumb on the scale toward more equitable distribution: that’s the ultimate goal,” Lander said.

The City made significant moves in this direction in April, according to Lander, when the administration quietly resurrected the formerly-annual Social Indicators Report. Though the annual report was mandated in the same 1989 Charter Revision that created the Fair Share Criteria, this is the first report to be published by a Mayor in a decade.

The report, which mostly escaped public notice, provides a comprehensive statistical snapshot of the city, ostensibly to provide a clearer understanding of both need and progress in various communities. The data is disaggregated by 45 different indicators, including race, income, gender, education, English proficiency, and others. The report’s introduction states that it is “meant to help guide the City’s efforts to reduce disparities and advance equity.”

Lander says that while the City Council works on how to update and improve the Fair Share Criteria, the Social Indicators Report is a valuable and promising tool. “It’s a good, strong step forward,” Lander said. The Council member did not indicate whether anything on fair share from his office or the Council in general should be expected any time soon.

Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and veteran in the fight against clustering waste facilities in low-income neighborhoods, is cautiously optimistic.

“What would make it meaningful would be to go back to the original concept: transparency and a full accounting of the burdens and lack of benefits in each community,” Bautista said.

“The Fair Share Criteria was all we could muster in ‘89 and ‘90. After 25 years of cynicism, I’m looking forward to the [City Council] speaker - the first speaker of color - and Brad Lander - an activist involved in early fair share conversations - working toward a solution on this.”

**This is part two of a two-part series on the city’s Fair Share rules. Read part one: City May Soon Have More Formal ‘Fair Share’ Discussion**

***
by Maggie Calmes & Samar Khurshid for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this story has been updated to reflect amended language in Intro. 495, the "Trash Cap" bill.

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Fair Share: Design Flaws, Flashpoints & Possible Updates Sun, 20 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Comptroller Site Offers Initial Window Into Cloudy World of City Subcontracting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5673:comptroller-site-offers-initial-window-into-city-subcontracting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5673:comptroller-site-offers-initial-window-into-city-subcontracting stringer audit presser

Comptroller Stringer at a recent press conference (photo: @scottmstringer)


In February, Comptroller Scott Stringer declared that his office's online City-spending tracking tool, Checkbook NYC, would start providing information about subcontracts handed out by prime vendors working with the City. The push to publicly display what is billions of dollars of often secretive, murky procurement indicates a big step toward what could be a major leap forward in transparency. In Fiscal Year 2014 the City doled out $21.2 billion to subcontractors. "New York City has set a new standard for transparency by being the first government to make subcontractor payment data readily publicly available," Stringer told Gotham Gazette in a statement.

To make the initiative truly transformative, though, the City must ensure that its contractors report their subcontracting, something not required by law.

While the first subcontractor data went live on Checkbook NYC two months ago, the initiative was initially announced in March 2013 by former Comptroller John Liu and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Without legislation requiring it, the two agreed it would become protocol.

"Fully disclosing contracts was a major step forward," Liu said of launching Checkbook NYC in a recent phone interview. "Subcontracting and lack of transparency remains a huge problem. A great deal of mismanagement and impropriety with Citytime happened at the subcontracting level," he said, citing the CityTime scandal where a contractor siphoned millions of dollars from the City while delaying an automated payroll technology project.

Structured similarly to the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which requires online disclosure of subcontractors by Federal contractors, the new rules established in 2013 state that prime vendors who win contracts with the City are expected to upload details about subcontracting to the City's Payee Information Portal. Those names and payments are then made available on Checkbook NYC, which provides regular updates on the City's contracts and spending.

Good government watchdogs have praised the initiative. "It is great to see some subcontractor data up on Checkbook, and we hope to see more as the City works to ensure that prime contractors are aware of their responsibility to report information on their subcontractors," said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy at good government organization Citizens Union.

Exposing the largess of subcontracts in a clear, transparent way fosters greater opportunity for government accountability and can protect against corruption, as Liu alluded to.

"This was a huge data integration task," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, another good government group, and co-chair of the NYC Transparency Working Group. "They had to do a lot of plumbing work to get it to here. We're very impressed."

Despite this unprecedented move toward greater fiscal transparency, there are limitations to the system. Collection of the data began in November 2013 but it is self-reported by the prime contractors and there has been no indication that the City is pushing to enforce compliance. As of the end of March, Checkbook NYC shows $9.2 billion in City contracts for the ongoing fiscal year (2015), but only $33.1 million in subcontracts reported.

For fiscal year 2014, Checkbook NYC reports $207.6 million paid to subcontractors, with a total contract spending of $21.2 billion. That is a mere 0.97 percent. The comptroller acknowledges that subcontracting reporting is minimal at this point. "This new initiative opens up a world of opportunities for transparency and good governance, but the information is only as good as the data that is shared. To truly succeed, there must be a city-wide effort to incentivize vendors to enter subcontractor information on our City's systems," Stringer said.

Citizens Union's Fauss has already called for action by the City Council to ensure compliance. Testifying at a multi-committee hearing in February on the 911 system contract and the Department of Investigation's report on the Emergency Communications Transformation Program, Fauss recommended that the Council conduct oversight hearings on fully implementing the rules for reporting subcontracting data. "A citywide, coordinated effort to bring all prime contractors into compliance could go a long way toward further improving transparency of outsourced projects," she told Gotham Gazette.

Liu agrees that whether through law or regulation, prime vendors should be required to disclose the data. The initial agreement stated that, "In the event a prime vendor fails to carry out their responsibility, the City has the right to withhold payment until all requirements have been met." But Liu is uncertain how much of that agreement survived the transition through administrations, both in the comptroller's office and the mayor's office.

"Maybe what we're seeing are the bureaucratic limits between what a memorandum of understanding from a former mayor and former comptroller can produce," said Reinvent Albany's Kaehny. "Maybe what we need right now is a city law to ensure compliance with reporting, otherwise it will never achieve its potential."

Kaehny believes this fiscal transparency tool is powerful in understanding the City's procurement system, ensuring fairness, and fighting "pay-to-play" culture and conflicts of interests. But without sufficient data, it is useless to journalists, advocates, academics, and others.

Even just getting this ball rolling is no small feat: New York is the first city in the U.S. to provide subcontracting data, according to Stringer's office and advocates. The state-level equivalent fiscal transparency website, Openbook New York, does not provide subcontracting information, although it might in the future. "New Yorkers have a right to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent," emailed Nikki Jones, deputy press secretary for New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, whose office runs Openbook. "We are continuously looking for ways to increase government transparency by expanding the amount of available financial data on openbooknewyork.com," she added.

But the consensus seems to be that the City Council, mayor, and comptroller need to work together to push for full compliance. "I think it's great that subcontracting information is now available on the website," said James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist, Fiscal Policy Institute. "But it seems unworkable if [disclosure] is not required. If it's just voluntary and there's no penalty, as soon as any issue related to subcontracting comes up, even those who do provide the data will stop providing it." He praised the comptroller's comments drawing attention to the fact that it is not yet universal.

A law mandating strict reporting requirements would certainly boost this transparency initiative. Could the Council or Mayor's Office of Contract Services (MOCS) help ensure compliance? Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Council's contracts committee, declined to comment, saying the comptroller is best versed on the issue; and numerous attempts to contact MOCS went unanswered.

A recent audit report released by the comptroller's office criticized the mismanagement of funds under the "Build It Back" (BIB) housing recovery program for Hurricane Sandy victims, largely representative of Bloomberg administration performance. A Pennsylvania-based contractor, Public Financial Management, was meant to handle BIB applications through three subcontractors. A look at Checkbook NYC shows that these subcontractors, and the payments made to them, have not been reported, though Public Financial Management has been paid more than $17 million, of which $4.4 million went to subcontractors.

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

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Comptroller Site Offers Initial Window Into Cloudy World of City Subcontracting Mon, 06 Apr 2015 18:53:42 +0000
After Making History, James Seeks Change http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5631:after-making-history-james-seeks-change http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5631:after-making-history-james-seeks-change tish james at rally

Public Advocate James at a recent rally (photo: @PA_Outreach)


During Women's History Month, the New York City YWCA holds weekly discussion and networking events, leading to a celebration honoring a "YW Woman of the Year." This year's theme is Leadership and Generosity: A Call to Action and the honoree, to be recognized at the celebration Tuesday night in Manhttan, is Public Advocate Letitia James. According to a YWCA spokesperson, James is being honored for "her hard work towards gender and racial equity" and because she "is a shining example with her tireless efforts to advance the agency of women and girls in New York City."

No individual better epitomizes the progress made by women of color in New York City than Letitia "Tish" James. The first woman of color elected to city-wide office, James is a force. She is a powerful public speaker with a commanding physical presence, including a big, broad smile that she flashes judiciously. A labor-friendly attorney, James is also a proud Brooklynite and former City Council member whose 2013 election to the office of public advocate was met with widespread celebration due to its historic nature.

Since becoming one of New York City's three publicly-elected city-wide officials in January of 2014, she has shifted the focus of the office toward her legal background and identified new causes to champion in fulfilling the role's mandate - for example, she filed suit to unseal documents in the Eric Garner grand jury case and she has taken on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Her advocacy has at times brought her into direct conflict with her allies, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, though some say James has not been critical enough of her friend and fellow Brooklynite, the mayor. James has tended toward taking on the administration in court over calling out the mayor individually, a different tack that that taken by past public advocates. Among other areas of disagreement, the public advocate has sued the de Blasio administration over school co-locations and in an effort to open up school leadership meetings to the public.

As February rolled into March and Women's History Month follows Black History Month, the city has been celebrating the legacies of black leaders and women leaders. Like no other public figure in New York City, James is a symbol of this history, as well as the present, and the triumphs and struggles of specific constituencies and demographics.

But James hopes, and strives, she says, to be more than just a symbol. "Obviously its an honor and a privilege that New York elected me," she said in a recent phone interview with Gotham Gazette. "There's a historical sentiment to that victory. However, that means nothing. It won't be more than a historical footnote if I don't do anything as Public Advocate."

Since her election, which she won after a tough Democratic primary culminating in a run-off, James has worked to redefine the office of Public Advocate - held prior to her, for one term, by de Blasio. She's also been able to expand the staff of the office due to additional funds allocated by the mayor in his first budget.

Coming from limited resources herself, James' political path has been especially challenging, and she has called for campaign finance reform as a means to level a political playing field dominated by men with access to deep pockets. "For me, the challenge was raising funds, and that continues," she said. "That's unique to women. They are mostly involved in pink collar industries, not white collar ones that pay more. I would not be in this position but for campaign finance reform and the support of working class people." Even then, James says she was outspent three to one in the primary. "But it kept me in the game," she says of the City's system of public matching funds and spending caps.

An active proponent of the "Why She Ran" campaign launched last year by the Working Families Party (WFP) to provide a push to women considering running for public office, James seeks to contribute to a pipeline of those who decide to do so. The WFP has organized a host of events again this year and James will be joining forces with electeds, advocates, and activists to encourage more women to participate in the political arena. James was first elected to the City Council on the WFP ballot line and is a fixture at its rallies and other events - and it at hers, such as at a recent rally at City Hall calling for fair school funding from the State and decrying Governor Andrew Cuomo's education reform proposals, which are vehemently opposed by teachers unions.

james rallyJames at Sunday's rally (photo: @leoniehaimson)

Even while she's receiving awards, as she will Tuesday evening, James' attention in the next weeks and months, she said, will be on broad, sweeping issues that affect all New Yorkers and particularly women. "We're going to keep our heads down and raise issues on the ground," she said. In forums across the city, James has promised to discuss issues of pay equity, child care, student debt, sexual assault on college campuses, criminal justice reform, jobs, education, and the "feminization of poverty in New York. There are more women living in poverty now than ever," she said.

"I'll be going around college campuses and meeting young people so they can recognize that politics is the way to effect change in the system," James said. "As more women see elected officials who happen to be women, they'll be inspired by the advocacy of this office to join political office."

James has just finished a five-borough series of "Mayoral Control Forums," in which she's led community discussions about how New Yorkers want to see the power over the school system allocated. While that will ultimately be a decision made at the state level, James is doing what she often does, pushing a conversation forward - the community recommendations that her office aggregates will be presented to lawmakers.

Her tenacity and focus on her constituents has won her respect in many quarters. "I think it's great every time that we break a glass ceiling and somebody makes history," said new State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie when asked, given his own history-making, to discuss James'. Heastie is the first African-American to hold the post of Assembly Speaker, which he attained in early February. "But as I've said," Heastie continued, echoing James, "just making history is not the most important thing, it's what you do once you get elevated to that position."

Praising James for "doing a wonderful job," Heastie said he hopes that one day "people say the same thing about me."

Other elected officials see James as a role model. Bronx City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a woman of color herself, looks up to James' example. "[She made] history, but for us it's just an affirmation that women are changing the game and we are stepping up to leadership roles that were never planned nor designed for us," Gibson told Gotham Gazette. "When I look at Tish James and all that she stands for - fairness and equity, always fighting against inequities and fighting against the stigmas, the statistics that are used to define New Yorkers and Bronx residents - it's really an honor to work with her, to call her a friend, to call her my big sister."

PA JamesJames with young constituents (photo: @PA_Outreach)

James has emphasized that she is a representative for all New Yorkers, not just one or two demographic groups that she may fall into or certain neighborhoods. Council Member Julissa Ferreras believes that approach is requisite for the city's progress.

Ferreras is the first woman and person of color to chair the Council's powerful Finance Committee. "Having Tish James in city-wide office shows that we are making our way towards a more inclusive city government," Ferreras emailed. "I have also been welcomed into communities that previously were not open to women and people of color. Still, there is room for improvement and the most practical way I see of improving is by paying careful attention to hiring practices. Government officials appoint hundreds of individuals in their offices — making sure those individuals accurately represent their constituents is a first step."

It is here that James hopes she will leave her mark, in encouraging political participation not only of women and people of color, but all New Yorkers, as artificial ceilings eventually become remnants of the past. "I would hope that we get to the point in history that there are no longer any barriers to break, and qualifying an election as being 'the first' is no more," she said. "It's important that individuals, whether they are people of color or not, recognize their position to effect change. The power lies in their hands, to be the change that so many people are protesting for."

New York Representation, by the Numbers
It is an unfortunate fact that women and people of color are underrepresented in elected office in New York, which is but a microcosm of the representational imbalance in American politics.

At the state level, there are only 51 women legislators out of 213 members of the State Senate and State Assembly. New York's 23.9 percent representation of women falls marginally below the national average of 24.1 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Although that is an increase in the state over 2014, when the number stood at 45, it is the same as five years ago.

The New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus has 53 members, of which 18 are women (meaning 8.4 percent of the Legislature is women of color).

More locally, the New York City Council has 15 women members, making up 29.4 percent of the 51-member body. The Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus makes up more than half the body, 26 of 51 members; and of course Melissa Mark-Viverito is the first woman of color to be elected Speaker - she is Puerto Rican.

City-wide History-makers
Tish James may be the first woman of color to hold the post of public advocate, but she is not the first person of color or the first woman to hold city-wide office. In all, there have only been four politicians of color to hold one of the three current city-wide elected offices in New York, and only four women - James holds each distinction.

Betsy Gotbaum was Public Advocate between 2002 and 2009, serving two terms. Before her, Carol Bellamy held the post when it was still termed President of the City Council, from 1978 to 1985. Besides them, Elizabeth Holtzman was Comptroller between 1990 and 1993, the only woman to ever hold that position.

David Dinkins is the only person of color to ever be elected Mayor - he is African-American. The only other politicians of color elected city-wide are Comptrollers William Thompson (2002-2009) and John Liu (2010-2013).

Could Letitia James become the first woman and first woman of color to be Mayor? Stay tuned.

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

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After Making History, James Seeks Change Sun, 22 Mar 2015 16:33:28 +0000