Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/379 Wed, 13 Dec 2017 17:04:18 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Members Still Navigating Outside Income Divestment Ahead of Deadline http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7234:city-council-members-still-navigating-outside-income-divestment-ahead-of-deadline http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7234:city-council-members-still-navigating-outside-income-divestment-ahead-of-deadline paul vallone by john mccarten

Council Member Paul Vallone (photo: John McCarten)


Legislation barring City Council members from making outside income will go into effect on January 1, forcing several sitting and incoming Council members to make tough decisions about their side jobs.

The regulations, which were linked to a significant pay increase for all city elected officials, including a salary bump from $112,500 to $148,000 for City Council members, were approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council last year. Only three current City Council members, two of whom voted against the new restrictions, continue to be involved in their private sector businesses, and each is still in the process of figuring out divestment as mandated by the new law.

Council Members Peter Koo, Chaim Deutsch, and Paul Vallone -- all still in the process of being reelected to another term -- were required to submit letters to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito by March 1, 2016 indicating whether or not they intended to continue earning outside income and stating an intention to comply with the rules by the January deadline -- in time for the 2018-2021 Council session.

When reached by Gotham Gazette, each of the three Council members or a representative described legal and logistical complexities in divesting from or dissolving a limited liability company (LLC), resigning from a job, or recusing oneself from duties in anticipation of the deadline.

Meanwhile, some still question whether the Council should have gone to a near-complete ban on outside income (small allowances are provided for members who teach a college course, for example), or if the model should have been akin to the cap on what members of Congress are allowed to make outside of their governmental duty -- a small percentage of their salaries.

Vallone, a Democrat who represents District 19 in Eastern Queens, reported earning between $5,000 and $47,999 from his family’s law practice on his 2016 financial disclosure forms. In opposing the new outside income restrictions on Council members, he introduced a last-ditch amendment -- citing a statement made by good government group Citizens Union -- that Council members’ outside income should be capped at 15 percent of their Council salaries rather than eliminated. The amendment did not pass, and a spokesperson for Vallone said he is working with his lawyers to figure out how the rules apply to the family’s legal firm, which was founded by his grandfather Judge Charles J. Vallone in 1932, and where three generations of Vallones have since practiced.

As managing Partner of Vallone & Vallone, the Council member oversees the company’s day-to-day operations and serves as general counsel for corporate clients, according to the firm’s website. The firm also handles estate law, real estate transactions, civil and personal injury litigation, and criminal law.

Also a Democrat, Deutsch represents the 48th Council District, in Southern Brooklyn, and currently makes between $100,000 and $250,000 a year through a real estate management company he owns. He said he intends to shut down the business by January, but has not yet determined the process for doing so.

“It’s going to take some time to shut down the corporation. I don’t know exactly what the process is,” said Deutsch, who voted against the bills. “What I do know, is that I’m not accepting any more managing fees. I could keep the corporation open for the next five years, and maybe reopen it after term limits. But I will not be receiving the outside income.”

Deutsch, like Vallone and Koo, will be term-limited out of office at the end of 2021 if successful on Election Day this year, which each is expected to be.

Koo is a Democrat who owns a chain of pharmacies and represents the 20th Council District in Queens. He reported making between $60,000 and $99,999 as the president of a pharmacy, and another $5,000 to $47,999 at another pharmacy. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but he was the only one of the three who voted in favor of the legislation.

Other newly elected Democratic nominees for the City Council said that they had already quit their jobs to focus on their campaigns and that they have no intentions to returning to work before January.

“I quit in 2017 in April to be a full-time candidate,” said Keith Powers, who won a crowded District 4 Democratic primary and is the favorite to win the seat in November. “No matter what job I had at the time, I would have given it up; you want to make sure you have all the time to talk to voters.”

Like Powers, most candidates for City Council either leave their jobs entirely or take a leave of absence for the key months of the campaign.

Powers, a former government aide and, more recently, lobbyist who ran partly on a reform and transparency platform, said he hopes that the City Council rules can be a model for the state Legislature, where the salaries are far lower but the outside income restrictions are minimal and the job is considered part-time.

“You should be fully committed to the job that you’ve been elected to for the district. In the district that I am in, I don’t know how you would even have time to do both,” Powers said.

State government appeared to be moving toward pay raises for state legislators and others in government last year, but the process was stalled amid disagreements among Governor Andrew Cuomo, members of the Legislature, and appointees to a special panel tasked with determining pay raises and, potentially, other reforms to the relevant jobs. Legislators haven’t had a salary increase in nearly 20 years, with base pay stuck at $79,000, though many legislators receive additional bonuses as well as per diem payouts for trips to Albany.

There were and continue to be criticisms about the requirement that City Council members relinquish virtually all outside income. Some stemmed from concerns that an outright ban on outside income could discourage small business owners from running for office, according to Council Member Ben Kallos, who co-sponsored the legislation and chairs the governmental operations committee. The bill was tweaked to make allowances for passive income and would not force electeds to dissolve their business entities completely.

“It’s just what we could reasonably expect from people. So, if somebody has spent their career as a small business person, and brought that small business experience to the City Council,  which can be invaluable…,” said Kallos. “After four years or eight years, [that person] could return to their community, and continue doing what they did to begin with.”

Rather than stripping a small number of elected officials of their non-governmental livelihoods, the goal was to ensure that Council members focus on their districts full-time, and to avoid any real or apparent conflicts of interest.

“It is a concern for me that someone with business before the city could hire a member of the City Council in the hopes of gaining influence,” said Kallos, who represents Manhattan’s 5th Council District.

Kallos said that before taking office in 2014, he personally retired from the practice of law in three states and dissolved LLCs for companies he had started. He said he is still in the process of dissolving several non-profits he created.

“All of them have had, literally had no business since I got elected. But, it can be a complicated and weird, long process,” he said.

While dissolving these entities is not required by the bill, Kallos said, “I felt that as the author of the law in question, I have to set a good example and go one step further than the law requires.”

Certain passive income, such as interest, dividends, rent, annuities, capital gains, copyright royalties, or retirement payouts are acceptable under the new rules. Council members may also accept compensation for speaking engagements or artistic performances, with advance approval by the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), and income for teaching an accredited college course, “so long as such compensation does not exceed that normally received by others at the institution for a comparable type and amount of instruction.”

The language also leaves room for jobs drawing “minimal income, involving a limited time commitment,” with advance approval by the Office of General Counsel, as long as the role does not interfere with the member’s official duties.

The pay raise at the City Council may have helped attract a number of candidates from state government, where legislative salaries have been frozen since 1999. But, the new city guidelines can also create complications for an Assembly member and state senator earning outside income on the verge of election to the City Council. Three state lawmakers won Democratic City Council primaries in September and are either heavily favored or guaranteed to win the seat in November.

State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., who won the primary for Council District 18 in the Bronx, earns between $5,000 and $20,000 for his role as pastor at the Christian Community Neighborhood Church, which he founded, according to his most recent financial disclosure forms. Diaz Sr. could not be reached for comment.

Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, who won the primary for Council District 13 in the Bronx, has earned between $75,000  and $100,000 from a real estate brokerage firm he owns with a family member. A spokesperson for Gjonai said he has started the process with his lawyers and accountants to take the necessary steps to comply with city law.

“It's difficult for him to comment, because he's learning himself about that process,” said Jennifer Blatus, a spokesperson for Gjonaj. “I can say that it’s something the Assemblyman is happy to do in order to better serve his constituents.”

Assemblymember Francisco Moya, who won the primary in Queen’s 21st Council District, receives between $5,000 and $20,000 in rental income, according to his state disclosure filings, and will not be obligated to give up the income.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Members Still Navigating Outside Income Divestment Ahead of Deadline Wed, 04 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Meet The Three State Legislators Likely Heading To The City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7195:meet-the-three-state-legislators-coming-to-the-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7195:meet-the-three-state-legislators-coming-to-the-city-council gjonaj election night crop 

Mark Gjonaj & Bronx Democratic leadership (photo: @MarkGjonajNY)


With the New York City primary election behind us, it appears that at least three state legislators are likely to be leaving behind the trips to Albany for plush City Council seats.

Following the path of former State Senator Bill Perkins, who was elected to the City Council in a special election earlier this year, two Assembly members and one state senator are likely to be making the same jump come January: State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr, Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, and Assemblymember Francisco Moya were all victorious in determinative Democratic primaries Tuesday night.

Assemblymembers Felix Ortiz and Robert Rodriguez also ran in Democratic City Council primaries, but appear to have lost their respective bids. Ortiz came in a distant second attempting to unseat incumbent Council Member Carlos Menchaca and Rodriguez is narrowly behind Diana Ayala in a race he has not conceded, though Ayala did declare victory. Gjonaj will have to defeat Republican candidate John Cerini in the general election, who is expected to be tougher competition than Diaz Sr.'s Republican opponent, Eisley Constantine. Moya does not have any general election competition.

The three state legislators who won on Tuesday would join the City Council as part of the full new class of 51 members for a four-year term starting in January. For Diaz Sr., it would be a return to a Council district he once represented before being elected to the state Senate.

Gjonaj, Moya, and Diaz Sr. will likely be part of a Democratic supermajority in the Council that will elect a new Speaker and work with Mayor Bill de Blasio -- if he prevails in November’s general election as expected. They will be asked to help deal with problems like a lack of housing affordability, a deteriorating transportation system, substandard schools, and more.

The state lawmakers would bring to the City Council significant legislative experience as they fill three of the 10 seats set to change hands.

"The powers of the Legislature are infinitely broader, as a result these candidates bring a functional experience which is invaluable and would help City Council immensely,” says former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky.

Last year, Mayor de Blasio and the City Council approved a large pay boost for all city elected officials, including Council members -- to $148,000, up from $112,500 -- in exchange for a ban on most outside income, which may continue to draw a steady stream of candidates from state government, where legislative salaries have been frozen at $79,000 since 1999. In addition to the pay bump, state lawmakers from New York City may be attracted to the proximity of City Hall as opposed to the state capital, as well as the influence and visibility that come with a City Council position.

Leaving the Legislature, the three would join a number of other rank-and-file state lawmakers who have abandoned Albany for other offices where they believe they can be more effective. Additionally, this year, Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, who was largely unnoticed outside of her district while serving in the Assembly minority, is now posing a fierce challenge to de Blasio in the mayoral race.

In August, State Senator Daniel Squadron, penning a letter in The Daily News about his own disillusionment with the Albany process, announced that he would leave the Senate to pursue a national initiative. During his eight years in Albany, his legislation to close the infamous “LLC loophole” had never made it to the Senate floor.

The moves from the state Legislature to the City Council often come down to opportunity. Diaz Sr., Rodriguez, Gjonaj and Moya all sought to replace City Council members who are term-limited or not seeking re-election. As soon as an elected official enters a City Council race, they typically become the favorite, given their higher profile, ability to fund-raise, and ties to important entities like labor unions. They almost always win.

Lawmakers say they find it easier to have an impact legislatively from the City Council than in the State Assembly, where Democrats have an overwhelming majority, or in the State Senate where the Democratic conference is fractured and in the minority, according to those who have made the switch. The Albany budget and legislative processes are also known to be closed off to many rank-and-file legislators, given the “three men in a room” decision-making that often dominates.

“In order to be effective in Albany you have to be there a long time, to accumulate seniority, to get a committee chairmanship. It’s very hard to get legislation passed without clout,” said Brooklyn Council Member Alan Maisel, who was elected to the body in 2013 after seven years in the Assembly.

Some leave Albany in part because they have young children at home and being Upstate for portions of six months out of the year is grueling for their families, while others are motivated to move to the City Council as they near retirement, because the state’s pension system determines disbursements based on a lawmaker’s most recent salary. Maisel said he enjoyed his time Albany, but the turning point for him was the months after Hurricane Sandy, when he felt helpless to support his constituents from Albany. When the seat became available, he ran.

“Here I am in Albany, from January till June, and I didn’t like that,” he said. “I wanted to be involved in local community things.”

In 2021, when 37 Council members will be term-limited out of office, there is expected to be a marked influx of state legislators to the City Council. Other City Council members who have came from the State Legislature in recent years include Council Members Vanessa Gibson, Rafael Espinal, Joe Borelli, Inez Barron, and Rory Lancman.

The departure of Squadron, Moya and, likely, Diaz Sr. and Gjonaj, will set off a series of special elections, which will be called at the discretion of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, has called for Cuomo to consolidate all the special elections into one, on November 7, Election Day.

"We need to remove barriers to voting with early voting, instant runoff voting, and automatic voter registration -- an advance the Governor could accomplish administratively without legislative action," said Lerner.

To enable this, Lerner called on the Diaz Sr., Gjonaj, and Moya to "put the public's interest ahead of their own self-interest and resign from the Legislature immediately." If the lawmakers remain in office for the remainder of the term, their seats will remain unfilled during the start of the 2018 legislative session.

This year’s likely migrants have already been thrust into the next big fight in City Hall, that for the coveted role of City Council speaker, held by term-limited Melissa Mark-Viverito until the end of the year. It is for Mark-Viverito’s Council seat in District 8 (East Harlem and the South Bronx) where Assemblymember Rodriguez could still possibly join the wave, if his attempt to see affidavit and absentee ballots counted puts him ahead of Ayala, Mark-Viverito’s preferred successor and former aide.

As their votes are being sought by their soon-to-be-colleagues seeking the speakership, there is more to know about the three legislators likely moving to the City Council.

Ruben Diaz Sr.: Council District 18
Famous for his signature cowboy hat, his unvarnished “What You Should Know” newsletter, and his passionate speeches on behalf of immigrants and the working class on the Senate floor, Reverend Ruben Diaz Sr. will soon be bringing his distinctive sartorial style to the Bronx’s 18th City Council District, a position he briefly held in 2001.

An ordained minister who was born in Puerto Rico, Diaz leads the Christian Community Neighborhood Church on Longfellow Avenue and the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, an organization of 150 local evangelical ministers. He is known as a conservative Democrat who may be out of step with many more socially progressive Council members.

Diaz, who replaces the term-limited Annabel Palma, enjoys widespread support in the district. Legislatively, during his 13 years in the Senate, 18 of his bills have made it to the governor’s desk, 16 signed into law. His record ranges from targeting the topless panhandlers in Times Square, to pushing Cuomo to implement an identification card program similar to IDNYC across the state, which is available to all immigrants regardless of documentation.

Diaz Sr. also has much to gain from returning to his former district, which he left in 2002 to replace the scandal-scarred Senator Pedro Espada. Moving back to New York City and joining the City Council will allow Diaz, who is 74, to collect a higher pension when he eventually retires and cementing the Diaz brand could be beneficial for his son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who may have broader, citywide political aspirations in the future.

Diaz Sr. has drawn criticism for his socially conservative views, particularly his vote against New York’s Marriage Equality Act in 2011 and his anti-abortion stance. The reverend’s views have made for tricky politics for allies such as City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who is seeking the Council speakership and was criticized by gay activists for endorsing Diaz Sr. in his Council bid. A prominent LGBT political club, the Stonewall Democrats, rescinded its support for Rodriguez as a result.

“While we obviously do not agree on every issue–particularly his stances on abortion and the rights of the LGBTQ community–I know Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. has been a strong advocate for Latino representation and his working class constituents in the Bronx,” Rodriguez told the New York Post. “As an experienced legislator, he will continue to serve them well in the Council.”

Another speaker hopeful, Council Member Corey Johnson, who is gay, also caught flack for friendliness toward Diaz Sr., but much earlier in the election cycle.

In 2011, Diaz’s grandaughter, Erica, who is a lesbian, famously organized a counter protest to her grandfather’s anti-gay marriage rally.

Regarding his views on homosexuality, Diaz Sr. told City Limits, “You don’t believe in this, you don’t believe in that, but you respect the people. And you provide the service you are supposed to provide and you make sure they get the same service as everyone else.”

Many are surely hoping that his “What you Need to Know” columns, which are published in the Bronx Chronicle continue. In his blunt columns, he’s taken to task his colleagues in the Senate, Governor Cuomo’s ethics reform attempts, actor/director Sean Penn’s comment at the Oscars, and most recently, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito was caught in his crosshairs.

On Tuesday, Diaz Sr. defeated Elvin Garcia, a former Bronx aide in Mayor de Blasio’s community assistance unit who is gay; activist Amanda Farias, who was backed by the National Organization of Women; and others.

“I disagree with Diaz [Sr.] on just about everything, but I find him to be active and engaged and a serious member of the Legislature,” said Brodsky of his former colleague. “The tendency for these candidates to be colorful and independent is a virtue," he added.

Mark Gjonaj: Council District 13
Gjonaj joined the state Assembly in 2012, after defeating incumbent Assemblymember Naomi Rivera, the daughter of Assemblymember Jose Rivera and sister Councilman Joel Rivera, in the 2012 Democratic primary. A real estate broker without political background aside from a stint as the Bronx representative on the Taxi and Limousine Commission, his victory caught the political establishment by surprise.

The son of Albanian immigrant union workers, Gjonaj is seen as something of a trailblazer for the Bronx’s Albanian-American community, which includes a population of more than 12,500, according to 2011 figures, and he continues to have widespread support in the district.

The 48-year-old Gjonaj, who is known for his extravagant fundraising tactics, recently drew criticism for spending campaign dollars on his own family businesses as well accepting donations from questionable sources. He is credited with energizing a somewhat conservative constituency in the Bronx. His centrist Democratic politics is evidenced by the endorsement of state Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, which forms a ruling majority with the Senate GOP. Both politicians represent suburban areas of the Bronx.

Gjonaj served as chairperson of the subcommittee on micro business and has signaled support for charter schools. He has been criticized for taking credit for the Women’s Equality Act, which he voted against, and he has promoted drug-fighting legislation, including a bill criminalizing and increasing penalties for the sale of synthetic marijuana.

During his bid for City Council, Gjonaj scooped up all the major endorsements from the Bronx Democratic party machine and power players, as well as major labor unions. He spent a record amount -- more than $716,469 -- on his campaign, defeating Marjorie Velazquez, a Democratic district leader and community board member who was endorsed by progressive and women’s groups, and John Doyle, a hospital official who once worked for Klein.

“I am honored that the people of the 13th District have chosen me to fight for The Bronx and help lead the way in protecting the common-sense Democratic values that are vital in safeguarding our working and middle-class families, keeping our streets safe, ensuring every child receives a quality education and securing affordable housing options for the most vulnerable,” Gjonaj said in a statement following his primary win. “From City Hall, I will be in a better position to bring attention to those issues and take action.”

But, Gjonaj does have an active general election competition ahead, even if he is a heavy favorite. Following the primary, Bronx County Republican Party Chair Michael Rendino said in a statement that Gjonaj's primary win showed a lack of popular support. "In a stunning rebuke to politics as usual, Mark Gjonaj couldn't even break 40% in his Democratic primary election after spending more money than any council candidate in the history of the City’s campaign finance system," Rendino said. "Developer Mark Gjonaj is now going to have to defend his record against John Cerini in the general election. John is a longtime community leader and small business owner in Throgg's Neck and has been fighting for us his whole life. I like our chances."

Francisco Moya: Council District 21
Good governance won out on primary day when Francisco Moya successfully beat out disgraced ex-Senator Hiram Monserrate, who was coming off of a two-year stint in jail for misappropriating $100,000 of taxpayer funds after previously having been expelled from the Senate for a domestic violence incident involving his then girlfriend.

Monserrate has been seeking a return to elected office and has shown he can still turn out votes. After a particularly ugly battle, the margin was close, with Moya pulling in 56 percent of the vote, compared to Monserrate’s 44 percent.

"Honesty and integrity won tonight,” Moya, 43, told the crowd at a victory party in Corona Tuesday night, according to The Daily News.

That sentiment was echoed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) which released a statement of congratulations to the incoming Council member. “We are proud to congratulate Francisco Moya for his victory today, because we know that he is going to fight for women, fight for immigrants, and fight for his community, and he can stand up as a role model for them as well,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the NOW, which had come out strongly against Monserrate’s candidacy in recent weeks.

Beyond Monserrate’s criminal record and ethics, a key point of contention during the race was the fate of Willets Point, a large plot of land that is in limbo after a proposed development there was blocked by a Court of Appeals ruling. The initial deal had been struck by Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who announced earlier this year that she would not seek reelection for the seat and will leave it at the end of the year. She endorsed Moya as her successor and campaigned with him in the days before the primary.

Moya’s progressive legislative record during his seven years in Albany -- not to mention universal disdain for Monserrate from the Democratic establishment -- allowed the Assembly member to sweep up endorsements from the Working Families Party, unions, and numerous politicians, including Mayor de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Public Advocate Tish James.

Elected to the Assembly in 2010 over Monserrate, Moya has been known for his efforts to fight for the passage of the NY DREAM Act, which would enable undocumented immigrant college students to be eligible for state financial aid. But year after year, the legislation died in the Republican controlled Senate.

As a Council member, Moya won’t have to worry about his bills being blocked by Republicans, who control only three seats in the 51-seat body.

Moya, who has said that he is the first state legislator of Ecuadorian descent and represents Jackson Heights, Queens, this year introduced an extensive legislative package aimed at protecting immigrants from police and enforcement agencies amidst a federal immigration crackdown, which would provide undocumented individuals with access to public defenders.

He has introduced legislation to stop employment agencies from committing fraud against job seekers, and went to bat for New York’s Scaffold Law, which places all liability for injured construction workers on employers. An avid soccer enthusiast, he's also championed bringing a Major League Soccer stadium to Queens -- an idea that may come to fruition soon.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Update: this article has been updated with a revised statement from Common Cause NY.

Update: this article and its headline have been corrected to reflect that Diaz Sr. and Gjonaj have general election opponents.

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Meet The Three State Legislators Likely Heading To The City Council Wed, 13 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7163:mass-mailer-loophole-gives-state-legislators-advantage-in-city-council-races http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7163:mass-mailer-loophole-gives-state-legislators-advantage-in-city-council-races ortiz mailer crop

The top of Assemblymember Felix Ortiz's recent constituent mailer


Members of the New York State Legislature have a key resource at their disposal to communicate with their constituents: mass mailers. Both the Senate and Assembly allow lawmakers to send public communications through different media -- chiefly employed in the form of direct printed newsletters and mailers -- to inform residents of their districts about recent legislation or special events, or to alert them of emergencies, and more. While these mailers are subject to certain restrictions in the run up to an election, differences between state rules and city regulations mean that state legislators running for City Council have a distinct advantage over their opponents at the local level.

In at least three City Council races where sitting state Assemblymembers are candidates, separate complaints have been filed with the city Campaign Finance Board alleging that each of them has violated prohibitions against using government-funded mass mailers within a mandated 90-day communication blackout period before the September 12 primary. Copies of the complaints were provided to Gotham Gazette.

The rules governing mass mailers are adopted by each legislative chamber, but they differ from the rules and guidelines established by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which oversees expenditure by campaigns in the city. Each set of rules establishes ‘blackout’ periods ahead of an election, during which communications funded through government resources are prohibited unless they meet certain exceptions.

The New York City Charter states that “public servants” may not use government funds or resources for mass mailers within 90 days of a primary or general election. (The law also prohibits officials from appearing in government-funded advertisements in an election year.)

There are certain exceptions, for instance allowing one mailer to be sent out within 21 days of the passage of the city’s budget, and permitting communications required by law or those necessary for public safety or health emergencies, among others.

For City Council candidates currently working for New York City -- including incumbent Council members and even community board members -- the CFB blackout period began June 15, roughly three months before the September 12 primary.

But since the City Charter only applies to “all officials, officers and employees of the city,” state officials and legislators are out of reach of those provisions and prohibitions. The state Assembly’s blackout period, in comparison, is only 30 days before a local, special or primary election and 60 days before the general. This effectively allows state legislators to use their offices to promote their image and build greater name recognition, enhancing the already-significant power of incumbency and giving them an additional leg up over their opponents who would have to rely on campaign funds to communicate with voters.

“It’s a clear loophole,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government reform organization. “The problem is that city law is always subordinate to state law. So the CFB cannot tell a state legislator what they can or cannot do.”

ortiz mailer cropIn District 38, incumbent Democratic City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is facing a slew of challengers, including sitting Assemblymember Felix Ortiz. A complaint filed with the CFB earlier this month alleged that Ortiz had violated the CFB’s blackout provisions by sending out four mailers from his government office over the summer. But these mailers, a regular function of state legislative offices, are exempt from the CFB’s purview.

“Part of Felix’s job as an Assemblyman is to inform his constituents, whether he’s running for office or not,” said Robinson Iglesias, Ortiz’s campaign treasurer. “He has been in full compliance with the CFB and he will continue to do so.”

“For sure, it’s unfair. For sure, it’s an advantage,” said Kaehny of the loophole. “It hasn’t been effectively exploited until now. The reality is, an incumbent already has an advantage in name identity. Using their mail privileges helps reinforce that name identity...This is a real unfairness under the law.”

Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, the frontrunner for the District 13 seat being vacated by Council Member James Vacca, similarly sent out a legislative update to his constituents at the end of June.

Of Gjonaj’s four opponents in the Democratic primary, John Doyle has been his most vociferous critic and lodged objections with the CFB over potential violations regarding mass mailers and government-sponsored communications. When informed that the communications were largely permitted under the Assembly’s rules, Doyle directed his ire at both the state Legislature and Gjonaj. “We have a culture of corruption in Albany that allows this,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “This is the state Legislature that can’t seem to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform.”

gjonaj mailer cropDoyle also insisted that Gjonaj has ample campaign resources at his disposal to get his message out and should have eschewed the Legislature’s mass mailing resources. “He’s against public funds to augment the voice of ordinary citizens,” Doyle said, referring to Gjonaj’s decision to not participate in the CFB’s public matching funds program, “but he has no problem using public funds when it supports his interests.”

Gjonaj’s campaign spokesperson Jennifer Blatus pushed back against Doyle’s complaint. “Let's be clear, there was no unfair advantage in the District 13 council race,” Blatus said in an email. “This is another ridiculous attempt by John Doyle to distract voters and continue his negative and divisive campaign.” Insisting that the CFB allows elected officials to conduct ordinary communications with constituents, she added, “In the final days of this election, while Mr. Doyle continues to complain over the experience Mark Gjonaj brings to this race, our campaign remains focused on the issues at hand, which is quality of life, public safety, education and transportation.”

In District 21, where Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is stepping down at the end of her current term, two Democrats are facing off in the primary: Assemblymember Francisco Moya and Hiram Monserrate, a disgraced former state Senator and Council member who is attempting a comeback after a checkered recent past that includes separate criminal convictions on fraud and assault charges.

Monserrate claims that Moya misused government resources to send mass email blasts within the 90-day period, including references to events Moya attended outside his district. Moya’s Assembly district overlaps with parts of Council District 21 but excludes large sections. “Moya is a liar and a fraud,” Monserrate said in a statement. “He lies about where he lives. And now we know he's committing fraud by using tax-dollars illegally to campaign.”

moya mailer cropIn a written response to the CFB on Monserrate’s complaint, Moya noted, correctly, that “as an Assemblymember my mail cut off deadline is different than sitting City electeds.” In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Moya had harsher words for his opponent. “My opponent is a convicted felon who has zero credibility on this or any other issue in the campaign,” he said. “He is using these baseless claims to attack my record of public service, and direct attention away from his corrupt, violent history. These charges have been easily refuted by my campaign, and simply bear no resemblance to the facts.”

Moya went on to criticize Monserrate for his own misuse of taxpayer funds. “The questions voters are asking are, ‘Hiram, where is our money that you stole and how can we ever trust you again?’”

The CFB and the City are mostly powerless to bridge the gap in the law. “Obviously we provide extensive guidance on how candidates should handle constituent communications in the days leading up to an election, It’s certainly something we monitor,” said Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson.

Reinvent Albany’s Kaehny says closing the loophole would require the state Legislature to take action, “which it seems very unlikely to do.” In the absence of legislation, he said, “The best thing CFB could do is keep track and include as much information in their post-election report to note how much of a problem it is and bring attention to that.”

The CFB issues a comprehensive report after each city election that includes numerous recommendations on improving the campaign finance and election system. Many of the recommendations from their 2013 report were passed into law by the City Council.

Two other state Legislators are also running for “open” City Council seats, though no apparent complaints have been lodged against either. Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, who has also sent out mass mailers from his office, is running for the District 8 seat currently held by term-limited Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito; and in District 18, state Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., famous for his constituent e-blasts, which have continued apace, is vying for the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Annabel Palma.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, another good government group, conceded that the CFB has no authority over the state and insisted that the Legislature should increase its own communication blackout periods to undo the advantage that accrues to lawmakers.

“Legislators wouldn’t send [mailers] out if they didn’t think it will bolster public good will,” Horner said, adding that perhaps it will fall to voters to ensure a level standard. “I think it’s fair for the public to urge state elected officials running for City Council to follow the same rules,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races Tue, 29 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Three More State Legislators Seek City Council Seats http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6948:three-more-state-legislators-seek-city-council-seats http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6948:three-more-state-legislators-seek-city-council-seats diaz sr and gjonaj crop

Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., left, & AM Mark Gjonaj (photo: @RevRubenDiaz)


There are only a handful of City Council seats opening up this year due to term limits. Of the seven “open” races in the 51-seat Council, all of which are up for election this fall, several feature state legislators seeking to make the jump to the city’s legislative body.

Seeking to stay closer to home for work, legislators who now have to commute to Albany several days a week for half the year have declared their candidacies. Entering City Council races to succeed a term-limited officeholder, the state legislators immediately became favorites to win, first in the September Democratic primaries, then the November general election. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, and Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, all Democrats, are seeking “open” seats in the City Council. (One former Democratic legislator, Hiram Monserrate, is even attempting a comeback after having been expelled from the state Senate in 2010 following his conviction on misdemeanor assault charges.)

Current and former state legislators vying for seats in the City Council is nothing new. A number of sitting Council members themselves were state representatives, many of them just prior to joining the Council. For instance, Council Members Vanessa Gibson, Joe Borelli, Rafael Espinal, Inez Barron, and Alan Maisel have all served in the state Assembly. Council Member Vincent Gentile was formerly a state Senator, as was Bill Perkins, who just recently won a special election in Council District 9 in February.

The advantages to being in the Council are plain to see: Council members receive a much higher pay than state legislators and, after receiving recommendations from a special commission, just recently voted to give themselves a pay raise from $112,500 to $148,500. State lawmakers’ salaries are $79,500 annually, plus stipends for chairing issue committees or house leadership posts (a pay commission convened to explore pay hikes ended its work late last year without any recommendations). There is also the obvious ease of commuting to City Hall and offices in the five boroughs rather than constant trips to Albany. And, for some legislators, being in the Council offers a chance to have a greater say over local policy and the ability to more directly address community concerns. This was true for Perkins, who said when he ran in February that, as a Democrat in the minority in the state Senate, he was less able to affect legislation than he could in the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council.

Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez only recently announced that he is running for the Council District 8 seat that will be vacated by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the end of the year. The district covers East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx. Mark-Viverito has endorsed her deputy chief of staff, Diana Ayala, for the seat, and the Bronx Democratic machinery has split its support for the two candidates. Rodriguez received endorsements last week from Bronx Democratic Party Chair Marcos Crespo, Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright, former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, and Council Member Bill Perkins. Ayala on the other hand has the support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“There’s work to be done and I think there’s ways to translate priorities from the Legislature into the district,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. He said the open seat was a unique opportunity that “literally comes along every eight years, sometimes 12.” “An opportunity too good to turn down,” he said. Rodriguez has already raised $78,647 for his run and spent $22,620, leaving him a balance of $56,017. (He is still currently listed as “undeclared” with the Campaign Finance Board in terms of which office he’ll seek.)

Rodriguez acknowledged the potential advantages of working in the City Council with like-minded lawmakers, unlike Albany where any single piece of legislation must navigate two chambers. “It’s a smaller body and decisions are made differently,” he said of the unicameral and heavily Democratic Council, “there’s less institutional interplay.” And he’s confident that he’ll bring a “sense of experience and confidence” into the race that will sway voters.

As a member of the Assembly for six years, Rodriguez said he’s also seen a lot of turnover and brushes aside any criticism that could be levelled against him for running for the Council just six months after being reelected to the Assembly. “ He also expects that in 2021, when more City Council seats are up for grabs, that many colleagues will make similar moves.

Diana Ayala finds the timing of Rodriguez’s entry into the race puzzling. “Why certain members chose this year to run, I find it questionable,” she told Gotham Gazette. “Public service should be about people, not personal gain. So that concerns me.”

For Ayala, facing off against a sitting state legislator presents an uphill battle, but she said she’s not worried. “Our campaign is picking up steam,” she said. “I’m not gonna dispute that [Rodriguez] has name recognition and establishment support. But I have a lot of community support. I’m pretty confident I can stand on my feet.” Ayala is also participating in the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, which she says will be instrumental to running a competitive race. She has $52,089 in campaign cash, as of May 11, before factoring in any matching funds.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who won his seat in 2013 after beating then-Assemblymember Micah Kellner in the Democratic primary, expressed apprehension last month in an interview with Gotham Gazette about the trend of Albany insiders running for local office. “I am growing concerned with the specter of Senate and Assembly members coming from a broken Albany down to the City Council and bringing back dysfunction with them,” he said outside the Council chambers. “I think it is imperative for democracy for there to be candidates who will run against members of the Assembly or Senate...and I hope that voters evaluate candidates regardless of whether or not they’ve served in Albany.”

“I would actually hope,” he added, “that if somebody is coming down from Albany as a career politician, folks might hold that against them and support a citizen legislator.”

In District 13, Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj is running to replace outgoing Council Member James Vacca. Gjonaj has a massive fundraising lead over his opponents already, with $212,684 on hand for his campaign. He was also endorsed by the Bronx Democratic County Committee last week. “I’m looking to continue the work that I began in the Assembly and delivering for my constituents, being more accessible to them and being in the district,” Gjonaj said in a brief phone interview. He was confident that he brings the most experience to the race, insisting that he was proud to be in the state Legislature although it’s a “complicated institution.”

John Doyle, a former staffer for State Senator Jeff Klein is one of seven other candidates in the race with Gjonaj. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with someone looking to change their position,” Doyle said of Gjonaj’s campaign, “but I think there’s something disingenuous when somebody’s running for reelection saying they’ll be a voice for two years and after their reelection, they announced for a new position.” Gjonaj was reelected to the Assembly last year.

Doyle criticized Gjonaj’s campaign fundraising, much of which comes from outside the city, and also broadly stressed that many of the systemic corruption issues in Albany stemmed from the way lawmakers raise funds. He noted that Gjonaj had voted for campaign finance reform in 2014, but has chosen not to participate in the public matching funds system.

In response to Doyle's comments, a spokesperson for Gjonaj said, "Mr. Doyle's platform seems to be 'I'm not the other guy.' As for Assemblyman Gjonaj he is committed, above all, to representing the best interests of his constituency. He is at work passing progressive legislation and meeting voters." Spokesperson Jennifer Blatus went on to say that Gjonaj has widespread support and that "Doyle is desperate for attention. He doesn't have a clue on how to pass legislation or attract capital projects." She also indicated that Gjonaj is not participating in the city's campaign finance program because he "prefers tax payers dollars be used for after school programs for youth, senior programs, and libraries - not political campaigns."

State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr.’s run in Council District 18 may be the most controversial of the state legislators’ this cycle. Diaz Sr., although a Democrat, is conservative on social issues, such as LGBT rights, and running for a seat on a body that is heavily progressive. (There are only three Republicans in the Council, one of whom is pro-choice.) But Diaz Sr. has been able to raise significant funds in a short period, and has $93,901 in his campaign account, surpassing candidates who have been in the race for months.

All of the state legislators running start the race with community ties and significant advantage in name recognition, especially among those who vote.

Council Member Gibson, a former Assembly member, admits that moving from Albany to the city is not an easy move but it comes with advantages, both for the member and the legislative body. “Although it was a transition,” she said, “I think being a state elected official gave me a lot of understanding of how Albany works and navigating the state Legislature, and really about the City Council relying so heavily on state funds.”

But she also said that elected experience is far from necessary to run for the Council. “There is no manual on how to do this well,” she said. “You have to be a team player, you have to be someone that can build a coalition around you. You have to be someone who has leadership and management skills...and you really have to have an ability to work with all people.”

Gibson also pushed back against the idea that state legislators would bring Albany dysfunction with them. “I think when you talk about dysfunction and a culture, I don’t think you can define it to one individual legislator or even a few legislators. I think it’s almost the system that’s been in place. And it’s really the entire body of government.”

[Related: The May Money Race in 'Open' City Council Seats]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Three More State Legislators Seek City Council Seats Mon, 22 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
The Early Money Race in ‘Open’ City Council Seats http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6743:the-early-money-race-in-open-city-council-seats http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6743:the-early-money-race-in-open-city-council-seats City Council chambers

City Council chambers (photo: Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)


With seven sitting New York City Council members facing term limits and one having left the Council to join the state Assembly, this year’s municipal elections will feature a number of competitive open races and will bring fresh blood into the city’s legislative body.

While the vast majority of those in the Council’s 51 seats can run for another term this year, and most are, the open seats will see the bulk of the electoral competition for the City Council.

Come January, the Council will have at least eight new members. Through the September primaries and November general election, seven term-limited members will be replaced: Rosie Mendez (District 2), Dan Garodnick (District 4), Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8), James Vacca (District 13), Annabel Palma (District 18), Darlene Mealy (District 41) and Vincent Gentile (District 43).

Another Council seat is currently vacant following Council Member Inez Dickens’ election to the Assembly. A nonpartisan special election is scheduled for February 14 for her seat in District 9 in Harlem. There are 11 candidates vying for the seat and the winner will serve through the rest of Dickens’ term, meaning its final year, and will have to run for reelection later this year. Two candidates, Todd Stevens and Larry Blackmon, are leading the race in fundraising, having qualified for public funds under the campaign finance system's matching funds program. Stevens has $46,871 in his account and Blackmon has $44,954. The closest other candidate is Marvin Holland with $26,325. Holland raised the most private contributions but, along with most other candidates in the race, did not meet the thresholds for public matching funds by a January 17 deadline for campaign finance disclosure. The rest of the candidates' accounts range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, with the most being Athena Moore's $5,005 and the least being Caprice Alves' $86. The next disclosures are due by Friday, February 3, based on which additional candidates may qualify for public funds.

Open seats invite numerous candidates for each race and the campaign finance system’s public matching funds program tends to help level the playing field for participants. Across all eight “open seat” races, candidates have been furiously reaching out to constituents and community groups, and, in the case of many first-timers, building their profiles and name recognition.

In some races, community activists are hoping to defeat political veterans from Albany -- state lawmakers representing New York City often look to switch to the City Council, where the pay is better and the trips to Albany fewer. Several state legislators are still exploring whether to pursue Council seats, with decisions imminent as the September primary is just over six months away.

In multiple races, female candidates are striving to strengthen the gender balance on the Council, a male-dominated body.

All of the eight “open seats” were most recently or are currently held by Democrats, and are likely to stay in Democratic hands. The Council currently has 47 Democrats and three Republicans, with the one empty seat (Dickens’). The Democratic primary is often determinative of the final outcome in City Council races.

In most of the “open seat” contests this year, there are candidates who have already posted significant fundraising numbers according to the latest campaign finance disclosures filed before a key January deadline with the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Fundraising can make or break a campaign, and early numbers are often predictive of what kind of campaign a candidate can run and how a candidate will do. Thanks to the city's public matching system, City Council candidates can often raise relatively modest amounts of money, qualify for matching funds, and run serious campaigns.

In Manhattan’s District 2, which stretches from Murray Hill down to the Lower East Side, Carlina Rivera leads the race, having raised $77,125 and spent $19,408, leaving her a balance of $57,717 in her campaign account as of mid-January. Rivera is a district leader and currently serves as legislative director for Council Member Rosie Mendez, a position she’s held since August 2015. Mendez has endorsed Rivera to be her successor in the seat. According to a campaign spokesperson, Rivera is a participant in the public matching funds program.

Running against Rivera is Mary Silver, a local attorney, education advocate and member of Community Board 6. Silver has a campaign balance of $30,523, having raised $38,725 and spent $8,202. A third candidate, Jasmin Sanchez, has posted no campaign contributions or expenditures.

District 4, which covers much of the east side of Manhattan, has six contenders for Council Member Garodnick’s seat. Two of them, Maria Castro and Diane Grayson, have empty campaign accounts. The early fundraising leader is Marti Speranza, a Democratic State Committeewoman and member of Community Board 5. Speranza is the former director of Women Entrepreneurs NYC, a city initiative, and has served as director of strategic initiatives for the Department of Consumer Affairs. She has just over $126,000 in her campaign account, having raised nearly $176,000 and spent about $50,000.

One of the benefits of running for an open seat, Speranza said in an interview, is that the city’s public matching funds program “has really levelled the playing field” and ensured that voters will have multiple choices. “It means we’re competing on our ideas and our platforms,” she said.

Keith Powers is also expected to run a strong campaign to replace Garodnick, and has raised $81,485 and spent $24,771, leaving him $56,714 as of mid-January. Powers, currently at Constantinople & Vallone LLC, a consulting firm, worked as chief of staff for former state Assembly Member Jonathan Bing for four years.

Powers pointed out that most of his campaign contributions are in small dollar amounts and came from district residents. “At the end of the day, fundraising matters, but the most important thing is having a motivated base of supporters in the district and having a record of accomplishment,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Also in the race are Jeffrey Mailman, who has a campaign balance of $32,916; Bessie Schachter with $19,732; and Melissa Jane Kronfeld with $4,138.

In East Harlem’s District 8, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has endorsed her deputy chief of staff Diana Ayala for her seat. Ayala has campaign contributions of $26,173, of which she has spent $1,733. Other candidates in the race have barely scratched the fundraising surface as of mid-January. Edward Gibbs has a balance of $5,884 while Edward Santos has $1,803. A fourth candidate, Tamika Mapp, has $25.

That race appears to be Ayala’s to lose, but it is still somewhat early.

Bronx Council Member James Vacca’s District 13 will likely be home to a competitive race, with six candidates running relatively close in fundraising. State Assembly Member Mark Gjonaj is in front, having raised $103,730. With expenditures of $19,276, he has a balance of $84,454. He also has the name recognition and political relationships that come with already being an elected official.

Second in the money race is Marjorie Velazquez, a Democratic district leader who Vacca has endorsed for the seat. Velazquez raised $64,715 and has spent $9,055, leaving her $55,660 as of mid-January. She sees this election as an important milestone to push for women’s representation in the Council, she said. “For a newcomer like myself, it’s been really empowering,” Velazquez said, adding that her initial fundraising haul “really solidified things for me.”

Local Bronx organizer John Doyle, who served for five years as community affairs director for state Senator Jeff Klein, is third in money with $42,987 left after raising $59,135 and spending $16,148.

District 18 in the South Bronx, currently represented by Council Member Annabel Palma, has only two candidates officially running, and neither has shown significant fundraising. Elvin Garcia, former Bronx borough director for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s community affairs unit, has $29,279 in his account. Amanda Farias has about half that, with $15,102. Farias has years of experience with the City Council, having managed the Council’s Women’s Caucus and served as the director for participatory budgeting for Council District 30.

Many, including Garcia and Farias, are eager to see if State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. jumps into the race to succeed Palma, which is he rumored to be considering.

The race for Darlene Mealy’s seat in District 41 in Brooklyn seems low-key at the moment. Five candidates have declared their intentions to run but none have raised funds for a formidable campaign. The biggest haul belongs to Deidre Olivera, who brought in $4,902 and spent $3,776, leaving her $1,126. Moreen King raised $2,000and spent $380, for a balance of $1,620.

In Bay Ridge, the District 43 race may be one of the few City Council elections with a competitive Republican versus Democrat general election. The only two candidates who have raised money in the race are Justin Brannan, a Democrat who used to work for current and term-limited Council Member Gentile, and Robert Capano, a Republican who has served under top elected officials from both parties. Brannan has received $57,385 in contributions and has $2,306 in expenditures, through mid-January. His $55,079 balance far outpaces Capano, who has $5,688 remaining after spending $5,679 from his $11,367 in campaign funds.

This is another race where the possible entrance of a state legislator could shift dynamics greatly: Democratic Assembly Member Peter Abbate is said to be considering a run. Even if he was to enter the race, he would face tough competition in Brannan, who is president of a local Democratic club and a long-time community activist in the area, as well as a former Gentile aide.

For his part, Capano said that he has been raising seed money thus far and that his fundraising operation will officially launch soon. “I think this is going to be one of the most competitive races in this election,” he said. “This is one seat that Republicans can win.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated to include fundraising numbers from the Council District 9 special election and to clarify that Marti Speranza is a Democratic State Committeewoman, not a district leader. 

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The Early Money Race in ‘Open’ City Council Seats Wed, 01 Feb 2017 05:00:00 +0000