Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/381 Sat, 21 Oct 2017 02:58:39 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) At the City Council, Better Gender Balance Among Chiefs of Staff http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7205:at-the-city-council-better-gender-balance-among-chiefs-of-staff http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7205:at-the-city-council-better-gender-balance-among-chiefs-of-staff aya keefe and cm mark levine crop

Council Member Mark Levine & his Chief of Staff, Aya Keefe (photo: Levine's office)


The New York City Council, a 51-member body, currently includes only 13 women, down from 18 in 2009, and that number is likely to soon fall to 12 when the next Council is seated in January, if this year’s elections continue as expected. There has been widespread recent attention given to the City Council gender imbalance, in part because the Council’s Women’s Caucus released a report on the subject, and there are efforts underway to improve female representation in the Council through future elections.

But, at one level at least, the Council is faring much better in gender balance. Of the 50 sitting Council members, 24 have women serving as their chiefs of staff, the highest ranking aide, buoying hopes among members, aides, and advocates that these positions can serve to further the political careers of numerous qualified and experienced women in city government. For men and women alike, being a top aide to a City Council member is often a path to elected office, as evidence by the victory in last Tuesday’s primary election by Diana Ayala, the former deputy chief of staff to outgoing City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited.

Ayala, seen as an underdog against sitting Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, secured a narrow victory in the primary, with Mark-Viverito’s help, and is expected to easily win the general election in November.

Chiefs of staff play vital roles in Council members’ offices, overseeing their legislative headquarters near City Hall and their local district offices where staffers provide constituent services. It’a role that involves liaising with other Council members’ staff, advocates, and others, and can require a working knowledge of priorities and policy proposals of nearly the entire Council. Most significantly, it can serve as a foundation for political careers. Many Council staffers, particularly chiefs of staff, go on to run for elected office, often to fill seats left vacant when their bosses are either term-limited or leave office for other reasons.

“As the saying goes, ‘If you wanna get something done, ask a woman to do it,’” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who is co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and whose chief of staff is a woman, in a phone interview from a restaurant. “Women are awesome, dynamic multitaskers,” Cumbo said, chuckling that she was talking to a reporter, ordering food and breastfeeding at the same time. Cumbo was pregnant on the campaign trail as she ran for reelection, and recently gave birth to her son. She won a tough primary battle on September 12 and is expected to easily beat two opponents on November 7.

Cumbo stressed that the role of a chief of staff involves “really wearing multiple hats at the same time,” being able to understand the issues a Council member is focused on and being able to troubleshoot problems before they arise. And, as much as she said she hates stereotypes, “Women are able to do that well,” Cumbo said.

In a city government so heavily dominated by men -- the mayor, the comptroller and most of the City Council are men, while the public advocate is Letitia James, the first woman of color to hold citywide office -- having women serve in top positions helps inform policy and the legislative process, Cumbo said. And chiefs of staff bring that valuable perspective to the table. “I think it’s something that happens by nature, because of staffers eating, breathing, and sleeping this work,” she said.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the second woman and first Latina to hold that powerful seat, has made it a future priority to increase the number of women elected to the City Council. She is spearheading the “21 in ’21” movement, which aims to elect 21 women in 2021, when more than 30 Council seats will be up for grabs along with incumbents seeking reelection. The speaker also launched the Young Women’s Initiative to provide enhanced services to girls and women, particularly those of color, between the ages of 12 and 24.

Monica Abend, Cumbo’s chief of staff, said her position gives her the opportunity to “participate in contributing ideas to legislation, to policy and contributing to progressive legislation for a progressive city that is a frontrunner in many of those policy areas.”

“To be able to wear that chief of staff role positions you in a wonderful arena to understand local government,” she said. It’s on-the-job training in the legislative process and in understanding how the city changes at the local level, she said. “While our communities change on a constant basis, a lot of the work stays the same,” she added.

Abend doesn’t envision running for office any time soon but she did agree that working for a Council member provides the skills to do so. “Maybe one day in the future,” she said.

Under the de Blasio administration and the largely progressive City Council, led by Mark-Viverito, the city has increased its focus on issues of gender equity. The mayor established the Commission on Gender Equity in 2015 through an executive order, and also banned city agencies from inquiring about salary history, a step towards ensuring pay equity for women.

The Council has passed and the mayor has signed numerous bills related to empowering and aiding women across all walks of life. These include legislation to enhance support for caregivers, who are largely immigrant women of color; establishing public lactation stations; increasing access to feminine hygiene products in shelters, jails and schools; improving contracting opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses; enhancing protections for victims of domestic violence; among other measures. A bill from Public Advocate James to ban inquiries about salary history in the private sector was passed and signed earlier this year.

The Women’s Caucus also released its report last month that examines the cultural and institutional barriers to women’s representation in New York politics.

“I think that the City Council is really a great place for women to work and take on leadership positions and express themselves, and advocate for policies that benefit all New Yorkers,” said Aya Keefe, chief of staff to Council Member Mark Levine. She noted that Levine’s director of constituent services and budget and legislative director are also women. “It’s a powerful statement for our office,” she said. “We’re very much a partnership-driven office. There’s a strong female style of management, not necessarily being hierarchical but collaborative. And that works really well on legislation. Ultimately, you have to bring a lot of interests to the table and women are uniquely positioned to do that.”

Keefe personally has no intention of running for office, she said. “But I definitely think that chief of staff gives you great insight into the ins and outs of working in government,” she said. She also noted, as did others, that there should be a push to translate the gender balance at the staff level into elected positions.

Alexis Grenell, a Democratic political consultant and writer on gender issues, cautioned against being overly celebratory about the number of women chiefs of staff, saying it meets the “baseline expectation” since women represent half the population. “Women make up more than 50 percent of many graduate degree programs, making them arguably more qualified than their male counterparts,” she said.

She argued that it’s more important for women to receive support in their aspirations for elected office, pointing to the “crisis in women’s leadership” in the City Council, where the next speaker is likely to be a man for the first time in 12 years. “Empirical data shows that gender balance directly results in better outcomes,” she said. “This is true for corporate boards, and for legislation. That is undeniably the case.”

She did agree that chief of staff is a pipeline to the Council, with outgoing Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland being a prominent example. She also pointed to two Council staffers -- Ayala and Carlina Rivera -- who ran for City Council this year to replace the term-limited Council members who they worked for. Ayala was deputy chief of staff to Mark-Viverito before leaving to run for the speaker’s seat in District 8. Rivera, who served as legislative director to outgoing Council Member Rosie Mendez, handily won the primary for Mendez’s District 2 seat on the Lower East Side. “These are women who served in the Council for two terms and backed their staffers to replace them,” Grenell said, in the hope that other Council members do the same for their own staff.

While Ferreras-Copeland, who decided not to seek another term due to family considerations and a move to another state, is being replaced by a man, term-limited Council Member Darlene Mealy will be replaced by a woman, Alicka Samuel, who won a crowded primary in District 41. And while term-limited Annabel Palma is being replaced by a man, Adrienne Adams won the competitive primary to replace Ruben Wills, who had recently vacated the seat due to a corruption charge.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women of New York, also hoped that the Council’s “abysmal” record of women’s representation would improve. “The good news is that while there are less than 25 percent of women in the City Council, a 50 percent rate of women chiefs of staff says to me that there’s a lot of potential,” she said. “They know the community well, they know the job.”

She agreed that women add a diversity of opinion that is necessary for good policy. “But we need a representation of leaders that reflects our community,” she said.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, co-chair of the Women’s Caucus, whose chief of staff is also a woman, said the numbers were “heartening” but was cautious of drawing any conclusions. “I think that sounds normal to me,” she said of the nearly 50 percent representation. “It doesn’t necessarily reflect in what people are submitting legislation about or doing in their districts.”

“To the extent that there aren’t barriers to having chiefs of staff, it is an equalizer,” she acknowledged. But she wondered about the larger questions it raises about the entire city government. She also recognized that the Council as a body should perhaps do more to support women. “Should we have a daycare?” she said, for instance. “I think that’s something we should talk about.”

Council staffers also don’t have set pay ranges with titles, so it’s hard to gauge whether there is pay parity across the Council. “It’s not something I’ve explored,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a great question. Every Council member has their own fiefdom. Council members can choose to pay staff whatever they want. We’re not given a range and perhaps we should.”

“I’m lucky to have strong women leadership in the office and I benefit from it every day,” said Council Member Levine. “I think we certainly strive to be accommodating to women,” he said of the City Council, adding that he would support extending maternity leave. “We can do more,” he said, “there’s no doubt about it.”

Keefe, Levine’s chief of staff, also said the Council should do more to accommodate women. “I think we should have a better maternity leave policy, that sets the example for businesses and nonprofits across the city,” she said. She did note that when she gave birth last year, she received three months leave, but that that isn’t the standard policy across the Council.

Abend, from Cumbo’s office, said, “There’s always room for improvement,” but insisted that “this has been an incredible time to be a woman in local city government.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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At the City Council, Better Gender Balance Among Chiefs of Staff Tue, 19 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes 'Right to Counsel' For Low-Income Tenants in Housing Court http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7076:city-council-passes-right-to-counsel-for-low-income-tenants-in-housing-court http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7076:city-council-passes-right-to-counsel-for-low-income-tenants-in-housing-court 13074969465 bc6edd8dfa z

Council Member Levine and Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)


The New York City Council passed a bill on Thursday to guarantee free legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court. The bill codifies an agreement, announced in February this year, between the Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio to fully fund anti-eviction legal services in the next five years.

The “Right to Counsel” legislation, Intro. 214, was sponsored by Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, who have consistently advocated for the bill since introducing it three years ago. Under the new law, the first of its kind in the country, the city’s Office of Civil Justice Coordinator will provide low-income tenants -- those with household incomes below $49,200, or 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four -- with legal representation free of cost, phased in by zip codes over five years. The law will also provide legal consultations to those whose income is higher than the bill’s threshold and establish a legal services program by October this year for New York City Housing Authority tenants facing administrative proceedings to terminate their tenancy. The city has allocated $15 million to implement the new provisions in fiscal year 2018, increasing that to $93 million by 2022 by when it is expected to serve 400,000 New Yorkers.

The mood in the Council chambers before Thursday’s vote was celebratory as Council members expressed their support for the bill and congratulated their colleagues on achieving a key priority of the dominantly progressive body. At one point, the chamber filled with whoops and cheers from tenant advocates who had fought for the legislation and were there to see its passage. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority, with 42 Council members voting for it and one abstention. Only the three Republican members of the body voted against the bill.

“This is an incredibly historic moment for this Council,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, before the vote. “This attention to the needs of our most vulnerable residents will keep families together and in their homes, and that importance cannot be overstated.”

Celebrations began even earlier on Wednesday at a morning rally held at the New York County Lawyers’ Association. Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., Speaker Mark-Viverito, and Council Members Gibson, Deborah Rose, Mathieu Eugene and Margaret Chin were all in attendance.

“We know that the worst of the landlords have been using housing court as a weapon,” said Council Member Levine at the rally. “They called tenants in the court on the flimsiest of grounds because they knew in the vast majority of cases, the tenant would not have a lawyer.”

Public Advocate James, whose office has placed a particular focus on tenant protection and advocacy, said, “We are bringing power to the people. Tenants with a child on their hip and a pen in their pocket -- that’s all that they had. Tenants who came into housing court crying to the judge, and the judge would say ‘Shut up and sit down, I don’t recognize you...’ Those days are over.”

According to the Office of Civil Justice's 2016 annual report, 99 percent of landlords in eviction proceedings in 2013 were represented by an attorney, compared to one percent of tenants. The de Blasio administration’s focus on anti-eviction programs and funding -- a key component of the mayor’s plan to control and reduce homelessness in the city -- has already increased the number of tenants in housing court with legal representation to 27 percent. The new law aims to make that access universal.

“You know they said it couldn’t be done,” said Council Member Levine. “Again, again, and again, we were told that Right to Counsel for tenants was never gonna happen anywhere in America… But they do not know us. They do not know New Yorkers. They do not know the countless thousands of tenants who for years, for decades, have been in the trenches, fighting to save their buildings, fighting to turn around their blocks, fighting to improve their parks, to start local community nonprofits, to start local small businesses. We know those New Yorkers. We are those New Yorkers.”

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City Council Passes 'Right to Counsel' For Low-Income Tenants in Housing Court Fri, 21 Jul 2017 16:27:33 +0000
Council Speaker Contenders Spread the Wealth to Colleagues http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7077:council-speaker-contenders-spread-the-wealth-to-colleagues http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7077:council-speaker-contenders-spread-the-wealth-to-colleagues 15418071831 7ded33d9b6 z

Speaker Mark-Viverito (center) and Council Member Johnson (r) (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)


A number of City Council Members who are jockeying to replace Melissa Mark-Viverito as the next Speaker of the City Council seem to be stepping up efforts to curry favor with their colleagues and other elected officials through strategic campaign donations.

The latest campaign finance disclosures filed on Monday show that Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams -- all contenders for Speaker of the 51-member legislative body -- have made significant contributions to fellow Council members and candidates running for open City Council seats. Other Speaker candidates -- Council Members Donovan Richards, Jimmy Van Bramer and Robert Cornegy -- also made similar, but smaller contributions.

The speaker, perhaps the second most powerful elected official in the city, is chosen through an internal vote of the Council every four years after an election. Current Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will be term-limited out of office at the end of the year. She won the post with the help of a coalition of progressive Council members and the active involvement of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who swayed Brooklyn Democrats to support her and in the process undercut the Bronx and Queens County machinery that had decided the speaker’s race in the past.

Council Member Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat and a prolific campaigner who is seen as one of the leading Speaker candidates, has so far contributed over $50,000 to other elected officials’ campaigns, far outpacing other speaker hopefuls.

According to Campaign Finance Board (CFB) filings, Johnson’s campaign has disbursed the maximum contribution of $2,750 to 15 Council members who are running for reelection and also to two Council candidates, for a total of $46,750. Those incumbents and potential future members of the Council could determine whether Johnson holds the Speaker’s gavel next year. Johnson also made three other donations collectively worth the mayoral contribution limit of $4,950 to Mayor Bill de Blasio, and contributed $2,500 to Comptroller Scott Stringer, for a total of 19 candidates who received donations from him. All are Democrats.

Johnson, who is not a participant in the city’s public matching funds program, has raised over $462,000 and spent about $271,000 this election cycle, making candidate contributions almost a fifth of his entire spending. He retains about $191,000 on hand. His Council donations were heavily weighted to outer-borough incumbents, with just two going to members from Manhattan. Five of Johnson’s donations went to Brooklyn members, four each to members in Queens and the Bronx, and one to a Staten Island member. Johnson has spent the last few months aggressively courting his colleagues, campaigning on their behalf in their districts. In one weekend in June, he made appearances with several Council Members across four boroughs.

[Related: Corey Johnson’s Very Busy Campaign Weekend]

Johnson also donated to State Assemblymember Francisco Moya, who is seeking to fill the Queens seat of Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who will step down at the end of the year. Ferreras-Copeland chairs the Council’s powerful finance committee and was considered one of the leading Speaker candidates before she announced she would not be running for reelection for personal reasons. Johnson’s other donation went to Carlina Rivera, a candidate for Council District 2 in Manhattan, which is currently occupied by term-limited member Rosie Mendez. Additionally, Johnson bundled almost $13,000 in donations for Rivera’s campaign. Johnson’s campaign did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The closest competitor in contributions is Council Member Mark Levine, whose campaign has given $31,000 to other candidates and colleagues. The contributions include 11 of the same incumbents and both Moya and Rivera. He also gave to Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., for a total of 15 candidates. Levine has raised just over $376,000 in the campaign so far and has spent about $191,000, leaving him with about $185,000 on hand. He has also been actively campaigning for Speaker and is considered one of the top candidates for the position. Levine’s campaign did not respond to calls from Gotham Gazette.

Manhattan Council member Ydanis Rodriguez comes in third for his donations. His campaign has given $24,000 in 12 separate contributions of $2,000 to 11 Council incumbents and District 2 candidate Rivera. Rodriguez contributed to eight of the same Council candidates as Johnson and seven of the same candidates as Levine. His own campaign account holds about $94,000, after raising $247,000 and spending about $153,000.

Jumaane Williams personally gave $12,000 in 11 contributions, 8 of them to incumbent Council members and three to candidates, including Rivera. Williams’ contribution list differed somewhat, including four Council members that none of the other three top-contributing speaker candidates had given to.

All four gave to Council members Margaret Chin of Manhattan; Antonio Reynoso, of Brooklyn; and Rafael Salamanca, Jr., of the Bronx.

Among other speaker candidates, Donovan Richards personally gave $2,000 to two incumbents, $2,750 each to two Council candidates, including Rivera, and $500 to de Blasio, for a total of $8,000. Robert Cornegy gave $2,750 each to Moya and Queens Council member Elizabeth Crowley, plus $500 to District 41 candidate Henry Butler, for a total of $6,000. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer gave $1,500 between two incumbents and $175 to Diana Ayala, who is running for Mark-Viverito’s seat in District 8.

The amounts involved appear to already dwarf the direct candidate contributions that current Speaker Mark-Viverito and her campaign made during the 2013 election cycle, after which she was elected speaker. According to CFB data, Mark-Viverito spent only $3,000 in candidate contributions that cycle.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Speaker Contenders Spread the Wealth to Colleagues Fri, 21 Jul 2017 23:06:45 +0000
Investing in the Parks System New York City Deserves http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6796:investing-in-the-parks-system-new-york-city-deserves http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6796:investing-in-the-parks-system-new-york-city-deserves Mark Levine Council Parks

Council Member Levine, the author (photo: William Alatriste)


The numbers are startling: 42 million visitors per year in Central Park -- double the number of visitors to Disney World. Over 7 million people visit the High Line annually and 5 million visit Bryant Park. On a peak summer weekend 127,000 visit Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Park use in New York City is surging. And with the population in the five boroughs continuing to grow and tourism booming, this trend will surely continue.

But the story is not the same everywhere in our city. The marquee parks that are increasingly overwhelmed with visitors fortunately have the benefit of millions of dollars in private contributions to help them manage the onslaught. These funds enable them to provide the extra staffing needed to keep their parks looking beautiful despite the record levels of trampling.

Meanwhile, hundreds of parks in the city’s low- and moderate-income neighborhoods must survive on public funds alone. And those funds are often not enough to keep up with maintenance in the face of rising usage.

In the 1960s, New York City’s Parks Department had full-time staff of over 7,500. Since then the city’s population has grown by 1 million, but today the full-time headcount is just over 4,000. Over the decades the share of our city’s total budget devoted to parks has fallen from 1.7% to under 0.6% today. We now spend less per capita on our parks than San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

We need to reverse this trend. The Parks Department budget must increase to meet swelling demand, and to ensure that low- and moderate-income neighborhoods have the great parks they deserve.

But we also need to grow our park system to serve a rising population.

This is especially true in neighborhoods being upzoned for greater residential density, including East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. If those areas are to remain livable as they gain thousands of additional residents, they will require not just new schools and expanded transit capacity, but more open space as well.

Many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs face a shortage of park space even without population growth: one-quarter of New Yorkers today have no park within a ten-minute walk from their home. We need new parks to fill in these gaps, most of which are in the outer boroughs.

Inspiring, transformative park projects are waiting for funding all over the city.

The Queensway would convert an abandoned rail line in central Queens into a 3.5-mile linear park. The BQ Green would deck-over part of the BQE, creating green space in park-starved Bushwick. The Lowline, on the Lower East Side, would turn an abandoned trolley terminal into the world’s first underground park, in an area where open space is being gobbled up by a building boom.

We also must pick up the pace of restoration of our city’s natural areas -- 10,000 acres of forest, wetlands, and grasslands in the five boroughs which many New Yorkers don’t even know exists. Modernized and better mapped trails will allow more people to discover these marvelous natural places which are often just a subway ride away.

And let’s find an environmentally sensitive way to open up parts of our park system that are now off-limits to the public, like the spellbinding North Brother Island -- a Lost City off the coast of the South Bronx, long ago overtaken by the forest. Let’s find a way to open up nearby Hart Island, whose 120 scenic acres are home to our city’s potter’s field and a century-and-a-half of history.

Mayor de Blasio’s preliminary budget for the coming fiscal year does little to reverse the trend of inadequate funding for our parks system. It leaves staffing flat and holds the Parks Department to less than 0.6% of the total city budget. It is critical that these numbers improve during negotiations with the City Council in the months leading up to the budget’s final passage in June.

A thriving park system isn’t just a luxury in a dense city of 8.5 million people. It’s essential to livability. Let’s invest now to ensure that every corner of the five boroughs remains livable for the years and decades to come.

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City Council Member Mark Levine represents parts of Upper Manhattan and is chair of the Council's parks committee. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Investing in the Parks System New York City Deserves Wed, 08 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Serving the Last Generation of Holocaust Survivors in New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6355:serving-the-last-generation-of-holocaust-survivors http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6355:serving-the-last-generation-of-holocaust-survivors levine klein holocaust survivor city council

Mrs. Klein, a Holocaust survivor, with Council Member Levine (William Alatriste)


“If our stories do not survive when we are gone, then six million Jews were murdered in vain.” That sobering call to action from Mrs. Klein, one of the 4,700 Holocaust survivors served by Selfhelp Community Services each year, rings especially true as we marked Yom HaShoah, the annual commemoration of Jewish survival through last century’s great tragedy.

At this time of the year, we are once again reminded to share the stories of the past to prevent atrocities of this kind from happening again. The time to share the memories and lives of the remaining survivors is fleeting. This is the last generation of Holocaust survivors – a sad fact that is painfully real.

To pass these stories to the next generation, Selfhelp recently concluded seven performances of Witness Theater, a program that Selfhelp brought to New York, with the support of UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Communal Fund, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Now in its fourth year, the program utilizes drama therapy as a vehicle through which high school students work with local Holocaust survivors to re-enact critical moments from the survivors’ lives, creating a moving and educational performance to share with fellow students, parents and the community.

As I watched the survivors on stage, it was hard not to notice how time is taking its toll. A small twitch in their hand, their walkers and canes, and the assistance they need from the students to move across the stage, all remind us how much support they need. And as this last generation grows older, their needs become more intense, more costly.

New York is home to more than half of the approximately 110,000 Holocaust survivors living in the U.S., with the majority residing in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester. Of the 55,000 survivors living in New York City, about half live at or below the poverty line. Many of them lack the means for even the most basic necessities, including proper housing and health care, and they live on fixed incomes that do not accommodate escalating food prices, water and utility bills, the cost of medications, and other vital supports. Niceties such as a show, a new dress, a visit to the museum are unimaginable when rent must first be paid.

The circumstances under which many Holocaust survivors live, along with the nature of the challenges they confront as they age, require special attention. Normal aging is complicated by unique problems not generally experienced by elderly persons. They have brittle bones and serious dental problems caused by malnutrition and stress experienced during their youth and early childhood. Traumas of dislocation, as well as the loss of loved ones and communities, can cause sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, or an inability to trust. Some survivors may keep food nearby at all times. Others may bathe or permit sponge baths, but will not take a shower.

To address the needs of this population, the New York City Council created the Holocaust Survivor Initiative last year, with the leadership of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Members Rafael Espinal, David Greenfield, and Mark Levine. This $1.5 million allocation supported 11 non-profits around the city to provide case assistance, socialization programs, and entitlements and benefits enrollment to the 55,000 Holocaust survivors living in New York City.

These city funds helped Selfhelp to serve almost 300 low-income survivors with case assistance. Our social workers helped clients enroll in a range of benefits and entitlements, such as Medicare and Medicaid, rental and nutritional assistance, and Meals-on-Wheels. In just one fiscal year, we conducted a total of 343 home visits and provided almost 1900 hours of case management. The funding allowed our staff to help clients access and save close to $1.5 million. When more than half of the city’s survivors live at or below the poverty line, the money they save goes straight towards food, medication, and rent.

Two years ago, Selfhelp testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on the needs of Holocaust survivors. At that hearing, Senator Bill Nelson, the chair of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, noted, “I am proud that the United States has a legacy of caring for the needs of aging Holocaust survivors. But, we must recognize that the demand for care is still there – and only becoming more challenging.”

I am so grateful that our leaders on the city, state, and federal levels of government have raised the needs of this population and started to allocate funding. However, as Senator Nelson noted, the demand for care is increasing, and an increased investment is needed.

Our elected officials often remark that a budget is a statement of priorities. With about 30,000 survivors living at or near the poverty line, struggling to get by, one of our city’s top priorities should be caring for our survivors and providing assistance so they can age with dignity, independence, and the support they need.

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Stuart C. Kaplan is CEO of Selfhelp Community Services. On Twitter @selfhelpny.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Serving the Last Generation of Holocaust Survivors in New York Thu, 26 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
A Series of Rallies Outside City Hall http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6359:a-series-of-rallies-outside-city-hall http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6359:a-series-of-rallies-outside-city-hall Adult Literacy

 Adult Literacy Rally (Sofie Hecht / Gotham Gazette)


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

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

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

The morning in photographs, with explanation below: 

City Hall Rallies May 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Sofie Hecht, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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A Series of Rallies Outside City Hall Fri, 27 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Questioning Importance, Council Members Spend Limited Time at Hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6246:questioning-importance-council-members-spend-limited-time-at-hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6246:questioning-importance-council-members-spend-limited-time-at-hearings van bramer alone hearing

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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

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

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Questioning Importance, Council Members Spend Limited Time at Hearings Mon, 28 Mar 2016 02:40:25 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, October 19 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5938:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-october19 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5938:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-october19 New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio was in Israel over the weekend, where he spoke at the Annual Conference of Mayors, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visited recent terror attack victims, and made several other stops, including at the Western Wall and at a school educating a diverse student population. De Blasio spoke against a new wave of anti-Semitism and called for a "broken-windows" approach to combatting hate.

De Blasio is flying back to New York Sunday evening, he has no public events scheduled Monday.

Coming up this week, the 'new' Bill de Blasio will continue to show, with the mayor set to hold a joint press event with his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, on Wednesday. De Blasio and Bloomberg have appeared together several times since de Blasio came into office, but have not held a joint event, as they will for the planting of the millionth tree in the "Million Trees NYC" program launched by Bloomberg in 2007.

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

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

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
On Monday, starting at 8:30 a.m., the City Council Progressive Caucus and allies are holding a conference to discuss progressive public policies and legislative priorities aimed at inequality and improving communities. Keynote will be given by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with panel discussions on defending workers' rights, expanding and modernizing democracy, moving toward a greener city, and community safety and empowerment.

Afterward, at noon outside of SEIU 32BJ headquarters, Progressive Caucus Members and allies will “rally on their legislative priorities aimed at offering genuine opportunity to all New Yorkers, especially those who have been left out of our society’s prosperity.” Caucus Co-Chairs Donovan Richards and Antonio Reynoso, Vice-Chairs Helen Rosenthal and Ben Kallos, and other caucus members will be joined by “event sponsors Local Progress and Working Families Organization and advocates from SEIU 32BJ, VOCAL NY, Communities united for Police Reform, Bag It NYC, Streetwise and Safe and BRT for NYC.”

At 8:30 a.m. Monday, Black Live Matter / Fight for $15: A New Social Movement, a discussion on the convergence of the two movements and the chances of them sowing the seeds “for a broader social and economic justice movement” - featuring Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter and Domestic Workers Alliance; Jelani Cobb, Journalist & Professor at UConn; Hillman Judge; and Kendall Fells, SEIU / Fight For $15.  

On Monday morning’s The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will appear in one segment, discussing several topics, and Queens state Senator Michael Gianaris will appear in another to discuss his bail elimination proposal.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Immigration will hold a joint oversight meeting with the Committee on Courts and Legal Services to evaluate Attorney Compliances with Padilla vs. Kentucky and court obstacles for immigrants in Criminal and Summons Courts.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Civil Rights will meet to hear several new bills related to protecting against discrimination; clarifying that any “person providing goods, services or accommodations” as stated in the Human Rights Law also includes government bodies; forbid any accommodation provider from discriminating based on income source; and make it unlawful for anyone who provides housing to refuse it to a person based the perception that the person is a victim of domestic abuse or violence. 

On Monday at 1:30 p.m. in Niagra Falls, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman "will discuss steps his office is taking with local officials to combat the use of designer drugs."

At 5:30 p.m., New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, together with the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the Council will host a Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration.

Also at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Borough Board meeting to hear details from the Department of City Planning (DCP) on the “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” and “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” proposed zoning text amendments.

At 6:30 p.m.,  Sanctuary for Families’ 13th Annual Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards & Benefit will be honoring Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, Senior Advisor on Gender Equity and former Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, and others.

On Monday evening, Speaker Mark-Viverito will attend "the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Services Gala."

Monday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • Mark Treyger (District 47, Brooklyn) 6 p.m.
  • Steve Levin (District 33, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday
On Tuesday at 9 a.m., on the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano School of International Affairs will hold a panel titled Hurricane Sandy +3: Building Resilient Neighborhoods. Conversation will focus on the state of the post-storm infrastructure in the areas where the storm hit hardest. The panel will include Daniel A. Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency; Joel Towers, executive dean, Parsons School of Design at the New School; Klaus Jacob, special research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Onleilove Alston, executive director of Faith in New York; Hugh Hogan, executive director of the North Star Fund;Shermane Margaret Stewart-Lester, lay leader at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Far Rockaway.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Borough Cabinet Meeting.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m. the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet to discuss land use applications.
  • At 1 p.m. the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to discuss land use applications.

At the New York State Assembly on Tuesday: at 10 a.m. the Assembly Standing Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities will convene for a public hearing on “The Adequacy of Supports and Services for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities.”

On Tuesday, Public Advocate Letitia James chairs COPIC Commission meeting at Borough of Manhattan Community College (stream: http://livestream.com/BMCCMedia/events/4439178) at 10 a.m. Then, at 11:15, she is a panelist at "NASP's "The State of WMBE's Doing Business in NYS: From the Legislative Perspective" and at 6 p.m. she hosts "Staten Island Clergy Council Education Forum."

At 11:15 a.m. Monday near Stuyvesant Town, Mayor de Blasio and "local elected officials and tenant leaders from Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village will hold a media availability" about the imminent sale of the property.

On Tuesday at 1:15 p.m. from the 25th Police Precinct at 120 East 119th Street, "Mayor de Blasio – alongside Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton – will sign Intro. 917-A, criminalizing the manufacture, possession with intent to sell, and sale of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic phenethylamines; Intro. 897, allowing the City to apply public nuisance regulations to violations of the new criminal provision barring the sale of K2; and Intro. 885-A, allowing the city to revoke, suspend or refuse to renew a cigarette dealer license due to the sale of synthetic drugs or imitation synthetic drugs...After, the Mayor will appear live on Power 105.1 with Angie Martinez to discuss the K-2 legislation."

At 4 p.m. Mark-Viverito will host a press conference "to celebrate $1.2 Million in funding for STARS Afterschool Initiative with Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland at P.S. 50 on 100th Street in Manhattan. Then, at 8 p.m., Mark-Viverito will host "#SheWillBe Twitter Party to Discuss the City Council's First In The Nation Young Women's Initiative...Join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #SheWillBe."

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday Community Voices Heard will hold a rally titled “March on the Mayor: Stop Privatization, Start Funding NYCHA.” The demonstration will demand a stop to increasing privatization and an increase in funding for the New York City Housing Authority by $2 billion starting this year.

At 6 p.m. the Brooklyn Historical Society will host Life After Surveillance in Bay Ridge’s Muslim Community, a discussion about the post-9/11 surveillance in Bay Ridge and how this surveillance sowed seeds of distrust in the neighbourhood. Panelists include moderator Jarrett Murphy, Executive Editor of City Limits; Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York; Moustafa Bayoumi; award-winning writer, and Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York; and Dr. Ahmad Jaber, an OB/GYN at the Lutheran Medical Center in Bay Ridge and a Muslim religious educator.

Tuesday "evening, the Mayor and First Lady Chirlane McCray will host the Gracie Gala Dinner," according to de Blasio's public schedule. The Gracie Mansion Conservancy will hold an invitation only fundraiser to celebrate the grand re-opening of Gracie Mansion after recent repairs. The fundraiser will feature the mansion’s new art installation, Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York, curated with help of the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Governor Cuomo will attend "the Nassau County Democratic Committee Annual Fall Dinner."

Tuesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • Jimmy Van Bramer (District 26, Queens) 6 p.m.
  • Eric Ulrich (District 32, Queens) 7 p.m.

Wednesday
On Wednesday in the Bronx: Mayor de Blasio and his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will meet to plant the millionth tree in the Million Trees NYC program, a Bloomberg initiative begun in 2007.

On Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. Comptroller Scott Stringer will hold a “Queens Hearing for Business Owners and Entrepreneurs.” The event is the next installment of the Comptroller’s “Red Tape Commision Hearings” dedicated to listening to ideas and suggestion that would make it easier for entrepreneurs and business owners to grow their businesses, while partnering with the government. The event will bring together Borough President Melinda Katz; Queens Chamber of Commerce; Queens Economic Development Corporation; the Queens Tribune; and co-chairs of the Red Tape Commission Jessica Lappin and Michael Lambert.

Also at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly will headline a Fordham University event “Governance in New York City: The Bloomberg Years.”

At the New York State Legislature on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection and the Committee on Aging and the Subcommittee on Consumer Fraud Protection will hold a joint public hearing on “State resource funding to protect consumers, including seniors, from frauds and scams.”
  • At 11 a.m. the Senate Task Force on Workforce Development will convene for a public meeting “To examine initiatives and determine best practices for job skill training and re-training programs, and provide recommendations to foster workforce development in New York State.”
  • At 12:30 p.m. the Assembly Standing Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities will hold a public hearing regarding the “Transition of Behavioral Health Supports and Services into Managed Care.”

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Harry Siegel of The New York Daily News and Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute will try to answer the question, “Is The NYPD Doing Its Job?” The discussion will be moderated by social critic Kay S. Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, and will explore the new tracking system aimed at reducing police brutality and assess Commissioner Bratton’s effort to implement the program.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Mark Levine will host the event "Jewish Poverty in New York City" along with a group of civic organizations including YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood, the Russian-speaking Community Council of Manhattan and the Bronx, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Fort Tyron Jewish Center, the Jewish Community Council of Washington Heights-Inwood, the Hebrew Tabernacle, and The Workmen’s Circle.

Also at 6:30 p.m., City & State NY will be host its 2015 New York City Rising Stars: 40 Under 40 celebration. The list features stars in government, advocacy, labor, and consulting.

At 7 p.m. the Department of Education, the School Construction Authority, elected officials, and parents will meet for “Let’s Talk About Overcrowding.” The event will focus on the issue of overcrowding in public schools in Cobble Hill and Caroll Gardens, in addition to addressing several other school-related issues. State Senator Daniel Squadron, State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, City Councilmember Brad Lander, City Councilmember Steve Levin, and others will participate.

At 3:30 Wednesday in Manhattan, Families for Excellent Schools is planning to hold another rally to support charter schools, this time featuring charter school teachers, about 1,000 of whom are expected to rally.

Wednesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event is via CM Mark Levine (District 7, Manhattan) 6 p.m.

Thursday
At 8 a.m. Thursday, The Sixth Annual MAS Summit for New York City will commence. The Municipal Art Society summit will run through Friday evening and include two days of networking opportunities and one hundred speakers. Notable presenters include: Commissioner Vicki Been, of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development; Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs; Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development; New York State Senator Chuck Schumer; Purnima Kapur, Executive Director for the Department of City Planning; and many more to speak about “The City We Want.”

Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Land Use Hearing.

At the City Council Thursday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Finance will meet to discuss the extension of credit against the unincorporated business tax and the general corporation tax.
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Transportation will meet to hear several bills related to the TLC and commuter vans..
  • At 11 a.m. the Committee on Land Use will meet, with agenda TBA.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services will hold a hearing on new accessibility-related bills.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency will meet for oversight on coastal storm resiliency in the city two year after the SIRR report.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Economic Development will meet on bills that would require the NYCEDC to submit annual job creation reports to community planning boards; require SBS to collect data on gender and racial diversity among “executive level employees” in city contractor companies.

At the New York State Assembly Thursday, a “Budget oversight hearing for the Assembly Standing Committees on Local Governments and Cities.”

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Public Agenda will hold “Restoring Opportunity: The Role of Education,” an event to discuss how the education policies of both New York State and the entire nation need to change in order for the country to truly offer the opportunities promised by the American Dream. Brian Lehrer, from WNYC, will moderate the discussion, interviewing Andie Puriefoy, the former president of the Public Education Network and Alison Kadlec, an expert of higher education reform.

At 7 p.m. BRIC will host the panel discussion “Breaking Down the Walls: #BHeard on Immigration, a Community Town Hall.” The talk will be moderated by Brian Vines and feature City Council Member Carlos Menchaca; Linda Sarsour, Arab American Association; Adrian Carasquillo, immigration reporter for Buzzfeed news; Alina Das, NYU professor; and Shena Elrington, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Popular Democracy.

At their annual fall dinner Thursday, Empire State Pride Agenda will award Governor Cuomo with the 25th anniversary Silver Torch Award for “his extraordinary efforts to make marriage equality a reality in New York — paving the way for the freedom to marry nationwide” and “his more recent commitment to ending the AIDS epidemic in New York.” Along with Cuomo, other speakers will be Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito; City Public Advocate Letitia James; Pride Agenda Board Co-Chairs Norman C. Simon and Melissa Sklarz; and Pride Agenda Executive Director Nathan Schaefer.

Citizens Union, the good government group, will hold its 2015 Annual Awards Dinner Thursday evening. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will give featured remarks. Citizens Union honorees include Mylan L. Denerstein (Public Service Award), Adam Flatto (Business Leadership Award), Haeda B. Mihaltses (Public Service Award), and Stephen P. Younger (Civic Leadership Award).

Beginning Thursday evening and continuing through Friday, the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute will host “Youth, Jobs and Future: Responses to Youth Unemployment.”

Thursday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Helen Rosenthal (District 6, Manhattan) 6 p.m.
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.

Friday and the weekend
At the City Council on Friday: at 10 a.m. the Committee on Higher Education will convene for oversight on college testing access.

"The next public meeting of the New York City Campaign Finance Board will be held on Friday, October 23 at 10:00 AM."

At the New York State Assembly on Friday: at 10:30 a.m. the Assembly Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions and the Assembly Standing Committee on Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry will hold a joint public hearing on “Providing Affordable and High Quality Cable, Broadband, and Telephone Service.”

Friday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event is via CM Carlos Menchaca (District 38, Brooklyn) 6 p.m.

Saturday at 10:30 a.m., New Yorkers Against Gun Violence will hold Walk Over the Hudson for Gun Sense, a march in response to recent bursts of gun violence across the US. The event invites citizens to show their “commitment to background checks, safe storage, and other common sense gun safety laws.”

At noon Saturday, BetaNYC will hold an event to improve CityGram.NYC, a website which allows New York City residents to subscribe to open government data based on their geographic location and areas of interest.

Saturday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event is via CM Carlos Menchaca (District 38, Brooklyn), 2 p.m.

On Sunday, the de Blasio family will open their doors to the public at a Gracie Mansion Open House. A ticket giveaway will take place on the event website. In celebration of the Mansion’s 35th anniversary, the open house will feature 49 new works as part of the “Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York” show.

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

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by Colin O'Connor, Konstantine Beridze, and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, October 19 Sun, 18 Oct 2015 05:00:00 +0000
Why Don’t We Ever Hear About Commercial Rent Policy? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5792:why-dont-we-ever-hear-about-commercial-rent-policy http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5792:why-dont-we-ever-hear-about-commercial-rent-policy levine small biz

Council Member Levine & co outside an evicted business (photo: @MarkLevineNYC) 


Mid-June, it was a block in Washington Heights that was poised to be the next to close up shop. The landlord, Coltown Properties, looked to evict the mostly Latino-owned stores on the street, which included a barbershop, restaurant, and income tax service. The store proprietors faced the same issue as many other small business owners in New York — there was nothing they could do.

“Collectively, the businesses on this block have been in operation for over 80 years,” local City Council Member Mark Levine said at a press conference on 162nd Street and Broadway. “At a time when unemployment rates in our neighborhood are disproportionately high, these businesses are vital to the economic livelihood of this area.” Levine’s office is partnering with Legal Aid Society to provide legal assistance to small businesses in his district.

This is New York today, the plight of the city’s small businesses is grumpily accepted like a late train. It’s perceived by many New Yorkers as a part of the city grind, the dog-eat-dog, if-you-can-afford-it-here-you-can-afford-it-anywhere reality of a town teeming with opportunity, but becoming evermore competitive - and expensive.

Echoing all too quietly in the halls of both city and state government, the average retail rent in Manhattan has risen 22 percent over the past decade, causing a sprawl of small businesses to relocate or simply close. It is a disease that’s spread to Brooklyn too.

As news and debate over residential rent regulation dominated Albany and New York City over the past several months, what happens on a daily basis to small businesses throughout the city tends to fall by the wayside. Commercial tenants have far less protection against sudden rent increases than residents do, and now, that deficit is playing out in pockets of the city at an increasingly rapid pace. In comes another Chase, next to the new Duane Reade.

Depending on who you ask, the reasons vary as to why elected officials in New York and Albany have acted — or, to some advocates, failed — on reforming commercial rent policy.

“No one is lobbying the state Legislature for commercial rent control, so obviously legislators are not thinking about the issue,” Michael McKee, the treasurer of Tenants PAC, says. “I am not even aware that there is a bill that would provide protections to small businesses.”

As it stands, the only bill in the New York State government that pertains to commercial rent in New York City is the “Small Business Survival Act,” first proposed by Senator Tony Avella of Queens in 2013. It aims to level the playing field between tenant and landlord by mandating arbitration privileges to small businesses. Landlords must follow certain criteria when setting a lease, and the commercial tenant has more time in negotiations. “The current commercial rental market results in unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive leases for the payment of rent for commercial space in New York City,” the bill reads. As of this legislative session, it has not seen a vote.

The more common small business bills that do exist are like the resources offered by the city and state’s economic development agencies: they seek to provide clarity with forms, regulations, and other bureaucratic nuances that come attached to opening and operating a small business in a tax- and rule-heavy state. The same situation stands in the Business Council, the most prominent lobby for businesses in Albany. Providing commercial tenants with some sort of leverage in lease negotiations did not make its 2015 ‘Top Ten Objectives’ list, or the webpage for its subdivision of small businesses. Rejecting a higher minimum wage did, though.

“If there is ever to be any movement on this issue, folks have to organize,” McKee said, talking with Gotham Gazette while he was in the midst of yet another major push to influence tenant rent regulations being set by lawmakers in Albany and the city’s rent guidelines board.

As many can attest, it is especially tough to compete against what is, without a doubt, the most powerful force in New York politics: real estate. This is a business community that spends millions every year on political campaigns; the contributions of one of its biggest entities, the Real Estate Board, made up a tenth of the entire state’s campaign money last election cycle. And that’s just one group.

To James Parrott, the deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, that wealth of influence explains the radio silence both down- and up-state, among Democrats and Republicans, on an issue that directly threatens real estate hegemony. Reasoning seems to be that if small businesses had more protections against space-seeking developers, it would cut into the pace and profits of the city’s longstanding natural order. Landlords either want to charge more for commercial space or developers want tenants out so they can sell or demolish and build anew.

“The real estate community has always been aggressive in campaign contributions,” Parrott explains. “And, by doing so, they’ve successfully prevented anything that would restrict them.”

This, of course, includes commercial tenant rights. Parrott makes a key point: in a state government where the recently former Speaker of the Assembly and Majority Leader of the State Senate are both indicted for crimes involving real estate’s influence, it’s hard to believe a bill called the Small Business Survival Act would even last a day. Not to mention the probe into the abrupt closing of the Moreland Commission by Governor Andrew Cuomo; an investigation that is specifically looking into tax breaks for huge developers.

City government is not excluded, either, Parrott argues.

The tale of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (better known as the SBJSA) in the City Council is a long yet uneventful one. Basically, the bill — which, in structure, is very similar to its upstate counterpart — has been floating around the chambers of City Hall since 2008. (Last year, Gotham Gazette dove into its reintroduction.) It would let commercial tenants have the right to lease renewal ten years or more. If a landlord wants to raise rent, mediation with the tenant would be mandated, and, if the parties don’t come to an agreement, an arbitrator would make the final decision.

In essence, it is a flexing of New York City’s municipal home rule, which allows the Council to bypass Albany and regulate commercial code on its own turf. Similar proposals have existed in the Council for decades now, but all have met the same fate: failure. No surprise, Parrott says: the power of real estate is as strong in the city as it is upstate, if not stronger. Also, past mayors and council speakers have strongly sided with that community, meaning any bill is unlikely to ever see a vote, and even if passed by Council, likely vetoed.

But, to tenant advocates, this time around offers hope. Finally, they argue, a legislative body and a mayor progressive enough to actually take up the issue. At least on paper.

“Historically, the deference to Albany has served as a smokescreen/distraction for elected city officials to validate their appalling inaction on issues that they, in all actuality, have complete control over,” Kirsten Theodos, a spokesperson for Take Back NYC, a grassroots advocacy group for tenants and subset of the larger group Save NYC, told Gotham Gazette.

Right now, the SBJSA has 19 City Council sponsors in a 51-member boday. Seeing the bill heard at a committee hearing and then brought to a vote is unlikely, and would probably first require a number of additional sponors signing on (Council members can support a bill without co-sponsoring, but sponsorship levels show strength). To land those additional sponsors, Theodos hopes that situations like the eviction of businesses in Washington Heights will shed light on the issue. When asked if Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who endorsed the bill before becoming speaker, would support the bill now, a spokesperson pointed to remarks made by Mark-Viverito to The Villager in late May. She did not provide an endorsement of the bill then, but mentioned an argument that has been repeatedly made by the real estate community in the past: that the SBJSA is illegal.

“The bill gets introduced once the [Council] staff do their due diligence,” the Speaker said. “Then there are hearings to hear from all sides. And then we figure out what the next steps will be — because sometimes options are being explored that legally we don’t have the ability to implement as a city or as a legislative council.”

Last year, in Gotham Gazette, the president of the Real Estate Board, Steven Spinola, called the bill an “unconstitutional intrusion” on property owners. A spokesperson for the Board told me this position hasn’t changed. Essentially, the board believes it is not in the Council’s jurisdiction to regulate commercial tenants. Home rule doesn’t apply here, they say.

Theodos stresses that this is not true; SBJSA would target the negotiations process, she says, and not install commercial rent control. The legal counsel to the Small Business Congress, a coalition of tenant advocates, supported this argument last year, citing Supreme Court decisions that enable local autonomy.

As a member of the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio supported the SBJSA, but he has remained relatively mum on the bill since entering his current office. For many advocates, the hope is that he’ll extend the drive that he has recently demonstrated around housing rent regulations in Albany to the parallel issue for small businesses. However, although he was elected on a ‘helping the little guy’ message and a promise to embrace them, small business owners and their allies also worry that his tendency to meet with representatives from the Real Estate Board and other commercial heavyweights threatens his adherence to their cause. Holding an office that naturally attracts real estate interests, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito has also met with REBNY heads. While neither de Blasio nor Mark-Viverito appears especially cozy with real estate titans, neither has pushed directly on the commerical rent issue either.

That isn’t to say nothing has been done by the de Blasio administration to help small business owners since he took office in January of 2014, though. His office’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS) is spending upwards of $27 million to streamline and defuse the regulatory process and, with the Department of Consumer Affairs, made sure that fewer fines are handed out to small businesses that can barely afford rent. More importantly, SBS has rolled out initiatives aimed at providing pro bono legal services to small businesses in lease negotiations; a policy which will soon expand, SBS spokesperson Merideth Weber told Gotham Gazette.

“We are working to roll out additional programs that span the range of supports we can provide including education, assistance, and tools that can help businesses avoid pitfalls in leases, and make the retail market more transparent,” Weber said in a statement.

When asked if the mayor supports SBJSA, Weber responded, “We’re reviewing the bill and this administration is working on a comprehensive plan to ensure that small businesses have the tools and resources they need to compete in an ever-changing marketplace.”

Still, tenant advocates argue that these measures dance around the main issue: that small businesses have no legal powers against immediate evictions or rent gouging. In a hyper-developing environment reaching further into several boroughs, small business owners are often defenseless. With a state government not inclined to act on commercial rent policy in New York City, and a city bill that, for now at least, is on the back burner of the Council agenda, the urgency stressed by owners and advocates doesn’t seem to be resonating here nor there.

Council Member Mark Levine, who spoke out against the eviction of the small businesses on a block in Washington Heights, in his district, says that there are other options that can help stem the tide of closing small businesses. And these, he said, do not necessarily require either a dying bill or a dead government. “Albany is not acting in any domain, really,” he quickly noted.

The city government, Levina argues, could set an example by not renting out its own real estate to chain stores. Also, zoning laws can be regulated in order to prevent chains and encourage small businesses — a policy that Columbia University has undertaken in Morningside Heights, Levine said. He added that the city should look into preventing developers who receive city subsidies from renting out to chains.

One of the 19 sponsors of the SBJSA, Levine argues that the city needs to set out a structure in which commercial tenants can have enough time whereby they are properly notified of a lease change. He also referred to a bill recently introduced by Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Dan Garodnick that would raise the commercial rent tax exemption in Manhattan (below 96th Street) from $250,000 to $500,000 per year. As of now, the bill has 16 sponsors.

In terms of Albany attention, residential tenants supersede their commercial counterparts in numbers, Levine says, and the politics involved are different. But still, the council member describes challenges faced by small businesses in New York right now as a “crisis;” one that is perhaps even more alarming than the affordable housing problem, given the conditions. “There’s not much a tenant can do,” he says. “Therefore, we’re seeing dramatic changes in our streetscapes, and the scale of the problem is great.”

“It is the mom and pop stores that make this city,” Levine said. “And the city government should be doing much, much more to protect them.”

***
John Surico is a freelance journalist. His reporting can be seen in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Why Don’t We Ever Hear About Commercial Rent Policy? Wed, 01 Jul 2015 05:01:01 +0000
7 Points of Contention as City Budget Deal Finalized http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5779:7-points-of-contention-as-city-budget-deal-finalized http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5779:7-points-of-contention-as-city-budget-deal-finalized BdB MMV RI

Mayor de Blasio & Speaker Mark-Viverito talk (photo: William Alatriste)


“This year we're fighting for much-needed funds that will get #NYC 6-day library service citywide, more police, better parks & much more,” tweeted City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer on Monday morning.

Van Bramer, who chairs the Council’s cultural affairs committee, where the debate over library funding has largely been heard, reminded of the Council’s budget priorities as final negotiations take place between the 51-member legislative body and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio. A deal on a fiscal year 2016 budget is due by July 1, when the new city fiscal year begins. Many expect a deal to be announced this week - last year, the first as mayor for de Blasio and as speaker of the Council for Melissa Mark-Viverito, a budget deal was announced on June 19.

Van Bramer and colleague Council Members Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the public safety committee, and Mark Levine, chair of the parks committee, were on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Friday discussing the final stages of budget negotiations.

“Obviously it is a very inclusive and collaborative process, but at the end of the day the mayor and the speaker will conclude with a deal that reflects the work we’ve been doing as a body over the past several weeks and months,” Van Bramer said.

After de Blasio released his executive budget on May 7, council members have continued to push for an increase in funds for libraries, parks, NYPD headcount, senior citizen services, women’s health services, city-funded school lunches for all students, and more. One other high-profile funding question is whether de Blasio will put money toward a city bail fund, as proposed by Mark-Viverito.

In response to the proposed executive budget, Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras and Mark-Viverito released a joint statement in May praising the budget’s strong capital investment and increased funding toward mental health programs, public housing, and after-school programs for students. But they also chastised the lack of investment in policing and universal school lunch.

“The City Council is disappointed that the Executive Budget does not contain funding for new Police Officers who will help give Commissioner Bratton the tools he needs to continue to keep crime low while also improving police-community relations. The Council was also disappointed to see the Executive Budget does not expand funding for universal free school lunches and breakfast after the bell,” the statement says. “The Council will continue to advocate for these priorities moving forward.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the sides are closing in on a deal to expand the NYPD force by several hundred and that an announcement on that and the rest of the budget could be as early as Monday night. As a city budget deal approaches, a look at several key issues being negotiated:

NYPD Headcount
For a second straight year Mayor de Blasio declined to include money in his budget to hire 1,000 new police officers per the Council’s request, led by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. De Blasio said in May that the NYPD is doing an “outstanding” job as it is and that because officers are spending less time on unnecessary stop and frisks and low-level marijuana arrests, they are freed up to do more of the community policing Council members are seeking the additonal headcount to perform.

Mark-Viverito has since continued to push for additional officers. The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday night that the de Blasio administration will likely expand the size of the police force in exchange for capping overtime for officers.

City Bail Fund
In her February State of the City address, Mark-Viverito proposed a $1.4 million city-wide bail fund to assist low level, non-violent offenders who are unable to make bail. De Blasio declined to provide money for the bail fund in his executive budget.

However, less than a month later, de Blasio endorsed “some sort of bail reform” following the suicide of Kalief Browder, who was detained at Rikers Island for three years before he stood trial and his charges— that of stealing a backpack— were dismissed.

After delivering a statement at an oversight hearing on bail reform last week, Mark-Viverito told reporters that the council could “get [the bail fund] done without the administration’s support.”

On Thursday, de Blasio was asked about Mark-Viverito’s assertion and said, “we’re in a budget discussion and all items are being discussed. I believe in the need for bail reform, and there’s several different ways to do that.” He said that city leaders “don’t want to see people going to jail simply because they can’t afford a small amount of bail for a minor offense,” but said that “there’s more than one way to address that issue” and that he is “particularly focused on...some of the efforts to have a supervised release effort for very low-level crimes that we’ve seen done effectively before.”

Universal Free School Lunch
Council members and Public Advocate Letitia James are pushing de Blasio to provide funding to pay for universal free lunch for all public school students in the city. De Blasio has pushed back on that proposal, arguing that the pilot program his administration funded last year that provided free lunch to all middle schoolers has yielded “mixed results.” Advocates for the program continue to push de Blasio to add funding.

Library Funding
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer has requested an additional $65 million for libraries, arguing that the need for library services is growing and that funding is below levels of several years ago. The executive budget includes $314 million. The de Blasio administration has also committed to a $300 million ten-year capital budget for libraries, an act representatives call “unprecedented.”

Senior Services
After the administration asked the Department of Aging to cut its budget by $3.1 million, Council Member Margaret Chin has requested an additional $11.5 million for senior services. The budget originally provided $2.6 million, then later added another $2 million to fund elder abuse programs.

Women’s Health Services
The Council Women’s Caucus, led by Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, has called on City Hall to support the Women’s Health Initiative— nearly $4 million baselined during the Bloomberg administration for groups that support women’s health services, including Planned Parenthood, That money is not included in de Blasio’s executive budget, though an administration source has said that the funding will be in the adopted budget after being reappropriated. Crowley, other Council members, advocates and service providers rallied at City Hall last week.

Parks Funding
The proposed budget includes $1.27 billion for parks, an overall increase of $50 million in spending. But some park advocates and Council members, including Mark Levine, are asking the mayor to invest more in parkland and to add $8.7 million for gardeners and maintenance workers, the New York Times reported.

“The parks budget has been stagnating for years. We only devote about one half of one percent of the city’s total budget for parks, it was triple that in the sixties,” Levine said Friday on NY1. “And you see it in our park system today…For parks in low- and moderate-income communities, they need robust public investment in their park system, which they’re not currently getting.”

When de Blasio unveiled his $78.3 billion executive budget on May 7, he touted investments in affordable housing, struggling schools, and fighting homelessness, while firmly rejecting the Council’s call to to hire additional police officers. However, it appears he may give way and expand NYPD headcount and perhaps a handful of other Council requests as negotiations continue, especially as the city’s tax revenues continue to increase. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said earlier this month that the city would end its 2015 fiscal year with a $3 billion surplus. The mayor and Council must come to an agreement by June 30.

***
by Catie Edmondson and Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson @tweetBenMax

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7 Points of Contention as City Budget Deal Finalized Mon, 22 Jun 2015 17:21:23 +0000