Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1020 Wed, 21 Nov 2018 10:09:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) With Nod from De Blasio and Push from Johnson, Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8062-with-nod-from-de-blasio-and-push-from-johnson-momentum-for-ranked-choice-voting-in-new-york-city http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8062-with-nod-from-de-blasio-and-push-from-johnson-momentum-for-ranked-choice-voting-in-new-york-city bdb at voting machine

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


With all three of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision proposals approved by voters by wide margins on Tuesday, eyes are now on the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, empaneled by the City Council and other officials, which will, in some respects, pick up where the 2018 commission left off, possibly considering issues that the mayor’s commission did not act on.

Key among those is ranked-choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting), an alternative method of voting wherein voters rank their candidate preferences rather than simply voting for one. For whichever races it is applied to, if no candidate wins the required percentage of the vote on initial count, the last place candidate is eliminated, and the second preference of the eliminated candidate’s voters receives those votes. This continues until one candidate secures the required percentage, often set at 50 percent.

As of now, New York City only holds runoffs for citywide positions -- mayor, public advocate, comptroller -- and if no candidate receives 40 percent of the vote. Mayor Bill de Blasio narrowly avoided a runoff in the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor, but there was one that year for public advocate.

That runoff, in the Democratic primary between eventual winner Letitia James and Daniel Squadron, led to heightened calls for ranked-choice voting, especially given the high cost of the runoff relative to the budget of the public advocate’s office.

Increasing support from elected officials and among the public led to ranked-choice voting being considered and discussed by the 2018 charter commission; in its final report, the commission said that it had received a “considerable volume of public comment about ranked choice voting.” In the end, the commission demurred on ranked-choice, arguing that more research and time were required and recommending that a future commission tackle the issue.

It may not take long; that commission may well end up being the 2019 commission, which has already met six times, twice in Manhattan and once each in the other boroughs, and has a much longer timeline on which to tackle issues. It is expected to continue deliberations, solicit online feedback, and hold hearings and meetings throughout the first half of next year, with its ballot proposals likely due by early September.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who got to name several commissioner including the chair, Gail Benjamin, testified at a recent hearing in favor of ranked-choice voting, urging the commission to look into it. De Blasio, meanwhile, singled out ranked-choice voting when asked by Gotham Gazette at a press availability what he would like the 2019 commission to tackle, though he did not endorse the idea outright.

“There was a very vibrant discussion in this charter revision commission, for example, about ranked-choice voting,” the mayor said. “For me, the jury’s still out on ranked-choice voting. I grew up with it in Massachusetts. I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses. And I’d sure like to see a lot more research on it. But there’s a lot of people who believe it might be very beneficial in New York City.”

Despite not taking an affirmative stance on the issue, de Blasio’s answer is a signal of his evolving position on ranked-choice, according to Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government group that supports ranked-choice voting.

“I think it’s significant,” Camarda said. “I think what’s telling is we’ve now seen, in the last few months, the mayor last week and the Council speaker at the Manhattan charter revision commission hearing, both called on the commission to consider instant runoff voting, and ‘here are the different arguments for it.’ And I think that’s a signal to the commission that they should seriously look at this.”

“I think there’s a new openness to it on their parts that at least wasn’t public in the past,” he continued. “De Blasio in 2013 went on The Brian Lehrer Show and actually took a position against IRV, and said at the time that the starkness of two candidates in the runoff, he thought was clarifying for voters. So clearly, his position seems to have evolved.”

Aside from good government groups, which almost uniformly support it, ranked choice also has the support of other prominent city elected officials: along with Johnson, support comes from Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate James, who was elected State Attorney General on Tuesday and in May called herself “the face of instant runoff” given her 2013 race. City Council Member Brad Lander has sponsored a bill to implement "instant run-off voting" (James is a co-sponsor) in the Council.

"As the upcoming Public Advocate race shows, Ranked Choice Voting is an idea whose time has come for New York City," Lander said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Stronger majority support, better outreach to diverse communities, less negative campaigning, and it even saves money. What's not to like?"

Advocates, including those in New York, note that ranked-choice both makes third parties more viable (by limiting the need for “strategic voting”) and forces candidates to appeal beyond their base, in the hope of attracting voters as second preference. Ranked-choice would also allow city elections to avoid costly, low-turnout runoff elections when no candidate secures the required threshold of votes.

“We think that enabling voters to rank candidates creates an environment where there's more substantive policy debate, and there’s less negativity in campaigning, because candidates have to appeal to second choice and even third choice votes,” Camarda said.

In 2013, the runoff between James and Squadron was estimated to cost about $13 million, for a position with a $2 million budget, in an election with 6.5% turnout. In a report released the following year, the city’s Campaign Finance Board recommended that New York City adopt ranked-choice voting for municipal elections.

Advocates also claim that ranked-choice increases turnout, though studies have been conflicting on the matter. Some have charged that it can be confusing to voters, decreasing turnout and the diversity of the electorate. Turnout in San Francisco, the largest American city using ranked-choice, has been generally depressed since the implementation of ranked-choice, while in Minneapolis, the results have been far more promising.

Ranked choice has taken a higher political profile after Maine voters adopted the system by referendum in 2016, after a string of gubernatorial elections going back to 2002 where no candidate received a majority of the vote. The measure survived several legal and legislative challenges and was used in this year’s midterm elections; the Democratic gubernatorial candidate won an outright majority, but the race in the 2nd Congressional District is currently being decided by instant runoff.

Along with San Francisco and Minneapolis, ranked-choice is used in cities such as Oakland and Memphis, where voters approved ranked-choice in 2008 but it has not yet been implemented. On Tuesday, voters in that city rejected a ballot proposal to abandon ranked-choice, and it will be used in 2019. And de Blasio’s hometown of Cambridge has used ranked-choice since the 1940s; Cambridge’s system is a unique hybrid of ranked-choice and proportional representation.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This story has been updated.

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With Nod from De Blasio and Push from Johnson, Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City Thu, 08 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Vote Yes Three Times to Improve New York City Democracy http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8052-vote-yes-three-times-to-improve-new-york-city-democracy http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8052-vote-yes-three-times-to-improve-new-york-city-democracy three voting booths

(photo: Mayor's Office)


A political awakening is sweeping New York City. Voter turnout during the last election spiked nearly 300 percent. More New Yorkers are speaking out and looking to engage in the civic life and democracy of their city.

Earlier this year, hundreds of New Yorkers, many of them everyday people who gave up their personal time to attend a public hearing, voiced their concerns to a New York City Charter Revision Commission appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio traveling the five boroughs. The Charter Commission boiled down hundreds of hours of public testimony into three proposals that will be on the back of Election Day ballots, each in the form of a yes/no question.

Voting "yes" on all three proposals will give New Yorkers new opportunities to channel their rising political energy and hopes for a more diverse and representative government. 

A "yes" vote on Question 1 will empower everyday New Yorkers by amplifying their voices in political campaigns for local office. New Yorkers making contributions to candidates will have their small donations matched with $8 in public funds for every $1 donated. A $10 contribution will grow to $90; a $100 donation multiplied to $900. And, the influence of big money will be further slashed by reducing the maximum individual contribution by a third. This proposal will also enable more New Yorkers to run for office themselves by raising small donations from their friends and neighbors. A "yes" vote on Question 1 is backed by Reinvent Albany and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), among others.

On Question 2, a "yes" vote will enable all New Yorkers to vote directly on a slice of the city’s budget to beautify a local park, make a pedestrian crossing safer, or any number of other ideas that come from local communities. A Commission would be created to organize and connect New Yorkers to volunteer opportunities in government and the private sector, among other responsibilities to foster civic engagement and make the city better. This proposal is strongly supported by leaders in the worldwide Participatory Budgeting movement, which this proposal will expand.

A "yes" vote on Question 3 will open up opportunities for more New Yorkers to serve on community boards. Community boards provide advice on local land use, neighborhood quality of life issues, and the city budget, and serve as the level of government closest to the people. Yet, according to community board and census data, many boards consist of members who have served for decades, and do not reflect the diverse makeup and viewpoints of their neighborhoods.

By requiring community board members step down from their positions for two years after serving eight years, everybody in the community will have an opportunity to participate and have their voices heard. This proposal is strongly supported by citywide, grassroots groups like Transportation Alternatives that have decades of experience working with community boards.

A yes, yes, yes vote on the three ballot proposals will collectively harness the heightened activism of New Yorkers as robust participants in their democracy and their city. Find the questions on the back of your ballot and approve them for a stronger New York City.

***
Alex Camarda is Senior Policy Advisor for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @alex_camarda & @ReinventAlbany.

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

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Vote Yes Three Times to Improve New York City Democracy Mon, 05 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
State Board of Elections Curtails Power of Enforcement Counsel http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7852-state-board-of-elections-curtails-power-of-enforcement-counsel http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7852-state-board-of-elections-curtails-power-of-enforcement-counsel gov and cuomo coughlin votes

(Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


The State Board of Elections voted on Wednesday to hobble the subpoena powers of Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman, dealing a significant blow to one of the state’s only election law watchdogs.

The new rules, which were voted on by the board at a commissioners’ meeting in Albany, would require Sugarman to obtain permission from the board members (two Democrats, two Republicans) for each subpoena she plans to issue in a probe, and for the “circumstances of the investigation” to be divulged to the members. Previously, the board approved Sugarman’s ability to make subpoenas in probes, but she was given latitude to make individual subpoenas within a probe.

The new rule also requires that Sugarman provide regular reports to the board members detailing metrics related to her investigations, and for investigations to be limited to six-month timeframes. Sugarman is the first and only person to hold the relatively new position at the board.

She has, in the past, criticized the proposed rule changes as being designed to hobble the powers given to her in 2014, after Governor Andrew Cuomo and Legislature passed a law designed to depoliticize the BOE’s enforcement process.

"These amendments would allow the politically partisan commissioners of the SBOE to impose their own political will on the independent chief enforcement counsel's investigations," Sugarman said in a June letter to the board, obtained by the Albany Times-Union.

The final vote on the measure was 3-1 in favor, with Democratic appointee Andrew Spano dissenting. Before the vote, Sugarman provided sharply critical testimony wherein she accused the board members of attempting to hobble a crucial state watchdog.

“By your vote today, you will send a message,” she said, saying that a “yes” vote would stand for partisan intervention into independent oversight, while a “no” vote would stand for “fair and complete investigations.” Sugarman said that the rescission of unmitigated subpoena power, as well as reporting requirements and a six-month timeframe for investigations, would hobble the enforcement counsel’s ability to fairly investigate campaign finance violations.

Sugarman claimed that the regulations would slow the pace of investigations by requiring approval of subpoenas by the BOE, and would hinder the independence of the investigation by needing approval from partisan appointees. In effect, the commissioners, not the enforcement counsel, would “control the course and content of an investigation,” she said.

Sugarman brought up supporters of her fight against the new regulations: seven state residents who submitted public comment, gubernatorial candidate and former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, the Office of the New York Attorney General, good government groups Reinvent Albany and Rochester for All, five members of the former Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, three District Attorneys, and attorney Milton Williams.

“Gutting the Enforcement Counsel’s authority and independence will only serve to encourage more corruption in New York,” Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a statement. “Our partnership with a strong, independent Enforcement Counsel has allowed us to hold public officials to account for breaking campaign finance laws and cheating New Yorkers. With today’s vote, that work is jeopardized by potential political interference in law enforcement investigations.”

Governor Cuomo, too, opposed the new regulations, expressing his opinion just before the board meeting, though it had been sought for weeks.

“‎We reviewed these draft regulations and believe they are unnecessary and ‎could harm the operations and the independence of the enforcement counsel's office,” Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “We don't support their adoption and, believe that today's vote should be delayed and members should go back to the drawing board to address these concerns. The Democratic members of the Board of Elections have been informed of our stance."

Spokespeople for Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not respond to requests for comment.

The enforcement counsel was created to independently deliberate election law violations, instead of leaving the job to the partisan board of elections. After Cuomo faced intense controversy for his shuttering of the Moreland Commission, interpreted by many as a reaction to investigations into his administration or people close to him, he and legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos (both now convicted of public corruption) fostered the creation of the enforcement counsel as a compromise.

Regardless, the members of the board criticized Sugarman, saying that her office was inadequately enforcing campaign finance law. Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the board, said that enforcement had “effectively stopped” since 2014, the year the enforcement counsel was created, in the areas of deficiencies and non-filings of campaign finance disclosures.

Kellner and other board members said that despite thousands of referrals to Sugarman, only a few dozen hearings had been commenced.

“It’s beyond me why there has not been public outrage at the fact that this has happened,” Kellner said, singling out good government groups for a lack of criticism. Kellner said that he had spoken to good government groups who were in support of the new rule, but did not say which ones.

"I think it's pretty clear that I'm fed up with the current process of the enforcement unit,” Kellner said. “I call upon people in the good government groups...to look at the numbers. Look at the numbers of non-filers, and to how enforcement counsel has handled those non-filers."

One of those government reform groups, Reinvent Albany, issued a statement Wednesday expressing opposition to “the sections of the proposed rules which create new procedures for the chief enforcement counsel to issue subpoenas to persons and committees being investigated for violations of Election or other laws.”

“We believe these procedures will slow or terminate important investigations of alleged violations of Election Law,” the statement continues. “The Board should not seek to undercut the independence of the chief enforcement counsel, who has investigated types of cases not previously taken on by the Election Law enforcement unit of the Board.”

Reinvent Albany supports, however, “the sections related to reporting enforcement activity but believe reporting should be made public and expanded to include all aspects of compliance and

enforcement by the State and county boards of election. The Board currently does not report much, if any, compliance and enforcement activity to the general public, and it should do so as is done by other state agencies while respecting the rights of the accused.”

Republican co-chair Peter Kosinski said that the six-month timetable was necessary in order for voters to know who they were voting for, and whether they had not committed election law violations; Sugarman had earlier said that the timeframe was “arbitrary.”

However, Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe, who submitted testimony against the new rule, said in an op-ed for loHud in July that board members had admitted in 2013 to only undertaking a single probe in the preceding four years. According to the 2015 Board of Elections annual report, Sugarman received board authorization to seek subpoenas in 19 probes in 2015, with nine cases being referred for possible prosecution. The 2017 report noted that Sugarman had received subpoena authorization in four cases and referred one for prosecution.

The 2013 annual report, before the enforcement counsel position was created, lists no subpoenas or prosecutions.

The board also voted on Wednesday to implement new regulations on political advertising on social media platforms, rules that follow the adoption of a new law passed in this year’s state budget. The new rules will ban foreign entities from purchasing digital ads on social media platforms, and will require ad buyers to register an independent expenditure committee; the board will require that IE’s name be displayed prominently on the ad, as having paid for it.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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State Board of Elections Curtails Power of Enforcement Counsel Wed, 08 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Attention Shifts to Assembly Hesitation on Accountability Bills Opposed by Cuomo http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7718-attention-shifts-to-assembly-hesitation-on-accountability-bills-opposed-by-cuomo http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7718-attention-shifts-to-assembly-hesitation-on-accountability-bills-opposed-by-cuomo govcuomo speakerheastie

Speaker Heastie, left, and Governor Cuomo (photo via the Governor's Office)


Amid open conflict with Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, the Republican-controlled state Senate recently passed a package of bills aimed at shedding light on taxpayer-funded economic development projects, among other reform measures. The move helped reignite attention on the legislation and put pressure on the Democrat-led Assembly to pass bills it has previously supported.

The legislation includes the Procurement Integrity Act, which would restore the state comptroller’s power to review contracts before they are officially awarded, and the “database of deals” bill, which would create a public catalogue of economic development awards and their results. Such grants run into hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, though they are often largely hidden from the public and have been at the center of recent corruption charges.

Assembly support for the measures was strong enough that earlier this year they were included in the chamber’s one-house budget, as they were in the Senate’s, though they were not included in the enacted state budget after negotiations among the Assembly, Senate, and governor.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie praised the Procurement Integrity Act last year, saying, “Another set of eyes will make people feel better that, yes, things are done correctly.”

However, the bill hasn’t made it out of the Assembly’s Government Operations Committee -- even though the committee’s chair, Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat from Buffalo, is the very lawmaker sponsoring the legislation. The bill has 37 co-sponsors in the 150-seat Assembly.

And as the June 20 scheduled end of legislative session approaches, the “database of deals” bill is stalled in the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Democrat Helene Weinstein of Brooklyn. That bill has 34 co-sponsors.

The reason for the hold-up? Advocates for the legislation are pointing at Cuomo, and his influence over Heastie.

“The speaker is jamming the bills because the governor wants him to,” said John Kaehny, executive director of government watchdog Reinvent Albany. “If those bills went to the floor of the Assembly, they would pass overwhelmingly.”

Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, a Democrat and main sponsor of the “database of deals” bill, echoed Kaehny’s comments.

“The governor does not want this bill moved,” the Buffalo-area representative told Gotham Gazette. “The question is, do Chair Weinstein and Speaker Heastie -- are they going to do the right thing or are they going to roll over and not move?”

Weinstein’s, Peoples-Stokes’, and Heastie’s offices did not respond to requests for comment. Questions around the bills, and whether Heastie and Assembly Democrats are willing to cross Cuomo, come as Democrats have a relatively recent “unity” pledge and coordinated campaign effort ahead of the fall elections.

The economic transparency legislation is seen by many as essential after corruption indictments centering on some of the governor’s most vaunted development programs.

Federal indictments in 2016 depicted a “pay-to-play” culture in which members of Cuomo’s inner circle received bribes or other perks in exchange for lucrative state contracts and special treatment meted out to developers in secret. Longtime Cuomo government aide and campaign manager Joseph Percoco was convicted of fraud and soliciting bribes in March. Former SUNY Polytechnic President Alain Kaloyeros heads to trial later this month for allegedly helping rig multimillion-dollar contracts.

Both the Procurement Integrity Act (S.3984/A.6355) and “database of deals” bill (S.6613/A.8175) aim to address perceived flaws in how Cuomo has overseen funding allocations. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Cuomo has in the past dismissed calls to restore the comptroller’s pre-clearance authority on the applicable state-funded contracts, which was stripped from the office during Cuomo’s first years as governor.

The projects Kaloyeros helped oversee, including a $750-million solar panel factory in Buffalo, were tied to SUNY Polytechnic. While Kaloyeros was allegedly scheming to reward developers who had donated to Cuomo’s re-election campaign, the state comptroller had no insight into the process; the governor and legislative leaders took away his power to pre-audit all state contracts over $250,000, including for SUNY- and CUNY-affiliated non-profits, in 2011 and 2012.

The Procurement Integrity Act, introduced by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, would restore that power.

"One of the reasons why folks thought they could get away with something is that they knew nobody was really looking, other than the people on the inside who turned out to be benefiting from this," DiNapoli told Syracuse.com last month.

The bill would also authorize the comptroller to approve SUNY Research Foundation contracts valued at over $1 million and would bar state-affiliated nonprofits from doling out contracts unless explicitly authorized by law. Such non-profits are at the center of the Percoco and Kaloyeros cases, with an entity called the Fort Schuyler Management Corporation awarding allegedly rigged bids.

Last year, Cuomo’s counsel told Gotham Gazette the clean-contracting legislation “does not address the issue.”

“The proposed legislation…is both burdensome and duplicative,” Alphonso David said. “The vast majority of these contracts are subject to OSC [Office of the State Comptroller] post-award oversight and these measures only add significant delays and increase costs for New York taxpayers.”

Still, basic information about the taxpayer-funded programs that Kaloyeros helped oversee, along with numerous other public-private projects, is not available to the public. The governor’s office publishes vague information about projects like the Computer Chip Commercialization Center in Utica, which has been variously described as generating 300 to 1,500 jobs and entailing investments from $100 million to $1.5 billion.

The “database of deals” would aim to fill in holes in public knowledge of such projects. It would list every taxpayer subsidy that corporations receive along with the number of jobs created and cost per job to taxpayers.

The Senate passed the “database” bill and the Procurement Integrity Act by votes of 62-0 and 60-2, respectively, on May 9. They were part of 11 total reform bills widely viewed as a snub to Cuomo, who fell out with the Senate’s Republican leadership amid political maneuvering in April.

“Because [Cuomo] went to war with the the Senate GOP, [Senate Majority Leader John] Flanagan put them up for a vote and -- no surprise to anybody -- they passed overwhelmingly,” Kaehny observed.

“It is imperative that the public trusts the actions of their public officials, especially when it comes to spending the people’s money,” Flanagan, of Long Island, said in a statement after the reform bills were approved. “This extensive package would help fix many of the issues that lead to corruption and the misuse of taxpayer funds.” While pressure from the Senate GOP is unlikely to sway Cuomo, recent weeks have seen the governor change his stance on a variety of issues in the face of the Democratic primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon. Observers have noted she’s pushed him left on policy like legalizing marijuana.

But while the actor and activist-turned-candidate has slammed Cuomo on corruption scandals in general, she is yet to make a cause of transparency and accountability reform legislation in particular.

Speaking on The Capitol Pressroom radio show on Monday, DiNapoli, a Democrat, voiced skepticism that the bills will pass the Assembly this session. Even if the Assembly approves the legislation, one of them -- the “database of deals” bill -- varies slightly from the Senate version and would have to be reconciled in conference.

“I’m the forever optimist, but it seems that the end of session is getting very bogged down and work’s not happening,” DiNapoli told host Susan Arbetter.

“My optimism is somewhat tempered by the seeming stalemate,” the comptroller added, referring to drama in the Senate. “At least, that’s how we ended last week. Let’s hope this week turns out a little differently.”

A number of advocacy and watchdog groups are organizing a final push for the “database of deals” and clean-contracting legislation, including a rally calling on Heastie to advance the bills on Thursday in Albany. Participants include Reinvent Albany, as well as Citizens Union, Common Cause NY,  League of Women Voters NYS, New York Public Interest Group (NYPRIG), and a variety of progressive advocacy organizations, such as Fiscal Policy Institute.

“There are many steps we should be taking, but the time is running out,” Assemblymember Schimminger said.

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by Shant Shahrigianh, Gotham Gazette
      

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Attention Shifts to Assembly Hesitation on Accountability Bills Opposed by Cuomo Wed, 06 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers Requiring More Reporting on Required Reporting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7700-city-council-considers-requiring-more-reporting-on-required-reporting http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7700-city-council-considers-requiring-more-reporting-on-required-reporting City Council Cabrera Vallone

CMs Cabrera, left, and Vallone (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


How does the New York City Council check city government agencies without legislating agency operations, which it sometimes does not have the power to do? Reporting bills.

The Council often passes legislation that requires an agency under the direction of the mayor to produce a report, like Local Law 47, which compels the NYPD to compile data on subway fare-beating arrests. This bill, and the NYPD’s response, quickly became another flash point in tensions between city agencies and the Council, which has mandated oversight responsibilities along with its legislative powers.

The intention behind the bulk of reporting bills -- which, like other legislation passed by the Council, are typically signed into law by the mayor -- is more transparency into agencies that then allows both the public and Council members additional insight into government function, effectiveness, and efficiency, and indications of operational or budgetary reforms that may be needed. But, reporting bills can also be onerous, requiring valuable resources at city agencies mandated to compile information, and there are questions about how often required reports are even produced or used by the Council.

Now, a new bill at the Council is aimed at bringing additional oversight and transparency to the totality of required reporting -- but that bill itself is the source of disagreement. A recent hearing on the bill, which is sponsored by City Council Member Fernando Cabrera and would add new requirements for an online database of all required reports, saw discussion of the bill as well as the practice of passing reporting bills. The bill would add new information about when reports are due and put public pressure on city agencies to produce required reports.

According to the listing for the bill on the Council website, the bill would require the city’s Department of Records and Information Services, “which is currently required to receive and post all reports required to be produced by local law or executive order on its website, to list all required reports, when they were last received and when they are next due.” It would also require DORIS to send a request “to any agency that does not transmit a required report, and would require the posting of such request on the website in lieu of the required report until such report is received.”

At the April 26 hearing, representatives of the mayor’s office and the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) testified in opposition to the bill, which also received a lukewarm public reception from some City Council members.

The bill currently has the sponsorship of only Council Member Cabrera, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, which held the hearing, at which other Council members voiced concerns over the Council’s tendency to pass reporting laws and whether or not such laws do more to inundate agencies than substantially help the Council or the public.

If enacted, the bill -- known as Intro. 828 -- would enhance the DORIS-run digital database of reports required by local laws, executive orders, or mayoral directives. Currently, DORIS maintains the Government Publications Portal; however, the scope of this portal is limited by a mandatory keyword search engine as well as the fact that it lacks some of the most recent reports from city agencies. For example, the portal does not provide any reports from the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) past the year 2014, despite reports being published as recently as this year.

Additionally, other recent reports by agencies such as the Department of Buildings, including those on gas utility risks or construction safety, or the Department of Criminal Justice, such as annual reports on jail population or crime rates, are similarly not accessible through the current portal.

DORIS and the Mayor’s Office of Operations cited unnecessary burden and premature planning as to why the bill should not be passed.

“With the continuous addition of legislated reports required of city agencies, we recognize the need to ensure strong administrative practices to support agency compliance,” said Emily Newman, the acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, at the hearing last month. “However, we do not believe that Intro. 828 identifies the most effective approach and that it is not in the city’s best interest to mandate a new process in advance of any relevant recommendations of the Report and Advisory Board Review Commission.”

The Report and Advisory Board Review Commission, which reviews reporting requirements and assesses the usefulness of such reports, among other objectives, was set to reconvene this month. The last time the commission met was in 2012, despite the city charter mandating that it has annual public meetings.

“Intro. 828, as drafted, includes requirements that would be onerous for DORIS to undertake in real-time,” Pauline Toole, the DORIS commissioner, said at the City Council hearing. “Some agencies submit reports on a weekly basis, some monthly, some quarterly, and updating the list for each submission would require extensive resources and, ultimately, not provide the public with a worthwhile service.” Toole said DORIS currently updates the site on a “regular basis.”

Toole also cited an increase in the number of reports submitted to the government publications portal, where over 21,000 reports have been submitted to the current DORIS portal today, a jump from 7,000 reports submitted in 2014.

Both Toole and Newman reaffirmed a desire to work on another possible solution in concert with the City Council in order to update the accessibility of all governmental reports online. Meanwhile, other concerns were additionally raised by Council members.

“I am as big on transparency as anything, but when we make demands out of agencies to do their jobs in other ways, I do worry that we are adding in so much onto them that is unfunded,” Council Member Keith Powers said at the hearing. “You know, we don’t fund new staff for that.”

Council Member Kalman Yeger also raised the concern of finances by considering what the potential savings would be if DORIS had a smaller annual quota for reports it must make available, which, according to Toole, currently stands at about 400 reports per year. “I’m curious to know how much we can save the taxpayers if we perhaps were to stop legislating the various agencies of this city to prepare information that is probably readily available by simply asking the agency to give the information out,” Yeger said at the hearing.

Alex Camarda, a senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, a government reform group focused on increased transparency, testified in support of the bill at the hearing – albeit, with some tweaks.

While the bill currently says that DORIS would send a letter of request of transmission to agencies ten days prior to a report’s deadline, and subsequently post that request on the website until the actual report is submitted, Camarda suggested that such a letter should be sent at the beginning of the fiscal year and that a seperate column listing all the agencies that did not yet transmit a report be created. Other proposed amendments to the bill include identifying which part of the charter administrative code requires the report as well as providing a brief summary of the report in the online database.

“We think government generally needs to move away from providing information that’s locked in static PDF reports and report data in an open, usable and dynamic form,” said Camarda.

Council Member Cabrera’s office did not respond to multiple requests to discuss the hearing and any modifications that he might consider making to the bill.

***
by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

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City Council Considers Requiring More Reporting on Required Reporting Tue, 29 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Charter Revision Commission Urged to Consider Tighter Donation Rules for City-Affiliated Nonprofits http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7654-charter-revision-commission-urged-to-consider-tighter-donation-rules-for-city-affiliated-nonprofits http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7654-charter-revision-commission-urged-to-consider-tighter-donation-rules-for-city-affiliated-nonprofits m bdb first lady chirlane

Mayor de Blasio & the Mayor's Fund (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


A government reform group is urging Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission to explore stronger restrictions on donations to nonprofits affiliated with city agencies, building on a raft of laws passed through the New York City Council and signed by the mayor in 2016, which are set to go into effect next year.

Reinvent Albany, an organization focused on government transparency and accountability, is advocating for greater disclosure requirements and lower limits for donations made to city-affiliated nonprofits by entities and individuals who have contracts and other business with the city and appear on its “doing business” database. One of the most prominent examples of a city nonprofit is the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, which carries out programming through public-private partnerships and raises millions in private funding to do so every year, and is currently chaired by de Blasio’s wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray.

Reinvent Albany will present its recommendations at a public hearing of the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission in Queens on Thursday.

The recommendations are an outgrowth of controversy involving several top elected officials and organizations, most recently in de Blasio’s first term, when he formed a nonprofit called the Campaign for One New York to help promote his political agenda, particularly his push for universal pre-kindergarten and a tax increase to fund it. The group accepted large donations from many wealthy donors and special interests, including labor unions and real estate developers, many of whom had business with the city and had also been backers of the mayor’s electoral campaign. At the time, electoral campaigns were far more restricted in donations they could accept from entities with city business -- no such limits applied to elected official-affiliated nonprofits.

Though it wasn’t required, the mayor disclosed the group’s donors voluntarily every six months. But, the entire scheme invited criticism, and its efforts helped trigger a federal investigation of the mayor and his associates. The investigation eventually closed without charges being filed, but de Blasio and his team were criticized by federal prosecutors as well as the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

In response, the City Council passed a bill to rein in donations to nonprofits affiliated with elected officials, bringing “doing business” donation limits in line with those that apply to electoral campaigns -- just $400 for mayoral candidates -- and putting those nonprofits under the jurisdiction of the Conflicts of Interest Board. In 2019, the COIB will start to issue detailed reports of such nonprofits, including their donors and how much they contributed. The bill, spearheaded by then-Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, was signed by de Blasio, who called it the right thing to do despite claiming he had done nothing illegal or unethical with the Campaign for One New York.

But the new rules do not cover nonprofits affiliated with city agencies, which, Reinvent Albany points out, number in the hundreds and currently have no “doing business” restrictions.

“We’re increasingly concerned about nonprofits that have existed for years affiliated with city agencies, and donors giving to these nonprofits and having business with those same city agencies,” said Alex Camarda, Reinvent Albany’s senior policy advisor, in a phone interview. The lack of regulation could create the “perception of undue influence, if not actual conflict,” he said. With the mayor having formed a Charter Revision Commission with the express mandate to look at campaign finance reform, the issue appears to be right up the commission’s alley, if not necessarily something de Blasio had in mind.

To close several holes, Reinvent Albany recommends that all donations to nonprofits affiliated with elected officials be capped. The law currently only applies the $400 doing-business cap to those nonprofits that spend more than 10 percent of their budget on public-facing communications featuring the elected official. Camarda said the limit could be higher, though he did not suggest a specific amount.

Further, as Camarda mentioned, the group is calling for expanding donation restrictions to all city agencies, public benefit corporations, public authorities, and local development corporations. “A company that does business with the city could give millions” toward a city agency under the current law, Camarda said. “That’s where we feel the [Council’s law] doesn’t go far enough.

The COIB requires that agencies report any private donations above $5,000 made either to the agency or to an affiliated nonprofit. Those donations are reported in broad ranges that obscure how much an agency has received. For instance, The Fund for Public Schools, a nonprofit tied to the Department of Education, reported more than $4 million in donations from May through September 2017, per the latest disclosures available, including exact donations though it was not required. Reinvent Albany is also pushing for disclosure of all donations in their exact amounts, and on the city’s Open Data portal to allow for easy data analysis.

Finally, the group is calling for the city’s ethics laws to apply to volunteers who are involved in major policy work and senior appointments and that are also fundraising for nonprofits affiliated with electeds. Though their testimony does not say so, the recommendation clearly alludes to First Lady McCray, who has played an increasingly prominent role in de Blasio’s administration, appearing with the mayor at major personnel announcements and continuing to roll out aspects of her main policy and program initiatives. In late 2016, amid investigations into the mayor’s administration, Politico New York reported that the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City was more thoroughly vetting donors to avoid potential conflicts. McCray recently told Gotham Gazette and City Limits that she does not worry much about conflicts given that lawyers handle those issues. The Fund provides assistance for programs at 30 city agencies and has played a prominent role in the administration’s ThriveNYC mental health initiative, which was spearheaded by McCray.

“We do not oppose per diem or unpaid volunteers serving on city boards, task forces and commissions, much like the members of this commission,” the Reinvent Albany testimony reads. “But they should not also be fundraising simultaneously for nonprofits affiliated with elected officials.”

The group acknowledged that there were nonetheless nonprofit organizations that may not be covered by any changes they recommend, such as organizations that receive large sums in city funding and whose board members are donors to city elected officials.

“Many of these nonprofits do important work that helps the city,” Camarda said. “We don’t want them to become avenues for companies and wealthy donors to circumvent the campaign finance system.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Charter Revision Commission Urged to Consider Tighter Donation Rules for City-Affiliated Nonprofits Thu, 03 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7547-city-council-hears-bill-on-charter-revision-commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7547-city-council-hears-bill-on-charter-revision-commission Fernando Cabrera

Council Member Fernando Cabrera (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


A day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced initial appointments to a Charter Revision Commission that he is convening to examine the city’s campaign finance laws, Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified before the City Council on their own alternative proposal to create a Commission to examine the structure of city government.

The Charter is the city’s seminal governing document, laying out the powers and functions of every level of city government. It is also a living document, and state law allows the mayor to create a 15-member Charter Revision Commission under his executive authority and also gives the City Council power to create one through legislation. Past mayors have availed of this power, some more than once. In February, de Blasio announced at his State of the City address that he intended to call a commission that could put proposals on the ballot for the November general election.

On Friday, speaking before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, James and Brewer advanced their proposal, which they had put before the Council in December and which City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently signed on to as a lead co-sponsor. (The hearing had been on the schedule all week, perhaps explaining the timing of the mayor’s Thursday announcement.)

As opposed to the mayor’s commission, where he appoints all 15 members, the James-Brewer bill would allow other elected officials a say in the process. The mayor would get four appointments, as would the City Council speaker. The five borough presidents, the public advocate, and the comptroller would each get to choose one member. An updated version of the bill grants the Council speaker the power to appoint the commission’s chair, a change that coincided with Johnson signing on as a co-sponsor and the Council pushing ahead with Friday’s hearing.

James, in her opening statement, lauded the mayor’s intent in creating a commission but said it suffers from the same problems as previous commissions: “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.” During his State of the City and since, de Blasio has indicated he wants his commission to focus on campaign finance and electoral reform, though he has acknowledged that by law the commission can look at the entirety of the charter.

“The bill you will consider today...is a vehicle for a truly democratic and holistic process,” James said. Although both James and Brewer spoke of changes to the charter that they would be glad to see -- for instance, a stronger role for the Council in city budgeting, a greater voice for communities in land use decisions, enhanced oversight of city agencies -- they emphasized that those were not mandates that their proposed commission would be charged with. (Perhaps the only issue that James said she would not want on the table is changes to term limits for elected officials.) Rather, they would empower a commission to deliberate on the entire charter with ample time to consider the ramifications of any changes -- their commission would make proposals to go on the ballot in 2019.

“Those discussions will not be had if the mayor simply appoints a slate of proxies and tells them what conclusions to reach,” said James, a Democrat like de Blasio, Brewer, and Johnson who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021.

James and Brewer also sought to dispel the notion that the commission they are proposing would competing with the mayor’s, pointing to the 2019 timeline and noting that they invited the mayor to join their effort. “This does not need to be a zero-sum game, or even a competition,” James said.

Brewer, in particular, emphasized that past commissions had been formed by mayors to fulfil particular agendas and that appointees of the mayor were unlikely to consider proposals that could curb, in any way, the power of the mayor’s office. “I think all of our ideas would benefit from the give and take and compromise that would be necessary in a commission not controlled by any one elected official,” she said.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the committee, praised the bill and said he supported it because it was a “far better approach” than the mayor’s. “It will be a charter revision for everyone,” said the Bronx Democrat.   

But, Council Member Kalman Yeger, who was just elected to the Council in November, wasn’t sure about the proposal. “My perspective is that I have some discomfort with outsourcing my work, if you will, to an unelected body of 15 people,” he said, noting that though the speaker may get appointments on a commission, the other 50 Council members would not. He also raised concerns about proposing ballot referenda in 2019, an off-year in the election cycle when voter turnout is expected to be extremely low.

James pushed back against those concerns. “I believe we should democratize this process,” she said, acknowledging that all the stakeholders in the commission would have to work hard to engage voters and generate interest in the revision process.

Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, also pointed out what is most ironic about the two commissions: that they are being proposed by Democrats who ardently opposed holding a Constitutional Convention to examine the state constitution, which was a question on the ballot last November. Both Brewer and James conceded that though they opposed the ConCon, as it was colloquially called, the charter revision process has sufficient checks and balances, particularly with diverse appointees on a commission.

James also noted that one of the big fears about the ConCon was about the individuals behind the curtain who would control it, which isn’t the case with their proposed commission. “There is no Wizard of Oz in this particular process,” she said. “It’s the Manhattan borough president and Letitia James, who you both know and work with.”

Representatives for the four other borough presidents also testified in support of the bill, as did a number of government reform groups and advocates.

Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager at Citizen Action of New York, encouraged the Council to set aside funds for a public education campaign to engage voters in the charter revision process. The bill currently calls for the Commission to hold at least one hearing in each of the five boroughs and to conduct extensive outreach to civic and community leaders.

Fritz also advocated for amending the bill’s prohibition on appointing lobbyists to the commission, insisting that it should ensure that only lobbyists employed by for-profit entities should be barred, and that those who advocate for non-profits should be allowed to serve. Otherwise, “it would exclude virtually the entire New York City good-government community, including the sorts of advocates who are testifying before you today,” he said.

Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs, has also testified before an expert panel of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On Friday, he emphasized that any new commission should “articulate clear and compelling goals” related to broad subject areas such as governmental structure and land use, without which it would be directionless. He also said the commission should look at the unfinished business of past commissions, and “beware the unintended consequences,” though he didn’t offer specifics.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the bill was “skeletal” and should add language to ensure that staff of those elected officials making appointments should be excluded from working for the commission. She also questioned why Speaker Johnson would be allowed to appoint the chair of the proposed commission, as opposed to the commission members choosing their own leader.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, had a few prescriptions for a potential commission. He said the speaker and mayor should jointly appoint the chair of the commission;  and stressed that the commission should abide by the state’s Freedom of information and Open Meetings laws, and should require public posting of events, materials, reports and archives.

He also suggested that the bill include language requiring commission members and staff to solely use government emails to carry out their work and that any lobbying directed at the commission should be publicly reported.  

Camarda also encouraged the Council and mayor to work together on one commission, warning that two commissions could result in “conflicting policy, public confusion, excessive politicization, inefficiency, and litigation.”

“There is no doubt two commissions convened in the same year would be unprecedented in recent memory and create a high degree of uncertainty,” he said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission Fri, 16 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Sunlight for Subsidies http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7542-sunlight-for-subsidies http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7542-sunlight-for-subsidies andrew cuomo buffalo

Gov. Cuomo in Buffalo (photo via The Governor's Office)


New York State and local governments spend over $8 billion annually in taxpayer money, giving subsidies to businesses through tax abatements and credits, low or no interest loans, grants, and capital investments like building factories. Eight billion dollars could otherwise pay for the MTA Subway Action Plan in addition to the entire 5-year capital plan for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Instead it is awarded to wealthy companies like Alcoa, IBM, Goldman Sachs, Tesla, Verizon and JP Morgan Chase.  

While spending billions, Governor Cuomo and Empire State Development have not acted on common-sense transparency measures that provide basic information taxpayers deserve to know: the types of benefits companies are receiving; the cost to taxpayers; and the number and cost of jobs created or retained.  

Their inaction comes as the governor’s former senior advisor Joe Percoco was convicted on three federal corruption counts, including solicitation of bribes, in the first of two trials involving the alleged rigging of contracts tied to upstate mega-development projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars in business subsidies.

New Yorkers deserve to know more about economic development money being spent, including where it is going and what the money is actually producing.

Democratic Assemblymember Robin Schimminger and Republic Senator Tom Croci have introduced legislation (A.8175/S.6613-B), which would create a “Database of Deals” listing all projects awarded to a particular company, detailing subsidies received, and what New Yorkers are receiving for their return on investment in the taxpayer cost per job. The bill passed out of committees in both houses last year but never made it to the floor for a vote.

The Assembly and Senate each included a similar proposal in one-house budget resolutions passed on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the New York City Council passed legislation in December codifying its own “Database of Deals” established by the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC.) EDC had already made economic development in New York City more transparent by publishing a map showing major projects and their essential data across the five boroughs.  

A state “Database of Deals” is fundamental transparency modeled on existing disclosure in numerous states of different political stripes including Florida, Maryland and Indiana. This reflects the near-unanimity on the need for greater transparency and accountability of business subsidies.

While states fervently compete to give taxpayer subsidies to the world’s wealthiest corporation, Amazon, for its second headquarters, the way in which public money is awarded is being challenged from the left and the right. Nationally, the progressive labor-backed Good Jobs First has long advocated for economic development accountability while the conservative Koch Foundation is seeking proposals to “identify and develop measures to provide transparency and accountability to corporate welfare.” In New York, groups as ideologically varied as the Working Families Party, Citizens Budget Commission, and Empire Center have questioned the state’s economic development practices.  

But Governor Cuomo need look no further than his own 2013 Tax Reform and Fairness Commission to understand the need for transparency and accountability of business subsidies.  In a report written for the commission entitled New York State Business Tax Credits: Analysis and Evaluation, the authors concluded, “There is, however, no conclusive evidence from research studies conducted since the mid-1950s to show that business tax incentives have an impact on net economic gains to the states above and beyond the level that would have been attained absent the incentives. In addition, business tax incentives violate principles of good tax policy and tenets of good budgeting.”

Despite the questioning of their efficacy, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Budget proposes over $2 billion in new spending and tax credits on business subsidies. Last year, the Assembly and Senate wrote the governor a blank check, increasing economic development spending without passing any legislation that would make the spending more transparent or measure the effectiveness of whether, and which, business subsidies work best.  

This year, Reinvent Albany and fiscal and transparency watchdog groups are urging the governor and Legislature to act on four measures to make taxpayer spending on business subsidies more transparent and accountable, including the “Database of Deals.”

They should act swiftly to restore the public trust, which has been battered by federal indictments and sordid accounts of insider dealing at trial.

***
Alex Camarda is senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @alex_camarda and @ReinventAlbany.

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

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Sunlight for Subsidies Wed, 14 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Reform Groups Launch 'Restore Public Trust' Campaign http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7405-reform-groups-launch-restore-public-trust-campaign http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7405-reform-groups-launch-restore-public-trust-campaign Cuomo Long Island flag

(photo: The Governor's Office)


New York’s leading government reform groups reacted to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State agenda on Thursday in Albany, holding a press conference to urge the governor and legislative leaders to adopt a package of reforms to help restore public confidence in state government.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Cuomo failed to pass any of the reforms he promised in the wake of the alleged bid-rigging schemes associated with his signature economic development programs, government ethics and contracting reform got barely a mention in Cuomo’s 92-minute Wednesday address. His 2018 policy book includes many of the same reform measures included in his 2017 version, such as closure of the LLC loophole, limits on outside income for state legislators, the creation of a chief procurement officer, and expansion of the oversight of the state inspector general. Critics point out that the latter two measures would not be significant reforms given they would both be under the governor.

Citing the six upcoming corruption trials of former high-ranking public officials that begin this month, representatives from New York Public Interest Group, Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause/NY, and League of Women Voters outlined specific actions they believe must be taken to prevent corruption and clean up state government.

The coalition is urging state leaders to approve a package of reforms, titled “Restore the Public’s Trust,” which includes procurement reform, transparency in lump-sum budget appropriations, an end to “pay-to-play,” closure of the LLC Loophole, strict limits on outside income for legislators, and the empowerment of “independent, effective, well-resourced” watchdog agencies.

The courtroom dramas that are bound to cast a shadow over this legislative session touch on both the executive and legislative branches, as well as state and local government. Two of the trials directly touch Gov. Cuomo’s inner circle of aides, allies, and donors, while the two former legislative leaders, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, will be retried after their corruption convictions were overturned due to a new Supreme Court ruling.

The trial of Joseph Percoco, former executive deputy secretary to Gov. Cuomo, is scheduled to begin January 22; former State Senator George Maziarz’s trial will start February 5; former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano will be tried beginning March 12, and former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros’ trial is set to begin May 15.

“Pay-to-play is a major issue in New York State because of lump sum appropriations in the budget and because of a lack of transparency in the procurement process,” said Jennifer Wilson of League of Women Voters at Thursday’s news conference. “In 2016, we learned that a lot of the RFPs in Buffalo Billion were people who gave huge donations to the governor. Other states have pay to play laws; we can’t allow that in New York State.

Especially pointing to the Silver and Skelos sagas, the civic groups are calling on legislative leaders to act.

“LLCs loom large in the Skelos and Silver cases,” said NYPIRG Executive Director Blair Horner. “Glenwood Management pumped in more than $10 million into campaign contributions.”

“The Senate has to be brought along; there’s no way around it,” Horner said, referring to the fact that campaign finance reforms are more popular in the Democrat-led Assembly than the Republican-led Senate.

The cases the groups mentioned are just the latest in a seemingly endless barrage of corruption scandals plaguing state and local government, earning New York its reputation as one of the most corrupt states in the nation. At least 33 legislators have left office since 2000 due to corruption-related issues.

Good government groups have been pushing for some of these measures for years, and to some might sound like a broken record, as state Senate leadership has continued to block campaign finance reform and the governor has opposed the type of procurement reform being called for by the groups, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and others. But after last session, good government leaders say there have been some encouraging signs on the transparency front, citing legislation from Republican Senator John DeFrancisco, of Syracuse, that progressed through the finance committee, but ultimately did not make it to the floor of the Senate.

“Last year we saw some movement on the clean contracting bill from the Comptroller, and on the database of deals, and the governor’s put forth his proposal on prohibiting vendors from making campaign contributions during the bidding process,” said Alex Camarda, of ReInvent Albany.

  • As presented by the groups, the Restore Public Trust agenda, which they say will be the basis of a “campaign,” includes:
    Clean Contracting. Basic accountability measures that would result in an open, ethical, and efficient way to award government contracts appropriations, an area which was identified as a key problem in the indictments of the governor’s top aides.
  • Real Budget Transparency. Make lump-sum budget appropriations and the resulting expenditures fully transparent.
  • Ban “Pay to Play.” Strict “pay to play” restrictions on state vendors. The U.S. Attorney’s charges that $800m in state contracts were rigged to benefit campaign contributors to the governor underscores the need to strictly limit contributions from those seeking state contracts.
  • Close the “LLC Loophole.” Current practice allows essentially unlimited campaign contributions via Limited Liability Companies. LLCs have been at the heart of some of Albany’s largest scandals.
  • Strict Limits on Outside Income. Real limits on the outside income for legislators and the executive branch. Moonlighting by top legislative leaders and top members of the executive branch has triggered indictments by the federal prosecutors.
  • Effective Watchdogs. Truly independent, effective, well-resourced, ethics enforcement agencies are needed (e.g. JCOPE, SBOE, ABO).

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

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Reform Groups Launch 'Restore Public Trust' Campaign Thu, 04 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
With Phase One Going on Trial, Cuomo’s Buffalo Investment Moves Ahead with Broken Reform Promises http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7353-with-phase-one-going-on-trial-cuomo-s-buffalo-investment-moves-ahead-with-changes-and-broken-reform-promises http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7353-with-phase-one-going-on-trial-cuomo-s-buffalo-investment-moves-ahead-with-changes-and-broken-reform-promises Cuomo jobs western new york

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office)


As federal corruption trials loom for several associates of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the administration is forging ahead with Buffalo Billion II, the second phase in an ambitious plan to revitalize Buffalo’s beleaguered economy and help transform Upstate New York into a hub of technology innovation and jobs. The first phase saw the massive alleged bid-rigging and kickback scandal that rocked state politics when outlined in September 2016 by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office and will loom over Cuomo’s 2018 reelection campaign.

In April, the state Legislature approved $500 million in budgetary funds for the Buffalo Billion II, which marks a shift in the investment in Western New York. The initial Buffalo Billion program, touted by Cuomo as a major success in revitalizing that city despite the scandal, poured the bulk of the $1 billion in funds into a controversial solar panel factory, while Buffalo Billion II investments are diverse and largely infrastructural, including the development of waterfront and rail access, tourism, and job training initiatives.

Critics -- including lawmakers, financial analysts and good government groups -- acknowledge steps the Cuomo administration has since taken to improve the contracting process, but say they remain skeptical of the Buffalo Billion extension and how it is administered. Calling its approval “a blank check” to the governor with little oversight, they question why these small projects are not being funded through traditional means -- like via local governments -- and whether these investments are tax dollars well-spent. Meanwhile, other promises the governor made in the wake of the scandal were abandoned by Cuomo, who had promised unilateral action that did not materialize.

“There’s two problems here. One is the corruption problem, which is obviously paramount in the upcoming trials,” said David Friedfel, director of state affairs for Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog. “But a second problem that we’ve voiced concern about, which is sort of getting lost in the conversation, is that a lot of these are a bad investment of state taxpayer dollars.”

The Buffalo solar panel factory, which received about $750 million in state subsidies, as well as a state-funded nanotechnology hub in Syracuse, are at the center of last year’s sweeping probe by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office, which ensnared nine men -- including two who had been powerful state officials -- whose trials may overshadow the 2018 legislative session in Albany, set to begin in January.

On January 8, jury selection is scheduled to start in the trial of Cuomo’s former close confidant and aide Joe Percoco, along with three construction and energy executives who had business before the state and are accused of arranging bribes for Percoco and his wife in exchange for Percoco’s government influence.

On May 15, jury selection for the trial of former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President and CEO Alain Kaloyeros, whom Cuomo empowered and praised over several years as a key architect of his upstate economic development efforts, and executives from LP Ciminelli, a construction company tied to the factory and Cuomo’ campaign coffers, will commence.

Two Syracuse developers, Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi, who run COR Development, will be defendants in both trials. Eight defendants in total have pleaded not guilty, while a ninth, lobbyist and former Cuomo ally Todd Howe, pleaded guilty to numerous felony charges and is cooperating with prosecutors. While Cuomo was not directly implicated in the federal complaint, prosecutors note that he received large campaign donations from the business people involved in the scheme, often at Howe’s behest. The governor also oversaw the economic development programs that were allegedly taken advantage of and dismissed calls for greater independent contracting oversight, both before and after the scandal broke, though he did make some relatively minor adjustments.

In November 2016, two months after the charges were outlined, Cuomo expressed dismay over the scandals that were threatening to undercut his signature economic development programs and vowed to quickly strengthen oversight and ethics, though all under his purview. Notably, Empire State Development, the state’s economic development authority, would immediately begin to oversee projects run by entities associated with SUNY Polytechnic, Fort Schuyler Management Corp. and Fuller Road Management Corp., state-affiliated nonprofits created to more quickly disburse economic development funding that Kaloyeros is accused of using to illegally direct contracts.

“I believe this public trust and integrity issue must be addressed – directly and forthrightly. I don’t believe in denial as a life strategy. I believe you must face your problems, no matter how unpleasant, and do your best to resolve them,” Cuomo said in a long statement outlining his response to the scandal and news of problems at CUNY. “It is time for action, not words.”

Cuomo promised a series of actions and proposals, some that would need legislative approval and others he categorized as “steps we can take immediately.” Most of those promised reforms did not materialize.

In the November 2016 statement, Cuomo vowed, “I will order my campaign and my party not to accept campaign contributions from companies once a Request for Proposals has been announced, and for six months following the conclusion for the winner,” adding, “I believe the other state offices and the legislature should do the same and will propose such a law.” According to Cuomo’s office, his pledge was not followed through on.

While his campaign did not follow through, in January of this year, Cuomo outlined his ethics platform and proposed creating such bans for all government leaders overseeing contracting processes. It did not pass.

In November 2016, under other ‘immediate’ actions he would be taking, Cuomo acknowledged that “[t]he contracting systems at CUNY and SUNY have become the focus of US Attorney and IG inquiries in the past several months. To insure more permanent supervision, I will create and appoint separate Inspector Generals for both SUNY and CUNY.” These IGs were not created.

Cuomo also said in November 2016, “I will also appoint a Chief Procurement Officer for the Executive branch. That person will be charged with reviewing all state contracts, with an eye towards eliminating any wrongdoing, conflicts of interest or collusion. And just so there is no confusion, I do mean all contracts.” The governor did not appoint such an officer.

Instead of immediate action on these promises, they were turned into proposals in Cuomo’s 2017 agenda that did not pass in the April budget or June legislative agreements that followed. Asked about the lack of follow-through on the promises from November 2016, Cuomo’s office pointed to the Legislature. In the November 2016 statement Cuomo had classified the proposals among “actions I can take under my own authority."

Enacted or not, critics say that these appointments would make no substitute for outside oversight.

Two months later, during the Buffalo leg of his six-stop 2017 State of the State tour, Cuomo made no mention of the scandals or his ethics platform, painting a rosy picture of his administration’s efforts to revitalize the city, and vowing to “double down” on the projects.

“Buffalo Billion squared because it takes Buffalo Billion I and it takes Buffalo Billion II, and there’s a synergy between the two of them that will be exponential,” Cuomo said. “The principles of it are going to be to build on Western New York’s renaissance, which you’ve all accomplished already, help more small businesses in downtown areas and strategically invest in regional industries.”

As the next phase of those efforts unfold with the backdrop of the corruption trials, the new Buffalo Billion does appear less vulnerable to bid-rigging, in part due to a series of voluntary fixes adopted by Cuomo’s administration, and also because of increased scrutiny from the press and government watchdogs.

The shift of economic development projects from under SUNY-affiliated nonprofits to Empire State Development, which can be audited by the comptroller’s office, is a key step, and ESD, a public authority, has modified its own contracting protocols based on recommendations by state-contracted consultants from Guidepost Solutions. (Cuomo announced he was hiring Guidepost to do a review soon after the scandal broke.)

Asked for comment about the steps the administration has taken to address the corruption scandal in the Buffalo Billion and which Cuomo promises has followed through on as Buffalo Billion II moves ahead, a spokesperson for Cuomo provided some background information but pointed Gotham Gazette to prior public statements by state officials.

“We share your goal of preventing fraud, waste and abuse. ESD has taken substantive steps to strengthen applicable processes to address the concerns you have raised and to implement your recommendations, including our support of strengthened governance provided to non-profits associated with SUNY,” Zemsky of ESD wrote in a letter sent to Guidepost Solutions’ head Bart Schwartz in April.

According to the governor's office, those Guidepost-suggested changes include reforms related to procurement, construction, property and equipment acquisition, and grant compliance. More specifically, there are new controls and procedures to improve payment processing and project management‎, with a focus on project timelines, billing, budgeting, documentation verification, payroll, and how RFPs and bids are evaluated.

There has been little contract or spending activity related to Buffalo Billion II in 2017, according to records provided by the governor’s office, but a handful of relatively smaller projects have made it past the planning stage. A new building for University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine, is expected to be completed in December and will house an incoming class of students for the semester commencing January 2018. A welcome center on Grand Island, which is expected to become a vital component of New York's tourism industry, drawing in $100 billion and “supporting more than 900,000 jobs,” is expected to be fully constructed and in use by August 2018, according to Cuomo’s office.

Government watchdogs and reformers commend the government’s efforts to create more accountability for these projects but say they are no replacement for long-term, independent oversight.

The watchdogs call for a “database of deals,” which would digitally compile every entity receiving funds from the state along with where each dollar is going; dramatic overhaul of the campaign finance system to eliminate the appearance or reality of pay-to-play; and a bill to restore the powers of the state comptroller to review procurement contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and Office of General Services before they are approved. That power was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011, in part to expedite the flow of economic development funds aimed at upstate revitalization, a move that was criticized intensely when the corruption revelations came to light.

"As with all of the economic development programs subject to our review, we are closely looking at payment requests,” said Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for DiNapoli's office in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The problem is not all contracts and payments are subject to our review, which is why State Comptroller DiNapoli is pushing for major procurement reforms to improve oversight."

These long-sought reforms appeared to have some momentum in the 2017 legislative session, but wound up going nowhere due to pushback from Cuomo, even as more economic development money was approved.

There is less pushback against Buffalo Billion II, in part because the state projects involved are less controversial and more diverse than those announced in 2012. At that time, many questioned the state’s decision to spend $750 million on the SolarCity manufacturing plant that made a splash when it was purchased by Tesla’s Elon Musk, but has failed to the deliver the promised jobs. However, those watching Albany, and Buffalo, say questions remain about why the state is overseeing projects typically done by a local development authority or industrial development authority.

“In Buffalo, you have the state economic development corporation calling the shots on dinky expenditures on small real estate and street improvement projects,” said John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, a watchdog group that has focused on economic development spending, especially upstate. “Is Buffalo Billion II a good investment compared to traditional government spending on clean water, road repair and public transit?”

Kaehny added that it is still preferable that the government make many small bets on small businesses, which is the emphasis of Buffalo Billion II, rather than “rolling the dice on giant, high risk, corporate handouts like Buffalo Billion I did with Tesla, Riverbend.”

Cuomo, a Democrat who has said he’s seeking a third term in 2018 and appears to be considering a run for president in 2020, may see Buffalo as an opportunity to shape his national image as a leader who successfully resuscitated one of America’s largest, long-suffering post-industrial cities -- succeeding where many others have failed. Though that narrative is likely to be complicated by the corruption scandal, with more to be determined by the trials set to begin in 2018.

The governor has called his work in Buffalo successful, pointing to a declining unemployment rate in the formerly industrial city, a rate that dropped from 7.9 percent in October 2010 to a 15-year-low of 4.9 by October 2016, and there is a chorus of voices backing him up. But Western New York’s job growth continues to lag behind the national average.

Part of the boom is related to an increase in construction jobs. For the five-year period ending in 2015, the number of construction jobs in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls Metro Area rose by 10.1 percent, an all-time record, according to Cuomo’s office, and by 9.3 percent in Erie County. The state investment has generated buzz and created an air of optimism and excitement for both Buffalonians and outsiders, including companies that have eyed the state’s second largest city. The city has recently seen investments from General Motors, Geico, Goldman Sachs, General Mills, Sumitomo Rubber, and Moog and Entrepreneur Magazine recently ranked Buffalo second in the nation for start-up communities, according to the governor’s office.

The governor and his aides also say young people are flocking back to Buffalo: the number of young adults ages 20 to 34 in the Buffalo-Niagara region has increased by 8.3 percent since 2010.

Still, lawmakers whose districts should benefit from the funds have critiques of both phases of the program. Assembly Member Raymond Walter, a Republican from Amherst, has been a vocal critic of the Legislature’s approval of the Buffalo Billion II and has joined calls for reforms in the wake of the the 2016 scandal. While acknowledging that Western New York has been infused with optimism and entrepreneurship, Walter says he attributes some of the economic prosperity to initiatives that predate Cuomo.

“My biggest concerns are, from what I've seen, is an inability to actually provide any data that shows that the programs are working,” he said of the initial Buffalo Billion program, noting that SolarCity was initially intended to house many types of industries before it became a solar panel factory. add

“The idea all along was we don't want a silver bullet, there's not a silver bullet solution to the economic woes of Western New York. We can't just have one big project, but that's exactly what this is turned into,” said Walter, who got in a heated back and forth with ESD head Howard Zemsky last month at an Assembly hearing on the progress of Buffalo Billion and other economic development programs.

The governor’s office says it is creating a “comprehensive and diverse portfolio of investments that collectively is driving the future of Buffalo’s continuing economic recovery.”

But while Buffalo Billion II may provide more tangible investments into the area, Walter questioned why the funds were not lined out by project in the 2017 budget, and criticized the opaque process through which it was passed.

“We're giving a blank check to the governor, to the Empire State Development, to whoever is going to be administering these funds,” he said. “So yeah, I still have great concern because we've given up all legislative authority over how this money is going to be spent.”

Others, like Democratic Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, of Buffalo, says she and her constituents welcome the investment from the state. While she recognizes concerns, Peoples-Stokes said she has witnessed a dramatic change in the long-struggling city in terms of opportunity, entrepreneurship, and investment from major companies, as well as college students choosing to remain in Buffalo’s downtown after graduation.

“For me, at the end of the day, to see economic development dollars have a meaningful impact in the core of our city, I’m satisfied with that,” she said. “Because for years, literally years -- this is not my first go around, I’ve been here for 15 years -- I’ve never seen the type of resources put into Buffalo as we’ve seen under Governor Cuomo.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated the trial date of the LP Ciminelli executives.

Note: this story has been updated with more information on the reforms adopted from the Guidepost recommendations.

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With Phase One Going on Trial, Cuomo’s Buffalo Investment Moves Ahead with Broken Reform Promises Thu, 07 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000