Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/491 Wed, 24 Apr 2019 10:23:25 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8373-candidates-for-queens-district-attorney-positions-march-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8373-candidates-for-queens-district-attorney-positions-march-debate Gotham Gazette:

3/12 Queens DA debate (photo: @alyssaguilera)


The candidates for Queens District Attorney are becoming increasingly clear about where they stand on key criminal justice issues and how they would run the office if elected later this year. Queens is home to its first competitive district attorney election in decades, with long-time District Attorney Richard Brown set to retire and a crowded Democratic primary set for June 25. The general election will be in November.

There are seven candidates currently running, all in the Democratic primary, and six of them met last week for a fast-paced and detail-oriented debate sponsored by the “Queens for DA Accountability” coalition, made up of many community and advocacy groups, hosted at CUNY Law School in Long Island City, and moderated by Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout and Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max.

The candidates for the borough’s top prosecutorial and law enforcement position spoke to roughly 200 attendees and others watching a live-stream, explaining their qualifications for the job and stances on a wide variety of policy issues, some of which they would have control over as district attorney, others that they would be able to influence. Queens, home to more than 2.4 million people, is known as the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the country.

Several questions at the forum were asked by community leaders, on topics ranging from the school-to-prison pipeline to police accountability, such as Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by police in Queens, and Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker, who have affiliations with groups in the sponsoring coalition.

Six of the seven candidates were in attendance. Mina Malik was sick and unable to participate in the forum, though she released a video on Twitter saying she was sorry to miss it and looked forward to engaging with those participating in the event. The six candidates present at the debate were Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Gregory Lasak, Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves.

[For background on the candidates and the race, read: ‘We’re in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Become the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda]

As they have at other race events, in their campaign materials, and during interviews, the candidates largely agreed that the Queens District Attorney’s office is in serious need of change, in a general sense of modernizing its practices and culture, but also on key practices. The candidates also mostly found broad agreement at the debate that change is needed on a wide variety of topics like cash bail, sex work prosecutions, Rikers Island, and what to do about police misconduct, but the candidates often disagreed on the solutions. In an email exchange with Gotham Gazette, Malik provided her answers to debate questions, which are also included below.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Vision for the Office
At the start of the forum, the candidates were asked how they envision the DA’s office and how it would work under them.

Cabán, a public defender, said she would change the “metrics of success” for the office, claiming there is currently “a system based on gamesmanship” favoring convictions over justice. Instead, she would focus on lowering incarceration and recidivism. Katz, the Queens borough president, envisions the district attorney’s office as a leadership position and that her primary responsibility would be implementing policies and reforms.

Lancman, a City Council member, called the office “more than just a place that processes cases that police bring” and “responsible for public safety in Queens.” He said he would decline to prosecute people with mental illnesses and drug addiction and focus on preventing crime.

Nieves, a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office, said the DA’s job is to protect residents and know how and when to prosecute cases. Lugo, an attorney and former prosecutor, cited her campaign theme “true justice for all,” and said the officeholder needed to understand “complexities of the whole system” and “prioritize prosecutions.”

Lasak, who worked in the Queens DA office for many years before becoming a judge -- a position he resigned from to run this year -- called the DA the “chief law enforcement officer for the borough,” and a position that works with the police department.

Violent Crime
The candidates were asked how they would handle prosecutions of violent crime if they were to become the Queens District Attorney, and how that approach may or may not fit into larger calls to reduce the jail population. Teachout noted that the number of people incarcerated in New York for non-violent crimes has steadily dropped over the past two decades, while the number of people incarcerated for violent crimes has remained stagnant.

Cabán took the strongest stance in favor of change, saying that her office would “think of criminals as victims of trauma themselves” and that she considers violent crime to be a “public health problem.” Lancman similarly said that it is imperative to “confront the issue of violence” to achieve decarceration, and that prosecutorial reform “cannot exclude violent crimes.”

Katz noted that disparities in violent crime prosecution have a “disproportionate effect on people of color” and that her office would work for “fair and equitable prosecutions.” She also said that she would focus resources on diversion programs and access to mental health care, working with the community.

Nieves said prosecutors often overcharge defendants to secure a plea deal and that he would end that practice, in addition to engaging in “alternatives to incarceration,” such as diversion programs. Lugo said that the process should focus on care for the victim and the DA’s office should hire social workers for victims of violent crime, but she did not directly answer the question.

Unlike the other five candidates at the debate, Lasak cautioned against changing how the office handles violent crime. He said that the DA’s “main job is public safety” and that “we have to be careful when dealing with violent crime.” The statement was one piece of a pattern throughout the debate, and the broader race, where Lasak has staked out more moderate positions in the field, though at times he is joined by other candidates and he consistently says he would make some progressive changes.

All candidates present answered affirmatively when asked if they thought current sentences for violent crime were too long in general.

By email, Malik said, "Ensuring that violent criminals are held accountable must be a top priority for any District Attorney, but it must be an accountability that keeps our communities both safe and whole." She highlighted her experience in Queens prosecuting "human traffickers, serial rapists, child molesters and violent, repeat offenders," but said she also has "the reform experience of having implemented restorative justice, diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for first-time violent offenders, so that one mistake doesn’t take a person further down the wrong path."

Domestic Violence Prosecutions
The six candidates were asked whether they would commit to not prosecuting victims of domestic violence and interpersonal conflict for self-defense or acts of survival. All six candidates present committed, with Katz asking “who wouldn’t?”

Malik also made that commitment, and added: As a former Special Victims prosecutor, I worked with countless women who were victims of abuse and assault and I am adamantly committed to ensuring the Queens DA’s Office protect victims, not retraumatize them."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police/Prosecutorial Misconduct
Representatives from the grassroots organization Vocal NY asked what the candidates would do the deter police and prosecutorial misconduct and what would be the career consequences for Assistant DAs that commit misconduct, such as withholding evidence. Later, Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, asked what the candidates would do to ensure fair prosecutions of crimes involving police officers -- like the trial involving officers who shot and killed her son -- and that misconduct investigations were swift, thorough, and unbiased.

Cabán said that public defense offices already have lists of “bad officers” and that as DA she would publish these lists and not rely on those officers’ testimony in cases. She also said that prosecutors should undergo retraining to prevent misconduct and that “anyone who wears a badge and commits a crime should be held accountable independent of conflicts of interest.”

Katz vowed that misconduct “won’t be stood for in my office” and that prosecutors would have to follow her reform policies. She also said that the state attorney general’s office should investigate police brutality accusations, not just police killings of unarmed individuals as is currently the case based on an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Lancman cited the City Council hearings that he has held on police misconduct and the history of misconduct in the Queens DA office. He asserted that “reforms prevent wrongful convictions” and that he would implement a broader code of conduct. He would use personnel in the DA’s office to investigate police misconduct, he added.

Nieves said that Assistant DAs that commit misconduct “would be fired” and that he would create a civil rights bureau within the office to investigate police misconduct with personnel from the DA’s office. He also said that police officers who commit perjury should be prosecuted. Lugo said that her office would have “no tolerance for discrimination” and “firm but fair prosecutions.” On the issue of investigations, she said that Assistant DAs “should know the communities they’re prosecuting in” and this would make investigations more equitable.

Lasak brought up his previous experience in the DA’s office, saying that “prosecutors under me knew they couldn’t [commit misconduct]” and that his leadership would set the example for his office. He also said he would use the DA’s investigators in police misconduct cases, not the NYPD.

Malik wrote that she will work to prevent prosecutorial misconduct. "As District Attorney, I will institute agency-wide trainings on Brady, discovery, witness interviews and preparation, suspect interviews, implicit bias, cultural competency and anti-racism." She promised a DA's office that is "for the first time, representative of the community it serves at the leadership level and hire a dedicated ethics officer to assist in ensuring our attorneys are always above reproach when practicing law."

Sex Work Decriminalization
Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker and member of Make the Road New York, asked the candidates for their views on the decriminalization of sex work. The Queens DA would potentially be able to decline to prosecute sex workers, as well as their customers and others involved in sex work, like landlords. Most of the candidates agreed that the DA’s office needs to change how it handles sex work crimes, mostly with a focus on the sex workers themselves, though they spoke about sex work in varied terms.

Cabán committed to declining to prosecute sex work-related offenses, including sex workers and those that participate in the sex work industry. She also said that the trans and sex work communities need to be protected. Katz said that sex work offenses should be “diverted into human trafficking courthouses.” She would not prosecute and make resources available to prevent recidivism, she said, while also indicating a belief that all sex workers need to be helped to find a different line of work and path in life.

Lancman would also decline to prosecute and would direct sex workers to diversion programs, in addition to focusing on sex trafficking and human traffickers.

Nieves would similarly decline to prosecute, calling sex work “a non-violent and consensual crime” and that he “won’t waste resources” on it. He would also create a human trafficking unit.

Lugo would consider declining to prosecute and instead implement a diversion program. She also brought up the need to focus on sex trafficking. Lasak was the only candidate against fully declining to prosecute, saying that “the impact on the broader community needs to be looked at” and that sex work lowers the quality of life for residents in affected neighborhoods.

Malik wrote her "position to decline to prosecute for sex workers and to vacate prostitution records is informed by a career of defending women suffering sex abuse and working with victims to come forward. We should be investing in resources to help sex workers get treatment and services where needed, while diverting enforcement toward those who profit off of, prey on and traffic sex workers."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Bail Reform
The topic of bail reform also generated a wide consensus among the candidates. Though there are ongoing negotiations in the state capital around major bail reform that could impact the next Queens District Attorney, the candidates were asked about what their policies would be if no changes are made at the state level.

All the candidates agreed to reduce the use of cash bail for at least minor and non-violent offenses, with some candidates saying that they would end the practice entirely.

Cabán pledged to end cash bail “to the fullest extent” and that her office would “release people as often as possible,” including on some violent alleged crimes. Katz agreed to end cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies automatically, but for violent felonies supervision should be looked at as an alternative. Lancman committed to never asking for cash bail and would expand eligibility for release “to the maximum extent of the law,” noting that Kalief Browder was kept on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail upon being arrested for what is essentially a non-violent crime of stealing a backpack, for which he never formally faced charges and was eventually released, later killing himself.

Nieves committed to no cash bail for all offenses and that he would use appearance bonds instead of cash bonds. Appearance bonds usually stipulate that a defendant would pay a fine if they do not appear for their court date. Lugo said she would handle the issue on a case-by-case basis and that non-violent crimes would not have cash bail, except for “major drug cases,” like El Chapo.

Lasak agreed to no cash bail for minor offenses, but would keep the policy in place for other charges.

Rikers Island Closure and Proposed New Jail in Queens
The candidates were asked if they support the closure of Rikers Island and also if they support the proposed new community jail in Queens.

Cabán was the only candidate to support the closure of Rikers Island and also oppose the new community jail in Queens. She said that she did not support building new jails because she “doesn’t want them filled.” Perhaps along with Lancman, she has outlined the most aggressive decarceration plan in the race, though he said that Rikers must be closed and also supports the new community jail.

Katz supports closing Rikers Island and also the construction of a community jail in Queens.

Nieves supports the closure of Rikers and opposed the construction of “mega-jails” in Queens. Lugo said she wants to see the current facilities on Rikers Island closed, but wants new facilities on the island that would separate violent and non-violent offenders. Lasak wants to keep the jails on Rikers Island open.

Malik wrote that she believes "it is critical that the community in Queens has its voice and concerns fully heard" but that "the closing of Rikers should also be taken as an opportunity for us as New Yorkers to totally reject the violent culture of Rikers by designing new detention facilities that treat everyone with dignity and aggressively support their reentry. Community detention centers that treat people with dignity and allow people to have more regular contact with their loved ones and support systems have proven to result in reduced recidivism."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police in Schools/School-to-Prison Pipeline
The candidates were asked about their views on police in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline by an activist with the Rockaway Youth Task Force.

Cabán asserted the “need to get police officers out of school” and that “students of color have been criminalized.” Her position is that her office would “decline to prosecute children whenever possible,” and instead “engage in restorative justice.”

Katz said “police officers aren’t the only answer to school safety,” but may be necessary in some cases. She believes that diversion programs could work better and that there are currently “too many officers” in schools. Lancman committed to not prosecuting “low-level offenses from schools” and that these would be handled in schools and youth court.

Nieves compared over-policed schools to Rikers Island and said his office would give students opportunities instead for low-level offenses and deal with felonies in family court. Lugo said that low-level offenses “should be handled in school,” but supports police being present in schools.

Lasak also said that he wants police in schools and that his office would instead focus on “bridging the gap between the community and the courthouse,” through education programs involving young people.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Immigration
On the topic of immigration, candidates were asked if they would consider mitigating immigration consequences in prosecutorial decisions. Immigrants, including legal residents, could face deportation for certain offenses or even based on what prosecutors say in court statements.

Cabán vowed to “keep ICE out of courthouses” and “make sure the DA’s office doesn’t do anything to further deportation,” including taking immigration status into consideration for pleas, charges, and court statements. Katz promised to have “deportation-neutral” charges and pleas. Lancman suggested that the office would hire a “collateral offense officer” to look at mitigating the immigration consequences of prosecutions.

Nieves noted that immigration is an important factor for both victims and suspects, saying that victims and witnesses are often afraid to come forward for fear of being deported. Similar to other candidates, he committed to mitigating the immigration consequences of the office’s prosecutions. Lugo vowed to block ICE from courts and to set up an immigration affairs bureau, which would include interpreters. Lasak promised to mitigate immigration consequences only for minor offenses.

Malik wrote that she "will implement an immigrant hardship plea policy. Whenever compatible with public safety, I will direct prosecutors to consider collateral consequences when charging noncitizens. We have to ensure the sentence matches the offense and that we are not tearing families apart or leveling disproportionate sentences."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been updated with Mina Malik's responses.

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Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions Tue, 19 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19) http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8357-listen-queens-district-attorney-candidate-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8357-listen-queens-district-attorney-candidate-debate alyssaguilera vocal

3/12 Queens DA debate (photo: @alyssaguilera)


Six of the seven candidates for Queens District Attorney gathered for a debate on Tuesday, March 12 at CUNY Law School in Long Island City, sponsored by a broad range of reform groups that have formed the "Queens for DA Accountability Coalition" and moderated by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max and Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout. This year, Queens will elect its first new District Attorney since 1991. The Democratic primary is June 25. The six participating candidates at Tuesday's forum were Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Gregory Lasak, Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves. The seventh candidate in the race, Mina Malik, was unable to attend due to illness.

Listen to the full debate via the embedded audio below, or you can find it in the "Max & Murphy" podcast stream from Gotham Gazette wherever you get your podcasts. [Read more about the candidates and the race here: 'We're in a New Era': Inside the Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney.]

 

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LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19) Thu, 14 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8326-crowded-race-election-queens-district-attorney-and-reset-prosecutorial-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8326-crowded-race-election-queens-district-attorney-and-reset-prosecutorial-agenda dwamhvfwoaejtul

Queens Borough President Katz swears-in community board members (photo: @QueensBPKatz)


Uncontested for seven terms spanning more than a quarter-century, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has hung back while his counterparts in Brooklyn and Manhattan join a growing national conversation about criminal justice reform and the power of prosecutors to decarcerate jails. While the retiring Brown is a “dear friend,” former New York Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman told Gotham Gazette recently, “it’s time for a new prosecutor with new, up-to-date modern views.”

Answering that call, six of seven announced candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary are campaigning as the best progressive reformer for the job. Even the exception, self-described “middle of the road” attorney Betty Lugo, has aligned herself with the pack in promising fewer low-level prosecutions and condemning a surge in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests outside Queens courts.

The June 25 election will almost certainly determine Brown’s successor and reset the prosecutorial tone in a vast, diverse borough of more than two million residents. “We’re really looking for someone who works with the community and understands that we’re in a new era. We’re no longer in a tough-on-crime, war on drugs era,” said 18-year-old Andrea Colon, a member of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, one of several criminal justice and immigrant rights groups demanding change in the office.

But Queens is an ideological patchwork. “It's an older voter, especially out east where it's more suburban,” said one party insider, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “They don't like people who jump turnstiles. They don’t want people smoking [marijuana] on the streets.” Former Queens Supreme Court judge and county prosecutor Greg Lasak, who’s pitching himself as the only candidate who can properly balance public safety with reform, has endorsements and donations from a number of law enforcement unions, including court clerks and officers. He's leading in funds raised for this race, with more than $800,000 to date, but trails Borough President Melinda Katz and City Council Member Rory Lancman in money available given their resources from prior campaign accounts.

Conversations with each candidate -- prosecutors Jose Nieves and Mina Malik and public defender Tiffany Cabán round out the field -- reveal real differences: on prosecutorial priorities and experience, as well as how they view the scope of the job. Now that the term progressive has wide application, says Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law, “we have to push and get into the fine print.”

Prosecutorial Differences
Katz and Lancman are both established politicians with law degrees, strong name recognition in the borough, and early fundraising success. Both formerly served in the state Assembly. “I think there needs to be a change in focus in the DA’s Office,” Katz told Gotham Gazette, outlining her plan for new bureaus focused on immigrant rights, housing fraud, and worker rights.

But Katz -- who recently won the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Party -- has proposed narrower prosecutorial reforms than most of the pack, pledging along with Lasak only to decline to prosecute marijuana possession cases. By contrast Lancman, Cabán, Malik, and Nieves have all outlined do-not-prosecute lists including fare evasion, drug possession, and prostitution -- in the style of recently-elected reform district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins Boston.

Judge Lippman told Gotham Gazette that though he doesn’t typically endorse candidates, Lancman, the first candidate to enter the race, “was always the first one to be there to generate support for a new view for criminal justice.” But the City Council member has lots of company now. He, Cabán, and Nieves have all pledged to never request cash bail, on the grounds that it perpetuates racial- and class-based inequities.

Four of the candidates -- Malik, Nieves, Lasak, and Lugo -- tout their prosecutorial experience. Malik, who is originally from Queens, served most recently as a deputy for the District of Columbia Attorney General. She also helped the late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson implement a policy for fewer marijuana prosecutions. Like Lasak, she’s served in the very office she’s running to lead. “Queens deserves someone who can come into the DA’s office, know from day one how it operates,” Malik told Gotham Gazette.

Nieves, meanwhile, emphasizes his recent experience prosecuting police officers at the state attorney general’s office and holding “the system itself accountable.”

Cabán’s status as the only public defender in the race, most recently with New York County Defender Services, has won her endorsements from ascendant groups on the left. “Her ultimate responsibility is to the public and that's what it's always been,” said Zohran Mamdani, an electoral organizer with the Queens branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Addressing a crowd of supporters in Jackson Heights this month, Cabán said she’ll fight for defendants, not convictions. As a queer Latina from a low-income family, she relates to the challenges her clients face. “For me, my decision to run in this race very much so feels like the natural progression of my advocacy for my clients,” she said.

How the candidates approach the prosecution of violent crimes, from murder to burglary, is another useful differentiator. Most say that fewer misdemeanor cases will free up resources to prosecute violent crimes. In endorsing Lasak, Glen Damato, president of the New York State Court Clerks Association, praised “his work putting away Queens’ most violent criminals and his compassion in exonerating the wrongfully convicted.”

When Katz was a child, a drunk driver struck and killed her mother. She said that if she’s elected district attorney cases involving intoxicated driving are going to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law, in my administration.” She said life sentences can be justified “on a case by case basis” while Lancman, Nieves, and Cabán say they’ll never request such a sentence.

Cabán has been most vocal about a less punitive approach to violent crime. She says her father, a retired elevator mechanic, has struggled with alcoholism and that her grandfather, a veteran with PTSD, was abusive. Incarcerating people for repeat violent behavior “is not changing the behavior,” Cabán said, calling for a shift in funding towards alternatives such as mental health services. "Sometimes that means showing compassion for someone who does harm."

Race Strategy
Increasingly, district attorney candidates are expected to weigh in on political debates outside the courtroom. Lancman and Cabán, for example, have promised not to join the statewide district attorney association, which has recently lobbied against pretrial reforms currently up for consideration in Albany, like open file discovery and the elimination of cash bail.

Everyone but Lasak, who declined to weigh in, told Gotham Gazette they support the city’s commitment to close the jails on Rikers Island. Cabán and Nieves have taken this a step further, saying they oppose replacing them with new or revamped jails across the city. “I don't think we need 40-story super structures to house more people,” Nevies said. “I think we need less people incarcerated.”

Cabán is also refusing corporate donations: a position that aligns her with other DSA-endorsed New York candidates like Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon, who ran an unsuccessful 2018 Democratic primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Doing so, Cabán says, will reassure Queens residents that she’s not afraid to prosecute landlords or employers accused of wage theft.

Lancman is dismissive of the stance. “I am not bringing a knife to this gun fight,” he scoffed. “I am not in this race to lose but claim a moral victory and then see black and brown people terrorized.”

Voters are also considering candidates’ proximity to the Queens County Democratic Party. Its endorsement of Katz is bad optics for both, according to Jesse Rose, founder of the New Queens Democrats, a progressive civic engagement group that has endorsed Cabán. “It was just absurd to me,” he said. “They didn’t have a forum. They didn’t have a vetting process. They didn’t ensure that there was transparency in any way.” (The party did not respond to a request for comment, but has defended its process to the Queens Daily Eagle.)

The dynamic isn’t a major concern for Lugo. A singer by hobby, she says she even performed the traditional Irish ballad Danny Boy at a recent county party dinner. “I think had they interviewed me they would have found me the most qualified, but it is what it is,” she said.

But Katz, who has won two borough-wide elections, seems to be downplaying her endorsement. She plans to implement a grassroots strategy with “a volunteer army knocking on doors,” according to Doug Forand, a campaign advisor with Red Horse Strategies. “She'll be reaching out broadly, and engaging the newer voters who are bringing new energy into Democratic primaries, and we look forward to earning their support."

The groups already rallying around Cabán have proven formidable in this realm, knocking on doors for Ocasio-Cortez and, more recently, protesting the ill-fated Amazon campus in Queens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if their activity [and] endorsement means something considerable, even in Queens, which still has conservative areas,” said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio.

Regardless of who wins in June, advocates are hopeful that this election will increase awareness across the borough that district attorneys are powerful, and elected by their constituents.

“This not about winning an election,” explained Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice reform, among other issues. “It's about, how do you get into the public narrative and get people in Queens talking about criminal justice reform, the power of prosecutors, and how you hold them accountable?”

Gotham Gazette is cosponsoring a candidate debate on March 12 at 6 p.m. RSVP here.

Note: soon after this article was published, DA Brown announced that due to health issues he would be stepping down as district attorney effective June 1. His chief assistant, John M. Ryan, will run the office in his absence.

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by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

Read more by this writer.

Correction: this article has been updated to clarify that Lasak leads in funds raised for this race, though he does trail Katz and Lancman in funds available.

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'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda Mon, 04 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8078-agenda-2019-queens-district-attorney-race-will-center-on-push-for-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8078-agenda-2019-queens-district-attorney-race-will-center-on-push-for-reform city council ar rl jw dr marij

Rory Lancman (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Off-year elections in New York City, like the one next year, tend to hold little significance and command minimal attention, with few positions on the ballot and no headlining executive race like mayor or governor. But in Queens, next year will offer a momentous opportunity for voters to make a decision that could dramatically affect the lives of residents of the country’s most diverse county and potentially establish a new paradigm for criminal justice there, with reverberations beyond.

In 2019, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, a Democrat who has held his seat for 28 years, is not expected to run for reelection, and those seeking to replace him have made clear that they would break from his tough-on-crime policies that they say have disparately and adversely affected low-income communities of color and modernize the office. As the top prosecutor in each county, district attorneys hold substantial authority over how the law is enforced, working in conjunction with the police. They have broad investigatory powers and can bring both criminal charges and civil litigation.

The Queens DA’s office under Brown is among the last to embrace a shift in the conversation around criminal justice away from a punitive system to one focused more on rehabilitation and restoration. Brown, 85, has done little to break from the conservative practices of what appears to be a bygone era, especially in New York City and other big cities around the country. The race to replace him is likely going to be a contentious competition to see who can promise the most drastic shifts toward progressive prosecutorial conduct.

Unlike the district attorneys in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, Brown has been slower to ease the prosecution of low-level offenses, including for marijuana arrests and fare evasion, largely ignored calls for reducing or ending the use of cash bail, and has rejected funding that would allow his office to set up a dedicated unit to investigate wrongful convictions. Following the lead of other district attorneys and after repeatedly declining to do so, his office did move to clear hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants for low-level offenses.

In the first half of this year, Queens disproportionately accounted for the number of pre-trial detainees in jail accused of misdemeanors, according to a Gothamist report. Those prosecutions additionally impact undocumented immigrants, who could potentially face deportation stemming from low-level charges. And as the city moves to close the Rikers Island jail complex, Brown’s office has indicated that it would prefer it remain open.

Having remained in office for the better part of three decades, and with his well-documented struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Brown is widely expected to finish his time in office at the end of next year (he hasn’t said if he will resign before his term ends). “My present term does not expire until December 2019 and I will make no decision about the future until sometime next year,” Brown said in a statement.

“He’s been a tough as nails prosecutor. He doesn’t seem to want to implement any progressive reforms to the laws under his jurisdiction and under his authority,” said Jon McFarlane, a Queens resident for 40 years and a volunteer at Court Watch NYC, a collaboration among three advocacy groups aimed at monitoring cases that makes their way through the criminal courts. “He’s had tremendous power over the last two, two-and-a-half decades and he’s only used that power to criminalize black, brown and Latino people.”

agenda19v2 aMcFarlane said that advocates have “new hope” that progressive reforms will soon pass in the state Legislature and that Brown’s replacement will be someone who institutes reform rather than punishment. “We’re looking for candidates that will end the prison pipeline out of [our] neighborhoods, we’re looking for candidates that will end mass incarceration, we’re looking for progressive candidates that will implement bail reform,” he said.

Two Democrats have already declared their intentions to seek the office. The first to jump into the race was New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, who is running as a progressive diametrically opposed to the office’s current policies. “The criminal justice system is broken,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s racist. It’s discriminatory against poor people. It fails to protect working people and we’re gonna reform it from top to bottom.”

The other candidate in the race right now is retired Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak, a veteran prosecutor who says he alone knows how to reform that office since he worked there for 25 years. “The district attorney is not a job for a politician,” Lasak said in a phone interview. “You have to have the experience and the skill because you’re making decisions that affect people’s lives...and I think there’s nobody that has the wealth of experience that I have in doing that and I will continue to do that.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has long been rumored to be considering a bid as well but has yet to make any announcements. A nongovernmental spokesperson for Katz declined to comment. And Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former Queens assistant district attorney, might also jump into the race, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report. Malik declined to comment in an email to Gotham Gazette.  

Advocates for criminal justice reform have made clear that no matter the candidates, they believe there must be changes in how the office treats the people of Queens, particularly the communities of color that have suffered the ill effects of a system of mass incarceration. On October 30, advocates from several organizations rallied outside the Queens Criminal Courthouse, demanding those reforms from the district attorney’s office now.

Andrea Colon, community engagement organizer at the Rockaway Youth Task Force, said the next district attorney should not be “a factor” in mass incarceration. “I think anyone can see that [DA Brown] is a defender of the status quo,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Colon said the diversity of the borough should be reflected in the DA’s office and that the next officeholder should move away from a punitive approach to the job. “It’s also about being an advocate, making sure that role is not just simply about prosecuting people who come through your door,” she said. “It’s about advocating for things like legislation up in Albany or in the city that will impact the people of Queens.”

Lancman has spent years doing just that, he said in the interview, previously as a member of the State Assembly and as a Council member for the last five years — in his first term, he chaired the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which was redesigned by the new Council speaker this year to create a separate Committee on the Justice System which Lancman now heads. He believes he is the most progressive of any candidate in the race, even if those rumored to join the race do so. “As a government official I’ve expressly taken on the responsibility of trying to reform the criminal justice system and have used the governmental tools at my disposal to reform the criminal justice system.”

Though he has spent years in government, Lancman does not have any prosecutorial experience, having worked as an attorney in private practice and teaching at St. John’s University in Queens. He holds a law degree from Columbia Law School.

A vocal critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, Lancman has attempted to pass bills that would make policing more transparent and accountable and has been successful in small ways, in lieu of state action, in making it easier to pay bail. He has tried to make the use of a chokehold by police illegal -- it is currently only banned by department rules — and, after the NYPD refused to release data on arrests for fare-beating as required by a law that Lancman sponsored, he sued the city.

As district attorney, Lancman said he would unilaterally implement many of the reforms that have languished in the state Legislature for years, but which are expected to finally pass with both legislative chambers heading to Democratic control come January -- Republicans who have controlled the Senate blocked many of the bills. Lancman said he wouldn’t prosecute a “laundry list” of low-level offenses “that are giving black and brown kids records for the rest of their lives,” would not ask for cash bail “under any circumstance,” would end the so-called “ready rule” practice that DAs use to deny defendants a speedy trial and implement full open-file discovery. He also expressed support for a bill passed this year by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Cuomo establishing a first-in-the-nation commission on prosecutorial misconduct.

“There’s nothing that’s out of the DA’s hand,” he said, before making a somewhat veiled reference to Lasak. “That’s the important thing to understand. The people who built the Queens DA’s office are not the ones to reform the Queens DA’s office and every criminal justice reform that matters to people can be accomplished by having the right person as Queens DA.”

He continued, “It’s not merely to confront the racism and discrimination against poor people that permeates the criminal justice system but also to refocus the office’s priorities to help working people.” He said he would focus on issues such as wage theft and unsafe workplace conditions, predatory housing practices and tenant harassment, and sexual assault. “We waste all this time and energy prosecuting these low level offenses, fighting to keep people in jail just because they don’t have money, playing games with the discovery rules that make it impossible for people to defend themselves in court, instead of focusing on things that are really making working people unsafe,” he said.

“The DA’s office is unique in that it requires serious preparation and a very detailed understanding of the office and a detailed commitment to the issues the office confronts,” Lancman said, “and I will put that level of demonstrated commitment, experience and planning up against any candidate in the race.”

lasak for DAOf course, Lasak (pictured) believes he is the candidate who brings the most experience to the table, not Lancman. “There’s no comparison in terms of experience,” he said in a phone interview. A hard-nosed prosecutor with more than two decades experience in the Queens DA’s office, Lasak became chief of the homicide division when he was 30. When Brown took over, Lasak was the executive assistant DA of the major crimes division and was later in charge of the homicide investigations and homicide trial bureaus and the special victims bureau, and he set up the office’s domestic violence bureau. “Most of my career’s been dedicated to combating violent crime,” he said.

Heading up homicide prosecutions for nearly two decades earned Lasak the moniker “Mr. Murder.” He wasn’t sure where it originated from — a New York Times profile from 2003, when Lasak was elected State Supreme Court Justice, offered little about the origins of the name — but how does he feel about it? “Doesn’t bother me,” he said with a chuckle.

Lasak’s argument is that he can reform the office because he is intimately familiar with how it works. “To reform the place, you can’t sit looking at it from the outside if you don’t know how it works on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Though his background smacks of the type of stern policies Brown’s office is known for, he is making a softer pitch as a candidate, similar to Lancman’s. He wants to reform bail procedures, ensure speedy trials and discovery reform.

“I’ve been out of that office nearly 15 years. The world has changed, Queens has changed, but the office has to change too,” he said. “The assistant district attorneys in the office should reflect the changing demographics of Queens County, the most diverse county in the world, and the office has not changed along those lines. I want it to reflect the diversity of our population here in Queens, including at the highest levels of the office.”

He said he’d take a “good hard look” at how the office handles low-level nonviolent offenses and bail. “My rule when I was there was, if you’re not gonna ask for jail time at the end of the case, you have no business asking for bail at the beginning of the case, and I will make sure that is a policy of the office,” he said, particularly cognizant of how the enforcement of small marijuana possession cases has impacted communities of color. “Once you stick a criminal record on a young man, you scar him for life. I don’t want to do that. We’re losing too many young men, especially in the minority community...I want to give them another chance,” he said.

He also stressed that, as DA, he would ensure any potential wrongful convictions are reviewed by senior prosecutors and detectives, as he said he used to do when he worked there.

There is, however, greater daylight between Lasak and Lancman on the proposed plan for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. In September, Lancman publicly debated a Queens assistant district attorney about the closure of the jails on the island -- the Queens DA and Staten Island DA are the only two in the city opposing the plan. Lancman, who supports it, said he will make it a central campaign issue “because where you stand on Rikers and where you have been on Rikers tells us everything we need to know about where you stand on reforming the criminal justice system and what kind of DA you will be.”

Lasak said he has not closely studied the Rikers plan, which includes demolishing the current Queens detention facility and building a newer, more modern one so detainees can be housed closer to their homes and to the courthouse. Lasak pointedly refused to take a position on it, despite being repeatedly asked. “Rikers Island is really not an issue for the district attorney,” he said. “My concern is that people who are on Rikers Island, make sure they belong on Rikers Island. I don’t want anyone sitting on Rikers Island that doesn’t belong there.”

Advocates intend on holding the candidates, whoever should win, accountable for their words.

“I think it’s one thing to say that you’re for criminal justice reform,” said Colon from Rockaway Youth Task Force, “and it’s another to actually act on that.”

Nick Malinowski of VOCAL-NY, one of the groups that make up Court Watch NYC, put the Queens DA’s race in the context of a national movement and growing awareness around prosecutorial accountability and the discretionary powers that district attorneys have at their disposal. “I think there’s a growing understanding across the country about the impact that prosecutors have and that kind of movement and understanding is definitely coming to Queens,” he said.

Malinowski pointed to the recent elections of progressive reform-minded district attorneys in other states -- Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts -- as an example of where Queens should be headed. Considering the size and diversity of New York City’s second-most populous borough, he said that this election could be one of the most consequential in the city, if not the entire nation -- the Bronx and Staten Island DAs are up for reelection next year, but Queens is expected to be the lone ‘empty seat’ race.

“I think there’s a good case for the Queens DA to be the single-most progressive DA in the country,” Malinowski said.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform Thu, 15 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Begins Examination of De Blasio Budget Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7519-city-council-begins-examination-of-de-blasio-budget-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7519-city-council-begins-examination-of-de-blasio-budget-plan Speaker Corey Johnson podium

Council Speaker Johnon (photos: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council members pressed budget officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for more transparency and a better accounting of spending and revenue plans at a Monday hearing on the mayor’s $88.67 billion proposed preliminary budget for the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1. It was the first hearing of what will be weeks of public discussions, and the first under the new City Council speaker and new Council finance committee chair.

“I want to focus on what will be a recurring theme of these hearings -- ensuring that the City budget is fair, transparent, and accountable to New Yorkers,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in his opening statement, kicking off the series of hearings at which agency heads and top city officials will present to the Council their funding priorities for the next fiscal year while defending their programs and practices.

“For too long, administration after administration has presented the budget to the Council in a manner that makes it difficult for us to do our Charter-mandated duty of budget oversight and review,” Johnson said, decrying the “frequent usage of vague and over-inclusive units of appropriation” that make city spending hard to track, and the lack of measurable connections between budgeting and results.

Johnson also expressed concern about the ballooning of the city budget under de Blasio, noting that the city expects to spend as much as $95.2 billion by the 2022 fiscal year, and promised a “renewed focus” on the city’s capital budget. Johnson has created a special capital budget subcommittee for that purpose.

Over the course of several hours, the Council heard testimony Monday from representatives of the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Finance, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and representatives of the Independent Budget Office. The hearing saw a few testy exchanges between Council members and new OMB Director Melanie Hartzog, indicative of the increased independence that Johnson has promised under his leadership. Members pushed hard when Hartzog gave them answers that they believed lacked sufficient detail and Hartzog, in turn, seemed to dig in when faced with repeated critical questions.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, the new chair of the finance committee, emphasized in his opening statement that the Council would have a clear eye on “accountability, performance and efficiency” in the upcoming budget hearings. “Even within an $88 billion budget, resources are scarce and our city’s needs are great,” he said. “With so many competing, worthy priorities, we owe it to our constituents to honestly evaluate all levels of the budget.”

Although Dromm noted that de Blasio had proposed little in the way of new spending -- $393.5 million in additional spending for the current fiscal year and $364 million for the next -- he said particular items called for increased oversight.

Among those are spending on homelessness, which has increased by $2.8 billion under de Blasio, including a $150 million baseline increase in the preliminary budget for shelters. “Obviously, the Council supports spending money in order to combat homelessness and to provide everyone in the shelter system with a safe and permanent home,” Dromm said. “But that does not mean that we will authorize the administration to spend carte blanche.” He said the Council had yet to hear a “clearly articulated strategy” on homelessness from the administration.

Dromm also questioned whether the mayor’s Citywide Savings Program (CSP), a voluntary program for city agencies, was finding “real efficiencies” and pushed for reporting by the administration on the CSP’s implementation in the annual Mayor’s Management Report.

“Our emphasis in the preliminary budget is caution,” OMB Director Hartzog told the Council, stressing that the $750 million in new spending across the two years in the budget was offset by $900 million in savings. Hartzog took over her portfolio two months ago after her predecessor Dean Fuleihan was appointed first deputy mayor by de Blasio.

In her testimony, Hartzog warned of nearly $1 billion in fiscal threats the city faces from the state and federal budgets that will affect everything from education and public safety to affordable housing, health care, and transit funding. “Facing great risks from both Albany and Washington, we respond with caution by adhering to the same foundational principles of fiscal management that we have in the past,” she said.

In keeping with past years, the city has set aside “strong reserves that serve as a buffer to the unexpected,” Hartzog said. The preliminary budget includes $5.5 billion in reserves, including $1 billion in the general reserve, $250 million in the Capital Stabilization Reserve, and $4.25 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund.

Hartzog touted the city’s “targeted, prudent investments” in the new budget, including the expansion of pre-kindergarten for more three-year-olds in the city, efforts to increase the city’s affordable housing stock, funding to protect tenants from construction harassment, increased capital funding for the New York City Housing Authority, spending on mental health services and the full rollout of the NYPD’s body camera program, among others.

Hartzog also said that funding for DemocracyNYC, a voter engagement program announced by the mayor in his State of the City speech last month, would be included in the executive budget which is released after the Council has held weeks of hearings and had an opportunity to respond to the preliminary spending plan.

It was clear early on that Johnson did not intend to take it easy on the administration, jumping straight into property tax reform as he questioned Hartzog. The mayor had promised action on property taxes in January but has yet to make any policy moves. Despite repeated pushing from Johnson, Hartzog was similarly noncommittal. “As the mayor said, you’ll hear more from us very soon,” she said, without providing a concrete timeline.

In several instances, when Council members expressed disappointment with the funds allocated to certain programs and agencies, Hartzog promised to have ongoing conversations with them. But, at Dromm’s urging, Council members avoided going deeper into agency-specific questions, a break from previous years when members grilled top budget officials on various aspects of city government. There will be specific agency budget hearings beginning Tuesday.

One issue that several members returned to, however, was the city’s spending on housing homeless New Yorkers in cluster sites and emergency hotel shelters. Hartzog repeatedly told members the city could not delineate that spending, owing to constant updates and reestimates of costs related to homelessness spending. Johnson noted that the preliminary budget included a $169 million increase in baseline funding for shelters, but with few results to show for it.

“It’s concerning to the Council that we keep adding hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis but we haven’t seen a significant decrease in the homeless population,” Johnson said to Hartzog at one point.

Johnson also failed to get a commitment from Hartzog on providing more units of appropriations in the budgets for city agencies that lack detail and transparency. He noted, for instance, that the Department of Corrections has one budget line for jail operations, despite running several jails across the city. Hartzog said she could not commit then and there to creating more units but promised to work with the Council on its concerns.

Other members followed Johnson’s lead, some forcefully pushing their priorities that included funding for the summer youth employment program, increased contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses, senior services, health coverage, and more.

Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of the de Blasio administration, raised the issue of funding for the ailing MTA and scandal-ridden NYCHA. “They are two areas where the mayor has to some degree or another, I won’t say abdicated, that’s too judgmental, but has offered the view that they are either not his problem or the origin of the problems lie elsewhere,” Lancman said.

Hartzog tried to float arguments that de Blasio has put forward -- that the state should fund the MTA and new MTA revenue streams should include “lockboxes” to keep the money in the city, and that the administration had made unprecedented investments in NYCHA in the absence of federal and state funds. Lancman, though, cut Hartzog off and insisted she focus on the budget before them.

Although tensions did not boil over, it was obvious that the Council was not pulling its punches. Johnson acknowledged as much at the end of his round of questioning. “It’s never personal,” he told Hartzog. “It’s just doing our job.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer, who testified in the afternoon, praised the mayor’s budget proposal for including more funding for the expansion of 3-K for All, capital funds to repair and replace NYCHA heating systems, and for closing the first jail on Rikers Island.

But Stringer had a warning for the Council and the administration. “I am concerned that we are beginning to see warning signs of a slowing economy,” he said, emphasizing as he has done for years that the city needs to set aside more rainy day funds. “More than ever, our spending decisions must be data-driven and evidence-based. We must ensure that no dollar is going to waste,” he added. Two signs he pointed to were significant job losses in the last quarter of 2017, after years of sustained employment growth, and a reduction in the city’s cash balance -- from $5.4 billion in fiscal year 2017 to only $1 billion in the current fiscal year -- from slowing growth of non-property tax revenue.

Stringer had clear prescriptions for the city. He has called for a “budget cushion” between 12 and 18 percent of the city’s operational budget, while the city’s reserves currently stand at only 9 percent or $8.5 billion.

“A more robust savings program is critical to building up our reserves and reducing the likelihood of cutting city services down the line,” he said. “But it is not enough to find a few efficiencies here and there. It’s time to start applying a much more rigorous test to our spending – are we getting real results for our investments?”

He also reiterated that he would be closely examining the budgets and expenditure of city agencies on his “watch list” -- the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Education,2 and the Department of Correction. “Let me be very clear here in saying that I wholly agree with, and share, the mayor’s goals of reducing homelessness, improving our public schools, and closing Rikers,” he said. “But we must ensure that we are working toward these goals as efficiently and effectively as possible. Because as things stand now, I’m concerned that we are in a weaker position than we should be.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Begins Examination of De Blasio Budget Plan Mon, 05 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7419-new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7419-new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates City Council Speaker Corey Johnson members

Members of th new City Council with Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The new class of the New York City Council took greater shape on Thursday with the appointment of chairs and members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees that oversee the broad legislative, land use, and oversight roles of the 51-member body. Most returning Council members were reassigned to lead different committees while some remained in the positions they’ve served the past four years. New Speaker Corey Johnson also chose to create a few new committees to boost staff levels in certain areas and to better address specific issues that were subsumed under broader committee purviews.

In their new roles, many of the committee chairs will have to navigate a slate of issues, which in many cases will likely lead them into direct confrontation with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. This holds particularly true for the powerful land use and finance committees, both of which have new Council members at the helm. Speaker Johnson has also pledged broader independence from the mayor than his predecessor, indicating that members will be allowed, and even encouraged, to take the administration to task. He has pledged an enhanced oversight and investigations committee to lead the way in that regard.

Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. of the Bronx was appointed chair of the land use committee, which is tasked with overseeing and reviewing land use applications, zoning amendment,s and landmark preservation in the city. Since the committee has the final say on any development projects that require city government approval, it plays a prominent role in determining the success of the mayor’s affordable housing program, in particular thus far by approving comprehensive, and controversial, neighborhood rezonings in communities such as East New York and East Harlem.

The city is exploring similar rezonings -- to create more affordable housing while also injecting economic energy and other benefits into neighborhoods -- in the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and Flushing, Queens, among other communities. “Our city is at a crossroads, including my community in the South Bronx,” Salamanca said in a statement Thursday. The City Council, he said, “should be on the front lines on shaping the planning, development and all other land use actions in a way that listens to and addresses the concerns of all New Yorkers.” Freshman Council Member Francisco Moya is heading up the subcommittee on zoning and franchises which falls under Salamanca’s purview.

The finance committee, led by its new chair Council Member Daniel Dromm of Queens, also has a tough task ahead as it heads into budget season. Dromm will lead the Council’s negotiations with the administration over the $86 billion-plus city budget. The mayor is expected to release his fiscal year 2019 preliminary budget proposal later this month and the administration has been bracing for cuts in federal funding, threatened by the Trump administration, and a widely expected economic slowdown after years of continuous growth.

Last year, the Council advocated for increased savings and reduced agency inefficiencies even as they called for new funding for Council priorities. “I intend to use this position to move a progressive budget forward working closely with Speaker Corey Johnson who I thank for giving me this opportunity to serve,” Dromm said in a statement.

The Council’s budget hearings will no doubt also touch on the city’s $96 billion capital budget. Numerous Council members called last year for increased transparency in how capital projects are funded and managed, insisting that the city needs to reduce financial waste and cut down on project delays.
Johnson has now gone so far as to create an entirely new subcommittee to oversee the capital budget, chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson. “Many members, including myself, have been frustrated by the capital process itself,” Gibson told Gotham Gazette outside the Council chambers on Thursday. She said the new committee will allow expanded oversight of capital spending, particularly by individual city agencies. “At the end of the day, we just wanna say to the public, to New Yorkers and to all of my colleagues that we are spending your money wisely,” she said.

The transportation committee continues to be led by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the Move New York congestion pricing plan, which would impose tolls on the East River bridges to raise funds for mass transit infrastructure and reduced fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, while also lowering tolls on other bridges.

De Blasio has opposed both congestion pricing and the “Fair Fares” campaign, insisting that fair fares should be funded by the state and that congestion pricing is a “regressive tax” that hurts outer borough commuters. He has instead proposed a so-called millionaires tax, which Rodriguez also supports, that would accomplish both goals - subsidized MetroCards and new transit revenue. However, like congestion pricing, the tax would have to be approved by the state Legislature where it has already been rejected by Governor Cuomo and the state Senate, portending perhaps that the fair fares fight will be fought locally yet again. Cuomo appears on the verge of pursuing some version of congestion pricing.

In keeping with Johnson’s promise to stand up to the de Blasio administration, the Council now has an expanded Oversight and Investigations committee, led by Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. The committee is expected to have a full-time investigation staff made up of professional investigators, former prosecutors, and journalists. In an interview with the New York Times, Torres indicated a number of different issue areas he would approach for added oversight. “The abuse of placards. The use of eminent domain. The disposition of public land. Deed restriction. The disbursement of city subsidies. All of it is on the table,” he said.

On Thursday, Torres told Gotham Gazette that the New York City Housing Authority’s lead contamination issue, which has been a black eye for the de Blasio administration, was a “continuing concern” for him. “I have not set the investigative priorities of the committee just yet, but given my former position as chairman of the public housing committee, given my interest in the subject, NYCHA is going to be figuring prominently in my oversight priorities,” he said.

Torres’ role will crossover with the work of other committees, such as the Committee on Public Housing, which he led last term and will this term be led by Brooklyn Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. The public housing authority needs $25 billion for infrastructure improvements, with few forthcoming state and federal funds this year. The authority’s numerous public failures continue to haunt the administration and invite criticism from the Council and community activists. And although the city has put a NYCHA overhaul plan into motion and seen some successes and promising developments, problems are not likely to abate any time soon.

“As chair, I will ensure that critical issues are addressed, from heat, to lead, to security issues,” Ampry-Samuel said in a statement. “I look forward to visiting every housing development in the city and the opportunity to hear from the residents and the resident leaders.”

Johnson also chose to expand the role the Council plays in scrutinizing the city’s criminal justice system. Council Member Rory Lancman of Queens was chosen to lead the newly formed Committee on the Justice System, which has oversight of city courts, district attorneys, legal service providers and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers will be heading the Committee on Criminal Justice, which has oversight of the Department of Correction and Department of Probation. Both committees will play a prominent part in the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, which is contingent on reducing the city’s jail population to less than 5,000 -- it is currently just under 9,000 detainees -- while also creating borough-based jail facilities. Lancman told Gotham Gazette he expects to “aggressively oversee and try to reform” the city’s justice system. “You’ll see a very robust agenda coming out of my committee,” he said.

Lancman and Powers’ committees were carved out of the earlier Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which Lancman led last term. Powers, who is new to the Council like Ampry-Samuel and others, said that move “recognizes that Rikers Island and the corrections system is really its own issue that needs to be tackled in the next coming years.”

“There are a lot of thorny issues,” Powers said of the closure of Rikers, “and I think a big part of it is really making sure that we put on the right timeline and that we make sure we manage all the different constituencies that are involved here.”

New York City Health + Hospitals, the cash-strapped municipal hospital system, continues to be a big area of concern for the Council and in particular Johnson, who led the health committee for the last four years. Johnson created a separate Committee on Hospitals to oversee the system, appointing new Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera as chair.

Council Member Mark Levine, chosen to be the new health committee chair, noted a number of issues he will address, including the opioid crisis, racial disparities in health outcomes, animal rights and the threat of bioterrorism. He has promised to push for a single payer healthcare system in the city -- a priority for the speaker -- and told Gotham Gazette he expects “there will be times when the Council and the administration are on different sides of an issue,” and that its incumbent on members to advocate for the Council’s priorities. “That’s the job of a good committee chair,” he said.

See the full list of new Council leadership, committee chairs, and committee members.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates Thu, 11 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7414-initial-johnson-move-signifies-changing-of-the-guard-at-the-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7414-initial-johnson-move-signifies-changing-of-the-guard-at-the-city-council Speaker Corey Johnson press conference

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, at podium (photos: William Alatriste)


Just after he was elected Speaker of the City Council on January 3, Corey Johnson had some initial business to take care of: naming a temporary rules committee, including a chairperson. And in this first official decision in his new role, Johnson made a relatively small but important move that is emblematic of the broad shift in the City Council and larger city political dynamics at play in Johnson’s election.

Toward the end of an emotional and intense initial meeting of the new City Council class, at which Johnson, a Democrat, won 48 of 49 votes to lead the 51-seat legislative body for the next four years, the new speaker nominated an interim rules committee, including himself, as is customary, to be led by Queens Council Member Rory Lancman.

Johnson had just been elected speaker with the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party and the Queens County Democratic Party, which is led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley, whom he thanked profusely from the floor of the Council chambers as Crowley looked down from the balcony. The situation was unlike that of Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who became speaker in 2014 after winning the support of a unified Council Progressive Caucus, powerful labor unions, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and members of the Brooklyn Democratic County Party. Four years ago, Mark-Viverito named Brooklyn Council Member and Progressive Caucus co-founder Brad Lander as rules chair.

The shift from Mark-Viverito to Johnson can also be seen in the change from Lander to Lancman, a former member of the state Assembly and stalwart player in the Queens County Party. While all four Democrats share political dispositions and most policy positions, the changing of the guard is evident, and other top committee posts appear likely to go to representatives of the county parties and individual members who backed Johnson’s ascension. It appears this will include the Bronx’s Rafael Salamanca as chair of the land use committee and a Queens Council member, possibly Danny Dromm, as chair of the finance committee, according to sources familiar with the process. Last time around Brooklyn's David Greenfield was named land use chair and Progressive Caucus member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens became chair of finance.

Johnson, himself a member of the Progressive Caucus, has been meeting with his 50 Council member constituents and hearing from other stakeholders like the county party leaders, and is expected to outline committee chair and member nominations within the next ten days.

The rules committee will then take up those nominations, approving the chairs and committee members of all of the Council’s 40-plus committees and subcommittees, including the permanent rules committee, before the full Council gives it approval. It is unclear if Lancman will remain rules chair, or whether he requested the position even on a temporary basis. A request to speak with the Council member was declined by a spokesperson.

City Council Rory LancmanAfter approving committee assignments, the rules committee will then be responsible for considering and passing any changes to the Council’s internal rules -- there is a long proposed rules reform agenda that 33 members, including Johnson and Lancman (pictured), signed on to last month -- and vetting and approving nominees to about a dozen city boards and commissions, like the Board of Corrections and the City Planning Commission.

"The Speaker has already met with almost all of his colleagues and is in active conversations with Council Members, stakeholders, city leaders and advocates to ensure the committee chairs best reflect the priorities of this Council and the diversity of our City," said City Council spokesperson Robin Levine, in an emailed statement. Levine did not directly respond to the question of how Lancman was selected as the initial rules chair. During the prior term Lancman, an attorney and regular critic of Mayor de Blasio, chaired the newly created Committee on Courts and Legal Services.

Four years ago, Lander and Mark-Viverito ushered through landmark rules reforms that significantly altered how the Council functions, including how discretionary funding is allocated to individual members, bringing equity and transparency to a system that had been used by prior speakers to reward and punish.

As he ran for speaker and since being elected, Johnson has championed additional reforms, including to the Council’s bill-drafting protocols. He wants to see changes so that members can no longer put indefinite holds on certain legislation and so that there is more information and awareness around who is working on what bills.

The rules reform package that has the backing of 33 members includes changes to the bill-drafting process but also a beefing up of the Council’s Oversight and Investigation Committee, “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary.” It also includes increasing the Council’s budget and staff and staff salaries; and beefing up the land use division specifically, something Johnson has talked about a good deal during his bid for speaker and since being elected.

At one speaker candidate forum Johnson said that he thinks there is room for possibly eliminating some Council committees while also possibly creating new ones -- he said, for example, that the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee should be broken into two. He did not give any examples of committees that should be eliminated. The Council did delete one committee last term, the Committee on Community Development, when its chair resigned from the Council, but most Council members, including Lander, said at the time that there were no plans to look at eliminating any others.

Along with Lancman as chair and Johnson, the other members of the initial rules committee are Council Members Adrienne Adams, Margaret Chin, Robert Cornegy, Jr., Rafael Espinal, Karen Koslowitz, Steven Matteo, Ritchie Torres, and Mark Treyger.

The package of reforms says toward the end that "A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018. The reforms should then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later than June 2018."

[Related: City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council Tue, 09 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Corey Johnson Elected Speaker of the City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7401-corey-johnson-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7401-corey-johnson-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council corey johnson moments after being elected speaker of the city council cfredit william alatriste

Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


City Council Member Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, was elected speaker of the New York City Council with near unanimous support on Wednesday, becoming the first leader of the 51-member legislative body who is an openly gay man and openly HIV-positive.

Johnson took the helm at the first charter meeting of the new Council class, after a vote that saw little drama and 48 votes in his favor. Council members, including those who had attempted to run for speaker themselves, took their turns singing Johnson’s praises as prominent elected officials and political influencers from across the five boroughs looked on from the balcony of the Council chambers. Johnson’s mother was there, too, having driven from Massachusetts to see him rise to the Council’s top leadership position.

In an emotional acceptance speech, Johnson spoke about the importance of his mother in his life and some of the tough times they had faced. He spoke fondly of his predecessors and the city’s progress in the last four years under Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. But he warned of challenges of “historic proportions” that lay ahead: an affordability crisis that is pushing out residents of the city, an “overflowing” shelter system with thousands of homeless families, struggling mom and pop businesses, a mass transit crisis owing from years of government neglect, continued racial disparities across the city, and potential funding cuts from the state and federal governments. “These problems are incredibly complex and entrenched,” he said. “But the future of our city depends on our ability to confront them. And confront them we will.”

In alluding to the many thorny issues that plagued the first term of the de Blasio administration, he promised to tackle them with increased independence from the mayor. “There has never been a more important time to ensure that our city has a strong, unified and independent Council to take on these challenges,” he said, with an emphasis on the word independent. He pledged unending support to his 50 constituents and promised to lead by consensus.

Johnson emerged at the top of a crowded field of candidates who had sought the speakership but all of whom dropped out of the race and conceded to Johnson in the days leading up to the vote, after it emerged that he had the support of the Queens and Bronx Democratic county organizations, led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley and Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, respectively. But, in a city where people of color make a majority and that is already led by a white male mayor, there was some criticism around Johnson’s selection to what is considered the second-most powerful position in city government.

Numerous Council members representing the Black, Asian and Latino Caucus had insisted that the next speaker should be a person of color. That included Council Member Inez Barron, who attempted a last-minute protest candidacy and voted for herself on Wednesday. “It’s time for a paradigm shift and that’s what I’m here to call for,” Barron had said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall shortly before the vote. “We’ve gotta put an end to the system that has deals that arrange for the speaker to be selected on behalf of what it is that county bosses and district leaders and other powerful players and other rich developers want to see happen here.” Her husband, Assembly Member (and former Council Member) Charles Barron, said, “The process is fraudulent, the process is racist, and the process is corrupt and its been that way for a long time.”

Another speaker candidate, Council Member Jumaane Williams, who only conceded the race Wednesday morning, opted for skipping the vote entirely and instead attended Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in Albany, which was scheduled for around the same time (Williams is toying with a bid for governor or lieutenant governor, saying that Cuomo is not a true progressive). Williams had held out longer than most of the other speaker candidates, saying that the next speaker should be a person of color.

In a Wednesday statement, Williams criticized the lack of diversity in leadership positions in city government even as he looked forward to working with Johnson. “Equity must be an issue of highest priority to the next Speaker of the City Council,” he said. “Having spoken at length with Council Member Johnson, he is acutely aware of those concerns, and has agreed, in a tangible and accountable way, to work alongside me on issues of equity, both in government and citywide, for people of diverse backgrounds across race, gender, sexual orientation, and more.”

Williams and Council Member Debi Rose were the only two absences on Wednesday, meaning Johnson received 48 of the 49 votes cast. In his first remarks from the speaker’s podium on the Council chambers floor, Johnson also nominated members and a chair of the rules committee, which will help establish the new Council’s rules and the chairs and members of the other 40-plus issue committees. Johnson named Council Member Rory Lancman to chair the committee, and the speaker himself will be a member of it, as is customary. Johnson is one of 33 members who had signed on to a draft package of rules reforms that are expected to move ahead in some form.

The newly elected speaker has not expressed any particular legislative priorities yet, though he has had a focus on public health as a Council member who chaired the health committee. He’s focused more of his public comments on bolstering the Council and how he would lead the body. He again said on Wednesday that he wants to add to the Council’s land use staff, recreate an investigations division, and offer Council members the opportunity to pursue their interests and priorities.

Speaking with members of the media during a brief press conference after the formal proceedings, Johnson said he will seek a diverse staff, and said that Council Chief of Staff Ramon Martinez has been asked to stay on. He also said that he will look to female members and members of color to speak and lead on issues that he may not have direct experience with. Johnson said he will be talking with each member to see which committees they are interested in chairing or joining and would do his best to make as much of it work as possible. He is sure to also be guided by Crowley and Crespo, as well as other political heavyweights that helped him win the post, like the leaders of the hotel workers union and the firefighters union.

And though many expect him to adopt a more top-down style of leadership than Mark-Viverito, he has insisted that he will sit down with individual members to gauge the needs of their district while formulating a larger agenda for the Council. On the Council floor, he named each member individually, telling them, “I want you to know that in good times and in bad, through thick and thin, I will always have your back. Those of you who supported me, those who didn’t support me, those who ran for speaker and those who have been here in this body and those who are new, I will have your back.”

[Related: Corey Johnson’s Record and Promises]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Corey Johnson Elected Speaker of the City Council Wed, 03 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Mayor-Made Speaker, Sought a Member-Driven Legacy http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7394-melissa-mark-viverito-a-mayor-made-speaker-who-sought-a-member-driven-legacy http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7394-melissa-mark-viverito-a-mayor-made-speaker-who-sought-a-member-driven-legacy Mayor de Blasio Speaker Mark-Viverito

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Latina to preside over the 51-member New York City Council, leaves office having shepherded a progressive shift in the city’s direction, in conjunction with fellow Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio, a philosophically aligned partner in government who was the deciding factor in her winning the powerful speaker position four years ago.

As arguably the second most powerful elected official in the city, Mark-Viverito oversaw an agenda of progressivism that significantly moved the needle for causes of social justice, especially related to immigrants, workers, and the criminal justice system, many of which were close to her heart and supported by a Council dominated by progressive members. But when the needle didn’t move fast enough, there were those that said Mark-Viverito too often carried the mayor’s water. It’s a charge she disputes, as do numerous Council members that served under her as they look back at her four years at the helm.

Members broadly agree that she followed through on a promise to give rank-and-file Council members the freedom to pursue their priorities while standing firm against the mayoral administration when it mattered, and that some capitulation to the administration’s priorities was part of the high-wire balancing act that defines the speakership. While they worked together far more often than they were in opposition, it was not always clear to what extent Mark-Viverito and her members, on one hand, and de Blasio, on the other, disagreed, given that the Council speaker often kept negotiations close to the vest and declined to comment in detail as the legislative process unfolded.

Mark-Viverito and her members also rarely aired internal conflict publicly, while members appeared to know that their speaker would support them, even as she very much pursued her own policy priorities and kept a tight grip on what legislation made its way to the Council floor for a vote.

The outgoing speaker made careful decisions about when and how to criticize the mayor, preferring to hold oversight hearings than to make splashy headlines with a sharp quote. She regularly declined to comment about de Blasio’s ethics and transparency problems, instead pursuing legislation to address certain issues or allowing others more willing to be oppositional to fill the space. She mostly stayed out of de Blasio’s feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, another fellow Democrat, though she herself has been part of some tense intra-party political battles with officials like former Assemblymember and current Manhattan Democratic Party leader Keith Wright.

Mark-Viverito assumed the speakership in January 2014 with support from an ascendant mayor, strong labor unions, and a newly empowered Progressive Caucus, bucking the traditional county party-dominated process for selecting a new speaker. The new dynamic led some to be wary of whether Mark-Viverito would be a speaker for the members of the Council or for the mayor, whose politics so closely resembled her own. After taking office, she quickly advanced internal changes at the Council that were meant to empower members, particularly the chairs of the 40-odd committees, while also maintaining sufficient control within the speaker’s office.

“The considerable thing about my leadership is that I made it a member-focused legislative body,” Mark-Viverito said, in a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast hosted by Gotham Gazette and City Limits. “It wasn’t about me centralizing the power, just pushing what my agenda was…[it was about] having the members really have much more of a functional role and ownership for this institution. It belongs to all of us, it doesn’t just belong to the speaker.”

Mark-Viverito beefed up the Council staff to support members’ legislative priorities, she said, which led to greater output. Over the four years, the Council passed 714 bills under her leadership, more than any Council class before it. “I was being respectful to member priorities and the vision that they had and working with them on that...and I think that’s the way a legislative body should function,” she said.

[Listen: Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito]

The first two years of Mark-Viverito’s speakership proceeded amicably with the mayor for the most part. The Council played its part in supporting the mayor’s agenda that included universal pre-kindergarten and expanding the paid sick leave law. City spending ramped up with little opposition from the Council, which also advocated for increased spending on its own policy priorities.

“I think that from the start the speaker was a forward thinking, independent leader,” said outgoing Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, a Queens Democrat. “She brought real fairness and transparency to the Council and made the Council a better place to work, from someone who had been in the Council for five years prior to her leadership.”

An early area of disagreement was Mark-Viverito’s call for an increase in the NYPD’s headcount, which struck many as peculiar given her criticisms of police practices and the larger criminal justice system. She unsuccessfully pressed the issue in 2014, and then renewed her efforts in 2015, eventually convincing a hesitant de Blasio to back the expensive idea. The department ended up adding 1,300 new officers, a compromise among the Council, the mayor, and the NYPD.

Also in 2015, in the city’s fight against the ride-hailing service Uber, Mark-Viverito publicly chastised the mayor for presuming that the Council would do his bidding. The mayor, after giving up his effort to cap the number of new cars run by Uber and its competitors, threatened that a cap was still a tool available to him, even though it would have to be approved by the Council first. “I’m not going to allow anyone to attempt to save face at the expense of this Council,” she said at a news conference at City Hall, raising many eyebrows. “This Council decides what bills we need to discuss, what debates we will have, what will be taken off the table, what will be put on the table. No one else leads that discussion, no one else influences that discussion.”

Higher profile battles would occur later still, as de Blasio’s first term wore on towards a potential second and as the speaker’s final term wound to a close. (Mark-Viverito was early to endorse de Blasio for reelection, but, over the following months, she seemed to show more willingness to resist his politics and policies.)    

“I think first and foremost, she’s been her speaker,” said Council Member Brad Lander, in a phone interview, on whether Mark-Viverito had been the members’ speaker or the mayor’s. “She’s got a strong vision for the city and for the Council and that’s what I think has guided her. I think it’s been a really productive and fair and highly consequential and progressive speakership.”

De Blasio Mark-Viverito City Hall handshake Ed Reed Mayor's OfficeLander, who was a leading proponent for Mark-Viverito to become the speaker and was named chair of the Council’s rules committee by her, praised the internal reforms that Mark-Viverito implemented early on, which he helped write. The reforms made the Council “a more equal and inclusive body in which every member can zealously represent their community and their values, even when those are different, without fear or favor,” Lander said. Perhaps most notably, Mark-Viverito and her colleagues changed the system by which members are provided discretionary funds to disperse to nonprofits, rationalizing a process that had often been used by previous speakers to reward and punish members.

On particular issues, Lander said, Mark-Viverito facilitated legislation championed by members, such as the right to counsel for tenants in housing court, fair work-week legislation, and certain freelancer protections. The most impactful, in Lander’s view, was her successful advocacy for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. Mark-Viverito convened an independent commission to recommend a raft of criminal justice reforms and particularly to look at Rikers. De Blasio, who did not support the closure at first, seemed to begrudgingly accept the inevitable and announced his support just before the commission issued its report. “I believe Rikers is on a path to closure,” Lander said, “and I don’t think that would be true if [Mark-Viverito] had not been elected speaker four years ago.”

Lander noted that while the speaker often agreed and collaborated with the mayor, she was not hesitant to oppose him or break with him when her members dictated she should. For instance, when she pulled a bill she supported from consideration by the full Council that would have curbed the city’s horse carriage industry. It was a prominent campaign issue in the 2013 mayoral race and de Blasio had advocated for and promised a complete ban. But, amid discontent from members on potential compromise legislation in early 2016, the speaker stood with her colleagues.

“I think she’s been independent,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of the de Blasio administration, in a November interview at City Hall. “Each speaker, just like each member, has their own political relationship with the other side of the building here. And no speaker’s going to be completely independent from the mayor or the governor or any other political actor that has influence.”

As the process to select the next speaker of the City Council has played out in the final months and weeks of 2017, de Blasio has repeatedly said how well he thinks his involvement in Mark-Viverito’s victory turned out. De Blasio captured his overall feelings in June, when announcing a final budget deal with Mark-Viverito, saying of the speaker:

“[S]he has been an extraordinary partner over the last four years. We knew each other well before we each assumed these roles. We knew that we had a lot of respect and trust for each other. We knew that we shared values. We didn’t know what it would be like to play these roles. We didn’t know what the times ahead would be or what the issues we’d face would be. But there was a core belief that if you share values, a lot of good things can happen. And many, many conversations over many years – mostly in agreement, sometimes not, but we always found a way to get to a good outcome, and with great support from all our colleagues. So from me, I can tell you I’ll be sorry when these four years are over because it has been such a great and positive partnership. As a progressive, I want to thank Melissa Mark-Viverito for helping to move this city in a new progressive direction. And the things she has championed are going to have a huge impact on this city for many years to come.”

A former Council member, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely, served under both Mark-Viverito and former speaker Christine Quinn and said the process of Mark-Viverito’s election as speaker hampered her ability to distance herself from de Blasio. “Melissa started at a very great disadvantage, the fact that the mayor picked her to be the speaker and only because of him,” the former member said. “He made her. That hurt the whole body and it hurt her ability to really appear to be independent...because people perceived that the City Council is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the mayor. Right off the bat, that’s a bad start.”

This former member did credit Mark-Viverito for giving more leeway than Quinn to Council members to push legislation and pursue their individual agendas, while also breaking with the mayor on controversial items. But even then, the member said, there was a degree of deference. “I think Melissa did check with the mayor on everything, and even when they broke, I think they probably checked with the mayor before they broke. So I think it was a real problem,” the former member said.

On no other issue has that dynamic played out more strongly than criminal justice reform and the Council’s attempts to legislate, and regulate, the city’s police force. Two police reform bills to regulate officers’ interactions with people, collectively named The Right to Know Act, progressed slowly through the legislative process over the years despite having overwhelming support from Council members and progressive advocates. Tensions reached a head in mid-2016 when Mark-Viverito reached a compromise on administrative implementation by the NYPD of partial measures, in lieu of a full Council vote to codify the provisions into law. Advocates saw it as a backroom deal while Council members fumed over the concession to the administration and the police department.

Amended versions of the bills would ultimately pass in a divisive vote at the final full meeting of the Council on December 19, 2017, with numerous Council members and hundreds of community groups coming out in opposition to one bill sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres that had been, in their view, diluted to appease the NYPD and the mayor, who said he’d sign the bill given it had struck the right balance despite his skepticism about too much legislating of NYPD protocols.

Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy coalition, said in a statement that it was “disappointing,” particularly given Mark-Viverito’s progressive credentials on police reform and accountability. “While [Mark-Viverito] was a champion on Closing Rikers, she did not show the same willingness to fight for front-end police reforms that hold the NYPD accountable and systemically change racial disparities in policing and what feeds the criminal justice system,” Bandele said. “She spent three to four years blocking the Right to Know Act, and then helped the de Blasio administration undermine the half of the legislative package of which Council Member Torres was lead sponsor.” Bandele also criticized the speaker’s push to increase the headcount of the NYPD, which Mark-Viverito had argued would help with reforms and implementation of community policing.

Council Member Torres also criticized the administrative compromise in 2016 and he told Gotham Gazette in November that Mark-Viverito had not been sufficiently independent of the mayor in that case. In a separate interview after a November 1 Crain’s New York Business breakfast forum, Torres indicated, amid praise, some dissatisfaction with the speaker’s record. “I support Melissa, I love Melissa as a person and as a speaker. I thought she has struck the right balance between decentralizing greater power to the members while at the same time maintaining the power of the speaker’s office,” he said. “There are a few moments when I felt we were excessively deferential to the mayor and I said so at the time of those controversies.”

Torres had said at the Crain’s forum -- part of his bid to become Mark-Viverito’s successor as speaker -- that the Council was prone to sideshow distractions. “Oscar Lopez, Christopher Columbus, what’s the latest sensation of the week,” he elaborated in the interview afterward. “The Health and Hospitals Corporation could disappear within the next five years. NYCHA has $17 billion worth of capital needs. Those are the things that matter, those are the things that we should be discussing.”

Torres later changed his tune somewhat, perhaps showcasing some of the mixed feelings Council members have about Mark-Viverito’s tenure and her relationships with de Blasio and her members. “She has been responsive to the needs of the members, there’s no question about it. As a member, I could not be more satisfied with the leadership that she’s given me,” Torres recently told Gotham Gazette at City Hall.

As to his earlier comments on her independence, Torres said, “I think it’s a matter of degree. We could always be more effective, we could always be more independent. But has she fundamentally been representative of the needs of the members of the institution? The answer is yes. Not perfect, but fundamentally.” When the Right to Know Act headed to a vote and many of Torres’ colleagues criticized his bill, Mark-Viverito was one of his fiercest defenders, though a number of Council members felt that Torres and Mark-Viverito had capitulated too much to the de Blasio administration. Torres’ bill did pass.

On the Max & Murphy podcast, Mark-Viverito addressed working with de Blasio, and the Council negotiating hundreds of bills with the administration, along with land use deals, budgets, and more. “I can safely say that we’ve had a good partnership and I think that there are a lot of things that I was able to move them on and they had conversations with us and maybe there’s things that they [moved] us on,” she said December 20. “But definitely it was a very productive relationship in that way. And I think that in areas where they may have had concerns about pieces of legislation, really engaging with them and talking to them and exerting ourselves, we were able to get some reconsideration on those items. And that’s in consultation with colleagues...I’m not regretful of anything.”

Mark-Viverito is leaving office proud of the way she led the Council, and not ruling out her own run for mayor down the line. It’s no surprise that even though she is term-limited she did not challenge a sitting mayor of her own party who she is largely aligned with and who helped her reach the height of her power. She’s leaving office having not only ushered in significant changes to city law, but having altered the way the Council functions and how members expect to be treated by their leader.

“Anyone that has to deal with a thousand bills over the course of a tenure is going to have to work to be tremendously balanced when you’re leading a legislative body against, at times, or in conjunction with the mayor’s administration,” said Staten Island Council Member Joe Borelli, one of only three Republicans on the City Council who, more often than not, vote against the types of progressive legislation championed by Mark-Viverito.

“I don’t think you can box her in as being either/or [the members’ speaker or the mayor’s speaker]. I’m sure her critics will say that she’s both at times when it suits their narrative,” Borelli continued. “She’s someone who wore her progressive banner very proudly and that’s certainly going to be her legacy and I think people over the next few years will view her as someone who carried the football for progressive causes a bit further, and people like me and those I represent will see her tenure in the speakership as slightly different.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Mayor-Made Speaker, Sought a Member-Driven Legacy Fri, 29 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines Effectiveness of Domestic Violence Courts http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7204-city-council-examines-effectiveness-of-domestic-violence-courts http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7204-city-council-examines-effectiveness-of-domestic-violence-courts lancman rally council

Council Member Lancman (photo: @NYCCouncil)


The City Council’s Courts and Legal Services Committee held an oversight hearing on Monday dedicated to New York’s Integrated Domestic Violence Courts, a program designed to increase accountability and responsiveness to domestic violence victims in the legal system by combining the different courts one might interact with in a domestic violence dispute into a single court, with a single judge handling a couple’s or family’s multiple cases, including criminal, custody, and visitation cases.

Integrated domestic violence courts, or IDVs, aim to lessen the burden of the legal system on victims of domestic violence, as well as their families. IDVs were introduced into the New York criminal justice system in 2003; the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, a nonprofit service provider, found that, between 2007 and 2009, domestic violence convictions in IDV courts were considerably higher than in criminal courts. Domestic violence cases in regular criminal courts usually do not end in convictions, leaving victims without at least some semblance of justice.

These courts are a piece of the larger picture of efforts to fight, prevent, and punish domestic violence in New York City.

As noted at the hearing, even as crime has fallen substantially in New York City, reports of incidences of domestic violence have risen, “both in total number and as a percentage of total crime,” according to a briefing paper for the hearing prepared by the City Council. The Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence reports that the NYPD responded to 91,600 domestic violence calls involving intimate partners in 2016, a 22.6% increase over 2015.

Some attribute increases in reports to encouragement of such reporting and steps taken to educate people, especially women, about their opportunities to report abuse and resources available to victims. While it is still a challenge, the stigma around reporting domestic violence has been reduced.

City Council Member Rory Lancman, the chair of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, led the hearing and was at several points the only elected official in the room.

“Every act of domestic violence ripples out to affect our city -- it leads to homelessness, health problems and hospital visits, police interventions, lost jobs or missed time, not to mention its effect on children’s wellbeing and education,” Lancman said. “How our City manages the legal proceedings associated with domestic violence cases plays a major role in determining the services victims receive and how we are able to hold perpetrators accountable.

Lancman also specifically noted the importance of the IDV courts in his remarks.

“For the better part of two decades now, New York’s Court system has been on the forefront of the movement to provide specialty courts to handle domestic violence cases. It is our responsibility to ensure the operations of DV and IDV courts, and the services they provide, are excellent no matter what the charge or court families end up in.”

In November 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a task force on domestic violence, co-chaired by his wife, Chirlane McCray, and Police Commissioner James O’Neill, to develop recommendations for how to comprehensively deal with domestic violence in the city. The Task Force submitted its initial report to the mayor in May, with a host of recommendations encompassed within four main areas: expand child and youth prevention and intervention; enhance criminal justice responses; strengthen New York City communities; and improve citywide coordination to maximize results.

The de Blasio administration had two officials testify Monday, discussing IDVs in the larger context of the city’s efforts to fight domestic violence.

At the hearing, the ways in which IDVs benefit the system were discussed several times, but much of the focus was on reforms that could be made to the IDV system. For instance, despite increased attention upon individual cases across multiple legal disciplines, a 2010 Harvard study, cited by the committee, found that “protective orders took longer to process and issue in IDV courts, and were not significantly more likely to be granted compared to those filed in Criminal Domestic Violence Courts.”

Further, IDVs suffer from a chronic lack of resources, according to experts who testified to the committee. Lindsey Wallace, of Sanctuary for Families, testified regarding the poor resource allocation negatively impacting IDVs, despite casting Brooklyn’s IDV system as a “national model.”

“Many of the critical services IDVC judges wish to order for these families are not available, or there are lengthy waiting lists,” Wallace said. “Of the most critical importance is the need for institutional providers of supervised visitation.”

Supervised visitation refers to allowing parents involved in a domestic violence dispute the opportunity to see their children, who may have been taken away from them, under close supervision. This is one of the most sensitive areas in domestic violence policy, as parents will often be desperate to see their children, but a lack of services to facilitate these visits can cause a backlog in supervisors.

Supervised visitation emerged as possibly the most prominent of the resource problems according to those testifying before the Council committee on Monday. Esther Morgenstern, a Kings County Supreme Court judge who presides over Brooklyn’s IDV court, gave a similar diagnosis to Wallace’s.

“When it comes to supervised visitation, there’s a real lacking of services,” Morgenstern said. “And when you’re at the end of the case, two years have gone by, the criminal cases have resolved, and matrimonial has resolved, the children, we still want them to reconnect with the noncustodial parent. And very often I sign 722c orders, which allows the court to use city and state funds to have those visitations occur. But there’s a real need for additional funds for supervised visitation.” She went on to request a grant for supervised visitation services from the City Council.

Other areas of potential IDV reform were also touched upon. Kathleen Daniel, a domestic violence survivor and advocate, noted that there is a “lack of integration for DV families outside of criminal court,” referring to the degree to which relevant information is shared between entities like courts and legal services. IDV is, according to Daniel, the only integrated step in the court process for domestic violence.

Daniel further recommended that renewing restraining orders should be made easier and pressed for a “mandated mediation program” of one to two years “to ensure co-parenting and the best interests of children are the priority.”

Representing the de Blasio administration Monday were Elizabeth Dank of the Office to Combat Domestic Violence and Nicole Torres of the Office of Criminal Justice. Dank and Torres discussed IDV courts in the context of the administration’s larger push for domestic violence policy reform, such as the large number of families involved in disputes who utilize family justice centers during the legal process, a count of 62,000 in 2016.

Lancman, the chair of the committee, asked Dank about the apparent problems with enough resources for supervised visitations. Dank discussed a program through Safe Horizons, a victim assistance organization, in partnership with the federal government, to provide a grant for supervised visitation in Queens, as well as other programs that she did not specify.

“We agree that this is something that needs additional resources, and so we are looking at that matter through the task force currently,” said Dank. The de Blasio administration is expected to make a series of announcements in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as it did last year.

Lancman also asked Dank about why some more serious offenses, in most cases felonies, do not end up in front of IDVs where these cases could receive more individualized attention. In other words, the more serious the case, the more likely it is to have to go through even more judicial bureaucracy, as opposed to non-felony offenses, which more often land in an IDV.

Dank shifted back to resources, stating that the administration’s aim is, regardless of the seriousness of the offense, to ensure that resources are available to families going through the process.

While many areas in need of reform or improvement were noted, the positives of IDVs were not lost on those testifying Monday. A large benefit of IDVs is the streamlining of the legal process for domestic violence victims and their families.

“If you go into family court just to file for custody or for an order of protection,” said Judge Morgenstern, “your return date on proof of service could be three months. In my [court], when there’s an arrest, and a match is made, within two weeks you’ll be before the IDV court. So, IDV, the fact that we’re looking at all of the cases brings the issues before the court much quicker.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Examines Effectiveness of Domestic Violence Courts Mon, 18 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000