Gotham Gazette Thu, 25 Apr 2019 12:05:30 +0000 en-gb (Webmaster) Lower East Side City Council Candidates Make Their Case in Debate City Council District 2 candidates

The CD2 Democratic candidates at Manhattan Neighborhood Network

There are five candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the race to replace term-limited Rosie Mendez as the City Council representative for District 2, which includes the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The candidates -- Carlina Rivera, Ronnie Cho, Mary Silver, Jasmin Sanchez, and Jorge Vasquez -- gathered recently at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) for a debate to be televised by the station.

The debate, moderated by Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max, focused on issues such as affordable housing, small businesses, education, and development within the district, as well as the performance of Mendez, a Democrat, and of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat seeking a second term this fall.

Along with discussing those topics, and more, the candidates also attempted to explain to viewers and District 2 voters why they are the right person to represent the district moving forward. Each candidate discussed his or her background and qualifications in public service.

Rivera is a former legislative director for Mendez and has the outgoing Council member’s support; Cho worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and became his administration's millennial outreach director before moving to New York and working at MTV; Vasquez is a housing attorney; Sanchez is a nonprofit director and former community liaison for State Senator Daniel Squadron; and Silver is a community board member and attorney with a background in education.

The winner of the Democratic primary among the five is all but certain to win in November’s general election, when he or she will face Jimmy McMillan, of the Rent is Too Damn High party, who is also running as a Republican, and Libertarian nominee Donald Garrity.

In their opening and closing statements, the candidates made the case for their candidacies and indicated how they are framing their qualifications for the job. Rivera presented herself as having ample government experience given her time as Mendez’s legislative director, allowing her to swiftly enter the Council without a learning window and immediately start working for her constituents. She also namechecked Donald Trump more than the other candidates, stating that she would be best prepared to resist the president’s agenda on the local level.

Cho presented himself as someone who has seen how government works at its highest levels, and therefore wants to take the lessons he’s learned and apply them in the city. He also presented himself as an outsider to city politics, and repeatedly called for a “new generation of leadership.”

Silver distinguished herself by her education background, having been a PTA president and a community board member, and stating that working in politics on the “other side of the Council” allows her to know what it’s like being a constituent who’s been ignored by her elected official.

Vasquez called for unifying the district and ensuring representation of everyone at the table in the Council, and also described himself as uniquely qualified to represent the district due to having worked as a litigator and for a judge on issues relevant to his potential constituents.

Sanchez discussed her roots in the district, at the Baruch Houses, and also stated that her background in the nonprofit sector has given her important experience in constituent services. Sanchez also singled out two important projects for her as a Council member: redeveloping the Baruch Bath Houses, and CHARAS.

Rivera has received the lion’s share of endorsements from elected officials, including Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who represents the Lower East Side, as well as unions and advocacy groups. Because of this and her work for Mendez, which came up several times at the debate, Rivera is seen by many as the “status quo” or establishment choice. This led her opponents, especially Cho, to tie her to the alleged shortcomings of Mendez’s tenure and to advocate themselves as a change in leadership style.

Cho has raised the second largest amount of money in the race, behind Rivera, and was particularly critical of the perceived frontrunner. When asked about particular community issues the district needs solved, Cho repeatedly took the opportunity to bring up what he considers Mendez’s lack of attention to the community, and at times referenced Rivera in doing so.

For example, Mendez failed to vote for a bill to end on-call scheduling for workers, which was passed through the Council and signed by the mayor. Cho wondered why members of Mendez’s staff, particularly her legislative director (Rivera) didn’t stress the importance of voting for the bill, and called absenteeism in leadership “the biggest problem we have.” When asked by the moderator, Rivera stated that she would have voted for the bill if she was in the Council.

“I think that it’s a very important bill,” Rivera said. “I think on-call scheduling is a big problem in retail, amongst other industries. And I will say that, you know, Council Member Mendez is her own person, and that I was actually endorsed by the labor organizations that championed that bill, including RWDSU,” referencing the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

Cho was not convinced, questioning Rivera’s faculties as a “legislative director who can’t get her member to vote for a piece of legislation.”

It was the most pointed moment of a mostly calm, collegial, and forward-looking debate. The candidates mostly answered the moderator’s questions and spoke to the audience watching the televised debate, which will also be available online through MNN’s website.

Like in most Council districts, the issue that is dominating the race is affordability, particularly in regards to housing, but also regarding local businesses.

All five candidates on the debate dais indicated support for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), which aims to level the playing field in commercial rent renewals between landlords and small business owners, but has been stalled in the Council for decades, despite majority support and the support of Mayor de Blasio and Public Advocate Tish James during their election campaigns in 2013 and of Speaker Mark-Viverito when she was a rank-and-file Council member.

Cho questioned the continuing inaction on the legislation.

“I’m just tired of hearing people say how much they, ra ra, about small businesses and these community pillars,” he said. “But at the end of the day, where’s the actual action? Where are we delivering for people?” When asked what he would do as a Council member to ensure the passage of the act, he said “I think we need to hold the mayor accountable, I think we need coalitions of Democrats across the city, and actually ask the mayor, ‘why aren’t you in support of this? Why won’t you sign this bill? And let him explain himself.” It was pointed out to Cho that he would have to help get the bill through the Council whether the mayor was supportive or not.

Silver suggested that the reason the act has stalled is because of politicians putting the interests of developers before those of their constituents.

“This has been investigated, researched by attorneys. There was a commission set up for this. There’s no legality issues, let’s get on with it,” Silver said, referring to one of the oft-offered reasons that electeds have balked on the SBJSA, the question of whether a version of commercial rent control is legal. “The truth is, this has to do with real estate developers and this has to do with greedy landlords, and it has to do with the fact that they’re the ones who fund campaign committees and elections across the board.” Silver further stated that excessive city fees are also hampering small businesses in the district, though these fees have drastically receded under de Blasio.

The candidates were also in agreement on reforming the commercial rent tax, which has widespread support in the Council, but where no action has taken place to move the bill through committee and beyond. The reform would raise the threshold at which the tax, which affects businesses below 96th Street in Manhattan, is levied. The bill, sponsored by Council Member Dan Garodnick, who is also term-limited this year, would raise the amount of rent paid in a year required for the tax to be levied from $250,000 to $500,000. The bill has 41 sponsors in the 51-seat Council.

Rivera, Sanchez, and Vasquez called for small business owners and families affected by the commercial rent tax to testify at the City Council as to the effect of the tax. Sanchez also called for the creation of a Business Improvement District, or BID, on the Lower East Side bound by Avenue A, Avenue D, 14th Street, and Houston Street.

On housing, a plank in the NextGen NYCHA initiative to allow development of market-rate apartments on vacant NYCHA land was sharply rebuked by most of the prospective Council members. Rivera stated that NYCHA must begin to be looked at as a part of the city’s infrastructure, akin to the MTA, and called for a reform of the authority’s repair system.

The subject of housing was where the most disagreement came to the fore during the debate. Cho signaled a more pro-development stance than his colleagues, saying that to be pro-affordable housing but anti-development doesn’t “square up.”

Sanchez, meanwhile, staked her position less on new development and rather on preserving the existing housing stock. “In regards to affordable housing, the preservation of it is really important,” Sanchez said. “And I think one way of doing so is declaring certain areas historical districts. Therefore, there’s no way of building NYCHA towers if it’s a historical district, because I am completely against the privatization of public lands.” She also discussed the sorry state of affairs regarding repairs in NYCHA, and discussed a lack of accountability regarding people being added to leases in NYCHA, echoing a point made by Vasquez.

“The first thing we need to do is transparency,” Vasquez said, regarding his course of action on NYCHA as a Council member. He believes it should be easier for young adult children of NYCHA residents to be added to apartment leases. “There’s no documentation of who asks to be put on the lease. How many people who asked to be added onto something, right? We know how many people applied to NYCHA, but we don’t know how many people applied to be added onto an existing account. And that’s important, because we’re throwing away resources, we’re throwing away money. We’re throwing away the affordability and the fabric of our city, especially within District 2.”

Specific new developments or neighborhood rezonings, and related community opposition, can often serve as a cudgel for a local legislative race. This is being seen in Council races this year in District 8, with the East Harlem rezoning; and District 35, with the Bedford Union Armory redevelopment, among others.

The only specific new development that served as a discussion point during the District 2 debate for MNN was the development of a new tech hub in Union Square, slated to be built on city-owned land. The candidates were largely in agreement that the development would be a net positive for the community, bringing in new jobs, particularly in STEM, but that the community must get something in return, such as the ability to use the space rather than it serving as simply a tech hub for what Cho described as white, wealthy men from or in the mold of Silicon Valley.

The five were hesitant to praise Mayor de Blasio. Asked to give a letter grade to his mayoralty and whether they would vote for him in November, Rivera and Vasquez gave him a “B” while Cho and Sanchez each gave a “C”; Silver, a former educator, gave an “incomplete.”

Cho and Silver said they would vote for de Blasio this fall over his Republican opponent, Staten Island Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis; Sanchez said she wouldn’t, and Vasquez and Rivera said they are undecided. Universal pre-K was praised as an ameliorative effort to address the “tale of two cities” that de Blasio campaigned on; however, the continuing rise in the cost of living led the candidates to lower their marks for the mayor, some said. Vasquez also criticized the mayor for claiming support of SBJSA but then backtracking upon entering the mayoralty.

Watch the full CD2 MNN debate:

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Lower East Side City Council Candidates Make Their Case in Debate Thu, 24 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
On the Lower East Side, Council Contenders Seek to Upend Favorite for Open Seat Carlina Rivera City Council

Carlina Rivera (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

One of the 10 “open” City Council seat races is taking place on the East Side of Manhattan, in District 2, currently represented by Rosie Mendez, who is term-limited out of office. Several candidates, including Mendez’s preferred successor, Carlina Rivera, are competing in the Democratic primary, which will determine who holds the seat next given it is a staunchly Democratic district.

Rivera, Mendez’s former legislative director, has a good deal of momentum and support from the Democratic establishment. She has received endorsements of numerous elected officials, such as Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez, State Senators Brad Hoylman and Daniel Squadron, and others, as well as endorsements from unions and advocacy organizations. She has released a broad campaign platform touching on issues including housing, education, immigration, and criminal justice, putting down progressive markers on each.

But Rivera is facing serious competition from other candidates, including Ronnie Cho, a strong fund-raiser, in the district that is largely made up of the Lower East Side. The seat has long been considered a Puerto Rican stronghold, given representation by former Council Member Margarita Lopez and Mendez, along with U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez, but like many others across the city, the district has seen demographic shifts. Rivera is also Puerto Rican.

According to the most recent campaign finance filings, from mid-July, Rivera has raised the most money in the race. However, Cho, a former aide in the Obama administration, is not far behind. Rivera raised $143,412 and Cho about $132,931, while Cho has spent more of his money than Rivera has -- and Cho has actually spent $136,528, leaving him with a negative balance of $3,597. Rivera has spent $90,248, leaving her with a balance of $53,164 as the race heads toward the September 12 primary vote.

In late July and into August, candidates typically raise and spend funds at a feverish pace leading to primary day. The next filing will make clear whether Cho was able to replenish his coffers and continue to try to get his message out. Candidates are also now receiving public matching funds through the city’s robust campaign finance system, though Cho is the only candidate in the race who is not taking public matching funds, allowing him to abide by fewer rules on spending, but putting him at a disadvantage.

Other candidates running in the Democratic primary include Mary Silver, an attorney and Community Board member; Erin Hussein, a lawyer; Juan Pagan, a community activist who challenged Mendez in 2009; Jasmin Sanchez, founder of the Ana Luisa Garcia Community Center and former community liaison for Senator Squadron; and Jorge Vasquez, an attorney who has worked with Legal Services NYC and the Commission on Human Rights.

Perennial candidate Jimmy McMillan, who initially stated that he was again running for mayor, is running for the District 2 Council seat under the Republican and Rent Is Too Damn High umbrellas. The Libertarian line is occupied by Donald Garrity. They will face the winner of the crowded Democratic primary.

Rivera, like many prospective Council members across the city, sees affordability as the most pressing issue facing her potential constituents.

“From Kips Bay to the Lower East Side, we have seen tremendous changes in just the last 10-20 years,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette. “And this has created a lot of strain for longtime residents both in access to affordable housing and their ability to open or maintain a small business, or even find affordable options for food and other basic needs. In addition, we see a troubling increase in the number of people in our community who are either homeless or are at risk of losing their home.”

Indicative of the job of a City Council member -- which blends constituent services with legislative and oversight responsibilities -- there was a recent crisis for Lower East Side residents at Masaryk Towers, a Mitchell-Lama public housing apartment complex. Building management abruptly told residents that the 1,100-unit complex would go without gas for six weeks. The building did not provide hot plates or meal credits, leaving residents forced to eat out, which many can’t afford on a routine basis.

Rivera says that the situation requires more direct communication between building management and tenants, as well as services like meal delivery. However, she also took a harder line against situations where this is done deliberately.

“In separate cases where service is intentionally cut to force tenants out, we need to use every tool available to hold management companies and owners accountable through either the State Public Service Commission or the Attorney General's office,” she said. “There is also a bill I support currently before the Council that would create a watch list for predatory landlords and the lenders they use to finance these tactics.”

Rivera worked on a bill that requires gas service operators to notify the Department of Buildings 24 hours in advance of a shutoff, which was signed in December by Mayor Bill de Blasio as part of a legislative package on gas safety.

Rivera’s status as the frontrunner has opened her up to criticism from some other candidates. Sanchez, who has the backing of the Liberal Party, has called Rivera a party-line politician.

“Rivera is considered the establishment candidate because she was hand picked like a puppet by the party machinery,” Sanchez told Gotham Gazette. “They are more comfortable with a candidate that supports the status quo as opposed to someone who will challenge and defend the needs of our district.” She further stated that she will “never owe anyone anything.” She did not provide specifics about how she would seek to shift the status quo.

While Cho has brought in large amounts of campaign money, much of it comes from outside the city, per filings. Obama advisor and CNN personality David Axelrod headlined a recent fundraiser for Cho, and Cho has received backing from other former Obama staff such as former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and actor-turned-public engagement director Kal Penn.

Despite high profile boosters, Cho says he intends to energize the grassroots of the district to overcome a rival with larger local institutional support and a district network. He says that his conversations with his neighbors have led him to the conclusion that “institutional, establishment politics is not serving them very well,” drawing a contrast with Rivera and Mendez, the current officeholder.

A source close to Rivera disagreed, saying that the claim of Rivera being the establishment candidate doesn’t hold up when put against those backing Cho, the so-called “creme de la creme Democratic establishment.”

Cho claims that his experience working in the federal government, specifically in voter outreach, has prepared him to serve as a local legislator.

“I’ve learned from the very best on how government should interact with its people,” Cho told Gotham Gazette, highlighting Obama’s insistence that government be a “force for good in people’s lives.” He also claims that seeing the Affordable Care Act passed while dealing with a hostile Congress has prepared him to challenge Mayor de Blasio when necessary if he is a member of the city’s legislative body.

Like Rivera, Cho admonished the situation at Masaryk Towers as a failure of leadership, characterizing the gas shutoff as emblematic of people’s declining trust in government, and of the city failing to deliver and live up to its progressive reputation.

“It’s insane to me that six weeks is something that they would even think is acceptable in any way,” he said. “This is what happens when you don’t have people who are willing to stand up against these interests and these groups and these powerful entities. So they think ‘oh, six weeks? Let’s do it. Nothing’s gonna happen, they haven’t punished us before, they’ve never challenged us before, so we can get away with that.’ And that just feeds into, I think, the hopelessness that people have around who’s looking out for them. Who’s fighting for me? Is there anyone that actually cares and who’s going to push back and make sure this doesn’t happen again? And right now we have a historic high in terms of lack of faith in institutions. This kind of stuff does not change the trendline.”

The only other candidate who has raised funds in the ballpark of Rivera and Cho is Silver, a member of Community Board 6 and an attorney, who has raised a little over $90,000 per the latest campaign filing with the CFB. Like her opponents, she couched criticism of Rivera into her acknowledgement of the tough road ahead.

Vasquez has raised about $41,000, with public matching funds expected on top of that, and told Gotham Gazette that he acquired four times the required petition signatures.

“No one has been able to do what I’ve done, and the majority of my money is all New York City. A lot of it is in-district,” Vasquez told Gotham Gazette in an interview, referring to the large proportion of donations to other candidates that came from outside the district and the city. Vasquez said that in the Council, he wouldn’t necessarily take on the role of writing new legislation, but rather “using the legislation that we already have” to advocate on behalf of his constituents. He has made disability rights a centerpiece of his campaign, arguing that inadequate facilities for those with disabilities are blocking them from such things as affordable housing and even the right to vote.

Silver was also optimistic. “I knew when I joined this race that it would be a challenge,” Silver told Gotham Gazette. “Incumbents and political staffers are often heavily favored in City Council races.” She pointed out that most of the “open” seat City Council races, where the officeholder is term-limited, include at least one political staffer in the running. Silver still believes that she can win the election.

Silver, like the other candidates, told Gotham Gazette that affordability is the “overarching” issue in the district, but she has also made strengthening public education a centerpiece of her campaign. She says that “teachers and principals have asked me to run because our public schools need a champion in City Hall.” She identifies herself as an education advocate, citing having “raised over $3 million for New York City public schools, identified new school sites to ease overcrowding, and championed equity and excellence in our schools.”

Rivera responded to the criticisms of being the “establishment” candidate in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“As the youngest person running in this race, I bring a fresh perspective to the Council that is informed by the generations of organizers before me. My track record and the experience I gained working with Council Member Mendez has helped me build strong relationships at all levels of government that will allow me to get right to work in the Council. If this is establishment, then I thank them for recognizing my work.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

On the Lower East Side, Council Contenders Seek to Upend Favorite for Open Seat Mon, 07 Aug 2017 19:38:08 +0000
Use of Abstentions Varies Widely Among City Council Members 27083071523 4affcb6e87 z
City Council chambers (Sofie Hecht for Gotham Gazette)

Hundreds of times a year, City Council members vote on pieces of legislation, including the city’s budget, land use matters, and a wide variety of bills and resolutions. Members almost always vote “yes” or “no.” But sometimes, Council members choose to abstain, actively deciding not to declare they are for or against what is in front of them, and in the 51-seat City Council, abstentions are used by members to widely varying degrees.

In the New York State Assembly, lawmakers may only abstain from a vote when doing so would constitute a conflict of interest. In the New York City Council, however, lawmakers must abstain from a vote if there is a legitimate conflict of interest, but may abstain for other personal or political reasons as well. This leeway has led to some interesting voting patterns. Of the Council’s current 51 members, 34 did not abstain from a vote during this iteration of the Council, which began in January of 2014, through May 12, 2016. The other 17 Council members have abstained between one and 103 times.

At Gotham Gazette’s request, data on all votes from the current Council session -- January 2014 to May 12, 2016 -- was scraped from the City Council website by NYC Councilmatic and DataMade, a civic technology company.

City Council Member Ruben Wills, who has been indicted on corruption charges and also dealing with health issues, has abstained 103 times. Wills, who has also been declared absent for many votes, which is different from abstaining, declined to comment when contacted. The second most abstentions over the two year-plus period was by Council Member Jumaane Williams, who abstained 36 times. Council Members Andy King and Inez Barron abstained 21 times each, and Council Member Rosie Mendez abstained 14 times.

The other 13 Council members who abstained during the tabulated time period did so between one and four times.

(Note: some Council members abstained on the same bill or issue brought up at different times, like in committee and at the full Council. Bills must pass through committee, then the full Council to go to the Mayor’s desk.)

Two-thirds of Council members did not abstain from a single vote during the period studied. Two of those Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette expressed similar opinions about the importance of voting, citing conflict-of-interest as the lone justifiable exception for abstaining. Council members who have abstained gave a variety of explanations when asked.

“I have one job. That job is to vote,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos, who has not abstained on a vote since joining the Council in 2014. “It is the one power, the one privilege that I have that no one else has and I take it seriously, and come to a decision every time. I was elected by the people to vote and for constituents to know where I stand on these issues.”

Nine Council members who have abstained on at least one vote gave reasons to Gotham Gazette, including: being supportive of part of but not the whole bill, and believing the bill needs more work, but not opposed to the concept enough to warrant a “no” vote; concern about the unintended consequences of a bill; needing additional time to review the legislation and/or gather feedback from constituents; deference to colleagues; and avoiding making a politically unwise move.

“I imagine there are three reasons for abstaining,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres, who has not abstained since joining the Council in 2014. “You might abstain out of ethics: you have a conflict of interest. Or you might abstain out of politics: you wish to avoid making a politically inexpedient vote. Or you might abstain out of ambivalence about the merits of the vote in question.”

Of those three, Torres continued, “the only sensible justification is ethics,” the other two are “insufficient justifications for abstaining.”

Council Members Mark Treyger and Alan Maisel have both abstained only once, on a 2014 bill that eventually resulted in the creation of the city’s IDNYC municipal identification card program. Treyger and Maisel, both former educators, were supportive of the policy, but had concerns about the way the data gathered to create ID cards for potentially undocumented immigrants would be stored, and who might have access to that data.

During a hearing on the bill, “Maisel and I asked about the security and the storage of the names of the applicants when they apply for the card, who holds it, who stores it, and is this information accessible by the Department of Homeland Security,” Treyger told Gotham Gazette. “The answer was ‘yes,’ we were told they have to store the information for a number of years, and it can get turned over to the [federal] government.”

“I quite frankly did not feel comfortable with these answers, so I abstained as a sign of a lack of confidence with the security and protection of the names, but I didn’t reject it as a whole, because I did advocate for resident discount cards for New Yorkers,” Treyger added.

Both Maisel and Treyger said that their previous experience as educators had shown them that some immigrant parents were deeply concerned about sharing information, and the two Council members were worried that information gathered for IDNYC cards could end up in the wrong hands.

“For example,” Maisel said, they would essentially end up creating a list for “a certain presidential candidate who could possibly become elected president, and we know where he stands on people who are undocumented,” in obvious reference to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who has talked about rounding up undocumented immigrants for deportation.

Five Council Members abstained on a recent bill to limit the space in which costumed characters and other performers can operate in Times Square. The five members who abstained on the bill are all members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus: Andy King, Rosie Mendez, Inez Barron, Vanessa Gibson, and Antonio Reynoso (Robert Cornegy Jr., also a member of the BLAC, was the lone “no” vote on the bill).

Mendez and King said that they chose not to vote “yes” or “no” on the bill because King had introduced a similar bill back in 2014, yet neither King nor his bill were included in the drafting and passage of the new bill, introduced by Council Member Corey Johnson.

“When multiple Council members have ideas for the same or similar legislation, they will combine the Council members,” Mendez said. King had proposed the legislation years ago, Mendez said, but “King was never asked, never told anything, and his bill was disregarded.”

“When I didn’t see Andy’s name on it, I decided to abstain,” Mendez continued, adding that she did not have a chance to compare Johnson’s bill against King’s bill to see how similar or dissimilar they were. “At the end of the day I had real concern about..the role of community boards not being included in the legislation.”

“It got a little personal, so I chose not to vote on it, because I believed still more work needed to be done,” King said of Intro-1109, the pedestrian plaza bill, which is now law.

“As you know, I started this conversation in 2014,” King continued, “and I thought it didn’t play well in the Council for other Council members to pass something without inclusion of legislation that was already in the queue to address that…I chose not to participate rather than saying “no” to this one, I wanted to work to put more teeth in it.”

A spokesperson for Council Member Antonio Reynoso said that he abstained (his only abstention over the two-plus year period examined for this article) due to concern about “potential unintended consequences of the bill. However, many members and advocates that we work with regularly and whose judgment we trust were for it, so he didn’t want to go against it either. Instead he opted not to take a formal position.”

Council Members Gibson and Barron were not made available for comment, despite numerous requests.

Occasionally, Council members will abstain from voting on a bill because they do not entirely approve of it (whether it is due to what they see as potential unintended consequences or simply falling short of what would be ideal for their constituents).

For example, Mendez abstained on one of two controversial changes to city land use rules (Zoning for Quality and Affordability, or ZQA) in committee because she felt that “recent contextual rezoning that happened in the last ten years should've been kept intact.”

Yet, Council members “made changes, so I didn't feel it merited a “no” vote,” she said. “But they didn't make enough changes to get me to a “yes.” So I abstained….it wasn’t completely wrong, it wasn’t completely right, so I felt like that was the appropriate vote.”

To Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, occasionally abstaining on a vote because some elements of the bill warrant a positive vote, but some warrant a negative vote “makes a great deal of sense.”

“But,” Muzzio continued, “Ruben Wills abstaining 103 times indicates that he’s a very confused Council member, and a very conflicted Council member.”

“An excessive amount of abstentions,” Muzzio said, suggests “that he doesn’t have very clear ideas in his mind of how to asses a policy so he takes the easy way out, which is abstaining.”

At other times, Council members may choose to abstain, as King puts it, “as a professional courtesy to my colleagues, as opposed to saying that we’re not all on the same page.” “Unless it’s something that has a really, really devastating impact on my constituents,” King added.

Abstaining out of deference seems to occur more often in the context of a vote on land use items, where the Council is known to defer to the local member whose district is directly involved. “I have abstained usually land use items that are in a particular member's’ district,” Mendez said. “I would have otherwise voted “no,” but in deference to the Council member of that district I will abstain.”

This is because, as Mendez puts it, “I really feel like I know my district better than anyone else…Likewise, I’m not sitting in on all the minutiae of what [another Council member is] trying to negotiate for their district.”

But as Torres sees it, “land use is the only context which a rank-and-file Council member can emerge as a counterweight to the Mayor’s Office,” and abstaining in land use out of deference to another Council member means those members who abstain “are enjoying the benefits of local deference themselves while denying the benefit to everyone else. There’s a word for this - parasitic.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s parasitic,” Torres continued. “It’s not inaction, you are actively undermining the Council as an institution and…reaping the benefit of local deference to yourself while denying it to your colleagues.” For Torres, the only valid reason for choosing not to vote “should be ethics.”

On April 14, Council Member Jumaane Williams abstained on a vote on the East New York rezoning plan in subcommittee, only to change his vote to a “yes” when the same bill was heard in the Land Use committee less than an hour later.

“I just got the final plan this morning. I want to make sure to review it properly,” Williams said at the time when asked by Gotham Gazette. “At first glance, it looks good. I’m still a little concerned about MIH [Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, the companion land use change to ZQA], but there wasn’t much more you could ask him [Council Member Rafael Espinal] to do. That’s why I changed my vote to a “yes” in Land Use.”

“I will vote “yes” on the floor,” Williams said, and did. “There’s obviously people left out of the plan. We have to figure out how to address that. But with the tools at his disposal, I think [Espinal] did the best that he could.”

According to Travis Lamprecht, a spokesperson for Council Member Vincent Gentile (who has abstained four times), the Council Member “will choose to do so when he needs additional time to gather feedback from his district in order to make an educated decision for his constituents.” Gentile has abstained twice on land use matters; once on Williams’ 2014 bill to prohibit discrimination when hiring based on a person’s arrest record; and once on Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s 2014 bill in relation to traffic violations and serious crashes and license suspension.

Council Members Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal, both of whom have not abstained in the aggregated period, declined to comment for this story. Council Members Vanessa Gibson (four abstentions), Inez Barron (21), Robert Cornegy (four), Andrew Cohen (four), I. Daneek Miller (two), Eric Ulrich (two), Chaim Deutsch (two), Darlene Mealy (one), and Paul Vallone (one) all were not made available for comment, despite numerous attempts.

It should be noted that abstaining is different from “non-voting,” which can occur when a Council member is not present for the vote. Council members may also be marked as “excused” from voting for medical reasons, or for jury duty, parental leave, and bereavement.

Vallone’s only abstention was on legislation prohibiting Council members from earning most forms of outside income and making the position of Council member full-time (one of Deutsch’s two abstentions was also for this legislation).

Ulrich's two abstentions were on bills introduced by Brad Lander requiring the NYC Commission on Human rights to perform an employment discrimination investigation and a housing discrimination investigation.

Three of Gibson's four abstentions occurred on April 7, 2016 (on the pedestrian plaza bill, on a bill to increase penalties for illegal street hails at the city's airports and other designated areas, and on a bill to create a universal license for taxicab and for-hire vehicle drivers and require that English language proficiency not be assessed through a written exam).

“Abstaining can mean several things,” as Muzzio said, but “one should always explain an abstention, because in a sense, it’s a chicken[expletive] vote, meaning it’s a way to evade a hard choice.”

“Ultimately,” says Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, “the voters are the judge, because their interest is what is supposed to be represented.”

“City Council members are accountable to the people who elect them, and it’s important for the public to know if a Council member chooses not to vote on an issue that a constituent thinks is important,” Horner said. “The Council member should have to explain it.”

When abstaining, Council members occasionally give a brief explanation for their vote.

“We are giving Department of Transportation the authority to justify the complete removal of costumed characters from Times Square,” Reynoso said during an April vote on the pedestrian plaza bill. “Should it lead to unintended consequences...we would be left with little recourse outside of legislation to undo any action,” he added, expressing concern over the potential tension and competition that could arise should the costumed characters in Times Square be “corralled” into the proposed spaces, and he abstained.

“This has been a very important process, not perfect, but better than when it started,” Mendez said during the March vote on rezoning plans. “I think some of the Voluntary Inclusionary Zones could have been made mandatory…And I'm not happy with the fact that we are getting some height increases in the non-contextual zones,” but, Mendez continued, “since some work was done on this, and I feel that it is important to have a mandate inclusionary housing, I will be voting “yes”” on two pieces of legislation and “abstaining on LU 335 and the accompanying Reso 1023.”

ABSTENTION DATA, provided by Councilmatic and DataMade
Council members and number of abstentions from the current session, January 2014 to May 12, 2016

Ruben Wills 103
Jumaane Williams 36
Inez Barron 21
Andy King 21
Rosie Mendez 14
Andrew Cohen 4
Vincent Gentile 4
Robert Cornegy 4
Vanessa Gibson 4
Chaim Deutsch 2
Eric Ulrich 2
I. Daneek Miller 2
Mark Treyger 1
Paul Vallone 1
Alan Maisel 1
Darlene Mealy 1
Antonio Reynoso 1

Ben Kallos 0
Ritchie Torres 0
Brad Lander 0
Helen Rosenthal 0
Steven Matteo 0
Margaret Chin 0
Peter Koo 0
Fernando Cabrera 0
Costa Constantinides 0
Elizabeth Crowley 0
Laurie Cumbo 0
Inez Dickens 0
Daniel Dromm 0
Rafael Espinal 0
Mathieu Eugene 0
Julissa Ferreras-Copeland 0
Dan Garodnick 0
Barry Grodenchik 0
Karen Koslowitz 0
Stephen Levin 0
Mark Levine 0
Melissa Mark-Viverito 0
Carlos Menchaca 0
Annabel Palma 0
Ydanis Rodriguez 0
Donovan Richards 0
Deborah Rose 0
James Vacca 0
Jimmy Van Bramer 0
Joe Borelli 0
Rafael Salamanca - 0

*Maria Carmen del Arroyo, Vincent Ignizio, and Mark Weprin also served as Council Members during this session before resigning and being replaced by Salamanca, Borelli, and Grodenchik, respectively, though none of the three abstained on any vote during the aggregated period.

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Use of Abstentions Varies Widely Among City Council Members Wed, 22 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
At Homelessness Forum, Manhattanites Voice Local Concerns on Pressing Issue Mendez homelessness town hall

Homelessness town hall on the East Side (photo via @RosieMendez)

At a Tuesday night town hall hosted by City Council Members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez at Gramercy’s Church of the Epiphany, stakeholders voiced concerns about problems related to homelessness, an increasingly controversial issue facing the East Side of Manhattan.

After presentations from city officials and nonprofit leaders who work on homelessness issues, local residents asked questions about how they can resolve problems specific to the area, like the myriad issues with the 850-bed 30th Street Men’s Shelter (also known as “Bellevue”).

“New York City is dealing with a homeless crisis today,” said Council Member Garodnick in his opening remarks. “And this crisis is felt rather acutely in our neighborhood, because we have a lot of facilities which are serving homeless people.”

The most significant one, Garodnick added, being Bellevue.

One audience member asked officials about reducing the size of the shelter: “Can we really think about a path or a strategy to get [the 30th Street Men’s Shelter] from 800 beds to 200 beds, which could then be manageable for all of the fabulous people that work there and all the great programs that you’re doing?”

Garodnick replied that “850 beds is obviously far too large for a particular community to deal with and we see the effects of that every day. We also have a crisis in the city where the city can’t find, build, access facilities sufficiently enough and quick enough to be able to deal with the problem in the entire city.”

Bellevue was a frequent topic of concern and conversation Tuesday night.

“How many people at the 30th Street Center are paroled violent felony offenders?” one person asked. “It’s never related to the public, so we have no way of knowing.”

Though officials mentioned that Bellevue has no sex offenders, they did not indicate that the city has the same knowledge about violent offenders. “I can’t answer that question, because we don’t track every crime category of every client that comes into the shelter system,” Department of Homeless Services security official Louis A. Molina said. Molina also followed up with the person who asked the question after the Q&A session.

Around two hundred people attended the event. In addition to brief remarks from Garodnick and Mendez, other speakers included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, Council Member Ben Kallos, and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steve Banks - who is leading the de Blasio administration’s review of its homelessness policies. Garodnick led the fielding of audience questions.

Banks informed the audience about the city’s new Home-Stat program, which is aimed at helping those living on the streets, and reiterated support for a “commitment that was made to the community to convert a number of beds at Bellevue into an employment program.” Banks left the forum early to assist a street outreach team, but said that he would receive the community’s input from staff members that attended.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio announced the hire veteran health administrator Dr. Herminia Palacio as deputy mayor for health and human services. The position, which includes oversight of homeless policy, had been vacant since August.

The forum amid heightened political and policy controversy around homelessness, which has become a multifaceted crisis for de Blasio. After months of criticism over the city’s response to it, the de Blasio administration began a 90-day review of its policies and announced the departure of Gilbert Taylor from his post as head of the beleaguered Department of Homeless Services.

Homelessness is also the latest policy issue in the crosshairs of the feud between de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a harsh critic of the city’s management. On Jan. 13, Cuomo will reveal a plan for the city’s homelessness in his State of the State address.  

Earlier this week, Cuomo issued an executive order mandating that municipalities across the state make efforts to move all street homeless individuals into shelters during below-freezing temperatures; that shelter hours are expanded; and that shelters are kept in good condition. De Blasio has indicated that the order would not alter city policy.

During Tuesday’s East Side forum, Commissioner Banks explained that community input will influence his review and recommendations.

“During our 90-day review, we’re certainly going to be looking at how to implement the kind of employment programs that we want to implement, from HRA’s perspective, from DHS’ perspective, and from the community and from the leadership of the community’s perspective,” Banks said.

by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette

At Homelessness Forum, Manhattanites Voice Local Concerns on Pressing Issue Wed, 06 Jan 2016 23:10:59 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 4 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

Happy New Year!

So far, New York politics in 2016 looks a lot like 2015. On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new Executive Order related to homelessness that appears to be the opening salvo in his plan to take aim at the issue, most pressingly in New York City, where he's criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio's handling of the crisis that includes about 60,000 homeless people. Cuomo's order notes that homelessness is a problem around the state and says that when temperatures are below freezing, municipalities must provide shelter to homeless individuals, move homeless people to shelter, extend shelter hours, and maintain quality shelter conditions that meet state and local laws and regulations.

The move gets at the rivalry between the governor and the mayor, which shows little sign of abating, despite the fact that there are real policy issues - and lives - at stake. De Blasio has battled a persistent homeless census, issues with the conditions of homeless shelters, and a good deal of criticism from the governor and others, which has all led to a shake-up in his administration. To fight homelessness, de Blasio has enacted a good deal of new policy and drastically increased funding toward a variety of programs, but he has only just recently been able to level off a growing number of people without consistent housing.

On Sunday, the de Blasio administration was quick to point out that the governor's executive order does little, if anything, to change things in the city, which already has a must-shelter law and where the city recently announced new protocols for shelter hours and services. There is one main point of contention, though, which is the order's provision that homeless individuals must be moved to shelter - something the de Blasio administration says can only be mandated through state law.

De Blasio is sure to get questions about these issues when he holds a press conference centered around another topic Monday morning in Brooklyn - see below for details.

Cuomo, meanwhile, is gearing up for his January 13 State of the State and budget address, which is likely to include other policies aimed at homelessness. Cuomo is set to make an announcement on Monday in Manhattan - see below for details.

The state Legislature returns to Albany for its first session day of 2016 on Wednesday of this week. There are legislative hearings on the minimum wage and the failed Health Republic insurance exchange this week - see below for details.

Later this week, de Blasio is likely to hold a ceremony to sign his own recent Executive Order, the one mandating paid parental leave for about 20,000 nonunion city employees. De Blasio announced the policy in late December and promised to reopen collective bargaining with city unions in order to make the benefit part of their contracts. He's also looking to the state and federal governments to act on paid family leave so that all New Yorkers (and Americans) can take time off to care for a new child or a sick or elderly relative (de Blasio's initial policy is only for new parents, it does not cover care for sick or elderly relatives, but most paid family leave bill proposals do). [Read: De Blasio Moves on Paid Parental Leave]

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

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

The run of the week in detail:

On Monday at 7:15 a.m. outside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, "Mayor de Blasio, Senator Charles Schumer, elected officials and senior Administration leadership will meet morning pass out flyers on the City's new commuter benefits law. Tomorrow is the first work day after the law went into effect on January 1." Read about the new transit benefit laws here: New Transit Program Called 'Win-Win' for Many Commuters and Employers.

At about 7:30 a.m. inside Barclays Center, "the Mayor will hold a press conference to discuss commuter benefits." Then, at 1:30 p.m. Monday at One Police Plaza, de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bratton "will hold a press conference to discuss historically low crime numbers in New York City."

At 11 a.m. Monday at 1199 SEIU headquarters in Manhattan, Gov. Cuomo will make an announcement, kicking off "The Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice." City officials, including Comptroller Scott Stringer, will attend.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez will co-host a community town hall focused on "Homelessness on the East Side" at the Parish Hall of the Church of the Epiphany. A variety of other Manhattan elected officials are also co-sponsoring and will either attend or send representatives.

The New York State Legislature holds its first day of 2016 legislative session in Albany on Wednesday.

At 9 a.m. on Wednesday in Albany, the Senate Standing Committees on Health and Insurance will hold a public meeting about "The demise of Health Republic and preparing for the future."

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet about a resolution calling on the city and state to sign a fourth New York-New York supportive housing plan.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to discuss a budget extender and two items related to Business Improvement Districts
  • At noon, the Council will hold the year's first Stated Meeting. As always, this is expected to be prefaced by the Council Speaker's pre-stated press conference.

At 8:30 a.m., Senator Charles Schumer "will discuss Congress' year-end budget and how it impacts New York" at an Association for a Better New York breakfast event.

At the City Council at 10 a.m. Thursday, the Committee on Aging will meet for an oversight hearing about social adult day care.

At the state Legislature on Thursday: an 11 a.m. public hearing in Albany held by the Senate Standing Committee on Labor to analyze "the overall impact increasing the statewide minimum wage to $15/hour would have on workers, employers, and the state as a whole."

Friday and the weekend
Nothing on our radar right now, but that can easily change as events are announced once the week gets going. Stay tuned for updates here and elsewhere.

Read more recent highlights from Gotham Gazette:

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

by Ryan Brady and Ben Max

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 4 Sun, 03 Jan 2016 05:00:00 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, June 1 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Welcome to June! A city budget is due by the end of the month. The state legislative session is due to end mid-month. And, it's both Gun Violence Awareness Month in New York City (legislation in 2013 declared it the first city in the United States to have a month dedicated to the cause) and LGBT Pride Month. Look for events and legislation related to each this week and as the month continues.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, June 1 Sun, 31 May 2015 22:59:41 +0000