Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/635 Mon, 23 Apr 2018 22:39:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7617:max-murphy-podcast-reforming-special-elections-more-in-albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7617:max-murphy-podcast-reforming-special-elections-more-in-albany

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette


April 17, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany

susan lerner cc ny

Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY is one of the leading government reform advocates and activists in New York. With a recently-passed state budget largely missing any ethics, campaign finance or voting reforms, and a slate of special elections scheduled for next week, Lerner joined the podcast to discuss what is broken and how it should be fixed.

Lerner explains that the political parties have a "stranglehold" on elections in New York, that the state Legislature is clearly not doing the will of the people on key issues like voting and bail reform, and that state government is being "unresponsive" to the plague of corruption.

Lerner also weighs in on issues in New York City around the recently-called charter revision commissions, one by the mayor and one by the City Council, calling it "absurd" that there will be two and expressing hope for a merger. Beyond criticism, though, Lerner provides many thoughts on what should be happening in New York. 

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany Tue, 17 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7547:city-council-hears-bill-on-charter-revision-commission http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7547:city-council-hears-bill-on-charter-revision-commission Fernando Cabrera

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission Fri, 16 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
State Senate’s New Sexual Harassment Policy Draws Criticism http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7463:state-senate-s-new-sexual-harassment-policy-draws-criticism http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7463:state-senate-s-new-sexual-harassment-policy-draws-criticism John Flanagan Senate

Senate Leader John Flanagan (photo: State Senate)


The New York State Senate leadership’s attempt to revamp its sexual harassment policy is drawing criticism from advocates and lawmakers.

Ordered by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island, the rewrite enhances protections but also adds a seemingly gratuitous line warning that falsely accusing someone is a “serious act.” It comes amid a national reckoning about workplace harassment, including in government, but also follows a claim made against one of the leading members of the state Legislature, Senator Jeff Klein. Klein, whose Independent Democratic Conference forms a ruling coalition with the Senate majority Republican conference, has vehemently denied forcibly kissing a staff member outside a bar in 2015.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the only female leader of a state legislative conference, expressed dismay at the changes in a statement, saying that the warning to false accusers is evidence that the Senate leadership is not serious about combating sexual harassment.

“To emphasize the punishment for filing a false report while not emphasizing the seriousness of sexual harassment is exactly the type of intimidation that has silenced so many through the years and encourages perpetrators to attack accusers,” said Stewart-Cousins.

Other criticisms of the document center around its use of the word "may" rather than "shall" in places, weak anti-retaliation language, and its failure to designate an independent person to report misconduct to.

These seeming gaps are drawing questions about the motivation for the policy rewrite and who was involved in drafting it. Spokespersons for the Republican conference and the IDC did not respond to a requests for comment on the matter, but Senate Democrats, three of whom serve on the Senate ethics committee, said they were not consulted.

“It just showed up in my staff email two nights ago... I don’t think I even got a direct copy,” said Senator Liz Krueger, who is known for her outspokenness on sexual harassment, during a recent appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio show. “We could have told them everything that was wrong with it, but no one sought [our advice] in advance.”

An attorney who is frequently contracted to investigate discrimination and harassment claims involving the Senate, said she also had not been consulted, having not seen the documents until Gotham Gazette sent them to her.

“I learned about the new policy when I read about it in the newspaper,” said Pearl Zuchlewski, founding partner of Kraus & Zuchlewski LLP, which has been paid $198,485 by the Senate to investigate personnel claims in 2016 and 2017, according to New York State Comptroller records.

Senate Republicans stand behind the policy change, with a spokesperson saying that “the Senate has taken a strong policy and made it even stronger” and noting that the new version adds more examples of what constitutes sexual harassment, giving employees the ability to report an incident directly to the Senate's personnel officer and making clear that retaliation will not be tolerated.

“The false complaint provision that is being referenced by Senator Stewart-Cousins existed previously and has not been changed in any meaningful way. It is and always has been wrong to make a false complaint,” said Maureen Wren, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans.

While Wren would not provide details of who was involved in drafting, editing, and approving the new harassment policy, Flanagan has repeatedly said recently that he hired an outside firm to work on it, but much remains mysterious about the process.

"I asked for an independent review, we hired outside counsel, we strengthened what we do already in the Senate. I was proud of the work that we did before, we took what we did and just made it better," Flanagan said during a question-and-answer session of a Crain’s New York Business appearance January 25. “Everyone should feel comfortable in their work environment,” he added.

One of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State proposals, which reflects similar legislation proposed by Assembly Member Sandra Galef, aims to create a uniform sexual harassment policy for all government employees, including all three branches of state government.

Currently, the Senate policy covers complaints made against employees of the Senate and the Assembly’s policy covers complaints made against Assembly members and staff, with specific protocol depending on whether a complaint is made against someone working at the Legislature or in district offices. The state’s Joint Committee on Public Ethics, which is made up of Cuomo and legislative appointees, can also investigate a misconduct complaint on its own or with a formal referral from a government entity. Cuomo has proposed adding resources to JCOPE so that it can more quickly and ably conduct misconduct investigations.

Klein asked JCOPE to investigate the claim against him and has indicated such an investigation is underway. Flanagan said the Senate would not investigate because the accuser, Erica Vladimer, had not made a formal complaint within the body.

There are parts of the Senate policy that now more closely resemble the Assembly’s sexual harassment policy, last updated in 2014 after a major scandal, which is a 13-page document widely seen as a gold standard for sexual harassment policies in government.

For example, the section that recommends complainants first communicate their discomfort to the offending party and ask that the behavior stop, now mirrors an italicized line in the Assembly policy emphasizes that while “self help” is recommended it is not required. Another amendment that reflects the Assembly policy, specifies that the claim that alleged misconduct “meant no harm” or was “just a joke” is not an excuse.

However, if the impetus for the policy change was to create more parity between the two legislative houses, a side-by-side reading of the Senate and Assembly sexual harassment policies suggests there is still a long way to go, according to Alexis Grenell, a frequent commentator on government reform and gender issues, and a Democratic political consultant.

"The Senate policy is a weak imitation of the Assembly version, which is much closer to model language and includes no such warning against false reporting,” said Grenell. “No one wants to be sexually harassed or put themselves through the added stress of an investigation, which is why false reporting is so unusual. It's a red herring problem intended to discourage reporting."

The Senate’s new policy also adds a number of protected categories like creed, color, military status, familial status, predisposed genetic characteristics, and domestic violence victim status, but omits gender identity and expression, as noted by Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat.

“I would call it a glaring omission -- a real statement as to the values and priorities of the Senate majority,” said Hoylman, noting that statistically transgender people of all groups are most likely to be targeted in hate crimes.

Hoylman is the prime sponsor of GENDA, or the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act -- which seeks to extend sex discrimination protections to people discriminated against on the basis of gender identity, expression, or transgender status -- but the Senate majority has prevented the bill from reaching the floor.

Many of the gaps cited in the old policy remain in the new version. For example, while the Assembly policy instructs complainants to report incidents to an independent counsel that has been retained, the Senate policy does not provide this avenue for individuals to report misconduct.

Senate complainants are still instructed to report incidents to an immediate supervisor or the immediate supervisor of the offender, the appropriate department head, or to his or her appointing authority.

If the complaint concerns any of those officials, or the complainant is uncomfortable making a report to any of these individuals, he or she may go to the Senate Personnel Officer, or the Secretary of the Senate.

“The concept that you should somehow first report it up the line internal to your office, when the line always goes to a senator, and/or then go to the staff of the majority leader -- also a senator, who frankly has even more reason to want to protect members and the ‘institution’ -- is just wrong,” said Krueger on Capitol Pressroom.

“I actually think this new policy is worse than the old policy and I don’t understand how in 2018 people don’t understand what the problem is and how we can address it,” said Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.

When describing who will conduct the investigation should one unfold, the language in the Senate policy leaves up to the discretion of Senate leadership whether to hire an independent investigator, by using the word “may” rather than “shall.”

Despite that language, Republicans say that sexual harassment complaints within the Senate are handled independently and that it has been the practice for years.

By contrast, the Assembly policy indicates that the investigation “shall” be conducted by outside lawyers retained by the Assembly, and offers more detail for protecting the confidentiality of all parties involved as well as witnesses interviewed.

“Once you get into the question of what’s going to happen if there is a problem, this policy is not nearly as strong and clear as it needs to be,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of reform group Common Cause, on The Capitol Pressroom last week, speaking with Senator Krueger with host Susan Arbetter.

Other changes to the Senate policy include the addition of a 30-day time limit for both the accused and the accuser to appeal a decision.

The Assembly policy, which also includes a 30 day appeal time limit, has also been praised for taking steps to protect the privacy of accusers when they come forward and ensuring that they do not face retaliation by specifying harsh penalties for such behavior. The Senate’s two-paragraph anti-retaliation section is less specific.

The Assembly approach is not without question. In late 2017, Republican Assemblymember Steve McLaughlin was sanctioned by the Assembly ethics committee for allegedly asking a female Assembly aide for nude photos, lying about it, and then leaking her name to colleagues in the Legislature. At the time, questions were raised about the length of time it took for the investigation to unfold, as by the time McLaughlin faced disciplinary action, he was already on his way out of the Assembly, having been elected Rensselaer County Executive earlier that month.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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State Senate’s New Sexual Harassment Policy Draws Criticism Tue, 06 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7399:cuomo-criticized-for-failing-to-call-special-election-january-1 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7399:cuomo-criticized-for-failing-to-call-special-election-january-1 Cuomo Flanagan Long Island

Gov. Cuomo and John Flanagan, right (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


As the legislative session kicks off this week, there are a slew of open state Senate and Assembly seats, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has not indicated when or whether he will call a special election to fill the vacancies.

January 1 was the earliest the second-term governor could have called the election day to fill all 11 vacancies, and a growing number of critics are pressuring Cuomo to make the pronouncement as soon as possible. The election would occur 70 days after declared by Cuomo, who has not made clear if he intends to do so in time for the seats to be filled before the state budget is due, by April 1.

On the first of this month, George Latimer officially vacated his Westchester County Senate seat to take on his new role as Westchester County Executive, which he won in the fall, and Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., of the Bronx, left his Senate seat to assume his newly won City Council position. Nine Assembly seats remain empty for a variety of reasons, including officials who have won other elected posts, like Brian Kavanagh, who moved from the Assembly to the Senate.

If the governor calls a special election this week, 70 days would mean votes cast in the middle of March. However, Cuomo, a Democrat, has indicated that he may call the elections for a date after the budget process is concluded. Cuomo’s delay is being criticized by progressive activists and good government leaders, either because of how the Senate elections factor into majority control of the chamber, which is currently held by a narrow margin by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats, or because of the basic lack of representation hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are experiencing with the seats unfilled.

The state’s $160-plus billion budget will be negotiated over the coming months by a heavily Democratic Assembly and the Senate, which has multiple party fractures and a Democratic unity deal on the table that could throw the process into disarray if the two vacant seats are filled by Democrats before April 1.

“The governor has a responsibility to his constituents to call a special election immediately,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of good government group Common Cause NY in a statement on Tuesday. “There’s no excuse to delay.” Lerner stressed that all New Yorkers deserve their due representation in government.

The stakes are highest for the 63-seat Senate, where Democrats are now two seats short of the 32 votes needed to pass legislation. A Democratic majority can only occur if mainline conference members are joined by the nine Democrats who caucus with Republicans, along with Democratic victories for the Latimer and Diaz, Sr. seats. Complicating the situation is a potential deal between Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, brokered by Cuomo and his allies, which would reunify the Democratic conference at the end of the 2018 legislative session, provided multiple developments and guarantees.

The vacancies have less of an impact on the 150-seat Assembly, which Democrats control handily under Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx. But leaving nine vacancies would undermine the state’s democratic budget process and leave millions of New Yorkers without representation, notes Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group.

According to NYPIRG’s calculation, 625,484 Senate constituents and more than 1.1 million Assembly constituents are unrepresented as the legislative session starts on Wednesday, January 3 in Albany.

Joining the calls for a special election sooner rather than later is Kat Brezler, a public school teacher and former Bernie Sanders organizer who is seeking Latimer’s seat in the event that a special election is called.

“If you, the Governor, do not call a special election before the budget vote, you will effectively disenfranchise more than 700,000 residents in these Districts,” Brezler said in a statement. “Representation matters. The residents of District 37 deserve to have a seat at the table” during budget negotiations. “It is for this reason that a special election cannot wait,” Brezler said.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office, when asked whether governor planned to call the election during the legislative session, pointed to the governor’s comments during recent press appearances, when he said he would make a decision in January.

“There are some that want it sooner, some that want it later, there’s some who don’t,” Cuomo told reporters in December. “Some would argue politicizing the budget isn’t the best idea. It’s a decision that we have to make next year in January.”

Bronx Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda, who announced that he plans to run for Diaz, Sr.’s Senate seat, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette that he is confident both Senate seats will be filled by Democrats and hopes that a special election will happen in March.

“I think one of the most pressing things in the state Legislature is to continue to push for progressive policies and progressive legislation,” said Sepulveda. “I encourage the governor to call the special election as soon as possible.”

While the Bronx seat is virtually guaranteed to stay Democratic, the Westchester seat is less of a sure thing, though Democrats will have multiple advantages there.

Policy changes coming out of Washington are expected to have serious implications for New York, which is facing a larger than usual budget deficit, and progressives are mounting pressure on the governor, who, like all of the Legislature, is up for reelection this year, to call the special election before budget negotiations really heat up.

The balance of power in the state Senate will have significant influence over the final state spending plan that emerges. A number of Democratic activists insist Cuomo prefers Republican control of the Senate for as long as possible, especially during budget season, so that he can best limit state spending.

Heastie, whose Assembly majority conference is down several members, said in December that he hopes for a Democratic majority in the Senate, but in an interview with WCNY’s Susan Arbetter said that he would defer to the governor’s decision about the election.

“I’ve always said, as a Democrat, I look forward to the day of a Democratic Senate. I hope they get it together as soon as possible — particularly in light of what’s happening in Washington,” Heastie told reporters during a gaggle at the Capitol in December.

In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, wields enormous influence over how state funds are distributed. Flanagan, outlining his priorities for the coming session, struck a conciliatory note, but made clear that raising property taxes was a non-starter for addressing New York’s growing budget shortfall.

“In Washington, Democrats and Republicans battle each other with predictable ferocity -- sometimes producing gridlock and dysfunction, and sometimes producing policies that are counterproductive for many New Yorkers. Here in New York, we’ve taken a vastly different approach,” he said in a Tuesday statement. “We’re working across the aisle to find common ground, partnering with Upstate and suburban Democrats to move our state forward.”

Spokespersons for Heastie and Flanagan did not return requests for comment on when Cuomo should call the special election. The governor will deliver his 2018 State of the State speech on Wednesday in Albany.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Criticized for Failing to Call Special Election January 1 Tue, 02 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Ahead of Election Day, Comptroller Audit Highlights Board of Elections Dysfunction http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7296:ahead-of-election-day-comptroller-audit-highlights-board-of-elections-dysfunction http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7296:ahead-of-election-day-comptroller-audit-highlights-board-of-elections-dysfunction unnamed 6

Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo courtesy of Comptroller's office)


Just four days before voters head to the polls on Tuesday, November 7, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a damning report highlighting the dysfunctional election operations of the New York City Board of Elections, a quasi-city agency that administers elections in the city.

Stringer’s audit was launched in response to the BOE’s purge of more than 117,000 voters from the rolls in Brooklyn last year, ahead of the April presidential primary. The purge prompted widespread outrage, triggering an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office and a lawsuit by Common Cause New York, a good government advocacy group. The BOE recently admitted to violating federal and state law in the case and agreed to implement reforms.

Following the purge, auditors from the comptroller’s office monitored 156 poll sites over the course of three subsequent elections in 2016 -- the congressional primary in June, the state legislative primary in September and the November general election -- and found that 90 percent of the sample sites showed significant problems ranging from severe violations of election law to inadequate poll worker training and lack of access for people with disabilities.

“We have uncovered deep dysfunction,” Stringer said at a news conference Friday where he released the report.

At 82 sites, about 53 percent, auditors witnessed violations of federal and state election laws and also of the BOE’s own rules. At 14 percent of sites, affidavit ballots were mishandled, and at 10 percent of sites, voters received no assistance when they faced issues. Some poll workers even engaged in electioneering, telling voters which candidate to vote for. Stringer even singled out an “outrageous instance” in which a poll worker failed to notify a voter that their valid ballot had been rejected by a scanning machine. The ballot was marked void.

The BOE failed to adequately staff poll sites, Stringer said, leading to “organizational and logistical chaos” at about 118 sites, or 76 percent. At one site, 41 percent of assigned poll workers did not show up, he noted. Stringer did emphasize that the blame does not fall on poll workers who are “overworked, undertrained and underpaid” and must work nearly 17 hours straight on election days (the state launched a pilot program this year to allow half-day shifts for polling workers). “These are, at their core, the failures of the Board of Elections,” he said.

The audit found that 45 out of 156 polling sites failed to provide adequate assistance to voters with disabilities, with one out of ten sites being inaccessible. “It’s time to own up and fix the voter purge we see in every election,” Stringer said. “This purge happens under the radar...If we’re gonna have participatory democracy, we’ve got to get rid of the barriers to participating in voting.”

New York has notoriously antiquated election laws and consistently lags behind most other states in voter turnout. The state ranked 41 of 50 for turnout in the November general last year. (In the city, which has seen a relatively tame election season this year with many incumbents running for reelection, only about 440,000 voters cast a ballot in the September 12 Democratic primary for mayor, just 14% of registered voters.)

“The right to vote is a bedrock of our democracy, unfortunately our own New York City Board of Elections too often makes it harder for us to exercise those fundamental rights,” said City Council Member Dan Garodnick at Friday’s news conference.

Garodnick called attention to another BOE failing, one he attempted to fix through legislation. For the September 12 primary, the BOE changed poll sites from last year for more than 200,000 voters but did not post notices to inform voters, as required under a law sponsored by Garodnick and passed by the City Council last year. “The Board of Elections does not have the right to pick and choose which local laws it is going to follow,” Garodnick said.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, said the comptroller’s audit “sadly confirms” problems over which good government organizations have long cried foul. “The barriers to voting which incompetence sets up, as the comptroller pointed out, are simply unacceptable,” she said.

Stringer’s report recommended that the BOE implement broader reforms, particularly for poll workers, including more hours of poll worker training, increased poll worker pay, and evaluating the pilot program on half-day shifts. “We haven’t had a new idea on how to run an election in this town in a hundred years, it’s ridiculous, it’s not sustainable,” Stringer said.

“The Comptroller’s audit report once again confirms that the Board of Elections consistently fails the voters in exercising their right to vote,” said Seth Stein, a City Hall spokesperson, in an email. Stein said it was “shameful” that the BOE had to be forced by the courts into accepting reforms, and insisted that the agency needs to be restructured. While the BOE has city jurisdiction, it is controlled by state law, and is not answerable to the mayor.

Stein reiterated that the BOE had refused to accept an offer of $20 million from de Blasio last year as an incentive to reform its operations. “It is essential that they do so now,” he added.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Ahead of Election Day, Comptroller Audit Highlights Board of Elections Dysfunction Fri, 03 Nov 2017 18:54:01 +0000
Max & Murphy on Politics - Podcast http://www.gothamgazette.com/podcasts/max-murphy-on-politics http://www.gothamgazette.com/podcasts/max-murphy-on-politics

Jarrett Murphy of City Limits, left, and Ben Max of Gotham Gazette, right


Max & Murphy on Politics is a podcast hosted by Ben Max of Gotham Gazette and Jarrett Murphy of City Limits. It began in 2016 focused on housing policy and politics when those issues were front and center to city and state politics and government, but it has expanded since. Now, in 2017, we are focused on the city election cycle, heading toward the September primary and November general elections. Find episodes through the links below, or find Max & Murphy wherever you get your podcasts: iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.

Our election coverage began with an overview and preview episode June 1. Then we started to talk with mayoral candidates, with Democrat Bob Gangi on June 12 and Republican Paul Massey June 19. We're following those with Democrat Sal Albanese June 26 and we'll continue from there, also featuring episodes with other political figures and candidates for other offices. Have feedback? Find us on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @jarrettmurphy.

susan lerner cc ny 400px Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany — April 17, 2018
 
suing nycha 400 Suing NYCHA — April 10, 2018
 
Marc Molinaro Launches Campaign for Governor Molinaro Launches Campaign for Governor — April 2, 2018
 
Chirlane McCray First Lady Chirlane McCray — March 26, 2018
 
michelle de la uz 400 City Planning Commissioner Michelle de la Uz — March 19, 2018
 
ross barkan senate A Journalist Runs for State Senate — March 13, 2018
 
De Blasio's Progress Fighting Homelessness De Blasio's Progress Fighting Homelessness — March 5, 2018
 
ramos jackson podcast IDC Challengers Robert Jackson & Jessica Ramos — February 26, 2018
 
Jumaane Williams Lieutenant Governor Candidate Jumaane Williams — February 23, 2018
 
feb14 podcast Analyzing De Blasio's State of the City Address — February 14, 2018
 
Deconstructing De Blasio's Visit to Albany Deconstructing De Blasio's Visit to Albany — January 30, 2018
 
bdb mayor hearing 400px De Blasio's 2nd Term Focus on Education — January 30, 2018
 
alex matthiessen move ny 400 Congestion Pricing with Alex Matthiessen of Move New York — January 22, 2018
 
ritchie torres 400px City Council Member Ritchie Torres on The New Council & His New Role — January 17, 2018
 
rivera brannan 400x167 New City Council Members Justin Brannan & Carlina Rivera — January 10, 2018
 
bdb400px Big Political News to Start 2018 — January 3, 2018
 
melissa mark viverito alatriste podium400 City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito — December 15, 2017
 
eric koch 400 Eric Koch, former City Council communications director — December 15, 2017
 
Shola Olayote NYCHA CEO Shola Olatoye — December 7, 2017
 
liz crowley podcast 400 City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley — December 5, 2017
 
bill de blasio 2nd term 400px Previewing de Blasio's 2nd term — November 27, 2017
 
bdb voting sign in 400 Analyzing the 2017 Election Results — November 9, 2017
 
mayor bdb 400 10 Things to Think About on Election Day — November 7, 2017
 
mayoral candidates 400 Resetting the Mayoral Race after the Final Debate — November 3, 2017
 
3 mayors stream Akeem Browder, Aaron Commey & Mike Tolkin are Running for Mayor — October 23, 2017
 
brigid at debate nyc votesstream Analyzing the Public Advocate & Comptroller Debates — October 19, 2017
 
debate stage400 Analyzing the First General Election Mayoral Debate — October 11, 2017
 
tish james400 Public Advocate Letitia James — October 2, 2017
 
Michel faulkner Comptroller candidate Michel Faulkner — September 29, 2017
 
jcpolanco 400 Public Advocate Candidate JC Polanco — September 18, 2017
 
gifford miller city council 400px Gifford Miller, former Speaker of the City Council and mayoral candidate — September 11, 2017
 
brigid bergin and ben max400px Brigid Bergin of WNYC radio — September 5, 2017
 
Joseph Viteritti De Blasio Author Joseph Viteritti — August 30, 2017
 
Public advocate Candidate David Eisenbach Public advocate Candidate David Eisenbach — August 28, 2017
 
azi paybarah tv 400px167px Azi Paybarah — August 17, 2017
 
Dr. Christina Greer and Alexis Grenell Representative vs. Substantive Representation, with Dr. Christina Greer and Alexis Grenell — August 15, 2017
 
max murphy katz fullington res The Mayoral Race with Top Political Strategists — July 31, 2017
 
bo dietl Mayoral Candidate Bo Dietl — July 24, 2017
 
nicole malliotakis Republican Mayoral Candidate Nicole Malliotaki — July 13, 2017
 
eric phillips Eric Phillips, press secretary to Mayor Bill de Blasio — July 5, 2017
 
sal albanese Democratic Mayoral Candidate Sal Albanese — June 26, 2017
 
paul massey 

Republican Mayoral Candidate Paul Massey — June 19, 2017 (note: Paul Massey dropped out of the mayoral race on June 28, though the episode is still worth listening to)

 
bob gangi Democratic Mayoral Candidate Bob Gangi — June 12, 2017
 
placeholder Election Season is Here! — June 1, 2017
 


A variety of earlier episodes of the Max & Murphy Podcast, through the archive, often focused on New York housing policy and politics — see all episodes from the start February 12, 2016 to May 25, 2017

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Max & Murphy on Politics - Podcast Sun, 25 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Punts Voting Reform to ‘After the Budget’ http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6823:cuomo-punts-voting-reform-to-after-the-budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6823:cuomo-punts-voting-reform-to-after-the-budget Cuomo press conference NYC

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo all but confirmed Tuesday that major voting reforms he’s proposed would not be part of the new state budget, which is due by April 1.

In January, Cuomo outlined the “Democracy Project” as part of his 2017 State of the State agenda, and included its widely prized measures like early voting, same-day voter registration, and an enhanced form of automatic voter registration in one of his budget bills. But, on Tuesday Cuomo indicated that the push to modernize New York’s antiquated voting laws would be left for the April through June legislative session that follows budget adoption.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has proposed sweeping voting reforms before, and New York has watched as they have been implemented with successful results in dozens of other states, while paltry voter turnout continues here.

On Tuesday, Cuomo appeared at a press conference in New York City, which the governor had called to criticize two Republican congressional representatives from New York for authoring amendments to the federal health plan that would shift certain Medicaid burdens in New York from the counties to the state. During the question-and-answer session, a WNYC reporter asked Cuomo how he would be able to persuade Senate Republicans to adopt his voting reform agenda during budget negotiations.

“We are going to try like heck,” he said, but added, “It’s not necessarily a budget discussion,” conceding a point Cuomo is typically hesitant to make.

“The budget is primarily about finances,” Cuomo continued. “If there’s a policy matter that is related to the finances then I try to include it, because the budget is a good vehicle to reconcile as much as you can. Many of the democracy issues that you talk about we are going to take up after the budget.”

Between now and April 1, Cuomo and legislative leaders will negotiate the details of the new state budget. The Governor sets the stage for budget season with his Executive Budget in January, which is then followed by legislative hearings, one-house budget resolutions that respond to the Governor’s proposals, and closed-door negotiations. The spending and policy pieces that make it into the budget often depend upon how much priority agenda items are given by the Governor, the Senate Majority, and the Assembly Majority.

Cuomo, as the most powerful of the “three men in the room,” can often push through his top priorities, as he did last year with $15 minimum wage and paid family leave programs.

In January, Cuomo announced the Democracy Project in a press release amid his six-stop State of the State tour. The goal, Cuomo's announcement stated, was “modernizing voting in New York to increase participation in the democratic system.” The Democracy Project “will remove barriers to voter registration" and "make voting easier for New Yorkers.”

“Early voting will shorten lines at the polls,” the announcement stated, “allow New Yorkers to cast ballots up to 12 days before Election Day.” It also promised that automatic and same-day voter registration “will increase voter participation.”

While Democrats who control the Assembly appear open to the three voting reforms, among others, they do not appear to be placing it especially high on their list of priorities. Republicans who control the state Senate are opposed to voting reform, worrying that greater turnout could spell the end of their paper-thin majority margin.

Two of the three reforms, early voting and automatic registration, are widely implemented throughout the country, and would be easy to implement legislatively, but have stalled in the Senate. Along with the Assembly majority, the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Senate Democrats who have a ruling coalition with Republicans, also support the measures. However, the IDC’s power to move the GOP conference in this case may be especially limited.

Same-day voter registration, which would allow unregistered voters to register and vote on Election Day, would likely have to be implemented through a state constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of both legislative houses for two consecutive legislative cycles and then approval by the public through a ballot vote.

Last week, representatives from advocacy groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Working Families Party, and Common Cause NY joined with female state lawmakers at the state Capitol to push for early voting and automatic registration to be included in the budget. The press conference, which coincided with Women’s History Month and framed voter inclusion as a women’s issue, was followed by a rally on Sunday in New York City’s Battery Park.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, who helped organized the press conference and the rally, criticized the governor’s Tuesday revelation.

“It's not enough to ‘try like heck,’” Lerner said in a statement. “New Yorkers deserve the same rights as voters in Alaska and Vermont. We need voting reform now, and that means including funding in the 2017 budget to ensure that the next election cycle is an example for the nation, not a national embarrassment."

Lerner noted that New York ranked 41st in the nation for voter turnout (based on the 2016 presidential election), with less than a third of eligible voters participating. “Far from the progressive symbol the Governor likes to tout, we are out of step with 34 other states that have some form of early voting, and nowhere near California which also has Automatic Voter Registration,” Lerner said.

On Tuesday Cuomo did not cast blame on anyone for what he was foreshadowing as a failure to move voting reform through the budget. At the press conference, however, he did tout how well he has been able to work with Republicans over the past six years. He did not indicate that he planned to try to convince Senate Republicans to back his voting reform agenda.

A few days ago, Scott Reif, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, told WNYC radio, "There are many bills out there which seek to boost voter participation. We'll take a look at all of them."

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by Ben Max and Rachel Silberstein

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Punts Voting Reform to ‘After the Budget’ Tue, 21 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Embraces Voting Reform Agenda, But Implementation Poses Challenges http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6724:cuomo-embraces-voting-reform-agenda-but-implementation-poses-challenges http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6724:cuomo-embraces-voting-reform-agenda-but-implementation-poses-challenges Cuomo voting 2015

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo: The Governor's Office on flickr)


During his State of the State tour early this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a trio of major reforms hailed as important steps toward modernizing New York’s antiquated electoral system and increasing the state’s paltry voter turnout. While they are long-called for proposals that many are pleased to see Cuomo promote, implementing these goals could be more complicated than it may seem.

Two of the three reforms, early voting and automatic voter registration, were outlined in Cuomo’s 2016 agenda, but the initiatives failed to move through the Legislature last year due to opposition from Senate Republicans, who control that chamber. It is a power structure that continues into the 2017 session, meaning the road to passage is uphill, and steeply so.

New York is one of only about a dozen states without some semblance of early voting. While the state already has a form of automatic voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles, Cuomo’s proposal is to streamline and expand the practice. If passed, it would amount to more widespread automatic registration, but not universal.

The third electoral proposal from Cuomo, same-day registration, will likely require a constitutional amendment -- meaning approval from two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, then voters via ballot referendum -- a process that would take at least three years. There is some debate among constitutional law experts over whether such an amendment is required for any form of same-day registration, which would allow voters to show up at the polls to both register and vote on the same day.

The three reforms are almost universally seen as long overdue in New York. Voter turnout in New York is especially poor: in 2014, the state ranked 49th of the country’s 50 states. While New York has watched many other states change voting laws to increase access to the ballot, the voter turnout deficit here is growing progressively worse, with just 19.7 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots in the 2016 presidential primaries. Turnout numbers have also consistently declined during gubernatorial elections and, in New York City, during mayoral election years.

“New York is so far behind the curve on election administration that almost anything is an improvement,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of government reform group Common Cause New York. “I think the governor has picked issues that are very good places to start.”

Those with high praise for Cuomo’s 2017 electoral agenda include Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, after monitoring the state’s four election days of 2016, issued an exhaustive report with areas for reform at the end of the year.

"I commend Governor Cuomo for proposing common sense reforms to our voting system. I look forward to working with Governor Cuomo, the legislature, and everyday New Yorkers across our state to address the systemic problems in New York's voting laws,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “New York must become a national leader in voting rights by expanding and protecting the rights of all New Yorkers to cast their vote.”

In the statement, Schneiderman also recommended consolidating New York's exhausting voting schedule into a single primary. In 2016, there were three: in April for the presidential race; in June for congressional races; and in September for state legislative races.

While it is still early to speculate exactly how the Legislature will respond to Cuomo’s electoral reform agenda, there are key early markers, process details, and implementation questions ahead of whatever policy debate may occur.

One thing is certain: Democrats in the Assembly, where they have the majority, and in the Senate, where they do not, will be behind the election and voting modernization efforts -- including and beyond Cuomo’s three main proposals. What is less clear is whether the governor will fully push for early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day registration in budget negotiations, which are just beginning; and whether there is any room for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate, perhaps with the help of the Independent Democratic Conference -- the seven-member body that has formed a ruling coalition with the Senate GOP.

Early Voting
When it comes to early voting, New York is one of just 13 states without some window wherein voters can cast ballots before Election Day.

For several years running, an early voting bill has passed the Assembly, only to be blocked in the Senate.

According to Gov. Cuomo’s 2017 proposal, every county would offer residents access to at least one early voting poll site for every 50,000 residents during the 12 days leading up to Election Day. Voters would be guaranteed eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends to cast early ballots, and bipartisan county boards of elections would determine locations of the early poll sites.

While high voter participation would ideally be a bipartisan issue, New York Republicans -- who cling to control of the state Senate by a tiny margin -- have calculated that better ballot access and more participation is likely to turn out Democratic voters, according Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens and outspoken proponent of voting reform.

“These reforms are more necessary than ever and I’m glad they were included in the governor’s presentation, but the problem is Senate Republicans seem to have a personal interest in keeping people from voting,” said Gianaris, a co-sponsor of several packages of electoral legislation. “That's been the biggest hurdle to overcome, because voter restrictions tend to benefit them.”

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans did not return multiple requests for comment.

A natural partner of early voting is absentee voting. In his State of the State policy book, Gov. Cuomo, a second term Democrat, also cited the requirement for absentee ballot voters to provide an excuse, which is written into the state constitution and its removal would require a constitutional amendment.

A bill to remove this requirement from the constitution has passed the Assembly and is, like other voting reforms, awaiting Senate approval.

Senator Joseph Addabbo, who co-sponsored the bill and served as chair of the Senate Election Committee in 2009, said his staff has not looked closely at the governor’s plan yet but expressed hopeful optimism about the governor’s electoral reform agenda.

“I’ll say I can embrace a lot of what he’s proposing and now our legal counsel might look at whether and how it can be implemented,” said Addabbo, a Democrat from Queens. “This is a lot of what we’ve worked on and proposed in 2009. We really go through painstaking measures to determine what is going to get voters to vote.”

In addition to persuading the Senate majority, Cuomo and Assembly Democrats will have to hash out the details with counties, which, while supportive of early voting, want the governor to include a provision for who would foot the bill -- approximately $3 million per year, according to one estimate -- for the additional polling options.

"Despite principled visions on the issue, on the fiscal nature of the cost shift it's unconscionable for the state to be shifting and enacting policies these days in the property-tax-cap era. It should be dead on arrival." Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties, told the USA Today Network.

Automatic Voter Registration
Automatically registering voters when they become eligible or when they come into contact with government agencies is a fairly new concept. Since 2015, automatic voter registration -- which can have different forms and meanings short of universal automatic registration of voters once they become eligible -- has been approved in six states with strong bipartisan support and is taking off across the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The idea is to shift the onus of registering from the individual to the government. In addition to increasing voter registration in other states, automatic voter registration has been shown to have significant benefits for administrators, reduce costs, and improve the accuracy of electronic poll books.

Cuomo’s proposal, recycled from last year, would automatically register anyone who comes into contact with a state Department of Motor Vehicles, unless the person chooses to opt out. Currently, eligible voters can register through the DMV, but they must provide additional voting information as they apply for DMV services.

Cuomo’s proposed version of automatic registration is preferable to similar bills passed in Oregon and California, which only registers eligible citizens who apply for or renew a driver’s license. However, Cuomo’s plan is not as inclusive as say, that which is outlined in New York’s Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Senator Gianaris and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, which would enable a variety government agencies to automatically register voters.

The Brennan Center outlines four ways that states can modernize their electoral systems with automatic registration. The first, of course, is by automatically registering anyone who interacts with government offices, unless the person declines registration. The second is portability, which ensures that registered voters remain on the voter rolls even after they move within the state. The third, online access, allows voters to register, check, and update their registration records through a web portal. And fourth, the state should provide a “safety net,” that allows citizens to correct errors on the voter rolls or register before and on Election Day.

Ideally, automatic registration would occur through many different state-run agencies, reaching well beyond the DMV to the the widest possible segment of eligible voters. There is a sizeable population, especially in urban centers like New York City, that does not drive or interact with the DMV. Broader automatic registration would include:

DMVs; Medicaid and public assistance offices; colleges and high schools; military recruiters and other military offices; unemployment and other public benefit offices; firearm licensing agencies; immigration offices; government-funded job-training centers; law enforcement and corrections agencies that interact with people who regain their voting rights after a criminal conviction.

Some community groups have raised concerns that tying automatic voter registration to the DMV alone may skew registration number in favor of areas with high rates of car ownership, disproportionality impacting upstate voters over New York City, for example.

Researchers at the Brennan Center are exploring whether data can shed light on the concern that automatic registration through the DMV advantages some groups over others.

“We recognize that this is a serious concern for some important groups and we want to take a close look at this question,” said Chisun Lee, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We are hopeful that the net benefits for increasing the franchise, and reaching voters who otherwise wouldn't be enrolled, will be positive for all.”

Same-Day Voter Registration
Same-day voter registration, perhaps the boldest of Cuomo’s proposals, would allow New Yorkers to register and vote on the same day.

Currently, New Yorkers must register to vote 25 days prior to an election, though the state constitution's requirement is only ten days. Depending on how it would be implemented, same-day registration may require a constitutional amendment. However, if early voting is passed, there are legal experts who argue that the constitution would allow same-day registration for those who vote prior to ten days before Election Day.

Again, a constitutional amendment is typically at minimum a three-year process which would require two “yes” votes from consecutive Legislatures and the passage of referendum on the following year’s general election ballot.

Alternately, a “yes” vote on the constitutional convention referendum, which will be on the ballot this November, could provide another avenue to remove restrictions and institute reforms like same-day registration.

At this point, 13 states and the District of Columbia have same-day voter registration, and California, Vermont, and Hawaii have approved the provision, though it has not yet been implemented, according to Cuomo’s office.

The upcoming opportunity to amend the state constitution via constitutional convention, which, for New Yorkers, appears as a ballot referendum every 20 years will be November 7, 2017. A constitutional convention is a four-year public process that could result significant changes to the entire document and laws of the state. If New Yorkers say “yes” to a convention on this year’s ballot, a year later, voters will select delegates to participate in the convention; the following year, in 2019, the convention will convene; and voters will be able to vote on any proposed changes the following Election Day.

Like with the electoral and voting reforms Gov. Cuomo has proposed, he has expressed varying degrees of support for a "yes" vote on a constitutional convention, but whether the governor takes significant action will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Embraces Voting Reform Agenda, But Implementation Poses Challenges Sun, 22 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Undermines Own ‘Highest Standards' Claim http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6655:de-blasio-undermines-own-claim-of-highest-standards http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6655:de-blasio-undermines-own-claim-of-highest-standards de blasio panel mayors

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


In a surprise move on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared during a NY1 television appearance that going forward his communications with five outside advisors would be subject to public disclosure. In doing so, the mayor betrayed his own rhetoric from a week prior when he vigorously defended his actions in keeping those communications confidential and maintained that “the highest standards were adhered to” in his dealings with unpaid consultants, some of whom have clients with city business.

For the last several months, the mayor has pushed back against allegations of a pay-to-play culture emerging at City Hall stemming from his close relationships with multiple consultants that have clients with city business and the mayor’s political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, for which some of those consultants also worked. Much of de Blasio’s explanation around the Campaign for One New York and his relationship with outside consultants has indicated a bare adherence to legal and ethical guidelines, not to the “highest standards.”

The Campaign for One New York, which de Blasio has repeatedly said was OK’d by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, raised unlimited funds from wealthy donors who have business with the city, including labor unions and real estate developers. The now-defunct group, which voluntarily disclosed its donors, is under federal and state investigation to determine whether donors were offered or received political favors from City Hall. No one has been charged with wrongdoing and the mayor has insisted that he and his allies sought proper guidance and conducted themselves ethically and legally.  

The administration has sought to keep the communications with his unpaid consultants, termed “agents of the city,” exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law, inviting a lawsuit from the New York Post and NY1 for their release. Two weeks ago, the day before Thanksgiving, the administration released some of those communications, just over 1,500 emails dating back three years, exchanged with one of the consultants, Jonathan Rosen of the BerlinRosen firm.

At an unrelated news conference on November 29, de Blasio argued that his exchanges with Rosen were appropriate and did not present conflicts of interest. “I’m absolutely convinced that the highest standards were adhered to,” he told reporters. “Everything we did – I said it last night, I’ll say it again. Everything we did, we did with legal clearance for the way to approach things – in the case of Campaign for One New York, with pre-clearance from the Conflict of Interest Board. I am convinced everything was done appropriately.”

But the mayor’s argument has not swayed good government groups who would like to see a higher standard of conduct and more transparency from a mayor who campaigned on that very promise.

“It's common sense that you can't serve two masters,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, in an email. “The Mayor's closest advisors, so called “Agents of the City,” represent private interests with business before the city, and they're not accountable to anyone other than their clients. They should not also have a prominent role in public policy.”

On Monday, the mayor sought to make a move towards more openness, telling anchor Errol Louis on NY1’s Inside City Hall that he would no longer shield communications on government matters with outside consultants. He described the move as necessary since the email issue had “obviously become a distraction” to his administration, but in doing so, he effectively acknowledged a higher standard to follow.

Meanwhile, earlier communications with those “agents” are still being held confidential and the lawsuit continues.

“It’s hardly the highest standard when the response of the administration, in my opinion, is inconsistent with law,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, which provides guidance on the state’s Freedom of Information law. “A consultant according to the state’s highest court refers to persons or entities retained by the city,” he added, pointing out that the mayor’s advisors are private citizens who are not on the city’s payroll, which is the basic requirement for shielding communications.

De Blasio similarly undermined his own argument about high standards when he shifted the policy of including Rosen in high-level government cabinet meetings, with a spokesperson telling Gotham Gazette Rosen is no longer attending such meetings (BerlinRosen is again running communications for de Blasio’s campaign) after de Blasio himself told Gotham Gazette at the Nov. 29 news conference that he is rarely talking with those termed “agents of the city.”

Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, faults de Blasio for not matching his lofty rhetoric, but believes he hasn’t done anything untoward. “He should probably refrain from using superlatives in explaining what he’s done,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s been illegal or detrimental.” If there was any illegal conduct, Greer is confident that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is investigating the Campaign for One New York, would have found it by now.

Though de Blasio never admitted that the Campaign for One New York was a mistake, he had it shuttered when it too had become a significant distraction. He said it had accomplished its goals, chiefly helping to secure state funding for pre-Kindergarten.

“I think [de Blasio] has an Obama problem,” Greer said. “He cares about the city, he has time constraints, and in his expedience to try and implement policy, he doesn’t necessarily explain how or why.” She said that approach creates two negative consequences: constituents are unaware of the positive changes the mayor is making and, because of the lack of transparency, they are skeptical of whether the mayor’s actions are “above board.”

But the mayor’s bigger problem, Greer said, is that he faces different pressures than his predecessor, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I really do wonder if this is just the cost of doing business for someone who is not a billionaire and can’t finance his own projects,” she said, insisting that the mayor has to be able to make deals. “If he doesn’t get in bed with wealthy capitalists, how is he going to help poor people. That’s the question for American politics,” Greer said.

Back when de Blasio was public advocate, he made a show of calling out city agencies for their lack of transparency. He issued a “Transparency Report Card” in which he gave failing grades to agencies that consistently failed to comply with the law. “The City is inviting waste and corruption by blocking information that belongs to the public,” de Blasio said, in April 2013. “That’s the last thing New York City can afford right now. We have to start holding government accountable when it refuses to turn over public records to citizens and taxpayers.”

Mayor de Blasio is a far cry from that public advocate when it comes to transparency. “We’d like to believe that he is holding himself and others to the highest standard, but we don’t have any independent verification of that,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “When one is devising his own rules to shield people from public information, it raises questions about the validity of such claims. He cannot be the arbiter of whether he is doing so or not particularly when it involves protecting his closest associates.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
De Blasio Undermines Own ‘Highest Standards' Claim Tue, 06 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
22 Campaign Finance Bills to Move Through City Council 'Soon,' Speaker Says http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6647:22-campaign-finance-bills-to-move-through-city-council-soon-speaker-says http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6647:22-campaign-finance-bills-to-move-through-city-council-soon-speaker-says mmv nypl

Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: @NYCCouncil)


Within the next two months, the City Council is expected to vote on a large legislative package that would alter the city’s campaign finance system in a variety of ways and regulate donations to political nonprofits, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said this week. Some of the proposals and the timing of their likely passage have raised concerns, though, that the Council is weakening the city’s model campaign finance system, pushing some reforms through after too long a wait and rushing other, newer bills through just in time for the next municipal election.

The Council has before it 22 bills relating to campaign finance law and elections, 14 of which were heard just last week by the Committee on Standards and Ethics. It was the first hearing on legislation for the committee under this Council, which took office in January 2014, owing to the fact that the main bill in that bundle deals with conflicts of interest. The 13 others relate to the campaign finance system.

The other eight bills of the 22 were heard in May by the Committee on Governmental Operations, which has oversight of the Campaign Finance Board, and were introduced about one year ago. They have awaited a committee vote since, but have not moved.

Mark-Viverito, who largely controls which bills are heard and voted on, has promised that the two bundles of bills will be lumped and voted on together. “We will be moving ahead with an extensive package,” she said at a news conference on Tuesday, in response to Gotham Gazette’s questions about the concerns raised at last week’s hearing. “We’ve been going through a lot of deliberations, a lot of conversations with stakeholders and others, so I’m very confident about what it is that we will be presenting.”

When asked when the vote could happen, she said, “It’s gonna be soon. Probably within the next month or so, without a doubt.”

Although a common theme unites 21 of the 22 bills, they have taken vastly different trajectories in the Council’s legislative process. The first package was only heard six months after it was introduced and has since languished in committee. Those proposals came straight out of the Campaign Finance Board’s 2013 post-election report, which recommended improvements to the campaign finance law. These proposals mainly seek to tighten gaps in the campaign finance law, including the elimination of public matching funds for contributions bundled by people with city business, enhanced disclosure rules for entities that do business with the city, and a prohibition on contributions from non-registered political committees to candidates who don’t participate in the public matching program.

The second package has not been as thoroughly vetted, it seems, including the 22nd and most high-profile bill, Intro. 1345, which would limit donations to political nonprofits affiliated with elected officials.

That bill is a direct response to the Campaign for One New York, a now-defunct nonprofit affiliated with Mayor Bill de Blasio that accepted large donations from people who have business with the city. Those activities have led to multiple investigations and allegations of a pay-to-play culture at City Hall, with federal authorities investigating whether government action was offered or done in exchange for donations to the Campaign for One New York. De Blasio has denied any wrongdoing and no one has been charged. 

Intro. 1345 and the accompanying 13 bills were introduced on November 16 and were heard just one week later. Although Intro. 1345 was embraced by the Campaign Finance Board, which is an independent city entity, the de Blasio administration, and government reform groups, the rest of the bills are seen as a bit more problematic. Even representatives of the city Conflicts of Interest Board, which would be tasked with implementing Intro. 1345, expressed doubts about COIB’s ability to do so and questioned whether it is the appropriate agency to be assigned the job. Meanwhile, representatives for the Campaign Finance Board critiqued several of the bills relevant to its operations and the city’s well-regarded public campaign finance system.

In contrast with the first legislative package, some of the new bills are more friendly to Council members and candidates in general, and would ease certain elements of campaign finance regulation including documentation requirements for contributions and the current restriction on the use of non-public campaign funds for official purposes.

Government reform groups have questioned the overall approach the Council has taken with the most recent bills, which they say are being rushed along and are based on Council members’ personal experiences with the system rather than objective analysis that would usually be identified by the Campaign Finance Board.

In written testimony submitted to the committee, Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group, said it was “perplexing” that the 14 bills were heard by the Standards and Ethics committee when only one of them dealt with conflicts of interest.

“These bills are, in major part, detailed technical changes that, unlike previous revisions, have not grown out of the Campaign Finance Board’s statutorily required reports and recommendations, which result in revisions of the system which are openly discussed, negotiated and considered far in advance of the City’s next election cycle,” Lerner wrote, stressing that they could inadvertently weaken the CFB’s independence.

She also said the bills “appear to be on a fast track,” while the older bills based on recommendations in the Campaign Finance Board’s 2013 post-election report have languished. Taking issue with the timing, right on the eve of a city election year, she said the Council should wait till after the 2017 elections to reconsider most of the campaign finance bills and do so through the appropriate committees.

The CFB itself criticized the bills as hampering its ability to enforce the campaign finance law, calling them “poison pill” measures in testimony at the November 21 hearing.

At a public meeting on December 1, CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn reiterated those concerns. “This legislation has been considered on an accelerated schedule,” she said, stressing that the “hastily drafted” proposals would undermine the board’s oversight of the campaign finance system. She specifically called on the Council to reject one of the bills, Intro. 1355, sponsored by Council Member David Greenfield, which allows candidates or their committees to complete or correct contribution cards. “The board believes this bill will enable fraud,” she said, “and remove a weapon for the CFB to detect and prevent it.” Council Member Greenfield was not made available for comment for this article.

In urging the Council to delay the bills till after the 2017 elections, Hearn did promise to work with the Council on improving the campaign finance program and commended Council members for Intro. 1345, the political nonprofit donation limits bill. This bill is sponsored by Mark-Viverito, who was not present for the hearing on the bill, which was chaired by standards and ethics committee Chair Alan Maisel. 

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, stressed that the bills need more time to breathe. “We hope we have at least a month or two to make some needed changes to these bills that represent new ideas and are a marked shift in the management of the campaign finance board,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Dadey said the new package “does feel rushed to us” and that “there’s some question as to whether these will actually strengthen or weaken the program and a much fuller discussion needs to be had before these move forward.” While he acknowledged that Council members should have a significant voice in improving the campaign finance system, he said they should avoid imposing solely their own concerns. “[The campaign finance law] needs to reflect the public’s interest in protecting taxpayer dollars while making it a workable program for the candidates themselves,” Dadey said.

Council Member Maisel said the timeline of these newer bills, from drafting to hearing to a possible vote, may be short but is necessary. “There’s an effort to try to get these bills voted on sooner than later because the election is next year,” he said in a phone interview, adding that he was not given a specific timeline to push through the bills. “Whether it’s done before December 31 or the first week of January, I can’t tell you,” he said. Maisel is meeting this week with Council staff to review feedback from the hearing to amend and tweak the bills, he said.

Maisel also pushed back against the criticism that the bills might weaken the CFB’s authority, insisting that they’re aimed at making the system more reasonable to encourage participation. “They’re protecting their turf,” he said of the CFB. “If these bills are passed, their powers are intact. I don’t see how [the bills] undermine their authority.”

When asked if his committee was the appropriate venue for the campaign finance bills, he said it was the speaker’s office that made the decision. “I have no experience with campaign finance bills, I deal with ethics issues,” he said, in a sense echoing the critique made by others who’ve questioned why campaign finance bills were heard in his committee as opposed to their typical place, government operations, the committee chaired by Council Member Ben Kallos.

The proposals have created some degree of internal tension within the Council for multiple reasons, including the committee venue. Additionally, before the bills were introduced, Council Member Kallos was openly skeptical of the effect they might have, telling the New York Times, “I am concerned about undermining the best parts of a system that has worked for the people.”

Council Member Brad Lander, sponsor of one of the new bills, disagrees. First, Lander told Politico New York that the Times report had mischaracterized the bills under consideration. On Tuesday, shortly after the speaker’s news conference, Lander told Gotham Gazette the concerns over the bills would be addressed through amendments and that criticism of their timing was unfounded. That the bills were heard through the standards and ethics committee rather than the governmental operations committee made little difference, he said, since the same people and advocacy groups would testify even if there were separate hearings. He also noted that Kallos, the governmental operations chair, was present at the hearing as well.

Lander also sought to dispel the notion that the bills were being expedited through the Council. “That’s a silly thing to say,” he said, noting that discussions on Intro. 1345 in particular have been in the works since the shutdown of The Campaign for One New York was announced months ago. And while there was not the same urgency with the eight campaign finance bills from last year, he said, “I think if we get a good package that combines a lot of good reform and sensible legislation, that’s a good legislative process.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
22 Campaign Finance Bills to Move Through City Council 'Soon,' Speaker Says Thu, 01 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000