Gotham Gazette Gotham Gazette is an online publication covering New York policy and politics as well as news on public safety, transportation, education, finance and more. http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/transparency 2017-12-18T12:42:15+00:00 Webmaster webmaster@gothamgazette.com 'Open Budget,' Economic Development Transparency Bills Become Law 2017-12-01T05:00:00+00:00 2017-12-01T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7346:open-budget-economic-development-transparency-bills-become-law Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/34230498096_8f776460b1_z.jpg" alt="de Blasio public hearing City Council bills" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>De Blasio at a public hearing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Four government transparency bills that were passed by the City Council on October 31 aged into law on Friday, having gone 30 days without any action in favor or against them by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The bills all relate to increased disclosure by the administration of billions in city government spending and have been praised by good government advocates.</p> <p>Among the bills was one that <a href="http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2709949&amp;GUID=A23CF8CE-1F3D-45FA-8C20-7A787B22EEE8&amp;Options=&amp;Search=">requires</a> the administration to publish annual budget documents in a user-friendly, machine-readable format to the city’s online Open Data Portal, allowing the public easier access to information that is currently listed in thousands of line items in the $86 billion city budget. The bill’s lead sponsor was Council Member Ben Kallos.</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7284-city-council-to-pass-bills-expanding-oversight-of-economic-development-spending" target="_blank" rel="noopener">The three other bills</a> -- with lead sponsors Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Dan Garodnick, and Corey Johnson -- formed a package aimed at improving transparency at the Economic Development Corporation, a city-run entity that manages and promotes the administration’s job-creation and business-development initiatives. The bills allow the City Council added oversight of EDC, which provides many millions of dollars in financial benefits to projects and businesses each year and also handles the sale and lease of city-owned land. They mandate that EDC provide fiscal impact statements and job creation estimates for projects receiving financial assistance; require EDC to detail their efforts to clawback funds from those agreements that fail to meet their goals; and allow the City Council time to review and comment on proposed economic development agreements.</p> <p>“These new City laws will make it much easier to understand both the big picture of how the City is spending money and the specifics of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy deals the City makes with businesses,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group, in a statement Friday. “It will be much easier to see if the taxpayer is getting a good deal. These new laws are a blueprint for what the state should do.”</p> <p>The City Charter provides that if the mayor takes no action on a bill after it is approved by the City Council, within 30 days, it automatically becomes law. In fact, it’s “pretty common” for bills to age into law without the mayor’s signature, said mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in an email on Friday. She added that if the mayor signed every bill, “we’d be doing bill signings like every day.”&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Goldstein noted that out of the 25 bills passed by the Council on October 31, all but one aged into law. The only one the mayor signed was Council Member Rafael Espinal’s bill to repeal the city’s antiquated Cabaret Law, which used to require establishments to obtain licences from the city to allow dancing. De Blasio signed the bill on November 27 at Elsewhere, a popular nightclub in Brooklyn.</p> <p>Often, the mayor holds bill-signing ceremonies at City Hall, affixing his signature to numerous bills at a time. At one such ceremony on October 16, for instance, de Blasio signed a dozen bills into law. “It’s really just a timing thing,” Goldstein said in a later email, estimating that perhaps close to 100 bills have similarly lapsed into law in de Blasio’s first term.</p> <p>City Council spokesperson Robin Levine declined to comment for this article.</p> <p>

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/34230498096_8f776460b1_z.jpg" alt="de Blasio public hearing City Council bills" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>De Blasio at a public hearing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Four government transparency bills that were passed by the City Council on October 31 aged into law on Friday, having gone 30 days without any action in favor or against them by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The bills all relate to increased disclosure by the administration of billions in city government spending and have been praised by good government advocates.</p> <p>Among the bills was one that <a href="http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2709949&amp;GUID=A23CF8CE-1F3D-45FA-8C20-7A787B22EEE8&amp;Options=&amp;Search=">requires</a> the administration to publish annual budget documents in a user-friendly, machine-readable format to the city’s online Open Data Portal, allowing the public easier access to information that is currently listed in thousands of line items in the $86 billion city budget. The bill’s lead sponsor was Council Member Ben Kallos.</p> <p><a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7284-city-council-to-pass-bills-expanding-oversight-of-economic-development-spending" target="_blank" rel="noopener">The three other bills</a> -- with lead sponsors Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Dan Garodnick, and Corey Johnson -- formed a package aimed at improving transparency at the Economic Development Corporation, a city-run entity that manages and promotes the administration’s job-creation and business-development initiatives. The bills allow the City Council added oversight of EDC, which provides many millions of dollars in financial benefits to projects and businesses each year and also handles the sale and lease of city-owned land. They mandate that EDC provide fiscal impact statements and job creation estimates for projects receiving financial assistance; require EDC to detail their efforts to clawback funds from those agreements that fail to meet their goals; and allow the City Council time to review and comment on proposed economic development agreements.</p> <p>“These new City laws will make it much easier to understand both the big picture of how the City is spending money and the specifics of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy deals the City makes with businesses,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group, in a statement Friday. “It will be much easier to see if the taxpayer is getting a good deal. These new laws are a blueprint for what the state should do.”</p> <p>The City Charter provides that if the mayor takes no action on a bill after it is approved by the City Council, within 30 days, it automatically becomes law. In fact, it’s “pretty common” for bills to age into law without the mayor’s signature, said mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein, in an email on Friday. She added that if the mayor signed every bill, “we’d be doing bill signings like every day.”&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Goldstein noted that out of the 25 bills passed by the Council on October 31, all but one aged into law. The only one the mayor signed was Council Member Rafael Espinal’s bill to repeal the city’s antiquated Cabaret Law, which used to require establishments to obtain licences from the city to allow dancing. De Blasio signed the bill on November 27 at Elsewhere, a popular nightclub in Brooklyn.</p> <p>Often, the mayor holds bill-signing ceremonies at City Hall, affixing his signature to numerous bills at a time. At one such ceremony on October 16, for instance, de Blasio signed a dozen bills into law. “It’s really just a timing thing,” Goldstein said in a later email, estimating that perhaps close to 100 bills have similarly lapsed into law in de Blasio’s first term.</p> <p>City Council spokesperson Robin Levine declined to comment for this article.</p> <p>

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Dissecting Mayor De Blasio's Record As He Seeks Reelection 2017-11-01T23:26:00+00:00 2017-11-01T23:26:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7221:dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/37117856722_b1e7513769_z.jpg" alt="Mayor de Blasio Chirlane McCray City Hall Reelection Parade" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Mayor Bill de Blasio &amp; First Lady Chirlane McCray (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>As Mayor Bill de Blasio, a first-term Democrat, seeks reelection this fall, a close examination of his record is essential. De Blasio came into power promising to address inequlality in a variety of forms, including income, educational, policing, racial, and opportunity inequities he identified during his 2013 campaign. In this year's election de Blasio is running in part on his record, which is headlined by the implementation of his campaign promise to provide universal pre-kindergarten for the city's four-year-olds. But, there is much more to the mayor's record than UPK, which has clearly been <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2017/10/17/de-blasios-win-on-pre-k-is-making-an-easy-campaign-even-easier-115084" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">his biggest success</a>.</p> <p>In this series, Gotham Gazette, with election coverage partners City Limits and WNYC radio, examines de Blasio's record on a variety of important issues. While this is not completely exhaustive, it should be helpful to voters and others seeking to evaluate de Blasio this fall. With our partners, Gotham Gazette will release articles and audio pieces on the following aspects of de Blasio's record -- those already published are linked below.</p> <p>Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.</p> <ul> <li>Ethics &amp; Transparency: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7258-de-blasio-s-record-on-ethics-and-transparency" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on Ethics and Transparency</a> (Gotham Gazette, October 2017)</li> <li>Discussion on WNYC, with Ben Max of GG: <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/how-ethic-and-transparent-has-bill-de-blasios-term-been" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">De Blasio's Big Lesson: Transparency Matters</a></li> </ul> <ul> <li>Economy &amp; Jobs: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7270-de-blasio-s-record-on-jobs-and-the-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on Jobs and The Economy</a> (Gotham Gazette, October 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Poverty &amp; Inequality: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7280-de-blasio-s-record-on-poverty-and-inequality" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on Poverty and Inequality</a> (Gotham Gazette, November 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Budgeting &amp; Fiscal Health: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7300-de-blasio-s-record-on-budgeting-and-fiscal-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on Budgeting and Fiscal Health</a> (Gotham Gazette, November 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>NYCHA: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7299-de-blasio-s-record-on-nycha" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on NYCHA</a> (Gotham Gazette, November 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Environment: <a href="https://citylimits.org/2017/11/02/on-the-environment-de-blasio-defied-expectations-with-bold-goals-but-now-must-deliver/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">On the Environment, De Blasio Defied Expectations with Bold Goals, But Now Must Deliver</a> (City Limits, November 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Policing: <a href="https://citylimits.org/2017/10/16/bill-de-blasios-police-reform-agenda-has-achieved-much-and-disappointed-many/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bill de Blasio's Police Reform Record Has Achieved Much and Disappointed Many</a> (City Limits, October 2017)</li> <li>Discussion on WNYC, with Jarrett Murphy of CL: <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/analyzing-bill-de-blasios-record-crime-and-policing/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Rocky Blue Line Divides De Blasio and Police</a></li> </ul> <ul> <li>Housing: <a href="https://citylimits.org/2017/10/04/bill-de-blasio-is-still-in-his-first-term-and-were-already-debating-his-housing-legacy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bill de Blasio is Still in His First Term and We're Already Debating His Housing Legacy</a> (City Limits, October 2017)</li> <li>Discussion on WNYC, with Jarrett Murphy of CL: <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/analyzing-housing-after-four-years-bill-de-blasio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Analyzing Housing After Four De Blasio Years</a></li> </ul> <ul> <li>Homelessness: <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/de-blasios-homelessness-struggle/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">De Blasio's Homelessness Struggle</a> (WNYC, October 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Transit: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6855-de-blasio-s-piecemeal-transportation-agenda" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">De Blasio's 'Piecemeal' Transportation Agenda</a> (Gotham Gazette, April 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Homelessness: <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/bill-de-blasios-big-homelessness-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bill de Blasio's Big Homelessness Problem</a> (Gotham Gazette/The Daily Beast, July 2017)</li> </ul> <p>More to read/view/hear:</p> <ul> <li><a href="http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/politics/2017/10/19/a-look-at-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-on-nyc-transportation" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A look at Mayor de Blasio's record on transportion</a> (NY1)&nbsp;</li> <li><a href="http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/politics/2017/10/03/bill-de-blasio-record-on-crime-as-mayor-nyc-nypd" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A look at Mayor de Blasio's record on policing</a> (NY1)</li> </ul> <p>

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/37117856722_b1e7513769_z.jpg" alt="Mayor de Blasio Chirlane McCray City Hall Reelection Parade" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Mayor Bill de Blasio &amp; First Lady Chirlane McCray (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>As Mayor Bill de Blasio, a first-term Democrat, seeks reelection this fall, a close examination of his record is essential. De Blasio came into power promising to address inequlality in a variety of forms, including income, educational, policing, racial, and opportunity inequities he identified during his 2013 campaign. In this year's election de Blasio is running in part on his record, which is headlined by the implementation of his campaign promise to provide universal pre-kindergarten for the city's four-year-olds. But, there is much more to the mayor's record than UPK, which has clearly been <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2017/10/17/de-blasios-win-on-pre-k-is-making-an-easy-campaign-even-easier-115084" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">his biggest success</a>.</p> <p>In this series, Gotham Gazette, with election coverage partners City Limits and WNYC radio, examines de Blasio's record on a variety of important issues. While this is not completely exhaustive, it should be helpful to voters and others seeking to evaluate de Blasio this fall. With our partners, Gotham Gazette will release articles and audio pieces on the following aspects of de Blasio's record -- those already published are linked below.</p> <p>Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.</p> <ul> <li>Ethics &amp; Transparency: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7258-de-blasio-s-record-on-ethics-and-transparency" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on Ethics and Transparency</a> (Gotham Gazette, October 2017)</li> <li>Discussion on WNYC, with Ben Max of GG: <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/how-ethic-and-transparent-has-bill-de-blasios-term-been" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">De Blasio's Big Lesson: Transparency Matters</a></li> </ul> <ul> <li>Economy &amp; Jobs: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7270-de-blasio-s-record-on-jobs-and-the-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on Jobs and The Economy</a> (Gotham Gazette, October 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Poverty &amp; Inequality: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7280-de-blasio-s-record-on-poverty-and-inequality" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on Poverty and Inequality</a> (Gotham Gazette, November 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Budgeting &amp; Fiscal Health: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7300-de-blasio-s-record-on-budgeting-and-fiscal-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on Budgeting and Fiscal Health</a> (Gotham Gazette, November 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>NYCHA: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7299-de-blasio-s-record-on-nycha" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mayor De Blasio's Record on NYCHA</a> (Gotham Gazette, November 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Environment: <a href="https://citylimits.org/2017/11/02/on-the-environment-de-blasio-defied-expectations-with-bold-goals-but-now-must-deliver/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">On the Environment, De Blasio Defied Expectations with Bold Goals, But Now Must Deliver</a> (City Limits, November 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Policing: <a href="https://citylimits.org/2017/10/16/bill-de-blasios-police-reform-agenda-has-achieved-much-and-disappointed-many/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bill de Blasio's Police Reform Record Has Achieved Much and Disappointed Many</a> (City Limits, October 2017)</li> <li>Discussion on WNYC, with Jarrett Murphy of CL: <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/analyzing-bill-de-blasios-record-crime-and-policing/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Rocky Blue Line Divides De Blasio and Police</a></li> </ul> <ul> <li>Housing: <a href="https://citylimits.org/2017/10/04/bill-de-blasio-is-still-in-his-first-term-and-were-already-debating-his-housing-legacy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bill de Blasio is Still in His First Term and We're Already Debating His Housing Legacy</a> (City Limits, October 2017)</li> <li>Discussion on WNYC, with Jarrett Murphy of CL: <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/analyzing-housing-after-four-years-bill-de-blasio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Analyzing Housing After Four De Blasio Years</a></li> </ul> <ul> <li>Homelessness: <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/de-blasios-homelessness-struggle/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">De Blasio's Homelessness Struggle</a> (WNYC, October 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Transit: <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6855-de-blasio-s-piecemeal-transportation-agenda" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">De Blasio's 'Piecemeal' Transportation Agenda</a> (Gotham Gazette, April 2017)</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Homelessness: <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/bill-de-blasios-big-homelessness-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bill de Blasio's Big Homelessness Problem</a> (Gotham Gazette/The Daily Beast, July 2017)</li> </ul> <p>More to read/view/hear:</p> <ul> <li><a href="http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/politics/2017/10/19/a-look-at-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-on-nyc-transportation" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A look at Mayor de Blasio's record on transportion</a> (NY1)&nbsp;</li> <li><a href="http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/politics/2017/10/03/bill-de-blasio-record-on-crime-as-mayor-nyc-nypd" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A look at Mayor de Blasio's record on policing</a> (NY1)</li> </ul> <p>

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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</p>
Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms 2017-11-02T04:00:00+00:00 2017-11-02T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7294:departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/36651878000_a15510bf8a_z.jpg" alt="Carl Heastie Assembly" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>Carl Heastie (photo:&nbsp;Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>When ethics expert Jane Feldman’s departure from the New York State Assembly, and her appraisal of the experience as “as waste of money,” was <a href="http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Former-top-Assembly-ethics-official-Position-a-12296842.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first reported</a> by the Times Union last week, many saw it as another blow to reform efforts in Albany.</p> <p>Feldman <a href="http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Former-top-Assembly-ethics-official-Position-a-12296842.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told the outlet</a> she she “didn’t do anything” and called her hiring as executive director of the Office of Ethics and Compliance in September 2015 a “P.R. move.” The office itself, according to Feldman, was a windowless space on the ninth floor of the Legislative Office Building with airflow problems that had been carved out of a larger conference room.</p> <p>Two years ago, the office was created by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as part of the newly-selected speaker’s larger commitment to introduce more ethics and transparency measures to the 150-seat chamber. Promises were made, in part, to appease critics frustrated by the backroom speakership appointment process, and to signal a new era after that of infamous former Speaker Sheldon Silver.</p> <p>Heastie, a representative of the Bronx, created <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6229-assembly-announces-internal-reform-plan-to-mixed-reviews" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a working group</a> on rules reform, led by Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh, of Manhattan, and Gary Pretlow, of Mount Vernon, and vowed to choose an “independent” advisor who could offer guidance to members and offer suggestions for improving Assembly processes. Feldman, who previously headed the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for six years, was chosen by a six-person team following a nationwide search, and was seen as a fresh and independent perspective, someone from outside Albany’s long-standing and secretive power structures.</p> <p>But during her two years in Albany, Feldman says she rarely spoke to Heastie and found even members who were interested in reforming the Albany process rebuffed her suggestions.</p> <p>"There are so many things that are so entrenched,” said Feldman, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “There are a lot of good members who I think want to see ethics reforms, but when I would tell them how other states do things, the attitude was, 'well, that would never work here.'"</p> <p>Heastie’s office chalked up her experience to a misunderstanding about the job description, saying in a statement, “there was a disconnect between our expectations for the office and this individual’s view of her responsibilities.”</p> <p>But good government watchdogs say the larger problem is that no in-house advisor could make much of a dent in Albany’s ways, including how the legislative houses operate, the loophole-riddled campaign finance system, an opaque budget negotiation process, and flawed oversight structures.</p> <p>“Internal oversight is sort of an oxymoron,” said New York Public Interest Group’s Blair Horner. “The fundamental problem is you can’t really self-regulate when it comes to ethics. It’s like self-policing. An honor system only works for the honorable.”</p> <p>While it might have been helpful to have a person for members to go to for advice, Feldman’s described duties essentially duplicated the role of the Legislative Ethic Commission (LEC), a bi-partisan entity comprised of senators, Assembly members, and outside experts that provides advice to lawmakers on outside income, fundraising, and other conflict of interest queries. In at least one instance, this created a conflict, when the LEC offered one lawmaker different advice than Feldman did about whether the lawmaker could accept a speaking engagement, Feldman told the Times Union.</p> <p>It would be difficult to reconcile the two interpretations of the law given that opinions produced by the LEC are not made available to the public, and even Feldman said she could not access them. Legislative ethics advisory bodies in other states all make their opinions available to the public, and some of them even tweet out their opinions, she noted.</p> <p>Even the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which acts in an advisory role for the executive branch, and its predecessor agencies have made opinions public and publishes a bulk of information online.</p> <p>By many accounts, the Assembly has become more democratic under Heastie. The majority Democratic conference is consulted more frequently during budget negotiations, leadership opportunities are created for new members, and more hearings for legislation are held. Silver’s extremely intense grip on power has been loosened by his successor. But these strides are “infinitesimally small compared to the needs of the state, which is for radical overhaul of ethics oversight in New York,” according to Horner. “To have an office in the Assembly -- even if it doesn’t have any windows -- to sort of generate recommendations and answers to people’s questions is sort of in the chicken soup category. It doesn’t deal with the cancer of corruption that has plagued the Capitol.”</p> <p>John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, said that the biggest problem plaguing state government is its rampant pay-to-play culture. But while the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation that would curb the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy interests to attempt to influence lawmakers with virtually unlimited campaign donations, the bill has been blocked from consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate. Other efforts at campaign finance reform, including instituting lower caps on individual donations and a public-matching system, have also stalled.</p> <p>“If it were up to the Assembly, they would probably pass a New York City-style small donor matching campaign finance system, but that’s not the law, and they have to exist within a system that is really corrupt and just a complete swamp of money,” said Kaehny. “So the question of what exactly Jane Feldman was supposed to do is a little elusive.”</p> <p>When Heastie announced a 2016 ethics reform package -- which included a bill limiting outside income for lawmakers and closure of the LLC loophole -- Feldman said she learned about it viewing the roll-out on T.V., and it became obvious that the job was not as she felt it had been described to her during interviews with the search committee and with the Speaker.</p> <p>In a statement, Heastie spokesperson Mike Whyland said, “the office was created as a training and expertise resource for members and staff and independent of the Speaker’s office. It was never meant as a position that would craft policy and take part in negotiations, something that would obviously compromise the independent nature of the office. This is an independent, bipartisan office that serves both the majority and the minority and thus has no responsibilities to negotiate laws.”</p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to Heastie's own press release, the Feldman was supposed to be involved in "reviewing best practices in legislative ethics to make recommendations for improvements."&nbsp;</span></p> <p>But Feldman said the Assembly was resistant to changes as small as publicizing on its website the times that it would go into legislative session. She said she was told that the parties go into conference so it was impossible to predict. “To me this is kind of archaic, but the way members learned what time session would be, is they would get a phone call that said ‘session is going to be at 11.’”</p> <p>“I was told many times by people that I saw my job as much more important than it was intended to be,” said Feldman.</p> <p>In 2015, good government groups sent a series of proposals to Kavanaugh and Pretlow for how the Assembly rules could be improved. The letter, signed by Common Cause, Citizens Union, NYPIRG, ReInvent Albany, and the Brennan Center for Justice, recommended that rank-and-file members be able to independently bring legislation with majority support to the floor -- even over objection of leadership -- that allocation of resources be more equitably distributed among members, as well as other transparency and efficiency measures.</p> <p>“There was resistance to our recommendations, because they didn’t like anything that encroaches on the power of the speaker,” said Horner. “They did make some changes, but I still think there’s a long way to go.”</p> <p>The working group was criticized for not holding any public hearings and for failing to include input from members of the minority conference, but it did produce a lengthy list of <a href="http://assembly.state.ny.us/Press/20160317/recommendations20160317.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommendations</a>. The fixes were technological and procedural, with an eye on more transparency and communication, such as ensuring wi-fi service throughout the Assembly chamber, increased use of text alerts for staff and members, improvements to the Assembly legislation database, and livestreaming more committee meetings. <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6229-assembly-announces-internal-reform-plan-to-mixed-reviews" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">There were</a> a handful of notable changes to the committee process, such as one that would allow all members five opportunities to force a bill to be voted on in committee.</p> <p>“I think there were 90 suggestions that we made, some of them take a longer time than others to be addressed, and most of them were accepted by the speaker,” said Pretlow.</p> <p>But helping to craft the Assembly’s internal rules reform also, apparently, did not fall under Feldman’s purview. Pretlow said Feldman was not at all involved, adding that he did not interact with her during her time in Albany. Feldman, in an email, clarified that the working group met and had decided on recommendations shortly before she arrived in Albany.</p> <p>Whyland did not respond to a request for comment on whether any candidates have emerged to replace Feldman or whether the role would be redefined, but he told the Times Union that the Assembly is looking to fill her former post with "someone who understands New York law, truly grasps the serious responsibilities of the office and its independent and bipartisan nature, and is willing to carry out its mission in full."</p> <p><em>Clarification: The article has been updated to indicate that decisions about rules reform in the Assembly were made prior to Feldman's arrival.</em></p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/36651878000_a15510bf8a_z.jpg" alt="Carl Heastie Assembly" width="600" height="399" /></p> <p>Carl Heastie (photo:&nbsp;Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>When ethics expert Jane Feldman’s departure from the New York State Assembly, and her appraisal of the experience as “as waste of money,” was <a href="http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Former-top-Assembly-ethics-official-Position-a-12296842.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first reported</a> by the Times Union last week, many saw it as another blow to reform efforts in Albany.</p> <p>Feldman <a href="http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Former-top-Assembly-ethics-official-Position-a-12296842.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told the outlet</a> she she “didn’t do anything” and called her hiring as executive director of the Office of Ethics and Compliance in September 2015 a “P.R. move.” The office itself, according to Feldman, was a windowless space on the ninth floor of the Legislative Office Building with airflow problems that had been carved out of a larger conference room.</p> <p>Two years ago, the office was created by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as part of the newly-selected speaker’s larger commitment to introduce more ethics and transparency measures to the 150-seat chamber. Promises were made, in part, to appease critics frustrated by the backroom speakership appointment process, and to signal a new era after that of infamous former Speaker Sheldon Silver.</p> <p>Heastie, a representative of the Bronx, created <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6229-assembly-announces-internal-reform-plan-to-mixed-reviews" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a working group</a> on rules reform, led by Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh, of Manhattan, and Gary Pretlow, of Mount Vernon, and vowed to choose an “independent” advisor who could offer guidance to members and offer suggestions for improving Assembly processes. Feldman, who previously headed the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for six years, was chosen by a six-person team following a nationwide search, and was seen as a fresh and independent perspective, someone from outside Albany’s long-standing and secretive power structures.</p> <p>But during her two years in Albany, Feldman says she rarely spoke to Heastie and found even members who were interested in reforming the Albany process rebuffed her suggestions.</p> <p>"There are so many things that are so entrenched,” said Feldman, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “There are a lot of good members who I think want to see ethics reforms, but when I would tell them how other states do things, the attitude was, 'well, that would never work here.'"</p> <p>Heastie’s office chalked up her experience to a misunderstanding about the job description, saying in a statement, “there was a disconnect between our expectations for the office and this individual’s view of her responsibilities.”</p> <p>But good government watchdogs say the larger problem is that no in-house advisor could make much of a dent in Albany’s ways, including how the legislative houses operate, the loophole-riddled campaign finance system, an opaque budget negotiation process, and flawed oversight structures.</p> <p>“Internal oversight is sort of an oxymoron,” said New York Public Interest Group’s Blair Horner. “The fundamental problem is you can’t really self-regulate when it comes to ethics. It’s like self-policing. An honor system only works for the honorable.”</p> <p>While it might have been helpful to have a person for members to go to for advice, Feldman’s described duties essentially duplicated the role of the Legislative Ethic Commission (LEC), a bi-partisan entity comprised of senators, Assembly members, and outside experts that provides advice to lawmakers on outside income, fundraising, and other conflict of interest queries. In at least one instance, this created a conflict, when the LEC offered one lawmaker different advice than Feldman did about whether the lawmaker could accept a speaking engagement, Feldman told the Times Union.</p> <p>It would be difficult to reconcile the two interpretations of the law given that opinions produced by the LEC are not made available to the public, and even Feldman said she could not access them. Legislative ethics advisory bodies in other states all make their opinions available to the public, and some of them even tweet out their opinions, she noted.</p> <p>Even the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which acts in an advisory role for the executive branch, and its predecessor agencies have made opinions public and publishes a bulk of information online.</p> <p>By many accounts, the Assembly has become more democratic under Heastie. The majority Democratic conference is consulted more frequently during budget negotiations, leadership opportunities are created for new members, and more hearings for legislation are held. Silver’s extremely intense grip on power has been loosened by his successor. But these strides are “infinitesimally small compared to the needs of the state, which is for radical overhaul of ethics oversight in New York,” according to Horner. “To have an office in the Assembly -- even if it doesn’t have any windows -- to sort of generate recommendations and answers to people’s questions is sort of in the chicken soup category. It doesn’t deal with the cancer of corruption that has plagued the Capitol.”</p> <p>John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, said that the biggest problem plaguing state government is its rampant pay-to-play culture. But while the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation that would curb the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy interests to attempt to influence lawmakers with virtually unlimited campaign donations, the bill has been blocked from consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate. Other efforts at campaign finance reform, including instituting lower caps on individual donations and a public-matching system, have also stalled.</p> <p>“If it were up to the Assembly, they would probably pass a New York City-style small donor matching campaign finance system, but that’s not the law, and they have to exist within a system that is really corrupt and just a complete swamp of money,” said Kaehny. “So the question of what exactly Jane Feldman was supposed to do is a little elusive.”</p> <p>When Heastie announced a 2016 ethics reform package -- which included a bill limiting outside income for lawmakers and closure of the LLC loophole -- Feldman said she learned about it viewing the roll-out on T.V., and it became obvious that the job was not as she felt it had been described to her during interviews with the search committee and with the Speaker.</p> <p>In a statement, Heastie spokesperson Mike Whyland said, “the office was created as a training and expertise resource for members and staff and independent of the Speaker’s office. It was never meant as a position that would craft policy and take part in negotiations, something that would obviously compromise the independent nature of the office. This is an independent, bipartisan office that serves both the majority and the minority and thus has no responsibilities to negotiate laws.”</p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to Heastie's own press release, the Feldman was supposed to be involved in "reviewing best practices in legislative ethics to make recommendations for improvements."&nbsp;</span></p> <p>But Feldman said the Assembly was resistant to changes as small as publicizing on its website the times that it would go into legislative session. She said she was told that the parties go into conference so it was impossible to predict. “To me this is kind of archaic, but the way members learned what time session would be, is they would get a phone call that said ‘session is going to be at 11.’”</p> <p>“I was told many times by people that I saw my job as much more important than it was intended to be,” said Feldman.</p> <p>In 2015, good government groups sent a series of proposals to Kavanaugh and Pretlow for how the Assembly rules could be improved. The letter, signed by Common Cause, Citizens Union, NYPIRG, ReInvent Albany, and the Brennan Center for Justice, recommended that rank-and-file members be able to independently bring legislation with majority support to the floor -- even over objection of leadership -- that allocation of resources be more equitably distributed among members, as well as other transparency and efficiency measures.</p> <p>“There was resistance to our recommendations, because they didn’t like anything that encroaches on the power of the speaker,” said Horner. “They did make some changes, but I still think there’s a long way to go.”</p> <p>The working group was criticized for not holding any public hearings and for failing to include input from members of the minority conference, but it did produce a lengthy list of <a href="http://assembly.state.ny.us/Press/20160317/recommendations20160317.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommendations</a>. The fixes were technological and procedural, with an eye on more transparency and communication, such as ensuring wi-fi service throughout the Assembly chamber, increased use of text alerts for staff and members, improvements to the Assembly legislation database, and livestreaming more committee meetings. <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6229-assembly-announces-internal-reform-plan-to-mixed-reviews" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">There were</a> a handful of notable changes to the committee process, such as one that would allow all members five opportunities to force a bill to be voted on in committee.</p> <p>“I think there were 90 suggestions that we made, some of them take a longer time than others to be addressed, and most of them were accepted by the speaker,” said Pretlow.</p> <p>But helping to craft the Assembly’s internal rules reform also, apparently, did not fall under Feldman’s purview. Pretlow said Feldman was not at all involved, adding that he did not interact with her during her time in Albany. Feldman, in an email, clarified that the working group met and had decided on recommendations shortly before she arrived in Albany.</p> <p>Whyland did not respond to a request for comment on whether any candidates have emerged to replace Feldman or whether the role would be redefined, but he told the Times Union that the Assembly is looking to fill her former post with "someone who understands New York law, truly grasps the serious responsibilities of the office and its independent and bipartisan nature, and is willing to carry out its mission in full."</p> <p><em>Clarification: The article has been updated to indicate that decisions about rules reform in the Assembly were made prior to Feldman's arrival.</em></p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
De Blasio’s Record on Ethics and Transparency 2017-10-22T04:00:00+00:00 2017-10-22T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7258:de-blasio-s-record-on-ethics-and-transparency Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/36293022713_309bde7089_z.jpg" alt="Mayor de Blasio City Hall " width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p><strong><em>This article is part of <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record</a> as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Find all pieces of the series here</a>.</em></strong></p> <p style="text-align: center;">**********</p> <p>It is a source of great frustration for Mayor Bill de Blasio and hangs over his administration and reelection bid as an albatross. Observers across the political spectrum, including Democratic and Republican opponents in this year’s mayoral race, have attacked de Blasio for blurring or crossing ethical lines, and for lacking transparency.</p> <p>De Blasio rode into power promising the most transparent administration in the city’s history, but his nearly four years in office have been marked by continuing questions and controversies over both his administration’s opaqueness and ethics, highlighted by twin law enforcement investigations into fundraising practices and government favors for campaign donors. The incumbent Democratic mayor, seeking reelection this fall, has repeatedly argued that he and his associates have carried themselves ethically and that he has done more disclosure than his predecessors and other high-level officials.</p> <p>Yet, along with his electoral opponents, political observers, government reform advocates, and City Council members also say de Blasio’s rhetoric has not been backed by action and that his record on transparency and ethics has been, at best, a mixed bag.</p> <p>In endorsing him in the Democratic primary, the New York Times editorial board <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/05/opinion/editorials/mayoral-endorsement-bill-deblasio.html?_r=0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, “A political operative before he ran for public office, Mr. de Blasio has not shaken free of detractors’ suspicions about his ethical compass. He was subjected to both federal and state investigations into whether he presides over a pay-to-play system that favors well-heeled donors seeking favors from City Hall. Ultimately, no charges were brought against him or his aides. Though the mayor declared he had been vindicated, the Manhattan district attorney concluded that some of his fund-raising appeared to have violated “the intent and spirit” of the law. That’s a far cry from Mr. de Blasio’s claim to have been pronounced “innocent.”</p> <p>De Blasio was indeed chastised by federal and state prosecutors, who, while they did not bring charges against him or his associates, investigated their actions and outlined problematic practices, some of which led to new city laws limiting certain fundraising activities that the mayor and his team engaged in. De Blasio has claimed that he and his aides have held themselves to the highest standards, but he has regularly raised those standards when pushed.</p> <p>Part of the mayor’s pushback against criticisms has been that he and his associates have always had good motives, like expanding pre-kindergarten, and that a political nonprofit his allies ran to support his agenda disclosed more than required. Though he has been dogged by questions from members of the media, de Blasio readily points out that regular New Yorkers don’t often ask him about his fundraising practices or release of email records when they have the opportunity to question him at town halls or radio call-in segments.</p> <p>“People never bring up the issues from the investigations, because I think there was a broad understanding in the public that there was an immense amount of scrutiny that found absolutely nothing wrong,” he said in a recent <a href="http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/09/bill-de-blasio-in-conversation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Magazine</a> interview, mischaracterizing the facts given that while no charges were brought, prosecutors did indicate that the mayor and his associates had blurred or crossed ethical lines. “Everyday New Yorkers are much more concerned with kitchen-table issues. Some political insiders, maybe they’ve come to certain conclusions. But for everyday New Yorkers? They didn’t see anything wrong, and they’re right, because there wasn’t anything wrong.”</p> <p>As de Blasio asks New Yorkers for four more years, ethics and transparency will continue to be a focus of criticism from his general election opponents and others, while the mayor will defend himself and attempt to point to stronger aspects of his record. But the record of how he and his administration have conducted themselves when it comes to playing by the rules, separating political fundraising and governing, and providing the public with both ethical and transparent government is very much worth chronicling and examining as voters evaluate their choices this November.</p> <p>Mayoral spokespeople Eric Phillips and Austin Finan agreed to speak with Gotham Gazette for this story, but, other than a brief conversation to discuss the premise of the article, no comment was provided.</p> <p>The most recent Quinnipiac University public opinion poll that included a question about de Blasio's&nbsp;ethics, published at the end of July, <a href="https://poll.qu.edu/new-york-city/release-detail?ReleaseID=2475" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">showed</a> New York City voters saying 52 to 35 percent that he is honest and trustworthy, down from 59 to 31 percent in May. Still, the 52 was up from the lowest rating de Blasio has received in a Quinnipiac poll over his four years as mayor: amid intense controversy in May 2016, 43 percent <a href="https://poll.qu.edu/images/polling/nyc/nyc07312017_trends_N79jmpp.pdf/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said</a> he is honest and trustworthy, while 45 percent said he is not. The highest de Blasio's honesty was rated by voters eight months into his tenure, when the balance was 66 to 22 in his favor.</p> <p><strong>Selective Transparency</strong><br /> In his former role as public advocate, de Blasio championed transparency and took the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to task for its apparent lack thereof. De Blasio disclosed meetings with lobbyists and implemented tools to track Freedom of Information Law requests, while criticizing the Bloomberg administration for its lax FOIL response time.</p> <p>Fast forward nearly four years and the same official who urged increased disclosure by Bloomberg has been reticent to show the same commitment in his own operations on FOIL responsiveness speed and other things like police discipline records and emails with top non-governmental advisors. For example, as public advocate, de Blasio recommended legislation requiring the mayor to include FOIL response statistics in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, but it is not something de Blasio has done as mayor himself.</p> <p>Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, de Blasio's second-in-command, recently conceded at a New York Law School breakfast that the administration could improve it's record on FOIL requests. "I don't think we've done as good as job on that as we could have," he said, <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2017/10/13/de-blasio-deputy-mayor-says-blaming-predecessor-is-not-productive-115038" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Politico New York reported</a>. "But I can't tell you we've gotten good enough. ... Our open data initiative has been, I think, one of the stronger ones in the country. ... Fundamentally, the more data that we can put out there so people don't have to say, 'May I,' but can do their own analytics, is the way to do."</p> <p>On August 23, at the first of two mayoral debates in the Democratic primary, de Blasio was asked by debate panelist and NY1 reporter Grace Rauh about steps he would take to improve transparency in a second term, should he be reelected, or if he considered any improvements unnecessary. As he often does, the mayor disagreed with the premise of the question, and pivoted toward touting his record on transparency. “Anytime a lobbyist lobbied me on behalf of a third party I put that up online so that people know exactly who talked to me when. I did that,” de Blasio said. “No other mayor’s done that before in our history. I’m in favor of the kind of transparency that’s gonna make life different for everyday New Yorkers like body cameras for all of our patrol officers over the next two years. This is one of the ultimate acts of transparency and accountability in government.”</p> <p>He added, “Past administrations did not disclose all sorts of things. I’ve made it a point to be open about disclosure. Some areas where I disagree specifically I do not think it was appropriate to disclose but compared to previous administrations we’ve gone a long way and a lot farther in terms of openness and disclosure and transparency....No mayor previously had that level of transparency and I’m very proud of the fact that we put that in place in the city. When it comes to tough questions, well it’s a tough job as part of what I’d expect as mayor of New York City.”</p> <p>It was a far from satisfactory answer for de Blasio’s only opponent on the debate stage, former City Council Member Sal Albanese. “I’m just incredulous,” Albanese responded. “This administration is the least transparent administration in recent history,” he added (it is not an easy comparison to make).</p> <p>“We should have a higher standard for the mayor than not being indicted,” Albanese said repeatedly during the debates and the primary campaign.</p> <p>Government watchdog groups have also found that de Blasio reneged on his campaign pledges around core good governance, though there has been acknowledgement that the administration has implemented certain policies that have enhanced transparency, including related to data generated by city government.</p> <p>For instance, the city has continued and expanded the implementation of the Open Data law, launching a redesigned <a href="https://opendata.cityofnewyork.us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">online portal</a> with thousands of datasets available to the public. The administration has launched <a href="https://a860-openrecords.nyc.gov" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">OpenRECORDS</a>, a centralized website to file and track FOIL requests with numerous city agencies. These advancements, while notable, do not capture the full picture of mayoral transparency, however.</p> <p>Early on in his term, the mayor began limiting interactions with the press, eschewing the daily news briefings that previous mayors had traditionally held and restricting occasions when he would take “off-topic” questions. It earned him scorn from detractors in and out of the media, and, almost cyclically, reinforced his derision for reporters who grew frustrated with the dearth of unfettered, unscripted responses to their questions.</p> <p>“There’s a Trump-like quality in his whining about the media,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, CUNY. “He’s got the same disease as the President.”</p> <p>“There’s a lot the citizenry could find praiseworthy in his record,” Muzzio added, “but the two main issues are his transparency and political ethics, and his sense of self-aggrandizement where everything is ‘historic’ and ‘transformative.’ The problem is the distance between rhetoric and reality.”</p> <p>Muzzio also noted that the administration has released a lot more data than previous mayoralties, which has been useful for analysis of city agencies. “It’s the personal transparency, rather than institutional transparency, that’s lacking,” Muzzio said of de Blasio.</p> <p>One example of rhetoric versus reality was a <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/de-blasio-defend-boastful-video-decried-watchdogs-article-1.2926739" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">promotional video</a> put out in December 2016 by City Hall that touted the administration’s accomplishments, as it was mired in the two investigations that had captured headlines for months. Good government groups criticized the mayor at the time for effectively putting out a campaign ad shortly before the start of an election year during which government-funded advertisements would have been prohibited. The mayor fielded questions about the ad for weeks and grew frustrated by another example of what he has perceived as reporters’ fixation on trivial matters at the expense of spreading all the “good news” that is happening as a result of his policies.</p> <p>At the August 23 debate, prompted by NY1’s Rauh, de Blasio pledged that he would not set up another issue-advocacy nonprofit like the Campaign for One New York, which was at the center of one of the two investigations into his administration. It was something the mayor had previously said he didn’t plan to do and had in fact signed a new law making virtually impossible. In making the pledge, he reiterated that he faced tough questions about his ethical conduct purely because he was willing to voluntarily disclose who had donated to the nonprofit group and how much.</p> <p>“If you know you did things right you disclose,” he said. “If you’ve got something to hide, you don’t disclose. That’s what we did over and over again with donations that we did not have a legal obligation to disclose but we went ahead and disclosed anyway and I’m proud of that fact.”</p> <p>But, the mayor’s approach to disclosure has been highly selective. For the better part of two years, media outlets have pushed, and NY1 and the New York Post even sued, the administration for access to emails exchanged between the mayor’s office and unpaid outside advisors. The mayor’s team has shielded those communications, terming the advisors “agents of the city” who would not be subject to disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Law that typically apply to correspondence between government officials and non-government entities. Exceptions to FOIL exist for intra-governmental communication that is part of the decision-making process, but de Blasio and his team argued that the advisors were so close to City Hall and the mayor that they were de facto members of the administration.</p> <p>Eventually, the mayor relented to an extent, and troves of emails, numbering in the thousands and many of them significantly redacted, have been released on numerous occasions, usually in Friday “news dumps.” The administration is still in court appealing the decision to release the emails, but the mayor pledged in March to release all communications going forward. The emails have not shown wrongdoing, but rather painted the administration, and the mayor particularly, in an unflattering light at times. Some showed de Blasio’s harsh treatment of underlings while others revealed his proximity and degree of access afforded to donors, including controversial ones.</p> <p>Watchdogs have pointed out that with the Campaign for One New York and the “agents of the city,” de Blasio has created his own problems by blurring lines and limiting transparency. By inviting massive donations to the nonprofit from entities with city business, de Blasio opened the door to pay-to-play allegations, and even the federal investigation. Under intense scrutiny, the mayor wound up promising extensive evidence of donors who did not get favorable treatment from city government -- a promise he eventually admitted he regretted -- but after months of delays, he produced a column on the online publishing platform Medium that left many wanting for more detail.</p> <p><strong>Big Money for the ‘Right’ Causes</strong><br /> As public advocate, de Blasio urged big corporations to adopt policies against funding political action committees and organized elected officials dedicated to that cause. He filed a legal brief in federal court arguing against the removal of limits to donations to PACs and he railed against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed untold amounts of money from undisclosed donors to flood electoral campaigns.</p> <p>“Deep-pocketed donors have turned their sights on New York and our best-in-the-nation campaign finance system,” de Blasio <a href="http://archive.advocate.nyc.gov/PAC" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said</a>, in a statement on Oct. 3, 2013, when he filed the amicus brief. “They’re determined to upend protections that have safeguarded our democratic process for decades. This is about more than one election. It’s about defending the voices of everyday New Yorkers. It’s a fight we are going to win.”</p> <p>While de Blasio has continued to rail against Citizens United and call for full public campaign financing, the mayor has not aggressively pursued such a system in New York and the same politician who has long decried wealthy moneyed interests influencing government relied on them to promote his own political agenda while mayor.</p> <p>De Blasio came into office with a come-from-behind primary win and a general election landslide. He had the wind at his back and attempted to take on the world, so to speak. This led to the creation of the controversial nonprofit and a 2014 effort to swing the state Senate Democratic that got him in trouble, along with other actions that have hurt his reputation for openness and clean government.</p> <p>Within a month of the mayor’s election, his allies set up a political nonprofit group called UPKNYC, later branded The Campaign for One New York, to promote the goal of universal pre-kindergarten in the city, which in part depended on state-level approval. After achieving its initial goal -- de Blasio favored a tax on the rich to fund the proposal but settled for direct funding from the state -- the group pivoted to promoting the mayor’s affordable housing plan. All along, the 501(c)4 organization solicited unlimited donations, many from wealthy donors and labor unions that also had business with the city. The group did voluntarily disclose its finances and donors every six months.</p> <p>Scrutiny of its activities, and the mayor’s fundraising for it and possible exchange of government favors, helped trigger one of the two separate corruption investigations, a federal probe into allegations of pay-to-play at City Hall --- the second was a state-level inquiry into whether the mayor’s attempt to sway state Senate races for Democratic candidates in 2014 had violated election law by funneling big donations to candidate campaigns through local Democratic committees.</p> <p>The mayor maintained throughout that he and his associates had acted under strict legal guidance and had followed the letter of the law, and both probes eventually concluded with no charges. But the stench of scandal remained as the Manhattan U.S. attorney concluded that the mayor, though not crossing into clear criminal activity, had sought contributions from donors and then had “made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies” on behalf of those donors.</p> <p>De Blasio defended this as typical practice and even good government -- that any constituent, whether a donor or not, who brings a concern to him is directed to someone in the administration who may be able to help, but that the relevant powers make decisions based on the merits, not relationships. What has been abundantly clear, however, is that de Blasio donors have enjoyed special access to and attention from the mayor and his administration.</p> <p>De Blasio also regularly made the case that the ends justified the means, that because he was fighting for universal pre-kindergarten and affordable housing, his skirting of campaign finance rules and blurring of lines was acceptable. The contradiction became especially evident when de Blasio agreed to sign legislation pushed by the City Council, notably Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a close de Blasio ally, to drastically limit political nonprofits with ties to elected officials. De Blasio would explain that it was “the right thing to do” but did lament that he felt it might hamstring progressive politicians with good intentions like himself in the ongoing fight against opposing big-money interests.</p> <p>At the second Democratic mayoral primary debate on <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzIfDLHon-c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">September 6</a>, debate moderator Maurice DuBois of CBS-2 put the mayor on his heels with the first question, about his apparent ethical failings. “Mr. de Blasio, here’s a true story,” DuBois began. “A political leader and his associates used pay-for-play tactics...but were not charged with a crime. However, state and federal prosecutors insist those people did violate the intent and spirit of the law. While there were no criminal charges, would you want people like that working for you?”</p> <p>A defensive de Blasio again stood by his administration’s efforts and the policy goals that they achieved, and insisted that he and his associates had been vindicated by the intense scrutiny by prosecutors that nevertheless found no wrongdoing. “I look at everything that we’ve done and I’m very convinced that high standards were kept to and the results speak for themselves in terms of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we’ve improved,” he said. “That’s what I came here to do, make people’s lives better.”</p> <p>Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, said she is “torn” over the mayor’s first-term scandals. “Part of me is just wondering, ‘is this the cost of doing business as a politician in the 21st century if you’re not a billionaire?’” she said, drawing a contrast with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who did not have to depend on donors for his own campaigns. “Part of me thinks, ‘Well if you don’t have billions to contribute on your own, do you possibly have to get that from unsavory characters and make alliances and depend on people who have resources?’ But the other part of me wonders, ‘Wow, it seems like we’re always asking about some sort of potential wrongdoing.’”</p> <p>Greer’s conflict seems to be indicative of that of at least several prominent Democrats, including officials like Comptroller Scott Stringer, who criticized the Campaign for One New York as a “slush fund” but wound up endorsing the mayor for reelection, citing his progressivism in fighting inequality. For some time, Stringer was considering a mayoral run, either against de Blasio or in the event de Blasio did not seek reelection due to results from the investigations that did not materialize.</p> <p>Greer emphasized that de Blasio’s ethics record should not be conflated with his transparency, even though the two are sometimes drawn in “concentric circles.” She noted that de Blasio’s refusal to take questions from the press simply raises more concerns about what else he isn’t being transparent about. “I genuinely do not understand why there are times that de Blasio makes life much harder for himself than he has to...He brought that on himself,” she said. She did agree that perhaps everyday New Yorkers don’t care about issues of transparency that “get into the weeds,” but said he couldn’t dismiss the concerns of those who do. “By you not wanting to answer it, you can’t wish it away by saying nobody’s interested,” she said. “Yes, we are interested.”</p> <p>De Blasio’s criticism of and condescension towards the media was on full display in the <a href="https://medium.com/@NYCMayorsOffice/how-we-make-decisions-in-the-era-of-big-money-politics-e195917db5d7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">column</a> he wrote on Medium, where he attempted to defend himself against pay-to-play allegations and special access for donors. The column, promised by de Blasio more than a year prior, was meant to illustrate instances of donors who sought favors from the administration but were denied. In the face of allegations and investigations, de Blasio had promised “a whole lot of evidence” of donors not getting the action they desired from the city. De Blasio provided little evidence in his Medium column, but went after the media with gusto.</p> <p>“Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City,” de Blasio wrote of the coverage of his contact with donors. “Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.”</p> <p>The column contained few examples and no names, and largely blamed the media for over-inflating the scandals that have plagued de Blasio’s tenure. “It was a non-explanation, he gave a few examples of dubious quality,” Muzzio said with an exasperated sigh, noting how the mayor looked down his nose at the press.</p> <p>Some top Democratic elected officials have been hesitant to criticize the mayor openly, save for Stringer and a few others. Public Advocate Letitia James, de Blasio’s successor and whose office is meant to serve as a watchdog over city government, declined to comment for this article through a spokesperson. James has largely stayed away from questions about de Blasio’s ethics and transparency issues, explaining her approach as more focused on the substance of agency work and using litigation and legislation to make policy change.</p> <p>City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, ostensibly the second-most powerful elected official in the city, deflected when asked about the mayor’s defense of the Campaign for One New York and his transparency, at a news conference on Sept. 7, when the mayor’s ethics record was being argued over both on the primary election debate stage and throughout the ongoing race for mayor.</p> <p>“We continue to have conversations in this Council and we continue to look at legislation to figure out how we can be more transparent,” she said. “That doesn’t just fall on the mayor, that falls on all of us to be more transparent in government.”</p> <p>Mark-Viverito emphasized the Council’s measures to improve the Campaign Finance Board’s functioning and the laws governing campaign fundraising and spending. “Being a candidate and being an elected official is not easy,” she said. “The CFB rules are extremely complicated to follow and sometimes to keep track of and so sometimes you can get a little bit lost in them.”</p> <p>When Gotham Gazette pointed out that the mayor’s Campaign for One New York operated outside of the CFB’s purview and asked if looking back on it she felt it was still ethical for the mayor to have created the group, Mark-Viverito said, “I’m not gonna respond to that at this moment. I haven’t really focused on it as of late. Again, what we strive to do is to be accountable to our constituents and that’s what I have been doing as an elected official, that’s what we do each and everyday and I’m gonna continue to strive down that path.”</p> <p>Though she was quite reticent to weigh in on the issue when it was most relevant, Mark-Viverito did eventually spearhead the writing and passage of the legislation to rein in groups like Campaign for One New York, forcing the mayor’s hand on a measure that ensures few like it will ever exist in the future, given several new restrictions, like severe limits on what entities with city business can donate to nonprofits closely associated with an elected official. Even during that legislative process, Mark-Viverito, largely a de Blasio ally, took pains not to criticize the mayor directly, while tacitly and legislatively showing her disapproval. In signing the legislation, de Blasio refused to acknowledge that he had made any mistakes, but touted it as good legislation further reigning in money in politics.</p> <p>Council Member Mark Levine, who is among a number of members running to be the next speaker of the Council, also gave a quasi-defense of the mayor. “I think he has to be judged by the fact that there was extensive scrutiny with considerable resources at multiple levels of government, local and federal, that left no stone unturned and determined there was not ground to charge,” he told Gotham Gazette, “and that at the end of the day is the most important standard and one that he justifiably touts, particularly in light of the months of leaks which gave him bad press for issues which ultimately were not deemed sufficient to charge on.”</p> <p>But multiple City Council members, who did not wish to be named, felt differently. Separately, they gave similar opinions to one another, criticizing the mayor’s hypocrisy on transparency, his handling of the “agents of the city” emails, and his continued arrogance over escaping an indictment.</p> <p>One Council member said the mayor was “vulnerable” on issues of transparency and that he faced “justifiable criticism” over his shielding of his emails, which did not seem at all legally defensible. The months of bad headlines, said the Council member, led to a “bunker mentality” and the mayor and his associates dug in their heels deeper. (Indeed, de Blasio has reopened himself to many more press questions since the investigations ended.)</p> <p>Two Council members said the mayor’s shielding of his emails was largely an exercise in protecting his image rather than hiding instances of corruption. “It’s clear they are well aware of who their friends are,” said one member, of the mayor’s relationship with donors. The <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/emails-reveal-another-side-of-bill-de-blasio-1466038087" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Wall Street Journal</a> has reported that the contents of some of the “agents of the city” emails are especially gossipy and embarrassing.</p> <p>Another Council member commended the press as the institution, more so than the City Council, that has most held the mayor accountable, and criticized the mayor for attacking the media’s reportage. The member noted that the Council did not use its subpoena power and did not act on the Campaign for One New York until after Common Cause NY, a good government group, filed an official complaint with the Campaign Finance Board.</p> <p>That Council member also critiqued the mayor for not revealing who administration officials hold meetings with, an issue on which de Blasio had campaigned, and for not fully implementing the online FOIL portal. On the mayor’s Medium post, the Council member said, “It’s a little too cute to tell folks exactly who did what without using their names.”</p> <p><strong>‘Backwards on Police Transparency’</strong><br /> In April 2013, then-Public Advocate de Blasio <a href="http://archive.advocate.nyc.gov/foil/report" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">released</a> a “Transparency Report Card” that evaluated 18 city agencies on their response to FOIL requests. The two agencies that received a failing grade were the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the NYPD. A <a href="https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/04/11/in-de-blasios-new-york-transparency-laws-mean-nothing/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Village Voice</a> analysis from April of the de Blasio administration’s handling of FOIL records showed that little had changed in more than three years. “A review of thousands of pages of FOIL records shows the city’s system for handling public information requests remains haphazard, under-resourced, and often excruciatingly slow. And the mayor’s own office is the slowest of all,” the report reads.</p> <p>The mayor’s earlier criticism of the NYPD’s opaqueness perhaps most smacks of hypocrisy to police reform advocates who say his administration has not only not made progress, but actually backtracked on transparency at the police department. The NYPD, and then de Blasio, last year contended that successive administrations had for decades misinterpreted Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Code, which protects the personnel records of police officers from public disclosure. As the department saw it, the law prevents them from releasing “personnel orders” that summarize disciplinary actions taken against officers. These orders had routinely been released until the revised policy was put in place, and the city has fought tooth and nail to uphold its reinterpretation of the law, even appealing an unfavorable judicial ruling, and has pointed to the need for the state to change the law. &nbsp;</p> <p>“The de Blasio administration has taken the city backwards on police transparency and accountability with its misuse of state law 50-a to conceal information,” said Lumumba Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups. Bandele noted that, though the mayor released a proposal to change the law in Albany, there was little evidence that the administration made it a priority in this year’s legislative session. “On policing, this administration is misusing the law as an excuse for being less transparent than those of Bloomberg and Giuliani,” she added, “allowing the NYPD to shield police abuse and corruption from public scrutiny, and failing to provide leadership to improve police accountability and transparency.”</p> <p>The notion -- that the de Blasio administration has been worse about NYPD transparency and accountability -- is one that was also echoed this year by City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is a de Blasio supporter overall.</p> <p><strong>Scrutiny and Change</strong><br /> Undoubtedly, scrutiny of the mayor’s actions led to change in his behavior. He stopped communicating with top lobbyists who were close to him and began to limit government-related interaction with outside consultants, particularly Jonathan Rosen, a confidante who was involved in the mayor’s 2013 campaign and the Campaign for One New York, and whose firm is again working on the mayor’s 2017 reelection bid. The scandals also prompted the legislation by the City Council -- which the mayor signed into law -- regulating donations to nonprofit groups affiliated with elected officials and requiring disclosure by these groups under the oversight of the Conflicts of Interest Board. And, de Blasio changed his “agency of the city” email transparency policy as he continues to battle in court to keep past emails secret.</p> <p>But it’s unclear if the mayor, who won his primary handily and is expected to coast to reelection through the general, will take substantive steps to be more transparent. “[If] he gets a second term, I can’t see him as a lame duck being more transparent, so I think that’s a concern,” said Greer.</p> <p>There’s no doubt that de Blasio’s general election opponents, chiefly Republican Nicole Malliotakis, a state Assembly member from Staten Island, will continue to make de Blasio’s ethics a focus of the campaign. The question remains, though, how much voters care. Political analysts note that most voters do not vote based on transparency and ethics issues unless there is a major scandal that has led someone to jail. Voters often vote based on “pocket book” and “kitchen table” issues like jobs, schools, and crime -- a point de Blasio himself regularly acknowledges at least tacitly.</p> <p>Council Member Brad Lander, who was one of the co-sponsors of the legislation regulating political nonprofits, said it was more constructive to focus on the political system that allows, and in some way encourages, reliance on wealthy donors. “If we want elected officials in New York City to live up to a higher standard of good government, then the best approach is to strengthen our own rules,” he said. “That’s more valuable than focusing on individuals.”</p> <p><strong><em>This article is part of&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection">a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record</a>&nbsp;as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits.&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection">Find all pieces of the series here</a>.</em></strong></p> <p style="text-align: center;">**********</p> <p>A TIMELINE of MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS RELATED to MAYOR DE BLASIO'S RECORD on ETHICS and TRANSPARENCY</p> <p>November 2013: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio gets elected mayor of New York City after running a campaign in which he promised an unprecedented level of transparency in government. As Public Advocate, de Blasio issued a “Transparency Report Card” evaluating city agencies on their response to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. He chiefly criticized the NYPD for their lax FOIL response times, giving them a failing grade in his report.</p> <p>December 2013: De Blasio’s allies set up UPKNYC, also known as the Campaign for One New York, an issue-advocacy nonprofit -- classified by the IRS as 501(c)(4)s -- that could solicit unlimited contributions and spend unlimited funds to promote the mayor’s agenda, namely promoting universal pre-kindergarten. Under law, the nonprofit was not required to disclose its donors. The mayor’s associates later set up another nonprofit called United For Affordable NYC, to promote his affordable housing plan. The Campaign for One New York eventually became the locus of two parallel investigations by federal and state prosecutors into the mayor’s fundraising practices and his effort to sway state Senate races in 2014.</p> <p>July 2014: The Campaign for One New York voluntarily discloses its fundraising and donors to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and to the public, despite not being required to do so, showing $1.76 million in donations, a lot of which came from labor unions that have been big supporters of the mayor and from groups that do business with the city. The mayor faced scrutiny for allowing doing business donors to give unlimited amounts, whereas those same donors would’ve been limited in how much they could contribute to a campaign committee. The Campaign for One New York later shifted its focus towards the mayor’s larger progressive agenda, particularly affordable housing, after having already achieved the goal of funding universal pre-kindergarten in the city.</p> <p>May 2015: De Blasio heads to Washington D.C. to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/13/nyregion/in-washington-de-blasio-unveils-his-progressive-agenda-campaign.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">launch</a> “The Progressive Agenda,” a platform of progressive policies that he attempted to advocate for at the national level to try to influence issues in the presidential race. Another nonprofit, the Progressive Agenda Committee, is set up by October 2015 to helm the project. The group would have little to no impact before <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2016/07/progressive-agenda-committee-spends-418-298-but-has-no-staff-and-didnt-do-anything-103906" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">shutting down</a> within less than a year, only making headlines for an aborted attempt at holding a presidential candidate forum in Iowa in December 2015.</p> <p>The same day de Blasio was in Washington, the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/13/nyregion/group-supporting-de-blasios-agenda-is-said-to-draw-interest-of-ethics-panel.html?ref=nyregion&amp;_r=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Times</a> reports that the Campaign for One New York has come under scrutiny by JCOPE for not registering as a lobbying entity. In 2014, UPKNYC had registered as a lobbyist to promote universal pre-k.</p> <p>July 2015: Yet again, the Campaign for One New York discloses its fundraising, showing another $1.7 million in fundraising over a six-month period. The donations came from unions, lobbyists, wealthy donors and real estate executives. A <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2015/09/the-transactional-mayor-returns-025908" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Politico New York</a> analysis in September shows that 46 of 74 donors “either had business or labor contracts with City Hall or were trying to secure approval for a project when they contributed, public records show.” Over the next few months, de Blasio faces constant questioning about potential conflicts of interest and the perception of a pay-to-play culture emerging at City Hall. The nonprofit groups also seem to slow down their operations and fundraising amid increased criticism.</p> <p>Feb 2016: Common Cause New York, a government reform advocacy group, files <a href="http://www.commoncause.org/states/new-york/press/press-releases/coib-cfb-review-of-deblasio-fundraiser.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a complaint</a> with the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board and the Campaign Finance Board, requesting investigations of the Campaign for One New York and United for Affordable NYC. “The Mayor's unprecedented use of 501(c)(4) fundraising has spawned a shadow government that raises serious questions about who has influence and access to the policymaking process,” Common Cause NY said in a statement at the time. “It has created a perpetual campaign, confusing the role of government and politics, to the detriment of the public interest.”</p> <p>March 2016: The Campaign for One New York <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/political-organization-tied-to-nyc-mayor-bill-de-blasio-is-closing-1458208801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announces</a> plans to close down as the spectre of pay-to-play allegations begins to hound the administration. United for Affordable NYC ends operations in conjunction, but the Progressive Agenda Committee continues to exist with minimal staff.</p> <p>April 2016: Then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara <a href="http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/04/08/nypd-probe-mayor-fundraising/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reportedly</a> begins looking into two de Blasio donors, in connection with a separate corruption case involving the NYPD. Both donors contributed to the mayor’s campaign as well and were part of his inauguration committee. CBS2’s Marcia Kramer <a href="http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/04/08/nypd-probe-mayor-fundraising/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reports</a> that Bharara’s office had started focusing on the mayor’s fundraising practices. Mayor de Blasio, saying he was unaware of any federal investigation, says on April 11, “I’m not going to be speaking about this after today.”</p> <p>On April 22, the <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/de-blasio-gamed-donation-limits-hid-names-board-elections-article-1.2611406?utm_content=buffer3ac9b&amp;utm_medium=social&amp;utm_source=twitter.com&amp;utm_campaign=NYDailyNewsTw" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Daily News</a> reports on a leaked memo from the state Board of Elections regarding the mayor’s 2014 efforts to help Democrats win the state Senate. The memo alleges that de Blasio and his team circumvented campaign contribution limits to benefit three Democratic campaigns, thereby warranting criminal prosecution. (It would later emerge that the memo was released by a Republican BOE spokesperson.)</p> <p>On April 28, after de Blasio’s counsel confirms having received subpoenas in parallel state and federal investigations into the mayor’s fundraising, de Blasio maintains his innocence. “Everything we’ve done from the beginning is legal and appropriate,” he said. “There’s an investigation going on, we’re going to fully cooperate with that investigation.”</p> <p>May 2016: A lawyer for the Campaign for One New York tells JCOPE that the nonprofit would stop complying with subpoenas, suggesting that the probe into CONY has become politically motivated.</p> <p>On May 18, Mayor de Blasio promises to produce a list of donors who contributed to the Campaign for One New York but did not receive favors from City Hall, insisting that his administration makes decision based on merit and not on favoritism.</p> <p>The same month, de Blasio comes under fire for shielding his email exchanges with five unpaid outside advisers, some of whom have business with the city. The administration terms them “agents of the city” and <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2016/05/de-blasio-lists-advisers-he-considers-exempt-from-transparency-law-101954" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">argues</a> that they are exempt from disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Law.</p> <p>June 2016: The administration releases selected emails from outside consultants to <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2016/06/city-hall-releases-selective-emails-with-outside-consulting-firm-102771" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Politico New York</a>, in response to long-pending FOIL requests.</p> <p>July 2016: The New York City Campaign Finance Board <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6426-campaign-finance-board-rules-in-mayor-s-favor-while-criticizing-him" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">rules</a> that the Campaign for One New York did not violate campaign finance law and that donations and spending by the group do not count towards the mayor’s 2017 reelection campaign. But, the board criticized the mayor’s fundraising practices, which they saw as circumventing the city’s strict campaign finance restrictions, and called on the City Council to pass legislation to close the loophole. &nbsp;</p> <p>“New York City’s system depends on reasonable contribution limits that reduce the appearance that influence can be bought or sold through campaign contributions,” said then-CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn. “It defies common sense that limits that work so well during the campaign should be set aside once the candidate has assumed elected office.”</p> <p>August 2016: A battle brewing in the background for months over NYPD officers’ disciplinary records came front and center as the <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/exclusive-nypd-stops-releasing-cops-disciplinary-records-article-1.2764145" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Daily News</a> reported that the department would no longer release “personnel orders” summarizing disciplinary actions against officers. Then-Commissioner Bill Bratton insisted that the city had long misinterpreted a decades-old state law -- Section 50-A of the New York State civil rights code-- that had led to the release of officer records. The law has been a particular sticking point for police reform advocates incensed over the administration’s efforts to protect the disciplinary record of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose use of a banned chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014. Mayor de Blasio, whose administration has been fighting for well over two years to shield Pantaleo’s record, insisted his hands were tied on 50-A unless the state Legislature took action to change the provision.</p> <p>At an unrelated news conference in late August, de Blasio said he had stopped meeting with lobbyists, chiefly James Capalino, a top lobbyist and advisor to the mayor. “He, going into the mayoralty, was someone I respected as a friend and who I talked to a lot over the years,” de Blasio said. “But I do not have contact with him anymore.”</p> <p>September 2016: Two media outlets -- NY1 and the New York Post -- <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/two-media-outlets-sue-bill-de-blasio-in-freedom-of-information-case-1473375298" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sue</a> the mayor for the release of emails exchanged with Jonathan Rosen, of the consulting firm Berlin Rosen, who is one of the mayor’s “agents of the city.”</p> <p>That month, the City Council <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6545-city-council-drafting-bills-to-regulate-political-nonprofits-like-campaign-for-one-new-york" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">begins</a> drafting legislation to regulate political nonprofits like the Campaign for One New York. Multiple bills were formulated to implement additional disclosure rules for these groups and to bring them under the purview of the Conflicts of Interest Board.</p> <p>October 2016: After weeks of criticizing the New York Post for their coverage of his administration, de Blasio repeatedly ignores Post reporter Yoav Gonen’s questions at an October 6 news conference. Gonen presses on with questions, leading to heated words from the mayor, who calls the Post a “right-wing rag” before moving on to other reporters. The incident earns the mayor widespread condemnation from local media.</p> <p>That same month, amid increasing criticism over the administration’s stance on Section 50-A, de Blasio releases a legislative proposal calling on Albany to amend the law to remove confidentiality provisions and make the full disciplinary records of officer available to the public. “Without significant changes to this statute, the city remains barred from providing New Yorkers with the transparency we deserve," the mayor <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/820-16/mayor-de-blasio-outlines-core-principles-legislation-make-disciplinary-records-law" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said</a>.</p> <p>November 2016: The Council introduces legislation to curb political nonprofits, particularly limiting contributions from entities and individuals with business before the city. Nonprofit groups would also have to disclose their donors to the Conflicts of Interest Board.</p> <p>On November 23, the administration releases thousands of pages of emails exchanged between the mayor’s office and Jonathan Rosen, who was among those classified as “agents of the city” to prevent disclosure.</p> <p>At a November 29 news conference, de Blasio <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6643-de-blasio-limits-government-contact-with-top-outside-advisor" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">indicated</a> to the press that he had reduced contact with Rosen. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty rare I’m talking to people, but each situation is individual,” he said at the time.</p> <p>December 2016: On his weekly <a href="http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/mondays-with-the-mayor/2016/12/5/mondays-with-the-mayor--agents-no-more.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appearance on NY1</a> on December 5, de Blasio tells anchor Errol Louis that his communications with outside advisors and consultants will no longer be shielded from disclosure. &nbsp;</p> <p>On December 15, the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/nyregion/bill-de-blasio-investigation.html?mcubz=0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Times reports</a> that two grand juries have been convened to hear testimony on the state and federal investigations into the mayor’s administration and fundraising. De Blasio continues to maintain that he and his associates acted legally and appropriately, following guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board and from campaign lawyers.</p> <p>March 2017: Federal and state prosecutors jointly <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6812-de-blasio-and-aides-won-t-face-charges-in-dual-investigations" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced</a> on March 17 that de Blasio and his aides would not face charges in the dual year-long investigations into the administration. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance criticized the mayor in a statement, saying that de Blasio and his associates violated the spirit and intent of the campaign finance law. Joon H. Kim, acting-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted that the investigation looked into “several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the City, after which the Mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies on behalf of those donors.”</p> <p>De Blasio, at a <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/158-17/transcript-mayor-de-blasio-holds-press-conference-the-federal-budget-city-hall" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">news conference</a> that day, said the conclusion of the investigations “simply confirms what I’ve said all along. My staff and my colleagues and I have acted in a manner that was legal and appropriate and ethical throughout. This is something I feel very strongly about in public service – that we have to comport ourselves in the proper manner and we have done that, and that has been confirmed by the results of this investigation.”</p> <p>Also in March, a Manhattan appeals court <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/city-wins-two-cases-keep-police-discipline-records-secret/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">rules in favor</a> of the de Blasio administration in the case of Officer Pantaleo’s disciplinary record, superseding two earlier lower court decisions that had allowed the release of some information.</p> <p>April 2017: After months of delaying his promise to provide a list of donors who did not receive favored treatment from City Hall, de Blasio partly backtracks and insists that he will pen an op-ed by the end of April that would mention certain relevant instances. (He had been hesitant to release the list earlier, citing the ongoing investigations.)</p> <p>August 2017: The de Blasio administration releases more emails that show two donors who were embroiled in a police corruption scandal had relatively easy access to the mayor. &nbsp;</p> <p>At the first Democratic mayoral primary debate on August 23, de Blasio concedes that the op-ed on donors is forthcoming and would be released before the September 12 primary. On September 1, de Blasio delivers in the form of <a href="https://medium.com/@NYCMayorsOffice/how-we-make-decisions-in-the-era-of-big-money-politics-e195917db5d7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a post on Medium</a>, an online publishing website. The post reads more as a screed against the media and contains only four instances involving unnamed donors to illustrate the mayor’s point. Some of those had emerged from emails released by the administration earlier in the month.</p> <p>“Media reports on these contacts fixated on their access to me and ignored the fair and transparent outcomes that followed,” the mayor writes. “Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City. Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.”</p> <p>September 6: The second mayoral primary debate begins with a heavy focus on de Blasio’s ethics.</p> <p>September 12: De Blasio handily wins the Democratic primary for mayor.</p> <p>November 7: Election Day</p> <p style="text-align: center;">**********</p> <p><strong><em>This article is part of&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection">a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record</a>&nbsp;as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits.&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection">Find all pieces of the series here</a>.</em></strong></p> <p>

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/36293022713_309bde7089_z.jpg" alt="Mayor de Blasio City Hall " width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p><strong><em>This article is part of <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record</a> as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Find all pieces of the series here</a>.</em></strong></p> <p style="text-align: center;">**********</p> <p>It is a source of great frustration for Mayor Bill de Blasio and hangs over his administration and reelection bid as an albatross. Observers across the political spectrum, including Democratic and Republican opponents in this year’s mayoral race, have attacked de Blasio for blurring or crossing ethical lines, and for lacking transparency.</p> <p>De Blasio rode into power promising the most transparent administration in the city’s history, but his nearly four years in office have been marked by continuing questions and controversies over both his administration’s opaqueness and ethics, highlighted by twin law enforcement investigations into fundraising practices and government favors for campaign donors. The incumbent Democratic mayor, seeking reelection this fall, has repeatedly argued that he and his associates have carried themselves ethically and that he has done more disclosure than his predecessors and other high-level officials.</p> <p>Yet, along with his electoral opponents, political observers, government reform advocates, and City Council members also say de Blasio’s rhetoric has not been backed by action and that his record on transparency and ethics has been, at best, a mixed bag.</p> <p>In endorsing him in the Democratic primary, the New York Times editorial board <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/05/opinion/editorials/mayoral-endorsement-bill-deblasio.html?_r=0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, “A political operative before he ran for public office, Mr. de Blasio has not shaken free of detractors’ suspicions about his ethical compass. He was subjected to both federal and state investigations into whether he presides over a pay-to-play system that favors well-heeled donors seeking favors from City Hall. Ultimately, no charges were brought against him or his aides. Though the mayor declared he had been vindicated, the Manhattan district attorney concluded that some of his fund-raising appeared to have violated “the intent and spirit” of the law. That’s a far cry from Mr. de Blasio’s claim to have been pronounced “innocent.”</p> <p>De Blasio was indeed chastised by federal and state prosecutors, who, while they did not bring charges against him or his associates, investigated their actions and outlined problematic practices, some of which led to new city laws limiting certain fundraising activities that the mayor and his team engaged in. De Blasio has claimed that he and his aides have held themselves to the highest standards, but he has regularly raised those standards when pushed.</p> <p>Part of the mayor’s pushback against criticisms has been that he and his associates have always had good motives, like expanding pre-kindergarten, and that a political nonprofit his allies ran to support his agenda disclosed more than required. Though he has been dogged by questions from members of the media, de Blasio readily points out that regular New Yorkers don’t often ask him about his fundraising practices or release of email records when they have the opportunity to question him at town halls or radio call-in segments.</p> <p>“People never bring up the issues from the investigations, because I think there was a broad understanding in the public that there was an immense amount of scrutiny that found absolutely nothing wrong,” he said in a recent <a href="http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/09/bill-de-blasio-in-conversation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Magazine</a> interview, mischaracterizing the facts given that while no charges were brought, prosecutors did indicate that the mayor and his associates had blurred or crossed ethical lines. “Everyday New Yorkers are much more concerned with kitchen-table issues. Some political insiders, maybe they’ve come to certain conclusions. But for everyday New Yorkers? They didn’t see anything wrong, and they’re right, because there wasn’t anything wrong.”</p> <p>As de Blasio asks New Yorkers for four more years, ethics and transparency will continue to be a focus of criticism from his general election opponents and others, while the mayor will defend himself and attempt to point to stronger aspects of his record. But the record of how he and his administration have conducted themselves when it comes to playing by the rules, separating political fundraising and governing, and providing the public with both ethical and transparent government is very much worth chronicling and examining as voters evaluate their choices this November.</p> <p>Mayoral spokespeople Eric Phillips and Austin Finan agreed to speak with Gotham Gazette for this story, but, other than a brief conversation to discuss the premise of the article, no comment was provided.</p> <p>The most recent Quinnipiac University public opinion poll that included a question about de Blasio's&nbsp;ethics, published at the end of July, <a href="https://poll.qu.edu/new-york-city/release-detail?ReleaseID=2475" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">showed</a> New York City voters saying 52 to 35 percent that he is honest and trustworthy, down from 59 to 31 percent in May. Still, the 52 was up from the lowest rating de Blasio has received in a Quinnipiac poll over his four years as mayor: amid intense controversy in May 2016, 43 percent <a href="https://poll.qu.edu/images/polling/nyc/nyc07312017_trends_N79jmpp.pdf/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said</a> he is honest and trustworthy, while 45 percent said he is not. The highest de Blasio's honesty was rated by voters eight months into his tenure, when the balance was 66 to 22 in his favor.</p> <p><strong>Selective Transparency</strong><br /> In his former role as public advocate, de Blasio championed transparency and took the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to task for its apparent lack thereof. De Blasio disclosed meetings with lobbyists and implemented tools to track Freedom of Information Law requests, while criticizing the Bloomberg administration for its lax FOIL response time.</p> <p>Fast forward nearly four years and the same official who urged increased disclosure by Bloomberg has been reticent to show the same commitment in his own operations on FOIL responsiveness speed and other things like police discipline records and emails with top non-governmental advisors. For example, as public advocate, de Blasio recommended legislation requiring the mayor to include FOIL response statistics in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, but it is not something de Blasio has done as mayor himself.</p> <p>Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, de Blasio's second-in-command, recently conceded at a New York Law School breakfast that the administration could improve it's record on FOIL requests. "I don't think we've done as good as job on that as we could have," he said, <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2017/10/13/de-blasio-deputy-mayor-says-blaming-predecessor-is-not-productive-115038" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Politico New York reported</a>. "But I can't tell you we've gotten good enough. ... Our open data initiative has been, I think, one of the stronger ones in the country. ... Fundamentally, the more data that we can put out there so people don't have to say, 'May I,' but can do their own analytics, is the way to do."</p> <p>On August 23, at the first of two mayoral debates in the Democratic primary, de Blasio was asked by debate panelist and NY1 reporter Grace Rauh about steps he would take to improve transparency in a second term, should he be reelected, or if he considered any improvements unnecessary. As he often does, the mayor disagreed with the premise of the question, and pivoted toward touting his record on transparency. “Anytime a lobbyist lobbied me on behalf of a third party I put that up online so that people know exactly who talked to me when. I did that,” de Blasio said. “No other mayor’s done that before in our history. I’m in favor of the kind of transparency that’s gonna make life different for everyday New Yorkers like body cameras for all of our patrol officers over the next two years. This is one of the ultimate acts of transparency and accountability in government.”</p> <p>He added, “Past administrations did not disclose all sorts of things. I’ve made it a point to be open about disclosure. Some areas where I disagree specifically I do not think it was appropriate to disclose but compared to previous administrations we’ve gone a long way and a lot farther in terms of openness and disclosure and transparency....No mayor previously had that level of transparency and I’m very proud of the fact that we put that in place in the city. When it comes to tough questions, well it’s a tough job as part of what I’d expect as mayor of New York City.”</p> <p>It was a far from satisfactory answer for de Blasio’s only opponent on the debate stage, former City Council Member Sal Albanese. “I’m just incredulous,” Albanese responded. “This administration is the least transparent administration in recent history,” he added (it is not an easy comparison to make).</p> <p>“We should have a higher standard for the mayor than not being indicted,” Albanese said repeatedly during the debates and the primary campaign.</p> <p>Government watchdog groups have also found that de Blasio reneged on his campaign pledges around core good governance, though there has been acknowledgement that the administration has implemented certain policies that have enhanced transparency, including related to data generated by city government.</p> <p>For instance, the city has continued and expanded the implementation of the Open Data law, launching a redesigned <a href="https://opendata.cityofnewyork.us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">online portal</a> with thousands of datasets available to the public. The administration has launched <a href="https://a860-openrecords.nyc.gov" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">OpenRECORDS</a>, a centralized website to file and track FOIL requests with numerous city agencies. These advancements, while notable, do not capture the full picture of mayoral transparency, however.</p> <p>Early on in his term, the mayor began limiting interactions with the press, eschewing the daily news briefings that previous mayors had traditionally held and restricting occasions when he would take “off-topic” questions. It earned him scorn from detractors in and out of the media, and, almost cyclically, reinforced his derision for reporters who grew frustrated with the dearth of unfettered, unscripted responses to their questions.</p> <p>“There’s a Trump-like quality in his whining about the media,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, CUNY. “He’s got the same disease as the President.”</p> <p>“There’s a lot the citizenry could find praiseworthy in his record,” Muzzio added, “but the two main issues are his transparency and political ethics, and his sense of self-aggrandizement where everything is ‘historic’ and ‘transformative.’ The problem is the distance between rhetoric and reality.”</p> <p>Muzzio also noted that the administration has released a lot more data than previous mayoralties, which has been useful for analysis of city agencies. “It’s the personal transparency, rather than institutional transparency, that’s lacking,” Muzzio said of de Blasio.</p> <p>One example of rhetoric versus reality was a <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/de-blasio-defend-boastful-video-decried-watchdogs-article-1.2926739" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">promotional video</a> put out in December 2016 by City Hall that touted the administration’s accomplishments, as it was mired in the two investigations that had captured headlines for months. Good government groups criticized the mayor at the time for effectively putting out a campaign ad shortly before the start of an election year during which government-funded advertisements would have been prohibited. The mayor fielded questions about the ad for weeks and grew frustrated by another example of what he has perceived as reporters’ fixation on trivial matters at the expense of spreading all the “good news” that is happening as a result of his policies.</p> <p>At the August 23 debate, prompted by NY1’s Rauh, de Blasio pledged that he would not set up another issue-advocacy nonprofit like the Campaign for One New York, which was at the center of one of the two investigations into his administration. It was something the mayor had previously said he didn’t plan to do and had in fact signed a new law making virtually impossible. In making the pledge, he reiterated that he faced tough questions about his ethical conduct purely because he was willing to voluntarily disclose who had donated to the nonprofit group and how much.</p> <p>“If you know you did things right you disclose,” he said. “If you’ve got something to hide, you don’t disclose. That’s what we did over and over again with donations that we did not have a legal obligation to disclose but we went ahead and disclosed anyway and I’m proud of that fact.”</p> <p>But, the mayor’s approach to disclosure has been highly selective. For the better part of two years, media outlets have pushed, and NY1 and the New York Post even sued, the administration for access to emails exchanged between the mayor’s office and unpaid outside advisors. The mayor’s team has shielded those communications, terming the advisors “agents of the city” who would not be subject to disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Law that typically apply to correspondence between government officials and non-government entities. Exceptions to FOIL exist for intra-governmental communication that is part of the decision-making process, but de Blasio and his team argued that the advisors were so close to City Hall and the mayor that they were de facto members of the administration.</p> <p>Eventually, the mayor relented to an extent, and troves of emails, numbering in the thousands and many of them significantly redacted, have been released on numerous occasions, usually in Friday “news dumps.” The administration is still in court appealing the decision to release the emails, but the mayor pledged in March to release all communications going forward. The emails have not shown wrongdoing, but rather painted the administration, and the mayor particularly, in an unflattering light at times. Some showed de Blasio’s harsh treatment of underlings while others revealed his proximity and degree of access afforded to donors, including controversial ones.</p> <p>Watchdogs have pointed out that with the Campaign for One New York and the “agents of the city,” de Blasio has created his own problems by blurring lines and limiting transparency. By inviting massive donations to the nonprofit from entities with city business, de Blasio opened the door to pay-to-play allegations, and even the federal investigation. Under intense scrutiny, the mayor wound up promising extensive evidence of donors who did not get favorable treatment from city government -- a promise he eventually admitted he regretted -- but after months of delays, he produced a column on the online publishing platform Medium that left many wanting for more detail.</p> <p><strong>Big Money for the ‘Right’ Causes</strong><br /> As public advocate, de Blasio urged big corporations to adopt policies against funding political action committees and organized elected officials dedicated to that cause. He filed a legal brief in federal court arguing against the removal of limits to donations to PACs and he railed against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed untold amounts of money from undisclosed donors to flood electoral campaigns.</p> <p>“Deep-pocketed donors have turned their sights on New York and our best-in-the-nation campaign finance system,” de Blasio <a href="http://archive.advocate.nyc.gov/PAC" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said</a>, in a statement on Oct. 3, 2013, when he filed the amicus brief. “They’re determined to upend protections that have safeguarded our democratic process for decades. This is about more than one election. It’s about defending the voices of everyday New Yorkers. It’s a fight we are going to win.”</p> <p>While de Blasio has continued to rail against Citizens United and call for full public campaign financing, the mayor has not aggressively pursued such a system in New York and the same politician who has long decried wealthy moneyed interests influencing government relied on them to promote his own political agenda while mayor.</p> <p>De Blasio came into office with a come-from-behind primary win and a general election landslide. He had the wind at his back and attempted to take on the world, so to speak. This led to the creation of the controversial nonprofit and a 2014 effort to swing the state Senate Democratic that got him in trouble, along with other actions that have hurt his reputation for openness and clean government.</p> <p>Within a month of the mayor’s election, his allies set up a political nonprofit group called UPKNYC, later branded The Campaign for One New York, to promote the goal of universal pre-kindergarten in the city, which in part depended on state-level approval. After achieving its initial goal -- de Blasio favored a tax on the rich to fund the proposal but settled for direct funding from the state -- the group pivoted to promoting the mayor’s affordable housing plan. All along, the 501(c)4 organization solicited unlimited donations, many from wealthy donors and labor unions that also had business with the city. The group did voluntarily disclose its finances and donors every six months.</p> <p>Scrutiny of its activities, and the mayor’s fundraising for it and possible exchange of government favors, helped trigger one of the two separate corruption investigations, a federal probe into allegations of pay-to-play at City Hall --- the second was a state-level inquiry into whether the mayor’s attempt to sway state Senate races for Democratic candidates in 2014 had violated election law by funneling big donations to candidate campaigns through local Democratic committees.</p> <p>The mayor maintained throughout that he and his associates had acted under strict legal guidance and had followed the letter of the law, and both probes eventually concluded with no charges. But the stench of scandal remained as the Manhattan U.S. attorney concluded that the mayor, though not crossing into clear criminal activity, had sought contributions from donors and then had “made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies” on behalf of those donors.</p> <p>De Blasio defended this as typical practice and even good government -- that any constituent, whether a donor or not, who brings a concern to him is directed to someone in the administration who may be able to help, but that the relevant powers make decisions based on the merits, not relationships. What has been abundantly clear, however, is that de Blasio donors have enjoyed special access to and attention from the mayor and his administration.</p> <p>De Blasio also regularly made the case that the ends justified the means, that because he was fighting for universal pre-kindergarten and affordable housing, his skirting of campaign finance rules and blurring of lines was acceptable. The contradiction became especially evident when de Blasio agreed to sign legislation pushed by the City Council, notably Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a close de Blasio ally, to drastically limit political nonprofits with ties to elected officials. De Blasio would explain that it was “the right thing to do” but did lament that he felt it might hamstring progressive politicians with good intentions like himself in the ongoing fight against opposing big-money interests.</p> <p>At the second Democratic mayoral primary debate on <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzIfDLHon-c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">September 6</a>, debate moderator Maurice DuBois of CBS-2 put the mayor on his heels with the first question, about his apparent ethical failings. “Mr. de Blasio, here’s a true story,” DuBois began. “A political leader and his associates used pay-for-play tactics...but were not charged with a crime. However, state and federal prosecutors insist those people did violate the intent and spirit of the law. While there were no criminal charges, would you want people like that working for you?”</p> <p>A defensive de Blasio again stood by his administration’s efforts and the policy goals that they achieved, and insisted that he and his associates had been vindicated by the intense scrutiny by prosecutors that nevertheless found no wrongdoing. “I look at everything that we’ve done and I’m very convinced that high standards were kept to and the results speak for themselves in terms of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we’ve improved,” he said. “That’s what I came here to do, make people’s lives better.”</p> <p>Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University, said she is “torn” over the mayor’s first-term scandals. “Part of me is just wondering, ‘is this the cost of doing business as a politician in the 21st century if you’re not a billionaire?’” she said, drawing a contrast with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who did not have to depend on donors for his own campaigns. “Part of me thinks, ‘Well if you don’t have billions to contribute on your own, do you possibly have to get that from unsavory characters and make alliances and depend on people who have resources?’ But the other part of me wonders, ‘Wow, it seems like we’re always asking about some sort of potential wrongdoing.’”</p> <p>Greer’s conflict seems to be indicative of that of at least several prominent Democrats, including officials like Comptroller Scott Stringer, who criticized the Campaign for One New York as a “slush fund” but wound up endorsing the mayor for reelection, citing his progressivism in fighting inequality. For some time, Stringer was considering a mayoral run, either against de Blasio or in the event de Blasio did not seek reelection due to results from the investigations that did not materialize.</p> <p>Greer emphasized that de Blasio’s ethics record should not be conflated with his transparency, even though the two are sometimes drawn in “concentric circles.” She noted that de Blasio’s refusal to take questions from the press simply raises more concerns about what else he isn’t being transparent about. “I genuinely do not understand why there are times that de Blasio makes life much harder for himself than he has to...He brought that on himself,” she said. She did agree that perhaps everyday New Yorkers don’t care about issues of transparency that “get into the weeds,” but said he couldn’t dismiss the concerns of those who do. “By you not wanting to answer it, you can’t wish it away by saying nobody’s interested,” she said. “Yes, we are interested.”</p> <p>De Blasio’s criticism of and condescension towards the media was on full display in the <a href="https://medium.com/@NYCMayorsOffice/how-we-make-decisions-in-the-era-of-big-money-politics-e195917db5d7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">column</a> he wrote on Medium, where he attempted to defend himself against pay-to-play allegations and special access for donors. The column, promised by de Blasio more than a year prior, was meant to illustrate instances of donors who sought favors from the administration but were denied. In the face of allegations and investigations, de Blasio had promised “a whole lot of evidence” of donors not getting the action they desired from the city. De Blasio provided little evidence in his Medium column, but went after the media with gusto.</p> <p>“Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City,” de Blasio wrote of the coverage of his contact with donors. “Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.”</p> <p>The column contained few examples and no names, and largely blamed the media for over-inflating the scandals that have plagued de Blasio’s tenure. “It was a non-explanation, he gave a few examples of dubious quality,” Muzzio said with an exasperated sigh, noting how the mayor looked down his nose at the press.</p> <p>Some top Democratic elected officials have been hesitant to criticize the mayor openly, save for Stringer and a few others. Public Advocate Letitia James, de Blasio’s successor and whose office is meant to serve as a watchdog over city government, declined to comment for this article through a spokesperson. James has largely stayed away from questions about de Blasio’s ethics and transparency issues, explaining her approach as more focused on the substance of agency work and using litigation and legislation to make policy change.</p> <p>City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, ostensibly the second-most powerful elected official in the city, deflected when asked about the mayor’s defense of the Campaign for One New York and his transparency, at a news conference on Sept. 7, when the mayor’s ethics record was being argued over both on the primary election debate stage and throughout the ongoing race for mayor.</p> <p>“We continue to have conversations in this Council and we continue to look at legislation to figure out how we can be more transparent,” she said. “That doesn’t just fall on the mayor, that falls on all of us to be more transparent in government.”</p> <p>Mark-Viverito emphasized the Council’s measures to improve the Campaign Finance Board’s functioning and the laws governing campaign fundraising and spending. “Being a candidate and being an elected official is not easy,” she said. “The CFB rules are extremely complicated to follow and sometimes to keep track of and so sometimes you can get a little bit lost in them.”</p> <p>When Gotham Gazette pointed out that the mayor’s Campaign for One New York operated outside of the CFB’s purview and asked if looking back on it she felt it was still ethical for the mayor to have created the group, Mark-Viverito said, “I’m not gonna respond to that at this moment. I haven’t really focused on it as of late. Again, what we strive to do is to be accountable to our constituents and that’s what I have been doing as an elected official, that’s what we do each and everyday and I’m gonna continue to strive down that path.”</p> <p>Though she was quite reticent to weigh in on the issue when it was most relevant, Mark-Viverito did eventually spearhead the writing and passage of the legislation to rein in groups like Campaign for One New York, forcing the mayor’s hand on a measure that ensures few like it will ever exist in the future, given several new restrictions, like severe limits on what entities with city business can donate to nonprofits closely associated with an elected official. Even during that legislative process, Mark-Viverito, largely a de Blasio ally, took pains not to criticize the mayor directly, while tacitly and legislatively showing her disapproval. In signing the legislation, de Blasio refused to acknowledge that he had made any mistakes, but touted it as good legislation further reigning in money in politics.</p> <p>Council Member Mark Levine, who is among a number of members running to be the next speaker of the Council, also gave a quasi-defense of the mayor. “I think he has to be judged by the fact that there was extensive scrutiny with considerable resources at multiple levels of government, local and federal, that left no stone unturned and determined there was not ground to charge,” he told Gotham Gazette, “and that at the end of the day is the most important standard and one that he justifiably touts, particularly in light of the months of leaks which gave him bad press for issues which ultimately were not deemed sufficient to charge on.”</p> <p>But multiple City Council members, who did not wish to be named, felt differently. Separately, they gave similar opinions to one another, criticizing the mayor’s hypocrisy on transparency, his handling of the “agents of the city” emails, and his continued arrogance over escaping an indictment.</p> <p>One Council member said the mayor was “vulnerable” on issues of transparency and that he faced “justifiable criticism” over his shielding of his emails, which did not seem at all legally defensible. The months of bad headlines, said the Council member, led to a “bunker mentality” and the mayor and his associates dug in their heels deeper. (Indeed, de Blasio has reopened himself to many more press questions since the investigations ended.)</p> <p>Two Council members said the mayor’s shielding of his emails was largely an exercise in protecting his image rather than hiding instances of corruption. “It’s clear they are well aware of who their friends are,” said one member, of the mayor’s relationship with donors. The <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/emails-reveal-another-side-of-bill-de-blasio-1466038087" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Wall Street Journal</a> has reported that the contents of some of the “agents of the city” emails are especially gossipy and embarrassing.</p> <p>Another Council member commended the press as the institution, more so than the City Council, that has most held the mayor accountable, and criticized the mayor for attacking the media’s reportage. The member noted that the Council did not use its subpoena power and did not act on the Campaign for One New York until after Common Cause NY, a good government group, filed an official complaint with the Campaign Finance Board.</p> <p>That Council member also critiqued the mayor for not revealing who administration officials hold meetings with, an issue on which de Blasio had campaigned, and for not fully implementing the online FOIL portal. On the mayor’s Medium post, the Council member said, “It’s a little too cute to tell folks exactly who did what without using their names.”</p> <p><strong>‘Backwards on Police Transparency’</strong><br /> In April 2013, then-Public Advocate de Blasio <a href="http://archive.advocate.nyc.gov/foil/report" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">released</a> a “Transparency Report Card” that evaluated 18 city agencies on their response to FOIL requests. The two agencies that received a failing grade were the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the NYPD. A <a href="https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/04/11/in-de-blasios-new-york-transparency-laws-mean-nothing/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Village Voice</a> analysis from April of the de Blasio administration’s handling of FOIL records showed that little had changed in more than three years. “A review of thousands of pages of FOIL records shows the city’s system for handling public information requests remains haphazard, under-resourced, and often excruciatingly slow. And the mayor’s own office is the slowest of all,” the report reads.</p> <p>The mayor’s earlier criticism of the NYPD’s opaqueness perhaps most smacks of hypocrisy to police reform advocates who say his administration has not only not made progress, but actually backtracked on transparency at the police department. The NYPD, and then de Blasio, last year contended that successive administrations had for decades misinterpreted Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Code, which protects the personnel records of police officers from public disclosure. As the department saw it, the law prevents them from releasing “personnel orders” that summarize disciplinary actions taken against officers. These orders had routinely been released until the revised policy was put in place, and the city has fought tooth and nail to uphold its reinterpretation of the law, even appealing an unfavorable judicial ruling, and has pointed to the need for the state to change the law. &nbsp;</p> <p>“The de Blasio administration has taken the city backwards on police transparency and accountability with its misuse of state law 50-a to conceal information,” said Lumumba Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups. Bandele noted that, though the mayor released a proposal to change the law in Albany, there was little evidence that the administration made it a priority in this year’s legislative session. “On policing, this administration is misusing the law as an excuse for being less transparent than those of Bloomberg and Giuliani,” she added, “allowing the NYPD to shield police abuse and corruption from public scrutiny, and failing to provide leadership to improve police accountability and transparency.”</p> <p>The notion -- that the de Blasio administration has been worse about NYPD transparency and accountability -- is one that was also echoed this year by City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is a de Blasio supporter overall.</p> <p><strong>Scrutiny and Change</strong><br /> Undoubtedly, scrutiny of the mayor’s actions led to change in his behavior. He stopped communicating with top lobbyists who were close to him and began to limit government-related interaction with outside consultants, particularly Jonathan Rosen, a confidante who was involved in the mayor’s 2013 campaign and the Campaign for One New York, and whose firm is again working on the mayor’s 2017 reelection bid. The scandals also prompted the legislation by the City Council -- which the mayor signed into law -- regulating donations to nonprofit groups affiliated with elected officials and requiring disclosure by these groups under the oversight of the Conflicts of Interest Board. And, de Blasio changed his “agency of the city” email transparency policy as he continues to battle in court to keep past emails secret.</p> <p>But it’s unclear if the mayor, who won his primary handily and is expected to coast to reelection through the general, will take substantive steps to be more transparent. “[If] he gets a second term, I can’t see him as a lame duck being more transparent, so I think that’s a concern,” said Greer.</p> <p>There’s no doubt that de Blasio’s general election opponents, chiefly Republican Nicole Malliotakis, a state Assembly member from Staten Island, will continue to make de Blasio’s ethics a focus of the campaign. The question remains, though, how much voters care. Political analysts note that most voters do not vote based on transparency and ethics issues unless there is a major scandal that has led someone to jail. Voters often vote based on “pocket book” and “kitchen table” issues like jobs, schools, and crime -- a point de Blasio himself regularly acknowledges at least tacitly.</p> <p>Council Member Brad Lander, who was one of the co-sponsors of the legislation regulating political nonprofits, said it was more constructive to focus on the political system that allows, and in some way encourages, reliance on wealthy donors. “If we want elected officials in New York City to live up to a higher standard of good government, then the best approach is to strengthen our own rules,” he said. “That’s more valuable than focusing on individuals.”</p> <p><strong><em>This article is part of&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection">a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record</a>&nbsp;as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits.&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection">Find all pieces of the series here</a>.</em></strong></p> <p style="text-align: center;">**********</p> <p>A TIMELINE of MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS RELATED to MAYOR DE BLASIO'S RECORD on ETHICS and TRANSPARENCY</p> <p>November 2013: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio gets elected mayor of New York City after running a campaign in which he promised an unprecedented level of transparency in government. As Public Advocate, de Blasio issued a “Transparency Report Card” evaluating city agencies on their response to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. He chiefly criticized the NYPD for their lax FOIL response times, giving them a failing grade in his report.</p> <p>December 2013: De Blasio’s allies set up UPKNYC, also known as the Campaign for One New York, an issue-advocacy nonprofit -- classified by the IRS as 501(c)(4)s -- that could solicit unlimited contributions and spend unlimited funds to promote the mayor’s agenda, namely promoting universal pre-kindergarten. Under law, the nonprofit was not required to disclose its donors. The mayor’s associates later set up another nonprofit called United For Affordable NYC, to promote his affordable housing plan. The Campaign for One New York eventually became the locus of two parallel investigations by federal and state prosecutors into the mayor’s fundraising practices and his effort to sway state Senate races in 2014.</p> <p>July 2014: The Campaign for One New York voluntarily discloses its fundraising and donors to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and to the public, despite not being required to do so, showing $1.76 million in donations, a lot of which came from labor unions that have been big supporters of the mayor and from groups that do business with the city. The mayor faced scrutiny for allowing doing business donors to give unlimited amounts, whereas those same donors would’ve been limited in how much they could contribute to a campaign committee. The Campaign for One New York later shifted its focus towards the mayor’s larger progressive agenda, particularly affordable housing, after having already achieved the goal of funding universal pre-kindergarten in the city.</p> <p>May 2015: De Blasio heads to Washington D.C. to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/13/nyregion/in-washington-de-blasio-unveils-his-progressive-agenda-campaign.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">launch</a> “The Progressive Agenda,” a platform of progressive policies that he attempted to advocate for at the national level to try to influence issues in the presidential race. Another nonprofit, the Progressive Agenda Committee, is set up by October 2015 to helm the project. The group would have little to no impact before <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2016/07/progressive-agenda-committee-spends-418-298-but-has-no-staff-and-didnt-do-anything-103906" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">shutting down</a> within less than a year, only making headlines for an aborted attempt at holding a presidential candidate forum in Iowa in December 2015.</p> <p>The same day de Blasio was in Washington, the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/13/nyregion/group-supporting-de-blasios-agenda-is-said-to-draw-interest-of-ethics-panel.html?ref=nyregion&amp;_r=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Times</a> reports that the Campaign for One New York has come under scrutiny by JCOPE for not registering as a lobbying entity. In 2014, UPKNYC had registered as a lobbyist to promote universal pre-k.</p> <p>July 2015: Yet again, the Campaign for One New York discloses its fundraising, showing another $1.7 million in fundraising over a six-month period. The donations came from unions, lobbyists, wealthy donors and real estate executives. A <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2015/09/the-transactional-mayor-returns-025908" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Politico New York</a> analysis in September shows that 46 of 74 donors “either had business or labor contracts with City Hall or were trying to secure approval for a project when they contributed, public records show.” Over the next few months, de Blasio faces constant questioning about potential conflicts of interest and the perception of a pay-to-play culture emerging at City Hall. The nonprofit groups also seem to slow down their operations and fundraising amid increased criticism.</p> <p>Feb 2016: Common Cause New York, a government reform advocacy group, files <a href="http://www.commoncause.org/states/new-york/press/press-releases/coib-cfb-review-of-deblasio-fundraiser.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a complaint</a> with the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board and the Campaign Finance Board, requesting investigations of the Campaign for One New York and United for Affordable NYC. “The Mayor's unprecedented use of 501(c)(4) fundraising has spawned a shadow government that raises serious questions about who has influence and access to the policymaking process,” Common Cause NY said in a statement at the time. “It has created a perpetual campaign, confusing the role of government and politics, to the detriment of the public interest.”</p> <p>March 2016: The Campaign for One New York <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/political-organization-tied-to-nyc-mayor-bill-de-blasio-is-closing-1458208801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announces</a> plans to close down as the spectre of pay-to-play allegations begins to hound the administration. United for Affordable NYC ends operations in conjunction, but the Progressive Agenda Committee continues to exist with minimal staff.</p> <p>April 2016: Then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara <a href="http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/04/08/nypd-probe-mayor-fundraising/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reportedly</a> begins looking into two de Blasio donors, in connection with a separate corruption case involving the NYPD. Both donors contributed to the mayor’s campaign as well and were part of his inauguration committee. CBS2’s Marcia Kramer <a href="http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/04/08/nypd-probe-mayor-fundraising/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reports</a> that Bharara’s office had started focusing on the mayor’s fundraising practices. Mayor de Blasio, saying he was unaware of any federal investigation, says on April 11, “I’m not going to be speaking about this after today.”</p> <p>On April 22, the <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/de-blasio-gamed-donation-limits-hid-names-board-elections-article-1.2611406?utm_content=buffer3ac9b&amp;utm_medium=social&amp;utm_source=twitter.com&amp;utm_campaign=NYDailyNewsTw" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Daily News</a> reports on a leaked memo from the state Board of Elections regarding the mayor’s 2014 efforts to help Democrats win the state Senate. The memo alleges that de Blasio and his team circumvented campaign contribution limits to benefit three Democratic campaigns, thereby warranting criminal prosecution. (It would later emerge that the memo was released by a Republican BOE spokesperson.)</p> <p>On April 28, after de Blasio’s counsel confirms having received subpoenas in parallel state and federal investigations into the mayor’s fundraising, de Blasio maintains his innocence. “Everything we’ve done from the beginning is legal and appropriate,” he said. “There’s an investigation going on, we’re going to fully cooperate with that investigation.”</p> <p>May 2016: A lawyer for the Campaign for One New York tells JCOPE that the nonprofit would stop complying with subpoenas, suggesting that the probe into CONY has become politically motivated.</p> <p>On May 18, Mayor de Blasio promises to produce a list of donors who contributed to the Campaign for One New York but did not receive favors from City Hall, insisting that his administration makes decision based on merit and not on favoritism.</p> <p>The same month, de Blasio comes under fire for shielding his email exchanges with five unpaid outside advisers, some of whom have business with the city. The administration terms them “agents of the city” and <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2016/05/de-blasio-lists-advisers-he-considers-exempt-from-transparency-law-101954" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">argues</a> that they are exempt from disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Law.</p> <p>June 2016: The administration releases selected emails from outside consultants to <a href="http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2016/06/city-hall-releases-selective-emails-with-outside-consulting-firm-102771" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Politico New York</a>, in response to long-pending FOIL requests.</p> <p>July 2016: The New York City Campaign Finance Board <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6426-campaign-finance-board-rules-in-mayor-s-favor-while-criticizing-him" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">rules</a> that the Campaign for One New York did not violate campaign finance law and that donations and spending by the group do not count towards the mayor’s 2017 reelection campaign. But, the board criticized the mayor’s fundraising practices, which they saw as circumventing the city’s strict campaign finance restrictions, and called on the City Council to pass legislation to close the loophole. &nbsp;</p> <p>“New York City’s system depends on reasonable contribution limits that reduce the appearance that influence can be bought or sold through campaign contributions,” said then-CFB Chair Rose Gill Hearn. “It defies common sense that limits that work so well during the campaign should be set aside once the candidate has assumed elected office.”</p> <p>August 2016: A battle brewing in the background for months over NYPD officers’ disciplinary records came front and center as the <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/exclusive-nypd-stops-releasing-cops-disciplinary-records-article-1.2764145" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Daily News</a> reported that the department would no longer release “personnel orders” summarizing disciplinary actions against officers. Then-Commissioner Bill Bratton insisted that the city had long misinterpreted a decades-old state law -- Section 50-A of the New York State civil rights code-- that had led to the release of officer records. The law has been a particular sticking point for police reform advocates incensed over the administration’s efforts to protect the disciplinary record of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose use of a banned chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014. Mayor de Blasio, whose administration has been fighting for well over two years to shield Pantaleo’s record, insisted his hands were tied on 50-A unless the state Legislature took action to change the provision.</p> <p>At an unrelated news conference in late August, de Blasio said he had stopped meeting with lobbyists, chiefly James Capalino, a top lobbyist and advisor to the mayor. “He, going into the mayoralty, was someone I respected as a friend and who I talked to a lot over the years,” de Blasio said. “But I do not have contact with him anymore.”</p> <p>September 2016: Two media outlets -- NY1 and the New York Post -- <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/two-media-outlets-sue-bill-de-blasio-in-freedom-of-information-case-1473375298" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sue</a> the mayor for the release of emails exchanged with Jonathan Rosen, of the consulting firm Berlin Rosen, who is one of the mayor’s “agents of the city.”</p> <p>That month, the City Council <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6545-city-council-drafting-bills-to-regulate-political-nonprofits-like-campaign-for-one-new-york" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">begins</a> drafting legislation to regulate political nonprofits like the Campaign for One New York. Multiple bills were formulated to implement additional disclosure rules for these groups and to bring them under the purview of the Conflicts of Interest Board.</p> <p>October 2016: After weeks of criticizing the New York Post for their coverage of his administration, de Blasio repeatedly ignores Post reporter Yoav Gonen’s questions at an October 6 news conference. Gonen presses on with questions, leading to heated words from the mayor, who calls the Post a “right-wing rag” before moving on to other reporters. The incident earns the mayor widespread condemnation from local media.</p> <p>That same month, amid increasing criticism over the administration’s stance on Section 50-A, de Blasio releases a legislative proposal calling on Albany to amend the law to remove confidentiality provisions and make the full disciplinary records of officer available to the public. “Without significant changes to this statute, the city remains barred from providing New Yorkers with the transparency we deserve," the mayor <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/820-16/mayor-de-blasio-outlines-core-principles-legislation-make-disciplinary-records-law" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said</a>.</p> <p>November 2016: The Council introduces legislation to curb political nonprofits, particularly limiting contributions from entities and individuals with business before the city. Nonprofit groups would also have to disclose their donors to the Conflicts of Interest Board.</p> <p>On November 23, the administration releases thousands of pages of emails exchanged between the mayor’s office and Jonathan Rosen, who was among those classified as “agents of the city” to prevent disclosure.</p> <p>At a November 29 news conference, de Blasio <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6643-de-blasio-limits-government-contact-with-top-outside-advisor" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">indicated</a> to the press that he had reduced contact with Rosen. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty rare I’m talking to people, but each situation is individual,” he said at the time.</p> <p>December 2016: On his weekly <a href="http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/mondays-with-the-mayor/2016/12/5/mondays-with-the-mayor--agents-no-more.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appearance on NY1</a> on December 5, de Blasio tells anchor Errol Louis that his communications with outside advisors and consultants will no longer be shielded from disclosure. &nbsp;</p> <p>On December 15, the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/nyregion/bill-de-blasio-investigation.html?mcubz=0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New York Times reports</a> that two grand juries have been convened to hear testimony on the state and federal investigations into the mayor’s administration and fundraising. De Blasio continues to maintain that he and his associates acted legally and appropriately, following guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board and from campaign lawyers.</p> <p>March 2017: Federal and state prosecutors jointly <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6812-de-blasio-and-aides-won-t-face-charges-in-dual-investigations" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced</a> on March 17 that de Blasio and his aides would not face charges in the dual year-long investigations into the administration. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance criticized the mayor in a statement, saying that de Blasio and his associates violated the spirit and intent of the campaign finance law. Joon H. Kim, acting-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted that the investigation looked into “several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the City, after which the Mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies on behalf of those donors.”</p> <p>De Blasio, at a <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/158-17/transcript-mayor-de-blasio-holds-press-conference-the-federal-budget-city-hall" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">news conference</a> that day, said the conclusion of the investigations “simply confirms what I’ve said all along. My staff and my colleagues and I have acted in a manner that was legal and appropriate and ethical throughout. This is something I feel very strongly about in public service – that we have to comport ourselves in the proper manner and we have done that, and that has been confirmed by the results of this investigation.”</p> <p>Also in March, a Manhattan appeals court <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/story/city-wins-two-cases-keep-police-discipline-records-secret/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">rules in favor</a> of the de Blasio administration in the case of Officer Pantaleo’s disciplinary record, superseding two earlier lower court decisions that had allowed the release of some information.</p> <p>April 2017: After months of delaying his promise to provide a list of donors who did not receive favored treatment from City Hall, de Blasio partly backtracks and insists that he will pen an op-ed by the end of April that would mention certain relevant instances. (He had been hesitant to release the list earlier, citing the ongoing investigations.)</p> <p>August 2017: The de Blasio administration releases more emails that show two donors who were embroiled in a police corruption scandal had relatively easy access to the mayor. &nbsp;</p> <p>At the first Democratic mayoral primary debate on August 23, de Blasio concedes that the op-ed on donors is forthcoming and would be released before the September 12 primary. On September 1, de Blasio delivers in the form of <a href="https://medium.com/@NYCMayorsOffice/how-we-make-decisions-in-the-era-of-big-money-politics-e195917db5d7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a post on Medium</a>, an online publishing website. The post reads more as a screed against the media and contains only four instances involving unnamed donors to illustrate the mayor’s point. Some of those had emerged from emails released by the administration earlier in the month.</p> <p>“Media reports on these contacts fixated on their access to me and ignored the fair and transparent outcomes that followed,” the mayor writes. “Unfortunately, sensationalism often sells in New York City. Merit-based bureaucratic decision-making is a little boring for the nightly news.”</p> <p>September 6: The second mayoral primary debate begins with a heavy focus on de Blasio’s ethics.</p> <p>September 12: De Blasio handily wins the Democratic primary for mayor.</p> <p>November 7: Election Day</p> <p style="text-align: center;">**********</p> <p><strong><em>This article is part of&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection">a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record</a>&nbsp;as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits.&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection">Find all pieces of the series here</a>.</em></strong></p> <p>

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint 2017-08-27T04:00:00+00:00 2017-08-27T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/new-queens-democrats.jpg" alt="new queens democrats" width="600" height="338" /></p> <p>The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)</p> <hr /> <p>When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics.&nbsp;But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.</p> <p>“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.</p> <p>During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.</p> <p>As part of their platform, the <a href="https://www.newqueensdems.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Queens Democrats</a> called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage.&nbsp;“Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.</p> <p>Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”</p> <p>“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”</p> <p>Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a website</a> in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which <a href="http://manhattandemocrats.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">went online</a> in 2013.</p> <p>Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.</p> <p>There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.</p> <p>While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.</p> <p>New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7128-squadron-departure-spotlights-importance-of-county-committee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">effectively decides the winner</a> of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.</p> <p>The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.</p> <p>The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “<a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project-the-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">open seat project</a>” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.</p> <p>Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.</p> <p>“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”</p> <p>When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.</p> <p>How the organizations choose to engage with the public is &nbsp;“a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.</p> <p>Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee <a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project/county-committee-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explainers</a> on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.</p> <p>Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.</p> <p>“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.</p> <p>While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.</p> <p>“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”</p> <p>Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.</p> <p>While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.</p> <p>“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.</p> <p>Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.</p> <p>Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, <a href="http://www.westchesterdems.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">like Westchester County</a>, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.</p> <p>Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP <a href="http://sigop.com/slider/june-2016-update-help-qualify-our-republican-candidates-get-your-petition-packet-today-2/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">is willing</a> send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.</p> <p>In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.</p> <p>While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller). &nbsp;</p> <p>Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.</p> <p>“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”</p> <p>The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.</p> <p>"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.</p> <p>However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.</p> <p>Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5891-rumored-scheme-brings-scrutiny-to-bronx-political-machine" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">backroom deals</a> when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6944-crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reporting</a> in the news media about patronage.</p> <p>The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.</p> <p>Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by <a href="https://cityofnewyork.github.io/opendatatsm/LocalLaw11of2012.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012</a> by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.</p> <p>While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s <a href="https://nyc.councilmatic.org/about/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Councilmatic</a>, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.</p> <p>“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “<a href="https://council.nyc.gov/news/2015/04/15/introducing-council-2-0/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Council 2.0</a>” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.</p> <p>While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.</p> <p>If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.</p> <p>The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.</p> <p>“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”</p> <p>One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.</p> <p>Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, <a href="https://ccsunlight.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">which allows</a> people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.</p> <p>"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.</p> <p>Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.</p> <p>“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”</p> <p>When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/vito-lopez-powerful-brooklyn-assemblyman-stripped-leadership-post-committee-finds-sexually-harassed-2-employees-article-1.1143794" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amid a sexual harassment scandal</a>, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the website</a> was part of that, according to Rizzo.</p> <p>The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.</p> <p>“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”</p> <p>One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/new-queens-democrats.jpg" alt="new queens democrats" width="600" height="338" /></p> <p>The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)</p> <hr /> <p>When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics.&nbsp;But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.</p> <p>“They don't have Facebook and there’s no website. I was definitely surprised and disappointed by the lack of web presence,” said Shahrabani, now 29.</p> <p>During the 2016 presidential race, Shahrabani joined Queens’ People for Bernie group and met two other progressive Queens dwellers, Jesse Rose and Sam Schachter, with whom he would soon create the New Queens Democrats, the first progressive reform political club in the borough.</p> <p>As part of their platform, the <a href="https://www.newqueensdems.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Queens Democrats</a> called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage.&nbsp;“Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.</p> <p>Their rallying cry may have reached the ears of Queens’ Democratic Party establishment, led by Congressional Rep. Joseph Crowley, because a representative for Queens Democrats told Gotham Gazette that the organization is in the midst of building a website, set to launch “very soon.”</p> <p>“Expanding how the Queens County Democratic Organization communicates with its membership and the public is a large priority for Congressman [Joe] Crowley,” said Mike Reich, executive secretary for the Queens Democratic Party. ”Currently our robust outreach is done via email and the organization will continue to build on ways to engage members of the community in the digital space.”</p> <p>Technologically, the Queens Democratic organization follows only shortly behind the city’s four other Democratic county committees, including the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, which launched <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a website</a> in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which <a href="http://manhattandemocrats.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">went online</a> in 2013.</p> <p>Bronx and Richmond County (Staten Island) Democratic parties also have inviting websites that have been in operation “for years,” according to representatives from both organizations.</p> <p>There is no uniformity across the county committee sites, and many are missing essential information, like committee event calendars, a directory of district leaders and county committee members, district leader part maps, party rules, minutes from meetings, and party calls. They also use old fashioned postage to announce rare and under-attended committee-wide meetings and do little to promote the events on social media.</p> <p>While for over a century the tight-knit, transactional style of party leadership has helped county dynasties retain power, if in the current digital age party organizations fail to modernize and engage the next generation of voters and activists, self-taught crops of Democratic organizers threaten to upend the old order. Without better digital presences, there may soon be too few people active in the party to keep a hold on power.</p> <p>New Queens Democrats, which in several months has modestly grown to nearly two dozen members, is now focused on supporting other progressives who want to run for county committee, a massive body of representatives from each election district that meets biennially, but has few concrete powers aside from helping to select candidates for special elections and nominating judicial candidates. In New York City, where most elected seats are guaranteed to be Democratic, the county committee vote <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/7128-squadron-departure-spotlights-importance-of-county-committee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">effectively decides the winner</a> of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.</p> <p>The new Queens club is modeled after two other political clubs, the Manhattan Young Democrats and the insurgent New Kings Democrats in Brooklyn, which have successfully infused the Democratic apparatuses in their boroughs with progressive committee candidates and nudged the organizations in a more transparent, tech-friendly, outreach-focused direction.</p> <p>The county committee system was originally designed to give ordinary New Yorkers a voice in their party organization, but with little understanding or available information of how the arcane system works, few take advantage of it in a meaningful way, and in each borough, thousands of seats are vacants at any given time. In 2009, the Manhattan Young Democrats launched the city’s first “<a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project-the-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">open seat project</a>” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.</p> <p>Unlike government agencies, Democratic county organizations are privately run, often dynastic entities, operating autonomously from the state Democratic Party, according to John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.</p> <p>“The parties can select and recruit and organize themselves any way they want,” said Kaehny. “If they want to be backwards and insular and uninviting, protect the status quo and refuse to be dynamic and invite new blood, they can.”</p> <p>When county organizations are reluctant to embrace technology or lack a web presence, it suggests that they are more focussed on maintaining old power structures that have existed for decades than engaging with the public, according to Kaehny.</p> <p>How the organizations choose to engage with the public is &nbsp;“a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.</p> <p>Manhattan’s Democratic party is fractured, but it is also likely the most transparent and inclusive of New York’s Democratic organizations. In part, this shift is attributed to the efforts of the Manhattan Young Democrats -- which published one of the first county committee <a href="https://gomyd.com/open-seat-project/county-committee-faq/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explainers</a> on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.</p> <p>Yee, who got his start working on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, joined the Manhattan Young Democrats in 2009, where he was instrumental in creating the open seat project. That year, MYD recruited and elected 70 young people to Manhattan's county committee, and that number has multiplied each year since.</p> <p>“We were running people for this thing and we weren’t really sure what the body did -- we just knew it was a governing body -- because all this stuff was very difficult to find out. You couldn’t Google this at all. It was just ridiculous,” said Yee.</p> <p>While at first, Democratic party leaders may have seen the rapid influx of committee members as a nuisance, some soon learned to embrace the enthusiasm and volunteer work coming from the Manhattan Young Democrats.</p> <p>“We kept running people, we kept being super active, we kept posting things that they weren’t really able to control,” said Yee. The first two years, they were like ‘this is annoying,’ the next two years, they were like ‘this is still annoying,’” but by year six, Yee says he asked to be third vice chair for the county Democratic party and they said “sure.”</p> <p>Yee, who has since been promoted secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party and is currently running for state committee, and a friend, Chris Bailey, put together a robust website for the Manhattan Democratic Party in 2013, and Yee has taken it upon himself to make sure it is updated regularly. “There’s definitely been an opening up” in the party, said Yee.</p> <p>While occasionally he faces pushback from the county leadership, led by Chair Keith Wright, over what information can be posted -- the minutes from meetings may need to be reviewed by a lawyer before posting, for example -- Yee says for the most part, the party leadership is appreciative of his efforts.</p> <p>“Over the years, they’ve realized that this is really beneficial for us. It’s just about finding the line and the rationale for not publishing things, and sometimes the reason is valid, and we work around it,” said Yee.</p> <p>Resistance, Yee says, stems from fear of culpability for misstatements and to some extent maintaining power, but party leaders have largely seen transparency as a net gain for the party, especially with regard to the influx of younger people and talent.</p> <p>Since the Democratic Party is so powerful in New York, county organizations don’t feel compelled to act as organizers. In swing areas with more balanced party enrollment, <a href="http://www.westchesterdems.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">like Westchester County</a>, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.</p> <p>Naturally, New York City’s Republican committees, which hold a miniscule degree of influence in most parts of the city, appear to be more focussed on outreach to the general public. While Manhattan’s Democratic district leaders struggled to maneuver the petition printing backlog during the most recent petitioning process, the Staten Island GOP <a href="http://sigop.com/slider/june-2016-update-help-qualify-our-republican-candidates-get-your-petition-packet-today-2/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">is willing</a> send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.</p> <p>In stark contrast to the Queens Democratic organization, Queens’ GOP committee has eight full-time staffers and five to six volunteers on its digital outreach team. The aggressive engagement strategy includes Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, complete with hashtags for every day of the week, and responsiveness is a top priority, according to staff members.</p> <p>While Democratic party leaders were difficult to reach by phone, Michael Conigliaro, executive director of the Queens County GOP, eagerly organized a conference call with the office’s boisterous digital outreach crew, requesting that Gotham Gazette list all of their names (Fred Darowitsch, Ryan Kelly, Michael Janis, Angela Ferri, Gabriel Miller). &nbsp;</p> <p>Noting the strides made by the Manhattan county Democratic organization, Yee believes the Democratic Party as a whole needs to “get its act together” in terms of engaging voters and transparency if it wants to be successful as an electoral force.</p> <p>“The Democratic Party is actually, in my opinion...drifting farther and farther away from its base because it’s literally getting more and more out of touch -- fewer and fewer people understand how the Democratic Party works,” said Yee. “The Democratic Party needs to refocus on the fact that it serves people and unless it does that and opens up the process so that regular people can have an input into the governance of the party, it’s not going to be very successful in the future.”</p> <p>The other Democratic county party websites are not without merits. The Bronx Democrats, chaired by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, is effective at digital engagement, utilizing Twitter and Facebook and sending out weekly e-newsletters to constituents about events held by elected officials.</p> <p>"It's very important to the chairman to ensure that our constituents are engaged. We are proud to have a party that came out strongly, we are proud to have the highest Democratic turnouts in America and the chairman is proud to engage with the constituency and be as transparent as possible," Yves Filius, political coordinator at the Bronx Democratic Party.</p> <p>However, the site, which was launched by former county boss turned Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “more than five years ago,” according to Filius, is not particularly designed to court new talent or explain the county committee system. It includes an elaborate photo spread of Bronx elected officials but no committee meetings on its calendar.</p> <p>Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5891-rumored-scheme-brings-scrutiny-to-bronx-political-machine" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">backroom deals</a> when it comes to elected seat swapping or maneuvering so that county-aligned candidates get the posts the establishment wants. In Queens, there has been extensive recent <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6944-crowley-appointee-to-board-of-elections-sees-spike-in-queens-court-profits" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reporting</a> in the news media about patronage.</p> <p>The Staten Island Democrats, which operates in an area represented by several Republican elected officials, including Borough President James Oddo, appears more outreach-oriented, with a website inviting Staten Islanders to run for office, and promoting a leadership initiative, but offers little information about the county committee process.</p> <p>Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by <a href="https://cityofnewyork.github.io/opendatatsm/LocalLaw11of2012.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012</a> by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- which mandates that most digital data managed by the city be made available to the public through a single web portal. A manual published by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) outlines technical standards and guidelines for city agencies.</p> <p>While Democratic organizations are not bound by these regulations, they can take a cue from these guidelines and strides made by city governments to become more user friendly, according to David Moore, a civic technologist who launched New York City’s <a href="https://nyc.councilmatic.org/about/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Councilmatic</a>, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.</p> <p>“We’ve seen city websites become better designed and more easy to navigate. This should be a goal for the county,” said Moore, pointing to “<a href="https://council.nyc.gov/news/2015/04/15/introducing-council-2-0/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Council 2.0</a>” and a 2015 redesign of the New York City Council’s website, spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito in 2015 and designed to make more data publically accessible and the city’s main governing body more responsive.</p> <p>While setting up a Democratic county party website is a good first step, “it is crucial to demystify the process more; they could use some testing to see how they are able to explain how this very old school county committee process works,” said Moore.</p> <p>If the state Democratic party is interested in better engaging the grassroots, they should designate funds towards creating baseline standards for digital outreach on the county level, according to Moore.</p> <p>The 2016 presidential election energized voters all over the city, including many younger ones, and there is an abundance of grassroots organizations and engaged New Yorkers.</p> <p>“There is so much interest in local engagement now after the 2016 local elections, that volunteer for social media, web development, should be easy to find, in counties as huge as Brooklyn and Queens, for example,” said Moore. “The county committees should be on the record soliciting and supporting outreach to get more people aware of their work and their responsibilities.”</p> <p>One such organization is Gowanus Gathering for Action, a group of progressive organizers in Central Brooklyn, which has taken interest in the county committee system and was surprised at how little information was available.</p> <p>Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, <a href="https://ccsunlight.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">which allows</a> people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.</p> <p>"We are living in a different time now, and people need to interact with their party. The Trump administration has not materialized overnight. People don't have a say, and when they don't have a say, they resort to more radical dispositions," said Crocket, who hopes to eventually advance the project to include state-wide committees.</p> <p>Brooklyn Democratic Party website came to be in a similar way, with some prodding from progressive reform-minded district leaders Josh Skaller, who is party of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Nick Rizzo of the New Kings Democrats.</p> <p>“When I came in, it was a campaign pledge of mine, and I found out that they were already working on it,” said Rizzo of a website for the county party. “So in 2014, they knew they were already behind and this was something they had to do.”</p> <p>When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/vito-lopez-powerful-brooklyn-assemblyman-stripped-leadership-post-committee-finds-sexually-harassed-2-employees-article-1.1143794" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amid a sexual harassment scandal</a>, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and <a href="http://www.brooklyndems.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the website</a> was part of that, according to Rizzo.</p> <p>The Brooklyn Democrats site includes directories of district leaders and county committee members -- though the lists are not always up-to-date -- and two full-time staffers who are responsible for maintaining the site and updating it with event listings.</p> <p>“I think it was pretty painless, and that’s a credit to Frank Seddio,” said Rizzo. “I understand that it doesn’t seem like a priority for a lot of old school politicians, but it it sends a message that we are listening and we care.”</p> <p>One thing that has not been modernized at the old office is the move from snail mail to email -- 41 out of 42 district leaders do now posses an email address -- but like everything, “it’s a process,” said Rizzo.</p> <p>

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

Read more by this writer.

</p>
De Blasio, NYPD Won’t Release Taxpayer Cost for Germany Trip 2017-07-13T04:00:00+00:00 2017-07-13T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7061:de-blasio-nypd-won-t-release-cost-for-germany-trip Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/34738336890_a2e95cbbe8_z.jpg" alt="Gotham Gazette: Mayor" width="640" height="427" /></p> <p>Mayor de Blasio &amp; NYPD leaders (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Asked about the cost to taxpayers for his recent trip to Germany, Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated at a press conference Wednesday that expenses for himself and three aides were paid for by the organizers of a protest rally the mayor was asked to headline. As for his NYPD security detail, which did come at taxpayer expense, the mayor said, “The NYPD always provides some kind of estimate so please ask them for that.”</p> <p>But, news outlets had already been asking the NYPD for that cost estimate and the department refused to provide it, referencing long-standing practice that de Blasio was apparently unaware of. Asked a second time about releasing the estimate Wednesday, de Blasio said of the NYPD, “I’m not an expert on what they do but that’s who has the number.”</p> <p>“I want to say when it’s security related I respect the protocols of the NYPD,” de Blasio said. “So, that’s something that they have – I want whatever’s been done in the past to be done here. I’m just not an expert on what they release and what they don’t.”</p> <p>Told then by Gotham Gazette that the NYPD was refusing to give a cost estimate for the taxpayer expense, de Blasio said, “I want consistency with whatever their practice has been. That’s what I’m saying.”</p> <p>Asked if he didn’t perhaps want a more transparent approach, de Blasio said, “I don’t know what their practice has been so I don’t have a baseline...I’m saying, whatever it’s been in the past, it should continue to be. That’s what I’m comfortable with.”</p> <p>In a statement to Gotham Gazette, an NYPD spokesperson said that the department has “been over this many times,” that “The NYPD does not release information or discuss the specifics surrounding protection of dignitaries, including the mayor. This is a long-standing policy that has been in effect for decades.”</p> <p>So, while the plane and lodging costs for the mayor and his aides was not billed to the city, the airfare, accommodations, and any other costs, like per diems, for NYPD officers who went were, but the public will not be informed of that expense. The decision by de Blasio and the NYPD also comes a short time after they were highly public about the costs to the NYPD and city for protecting Donald Trump and his family in late 2016 and early 2017. De Blasio regularly lobbied publicly, using cost estimates provided by the NYPD, for federal reimbursement, which the city wound up receiving.</p> <p>Speaking of Trump: in a trip announced at the very last minute, de Blasio flew to Hamburg, Germany on Thursday July 6 in order to hold several meetings with government officials there and speak at the Hamburg Zeigt Haltung rally on Saturday, held in response to the G20 summit of world leaders being hosted nearby at which President Donald Trump was appearing.</p> <p>De Blasio said he was invited to speak at the rally, which was to promote democratic principles and advocate for fighting climate change, welcoming immigrants, and other typically more Democratic values, to present an alternative American viewpoint to that of Trump, who has taken a more isolationist approach to world affairs than his recent predecessors, is a climate change skeptic, and has promoted anti-immigrant policies.</p> <p>De Blasio’s shielding of the taxpayer expense for his trip was met with disapproval from good government leader Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “For a mayor whose previous hallmark had been transparency, it would be important to request that the NYPD publicly release the cost to taxpayers for an NYPD contingent to accompany him to Germany. This has nothing to do with security and everything to do with the taxpayers’ right to know how their tax dollars are spent -- the two need not be confused.”</p> <p>The mayor somewhat disingenuously also said Wednesday that people need to understand that he always has an NYPD security detail, which of course comes at taxpayer expense. De Blasio failed to mention, though, that his detail is not typically flying internationally or staying at hotels.</p> <p>Along with the hidden NYPD costs to taxpayers, the last-minute nature was another non-transparent aspect of the trip. De Blasio and his team have chalked this up to uncertainty around whether he would actually go given other late-breaking events, including the murder of an NYPD officer. When it was clear that the wake and funeral for Officer Miosotis Familia would not be held until the beginning of this week, de Blasio finalized his plan to go to Germany. The mayor’s press office gave the media about two hours notice before de Blasio was in the air heading overseas.</p> <p>The mayor’s chief spokesperson argued that the office does not do tentative scheduling with news outlets, so there was no way to notify members of the press in advance given the fluid nature of things.</p> <p>Asked about this on Wednesday, de Blasio said he stood behind his press secretary, Eric Phillips, “100 percent on this.” But, he indicated that the events around this particular trip were special and that it is possible for the press office to give some heads up to news organizations in instances where there is some uncertainty.</p> <p>Referencing the uncertainty around the extension of mayoral control of New York City schools and services for Familia, de Blasio said, “I think we had two really abnormal situations happening that affected both focus and clarity. In a normal situation, of course, you could and we will – if we think something is likely but not definite, absolutely there are times when we can give notice and say ‘hey this is for your information.’” But, de Blasio said that this situation, “was so gray that we thought that it would just create confusion and again we were focused first and foremost on...the services. That would was the decisive factor.”</p> <p>Of his reason for accepting the invitation to go and speak at the rally, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette it was part of the theme of “joint effort between mayors around this country and globally” that he said “is going to be more of the norm, going forward, because no one has the illusion our national government is going to address these issues. I mean, it’s just as simple as that. Our whole view right now of what happens in Washington is stopping bad things from happening. There’s no potential for a positive climate policy, a positive immigration policy, a positive policy to address income inequality – any of that. So, the cities of the world – and, in some cases, states – are going to have to lead the way and we’re all working with each other, and we’re all trying to learn from each other, set goals together, etcetera.”</p> <p>

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p> Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. </p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/34738336890_a2e95cbbe8_z.jpg" alt="Gotham Gazette: Mayor" width="640" height="427" /></p> <p>Mayor de Blasio &amp; NYPD leaders (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>Asked about the cost to taxpayers for his recent trip to Germany, Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated at a press conference Wednesday that expenses for himself and three aides were paid for by the organizers of a protest rally the mayor was asked to headline. As for his NYPD security detail, which did come at taxpayer expense, the mayor said, “The NYPD always provides some kind of estimate so please ask them for that.”</p> <p>But, news outlets had already been asking the NYPD for that cost estimate and the department refused to provide it, referencing long-standing practice that de Blasio was apparently unaware of. Asked a second time about releasing the estimate Wednesday, de Blasio said of the NYPD, “I’m not an expert on what they do but that’s who has the number.”</p> <p>“I want to say when it’s security related I respect the protocols of the NYPD,” de Blasio said. “So, that’s something that they have – I want whatever’s been done in the past to be done here. I’m just not an expert on what they release and what they don’t.”</p> <p>Told then by Gotham Gazette that the NYPD was refusing to give a cost estimate for the taxpayer expense, de Blasio said, “I want consistency with whatever their practice has been. That’s what I’m saying.”</p> <p>Asked if he didn’t perhaps want a more transparent approach, de Blasio said, “I don’t know what their practice has been so I don’t have a baseline...I’m saying, whatever it’s been in the past, it should continue to be. That’s what I’m comfortable with.”</p> <p>In a statement to Gotham Gazette, an NYPD spokesperson said that the department has “been over this many times,” that “The NYPD does not release information or discuss the specifics surrounding protection of dignitaries, including the mayor. This is a long-standing policy that has been in effect for decades.”</p> <p>So, while the plane and lodging costs for the mayor and his aides was not billed to the city, the airfare, accommodations, and any other costs, like per diems, for NYPD officers who went were, but the public will not be informed of that expense. The decision by de Blasio and the NYPD also comes a short time after they were highly public about the costs to the NYPD and city for protecting Donald Trump and his family in late 2016 and early 2017. De Blasio regularly lobbied publicly, using cost estimates provided by the NYPD, for federal reimbursement, which the city wound up receiving.</p> <p>Speaking of Trump: in a trip announced at the very last minute, de Blasio flew to Hamburg, Germany on Thursday July 6 in order to hold several meetings with government officials there and speak at the Hamburg Zeigt Haltung rally on Saturday, held in response to the G20 summit of world leaders being hosted nearby at which President Donald Trump was appearing.</p> <p>De Blasio said he was invited to speak at the rally, which was to promote democratic principles and advocate for fighting climate change, welcoming immigrants, and other typically more Democratic values, to present an alternative American viewpoint to that of Trump, who has taken a more isolationist approach to world affairs than his recent predecessors, is a climate change skeptic, and has promoted anti-immigrant policies.</p> <p>De Blasio’s shielding of the taxpayer expense for his trip was met with disapproval from good government leader Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “For a mayor whose previous hallmark had been transparency, it would be important to request that the NYPD publicly release the cost to taxpayers for an NYPD contingent to accompany him to Germany. This has nothing to do with security and everything to do with the taxpayers’ right to know how their tax dollars are spent -- the two need not be confused.”</p> <p>The mayor somewhat disingenuously also said Wednesday that people need to understand that he always has an NYPD security detail, which of course comes at taxpayer expense. De Blasio failed to mention, though, that his detail is not typically flying internationally or staying at hotels.</p> <p>Along with the hidden NYPD costs to taxpayers, the last-minute nature was another non-transparent aspect of the trip. De Blasio and his team have chalked this up to uncertainty around whether he would actually go given other late-breaking events, including the murder of an NYPD officer. When it was clear that the wake and funeral for Officer Miosotis Familia would not be held until the beginning of this week, de Blasio finalized his plan to go to Germany. The mayor’s press office gave the media about two hours notice before de Blasio was in the air heading overseas.</p> <p>The mayor’s chief spokesperson argued that the office does not do tentative scheduling with news outlets, so there was no way to notify members of the press in advance given the fluid nature of things.</p> <p>Asked about this on Wednesday, de Blasio said he stood behind his press secretary, Eric Phillips, “100 percent on this.” But, he indicated that the events around this particular trip were special and that it is possible for the press office to give some heads up to news organizations in instances where there is some uncertainty.</p> <p>Referencing the uncertainty around the extension of mayoral control of New York City schools and services for Familia, de Blasio said, “I think we had two really abnormal situations happening that affected both focus and clarity. In a normal situation, of course, you could and we will – if we think something is likely but not definite, absolutely there are times when we can give notice and say ‘hey this is for your information.’” But, de Blasio said that this situation, “was so gray that we thought that it would just create confusion and again we were focused first and foremost on...the services. That would was the decisive factor.”</p> <p>Of his reason for accepting the invitation to go and speak at the rally, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette it was part of the theme of “joint effort between mayors around this country and globally” that he said “is going to be more of the norm, going forward, because no one has the illusion our national government is going to address these issues. I mean, it’s just as simple as that. Our whole view right now of what happens in Washington is stopping bad things from happening. There’s no potential for a positive climate policy, a positive immigration policy, a positive policy to address income inequality – any of that. So, the cities of the world – and, in some cases, states – are going to have to lead the way and we’re all working with each other, and we’re all trying to learn from each other, set goals together, etcetera.”</p> <p>

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p> Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. </p>
‘Open The Books’ Site Tracks Government Spending, Aims to Reduce Waste 2017-04-18T04:00:00+00:00 2017-04-18T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6880:open-the-books-site-tracks-government-spending-aims-to-reduce-waste Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/rename-this.jpg" alt="Adam Andrzejewski" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p dir="ltr">Adam Andrzejewski (photo: The Manhattan Institute)</p> <hr /> <p dir="ltr">Illinois-based businessman and one-time candidate for Governor of that state, Adam Andrzejewski, boasts of running the “world’s largest private repository of public spending” with 3.5 billion individually captured government expenditures. Andrzejewski is the CEO and founder of <a href="http://www.openthebooks.com">OpenTheBooks.com</a>, an online transparency tool launched by his nonpartisan, nonprofit group, aptly named American Transparency, with the stated goals of reducing waste in government spending and combatting corruption.</p> <p dir="ltr">Speaking to a room of about 90 people at an upscale club in Midtown Manhattan, at an event hosted by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, Andrzejewski laid out his organization’s mission: “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” His pet project stems from his unsuccessful run as a Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois in 2010, when he said he ran on a platform of “forensic audits of state spending” and “aggressive transparency,” which he believes resonated with voters.</p> <p dir="ltr">Sourcing vast swathes of data through thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests each year, Andrzejewski says the website now contains nearly all federal expenditures since 2000, checkbook spending from 48 of 50 states from the last 10 years, and data on salary, pension, and vendor spending from about 60,000 municipalities.</p> <p dir="ltr">In New York State, he said, they are close to having compiled all federal, state, and local expenditures. “We have about 90 cents on every dollar right now,” Andrzejewski said.</p> <p dir="ltr">OpenTheBooks has made news in the past, with what Andrzejewski calls “oversight reports,” such as an analysis of <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/US/report-va-spent-millions-costly-art-veterans-waited/story?id=40970667">spending on luxury art</a> by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs; a report on the <a href="https://www.openthebooks.com/assets/1/7/Oversight_IvyLeagueInc_FINAL.pdf">billions in public funds</a> that go to Ivy League universities through tax benefits and other payments; and one on non-military federal agencies <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/u-s-agencies-spending-billions-guns-ammo-military-gear-article-1.2690191">procuring military equipment</a>; among others. The project also launched a mobile application, that allows users to pinpoint federal spending down to their zip code, allowing for “instant journalism,” Andrzejewski says.</p> <p dir="ltr">More recently, after President Donald Trump’s threat to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities, the website <a href="https://www.openthebooks.com/assets/1/7/Oversight_FederalFundingofAmericasSanctuaryCities.pdf">analyzed</a> the scope of those potential cuts and their possible effect on municipalities. Within the next 30 days, the nonprofit will release its latest report on cash compensation at all federal agencies.</p> <p dir="ltr">“The amount of federal waste, fraud, corruption and taxpayer abuse is systemic, it’s embedded and we do need [a] war on waste to root it out,” said Andrzejewski in response to a question from one of the attendees. “We need a new arms race of federal transparency from the private sector up against government,” he later said, again painting the fight in military terms.</p> <p dir="ltr">The transparency website is not completely novel for New York, where others both in the private and public sectors have attempted to make government data, particularly about spending, publicly available and accessible. <a href="https://www.reclaimnewyork.org/about/">Reclaim New York</a>, a nonprofit government transparency project, has compiled checkbook spending while the <a href="https://www.empirecenter.org/data/">Empire Center for Public Policy</a>, a think tank, has more than 50 data sets on the state’s taxes, debt, spending, and other economic measures. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s <a href="http://www.openbooknewyork.com/index.htm">Open Book New York</a> portal shows state spending, while in New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer’s <a href="http://www.checkbooknyc.com/spending_landing/yeartype/B/year/118">Checkbook NYC</a> shows city level indicators.</p> <p dir="ltr">Andrzejewski praised those efforts (he worked with Reclaim New York on compiling New York’s spending data). “Kudos to the elected officials that don’t need a lawsuit but open the books by making that good government decision,” he told Gotham Gazette after the formal portion of the event, a lunch centered around his presentation. But he maintained that New York is the same as other states. “It’s a level playing field...New York is neither worse nor better but units of government do comply with the law, which is good news,” he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">For a man whose mission is transparency, however, Andrzejewski would not disclose his group’s donors, saying only that they consist of “foundations, corporations and individuals” who may face pressure if made public. He insisted that none of the group’s funding came from government sources. When asked if this was at odds with his goals, he refuted the premise. “We don’t need more private sector transparency,” he said. “We’re demanding government transparency.”</p> <p>

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/rename-this.jpg" alt="Adam Andrzejewski" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p dir="ltr">Adam Andrzejewski (photo: The Manhattan Institute)</p> <hr /> <p dir="ltr">Illinois-based businessman and one-time candidate for Governor of that state, Adam Andrzejewski, boasts of running the “world’s largest private repository of public spending” with 3.5 billion individually captured government expenditures. Andrzejewski is the CEO and founder of <a href="http://www.openthebooks.com">OpenTheBooks.com</a>, an online transparency tool launched by his nonpartisan, nonprofit group, aptly named American Transparency, with the stated goals of reducing waste in government spending and combatting corruption.</p> <p dir="ltr">Speaking to a room of about 90 people at an upscale club in Midtown Manhattan, at an event hosted by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, Andrzejewski laid out his organization’s mission: “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” His pet project stems from his unsuccessful run as a Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois in 2010, when he said he ran on a platform of “forensic audits of state spending” and “aggressive transparency,” which he believes resonated with voters.</p> <p dir="ltr">Sourcing vast swathes of data through thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests each year, Andrzejewski says the website now contains nearly all federal expenditures since 2000, checkbook spending from 48 of 50 states from the last 10 years, and data on salary, pension, and vendor spending from about 60,000 municipalities.</p> <p dir="ltr">In New York State, he said, they are close to having compiled all federal, state, and local expenditures. “We have about 90 cents on every dollar right now,” Andrzejewski said.</p> <p dir="ltr">OpenTheBooks has made news in the past, with what Andrzejewski calls “oversight reports,” such as an analysis of <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/US/report-va-spent-millions-costly-art-veterans-waited/story?id=40970667">spending on luxury art</a> by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs; a report on the <a href="https://www.openthebooks.com/assets/1/7/Oversight_IvyLeagueInc_FINAL.pdf">billions in public funds</a> that go to Ivy League universities through tax benefits and other payments; and one on non-military federal agencies <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/u-s-agencies-spending-billions-guns-ammo-military-gear-article-1.2690191">procuring military equipment</a>; among others. The project also launched a mobile application, that allows users to pinpoint federal spending down to their zip code, allowing for “instant journalism,” Andrzejewski says.</p> <p dir="ltr">More recently, after President Donald Trump’s threat to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities, the website <a href="https://www.openthebooks.com/assets/1/7/Oversight_FederalFundingofAmericasSanctuaryCities.pdf">analyzed</a> the scope of those potential cuts and their possible effect on municipalities. Within the next 30 days, the nonprofit will release its latest report on cash compensation at all federal agencies.</p> <p dir="ltr">“The amount of federal waste, fraud, corruption and taxpayer abuse is systemic, it’s embedded and we do need [a] war on waste to root it out,” said Andrzejewski in response to a question from one of the attendees. “We need a new arms race of federal transparency from the private sector up against government,” he later said, again painting the fight in military terms.</p> <p dir="ltr">The transparency website is not completely novel for New York, where others both in the private and public sectors have attempted to make government data, particularly about spending, publicly available and accessible. <a href="https://www.reclaimnewyork.org/about/">Reclaim New York</a>, a nonprofit government transparency project, has compiled checkbook spending while the <a href="https://www.empirecenter.org/data/">Empire Center for Public Policy</a>, a think tank, has more than 50 data sets on the state’s taxes, debt, spending, and other economic measures. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s <a href="http://www.openbooknewyork.com/index.htm">Open Book New York</a> portal shows state spending, while in New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer’s <a href="http://www.checkbooknyc.com/spending_landing/yeartype/B/year/118">Checkbook NYC</a> shows city level indicators.</p> <p dir="ltr">Andrzejewski praised those efforts (he worked with Reclaim New York on compiling New York’s spending data). “Kudos to the elected officials that don’t need a lawsuit but open the books by making that good government decision,” he told Gotham Gazette after the formal portion of the event, a lunch centered around his presentation. But he maintained that New York is the same as other states. “It’s a level playing field...New York is neither worse nor better but units of government do comply with the law, which is good news,” he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">For a man whose mission is transparency, however, Andrzejewski would not disclose his group’s donors, saying only that they consist of “foundations, corporations and individuals” who may face pressure if made public. He insisted that none of the group’s funding came from government sources. When asked if this was at odds with his goals, he refuted the premise. “We don’t need more private sector transparency,” he said. “We’re demanding government transparency.”</p> <p>

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
A Better Budget for New York 2017-03-19T04:00:00+00:00 2017-03-19T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6817:a-better-budget-for-new-york Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/scott-stringer.jpg" alt="scott stringer" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Comptroller Scott Stringer, the author</p> <hr /> <p>Discoveries of "Super Earths." Contact lenses with data displays and video cameras. Earpieces that translate different languages in real-time. We are truly in the great age of technology and innovation. Knowledge, access, and new tools are helping us break barriers like never before in human history.</p> <p>So why, then, does it seem so hard to deliver basic transparency to the city budget? If we're realizing incredible new terrain, why is it so difficult to lay out local government spending in a way that everyday people can understand?</p> <p>Public budget presentations help us live within our means, control spending, and limit the potential for misuse of taxpayer funds. Every year, the City Council does rigorous review and thorough negotiation, and as a result, in New York we’ve had 35 straight years of balanced city spending plans, enjoy a double-A rating on our municipal bonds, and routinely win awards for our budget.</p> <p>Openness matters because it induces better outcomes.</p> <p>But let's say, for instance, an advocate for a particular issue or an ordinary taxpayer wants to know whether $4.9 million in funding has been cut for food pantries and other nutrition services. It would be virtually impossible to know by going online. And if that’s the case for a relatively small line item, it means the $84.7 billion in proposed spending for fiscal year 2018 in the preliminary budget is utterly incomprehensible to the public.</p> <p>Budgets are about priorities. They’re statements not just on how we spend, but on how we present that spending.</p> <p>When it comes to clarity and accessibility, we’re failing miserably.</p> <p>There is, without question, plenty of information about the budget available. The Office of Management and Budget has 18 separate documents on its website about the fiscal 2018 preliminary spending plan, and one of them – the “Departmental Estimates” – is 4,180 pages long.</p> <p>But just because information is posted online doesn’t mean it’s digestible. Just because something is publicly available doesn’t mean it’s transparent. That’s our problem.</p> <p>Consider the original, exceptionally basic question: Is there, or is there not, a $4.9 million reduction in funding for food pantries and nutrition services in the fiscal 2018 preliminary budget?</p> <p>Shockingly, not one of those 18 budget documents provides an answer. That’s because our budget isn’t laid out in terms of the programs and services that agencies deliver. Instead, it’s organized into broad “units of appropriation” and then – in voluminous departmental estimates – converted into budget codes, which are more often used to track funding sources than to describe recognizable programs.</p> <p>That means unless you’re a seasoned budget expert, you’d have no idea what, if any, spending was proposed for fiscal 2018 for food pantries and nutrition services.</p> <p>What’s more, it’s logical to wonder what that $4.9 million would buy exactly. How many meals does that fund? How many pounds of food can that purchase? You can’t find that information either in the budget or the Mayor’s Management Report. These simple, public-minded questions are devoid of straightforward government answers.</p> <p>When it comes to budgetary transparency, even though New York is the financial capital of the world, we’re falling behind. Cities across the country have increasingly made spending information user-friendly and informative. While our budget is huge and complex, it doesn’t mean we can’t make it easier to understand.</p> <p>A lot easier.</p> <p>We can start by categorizing the budget in terms of the programs and services that agencies provide, instead of presenting obscure budget codes that aren’t recognizable to anyone other than an agency budget official.</p> <p>We should also show – and describe, narratively – changes from one year to the next. The public should be able to know exactly why and how proposed spending in the future differs, in programmatic terms, from spending now and prior.</p> <p>If we’re spending less on a particular program, is it because we figured out how to do it more efficiently? Because demand went down? Or was the program cut as a policy choice? These are simple questions to which we know – and should present – the answers.</p> <p>Efficiency matters. But by themselves, budget figures don’t tell us much. Taxpayers want to know what we’re buying and whether it’s money well spent. That means adding some basic information to the budget document to show what’s being produced, at what cost, and whether we’re achieving our goals. ​</p> <p>Presenting those answers isn’t rocket science – it’s common sense.</p> <p>We’ve proven we can manage our city’s finances well. But right now, unless you’re a professional budget expert, a seasoned journalist, or an aficionado, our lack of transparency discourages public participation.</p> <p>We should be giving residents the open government they deserve, because the budget affects every single New Yorker. That means we must take the next step and open the discussion up to everyone, so that communities across the city can help decide the kind of city we want to be down the road.</p> <p>As for that $4.9 million...it is currently not in next year’s budget. The funds were added this year by the City Council to provide emergency food to 180 pantries and soup kitchens citywide, and to help expand access to healthy foods at farmer’s markets and elsewhere. The Council and the Mayor will decide whether to add the funds again for next year’s budget.</p> <p>Because, after all, budgets are about priorities.</p> <p>***<br />Scott Stringer is New York City Comptroller. On Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/scottmstringer" target="_blank">@scottmstringer</a>.</p> <p>

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</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/scott-stringer.jpg" alt="scott stringer" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Comptroller Scott Stringer, the author</p> <hr /> <p>Discoveries of "Super Earths." Contact lenses with data displays and video cameras. Earpieces that translate different languages in real-time. We are truly in the great age of technology and innovation. Knowledge, access, and new tools are helping us break barriers like never before in human history.</p> <p>So why, then, does it seem so hard to deliver basic transparency to the city budget? If we're realizing incredible new terrain, why is it so difficult to lay out local government spending in a way that everyday people can understand?</p> <p>Public budget presentations help us live within our means, control spending, and limit the potential for misuse of taxpayer funds. Every year, the City Council does rigorous review and thorough negotiation, and as a result, in New York we’ve had 35 straight years of balanced city spending plans, enjoy a double-A rating on our municipal bonds, and routinely win awards for our budget.</p> <p>Openness matters because it induces better outcomes.</p> <p>But let's say, for instance, an advocate for a particular issue or an ordinary taxpayer wants to know whether $4.9 million in funding has been cut for food pantries and other nutrition services. It would be virtually impossible to know by going online. And if that’s the case for a relatively small line item, it means the $84.7 billion in proposed spending for fiscal year 2018 in the preliminary budget is utterly incomprehensible to the public.</p> <p>Budgets are about priorities. They’re statements not just on how we spend, but on how we present that spending.</p> <p>When it comes to clarity and accessibility, we’re failing miserably.</p> <p>There is, without question, plenty of information about the budget available. The Office of Management and Budget has 18 separate documents on its website about the fiscal 2018 preliminary spending plan, and one of them – the “Departmental Estimates” – is 4,180 pages long.</p> <p>But just because information is posted online doesn’t mean it’s digestible. Just because something is publicly available doesn’t mean it’s transparent. That’s our problem.</p> <p>Consider the original, exceptionally basic question: Is there, or is there not, a $4.9 million reduction in funding for food pantries and nutrition services in the fiscal 2018 preliminary budget?</p> <p>Shockingly, not one of those 18 budget documents provides an answer. That’s because our budget isn’t laid out in terms of the programs and services that agencies deliver. Instead, it’s organized into broad “units of appropriation” and then – in voluminous departmental estimates – converted into budget codes, which are more often used to track funding sources than to describe recognizable programs.</p> <p>That means unless you’re a seasoned budget expert, you’d have no idea what, if any, spending was proposed for fiscal 2018 for food pantries and nutrition services.</p> <p>What’s more, it’s logical to wonder what that $4.9 million would buy exactly. How many meals does that fund? How many pounds of food can that purchase? You can’t find that information either in the budget or the Mayor’s Management Report. These simple, public-minded questions are devoid of straightforward government answers.</p> <p>When it comes to budgetary transparency, even though New York is the financial capital of the world, we’re falling behind. Cities across the country have increasingly made spending information user-friendly and informative. While our budget is huge and complex, it doesn’t mean we can’t make it easier to understand.</p> <p>A lot easier.</p> <p>We can start by categorizing the budget in terms of the programs and services that agencies provide, instead of presenting obscure budget codes that aren’t recognizable to anyone other than an agency budget official.</p> <p>We should also show – and describe, narratively – changes from one year to the next. The public should be able to know exactly why and how proposed spending in the future differs, in programmatic terms, from spending now and prior.</p> <p>If we’re spending less on a particular program, is it because we figured out how to do it more efficiently? Because demand went down? Or was the program cut as a policy choice? These are simple questions to which we know – and should present – the answers.</p> <p>Efficiency matters. But by themselves, budget figures don’t tell us much. Taxpayers want to know what we’re buying and whether it’s money well spent. That means adding some basic information to the budget document to show what’s being produced, at what cost, and whether we’re achieving our goals. ​</p> <p>Presenting those answers isn’t rocket science – it’s common sense.</p> <p>We’ve proven we can manage our city’s finances well. But right now, unless you’re a professional budget expert, a seasoned journalist, or an aficionado, our lack of transparency discourages public participation.</p> <p>We should be giving residents the open government they deserve, because the budget affects every single New Yorker. That means we must take the next step and open the discussion up to everyone, so that communities across the city can help decide the kind of city we want to be down the road.</p> <p>As for that $4.9 million...it is currently not in next year’s budget. The funds were added this year by the City Council to provide emergency food to 180 pantries and soup kitchens citywide, and to help expand access to healthy foods at farmer’s markets and elsewhere. The Council and the Mayor will decide whether to add the funds again for next year’s budget.</p> <p>Because, after all, budgets are about priorities.</p> <p>***<br />Scott Stringer is New York City Comptroller. On Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/scottmstringer" target="_blank">@scottmstringer</a>.</p> <p>

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</p>
Role of Cuomo’s ‘Independent Investigator’ Remains Unclear 2016-05-26T04:00:00+00:00 2016-05-26T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6363:role-of-cuomo-s-independent-investigator-remains-unclear Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/26525493775_e0420675ca_z.jpg" width="600" height="373" alt="cuomo purple tie" /></p> <p>Gov. Cuomo (photo:&nbsp;Kevin P. Coughlin, Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>In trying to stifle the blaze that has become U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation into the Buffalo Billion economic development program, Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly invoked the name of Bart Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor the administration has retained (or is in the process of retaining) to carry out an “independent” review of the project.</p> <p>In acknowledging that people close to him were being investigated in relation to the Buffalo Billion, Cuomo announced Schwartz’s hire on April 29.</p> <p>When the Public Authorities Control Board met this week and <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/26/nyregion/state-funding-approved-for-buffalo-factory-with-oversights-attached.html?_r=0" target="_blank">approved</a> without debate another $485 million for a key Buffalo Billion project, the administration quickly reminded reporters that Schwartz would now provide another layer of oversight by considering approval of disbursement of the funds.</p> <p>The day before, Cuomo told reporters he had yet to finalize Schwartz’s contract. The governor also <a href="http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/249536/cuomo-staff-respond-on-potential-release-of-schwartz-report/" target="_blank">appeared unsure</a> whether Schwartz would make his findings public. Administration officials later clarified Schwartz would release his findings as long as doing so wouldn’t interfere with Bharara’s investigation, which appears to be focused on bid-rigging and a web of relationships among private and public entities.</p> <p>Even as Schwartz’s presence is held up as a measure of confidence in the Cuomo administration and the state’s vast economic development apparatus, several questions about Schwartz’s role and power remain. These include whether Schwartz has already started his work; when his contract will be available to the public; if his efforts are duplicative of the U.S. attorney’s office’s; and what authority Schwartz will invoke to audit the nonprofits that oversee the Buffalo Billion, which are said to be independent from the Governor’s Office.</p> <p>Both the Cuomo administration and Schwartz’s recently-hired public relations firm failed to respond to Gotham Gazette’s questions about Schwartz’s role.</p> <p>“In the real world someone doesn’t start work before they have a contract,” said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group.</p> <p>In conjunction with Cuomo's office, Schwartz issued a statement April 29 detailing some of his plans and saying he would begin immediately.</p> <p>“The state has reason to believe that in certain programs and regulatory approvals they may have been defrauded by improper bidding and failures to disclose potential conflicts of interest by lobbyists and former state employees,” Schwartz wrote, in apparent reference to Cuomo associates Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe.</p> <p>“As the state needs to continue operating these important programs, they have asked me to commence an immediate review of all grants and approvals – past, current and future – in certain programs and operations including the Buffalo Billion/Nano Economic Development Program,” Schwartz wrote.</p> <p>It remains unclear exactly what Schwartz will be reviewing and how he will conduct his work. Part of the uncertainty and unease around Schwartz’s role held by some stems from Cuomo’s messaging around the investigation and various long-standing concerns about the Buffalo Billion.</p> <p>There are three major questions about the Buffalo Billion raised by watchdogs and, it seems, Bharara’s office: Was the contracting process designed to benefit Cuomo campaign donors? Did Cuomo loyalists use their connections to play both sides of the contracting process? Are SUNY Polytechnic, the college that oversees the distribution of Buffalo Billion funds, and its associated nonprofits doing enough to make sure corporations like SolarCIty make good on their jobs promises and other deliverables. SolarCity recently appeared to revise the number of jobs it expects to host in its Buffalo Billion-funded factory and pushed back the factory’s open date.</p> <p>Cuomo himself appears to have introduced a fourth question, which goes something like: Did someone steal money? It's a question watchdogs see as misdirection given that many of them doubt any money was actually secretly taken by lobbyists or contractors - they are more concerned about contracts being awarded improperly.</p> <p>While Cuomo is calling it a measure to ensure integrity, Schwartz’s appointment is seen as a smokescreen by many legislators and watchdogs who are concerned about the Buffalo Billion. The governor has continued to tell the press that the investigations by Bharara and Schwartz will examine the possible wrongdoing of “one or two” individuals while analysts say Bharara’s subpoenas indicate an investigation into systemic corruption.</p> <p>“This is a major effort the state is running that is working extraordinarily well and is vitally important to upstate New York,” Cuomo told reporters in Syracuse on Wednesday of the Buffalo Billion. “There is no reason to stop investing in upstate New York, to hurt the upstate economy, because a couple of people may or may not have done something wrong.” He went on to say: “You have questions raised about the conduct of several individuals. That’s now being investigated by the U.S. attorney. We also started our own internal investigation by a former prosecutor.”</p> <p>Cuomo has also <a href="http://observer.com/2016/05/andrew-cuomo-denies-getting-defensive-over-justice-department-probe/" target="_blank">said</a> he will “throw the book” at anyone found to have violated the public trust, and that he holds every Buffalo Billion dollar as “sacred.”</p> <p>Without seeing Schwartz’s contract it won’t be possible to ascertain what Cuomo has actually tasked him with investigating. It also won’t be clear what the public is actually paying him to investigate a project that watchdogs say should have already been monitored by the state Comptroller.</p> <p>“It’s ironic that [Cuomo] has gone out and hired someone who apparently will have access to contracts and information that the Comptroller of New York, who is independent, doesn’t have access to,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy. McMahon did note that Schwartz isn’t “political” or “one of the governor’s people,” though.</p> <p>When Schwartz’s role was first announced on April 29, Cuomo Counsel Alphonso David said of the Buffalo Billion, “Any grants made by this program will be thoroughly scrutinized – past, current or future.” David’s statement accompanied Schwartz’s in the same release to the media.</p> <p>Schwartz may indeed be performing duties that once belonged to the Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, who was formerly allowed to review SUNY and CUNY contracts. That ability was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011. SUNY Polytechnic has created two nonprofits to distribute state cash to various economic development projects across New York.</p> <p>John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a group that has been closely tracking the Buffalo Billion, said that it is unclear to him what problems the governor has asked Schwartz to examine, especially because Schwartz’s contract has yet to be made public. “Where is his contract? Exactly what does it say?” Kaehny asked, wondering whether Schwartz is focused on everyday expenditures or aspects of possible pay-to-play and conflict of interest in the awarding of contracts.</p> <p>After news broke this month that Bharara had subpoenaed Cuomo’s office, DiNapoli unveiled a series of reform proposals that watchdogs say would upend how the Buffalo Billion is administered and overseen by the state. His plan would ban lump sum appropriations, create a council to plan capital spending, and require economic development program proposals to be scored and ranked in a public database.</p> <p>“Public authorities are not subject to the same checks and balances that apply to state agencies, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars being spent annually with limited oversight,” reads a release from DiNapoli’s office detailing the reforms. “DiNapoli’s proposal would require state-funded public authority projects to be scored and ranked using measurable and objective criteria. His proposal also requires more disclosure of public authorities’ spending and financing activities.”</p> <p>DiNapoli also recently indicated that he may investigate parts of the Buffalo Billion.</p> <p>“Why, other than Cuomo saying so and Schwartz saying so, is there any reason to think that Schwartz is completely independent of the governor's office?” asked Kaehny. “Schwartz is not a court appointed monitor, nor is he reporting to a board of directors. He is effectively reporting to a CEO with no board whose top associates are under federal investigation.”</p> <p>Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform group Citizens Union, said it is critical for the integrity of Schwartz’s work to make the terms of his employment clear. “If this investigation is about transparency it should start by making this contract public to reassure people that there will not be a repeat of the Moreland Commission where the governor promised independence but abruptly shuttered it.”</p> <p>Cuomo <a href="http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/249536/cuomo-staff-respond-on-potential-release-of-schwartz-report/" target="_blank">told reporters</a> on Tuesday “We're doing a contract that's being finalized now. When it's finalized we’ll give it to you.” He added negotiations were about “the dollars.”</p> <p>The use of nonprofits to disburse government funds has led many to question the application of state procurement rules requiring an open request for proposals process. The RFPs for two major Buffalo Billion projects appeared tailored for the two firms that won them, both of which donated generously to Cuomo.</p> <p>Kaehny, in a press release, asked members of the Public Authorities Control Board, a five-member group appointed by the governor, four of whom are recommended by heads of the Legislature’s majority and minority conferences, that is tasked with approving funding for state economic development projects, to pose that very question in their meeting on Wednesday. It was not asked.</p> <p>However, the Assembly Democrats' representative on the board said she was voting for disbursing the funds with several conditions of more transparency and oversight.</p> <p>SUNY Poly has previously insisted that the nonprofits do abide by those rules.</p> <p>“SUNY Poly and our related entities follow New York state government’s well-established and legally defined procurement procedures — to the letter,” David Doyle, a spokesman for SUNY Poly, <a href="http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-opinion/article/SUNY-Poly-always-operates-openly-6535779.php" target="_blank">told the Times Union</a> in a September letter.</p> <p>State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office declined to comment on whether the office believes the law actually applies to the nonprofits.</p> <p>For the first time, on Wednesday Cuomo denied having influenced the contracting process for the Buffalo Billion. “The way it worked...the state didn't do any of the contracts," Cuomo was quoted as saying <a href="http://www.syracuse.com/state/index.ssf/2016/05/cuomo_investigation_upstate_projects_while_at_state_fair.html" target="_blank">by The Post Standard</a>. "It's all done through SUNY, the state university system. They are the ones that actually managed the contracting process. They are the ones who ran the contracts, ran the competitions, made the selections," he said. "I had absolutely nothing to do with that. It was done by SUNY.”</p> <p>However, as Cuomo distances himself from SUNY Poly and its decisions in contracting, his appointment of Schwartz brings into question just how much control the governor does have over the SUNY nonprofits. It appears, in a sense, by hiring Schwartz Cuomo is saying he has direct authority over all the entities involved despite legal and rhetorical framework painting them as independent.</p> <p>Kaehny said he doesn’t believe Cuomo has “the legal authority” to direct the Empire State Development Corporation or SUNY’s nonprofits to allow Schwartz to review their contracts or approve them. “ESDC is a public authority with a legally independent board and the nonprofits also have legally independent boards,” said Kaehny. “If they want to vote to subject themselves to control by Schwartz, they could do that, but that would be abdicating their fiduciary duty to a consultant to the governor, which raises questions of separation of powers. Are these entities independent of the governor or not? If they are not, then why are they exempt from state contracting and conflict of interest rules?”</p> <p>SUNY Poly and a representative of Fort Schuyler Management, one of SUNY Poly’s nonprofits that administers the Buffalo Billion, failed to return requests for comment on whether Schwartz had begun his work and whether the boards of Fort Schuyler Management and Fuller Road Management had decided to give Schwartz access to their decision making processes.</p> <p>On Tuesday Cuomo was asked about the scrutiny of his use of nonprofits and whether he would consider changing the process. “What's interesting is that all predated me, right?” Cuomo <a href="http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/249536/cuomo-staff-respond-on-potential-release-of-schwartz-report/" target="_blank">said to reporters</a>. “That went back to Governor Pataki, who was a saint. That was all in place and we used the existing mechanism; we did not design that mechanism.”</p> <p>Watchdogs say this is another misdirection by Cuomo as the particular system he has used to expedite Buffalo Billion was pioneered by SUNY Poly head Alain Kaloyeros during Cuomo’s time in office.</p> <p>“The governor said the structure was here when he got here,” said McMahon of the Empire Center. “That isn’t true. It was set up by a very ambitious college president [Kaloyeros] who wanted to expedite the construction of his empire. The governor has used it because he can get done what he wants to get done faster. It avoids the niceties that usually go into spending public money.”</p> <p>Dadey said there should be no mistake that Schwartz’s full task is to examine systemic issues in the Buffalo Billion and not just look for possible wrongdoing. “The SUNY cartel is hard to follow and that is a problem. Bart Schwartz's task is not just to find out if someone did something wrong, but to examine this opaque system and suggest ways to improve it, so voters can have faith in it.”</p> <p>

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/26525493775_e0420675ca_z.jpg" width="600" height="373" alt="cuomo purple tie" /></p> <p>Gov. Cuomo (photo:&nbsp;Kevin P. Coughlin, Governor's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>In trying to stifle the blaze that has become U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigation into the Buffalo Billion economic development program, Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly invoked the name of Bart Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor the administration has retained (or is in the process of retaining) to carry out an “independent” review of the project.</p> <p>In acknowledging that people close to him were being investigated in relation to the Buffalo Billion, Cuomo announced Schwartz’s hire on April 29.</p> <p>When the Public Authorities Control Board met this week and <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/26/nyregion/state-funding-approved-for-buffalo-factory-with-oversights-attached.html?_r=0" target="_blank">approved</a> without debate another $485 million for a key Buffalo Billion project, the administration quickly reminded reporters that Schwartz would now provide another layer of oversight by considering approval of disbursement of the funds.</p> <p>The day before, Cuomo told reporters he had yet to finalize Schwartz’s contract. The governor also <a href="http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/249536/cuomo-staff-respond-on-potential-release-of-schwartz-report/" target="_blank">appeared unsure</a> whether Schwartz would make his findings public. Administration officials later clarified Schwartz would release his findings as long as doing so wouldn’t interfere with Bharara’s investigation, which appears to be focused on bid-rigging and a web of relationships among private and public entities.</p> <p>Even as Schwartz’s presence is held up as a measure of confidence in the Cuomo administration and the state’s vast economic development apparatus, several questions about Schwartz’s role and power remain. These include whether Schwartz has already started his work; when his contract will be available to the public; if his efforts are duplicative of the U.S. attorney’s office’s; and what authority Schwartz will invoke to audit the nonprofits that oversee the Buffalo Billion, which are said to be independent from the Governor’s Office.</p> <p>Both the Cuomo administration and Schwartz’s recently-hired public relations firm failed to respond to Gotham Gazette’s questions about Schwartz’s role.</p> <p>“In the real world someone doesn’t start work before they have a contract,” said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group.</p> <p>In conjunction with Cuomo's office, Schwartz issued a statement April 29 detailing some of his plans and saying he would begin immediately.</p> <p>“The state has reason to believe that in certain programs and regulatory approvals they may have been defrauded by improper bidding and failures to disclose potential conflicts of interest by lobbyists and former state employees,” Schwartz wrote, in apparent reference to Cuomo associates Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe.</p> <p>“As the state needs to continue operating these important programs, they have asked me to commence an immediate review of all grants and approvals – past, current and future – in certain programs and operations including the Buffalo Billion/Nano Economic Development Program,” Schwartz wrote.</p> <p>It remains unclear exactly what Schwartz will be reviewing and how he will conduct his work. Part of the uncertainty and unease around Schwartz’s role held by some stems from Cuomo’s messaging around the investigation and various long-standing concerns about the Buffalo Billion.</p> <p>There are three major questions about the Buffalo Billion raised by watchdogs and, it seems, Bharara’s office: Was the contracting process designed to benefit Cuomo campaign donors? Did Cuomo loyalists use their connections to play both sides of the contracting process? Are SUNY Polytechnic, the college that oversees the distribution of Buffalo Billion funds, and its associated nonprofits doing enough to make sure corporations like SolarCIty make good on their jobs promises and other deliverables. SolarCity recently appeared to revise the number of jobs it expects to host in its Buffalo Billion-funded factory and pushed back the factory’s open date.</p> <p>Cuomo himself appears to have introduced a fourth question, which goes something like: Did someone steal money? It's a question watchdogs see as misdirection given that many of them doubt any money was actually secretly taken by lobbyists or contractors - they are more concerned about contracts being awarded improperly.</p> <p>While Cuomo is calling it a measure to ensure integrity, Schwartz’s appointment is seen as a smokescreen by many legislators and watchdogs who are concerned about the Buffalo Billion. The governor has continued to tell the press that the investigations by Bharara and Schwartz will examine the possible wrongdoing of “one or two” individuals while analysts say Bharara’s subpoenas indicate an investigation into systemic corruption.</p> <p>“This is a major effort the state is running that is working extraordinarily well and is vitally important to upstate New York,” Cuomo told reporters in Syracuse on Wednesday of the Buffalo Billion. “There is no reason to stop investing in upstate New York, to hurt the upstate economy, because a couple of people may or may not have done something wrong.” He went on to say: “You have questions raised about the conduct of several individuals. That’s now being investigated by the U.S. attorney. We also started our own internal investigation by a former prosecutor.”</p> <p>Cuomo has also <a href="http://observer.com/2016/05/andrew-cuomo-denies-getting-defensive-over-justice-department-probe/" target="_blank">said</a> he will “throw the book” at anyone found to have violated the public trust, and that he holds every Buffalo Billion dollar as “sacred.”</p> <p>Without seeing Schwartz’s contract it won’t be possible to ascertain what Cuomo has actually tasked him with investigating. It also won’t be clear what the public is actually paying him to investigate a project that watchdogs say should have already been monitored by the state Comptroller.</p> <p>“It’s ironic that [Cuomo] has gone out and hired someone who apparently will have access to contracts and information that the Comptroller of New York, who is independent, doesn’t have access to,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy. McMahon did note that Schwartz isn’t “political” or “one of the governor’s people,” though.</p> <p>When Schwartz’s role was first announced on April 29, Cuomo Counsel Alphonso David said of the Buffalo Billion, “Any grants made by this program will be thoroughly scrutinized – past, current or future.” David’s statement accompanied Schwartz’s in the same release to the media.</p> <p>Schwartz may indeed be performing duties that once belonged to the Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, who was formerly allowed to review SUNY and CUNY contracts. That ability was stripped by Cuomo and the Legislature in 2011. SUNY Polytechnic has created two nonprofits to distribute state cash to various economic development projects across New York.</p> <p>John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a group that has been closely tracking the Buffalo Billion, said that it is unclear to him what problems the governor has asked Schwartz to examine, especially because Schwartz’s contract has yet to be made public. “Where is his contract? Exactly what does it say?” Kaehny asked, wondering whether Schwartz is focused on everyday expenditures or aspects of possible pay-to-play and conflict of interest in the awarding of contracts.</p> <p>After news broke this month that Bharara had subpoenaed Cuomo’s office, DiNapoli unveiled a series of reform proposals that watchdogs say would upend how the Buffalo Billion is administered and overseen by the state. His plan would ban lump sum appropriations, create a council to plan capital spending, and require economic development program proposals to be scored and ranked in a public database.</p> <p>“Public authorities are not subject to the same checks and balances that apply to state agencies, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars being spent annually with limited oversight,” reads a release from DiNapoli’s office detailing the reforms. “DiNapoli’s proposal would require state-funded public authority projects to be scored and ranked using measurable and objective criteria. His proposal also requires more disclosure of public authorities’ spending and financing activities.”</p> <p>DiNapoli also recently indicated that he may investigate parts of the Buffalo Billion.</p> <p>“Why, other than Cuomo saying so and Schwartz saying so, is there any reason to think that Schwartz is completely independent of the governor's office?” asked Kaehny. “Schwartz is not a court appointed monitor, nor is he reporting to a board of directors. He is effectively reporting to a CEO with no board whose top associates are under federal investigation.”</p> <p>Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform group Citizens Union, said it is critical for the integrity of Schwartz’s work to make the terms of his employment clear. “If this investigation is about transparency it should start by making this contract public to reassure people that there will not be a repeat of the Moreland Commission where the governor promised independence but abruptly shuttered it.”</p> <p>Cuomo <a href="http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/249536/cuomo-staff-respond-on-potential-release-of-schwartz-report/" target="_blank">told reporters</a> on Tuesday “We're doing a contract that's being finalized now. When it's finalized we’ll give it to you.” He added negotiations were about “the dollars.”</p> <p>The use of nonprofits to disburse government funds has led many to question the application of state procurement rules requiring an open request for proposals process. The RFPs for two major Buffalo Billion projects appeared tailored for the two firms that won them, both of which donated generously to Cuomo.</p> <p>Kaehny, in a press release, asked members of the Public Authorities Control Board, a five-member group appointed by the governor, four of whom are recommended by heads of the Legislature’s majority and minority conferences, that is tasked with approving funding for state economic development projects, to pose that very question in their meeting on Wednesday. It was not asked.</p> <p>However, the Assembly Democrats' representative on the board said she was voting for disbursing the funds with several conditions of more transparency and oversight.</p> <p>SUNY Poly has previously insisted that the nonprofits do abide by those rules.</p> <p>“SUNY Poly and our related entities follow New York state government’s well-established and legally defined procurement procedures — to the letter,” David Doyle, a spokesman for SUNY Poly, <a href="http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-opinion/article/SUNY-Poly-always-operates-openly-6535779.php" target="_blank">told the Times Union</a> in a September letter.</p> <p>State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office declined to comment on whether the office believes the law actually applies to the nonprofits.</p> <p>For the first time, on Wednesday Cuomo denied having influenced the contracting process for the Buffalo Billion. “The way it worked...the state didn't do any of the contracts," Cuomo was quoted as saying <a href="http://www.syracuse.com/state/index.ssf/2016/05/cuomo_investigation_upstate_projects_while_at_state_fair.html" target="_blank">by The Post Standard</a>. "It's all done through SUNY, the state university system. They are the ones that actually managed the contracting process. They are the ones who ran the contracts, ran the competitions, made the selections," he said. "I had absolutely nothing to do with that. It was done by SUNY.”</p> <p>However, as Cuomo distances himself from SUNY Poly and its decisions in contracting, his appointment of Schwartz brings into question just how much control the governor does have over the SUNY nonprofits. It appears, in a sense, by hiring Schwartz Cuomo is saying he has direct authority over all the entities involved despite legal and rhetorical framework painting them as independent.</p> <p>Kaehny said he doesn’t believe Cuomo has “the legal authority” to direct the Empire State Development Corporation or SUNY’s nonprofits to allow Schwartz to review their contracts or approve them. “ESDC is a public authority with a legally independent board and the nonprofits also have legally independent boards,” said Kaehny. “If they want to vote to subject themselves to control by Schwartz, they could do that, but that would be abdicating their fiduciary duty to a consultant to the governor, which raises questions of separation of powers. Are these entities independent of the governor or not? If they are not, then why are they exempt from state contracting and conflict of interest rules?”</p> <p>SUNY Poly and a representative of Fort Schuyler Management, one of SUNY Poly’s nonprofits that administers the Buffalo Billion, failed to return requests for comment on whether Schwartz had begun his work and whether the boards of Fort Schuyler Management and Fuller Road Management had decided to give Schwartz access to their decision making processes.</p> <p>On Tuesday Cuomo was asked about the scrutiny of his use of nonprofits and whether he would consider changing the process. “What's interesting is that all predated me, right?” Cuomo <a href="http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/249536/cuomo-staff-respond-on-potential-release-of-schwartz-report/" target="_blank">said to reporters</a>. “That went back to Governor Pataki, who was a saint. That was all in place and we used the existing mechanism; we did not design that mechanism.”</p> <p>Watchdogs say this is another misdirection by Cuomo as the particular system he has used to expedite Buffalo Billion was pioneered by SUNY Poly head Alain Kaloyeros during Cuomo’s time in office.</p> <p>“The governor said the structure was here when he got here,” said McMahon of the Empire Center. “That isn’t true. It was set up by a very ambitious college president [Kaloyeros] who wanted to expedite the construction of his empire. The governor has used it because he can get done what he wants to get done faster. It avoids the niceties that usually go into spending public money.”</p> <p>Dadey said there should be no mistake that Schwartz’s full task is to examine systemic issues in the Buffalo Billion and not just look for possible wrongdoing. “The SUNY cartel is hard to follow and that is a problem. Bart Schwartz's task is not just to find out if someone did something wrong, but to examine this opaque system and suggest ways to improve it, so voters can have faith in it.”</p> <p>

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.</p>
Comptroller Calls for State Budget Transparency, 'Fiscal Reform' 2016-05-11T04:00:00+00:00 2016-05-11T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6328:comptroller-calls-for-state-budget-transparency-fiscal-reform Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/22310464060_850081d833_z.jpg" width="600" height="451" alt="dinapoli podium" /></p> <p>Comptroller DiNapoli (photo via The Comptroller's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>“With all the other storylines coming out of Albany these days, it’s not surprising that fiscal reform doesn’t crack the top ten list of priority issues to address, but it should,” said New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli at a Wednesday morning event held by Crain’s New York Business, striking a serious tone as he outlined proposals for fiscal reform just released by his office.</p> <p>DiNapoli’s <a href="http://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/fiscal/fiscal_reform_2016.pdf" target="_blank">plan</a> calls on the state to bring more transparency and accountability to state finances by eliminating discretionary lump sum appropriations, restricting “backdoor spending” by public authorities, requiring more disclosure of public authorities’ spending and financing, and making the state budget more understandable and accessible.</p> <p>“A lack of fiscal transparency and accountability affects everything we are trying to achieve as a state,” said DiNapoli, a Democrat in office as the state’s elected fiscal watchdog since 2007. “It hinders full, open public discussion of critical decisions that are essential to sound, sustainable budgeting. In the extreme, or worst case, it can contribute waste or abuse of taxpayer dollars...it is time for us to improve our fiscal practices.”</p> <p>DiNapoli’s reform agenda would also address other areas of concern, such as the sufficiency of reserves and the appropriate levels and use of debt, as well as capital planning and prioritization. He said his office has drafted legislation that lawmakers could pass to enact his reform proposals (though one would require a constitutional amendment), which is included in his report. DiNapoli is a former state Assembly member from Nassau County.</p> <p>Public authorities are not subject to the same oversight as state agencies, which allows for “backdoor spending,” or the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars without traditional checks and balances. DiNapoli’s proposal would require state-funded public authority projects to be “scored and ranked using measurable and objective criteria,” he said, as well as greater disclosure of those authorities’ activities.</p> <p>Eliminating discretionary lump sum appropriations, through which the state spends billions of dollars with little, if any, justification for how projects were selected to receive funding or explanation of how the funding will be used, is another proposal the comptroller is supporting. “For instance,” DiNapoli said, “a $385 million increase of authorized borrowing for the state and municipal facilities program was enacted with little detail on intended purposes, projects, or selection.”</p> <p>The use of lump sum appropriations for executive and legislative initiatives “raises issues of transparency and accountability,” DiNapoli said. His plan would also require unallocated funds to be awarded through an open and competitive process with clear, measurable criteria.</p> <p>“The people of the state have the right to expect transparent, accountable budgeting and the confidence that public resources are protected from waste and abuse,” DiNapoli said. “Too often, the state has fallen short of meeting that goal.”</p> <p>DiNapoli’s reform package also aims to make the state’s notoriously opaque budget process more open and transparent by requiring the overall impact of legislative changes to the budget to be disclosed before the budget is adopted and the cost of new and existing programs to be included.</p> <p>“Once again this year, the budget falls short on transparency, both in process and in content,” DiNapoli said, in part referring to the fact that this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo once again issued messages of necessity to waive the constitutional three-day aging period for budget bills in order to get the state budget passed before the April 1 deadline (technically, it wasn’t, but Cuomo and legislative leaders had a general deal in place on March 31).</p> <p>“Just handed the 704 page State Ops budget bill at 3:38 AM to vote on in a few minutes,” Republican Assemblymember Raymond Walter tweeted in the wee hours on April 1.</p> <p>“Major provisions were submitted to the Legislature with little time for review,” DiNapoli said, “and there was minimal disclosure of the short- and long-term fiscal impact of billions of dollars in spending and tax law changes.”</p> <p>Part of DiNapoli’s reform agenda would require lawmakers to receive an update “so that the differences between the budget that’s going to be voted on and what was presented [by the Governor] would be understood by the Legislature.” This targets the situation that repeats every year in Albany where lawmakers are given those massive budget documents with hardly any time to look over what they are about to vote on. This occurs after deals have been struck by Cuomo and the leaders of the Assembly and Senate majorities, in the infamous “three men in a room” process that is much-maligned, but well-trodden.</p> <p>Representatives of Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not return requests for response to DiNapoli's proposals.</p> <p>“When Bill Mulrow, the governor’s secretary, was here last month, I had asked, ‘Why can’t there be some public vetting of the budget between when it’s finalized and when the vote is held?’” said Erik Engquist, assistant managing editor at Crain's New York Business and one of two moderators asking DiNapoli questions after the comptroller gave remarks. “And he looked at me like I had three heads and said, ‘Obviously you’ve never negotiated a budget before.’”</p> <p>DiNapoli, who served as an Assembly member for two decades starting in 1987, can recall a time when the budget process was more transparent, though he admits that even then, there were some years “where last minute decisions were made” and lawmakers were “presented with a stack of bills that you didn’t really have time to read.”</p> <p>At one time, however, when there was “a serious use of conference committees in the Legislature, where you engaged rank-and-file members beyond the leadership to meet...publicly, for the press to report on issues being considered,” DiNapoli said. “It at least gave the public a better sense of the choices being made.”</p> <p>In more recent years, Gov. Cuomo has touted and been applauded for his ability to return Albany to timely function, delivering on- or nearly-on-time budgets each year since he took office in 2011. Earlier, state budgets were routinely quite late and the capital was known for dysfunction. Still, work done at the state capitol is <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6254-for-state-budget-leaders-choose-on-time-over-open" target="_blank">regularly criticized for its lack of transparency</a>.</p> <p>While the reforms put forth by DiNapoli could help ameliorate corruption in the state government, said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the other moderator at Wednesday’s event, “How do you convince other elected officials to tie their own hands and in effect not give themselves these opportunities for corruption?”</p> <p>“I would argue that if you don’t tie your hands,” DiNapoli responded, “someone’s going to come to tie them up in handcuffs for you - that’s what seems to be happening lately.”</p> <p>“I think, in this kind of environment, where people are so cynical and prosecutors are - justifiably - so aggressive, it would be smart, as self preservation, for these kinds of reforms to be adopted,” DiNapoli added. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”</p> <p>“I believe that fiscal reform can restore public trust in state government and enhance the state’s ability to act in the best interest of all New Yorkers,” DiNapoli said to the crowd seated in the Grand Ballroom of the Yale Club - mostly men in suits from places like the Building Trades Employers’ Association, Cablevision, Nicholas &amp; Lence Communications, and Brown and Weinraub PLLC, whose companies spent thousands of dollars for tables of ten to attend the breakfast event.</p> <p>“There is time for the Legislature to consider it before they complete their deliberations,” DiNapoli said, referring to the ongoing, post-budget legislative session that is scheduled to end mid-June. “I’m hoping that given all the thought leaders that are in the room this morning, they will raise some or all of what we’re proposing and help to get the word out there.”</p> <p>

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/22310464060_850081d833_z.jpg" width="600" height="451" alt="dinapoli podium" /></p> <p>Comptroller DiNapoli (photo via The Comptroller's Office)</p> <hr /> <p>“With all the other storylines coming out of Albany these days, it’s not surprising that fiscal reform doesn’t crack the top ten list of priority issues to address, but it should,” said New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli at a Wednesday morning event held by Crain’s New York Business, striking a serious tone as he outlined proposals for fiscal reform just released by his office.</p> <p>DiNapoli’s <a href="http://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/fiscal/fiscal_reform_2016.pdf" target="_blank">plan</a> calls on the state to bring more transparency and accountability to state finances by eliminating discretionary lump sum appropriations, restricting “backdoor spending” by public authorities, requiring more disclosure of public authorities’ spending and financing, and making the state budget more understandable and accessible.</p> <p>“A lack of fiscal transparency and accountability affects everything we are trying to achieve as a state,” said DiNapoli, a Democrat in office as the state’s elected fiscal watchdog since 2007. “It hinders full, open public discussion of critical decisions that are essential to sound, sustainable budgeting. In the extreme, or worst case, it can contribute waste or abuse of taxpayer dollars...it is time for us to improve our fiscal practices.”</p> <p>DiNapoli’s reform agenda would also address other areas of concern, such as the sufficiency of reserves and the appropriate levels and use of debt, as well as capital planning and prioritization. He said his office has drafted legislation that lawmakers could pass to enact his reform proposals (though one would require a constitutional amendment), which is included in his report. DiNapoli is a former state Assembly member from Nassau County.</p> <p>Public authorities are not subject to the same oversight as state agencies, which allows for “backdoor spending,” or the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars without traditional checks and balances. DiNapoli’s proposal would require state-funded public authority projects to be “scored and ranked using measurable and objective criteria,” he said, as well as greater disclosure of those authorities’ activities.</p> <p>Eliminating discretionary lump sum appropriations, through which the state spends billions of dollars with little, if any, justification for how projects were selected to receive funding or explanation of how the funding will be used, is another proposal the comptroller is supporting. “For instance,” DiNapoli said, “a $385 million increase of authorized borrowing for the state and municipal facilities program was enacted with little detail on intended purposes, projects, or selection.”</p> <p>The use of lump sum appropriations for executive and legislative initiatives “raises issues of transparency and accountability,” DiNapoli said. His plan would also require unallocated funds to be awarded through an open and competitive process with clear, measurable criteria.</p> <p>“The people of the state have the right to expect transparent, accountable budgeting and the confidence that public resources are protected from waste and abuse,” DiNapoli said. “Too often, the state has fallen short of meeting that goal.”</p> <p>DiNapoli’s reform package also aims to make the state’s notoriously opaque budget process more open and transparent by requiring the overall impact of legislative changes to the budget to be disclosed before the budget is adopted and the cost of new and existing programs to be included.</p> <p>“Once again this year, the budget falls short on transparency, both in process and in content,” DiNapoli said, in part referring to the fact that this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo once again issued messages of necessity to waive the constitutional three-day aging period for budget bills in order to get the state budget passed before the April 1 deadline (technically, it wasn’t, but Cuomo and legislative leaders had a general deal in place on March 31).</p> <p>“Just handed the 704 page State Ops budget bill at 3:38 AM to vote on in a few minutes,” Republican Assemblymember Raymond Walter tweeted in the wee hours on April 1.</p> <p>“Major provisions were submitted to the Legislature with little time for review,” DiNapoli said, “and there was minimal disclosure of the short- and long-term fiscal impact of billions of dollars in spending and tax law changes.”</p> <p>Part of DiNapoli’s reform agenda would require lawmakers to receive an update “so that the differences between the budget that’s going to be voted on and what was presented [by the Governor] would be understood by the Legislature.” This targets the situation that repeats every year in Albany where lawmakers are given those massive budget documents with hardly any time to look over what they are about to vote on. This occurs after deals have been struck by Cuomo and the leaders of the Assembly and Senate majorities, in the infamous “three men in a room” process that is much-maligned, but well-trodden.</p> <p>Representatives of Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not return requests for response to DiNapoli's proposals.</p> <p>“When Bill Mulrow, the governor’s secretary, was here last month, I had asked, ‘Why can’t there be some public vetting of the budget between when it’s finalized and when the vote is held?’” said Erik Engquist, assistant managing editor at Crain's New York Business and one of two moderators asking DiNapoli questions after the comptroller gave remarks. “And he looked at me like I had three heads and said, ‘Obviously you’ve never negotiated a budget before.’”</p> <p>DiNapoli, who served as an Assembly member for two decades starting in 1987, can recall a time when the budget process was more transparent, though he admits that even then, there were some years “where last minute decisions were made” and lawmakers were “presented with a stack of bills that you didn’t really have time to read.”</p> <p>At one time, however, when there was “a serious use of conference committees in the Legislature, where you engaged rank-and-file members beyond the leadership to meet...publicly, for the press to report on issues being considered,” DiNapoli said. “It at least gave the public a better sense of the choices being made.”</p> <p>In more recent years, Gov. Cuomo has touted and been applauded for his ability to return Albany to timely function, delivering on- or nearly-on-time budgets each year since he took office in 2011. Earlier, state budgets were routinely quite late and the capital was known for dysfunction. Still, work done at the state capitol is <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/state/6254-for-state-budget-leaders-choose-on-time-over-open" target="_blank">regularly criticized for its lack of transparency</a>.</p> <p>While the reforms put forth by DiNapoli could help ameliorate corruption in the state government, said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the other moderator at Wednesday’s event, “How do you convince other elected officials to tie their own hands and in effect not give themselves these opportunities for corruption?”</p> <p>“I would argue that if you don’t tie your hands,” DiNapoli responded, “someone’s going to come to tie them up in handcuffs for you - that’s what seems to be happening lately.”</p> <p>“I think, in this kind of environment, where people are so cynical and prosecutors are - justifiably - so aggressive, it would be smart, as self preservation, for these kinds of reforms to be adopted,” DiNapoli added. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”</p> <p>“I believe that fiscal reform can restore public trust in state government and enhance the state’s ability to act in the best interest of all New Yorkers,” DiNapoli said to the crowd seated in the Grand Ballroom of the Yale Club - mostly men in suits from places like the Building Trades Employers’ Association, Cablevision, Nicholas &amp; Lence Communications, and Brown and Weinraub PLLC, whose companies spent thousands of dollars for tables of ten to attend the breakfast event.</p> <p>“There is time for the Legislature to consider it before they complete their deliberations,” DiNapoli said, referring to the ongoing, post-budget legislative session that is scheduled to end mid-June. “I’m hoping that given all the thought leaders that are in the room this morning, they will raise some or all of what we’re proposing and help to get the word out there.”</p> <p>

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>