Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/552 Wed, 18 Oct 2017 07:27:47 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7138:thanks-to-a-push-democratic-county-organizations-slowly-grow-digital-footprint new queens democrats

The New Queens Democrats recently formed (photo via NQD on Facebook)


When Sahand Shahrabani moved to Forest Hills, Queens in 2013, the recent college graduate had one goal: to get involved in local politics. But a Google search turned up eerily sparse results for Democratic clubs in the borough and no trace of the Queens County Democratic Party.

“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.

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.

As part of their platform, the New Queens Democrats called on the Queens Democratic organization to embrace email communication and post useful information, such as events and resolutions, on an official webpage. “Our party is a modern one and our methods of communication should reflect that,” wrote the club’s founders.

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.”

“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.”

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 website in 2015, and the New York County (Manhattan) Democratic Party which went online in 2013.

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.

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.

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.

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 effectively decides the winner of most special elections, and is part of the pipeline of party operatives and officials.

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.

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 “open seat project” to get more people to run for county committee and fill these vacant posts.

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.

“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.”

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.

How the organizations choose to engage with the public is  “a reflection of what the leadership is and the priorities of the leadership,” he said.

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 explainers on the internet -- and Ben Yee, an open government advocate who has won awards for his transparency work at the New York State Senate.

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.

“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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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, like Westchester County, Democratic organizations tend to be more dynamic and ambitious in their outreach efforts, said Yee.

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 is willing send a free packet of petitions to anyone interested in volunteering for one of its endorsed candidates.

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.

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).  

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.

“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.”

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.

"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.

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.

Like other county machines, the Bronx party continues to be known for backroom deals 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 reporting in the news media about patronage.

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.

Nationally, cities are turning to technology to make government services and information more accessible. In New York City, agencies are bound by Local Law 11 -- signed in 2012 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.

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 Councilmatic, an interactive online tool for understanding the activity and legislation that moves through the City Council.

“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 “Council 2.0” 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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

Web designer Jonathan Crocket is working with the group to create the County Committee Sunlight Project, which allows people to search for their election district, and find out where committee vacancies are located through a color-coded, interactive map.

"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.

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.

“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.”

When then-Assemblymember Vito Lopez stepped down from his party boss post amid a sexual harassment scandal, and was replaced by current Chair Frank Seddio in 2012, it created an opportunity for culture shift throughout the organization and the website was part of that, according to Rizzo.

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.

“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.”

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.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Thanks to a Push, Democratic County Organizations Slowly Grow Digital Footprint Sun, 27 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio, NYPD Won’t Release Taxpayer Cost for Germany Trip http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7061:de-blasio-nypd-won-t-release-cost-for-germany-trip http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7061:de-blasio-nypd-won-t-release-cost-for-germany-trip Gotham Gazette: Mayor

Mayor de Blasio & NYPD leaders (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


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.”

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.”

“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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
De Blasio, NYPD Won’t Release Taxpayer Cost for Germany Trip Thu, 13 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
‘Open The Books’ Site Tracks Government Spending, Aims to Reduce Waste http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6880:open-the-books-site-tracks-government-spending-aims-to-reduce-waste http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6880:open-the-books-site-tracks-government-spending-aims-to-reduce-waste Adam Andrzejewski

Adam Andrzejewski (photo: The Manhattan Institute)


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 OpenTheBooks.com, 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.

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.

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.

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.

OpenTheBooks has made news in the past, with what Andrzejewski calls “oversight reports,” such as an analysis of spending on luxury art by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs; a report on the billions in public funds that go to Ivy League universities through tax benefits and other payments; and one on non-military federal agencies procuring military equipment; 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.

More recently, after President Donald Trump’s threat to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities, the website analyzed 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.

“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.

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. Reclaim New York, a nonprofit government transparency project, has compiled checkbook spending while the Empire Center for Public Policy, 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 Open Book New York portal shows state spending, while in New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Checkbook NYC shows city level indicators.

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.

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.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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‘Open The Books’ Site Tracks Government Spending, Aims to Reduce Waste Tue, 18 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
A Better Budget for New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6817:a-better-budget-for-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6817:a-better-budget-for-new-york scott stringer

Comptroller Scott Stringer, the author


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.

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?

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.

Openness matters because it induces better outcomes.

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.

Budgets are about priorities. They’re statements not just on how we spend, but on how we present that spending.

When it comes to clarity and accessibility, we’re failing miserably.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

A lot easier.

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.

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.

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.

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. ​

Presenting those answers isn’t rocket science – it’s common sense.

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.

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.

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.

Because, after all, budgets are about priorities.

***
Scott Stringer is New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @scottmstringer.

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

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A Better Budget for New York Sun, 19 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Role of Cuomo’s ‘Independent Investigator’ Remains Unclear http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6363:role-of-cuomo-s-independent-investigator-remains-unclear http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6363:role-of-cuomo-s-independent-investigator-remains-unclear cuomo purple tie

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


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.

In acknowledging that people close to him were being investigated in relation to the Buffalo Billion, Cuomo announced Schwartz’s hire on April 29.

When the Public Authorities Control Board met this week and approved 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.

The day before, Cuomo told reporters he had yet to finalize Schwartz’s contract. The governor also appeared unsure 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.

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.

Both the Cuomo administration and Schwartz’s recently-hired public relations firm failed to respond to Gotham Gazette’s questions about Schwartz’s role.

“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.

In conjunction with Cuomo's office, Schwartz issued a statement April 29 detailing some of his plans and saying he would begin immediately.

“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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

Cuomo has also said he will “throw the book” at anyone found to have violated the public trust, and that he holds every Buffalo Billion dollar as “sacred.”

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

DiNapoli also recently indicated that he may investigate parts of the Buffalo Billion.

“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.”

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.”

Cuomo told reporters 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.”

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.

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.

However, the Assembly Democrats' representative on the board said she was voting for disbursing the funds with several conditions of more transparency and oversight.

SUNY Poly has previously insisted that the nonprofits do abide by those rules.

“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, told the Times Union in a September letter.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office declined to comment on whether the office believes the law actually applies to the nonprofits.

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 by The Post Standard. "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.”

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.

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?”

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.

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 said to reporters. “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.”

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.

“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.”

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.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Role of Cuomo’s ‘Independent Investigator’ Remains Unclear Thu, 26 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Comptroller Calls for State Budget Transparency, 'Fiscal Reform' http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6328:comptroller-calls-for-state-budget-transparency-fiscal-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6328:comptroller-calls-for-state-budget-transparency-fiscal-reform dinapoli podium

Comptroller DiNapoli (photo via The Comptroller's Office)


“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.

DiNapoli’s plan 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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

“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.”

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.

“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).

“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.

“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.”

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.

Representatives of Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not return requests for response to DiNapoli's proposals.

“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.’”

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.”

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.”

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 regularly criticized for its lack of transparency.

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?”

“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.”

“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.”

“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 & Lence Communications, and Brown and Weinraub PLLC, whose companies spent thousands of dollars for tables of ten to attend the breakfast event.

“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.”

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Comptroller Calls for State Budget Transparency, 'Fiscal Reform' Wed, 11 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Calls for More Transparency, Oversight in Department of Education Contracting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6200:calls-for-more-transparency-and-oversight-in-department-of-education-contracting http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6200:calls-for-more-transparency-and-oversight-in-department-of-education-contracting de blasio school visit

The Mayor & education leaders (Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


As mayoral control of city schools comes up for Albany renewal again this year, one concern being raised by a variety of analysts is how and where the New York City Department of Education spends its money. Namely, the opacity of DOE procurement and contracting continues to be of concern to those worried about waste and a lack of oversight for the department with an annual expense budget of more than $20 billion.

The DOE is technically a state agency and operates under different rules and procedures than other city agencies run by the Mayor. Although Mayor Bill de Blasio does have control over it, deciding its budget in consultation with the City Council, DOE procurement and contracting don’t go through the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services. The DOE’s contract budget for Fiscal 2016 was about $5.4 billion of the nearly $22 billion total operating budget (The Mayor’s preliminary budget proposes $22.8 billion for DOE in Fiscal 2017, with $5.6 billion for contracts). Therein lies the cause for concern from the city comptroller, state legislators, and nonprofit watchdogs.

Last year, the DOE was embroiled in a contracting scandal stemming from its procurement policies. A vendor, Custom Computer Specialists, received a $1.1 billion contract to provide hardware and software to the DOE for five years. The contract was to be approved in February by the Panel for Educational Policy, which votes on all DOE contracts costing more than $1 million (an especially high threshold some say). But, before the contract could be voted on, a parent advocate publicly raised concerns about its lack of public scrutiny and the fact that CCS had been involved in a kickback scheme that defrauded the DOE in the past.

Pressure on the DOE from multiple quarters, including Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who chairs the contracts committee, led to the contract initially being renegotiated down to $635 million and approved by the PEP. But it was subsequently pulled altogether by City Hall -- the first time that has happened in the history of the DOE, both Haimson and Rosenthal said. The DOE broke the contract into parts and put out fresh bids which were eventually met in December at a total price of $472 million.

“There are bad contracts nearly every month that get PEP approval,” said Leonie Haimson, the advocate who blew the lid on the CCS scandal. Haimson runs the nonprofit Class Size Matters. “Even though the Department of Education has promised to make it more transparent, there are still problems with the process,” she said, pointing out that many contracts are retroactively approved after funds have already been disbursed.

The PEP is a 13-member body, which includes DOE Chancellor Carmen Farina as a non-voting member. Five appointees are chosen by the borough presidents and the rest are appointed by the Mayor.

Haimson only noticed the issue in the CCS contract when she saw it on the PEP website about a week before it was to be voted on. Following the kerfuffle, the DOE announced that it would start posting contracts 30 days before their scheduled vote. Haimson has partnered with Patrick Sullivan, a former PEP member, to create a Citizens Contracts Oversight Committee to analyze these proposed contracts when they are put up online. They are crowdsourcing assistance in looking through hundreds of pages of legalese to ensure that the city isn't being ripped off.

“Members of the Panel are supposed to provide independent oversight and checks and balances over contracting at the DOE and so far they’ve completely failed in that mission,” Haimson said. She proposed that the city Comptroller be allowed to nominate a non-voting member to the PEP to bring attention to these issues. In the past there have been calls for the Mayor to give up holding a majority of appointments to the PEP, but, as expected, there has been no movement on this reform.

Patrick Sullivan, who served on the PEP for seven years, says he has seen a change for the worse in the culture of accountability of the PEP. Under Mayor de Blasio, he claims, PEP members are less willing to question the DOE and that the DOE is less willing to share information.

“The problem was and what remains is that the DOE presents only a brief outline rather than the entire contract to the PEP,” Sullivan said. That, he insists, made it difficult for the PEP “to do what is pretty plain in the law, which is approving contracts.”

Sullivan does believe the current system could work, but only if the PEP puts its foot down and asks to see the contracts in full.

(Gotham Gazette made initial contact with PEP chair Vanessa Leung via email but subsequent emails went unanswered. She did say, “There has been some changes, a simple one being that we are given an overview of areas for future meetings in advance so we know what areas will be up for new contracts.”)

The CCS case was one that slipped through the cracks, despite the DOE process of vetting vendors and proposals. According to DOE officials, the process includes pre-proposal conferences to discuss the proposals with potential vendors and applicants. Proposals are examined by expert committees and vendors are evaluated using the Mayor’s of Contract Services’ Vendex system, which tracks vendor history, quality of services, and level of expertise. The DOE consults the Special Commissioner of Investigation and even looks at vendor tax filings. A history of less-than-satisfactory service does not automatically disqualify a vendor but is explained in the final Request for Authorization sent to the PEP. In the CCS case, these details were available to the DOE and PEP.

The problem was the initial decision by the department to issue a Request for Bid (RFB) rather than a Request for Proposal (RFP). RFBs are generally more to the point, with specific contract requirements, while RFPs lay out general services that are needed. (Taking all the evaluation criteria into consideration, the least costly proposal is not always the one that wins the contract.)

After the contract was pulled, it was re-issued in March 2015 as an RFP and DOE chief financial officer Ray Orlando said in a statement, “The DOE heard from members of the PEP, as well as elected officials, about their concerns regarding the procurement process and decided that issuing a new restructured procurement through an RFP will allow us to reach the best possible outcome for the school system and the City. The DOE will be issuing a new solicitation.”

The DOE then decided to make some the requests for authorization of contracts available for public review at least a month in advance. They also provide PEP members with the Requests for Authorization four weeks before their next meeting. At the meetings, members receive basic information about expected future procurements that are likely to eventually vote on.

“We’ve worked closely with community leaders and stakeholders to improve our contracts process and look forward to this continued collaboration,” said Ray Orlando, DOE CFO, in an email to Gotham Gazette (the same message sent to the Daily News in December).

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal is not satisfied with how DOE procurement functions although she gives credit for changes made after the CCS case.

“The root of the problem there (in the CCS matter) was that they were bidding out something without specificity,” she said. “After that they made the contract more specific. Bids came in tighter and lower.”

Rosenthal met with Ray Orlando last month to discuss these issues and he explained the new transparency measures. But Rosenthal left the meeting disappointed and less than assured that DOE had made any significant reforms in how procurement happens.

“They’re making the final product more transparent,” she said, “but I don’t know if they’re changing internal procedures.” While she doesn’t discount that there might be some changes, Rosenthal has been internally calling for a hearing where she hopes the DOE can answer to the public.

However, the City Council does not have the same level of oversight of DOE as it otherwise does over a mayoral or city agency. The Council can pass laws requiring reporting by the DOE (as it’s done in the past) but cannot legislate policy or even hold oversight hearings on specific policies. The Council could pass a resolution calling for the DOE to go through the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, but cannot legally mandate it.

“There’s no legal requirement to tell us the answers to these questions, not the same way a mayoral agency is required,” Rosenthal said. “But the questions I’m asking are the ones the taxpayers have a right to know the answers to.”

Rosenthal hopes that the administration will oblige her request for a hearing.

Transparency in procurement and spending has also become a key issue in the debate over mayoral control. Carl Marcellino, chair of the state Senate education committee, recently said he would want more oversight over the DOE’s spending for mayoral control to be extended, echoing comments that were made last year when Mayor de Blasio was seeking an extension of control of city schools (he received a one-year extension).

“I have supported extensions in the past and I do believe ultimately it will be extended,” Marcellino said of mayoral control in a statement, as reported by City & State. “At this point, for how long is yet to be determined. I also think we have an opportunity to increase accountability and transparency on where school funds are being spent in the City. We need a clearer picture on where these funds are going and how they are being used."

Marcellino’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Another important voice on the issue of DOE contracting has been city Comptroller Scott Stringer. Testifying before the state legislature in Albany last year, Stringer expressed his support for mayoral control as well, with caveats. He said, “Part of that needs to be reforming the Department of Education’s procurement rules to provide more oversight and transparency. For too long, the DOE has answered to no one when it comes to procurement. With billions of dollars at stake, cutting corners on procurement is bad for taxpayers and bad for our children. DOE must abide by the same oversight rules as every other city agency.”

Under the New York City Charter, DOE’s Procurement Policy and Procedures, and New York State Education Law, the Comptroller’s office has the authority to register and audit DOE contracts.

“However, ensuring MOCS’ participation in DOE’s procurement process would elevate oversight and transparency of the Department to the same level as that of all Mayoral agencies,” Stringer told Gotham Gazette in a statement.

This year in his budget testimony in Albany, Stringer did not mention DOE procurement but did support a three-year extension of mayoral control. (Mayoral control was far less a focus for everyone this year when de Blasio and Stringer appeared in Albany as Senate Republicans largely focused on property tax reform.)

“I have long supported mayoral control of schools,” Stringer told Gotham Gazette. “It is the best way we can ensure accountability and make sure that our schools are equipped with the management and resources to meet the immediate needs of our schoolchildren.”

Class Size Matters’ Haimson believes mayoral control is at the center of the problem. She says it puts too much power over the DOE in one office and precludes the usual checks and balances over spending. “It’s a bad idea. Period. It’s a bad idea in principle. It’s a bad idea in practice,” she said, blaming mayoral control for what happened in the CCS case. Patrick Sullivan feels likewise.

For supporters of mayoral control, that is a spurious argument. “You need to have the mayor in charge of the money going to the Department of Education if you want well-funded schools,” said Clara Hemphill, of the New School and its education publication, Inside Schools. “Anything else is just posturing.” Hemphill said the battle over mayoral control at the state level was more a “power play” between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo than an argument of substance.

City Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the education committee, did not respond to requests for comment. Dromm’s education committee will hold preliminary budget hearings on DOE spending on March 8 (capital) and March 16 (expense).

It is unclear at this point if state legislators will hold a hearing on mayoral control of city schools with de Blasio called to Albany to discuss his leadership of the city’s schools, his school-based policies and spending practices.

Council Member Rosenthal also believes mayoral control is a good system, but it needs tweaks to make it better. Like Senator Marcellino, she wants the mayor to ensure more transparent spending.

“I definitely prefer mayoral control than the old system,” Rosenthal said, “but I’d want more mayoral control in terms of contracts going through MOCS therefore allowing City Council oversight.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Calls for More Transparency, Oversight in Department of Education Contracting Tue, 01 Mar 2016 01:20:49 +0000