Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/578 Sat, 16 Dec 2017 06:58:48 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council to Pass Bills Mandating Assessment of Vacant Lots http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7373:city-council-to-pass-bills-mandating-assessment-of-vacant-lots http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7373:city-council-to-pass-bills-mandating-assessment-of-vacant-lots vacant bldg via hpd

(photo via @NYCHousing)


Two years ago, Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Members Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez each introduced a bill under a set called the Housing Not Warehousing Act, a package aimed at reducing homelessness and increasing the city’s affordable housing stock. The bills seek to mandate an annual tally of the number of vacant lots and buildings in the city, determining which of those under city jurisdiction could be developed for affordable housing, while also requiring landlords with vacant properties to register them with the city.

Two of those bills, sponsored by the Council members, are set to be voted on by the Committee on Housing and Buildings, chaired by Williams, at a hearing on Monday. Following that, the bills are expected to head to the Council floor for a vote and approval on Tuesday at the last full meeting of the body in the current four-year session. They would then head to the desk of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose administration has not supported the legislation.

The bills have strong support from housing advocates who have decried rising homelessness in the city as buildings remain unoccupied and lots remain undeveloped. The de Blasio administration continues to insist the city is doing everything in its power to utilize city-owned vacant lots for affordable housing, and have pushed back against a February 2016 report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer that indicated more than 1,100 lots that the city owns but were vacant.

[Related: Key to Affordable Housing Development, Vacant Lots Remain Source of Controversy]

Rodriguez’s bill would require the city to conduct an annual census and compile a list of vacant properties in the city, coordinating with numerous city agencies and departments, while Williams’ bill would mandate reporting by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) on the vacant lots and buildings under its jurisdiction, along with the potential for those properties to be used for creating affordable housing.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Williams said he was “proud” of his tenure as committee chair, “and what better way to end this term than by passing this legislation which puts in place additional tools we need to combat the urgent affordable housing and homelessness crisis we face in this city.” Williams also thanked James, Rodriguez, and “all of the activists who helped get us to this pivotal moment of progress.”

Rodriguez, in a statement, called the act an "important step" in tackling the city's affordable housing crisis. "By identifying vacant properties, we can turn them into permanent affordable housing units for our working families and our neediest New Yorkers, and prevent homelessness." he said.

James’ bill, which is not on the schedule for Monday’s hearing, takes aim at private landlords and the property they keep empty. The bill would have required landlords to register with the city buildings that have been vacant longer than a year. It mandates fines - between $100 and $500 every week - for those landlords that fail to renew those registrations every year.

Williams did not address the exclusion of the public advocate’s bill from the package, but Kevin Fagan, a spokesperson for the Council member, said it was a “pretty common situation” for a bill to be left out of a legislative package when it goes to a vote. All three of the bills have at least 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council. Fagan pointed to the recent Construction Safety Act, also sponsored by Williams, as an instance where bills in the final approved package did not all pass at the same time.

“While we're disappointed the entire Housing Not Warehousing Act will not be voted upon, it is promising that two bills that seek to address our affordable crisis are coming to the floor for a vote,” said James, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We must leave no stone unturned when it comes to building affordable housing, and that includes utilizing our vacant lots and properties. We are hopeful that Int. 1034 will pass quickly in the next session.”

Charmel Lucas, a member of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group that has pushed for these bills, said in a statement that the group was glad the two bills will be voted on and that the group would continue to work with the public advocate to help pass her bill in 2018. “We're grateful to all the council members who had our back on bringing this important issue to a vote, including the current speaker candidates,” Lucas said. “These bills will help homeless people get the housing they need. By identifying vacant property that landlords are sitting on for decades, we can take steps to develop them into extremely-low-income housing."

There was some good news for the public advocate, however. A separate bill she sponsors -- requiring HPD to provide more information on owners of buildings and the violations and complaints they face -- will be approved at the same Monday committee hearing. “Transparency is critical for New Yorkers seeking to hold unscrupulous landlords accountable,” James said, touting the Worst Landlords Watchlist published by her office every year. “This bill will create an easy-to-use database that allows tenants to identify patterns of abuse and harassment by landlords across buildings, further empowering and protecting tenants.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to include comment from Council Member Rodriguez and to clarify Fagan's comments on the Construction Safety bill. 

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City Council to Pass Bills Mandating Assessment of Vacant Lots Fri, 15 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7368:council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7368:council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections City Council chambers with members

photo by William Alatriste/City Council


The New York City Board of Elections has widely been acknowledged as a dysfunctional agency in need of urgent and sweeping reform, yet the political will for modernizing and professionalizing the board has not existed, at least in part because its current structure benefits those in power.

Its system of appointments based on political patronage has long been a source of criticism and its mismanagement of election operations has frustrated voters and been the subject of City Council oversight hearings. But, when asked, the eight men vying to become the next Speaker of the City Council recently said concerns about the BOE are misguided. To varying degrees, they indicated that the board is effective and efficient, that its failings are isolated rather than systematic, and that its current structure should be preserved.

At a November 20 speaker candidate forum hosted by Citizens Union, other government reform groups, and New York Law School, seven speaker candidates -- Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, and Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan; Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens; and Robert Cornegy and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn -- were present and they mostly took the middle of the road when asked about the steps the City Council, which approves appointments to the BOE, could take to improve the board. The ten BOE commissioners include two -- one Republican and one Democrat -- from each borough.

The Council members hedged their bets and praised the BOE, recognizing that any criticism could potentially be read as directed toward the county party organizations that nominate BOE commissioners and place other employees at the board -- the same county organizations whose support each candidate is seeking in order to become speaker. The eighth candidate, Ritchie Torres from the Bronx, would later give Gotham Gazette a similar response.

None of the members were in favor of a non-partisan restructuring of the board. “That’s a tough question to ask of speaker candidates,” Williams said, to laughter from his colleagues in acknowledgement of the role of the county party machines in both picking BOE commissioners and picking the Council speaker. Williams defended the board but did acknowledge that patronage has played a role in appointments and that the Council could do more to improve it.

“We know that we do have some issues and if we can just do some more thinking through that process and make sure that it’s not as patronage as some folks may think, we can move a lot further,” Williams said, taking the most bold position of the group. “I’m not sure if we push as hard as we can when things go wrong.”

Other candidates spoke generally about reforming election and voting laws, a tangential subject that is mostly the prerogative of the state Legislature, and some staunchly argued in favor of the current partisan composition of the board, which they insisted maintains a balance and prevents one-party hegemony in elections.

“I do not support non-partisan appointments to the Board of Elections,” said Johnson, one of the three perceived frontrunners in the race, along with Levine and Cornegy. “I believe that the parties play a particular role in ensuring that we make sure that any party that’s dominant at a given time cannot run roughshod over another party. If someone came up with a perfect system of a non-partisan way to handle it, maybe I’d entertain it. I’ve never heard of that system, I don’t know how you take political influence out of politics.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Van Bramer said in response.

The city BOE falls under state jurisdiction, like all local boards of election, although the city gets to decide the board’s budget and not much else. The ten board commissioners are nominated by the county party machinery and appointed by the City Council. Representatives from the board testify at City Council hearings, usually during budget season, and receive recommendations and often admonitions from Council members, but are not bound to follow any Council mandates.

The board is often seen as favoring the Democratic Party establishment, given that the vast majority of candidates for city offices are Democrats. Candidates not backed by the party machinery are often challenged in board proceedings and kicked off the ballot, though they are often first-time candidates with fewer resources and without experienced election lawyers.

On Monday, Torres reiterated what his colleagues had said weeks ago. “I suspect you’re misdiagnosing the problem, the problem is a lack of resources,” he told Gotham Gazette at City Hall. “I suspect it’s a lack of resources more than the manner in which the appointments are made.”

He continued, “Does the BOE have inefficiencies? Yes. It’s true of every agency in city government. There’s not a single agency in city government that’s free of inefficiency. So the notion that you would cite inefficiency as an excuse for fundamentally changing the structure of an institution is dubious.” Torres said he would oppose any measures that could weaken the party organizations’ role but conceded that the Council should “study the problem comprehensively” to determine the needs and inefficiencies of the BOE.

There have been studies in the past, and each has found persistent issues.

A 2013 report by the city’s Department of Investigations found a raft of problems in elections management as well as internal board administration. In 2016, the BOE was responsible for a massive voter purge in Brooklyn during the presidential primaries, resulting in legal action by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In November, Schneiderman announced a consent decree with the BOE that requires added oversight of the board’s voter list maintenance.

Less than a week before this year’s general election on November 7, city Comptroller Scott Stringer also released an audit that excoriated the BOE’s dysfunctional election operations. At each step, the BOE has pushed back and has been resistant to change. Even when Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a $20 million incentive for the board to enact major reforms -- recommending the empaneling of a Blue Ribbon Commission to analyze the BOE, more transparency in hiring and improved poll worker training, among other measures -- its commissioners refused.

“The Mayor believes that it is critical that we reform the Board of Elections,” said Seth Stein, a mayoral spokesperson, in a statement on Tuesday. “They have demonstrated time and again that they are unable to perform the basic functions of their office, like keeping eligible voters on the rolls. The Mayor looks forward to working with whoever the next Speaker is to encourage the Board to accept the $20 million we have offered in exchange for necessary reforms.”

State-level BOE reforms have not progressed in Albany.

Those who could take steps or apply pressure to improve the BOE’s abysmal record are the very people invested in the status quo, however, and the City Council, particularly its speaker, falls squarely within that dynamic. Election experts also tend to agree that the Council can pass little meaningful reform, absent legislative action at the state level, and that the bi-partisan BOE composition is appropriate.  

“There’s very little the City Council can do regarding the structural functioning of the agency,” said Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer. “They could maybe fund the board at a higher level so it could function better.”

“In terms of patronage, it’s a bi-partisan agency, not a civil service agency. Unless that’s changed, the county organizations is where the commissioners and employees will come from,” she added. She insisted that most of the board’s employees are, in her experience, qualified and hard-working professionals. “As in any organization, some employees are better than others,” she said. And she warned that a civil service agency running elections could be open to political interference, while the current structure is designed to prevent just that.

Steiner praised, in particular, the speed and accuracy with which the BOE provides election night results. But, she said, “they are less good at some of the work regarding candidates. I think the rules structure for candidates needs substantial revision.” Unlike the state BOE, the city agency doesn’t provide a public comment period for rules changes, she said, which often leaves the candidates and their campaigns unaware and unprepared. “The administrative rules are not as easy as the board thinks they are, and they’re largely a minefield,” she added.

J.C. Polanco, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for public advocate this year, has served as  president of the city BOE and saw the problems first hand and attempted to fix them. He campaigned this year on a platform that included BOE reform. He’s blunt about the Council speaker candidates and why they wouldn’t speak up against the agency. “Each candidate has to try not to offend the county organizations,” he said.  

Though Polanco also agrees that the BOE’s partisan structure may be necessary, he believes it can be better. “One of the things to do is to professionalize the board,” he said, “by forcing every candidate to go through the crucible of the [Council’s] investigations process required of commissioners.” He favors merit-based hiring and called for it when he worked at the board.

“There are professionals at the board that get a bad rap for the failures of the board to modernize,” he insisted, echoing Steiner. “You can definitely have a professionalized partisan agency.” The board should post positions with qualifications online, he said, and more publicly seek employees. “It would require an enlightenment of the citizenry and the board,” Polanco said. He also speculated about giving third parties representation on the board, proportionate to their vote shares in prior elections.

Although the Council members poised to be the next speaker may not agree, the official they are hoping to succeed believes that the BOE needs improvement. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who, in the waning days of her speakership, has waded into conflict with the Manhattan Democratic County Committee over a BOE commissioner appointment, said the Council has discussed reforming the BOE for years. Responding to a question from Gotham Gazette, she said, “There’s obviously a lot more work that has to be done. We’ve seen the reports issued by DOI and others with the dysfunction at the Board of Elections and there definitely has to be a lot more professionalizing of the Board of Elections and being able to implement reforms.”

While much of the conversation around elections and voting in New York tends to revolve around the state’s antiquated laws, there have been local attempts at such reform. Council Member Ben Kallos has been a particularly vocal critic of the board and, as chair of the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, has pushed legislation that can improve elections and voting access. He has time and again urged representatives of the board to move towards merit-based hiring --  “I favor the civil service over the patronage appointment process,” he told Gotham Gazette on Monday. Kallos’ bill allowing online voter registration recently passed the Council. The mayor is expected to sign it into law, and it is considered valid under guidance from A.G. Schneiderman.

We can “find meaningful alternatives that can help fix the BOE at the city level,” Kallos said. “As we learned with online voter registration, with a little bit of creativity and good attorneys, I think a lot can be possible at the local level.”

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

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections Wed, 13 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Speaker Candidates, All Men, Promise Gender Equity if Victorious http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7359:city-council-speaker-candidates-all-men-promise-gender-equity-if-victorious http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7359:city-council-speaker-candidates-all-men-promise-gender-equity-if-victorious City Council speaker candidates

The City Council speaker candidates (photo: William Alatriste)


At the last public forum in the race to become the next speaker of the City Council, seven of the eight men contending for the Council’s top leadership spot took turns making their argument for why they would be the right person to continue Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s legacy of protecting and promoting the cause of women, transgender, and non-gender conforming New Yorkers. Though few new ideas emerged, for nearly two hours, the seven Council members pitched their progressive credentials and promised to champion the city’s underrepresented and underserved populations.

Hosted by a coalition of 14 organizations, at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in Manhattan, the forum capped off a post-election month that has seen the candidates appear at more than a dozen issue-focused debates and discussions on everything from criminal justice to government transparency and accountability. Thursday’s event was moderated by Politico New York reporter Laura Nahmias and Shatia Burks of the New York City Young Women’s Initiative. In attendance were Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Robert Cornegy Jr., Donovan Richards, Jumaane Williams, and Jimmy Van Bramer. Ritchie Torres was the only candidate absent.

Past was prologue as the candidates took turns briefly narrating their individual histories, giving tactful yet heartfelt answers while also lamenting the obvious irony of them all being men after 12 years of the City Council having women serve as speaker.

Council Member Cornegy, who in recent weeks has risen to become one of the perceived frontrunners in the race, spoke as a family man, a husband and father of six. He noted his support for reproductive health bills in the Council, particularly one that created lactation rooms at city agencies that provide family services (he first opened a “lactation station” in his district office). He half-joked that he co-chairs the Council’s “men who get it” caucus.

Johnson, another leading contender, reminded the audience that he is an openly gay man and the only openly HIV positive elected official in New York, and that issues related to transgender and non-gender conforming (TNGC) individuals are “deeply important” to him. He touted the passage of his bill allowing transgender New Yorkers to receive accurate birth certificates from the city.

“The fact that the people running for Council speaker are all men reflects a failing of the political system in New York City,” said Levine, who is seen with Cornegy and Johnson as one of the three most likely to win the position when the vote takes place in January. “I think it does obligate the eight of us to reign in the hubris a little bit and do more listening than dictating.”

Richards echoed the sentiment, saying “it is shameful that there is not a woman in this race,” while emphasizing that not only would the next speaker have to focus on women’s issues, but also ensure that women are in leadership positions.

Rodriguez cited his experience as an immigrant, in a large family with many sisters. “Women’s issues are trans-sectional,” he said, while promising to continue Mark-Viverito’s legacy.

Van Bramer, who is also openly gay, spoke from the experience of his own coming out. Being an LGBTQ activist meant also being “an activist for choice and a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “The two of them are inseparable.” He proudly touted his successful efforts to open the first Planned Parenthood health center in Queens, and in helping found the first Girl Scout troop for homeless girls.

Williams, who noted early that the seven would likely respond similarly to questions, instead emphasized that he is “battle-tested to move forward” and has passed the most bills of all the candidates. His statement would ring true as there was little daylight between the candidates as they addressed the issues raised at the forum including access to reproductive health services, education, economic development and workplace sexual harassment, NYPD policy, affordable housing, city budgeting, and Council governance.

On abortion access and so-called crisis pregnancy centers -- which NARAL Pro-choice America calls “fake health clinics” that mislead women to block access to abortions -- all seven agreed that the NYPD should play a stronger role in both protecting women from protesters outside Planned Parenthood clinics and in cracking down on predatory crisis centers. Cornegy even floated the idea of a dedicated police unit focused on these centers.

Johnson insisted that Planned Parenthood is always a budget priority for him. He said the Council needed to do more to “reign in” CPCs while calling on the police to be more vigilant to protect women seeking abortions at clinics.

Levine said the Council needs to fight back against the demonization of Planned Parenthood, and use its budgetary resources to provide services for women and TNGC individuals. Should the Republican-led federal government cut contraception coverage, for instance, Levine said the city should step in to fund it.

Richards, of Queens, said there was a need to fund services where “people are living in the shadows” and expand health centers to communities like his that are underserved. And he said the Council should fund local organizations that provide those services.

Rodriguez urged continued support for Planned Parenthood and better reproductive education in schools. Van Bramer insisted that contraceptives should be fully covered and if they’re not, the City Council should fund them. Williams, who jokingly apologized that all the candidates were men, echoed his colleagues and said he looked forward to passing his “boss bill” prohibiting discrimination by employers based on workers’ reproductive decisions.

The candidates varied little on their perspectives on providing a quality education in city schools, particularly for those that face greater obstacles in the system including students in foster care, low-income, undocumented and LGBT and GNC students. Johnson emphasized that schools should not be punitive, but rather supportive and rehabilitative.

Richards, Levine and Rodriguez touted the virtues of community schools that provide wraparound services to students, including physical and mental health and social services. Levine raised the spectre of school bullying and its “frequent entanglement” with anti-LGBT prejudice, which he said the school system and city leadership have failed to acknowledge and address. Rodriguez railed against school segregation, and called for the launch of an “education civil rights movement” under the next Council.

The issue hit home for Van Bramer, who admitted being “near-suicidal” and skipping school to avoid a constant barrage of homophobic slurs. “All of us have to make sure that that stops once and for all and all children are safe to go to school,” he said.

Williams stressed a change in school curriculums to ensure the inclusion of people of color and LGBT and GNC people. Cornegy said school segregation and prejudice based on sexual orientation need to be tackled at the Department of Education, and he lauded the effectiveness of community schools as well.

Given the current national climate on sexual assault and workplace harassment, it was only natural that the candidates for arguably the second-most powerful position in city government would be asked about their perspective on the model policy to deal with the endemic problem.

Levine reiterated three proposals, which he announced earlier in the day, for rooting out sexual misconduct in city government through regular disclosure of sexual harassment claims by city agencies, a evaluation of sexual harassment policy and by elevating City Council staff complaints to bring them under committee oversight. Van Bramer also released details of bills on Thursday that would evaluate sexual harassment at city contractors and embargo those organizations with a history of misconduct. Another member with pending legislation was Cornegy, whose bill would require small businesses to detail what constitutes sexual harassment and provide hotline numbers for victims.

Richards advocated a “zero tolerance” policy and said the Council should have its own independent department or agent to monitor sexual harassment. Rodriguez called for an entire agency to do the same citywide.

Williams expressed support for his colleagues’ legislative efforts and candidly said, “The one thing we could all do immediately is believe” women’s stories of harassment. Johnson bemoaned a culture that allows men to believe they can act and behave in any way in a public setting because of their inherent power. “We have to change that,” he said.

On changes to NYPD policy in interactions with LGBT and GNC New Yorkers, Richards and Rodriguez both stressed that the city needs to fully implement its body camera program and strengthen community-police relationships. Richards said the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints of police misconduct, needs more teeth to hold erring officers accountable. “That’s where the culture shift absolutely needs to happen,” he said.

Williams touted his “demonstrable leadership” against the NYPD’s racially biased use of stop-and-frisk policing, and the Council’s Community Safety Act of 2013, which he co-sponsored. The act created an independent monitor for the police department and added protections against biased profiling by officers. Cornegy subsequently advanced the idea of characterizing negative police interactions with protected classes of people as hate crimes.

Women, trans and GNC communities and domestic violence survivors are at greater risk of becoming homeless in the city, said Burks of the Young Women’s Initiative, seeking the candidates’ ideas on improving access to affordable housing. Again, there were only slight differences in the candidates’ proposals as they called for deeper affordability and more set asides for formerly homeless New Yorkers, while some emphasized increased services and resources for survivors of domestic violence.

The 51-member Council will have only 11 women members in the next term starting January, down from 19 a few years ago, and has not had a trans member yet. In the current Council, debate moderator Nahmias noted, three women of color negotiate the city budget -- Speaker Mark-Viverito, Finance Committee chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and Council finance director Latonia McKinney. Nahmias pressed the seven candidates on how they would ensure representation of cis and trans women, and women of color in particular, in their own senior teams and in the Council’s top leadership positions, namely the powerful chairs of the land use and finance committees.

All the candidates were strongly committed to the task of choosing women and people of color as a majority of their senior leadership, and some said their staffs already reflect that commitment, though some rued the political reality that makes such a pledge necessary. “Women are 50 percent of the workforce and none of us deserves a gold star for making sure that women are in these positions and roles,” said Van Bramer.

“It is appalling that there are only 11 women on the Council,” said Williams. The candidates all interviewed with the Council's Women's Caucus and made commitments to its existing and incoming members.

Cornegy noted that hiring of people of color in the Council central staff had doubled in Mark-Viverito’s tenure, and he vowed to build on that by including women and trans individuals in particular.

Danced around was the fact that the winning speaker candidate will likely have earned the backing of the major Democratic political organizations of the Queens and the Bronx, which will then have a lot of say in staffing and top Council leadership decisions made by the next speaker.

Richards was possibly the only one to acknowledge that the speaker race will be influenced heavily by forces outside of the Council, including county party chairs and the mayor. He wouldn’t say who might be the finance or land use chairs under his speakership since “we all have power brokers that we’re talking to at play,” though he did promise to advocate for women to be chosen for those positions.

Levine stressed the need to support far more diverse candidates for the Council in the 2021 elections, when nearly 40 seats will be up for grabs. Richards said the Council’s efforts need to go further, by making sure each city agency has diverse staff, by hiring gender diversity compliance officers and ensuring that women of color and trans people move up into managerial positions.

In a brief lightning round, all seven candidates agreed to staff their senior teams and central staff with more than 50 percent women and TNGC individuals, committed to support and expand the Young Women’s Initiative, and said they would back the “Solutions out of Struggle and Survival” policy proposals identified by numerous TNGC advocacy groups.

With the last of the speaker forums, the public-facing aspect of the speaker-selection process appears effectively over. Candidates will now spend much of the next few weeks in backroom negotiations and closed meetings before the next speaker will be chosen in January when the next class of the City Council convenes.

The partner organizations for Thursday’s forum included: Girls for Gender Equity, Women of Color for Progress, Brooklyn Movement Center, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, PowHer NY, Planned Parenthood of New York City, National Organization for Women-NYC, New Leaders Council--NYC Chapter, National Institute for Reproductive Health, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, Campaign for Black Male Achievement, Citizens’ Committee for Children, Eleanor’s Legacy, National Association of Social Workers—NYC Chapter.

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

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Speaker Candidates, All Men, Promise Gender Equity if Victorious Fri, 08 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Inside the Fundraising and Spending of the City Council Speaker Candidates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7356:inside-the-fundraising-of-the-city-council-speaker-candidates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7356:inside-the-fundraising-of-the-city-council-speaker-candidates city council speaker

City Council Speaker candidates (photo: William Alatriste)


The eight men running to become the next speaker of the City Council are all Democrats who were re-elected in November to serve a final term in the body. None of them faced a strong challenger in their respective races, either in the primaries, which are largely determinative of overall results, or in the November 7 general election. Nevertheless, a few of the candidates raised significant campaign cash and spent it just as liberally as if they were running competitive races. As Gotham Gazette has reported, several of the speaker candidates have donated heavily from their campaign accounts to those of other City Council members and candidates, in apparent effort to win favor ahead of the speaker vote, which will occur in January.

Among the eight candidates, a few are seen as frontrunners in the race -- Council Members Robert Cornegy Jr., Corey Johnson, Mark Levine and, to a lesser degree, Ritchie Torres -- though it is a notoriously nebulous contest with shifting dynamics. Labor unions may buoy the chances of certain members while county allegiances may supersede that support. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s role remains to be determined. The other candidates -- Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy Van Bramer, Donovan Richards and Jumaane Williams -- are considered less likely to emerge victorious, though one or more may have an outside path to the throne.

This week, the candidates had to final a new campaign finance report, with activity between October 24 and November 30. It is the last filing before the speaker vote, which is likely to occur January 3.

When it comes to campaign fundraising and spending, Johnson remains at the top of the list. His run for speaker began two years ago and the Manhattan Democrat even eschewed the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, which would have limited his expenditures. He has also been the most prolific donor to other members who ran for reelection and fresh faces that will be joining the Council come January.

Johnson raised $505,818 over the race and spent $374,707, the latest campaign disclosures show. He has $131,111 left to spend on future races or charitable donations or supporting other electoral candidates. Of his total fundraising, $209,000 came from 76 contributions of $2,750, the maximum allowable in a City Council race. A total of $73,600 came from political action committees, while a slew of his largest donations came from individuals in the real estate, hotel, and nightlife industries. Some top donors include Barry Diller, the billionaire IAC and Expedia chairman; former Ralph Lauren Corporation CEO John Mehas; and Tony award-winning producer Daryl Roth. Much of Johnson’s spending, $126,300 to be exact, took the form of political contributions, and he spent only about $22,750 with campaign consulting firm Metropolitan Public Strategies.

Levine, another Manhattan Democrat who also did not participate in the public funds program, raised $439,110 over the course of the election cycle. But Levine’s expenditure of $405,802 outpaced the fundraising leader, Johnson, and left just $33,308 in campaign funds at his disposal. There were 45 donors who gave Levine the maximum contribution, for a total of $118,250. He received $86,825 in total from PACs. Among his top donors were employees of real estate firms, law practices, property management companies, and at least one hedge fund. He counts George and Marian Klein of the Park Tower Group among those who gave the highest possible donation.

Levine has been seen as the candidate perhaps most favored by the mayor, which has raised concerns about whether he can be a sufficiently independent leader, and led him to focus many of his public remarks on leading an strongly independent Council. He retained the services of Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno LLP, an influential lobbying firm, to handle his strategy in running for speaker. He has spent $58,200 on campaign consultants, including Kirtzman Strategies and RKM Strategic Consulting, and another $84,985 on political contributions.

Cornegy Jr., the only candidate who isn’t a member of the Council’s progressive caucus, was once viewed as an unlikely next speaker, having done little to cultivate a viable candidacy, spending little money or time helping others campaign, and having a low-key presence at the Council. But with the backing of the Brooklyn county party apparatus and, more recently, support from prominent voices that can influence the race, including U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, he is seen as having better chances of prevailing. Cornegy did participate in the CFB’s public funds program, which meant he had to abide by a strict spending limit of $182,000 for each of the primary and general elections. He ended up raising a total of $184,730, and spent all but $1,722. He received $71,500 from maxed-out donations, and political action committees contributed a total of $40,650 to his reelection. Billionaire supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis donated to Cornegy’s campaign, as did Soly and David Bawabeh, prominent real estate developers in the city. Campaign consultations accounted for $67,450 in Cornegy’s campaign spending, most of which went to Mercury Public Affairs, a well-known consulting firm. He also doled out $35,750 in political contributions.

Torres, a Bronx Democrat and the youngest candidate in the race for speaker, raised $264,819 this election cycle, but he was also a public funds participant and ended up spending $108,851 for his reelection. He has $155,968 in cash on hand. His campaign got $69,400 from PACs and he received less than a dozen maxed-out donations, including one from Council Member Johnson’s campaign.

Torres’ prospects depend largely on support from the Bronx county machine, which will likely negotiate with the Queens county establishment to determine how plum Council committee chair positions are distributed. U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, who chairs the Queens Democrats, is expected to play an outsize role in the entire process this year. The two counties were sidelined in 2014 when the Council’s newly empowered progressive caucus, influential labor unions, de Blasio, and Brooklyn Democratic County chair Frank Seddio collaborated to anoint Melissa Mark-Viverito as speaker.

Queens Council Member Van Bramer, another public funds non-participant, raised $539,560 and spent $278,587, for a balance of $260,973. He received 68 contributions of the max $2,750, equalling $170,500 of his total fundraising. About $66,000 of his total came from PAC donations. Van Bramer has attempted to make public and private overtures to Crowley but is not expected to receive the county backing. Currently majority leader of the Council, Van Bramer could wind up with another top leadership or committee post.

Richards, whose district spans parts of Brooklyn and Queens, participated in the public funds program and raised $171,598, including $39,700 from PACs, and spent $150,948. He has only $20,650 left in his account. Richards is seen as having long odds in the race but was for a time expected to be the mayor’s preferred candidate after Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland announced she would not be running for reelection. She was widely regarded as a strong contender for the speakership and her exit from the Council left the speaker race dominated by men.

Rodriguez was a public funds participant but he had two primary opponents, explaining his expenditure of $242,365 from his total fundraising of $255,423. He has $13,058 in his campaign account. He received $45,175 in PAC money.

Williams, who some say could be a potential primary opponent to Governor Andrew Cuomo next year, or a lieutenant governor candidate as part of a ticket, opted out of the public funds program and raised $226,784 for his reelection to the Council, including $66,100 in PAC donations. He also had a non-competitive primary but he spent nearly all of his campaign cash, leaving just $660 in his account.

The next and final campaign finance disclosures are due January 16.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Inside the Fundraising and Spending of the City Council Speaker Candidates Wed, 06 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Candidates Give Generously to Colleagues http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7343:council-speaker-candidates-give-generously-to-colleagues http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7343:council-speaker-candidates-give-generously-to-colleagues johnson moya crowley c2

Corey Johnson, Francisco Moya, Joe Crowley (photo via @CoreyinNYC)


The eight City Council members, all Democrats, who are competing to lead the 51-member legislative body as speaker for the next four years must convince numerous constituencies of their viability, including some combination of county party leaders, labor unions, the mayor, and other influential politicos. But, when the new Council class convenes in January, the vote will come down to the 51 Council members, and they are not without agency. The speaker candidates, all men, have for months been seeking to curry favor with their colleagues, employing a variety of methods. One such tactic is to donate campaign funds to current and incoming members of the City Council.

All eight candidates -- Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Robert Cornegy Jr., Ritchie Torres, Donovan Richards, Jumaane Williams, and Jimmy Van Bramer -- have made large political contributions from their reelection campaigns, according to an analysis of campaign finance filings by the New York City Campaign Finance Board at Gotham Gazette’s request, though the amounts to vary widely.

Numbers reflect disclosures filed through November 7, the day of general election and the most recent filing deadline. The next deadline is Monday, December 4.

The speaker candidates used money from their campaign accounts to spend on a variety of political causes, but most of their political giving went to other members running for reelection or Council candidates running to replace term-limited members.

Council Member Johnson’s lobbying largesse far outpaces the rest of the members, with $126,300 in political contributions, of which $84,875 went to other current or incoming members. Johnson, who has been aggressively campaigning for the Council’s top spot long before others jumped into the fray, also gave to local Democratic clubs and Democratic county organizations. He made the maximum allowable contribution of $2,750 to 26 candidates (including Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who was unsuccessful in her reelection bid).

Levine, who along with Johnson and Cornegy is seen as a frontrunner in the race, has been second with $84,185 in political contributions, including $69,375 to his colleagues.

Most of the recipients of campaign cash from the speaker candidates has overlapped.

In third place is Rodriguez, whose political contributions to colleagues were $52,750, out of a total $57,761 spent from his campaign account on political donations.

The rest of the members spent far less to build support and help colleagues. Torres only gave $35,000 out of $59,117 in political contributions. Richards contributed $31,500 out of $37,465. Cornegy’s donations were only $27,500, Van Bramer’s were $24,675 and Williams gave just $13,000.

In total, there were 42 Council candidates from across the city who received a political contribution from another candidate, including both sitting Council members and those running for open seats. Among the 42 were a few who were unsuccessful as well as 11 new incoming members of the City Council.

The biggest beneficiary of the political giving was Adrienne Adams, a Democrat who was elected to the District 28 seat in Queens, which was empty following the expulsion of Council Member Ruben Wills after his conviction on corruption charges. Adams received $26,750 from Council colleagues, of which $18,000 was from seven speaker candidates. Cornegy was the only one who did not donate to her. Adams could not be reached for comment. In her run she had the backing of the Queens Democratic Party machine, which is seen as the most influential county party in the speaker race, with Rep. Joe Crowley at its head.

Justin Brannan, another Democrat who won the District 43 seat in Bay Ridge, collectively received $12,250 from five speaker candidates. “Having been a staffer in the Council and a Democratic organizer for many years, throughout my primary and general elections, I was grateful to have the support of many of the members I now look forward to calling colleagues and one of which we will elect as our leader,” Brannan said in a statement. “Personally, I'm looking for a speaker who will empower the members and consider the many diverse voices that make up the body.” He did not say who he would vote for.

As Brannan indicated, it’s not unusual for Council Members to bolster Council staffers’ bids for City Council. This was the case for Carlina Rivera, the former legislative director to outgoing Council Member Rosie Mendez. Rivera won Mendez’s Council District 2 seat in Manhattan. In a statement, Rivera said she was “thankful” for the support from Council members, who gave her $14,483 in total. All but $150 came from speaker candidates, but Rivera insisted that would not affect her vote. She declined to indicate which speaker candidate she may be leaning towards. “My decision on the next Speaker will be made like any other -- with careful consideration of each candidate’s record and policies,” she said. “It won’t be easy given the strength of each candidate, but I look forward to casting my vote based on these merits.”

Even as the speaker candidates’ political giving is tallied, some have helped raise money for their colleagues without raising it directly or bundling it as an intermediary. Some also raised money for or donated to Mayor de Blasio’s reelection bid, even as they attempt to sell their colleagues and others on promises of standing up to the mayor as the next speaker. Speaker candidates, to varying degrees, also went to campaign with members and candidates in their districts. Johnson and Levine were the most active in this respect, too, helping candidates to collect ballot petition signatures, knock on doors, and greet voters.

In Midtown Manhattan’s District 4, Keith Powers was elected to the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Dan Garodnick. Powers received the maximum $2,750 contribution from five speaker candidates. “I’ve known all the candidates for more than a few years,” said the former lobbyist who ran on a good government platform, in a phone interview, “and I’ve worked with them and I think they know I’ll be a good addition to the City Council. I think that’s why they supported me.”

The donations are not considerations in the race for speaker, Powers said, insisting he does not have a preferred candidate yet. “I think for everybody, it’s about the person’s ability to lead the Council, to keep the Council independent of the mayor,” he said. “I think [Council members] choose a speaker based on what’s best for their district and the issues they work on, and someone who shares their values.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Speaker Candidates Give Generously to Colleagues Thu, 30 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7331:city-council-speaker-candidates-address-power-reform-and-transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7331:city-council-speaker-candidates-address-power-reform-and-transparency city spe canidates

the City Council Speaker candidates at a prior forum (photo: William Alatriste)


Seven of the eight candidates vying to become the next Speaker of the New York City Council convened at New York Law School on Monday night for a forum focused on government reform, running the Council, transparency, ethics, voting, and elections.

The candidates made their cases for their leadership prowess, and discussed extending term limits for Council members, greater transparency around lobbying, key questions about campaign finance reform in the city, and much more.

With the city’s election season over, all eyes are now turned toward the race for who will replace Melissa Mark-Viverito as Speaker in what is arguably the second most powerful position in city government behind the Mayor. Mark-Viverito is term-limited out of office and eight men, all fellow Democrats, are in the running to replace her. The next Speaker will be chosen by the 51 members of the Council at the first meeting of the next Council class in January, though a great deal of jockeying is already going on, including influential outside forces, and a deal might be struck before the end of the year.

On Tuesday night, the attending candidates were Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, and Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan; Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens; and Robert Cornegy and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn. Bronx Council Member Ritchie Torres, also vying for the Speakership, was not in attendance due to a district event. The forum was sponsored by Citizens Union along with other good government groups Reinvent Albany, League of Women Voters of New York City, and NYPIRG. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max served as moderator.

To start the event the candidates were asked how they think their Council colleagues think of them.

Levine, the first to speak, said that he is an effective member who gets things done, citing his work with Council Member Vanessa Gibson to pass a right-to-counsel in housing court that Mayor Bill de Blasio had initially pushed back against. Richards, after saying his colleagues think he’s “beautiful,” discussed his even temperament and ability to work with other members. He said he doesn’t think his colleagues would have a negative word to say about him.

Rodriguez cited his work on the transportation committee and having been an advocate for immigrants. Johnson said he has been a leader and that the consistent theme of his tenure has been helping marginalized populations such as transgender people and victims of domestic violence. Williams said he hoped his colleagues thought he was honest, and saw himself as an activist who has guided conversations such as for the Community Safety Act. And Cornegy, who initially joked that his colleagues see the 6’10” Council member as “head and shoulders above the rest,” discussed his “temperament” and having passed bills through five separate committees.

The candidates were then asked a question they didn’t seem to have thought much about: what is the Speaker’s role in terms of oversight of how the other 50 members are doing their jobs? The candidates mostly answered by discussing ways in which to empower members. None addressed issues raised by the moderator around what the Speaker should do about a Council member who isn’t performing well in terms constituent services or attendance at hearings.

At one point, Rodriguez reiterated his call that all Council members be allowed three four-year terms. In 2008, the City Council voted to temporarily extend term limits for the Mayor, the other citywide positions, and City Council members to three terms. The move was done despite multiple public votes for the two-term limit.

All of the other candidates, save for Richards, agreed with the notion of extending term limits for Council members, permanently going to three terms for the legislative posts, while keeping citywide and borough-wide positions to two four-year terms. Some asserted that it should only be done through a public referendum, though, not simply through legislation. Candidates argued that large turnovers at once, as will happen through the 2021 elections when about three-quarters of the Council will be term-limited out, is bad for the city. (Richards later told The Daily News he also supports the measure.)

“One, I think it’s unfair that some of us had a third term and some colleagues didn’t,” Williams said. “Two, as good government, it doesn’t fully make sense that you want us to provide a balance to the mayor, but the entire city government is gonna be up at the same time. Two-thirds of the Council will be up at the same time as the mayor. We have to think about the impact that’s gonna have on how we want the government to function.”

On the issue of the city Board of Elections, a notoriously dysfunctional organization rife with political patronage and undue allegiance to county parties, the candidates mostly avoided calling for major changes to how BOE commissioners are appointed (there is one Republican and one Democratic commissioner from each borough, nominated by the political party establishments and approved by the City Council). Williams was most clear in acknowledging that the BOE has a patronage problem, and said he would be open to non-partisan appointments to the board.

Williams and Cornegy both praised John Flateau, the Board of Elections Democratic commissioner from their borough of Brooklyn.

Other candidates shifted the conversation away from reforming the board and towards New York’s substandard voting laws. Candidates called for early voting and same-day voter registration, avoiding discussion of the makeup of the BOE as they continue to seek support from the same party apparatuses that control current BOE appointments. Johnson veered to an even larger topic, home rule, whereby the state controls numerous major city issues, before disagreeing with the premise of a non-partisan board.

“I do not support non-partisan appointments to the Board of Elections,” Johnson said. “I believe that the parties play a particular role in ensuring that we make sure that any party that’s dominant at a given time cannot run roughshod over another party. If someone came up with a perfect system of a non-partisan way to handle it, maybe I’d entertain it. I’ve never heard of that system, I don’t know how you take political influence out of politics.”

Levine took a similar stance to Johnson, referring to elections as the “ultimate partisan battlefield,” not acknowledging that the BOE is supposed to be a fair arbiter and election administrator. Levine said that the partisan nature of the Board of Elections, and its Democratic-Republican balance, ensures parity between the parties and doesn’t allow one to dominate.

The candidates further refrained from criticizing county party organizations and particularly the party chairs, who are often seen as deciding the speaker’s race in the city. Richards and Van Bramer, both of Queens, praised Queens Democratic Party Chair Joe Crowley, with Van Bramer in particular singling out the congressman for praise.

“In Queens,” Van Bramer said, “we are fortunate to have a terrific leader. And I’ve said that Congressman Crowley would be a great Speaker of the House of Representatives, and I stand by that. Obviously, being a Sunnyside/Woodside guy, we have a lot of local pride in a Woodsider potentially being the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

Rodriguez, who is not a member of the Queens Democratic delegation, also had words of praise for Crowley, who is seen this year as the top “kingmaker” in the speaker process because of his ability to control the votes of many Queens Council members.

“I will be working shoulder to shoulder with County Leader Joe Crowley for immigrants’ rights,” Rodriguez said. “As a leader nationwide, if I become the speaker he will have an ally, and I know that I will count him as an ally.” Rodriguez also said he would be working with Bronx Democratic Leader Marcos Crespo; both Crowley and Crespo are known to run machine-style party organizations within their respective boroughs and together they are seen to control a bloc of speaker votes close to the 25 needed to get a candidate, along with their own singular vote, the majority needed.

None of the candidates acknowledged that part of the deal to crown the next Speaker may include choices of top leadership posts like Majority Leader and chairs of the most powerful Council committees, finance and land use. Given the vote for the next Speaker is still several weeks away, specific discussions of this nature may not have occurred yet, but they are known to have occurred in the past.

All of the candidates argued for greater transparency in lobbying and in general, to some degree. Johnson said that Council members should be required to post their schedules online to allow the public to see who they are meeting with. Van Bramer said that people can get Council members’ schedules through Freedom of Information Law requests (FOILs), but acknowledged that it should not necessarily take such an effort.

Opinions about lobbyists themselves varied. Williams joked that he would be Speaker already if he had built a tunnel to allow members to escape from them; meanwhile, Rodriguez said that many lobbyists represent good people and shouldn’t be universally panned. Williams and Rodriguez were the only two candidates on the stage who said they have not hired a political consultant for the speaker’s race. Other members defended the practice, noting how time-consuming and complicated it has become to run for the post. Levine said it may make sense to examine if there are ways to regulate the speaker’s race in the future. When asked, none of the candidates indicated they would need to take any special steps to ensure that their consultants don’t have undue influence over them if they become the Speaker.

When it came time for the “lightning round” of quick questions-and-answers, it was clear that there were more substantive differences among the candidates. Though all candidates said that the current $4,950 campaign contribution limit to citywide candidates is good and that ranked-choice voting should be adopted to avoid runoffs, the candidates disagreed other items.

Richards broke with the pack to oppose non-citizen voting in municipal elections, explaining that he had “trepidation” with the Trump administration, possibly a reference to the possibility of federal officials being able to obtain new information about those in the country illegally. The others were all in support of the concept to varying degrees, with some saying it should be restricted to legal permanent residents and others not attaching conditions.

The question that most split the field was the question of whether city elections should take the form of open primaries, which would allow any registered voter to cast a vote in the party primary of their choice. Richards, Rodriguez, and Williams all affirmed their support for open primaries, while Cornegy, Levine, and Van Bramer stated their opposition to the concept. Van Bramer said that partisan primaries are the “good government position,” despite many good government groups actively opposing closed partisan primaries. Johnson said that political party affiliation matters, but didn’t firmly answer either way.

Members were also split on whether the Council should have fewer committees (there are currently more than 40 issue committees run in the 51-member body). Surprisingly, Rodriguez said that there should be more committees, so that every member could chair one. Johnson, meanwhile, said that some committees should be folded together but others, such as Fire and Criminal Justice Services, should be separated. Williams said that the reason there were so many committees was because of the attached stipends, which were recently eliminated as part of reforms to the Council member position, including salary raises, and called for an increased use of task forces, like on gun violence.

None of the candidates wanted to answer one lightning round question: who would you back for Speaker if you couldn’t vote for yourself? Johnson, by luck of the draw, was asked first and took a long pause before attempting a roundabout answer without naming anyone. It soon became clear that none of the seven wanted to answer the question, and the round moved on with some laughter from the crowd and the candidates.

When asked for a single idea on how to make city government more transparent, the candidates all gave different answers.

Richards called for strengthening the Council’s investigations and oversight committee to hold agencies more accountable; Rodriguez called for greater transparency in Council discretionary spending; Johnson called for putting the budget online for people to easily find out where money is being spent; Van Bramer called for “gender and race audits” of the Council and city agencies to ensure parity; Williams called for the committee hearing process, and how it’s presented to the public, to be reformed; Cornegy called for city contractors to disclose the demographics of their workforce; and Levine called for greater transparency in budget appropriations.

To close the event the candidates were asked how they would seek to improve Council oversight of the mayoral administration. In their remarks, each candidate answered the question while also mixing in something of a closing argument for their candidacy. Several candidates offered a number of specific reforms they want to push if elected Speaker.

All candidates advocated for a stronger, independent Council, with Williams stating that the lack of any use of a veto in de Blasio’s term may mean the Council hasn’t pushed the envelope enough. Cornegy said that the Council hadn’t exercised its strength given by the dissolution of the Board of Estimate, and that budget issues would continue to be an issue in that regard. Richards once again called for strengthening the oversight committee, while Johnson called for increasing the Council’s central budget to be more in line with city agencies. Levine said the Council should delve into budget issues beyond the marquee items, Van Bramer said the Council should utilize its subpoena power, and Rodriguez pledged to maintain the body’s independence but work with the mayor when possible.

Full video of the forum:

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency Mon, 20 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
The Right to Know Act and the City Council Speaker Race http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7310:the-right-to-know-act-and-the-council-speaker-race http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7310:the-right-to-know-act-and-the-council-speaker-race jumaane williams rtkar

Jumaane Williams at a Right to Know Act rally (Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


In less than two months, the current class of the New York City Council ends its term, and eight incumbents who won reelection on Tuesday are running to lead the 51-member legislative body as its next speaker. It is an internal race influenced by county party affiliates, labor unions, Mayor Bill de Blasio, himself newly reelected, and others.

As the clock ticks on this term and the speakership of Melissa Mark-Viverito, a de Blasio ally who is term-limited out of office, a particular package of controversial legislation offers an especially delicate situation for Mark-Viverito, de Blasio, and the speaker candidates, most notably the one, Ritchie Torres, who is a prime sponsor of the bills.

Each of the eight speaker candidates -- Council Members Torres, Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Donovan Richards, Jimmy Van Bramer, Robert Cornegy, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams -- is a co-sponsor on the two police reform bills, collectively called the Right to Know Act, which puts them at odds with the mayor, who has ardently opposed the legislation, and with Mark-Viverito, who has refused to allow it to come to a vote. Instead, Mark-Viverito and the NYPD announced an agreement on administrative changes whereby the police department agreed to implement pieces of the bills, but without the power of law.

As the Council readies for an expected end-of-term legislative blitz, supporters of the bills from inside and outside the Council are pushing for passage, potentially setting up the next speaker, the second-most powerful elected official in the city, to take office having already courted conflict with the mayor and potentially establishing a new dynamic between the heads of the executive and legislative branches of city government. It puts Torres in a particularly awkward position of having to possibly decide whether to buck advocates and co-sponsors or the mayor and the speaker and those members who would rather not have to vote on the measure.

De Blasio has yet to use a veto during his four years as mayor, with virtually every contentious piece of legislation either being negotiated to agreement between the mayor and the Council or scuttled.

The bills in question include Intro. 182, sponsored by Council Member Torres, putting him in unique position among the speaker candidates, which requires police officers to identify themselves during a street stop, and Intro. 541, sponsored by Council Member Antonio Reynoso, mandating that officers inform individuals of their right to refuse consent to a search in cases that it is required and to provide audio or written proof if an individual consents to a search. Unsurprisingly, the legislation was met with strong resistance from the NYPD, whose leadership has often been critical of the City Council’s attempts to legislate its practices and believes the bills would hamper officers’ abilities to do their jobs.

In July last year, Mark-Viverito struck a compromise with the police department to implement certain provisions of the bills, foregoing a vote, despite the fact that the bills had and continue to have support from a majority of the Council. Police reform advocates were incensed by what they saw as a backroom deal and questioned the speaker’s willingness to stand up to de Blasio.

Six of the eight speaker candidates -- Johnson and Cornegy did not respond to requests for comment for this article -- said the speaker’s race would not affect their support for the Right to Know Act and that the legislation would likely not affect the speaker’s race. But they also agreed that any speaker must demonstrate their independence from the mayor, and supporting these police reforms can do just that.

“I can assure you that the speaker’s race has no bearing on how I will conduct myself on the subject of the Right to Know,” said Torres, in a phone interview. “One has nothing to do with the other.” Torres and Reynoso have held off on using a discharge through committee, a procedural tool that would allow them to bypass a committee vote and bring their bills directly to the floor of the Council, despite the urging of police reform advocacy groups such as Communities United for Police Reform (CPR).

“I never shy away from challenging authority but for me it’s more about finding the right solution,” Torres said, insisting that he would rather negotiate with the police department to amend the bills and get them passed. “There’s greater value in passing legislation with the buy-in of an agency than doing so in the face of hysterical opposition. In the end, if one side refuses to negotiate in good faith, then of course I reserve the right to discharge and I have no hesitation about exercising that right. But I will do so only when necessary.”

When asked if, in the context of Right to Know, Speaker Mark-Viverito had been sufficiently independent of the mayor and whether the next speaker should be more independent, Torres bluntly said, “‘No’ to your first question and ‘yes’ to your second question.”

The other speaker candidates, even as they stood for the virtues of the Right to Know Act, did not criticize Mark-Viverito, who has been noncommittal on whether the two bills are moving closer to a vote. She has insisted that the Council is continuing internal conversations with the bill sponsors and the NYPD, and that the body has been assessing the implementation of the administrative changes agreed to last year. “We have been in dialogue, very recent dialogue with advocates, with the police department, with the sponsors of the bill,” she said at a recent news conference. “There’s been a lot of conversation, so we’re still going through our process.”

Asked if she’d encourage Torres and Reynoso to exercise their prerogative to discharge the bills, she simply said, “We’re going through the process with those bills.”

When asked repeatedly at that press conference what specifically she and the Council were doing to monitor the administrative implementation, Mark-Viverito gave vague answers about ongoing conversations.

Politico New York reported last week that supporters of the bills are hoping to bring them to a vote by November 16, since a vote after that would leave insufficient time to override a veto by the mayor. Police reform groups have also called on the bill sponsors, Torres and Reynoso, to ensure passage or discharge the bills through committee by that deadline.

“Our primary concern with the [next] speaker is really making sure that they’re going to be a person who supports these reforms and future reforms and make sure that New Yorkers are having interactions with police that make sense and don’t violate their rights,” said Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a nonprofit that is a member of the Communities United for Police Reform coalition. Advocates have been supportive of Torres and Reynoso, but appear to be reaching a point of frustration.

As was the case with police reform advocates, many on the Council were disappointed by the speaker’s decision to strike a bargain with the NYPD in lieu of a legislative solution. But, besides Torres, most other speaker candidates defended Mark-Viverito’s record of being independent, while yet others spoke of how they would handle the speakership themselves.

Council Member Levine believes the bills will hardly play a role in the speaker race as he expects they’ll be resolved before the end of the year. “I believe that there will be a way for the bills to move forward with buy-in from the people that will be implementing it, the [police department], and that that will be settled before we have a new speaker,” he said in a phone interview.  

He defended Mark-Viverito’s leadership over the process involving the Right to Know. “I think she should be given credit for working very very hard on this issue, both on the policy and legislative front,” Levine said.

He emphasized that the Council has been independent of the mayor, pushing him on issues such as funding for 1,300 new police officers and free legal assistance in housing court, which he championed. And he noted that the speaker will be chosen only by the 51 members of the Council. “It’s just so important that the Council emerge as a totally independent body, a co-equal branch of government, and that’s definitely my vision for the speakership,” he said.

Council Member Rodriguez hopes to see movement on the bills but would only comment on “who I would be as speaker,” briefly mentioning that he would expand the oversight role of committee chairs. “The speaker should be a person that defends the independent voice of the Council,” he said.

Council Member Van Bramer said the speaker race “is an opportunity to elevate the conversation” around Right to Know, which he said should pass on its merits regardless of the race. He said he would move the bills to a vote, given he is elected speaker, if they do not pass this year. “I think that it’s really important that the speaker be a counter-balance to the mayor,” he said. “I think the body is looking for an independent and forceful speaker who’s gonna be able to represent the members and represent the interests of the members and I think I’ve demonstrated in the past that while we certainly work together, when I disagree with the mayor, I’m not afraid to disagree with the mayor and disagree strongly.”

Council Member Williams spoke briefly with Gotham Gazette at City Hall and only said that he was following the lead of the Right to Know sponsors. “I continue to support it, I hope it gets passed,” he said.

Council Member Richards said Right to Know is part of a criminal justice reform discussion that would continue over the next four years, no matter who becomes the Council’s leader. “You know even as Melissa leaves, as we continue to move forward over the next four years, this issue does not die,” he said. “The need for reform is gonna be something continuous.”

He also stressed that Right to Know has not languished because of a lack of independence either by the speaker or the Council. “I think it’s a question of trying to shape and get something done. And the Council has the ability to pass legislation whether the mayor supports it or not, but we also want to make sure that we’re doing it in a responsible fashion and we’re trying to reach a medium that is doable,” Richards said, “to make sure that, one, our community is getting the greatest benefit of transparency, but secondly also in a way that ensures that we’re not also going to harm officers’ ability to do their job as well.”

Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of the de Blasio administration on criminal justice issues, is also a co-sponsor of the Right to Know Act which, he said, “is a good lens through which to evaluate the speaker candidates,” and their ability to stand up to the mayor.

“The issue of are you for or against the Right to Know Act isn’t a factor in the speaker’s race because everybody’s for it,” he said. “What is an issue is whether or not you as a speaker will allow bills that make you or the administration uncomfortable come to the floor for a vote. That is an important test of the speaker candidates and I think it is the main issue that each speaker candidate has to address because philosophically, ideologically, substantively there’s not much of a difference among the eight of them in terms of what they stand for.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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The Right to Know Act and the City Council Speaker Race Wed, 08 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Members, with Notable Exceptions, Send Letter to MTA Supporting De Blasio Tax Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7278:city-council-members-with-notable-exceptions-send-letter-to-mta-supporting-de-blasio-tax-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7278:city-council-members-with-notable-exceptions-send-letter-to-mta-supporting-de-blasio-tax-plan de Blasio subway tax

De Blasio on the train (Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Amid an ongoing feud -- between the Mayor Bill de Blasio on one side and Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA on the other -- over funding for mass transit infrastructure in New York City, 27 New York City Council Members on Thursday announced support for the mayor’s proposal to tax wealthy New Yorkers to raise money for subway and bus improvements.

The mayor has pitched a tax increase on the top-most earners in the city as part of his “Fair Fix” plan, which would raise about $700 million in 2018 from 32,000 city residents, according to the de Blasio administration. That figure would rise to $820 million annually by 2022, according to city estimates, by increasing the highest income tax rate from 3.876 percent to 4.41 percent for individuals making more than $500,000 a year and couples making more than $1 million.

The revenue would be used for the subways and buses, but also to fund the “fair fares” plan to subsidize half-priced MetroCards for the city’s lowest-income residents, something de Blasio has expressed support for in principle, but refused to fund out of city budget money while saying it should be the responsibility of the state-controlled MTA.

More than half the 51-member City Council, including five of the seven members running to be the next speaker, backed the plan in a letter to MTA Chair Joe Lhota and the MTA board, on which the New York City Mayor has four appointees of the 14 seats (the Governor has a plurality of six and also appoints the chair). However, two leading speaker contenders did not sign, nor did current Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, though she has expressed support for de Blasio’s plan.

“It’s called the Fair Fix because rather than ask working New Yorkers already feeling the pressure of rising fares and bad service to foot the bill on their own, we are asking the millionaires and billionaires in our city to chip in a little extra to help move our transit system that helps make them some of the wealthiest people in the world,” reads the letter, which was sent out by Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer’s office. “This plan is the right approach and it must advance without delay.”

“We need more cost-effective capital construction for the MTA and must think of ways to generate more revenue for the exclusive purpose of bringing our mass transit system to the 21st-century,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the transportation committee, in a statement Thursday. “I am confident that Fair Fix, along with other plans proposed at the city and state levels, would raise desperately needed funds for a sustainable plan of improvements.”

Of the new revenue raised from the mayor’s proposal, $500 million would be dedicated each year to capital infrastructure improvements and the city estimates that it would allow them to borrow about $8 billion more for upgrades. At least $250 million would help provide half-price MetroCards for 800,000 low-income New Yorkers, which is based on the “Fair Fares” proposal created by a group of transit advocates who insisted that the city fund those MetroCards in the budget this year. De Blasio refused to add Fair Fares to the budget, even eschewing a smaller pilot proposal made by the City Council, but included it later in his tax increase proposal, insisting throughout that the state should bear the burden.

Any tax increases are seen as unlikely to move through Albany, especially during a state-level election year, which 2018 is, due to opposition from both Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled state Senate. De Blasio and all 27 signers of the new letter are Democrats.

The 27 Council Members who support that notion include most of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, with a few notable exceptions. Speaker Mark-Viverito did not sign the letter, nor did Council Members Corey Johnson and Mark Levine, both of whom are prominent speaker candidates. Robin Levine, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito, said in an email, “The MTA is in need of immediate fixing and the Speaker has long supported both the millionaire’s and commuter taxes.”

A spokesperson for Council Member Johnson did not return a request for comment on why he did not sign the letter.

“I'm fully supportive of the millionaires tax as I believe we desperately need new revenue for the transportation system, which is also why I support congestion pricing,” said Levine in an email. “I didn't sign on to the letter because Joe Lhota and the MTA board don't control the income tax rate.”

De Blasio has been an ardent opponent of a congestion pricing scheme, some version of which Cuomo has indicated he will offer in January when he unveils his executive budget proposal and the state’s legislative session begins. Congestion pricing typically includes mechanisms to raise money for mass transit while altering the city’s toll system and implementing measures to reduce street congestion in Manhattan.

The fate of de Blasio’s proposal is largely uncertain. It would have to be approved by the state Legislature, and Republicans who control the state Senate and have an acrimonious relationship with the progressive Democratic mayor have already thrown cold water on any tax increases. At the same time, the governor and MTA’s Lhota continue to pressure de Blasio to fund half of a $836 million emergency action plan for the city’s subways that Lhota unveiled shortly after retaking the helm at the MTA at a crisis point in subway service. De Blasio has refused, citing money that Cuomo has raided from the MTA and offering his tax plan.

Cuomo has set up a task force to explore congestion pricing but did not initially invite de Blasio, or any other elected official from New York City, to join it. Cuomo made an invitation to de Blasio during a recent NY1 interview, which de Blasio shot down, with his spokesperson calling the task force a “charade” and the mayor saying it is set up for the governor’s own purposes. De Blasio has consistently rejected congestion pricing as a “regressive tax” that would hurt outer borough commuters, despite the facts that while the most prominent plan, Move New York, would institute tolls on the now-free East River bridges, it would also lower tolls on some bridges, and that car owners tend to be wealthier than those who solely rely on public transportation.

“New Yorkers want real solutions and that's why they're rallying around the mayor's plan to ask the wealthiest 1% to chip in a little extra," said Austin Finan, a mayoral spokesman, in a statement when asked for a response to the City Council members’ letter.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Members, with Notable Exceptions, Send Letter to MTA Supporting De Blasio Tax Plan Thu, 26 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
At Oversight Hearing, Council Members Seek Answers on MTA Funding and Operations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7116:at-oversight-hearing-questions-about-black-hole-of-mta-funding http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7116:at-oversight-hearing-questions-about-black-hole-of-mta-funding 12756177594 f792aac7b9 z

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (photo William Alatriste/New York City Council)


At a contentious hours-long hearing held on Tuesday by the the City Council’s Committee on Transportation, Council members grilled representatives of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) on the problems facing the city’s transit infrastructure and the challenges of finding both short- and long-term funding streams to adequately maintain and upgrade the city’s subway system.

The hearing comes amid an increasingly testy fight between the city and state over the MTA’s recently announced $836 million rescue plan for the crisis affecting the city’s subways. MTA Chair Joe Lhota, recently appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, has insisted that the city provide $456 million for the emergency upgrade plan to stabilize the system over the next year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has refused to bear those costs, pointing to an equal amount of city-issued funds that have been diverted since 2011 by the state from their intended use in MTA operations. De Blasio on Monday proposed increasing taxes on the wealthy to fund the MTA, but the proposal was quickly dismissed by state Senate Republicans who would have to approve it.

Tuesday’s hearing kicked off with testimony from MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim, Management and Budget Director Doug Johnson, and New York City Transit Authority Executive Vice President Tim Mulligan. The three fielded questions from members of the transportation committee, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James. Council members largely focused on the costs of modernizing the subway system as well as accessibility issues, but were routinely frustrated by the inability of the MTA representatives to delineate specific figures such as the costs of tunnel construction per mile or of installing elevators at subway stations.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito emphasized that the city is already providing ample funds to the MTA and bristled at the suggestion that it was shirking its responsibility to fund the agency. “I understand the MTA is a creature of the state and therefore you respond to the governor, but to make it seem that the governor is being so magnanimous and that this city is rejecting its responsibility, I'm not going to sit here and accept that,” she said.

MTA budget director Johnson later attempted to clarify that the $456 million in MTA operating funds from the city, which Mayor de Blasio claims have been diverted elsewhere by the state, were in fact shifted to the MTA’s capital plan and were a form of “relief” for the operating budget.

Mark-Viverito also sought answers on how the MTA prioritized capital projects and controlled costs. “The cost of building subway tunnels in other cities is between $200 million and $1 billion per mile; when we were in phase one of the second avenue subway that cost was approximately $2.3 billion per mile,” Mark-Viverito said, asking MTA’s Hakim what led to the discrepancy.

Hakim pointed out that the city poses its own unique challenges, both physical and regulatory, for infrastructure upgrades. “In other parts of the globe, when subway systems are being built or expanded, they do not remotely come close to the challenges that we face here in New York City,” she said. “You see it when you go by a utility construction pit and you look and are amazed at the spaghetti of utilities you have to deal with underground.”

Mark-Viverito seemed dissatisfied with the response, and emphasized that she was “very disappointed that Chairman Lhota is not here himself, especially considering the significant amount of money he has asked the City to contribute to the MTA’s plan.” Later, when asked by reporters about Lhota’s absence, she said, “I do find it disrespectful.”

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, the chair of the committee, recounted his recent experiences on a listening tour on the subways, totalling 24 hours over two days, organized by him and State Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz. Numerous elected officials participated in the tour to hear from subway riders, and the results of their survey were released at a news conference Tuesday morning. They found that about 75 percent of nearly two thousand riders they spoke to had been late to school, work or an appointment in the last two weeks. “While less a concern for us, this is part of the reality subway riders face every day,” said Rodriguez, before suggesting that the MTA should spend the “enormous amount of money it does have intelligently, quickly, and efficiently.”

Council members also pushed the agency on the issue of accessibility at subway stations, prompted by an early interruption from a member of the public who pointed out that the panel had not touched on accessibility for the disabled or elderly. “All these plans mean nothing to us if you can't get on the train,” the woman, who was on a mobility scooter, said. Later, Mark-Viverito noted that the Council “usually do not acknowledge and do not accept disruptions in this chamber,” but she thanked the woman and said the issue of disability ridership was legitimate and should be addressed by the MTA.

Asked whether the planned 15-month L train shutdown, scheduled for 2019 to fix damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, would be a good time to install elevators, Hakim said the cost would be prohibitive.

“At this rate we'll have every station accessible by 2450,” lamented Council Member Stephen Levin, who criticized the MTA for using what he called “small-bore” solutions as opposed to big-picture thinking. Referring to Governor Cuomo’s late-June declaration of a state of emergency for the MTA, he added, “We need the MTA to use that power of that state of emergency to truly make an impact.”

Like many of his colleagues, Levin also emphasized the need for long-term solutions. “Yes, we need something now, but to avoid there being summer of hell 2019, summer of hell 2020, summer of hell 2021, every summer of hell, there needs to be long-term investment.” Hakim did not commit to any specific long-term funding proposals at the hearing, saying only that multiple options were being discussed by the agency.

Several Council members were skeptical of the MTA’s ability to manage any funding that could be provided by the city. Council Member Chaim Deutsch criticized the agency for its lack of transparency and it’s inefficiency in spending. “You guys do not know how to spend a dime, how could you spend a billion dollars?” Deutsch asked, before calling the inaccessibility of the subways “unacceptable.”

Only Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of Mayor de Blasio and his administration, seemed somewhat sympathetic to the MTA’s position. “Is it fair to say that the state's contribution to the MTA capital, for not just this capital plan, but the last two capital plans as well, dwarfs the contribution that the city makes to the capital plan?” he asked, with the MTA representatives readily agreeing. He also suggested that the mayor’s appointees to the MTA board – the mayor chooses four voting members out of the total fourteen, while the governor selects six – had not put forth any plans to improve the city’s subways.

In large part, the Council members seemed to want to avoid an outcome predicted by Comptroller Scott Stringer, who said in his testimony, “I’m concerned that you give money to the MTA black hole and you never see it again.” He reiterated his support for a $3.5 billion bond act to relieve some pressure on the MTA issuing and repaying debt. “As we take the time to consider the menu of long-term funding options, we must ensure that those who are actually paying for transit improvements see an equitable, fair return on their investment,” he said.

Polly Trottenberg, Commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation, and Dean Fuleihan, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, also testified, outlining a concern for permanent funding sources for new initiatives, such as the estimated $300 million that it would cost annually to fill the 2,700 new positions that the MTA’s emergency action plan intends to create.

“At present, the MTA has not identified a way to cover those recurring operating costs,” Trottenberg said.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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At Oversight Hearing, Council Members Seek Answers on MTA Funding and Operations Wed, 09 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Calls for Small & Large Fixes to City Congestion, Transit Woes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6975:calls-for-small-large-fixes-to-city-congestion-transit-woes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6975:calls-for-small-large-fixes-to-city-congestion-transit-woes trottenberg chan mccarten

Cmsr Trottenberg, right (photos: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York City Council Committee on Transportation held a hearing Monday to discuss sources of, and solutions to, traffic congestion in the city.

City Council Member Ydanis Rodríguez, chair of the committee, began the hearing by lamenting New York City’s heavy traffic. “As most New Yorkers can tell you, our streets look like parking lots,” said Rodríguez, a Democrat from upper Manhattan. In addition to economic impediments and general inconvenience, the Council member framed congestion as a safety issue as well. “More cars in our road means more dangerous conditions for cyclists, pedestrians and other street users,” he said -- Rodriguez has been a champion of the city’s Vision Zero street safety program.

Council Member Mark Levine, also an upper Manhattan Democrat, agreed with Rodríguez’s characterization of the situation and highlighted its urgency. “Congestion is at crisis levels in this city,” he said. “This is a threat to our economy, our environment, it is a safety threat and frankly, for drivers, it is driving them crazy to be stuck in traffic.”

The Council members attributed an apparent recent dramatic increase in congestion to the prosperity of various home-delivery and app-based car services alongside longstanding New York City issues such as double parking and placard misuse.

However, a portion of the uptick in clogged New York City streets is a product of some unavoidable, as well as wholly positive, developments, argued new York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who was the main representative of the de Blasio administration at Monday’s hearing.

In conjunction with population growth, tourism to the city and a booming economy have contributed, Trottenberg said, citing a 68% increase in visitors since 2000 and an addition of 4.3 million jobs in New York City since before the recession. ”While on the one hand, increased congestion is a sign of a thriving economy, we hear loud and clear from community boards, elected officials, businesses, and New Yorkers who drive, are stuck on the bus, or use crowded sidewalks, that they are frustrated by congestion and are asking the city for answers,” Trottenberg said.

Trottenberg discussed the two most impactful ways to address the issue: congestion pricing, which would create a new tolling system to, in part, disincentivize driving in the city, especially into Manhattan, and subway expansion, which would encourage more people to choose a train over a car. The commissioner did not indicate that the de Blasio administration is supportive of a congestion pricing plan -- Mayor de Blasio himself said Monday that it has no hope of passage in Albany, so it is not worth fighting for. The de Blasio administration also has little control over subway expansion, given that the MTA is a state-run authority, but could pursue some additional stops if it chose to make that a priority, which it has not.

With a handful Council members, Trottenberg discussed secondary areas over which the city has direct control, such as car placard abuse, which take up parking spaces or block traffic, large truck deliveries which often block streets, and bus lane enforcement, to prevent slowing MTA buses.

Council Member Margaret Chin, for example, floated the idea of imposing harsher penalties on placard abusers and those that unlawfully veer into bus lanes. NYPD Transportation Chief Thomas M. Chan acknowledged Chin’s concerns, adding that his department is exploring ways to court additional officers to the approximately 3,200 officers tasked with enforcing traffic law. De Blasio recently announced a new crackdown on placard abuse that coincided with his decision to allow tens of thousands of placards to school personnel.

But not all Members were on-board with shifting focus towards small fixes over the meat and potato endeavors to ameliorating New York City’s traffic woes.

Council Member Corey Johnson, a Democrat representing the West Side of Manhattan, said the city’s proposed congestion-fighting efforts to which it has shifted attention amounted to mere “tinkering around the edges.” Council Member Brad Lander, Democrat of Park Slope, Brooklyn, took issue with the less ambitious approach as well, declaring that anything that did not include transportation investment would be “fooling around at the margins.”

Mayor de Blasio, for his part, threw cold water on the city taking action on ambitious as well as extensive and long-term issues, stating that the political climate in Albany is not ripe for passing a congestion pricing program while continually, and accurately, noting that potential MTA augmentations and fixes fall under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s jurisdiction. Instead, on transit the mayor has favored an approach more immediately implementable steps that do not rely on state approval.

When asked at a press conference Monday morning if, absent investment in new subway stations, the city could properly address congestion, de Blasio articulated his approach. “This is going to have to happen in phases over years [in] how we address the problem,” said the mayor. “We need to first think about the things we can do right now…” he said, name-checking expanded ferry service, Select Bus Service, and the BQX lightrail streetcar as the types of New York City mass-transit successes he’s unveiled. “Those are the things that are going to have a big impact for people’s lives right now,” de Blasio said.

Though de Blasio said that there is a “real possibility” that New York City would have to build more subways 10 to 15 years down the road, “The things we’ve done right now, are the things we could do right now,” he said. The Select Bus Service “is a real workhorse,” he said while answering a follow-up question.

In a similar vein, in lieu of congestion pricing, de Blasio favors other measures to free-up traffic. “There are people who double-park in an abusive manner that blocks up the street for everyone else. There should be enforcement of that,” he said. He doesn’t want overly-strict, nit-picking tickets, he said, but “ticketing that is about keeping the flow of traffic...I want to ticket those that are blocking traffic on a  prolonged basis…I want to ticket people who block the box.”

Like for much else in New York City politics, the ongoing feud between de Blasio and Cuomo loomed in the background of the transportation hearing and the mayor’s Monday morning press conference. Although the hearing focused on congestion, the MTA’s woes and traffic issues were treated as inextricably linked even without Cuomo being blamed by name for the MTA’s terrible state of disrepair.

While Council Member Donovan Richards, a Democrat from Southeast Queens, noted that it is indubitably Cuomo’s responsibility to manage and adequately fund the MTA, he stated that finger-pointing would not cut it moving forward. Richards said his constituents call his office about transportation and don’t care about whose jurisdiction the MTA is. Thus, it was his position City Hall must take it upon itself to solve the city's transportation crises.

One way would be to push for a congestion pricing plan without state government approval, by citing a 1957 state law that allows cities home to over a million people to implement their own bridge tolls. This proposal, as reported by the Wall Street Journal Sunday, was brought to the forefront by Move NY, an organization that has the most popular current congestion pricing plan, and New York University Law School Professor Roderick Hills. New York City DOT spokesperson Scott Gastel dismissed the proposal, telling the Journal “...legal experts in both the current and previous administrations determined the city does not have this authority.”

When asked about the idea during a press gaggle following the Monday Council hearing, Trottenberg echoed Gastel, saying, “I think the city has determined it’s a losing legal fight...In this case, unfortunately, we just don’t have that legal authority.”

Furthermore, Trottenberg insisted that piecemeal congestion-fighting proposals have begun to flow from the administration and that more are coming; she did not answer directly whether what she had described reflected the mayor’s anti-congestion positions. She also said that the anti-congestion plan the mayor promised in his February State of the City speech are already partly in process and soon to be more clear.

“It’s one of the first elements of it,” Trottenberg said regarding the enforcement pieces she laid out. “I think the congestion plan, it turns out, is going to be kind of a rolling plan, you’ve heard the first pieces of it today, and there will be more to come in the coming weeks.“

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Calls for Small & Large Fixes to City Congestion, Transit Woes Mon, 05 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000