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4 Interesting Participatory Budgeting Project Winners

pb vote via lander

(photo: Council Member Lander's office)

After an 11-day window in which over 100,000 residents of pertinent districts cast ballots, the City Council recently announced the winners of the 2016-17 participatory budgeting cycle. Thirty-one of 51 Council districts participated this year, leading to $34 million in capital funds going towards hyper-local projects chosen directly by the districts’ voters.

A total of 138 projects received funding in this cycle, with most districts backing three to five projects. Some districts awarded funding for many more projects -- District 38, which includes Sunset Park, Red Hook, and Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn and is represented by Democrat Carlos Menchaca, is funding 10 projects. Many project proposals were represented in multiple districts, such as laptops or air conditioning in schools and security cameras for places such as parks, schools, and police precincts, but many were more unique to the respective districts. While participatory budgeting funds are all for capital projects, like equipment or some kind of small construction work, and often show a lot of similarity to each other and to those funded in past cycles, a handful of winning projects stand out this year.

The participatory budgeting movement, which began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as a means of decentralizing budgetary authority and handing power to the people, has since spread to numerous municipalities worldwide. It reached New York City in 2011, when City Council Members Brad Lander, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane Williams launched participatory budgeting projects in their respective districts, dedicating about $1 million of the funds at their disposal to a community process.

While it’s not required of all Council districts, and it hasn’t been implemented citywide, the movement is clearly growing at a rapid pace in the city. Districts participating in participatory budgeting set aside, at minimum, $1 million of their capital budget allocation for public determination.

Participatory budgeting allows issues unique to each community to gain both attention and funding from a city budget process that may have overlooked them without direct citizen input. For instance, one out of four public school classrooms in the city lack air conditioning, which can become not only a health hazard for both students and teachers, but also an impediment to effective learning in the later months of the school term, which ends on June 28 this year.

Several districts voted to allocate participatory budgeting funds toward putting air conditioning in classrooms devoid of it. As it turns out, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his executive budget proposal, unveiled last month, includes almost $29 million to put air conditioning in every public school classroom in the city within five years. Another long-requested but never-delivered service, bus countdown clocks, also won funding in numerous districts. The countdown clocks have a lurid history, with the MTA removing physical clocks from some stops upon the development of a BusTime app by the Authority, which can alienate low-income New Yorkers who don’t possess smartphones.

“This is democracy in action,” City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito said in a statement announcing the results of the cycle, getting at the essence of participatory budgeting, at least for its proponents.

While those like Mark-Viverito, dozens of other Council members, a variety of community groups, and many residents are pleased with participatory budgeting, some critics say that it is a waste of time and Council staff resources (it is a labor heavy program for aides to Council members) and that the projects funded are ones that should really be taken into consideration in the regular budget process. Critics say that Council members are supposed to be gauging their constituents’ needs year-round anyway and influencing the larger budget process and allocating their member item funding accordingly.

The City Council won the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement for participatory budgeting in 2015 from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, winning $100,000 as a means of “replication and dissemination of their innovations.”

This year’s participatory budgeting winners include many typical projects, but a few others stand out.

The highest number of votes for any project in the city went to a proposal in District 39, represented by Democrat Brad Lander, who has been a vocal proponent of PB since he was one of the original four to pilot it in the city. The votes were for providing mobile showers for homeless people. The project received 5,293 votes. The program is administered by CHiPS, a homeless services non-profit that runs a soup kitchen and a residency program, and will be stationed in front of its soup kitchen in Park Slope.

District 39, which includes parts of Park Slope and Gowanus, has a low level of homelessness compared to other districts in the city; however, it also has the lowest level of family homeless shelters in the entire city, ranking 51 out of 51 districts in terms of shelter space for families, with zero shelters. (Mayor Bill de Blasio may soon change this given that his new homeless shelter plan includes opening 90 new shelters of various types across the city. He has promised more beds for Park Slope, where he used to live and was the City Council member before being elected Public Advocate, then Mayor.)

Another winning project is the addition of a courtroom for Benjamin Cardozo High School in District 23, represented by Barry Grodenchik; the school is known for its Mentor Law and Humanities program. All students in the program must participate in either mock trial or model UN in their sophomore year. The courtroom will not be the first in a Queens high school; Maspeth High School opened a student courtroom in February of last year.

In District 22, represented by Democrat Costa Constantinides, the Steinway Branch of the Queens Library will be fitted with solar panels after receiving over 1,000 votes in the district’s cycle. The library will join several other public library branches in the city that have adopted solar energy.

The total votes in Constantinides’ district more than doubled since last year. Constantinides said this shows “that neighborhood residents care about our public and community spaces.”

And in District 32, represented by Republican Eric Ulrich (the only one of three Republican Council districts participating in the program), Shore Front Parkway will be the site of new adult exercise equipment “adjacent to the boardwalk” as well as a “labyrinth/yoga/meditation area.” Projects in Ulrich’s district received the fewest votes of any district participating in the program this year; only 858 votes were cast in total.

The full list of winners of New York City’s 2016-17 Participatory Budgeting Cycle can be found here.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Michel Faulkner Attempts Outsider Republican Run for Comptroller

Faulkner Massey

Michel Faulkner, left (photo: Samar Khurshid)

Michel Faulkner is tired of career politicians and he doesn’t believe elected experience is necessary to run for one of New York’s citywide offices. Faulkner, the pastor at the New Horizon Church in Harlem and once a defensive lineman for the New York Jets, is running as a Republican for the office of Comptroller, the city’s chief financial officer.

In an hour-long interview at City Diner on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Faulkner, 60, explained his decision to run for Comptroller and how he believes his experience in the private sector trumps what incumbent Comptroller Scott Stringer, a Democrat, has brought to the office. “There was a need,” Faulkner said, “and I can help the city as Comptroller in a significant fashion.”

Faulkner was, until two weeks ago, vying for the Republican nomination for Mayor but dropped out soon after Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis launched her own mayoral candidacy. The GOP mayoral nomination has all but become a two-horse race now with Malliotakis and millionaire real estate executive Paul Massey appearing to be the most viable contenders. There was no GOP candidate for Comptroller until Faulkner dropped to the race.

[Related: GOP Mayoral Primary Appears To Be Massey Versus Malliotakis]

Malliotakis’ entry into the mayoral fray forced Faulkner to rethink his own campaign, he said. At first he was expecting her support, but instead she became a competitor. “And I looked at the whole idea of what we want to do as Republicans,” he said. “We want to advance the two-party system. We want to have electable people who have good ideas to move things forward. And in New York City, we wanna create a competitive market for those ideas.”

Faulkner quickly endorsed Massey for Mayor and Massey endorsed his campaign for Comptroller in return -- the two held an at-times awkward press conference at City Hall on May 15. Faulkner also said that Malliotakis, a 36-year-old Staten Islander, doesn’t have the “life experiences, in my opinion, that would make her a mayoral elected candidate now. In the future, sure, but not right at this moment.”

“I made the decision that the team needed something to happen,” he said of his candidacy for Comptroller. Faulkner has also had trouble raising significant funds for his mayoral bid, loaning his own campaign tens of thousands of dollars; a move to Comptroller is expected to significantly improve that dynamic.

Although Faulkner has called Scott Stringer a friend (Stringer was Faulkner’s local Assembly member at one point, he’s said), he faulted the incumbent Democrat for playing it safe on the political field. “I was hoping that Scott was going to run [for Mayor], if his objections were valid or his distance from de Blasio was valid, he would’ve run,” Faulkner said, referring to the long period of time during which Stringer was considering a primary challenge to Mayor Bill de Blasio. “But he chose rather the safe route...I’m sorry but that’s a political answer when we need a dramatic difference in the way things are being done.”

For Faulkner, Stringer’s biggest failings have been not keeping de Blasio in check, in effect sitting aside while the budget ballooned to nearly $85 billion and not advocating strongly for taxpayers.

“Here’s the problem,” Faulkner said, “We’re spending more and getting less bang for our buck. There are so many inefficiencies in the way we are spending our city dollars. I can help the city tremendously by simply enforcing what we already have on our books. By making audited reports understandable for average New Yorkers and by giving New Yorkers an opportunity to know what’s going on with their dollars, because everybody cares about their tax dollars. We just don’t get a chance to say much about it because we think it’s not going to help.”

Faulkner has employed a literal “watchdog” analogy to the comptroller’s office before, and drove home the point again. “We hear no growls, no biting certainly,” he said of Stringer.

The criticism of Stringer appears a bit overstated given how the comptroller has approached his job for the past three-plus years. Stringer, although a Democrat like de Blasio, has been consistently critical of the mayor and his agencies. In dozens of reports and fiscal audits, Stringer has identified weaknesses in the de Blasio administration and recommended reforms. His office has covered everything from the city’s low level of investment in Minority and Women Owned Businesses (M/WBEs) and the sharp increase in homelessness spending to the costs of snow removal. Just this week, he released an audit of the Department of Education’s implementation of high speed internet in middle schools, finding that the DOE did not maintain documentation that would show whether the project was completed on time or within its budget. Stringer was also a vocal critic of the Campaign for One New York, de Blasio’s political nonprofit, calling it a “slush fund” shortly after de Blasio had been criticized by the Campaign Finance Board for how the nonprofit raised and spent funds.

Although Stringer has not been especially vocal in questioning the rapid increase in expenditure under de Blasio, he puts out his own easy-to-read analysis each year of the mayor’s budget and has advocated for increased savings, insisting that the city must maintain an adequate “budget cushion” to weather a potential economic downturn. He has also hosted numerous town halls and local speaking engagements to directly communicate with New Yorkers across the boroughs. “New Yorkers know they can count on Scott Stringer's independence and effectiveness - plain and simple,” said Ilana Goldman, Stringer’s campaign manager, in an email. “He will continue to hold government accountable and be the progressive voice on the critical issues facing the city. We welcome Michel to the debate.”

Perhaps a result of his outspoken nature, Faulkner believes the Comptroller should be a constant, vocal, independent advocate on behalf of taxpayers. “So I may not be able to increase the number of charter schools, for instance, which is the mayor’s purview,” he said (incorrectly, charter schools are authorized through the state), “but I can say, ‘This is a report on how the schools are running and what the schools are or are not doing...That’s the independent voice. You’re doing a comparison analysis, you’re doing risk analysis...You’re providing really literally the business analysis of how the city is doing business. We don’t see that. I will bring that to the table.”

It was not clear exactly what Faulkner has reviewed from Stringer’s office or what specifically he thinks Stringer is not doing that the incumbent is in fact not putting forth. At the cross-endorsement press conference with Massey, Faulkner indicated he was just starting to dig into a review of Stringer’s output given his shift to the race.

Other than fiscal audits, the city Comptroller is also the fiduciary for the City’s five public pension funds, worth about $160 billion in assets. The Comptroller also reviews city contracts and resolves claims for and against the city. Enforcement of prevailing wage and living wage laws also falls under the office’s purview.

Faulkner believes he is prepared for the role. He touts his own experience running nonprofit groups such as the Institute for Leadership, which ran a statewide diabetes awareness campaign in 2009. He spoke of his experience working under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani on an NYPD police-community relations task force and of his time as a commissioner on the City Charter Review initiative. He also co-chaired a Board of Education task force on HIV/AIDS. Between 2002 and 2004, Faulkner ran programs in the United States for World Vision, an international evangelical aid organization. He founded the New Horizon Church in 2006 and also ran a company called Over the Hump Resources LLC which provided aid to small businesses for the last three years.

“There’s something to be said about having worked in the private sector,” Faulkner said. “Those private sector experiences that you bring to the table give you a perspective that help shape your thinking. Scott [Stringer] doesn’t have that...I’m talking about solutions. Every city agency is audited by the Comptroller. When the audited reports come out and it’s inefficient, it’s obvious that something ain’t working, suggest ways to fix it. I’ll suggest ways to fix it.”

“My job as Comptroller is to help us spend money wiser, to spend it better according to city laws,” Faulkner added, “and to help New Yorkers feel like their money isn’t running away from them.”  

It’s hard to say how Faulkner’s campaign may be received by the electorate leading up to the November election -- at this time, Faulkner and Stringer are running unopposed in their respective primaries. Faulkner is socially conservative and a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in his hometown of New York City. He voted for Trump last year, though he also said he voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and he insists that he isn’t supportive of every Trump policy or proposal. He is a Republican in a city where Democrats have a 6-to-1 voter enrollment advantage. In 2013, Stringer won the office of Comptroller with 80 percent of the vote against little-known Republican John Burnett and a few “third party” candidates.

Faulkner opposes New York’s sanctuary city status and doesn’t agree that low-level non-violent criminal offenses should be treated with civil penalties, which is a key initiative of the current administration and City Council. So far, he’s continued to mostly focus on criticizing de Blasio, with some initial jabs at Stringer. His campaign website has no policy proposals or statements.

Faulkner’s core constituency, he said, is “the forgotten, the disregarded,” including the African-American community, the Latino community, and poor and middle class New Yorkers. He has often focused on some of the egregious conditions plaguing the New York City Housing Authority, NYCHA, which is home to about half-a-million New Yorkers.  “Because just like President Trump talked about...their voices aren’t being heard,” he said.  

But he believes that, just like Trump, he can appeal to voters with the “truth and sincerity” that he brings to the equation and that, again like Trump, experience in elected office is not a necessity to run for Comptroller. “I think we’ve reached a day and a point where career politicians aren’t doing it anymore,” Faulkner said. “We’re seeing the same problems over and over and over. So the person who has held elected office after elected office and government position after government position, doesn’t necessarily manage the city’s or the nation’s affairs well. We need different models.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Three More State Legislators Seek City Council Seats

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Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., left, & AM Mark Gjonaj (photo: @RevRubenDiaz)

There are only a handful of City Council seats opening up this year due to term limits. Of the seven “open” races in the 51-seat Council, all of which are up for election this fall, several feature state legislators seeking to make the jump to the city’s legislative body.

Seeking to stay closer to home for work, legislators who now have to commute to Albany several days a week for half the year have declared their candidacies. Entering City Council races to succeed a term-limited officeholder, the state legislators immediately became favorites to win, first in the September Democratic primaries, then the November general election. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, and Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, all Democrats, are seeking “open” seats in the City Council. (One former Democratic legislator, Hiram Monserrate, is even attempting a comeback after having been expelled from the state Senate in 2010 following his conviction on misdemeanor assault charges.)

Current and former state legislators vying for seats in the City Council is nothing new. A number of sitting Council members themselves were state representatives, many of them just prior to joining the Council. For instance, Council Members Vanessa Gibson, Joe Borelli, Rafael Espinal, Inez Barron, and Alan Maisel have all served in the state Assembly. Council Member Vincent Gentile was formerly a state Senator, as was Bill Perkins, who just recently won a special election in Council District 9 in February.

The advantages to being in the Council are plain to see: Council members receive a much higher pay than state legislators and, after receiving recommendations from a special commission, just recently voted to give themselves a pay raise from $112,500 to $148,500. State lawmakers’ salaries are $79,500 annually, plus stipends for chairing issue committees or house leadership posts (a pay commission convened to explore pay hikes ended its work late last year without any recommendations). There is also the obvious ease of commuting to City Hall and offices in the five boroughs rather than constant trips to Albany. And, for some legislators, being in the Council offers a chance to have a greater say over local policy and the ability to more directly address community concerns. This was true for Perkins, who said when he ran in February that, as a Democrat in the minority in the state Senate, he was less able to affect legislation than he could in the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council.

Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez only recently announced that he is running for the Council District 8 seat that will be vacated by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the end of the year. The district covers East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx. Mark-Viverito has endorsed her deputy chief of staff, Diana Ayala, for the seat, and the Bronx Democratic machinery has split its support for the two candidates. Rodriguez received endorsements last week from Bronx Democratic Party Chair Marcos Crespo, Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright, former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, and Council Member Bill Perkins. Ayala on the other hand has the support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“There’s work to be done and I think there’s ways to translate priorities from the Legislature into the district,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. He said the open seat was a unique opportunity that “literally comes along every eight years, sometimes 12.” “An opportunity too good to turn down,” he said. Rodriguez has already raised $78,647 for his run and spent $22,620, leaving him a balance of $56,017. (He is still currently listed as “undeclared” with the Campaign Finance Board in terms of which office he’ll seek.)

Rodriguez acknowledged the potential advantages of working in the City Council with like-minded lawmakers, unlike Albany where any single piece of legislation must navigate two chambers. “It’s a smaller body and decisions are made differently,” he said of the unicameral and heavily Democratic Council, “there’s less institutional interplay.” And he’s confident that he’ll bring a “sense of experience and confidence” into the race that will sway voters.

As a member of the Assembly for six years, Rodriguez said he’s also seen a lot of turnover and brushes aside any criticism that could be levelled against him for running for the Council just six months after being reelected to the Assembly. “ He also expects that in 2021, when more City Council seats are up for grabs, that many colleagues will make similar moves.

Diana Ayala finds the timing of Rodriguez’s entry into the race puzzling. “Why certain members chose this year to run, I find it questionable,” she told Gotham Gazette. “Public service should be about people, not personal gain. So that concerns me.”

For Ayala, facing off against a sitting state legislator presents an uphill battle, but she said she’s not worried. “Our campaign is picking up steam,” she said. “I’m not gonna dispute that [Rodriguez] has name recognition and establishment support. But I have a lot of community support. I’m pretty confident I can stand on my feet.” Ayala is also participating in the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, which she says will be instrumental to running a competitive race. She has $52,089 in campaign cash, as of May 11, before factoring in any matching funds.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who won his seat in 2013 after beating then-Assemblymember Micah Kellner in the Democratic primary, expressed apprehension last month in an interview with Gotham Gazette about the trend of Albany insiders running for local office. “I am growing concerned with the specter of Senate and Assembly members coming from a broken Albany down to the City Council and bringing back dysfunction with them,” he said outside the Council chambers. “I think it is imperative for democracy for there to be candidates who will run against members of the Assembly or Senate...and I hope that voters evaluate candidates regardless of whether or not they’ve served in Albany.”

“I would actually hope,” he added, “that if somebody is coming down from Albany as a career politician, folks might hold that against them and support a citizen legislator.”

In District 13, Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj is running to replace outgoing Council Member James Vacca. Gjonaj has a massive fundraising lead over his opponents already, with $212,684 on hand for his campaign. He was also endorsed by the Bronx Democratic County Committee last week. “I’m looking to continue the work that I began in the Assembly and delivering for my constituents, being more accessible to them and being in the district,” Gjonaj said in a brief phone interview. He was confident that he brings the most experience to the race, insisting that he was proud to be in the state Legislature although it’s a “complicated institution.”

John Doyle, a former staffer for State Senator Jeff Klein is one of seven other candidates in the race with Gjonaj. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with someone looking to change their position,” Doyle said of Gjonaj’s campaign, “but I think there’s something disingenuous when somebody’s running for reelection saying they’ll be a voice for two years and after their reelection, they announced for a new position.” Gjonaj was reelected to the Assembly last year.

Doyle criticized Gjonaj’s campaign fundraising, much of which comes from outside the city, and also broadly stressed that many of the systemic corruption issues in Albany stemmed from the way lawmakers raise funds. He noted that Gjonaj had voted for campaign finance reform in 2014, but has chosen not to participate in the public matching funds system.

In response to Doyle's comments, a spokesperson for Gjonaj said, "Mr. Doyle's platform seems to be 'I'm not the other guy.' As for Assemblyman Gjonaj he is committed, above all, to representing the best interests of his constituency. He is at work passing progressive legislation and meeting voters." Spokesperson Jennifer Blatus went on to say that Gjonaj has widespread support and that "Doyle is desperate for attention. He doesn't have a clue on how to pass legislation or attract capital projects." She also indicated that Gjonaj is not participating in the city's campaign finance program because he "prefers tax payers dollars be used for after school programs for youth, senior programs, and libraries - not political campaigns."

State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr.’s run in Council District 18 may be the most controversial of the state legislators’ this cycle. Diaz Sr., although a Democrat, is conservative on social issues, such as LGBT rights, and running for a seat on a body that is heavily progressive. (There are only three Republicans in the Council, one of whom is pro-choice.) But Diaz Sr. has been able to raise significant funds in a short period, and has $93,901 in his campaign account, surpassing candidates who have been in the race for months.

All of the state legislators running start the race with community ties and significant advantage in name recognition, especially among those who vote.

Council Member Gibson, a former Assembly member, admits that moving from Albany to the city is not an easy move but it comes with advantages, both for the member and the legislative body. “Although it was a transition,” she said, “I think being a state elected official gave me a lot of understanding of how Albany works and navigating the state Legislature, and really about the City Council relying so heavily on state funds.”

But she also said that elected experience is far from necessary to run for the Council. “There is no manual on how to do this well,” she said. “You have to be a team player, you have to be someone that can build a coalition around you. You have to be someone who has leadership and management skills...and you really have to have an ability to work with all people.”

Gibson also pushed back against the idea that state legislators would bring Albany dysfunction with them. “I think when you talk about dysfunction and a culture, I don’t think you can define it to one individual legislator or even a few legislators. I think it’s almost the system that’s been in place. And it’s really the entire body of government.”

[Related: The May Money Race in 'Open' City Council Seats]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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