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In Albany, De Blasio Argues for Mayoral Control Extension

de blasio testimony senate

De Blasio testifies in Albany (photo via @KellyCummings)

Mayor Bill de Blasio received a generally friendly welcome from Senate Republicans throughout several hours of testimony in Albany on Wednesday during a hearing on mayoral control of city schools. De Blasio was peppered with questions regarding issues such as special education, charter school co-locations, mental health services, and school space, but the issue of mayoral control as a governance structure was addressed head on only in limited doses.

For his part, de Blasio touted gains in graduation rates and test scores, he spoke of the growth of universal pre-kindergarten and community schools and explained new goals around literacy rates and computer science courses. He even pointed to the number of weak teachers let go during his administration. The mayor was flanked by his schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, who often added specifics to bolster the mayor’s argument or answer questions from legislators.

The hearing could have come at a better time for the mayor - Senate Republicans have recently seized on news of investigations facing de Blasio around his involvement in 2014 efforts to win the chamber for Democrats. De Blasio has been plagued by a series of investigations by federal, state, and city authorities into his fundraising practices.

Sen. Terrence Murphy was the only Senate Republican to bring up the matter during the hearing. "Why I should vote for mayoral control with all the allegations that are going on in your office?" Murphy asked de Blasio.

De Blasio asked Murphy to consider facts such as a 70 percent graduation rate and other successes, adding, “We don't literally know of any other alternative.” De Blasio addressed the allegations saying, "In a democracy, we don't judge by allegations, we judge by facts." Murphy countered that “trust” was still an issue.

De Blasio has served as an electoral boogeyman for Senate Republicans across the state for the last two years, but tensions have heightened in the wake of the investigations and the results of a special election on Long Island where Democrats won the seat that was long held by former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Bad feelings, largely emanating from de Blasio’s involvement in the 2014 election cycle, resulted in a one-year extension of mayoral control last year. De Blasio cried foul pointing out his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was granted a seven-year extension.

This year, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan insisted mayoral control not be addressed as part of the state budget, an agreement on which was reached March 31, and invited de Blasio to testify at two public hearings. The second will be May 19 in New York City.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly has advocated a seven-year extension, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed three. At the end of his opening testimony, during which he highlighted his long support for mayoral control of city schools and the bipartisan nature of overall support, de Blasio asked for a seven-year extension.

Wednesday’s hearing was more dominated by specific concerns from Democrats about schools in their districts than any hostility from Senate Republicans. Education committee chair Sen. Carl Marcellino led the hearing with little fanfare, asking substantive questions and attempting to keep things focused and moving.

In his preparation for renewal this year de Blasio has referenced his predecessors and support from business groups in an attempt to paint the issue as non-partisan. It was a note he repeatedly hit during Wednesday’s hearing.

“We are in lockstep on mayoral control,” de Blasio said referring to Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. “It's a system that is superior to what we had before and there is no third way.”

Marcellino, a Long Island Republican like Flanagan, who was his predecessor as education chair, began the hearing by bluntly asking de Blasio about his previous stance on mayoral control. “There was point in time you didn't think highly of mayoral control, why did you change your mind?”

De Blasio quickly countered that his voting record demonstrates his support of the system, but said that he had been concerned in the past about parental involvement.

With that out of the way de Blasio delivered prepared testimony where he touted a familiar list of achievements including the city reaching 70 percent graduation rates for first time in its history; the enrollment of 68,000 students in pre-K, and a commitment to new goals and standards. De Blasio repeatedly thanked legislators for their support, specifically pointing to their approval of funding for pre-K.

There were a few moments of drama.

Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who is elected as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans, complained of being ignored by the administration and demanded de Blasio promise to ease the process by which parents of students with special needs are ensured of an appropriate learning environment for their children by the beginning of the next school year. De Blasio commiserated with Felder on the importance of the issue, but declined to make such a broad promise. He did, however, commit to providing Felder with a letter describing what progress the city does intend to make. Felder appeared satisfied by the end of the exchange.

A number of Democrats including Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, a Brooklyn Democrat, appeared to urge de Blasio to distance himself from Bloomberg’s legacy on mayoral control but de Blasio declined, saying that he felt there had been “undeniable” progress made under Bloomberg, though he did note he thought recent improvements had been made to parental involvement.

De Blasio spoke carefully on the subject of charter schools, even while being offered several chances to criticize them by Senator Bill Perkins, a Manhattan Democrat who asked a series of charter-related questions. The mayor repeated his recent public opinions on charters by saying that they must enroll a student body representative of their surrounding areas and retain challenging students while also saying that the administration is working well with many charter schools.

Marcellino reminded Perkins that it was a hearing on mayoral control, not charter schools and Perkins explained that charters are a key piece of education policy, having noted that under Mayor Bloomberg charters began to proliferate in his district.

Gov. Cuomo and Senate Republicans have been very supportive of charter schools in the past, while de Blasio has often battled with the most high-profile charter network, Success Academy.

The individuals testifying immediately following de Blasio and Farina were tied to charter schools in various ways. They complained of the mayor’s treatment of the schools and expressed support for limiting the renewal of mayoral control. They noted that charter schools are subject to renewal after lengths of terms varying from five, two, or even one year. Testimony was by invitation only. A number of Democratic Senators said they had heard from parent groups that had requested to testify but were denied.

In one of the only direct questions regarding the city’s school governance system, Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, asked de Blasio what it would mean to have mayoral control renewed on a one-year basis.

“It creates instability,” said de Blasio, who added that it impacts larger initiatives to improve schools over a span of years. “It is a disservice to our children if we don't even know what our governance will be in a year. It doesn't allow us to achieve what we need to achieve.”

De Blasio and Farina both returned to a theme over their three hours of testimony that they haven’t been presented with an actual alternative to mayoral control. “To what end,” de Blasio asked of frequent debates over the system. “If there was an alternative on the table that is better I would debate it any day.”

Krueger suggested that perhaps the Legislature shouldn’t meddle in city school issues given that a lot of the issues discussed during the hearings including co-location and school space required hyper-local knowledge. “There are certain roles for the state Legislature that are important, there are others that we have to leave alone,” said Krueger.

De Blasio appeared to distance himself from that assertion. “We should be in regular dialogue,” he said. “There should be a partnership. We honor that fact and we want to be in regular communication about how we do things together.”

The mayor took a firm, but collaborative and deferential tone for most of the hearing, appearing to understand his audience and its power. He also surely knows, though, that Gov. Cuomo will have a lot of influence over the fate of mayoral control when the governor and legislative leaders negotiate any policy between now and the end of the session in June.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing     @GothamGazette

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Hearing Advances Reforms to City Campaign Finance System

kallos computer

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: William Alatriste)

As Mayor Bill de Blasio is mired in controversy over his fundraising activities and proximity to lobbyists, the City Council is moving on bills to reduce the possibility of ‘pay-to-play’ campaign financing and make significant tweaks to strengthen an already-robust public-matching system.

The Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations held a hearing on Monday to examine a package of eight bills that would reform campaign finance rules and improve the city’s public matching funds program, which, though it has some critics, is often held up as a national model.

The bills, introduced in November, aim to implement recommendations made by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB) after the 2013 city election cycle. Perhaps most notably, the bills would eliminate public matching funds for contributions bundled by people who do business with the city, provide earlier public matching funds to candidates, and improve disclosure requirements for companies or people that own entities that do business with the city.

Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the committee and prime sponsor of three of the bills, was particularly concerned about Intro. 985-A, his proposal to limit the influence of bundlers.

“I think it’s a matter of the public who want their voices to be louder than those of special interests to let their elected officials know that they need to sign on to this bill and they need to bring it to the floor of the Council,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette after the hearing.

Kallos got a boost during the hearing when Council Member David Greenfield asked to be added as a sponsor to the bill. The next step will be to drum up support from other Council members and, most importantly, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito before the bills can be voted through committee and head to the full Council. The process is still in its initial stages as the committee took expert testimony Monday, Greenfield would become just the fourth Council member, of 51, to sponsor 985-A.

Almost everyone who testified seemed to acknowledge that 985-A and Intro. 986, the early matching funds bill, were the more significant proposals. A number of good government groups also came out in support of the entire legislative package.

Prudence Katze, research and policy manager for Common Cause New York, commended the city and the campaign finance board for progress administering “accessible” and “clean” local elections. “But, we still have many ways to improve and the bills before the Council today all go towards plugging the holes that still exist,” she said.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, also backed all the bills, but said 985-A was possibly the most “meaningful” and should be the Council’s number one priority. “It’s a common sense, much-needed piece of legislation, even more so given the rising scandals, the growing crime wave of corruption we see here in Albany that now seems to have reached down into New York City,” Dadey said.

Campaign Finance Board reps strongly praised all the bills, albeit calling for the early matching funds bill to only go into effect after the 2017 elections so that all involved in the program can be properly prepared. Kallos said he was willing to make this change. “City lawmakers have regularly refreshed and updated the [campaign finance] program,” said Amy Loprest, executive director, NYCCFB, “ensuring it stays relevant as city campaigns and elections evolve.”

Loprest also listed a number of measures the board has recently initiated to improve the system, including the implementation of an online contribution platform to help donors comply with campaign finance regulations, improved disclosure software, increased candidate trainings, and timely enforcement.

“The bills before the committee today will help modernize the program,” Loprest said. “They will remove outdated or unnecessary requirements the law imposes on campaigns, help candidates better plan their campaigns, and importantly, they will strengthen the law’s protections against the influence of pay-to-play.”

In a sign that the legislative package is likely to move forward, Henry Berger, special counsel to Mayor de Blasio, expressed the administration’s support for the eight bills “with a few technical corrections.”

Berger noted, however, that the proposals do not address the CFB’s reliance on post-election auditing and enforcement procedures “which threaten the proper administration of public matching fund payments.” Noting that the CFB only started issuing audit reports for 2013 public fund recipients in May of 2015, he stated the administration’s interest in working with the Council on legislation to ensure that the CFB completes enforcement and payment determinations sooner in the election cycle. “Rather than piecemeal adjustments, the city needs a comprehensive overhaul to give every candidate a full and fair opportunity to respond to and resolve specific allegations in a timely manner before the election,” Berger said. “No candidate should be deprived of any public matching funds he or she has earned on the basis of unresolved allegations.”

The hearing also saw consideration of two resolutions, sponsored by Kallos, calling on the state Legislature to pass the Voter Empowerment Act (VEA) and a constitutional amendment that would establish no-excuse absentee voting in the state. The VEA is a joint effort by State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, who was at the hearing. The omnibus bill would provide automatic voter registration and online registration, and change the state’s deadlines for people to register and choose their party enrollment.   

When Kallos asked what the city could do to help push these bills in Albany, Kavanagh appealed to Council members to drum up public support and to urge their Assembly member to join his effort before the end of the legislative session in Albany on June 16. The CFB’s voter outreach arm, NYC Votes, is helping to lead a lobbying coalition to Albany on Tuesday in support of the VEA.

“Hope springs eternal,” said Kavanagh, pointing out the extra attention these issues have received because of the primary election day debacle. “What we need candidly is public pressure,” he added.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

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

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, May 2

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week starts amid a swirl of controversy - there are several ongoing investigations into Mayor Bill de Blasio, his administration, his allies, and their fundraising practices; and, news broke Friday of ongoing investigations into associates of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including his former top aide Joseph Percoco and others involved in the Buffalo Billion economic development project. It was previously known that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was investigating aspects of the Buffalo Billion, but Friday's news, first reported by The Daily News, shed more light.

Meanwhile, there is much anticipation ahead of de Blasio's expected trip to Albany on Wednesday to testify at a state Senate hearing on mayoral control of city schools. Mayoral control is due to expire at the end of June after it was extended for just one year at the end of last year's legislative session in Albany. De Blasio is expected to testify at both Wednesday's hearing and one later this month in New York City on May 19. The fact that de Blasio's 2014 efforts to flip the Senate to Democratic control are being investigated by law enforcement adds incredible context to the hearings.

Before that hearing, the two houses of the state Legislature are back in session Tuesday after a two-week break. There are a variety of issues of consequence for New York City, including mayoral control of schools, on the post-budget session docket - read our overview here. The session is set to end in mid-June. Related: Session Days Quickly Dwindle, Intensifying Worry Over Ethics.

Executive budget hearings also kick off this week at the New York City Council. De Blasio unveiled his $82.2 billion executive spending plan last week - news that was largely subsumed by developing news of investigations into the mayor's 2014 attempts to flip the Senate. Budget hearings start on Friday, a budget deal between de Blasio and the Council is due by the end of June - the new fiscal year begins July 1.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

At 8 a.m. Monday, Crain’s New York Business will host the “Crain’s Real Estate Conference: Building Solutions,” where real estate stakeholders will discuss the next stage in the development of the far west side and Hudson Yards and other issues important to the real estate industry. Speakers include U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer; President of the Real Estate Board of New York John Banks; Vicki Been, commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development; and others.

At 9:15 a.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio is scheduled to “appear live on Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning to discuss Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and the Executive Budget,” according to his public schedule - which also notes timing is subject to change.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, and Council Member Daneek Miller host a tour of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan on “Muslim Cultures: Near and Far.”

Also at 10:30 a.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will attend an event for "Just Say Hi," a campaign to increase engagement with people with disabilities, at Beacon High School in Manhattan.

At 11 a.m. Monday, a coalition of elected officials and community groups will hold a press conference at City Hall to call for passage of the E-Impersonation Prevention Act, New York Senate Bill S5871-A, which seeks to punish cyberbullying perpetrators with jail time. Attendees will include state Senator Kevin Parker; social activist and former Miss New York Meaghan Jarensky; Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal; state Senator Persaud; City Councilmember Ritchie Torres; and others.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, “Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and two Bronx Week 2016 honorees, actor Vincent Pastore and dance pioneer Eduardo Vilaro, will host a celebration of the “Best of The Bronx” to kickoff Bronx Week 2016...at Mike’s Deli in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.”

At the City Council on Monday:

  • 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to address a land use application for the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens.
  • 2 p.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will meet to consider several bills aimed at reforming the city’s campaign finance system, including its public-matching program - read about the package of bills here. The committee will also vote to support the Voter Empowerment Act of New York and a constitutional amendment establishing no-excuse absentee voting.

At 6 p.m. Monday, Governor Cuomo will attend the 10th Annual Spirit of ABNY Awards, Rainbow Room, 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, the New York City Bar will host an event on “The Impact of Expanded Civil Legal Services on Low-Income New Yorkers,” which will explore how the recent expansion in civil legal services in the city will impact low-income New Yorkers, civil legal services providers, the courts, and members of the bar in general. Speakers include Steven Banks, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration; Helaine M. Barnett, chair of the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice; Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society Civil Practice; and others.

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, New America will hold an event, “Fast and Free: New York’s Vision for Public Wi-Fi Everywhere,” a conversation on the suite of communications initiatives and potential challenges to such initiatives. Speakers include Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project, Maya Wiley, counsel to the mayor of NYC, and others.

On Monday evening, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will attend the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Gala.

Former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is due to be sentenced on federal corruption charges Tuesday.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

The Vote Better NY campaign and petition drive will be in Albany Tuesday to lobby lawmakers and deliver its change.org petition, which urges New York state legislators to adopt three key reform proposals: The Voter Empowerment Act to modernize voter registration systems, the Voter Friendly Ballot Act to create easier-to-read ballots, and early voting options for New Yorkers.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs will host a panel discussion, “Celebrating 100 Years of Jane Jacobs: Innovations in New York City’s Open Space,” featuring Leslie Koch, president of The Trust for Governors Island; Regina Myer, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation; and Mitchell Silver, commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation. The event, coordinated with the Municipal Art Society of New York, is part of a series on urbanism and Jane Jacobs’ legacy.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • 9:45 a.m., the Committee on Public Safety will meet to vote on several resolutions, including on Nicholas’ Law to improve gun safety, the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act of 2015, a law requiring law enforcement to implement evidence-based eyewitness identification procedures and recording of custodial interrogations, in order to safeguard against wrongful convictions, and others.
  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, jointly with the Committee on Public Safety, will meet on several bills, including a bill establishing an office of crime victim services, a bill establishing an office of reentry services for individuals released from incarceration, and a bill requiring the Police Department to maintain an early intervention system that is used to identify police officers whom may be in need of enhanced training or monitoring.
  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Waterfronts will meet on a bill expanding the role of the waterfront management advisory board.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Civil Rights will meet to vote on a resolution recognizing March 5 as “Three-Fifths Clause Awareness Day” to be officially observed each year in New York City, and a resolution calling upon Congress to add an amendment to the Constitution directly negating the language of the “three-fifths clause.”
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Technology will meet on a bill allowing the online submission of city business permits, licenses, and applications.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo will hold a town hall to discuss a proposed bill to impose a five cent fee on all plastic and paper bags; members of the community are welcomed to discuss the implications of the proposed bill, to hear from advocates both in support of and opposing the bill, and to ask questions - Ingersoll Community Center, Brooklyn.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the Senate Standing Committee on Education will hold a public hearing to examine the merits of extending mayoral control of schools in New York City. The hearing will take place in the Legislative Office Building in Albany and Mayor de Blasio is expected to be among those to testify.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • 9:30 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet to address a land use application to allow increased retail uses in existing public plazas and arcades in Manhattan.
  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet on several bills, including one to amend local law in respect to the eviction of elderly tenants; a bill to amend the definition of harassment to include the illegal conversion of dwelling units; and a bill requiring the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to provide tenants with disabilities with information about legal services when such tenants are facing eviction.
  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services will meet on two bills, one requiring the Department of Probation to evaluate the effectiveness of its programming, and another requiring the same department to issue a yearly, public report on recidivism.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet to vote on a resolution designating the Riegelmann Boardwalk in Coney Island as a scenic landmark.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet one a bill requiring the licensing of solicitation by costumed individuals providing entertainment in public spaces.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Small Businesses will meet on a bill requiring the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to notify a business when a city has received a complaint about its operation.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations will meet for an oversight hearing on the Art and Culture as a Catalyst for Political and Social Change organization.

At 6:30 p.m., the New York City Bar will hold an event on “The Future of Veterans Treatment Courts in New York City,” to discuss the establishment of Veterans Treatment Courts in NYC, and the impact they may have on the city’s veterans and criminal justice system. Panelists include Hon. Jo Ann Ferdinand, who presides over the Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court; Hon. Marcia Hirsch, who presides over the Queens Veterans Treatment Court; and Loree Sutton, commissioner of the newly created New York City Department of Veterans’ Services.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Thursday in Albany.

At the City Council on Thursday: 1:30 p.m., the City Council will hold a stated meeting. It will be prefaced, as usual, by a pre-stated press conference led by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, the New York City Bar will hold an event on “The Future of Affordable Housing in New York City 2016 (an update),” which will provide an inside perspective on the real estate industry and affordable housing in New York City. Speakers will focus on the evolution of as well as changes to affordable housing programs and tax incentive programs since the last program in May 2015.

On Thursday, there will be arguments in New York State Supreme Court in the lawsuit being brought by Success Academy charter schools and parents against New York City over pre-K program funding. The de Blasio administration has refused to provide public funding to Success Academy pre-K programs because the network has not signed up for the oversight that the city has required of all programs receiving public funds.

At 7:30 a.m. Thursday, The New York Women’s Foundation will host a “Celebrating Women Breakfast,” which will feature Tory Burch, CEO and designer at Tory Burch; Elizabeth Sackler, founder of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art; and the Young Women’s Initiative, which was started by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and aims to invest in young women of color.

Friday and the weekend
At 10 a.m. on Friday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Energy, jointly with the Assembly Standing Committee on Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry will hold a public hearing to discuss potential obstacles to net-metering for residents and businesses. The hearing will take place at 250 Broadway in New York City.

At the City Council on Friday: 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will kick off executive budget hearings, joined by the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency at noon.

At 6 p.m. on Friday, Chancellor of the state Board of Regents Betty Rosa will speak about her vision to transform New York public schools at a forum co-sponsored by Class Size Matters, CEC 6 and the Youth and Education Committee of CB12M, at George Washington Educational Campus. Investigative reporter Juan Gonzalez will moderate.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time:bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Kelly Fan and Ben Max

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