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Legislation Aimed at Holding City Accountable for Rezoning Commitments


city hall rotunda during announcement

Announcement at City Hall (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


With the recent passage of the East New York rezoning and community development plan, the city committed to revitalizing the neglected Brooklyn neighborhood by creating affordable housing, investing in community infrastructure, and promoting economic development. The first among 15 neighborhood rezonings planned by Mayor Bill de Blasio, East New York ushers in a new era of planned change and city promises.

As these rezoning and development plans progress, a parallel effort is moving through the City Council to ensure that the city is held to its word in making commitments to communities when modifying land-use rules and upzoning neighborhoods for development.

Last month, a bill was introduced in the City Council -- sponsored by Public Advocate Letitia James, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Council Members Rafael Espinal and Deborah Rose -- that would create a publicly accessible database of commitments made by the administration in any city-sponsored Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application. The database and an accompanying annual report would allow elected officials and, perhaps more importantly, the general public to track the promises to communities made by the Mayor and city agencies.

The database and reports would provide regular updates on the progress of initiated projects and track projects left unfulfilled. Following the final passage of any city-sponsored land-use application, the commitments would be recorded on the database within 30 days.

“It will not only record commitments,” said Public Advocate James, “It’s an ongoing reminder of the commitment made by the city to the general public.”

James recognizes the need to push this bill at a time when the city is gearing up to rezone and redevelop those 15 neighborhoods across the city, starting with East New York, as part of an ambitious plan by Mayor Bill de Blasio to harness gentrification and create affordable housing in neighborhoods under strain from market forces.

The public advocate, formerly a Brooklyn City Council member, says she has seen a pattern in similar neighborhood rezonings in the past where guarantees made by the city routinely fell through the cracks. She cited Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint as a few areas where the city reneged on its pledges to provide ample community benefits while allowing real estate development. “I see all of these luxury condos that have gone up and no public benefits and amenities,” James said.

James’ vocal opposition to the Atlantic Yards redevelopment in Brooklyn was in part because of the city’s failure to ensure adequate community benefits particularly affordable housing.

“The bill is a transparency and accountability effort ensuring that promised benefits are delivered,” she added. James said the bill would be prospective and would not apply retroactively to any land use deals.

City Council Member Brad Lander is a “big fan of planning” and he gives the administration credit for the broad community development plan created for East New York. “There’s a lot of important parts to getting planning right,” he said.

One of those important parts, he believes, is tracking community commitments and the public advocate’s bill would make those commitments “visible, public, and online, and ensure regular tracking and reporting,” Lander said in support.

Of course, tracking does not necessarily mean that promises will definitely be kept, he said. “It’s very hard to mandate keeping of promises,” he said, pointing out that the Council can only make budget decisions for a one-year period and cannot control decisions made in later years by new elected officials. But he added that it provides people with a strong tool to hold the city publicly accountable.

If there’s any elected official now facing this, it’s Espinal, the Council member who represents a majority of the East New York area under the new rezoning plan. He was front and center in the negotiations with the de Blasio administration and managed to secure $267 million in capital funds for East New York under the plan (plus other investments through school and sewer construction that comes from other funding sources).

Ensuring that the capital projects outlined in the East New York deal are carried out is “one of the most important parts of the plan,” Espinal told Gotham Gazette shortly after it was voted through by the Council land use committee. “We want to make sure that the commitments that are made by the administration are kept, that the community residents are able to track this easily online so that we won’t be kept guessing on when these projects will start and when they’ll be completed.”

Espinal is hoping, and trying to see, that the bill passes before the East New York commitments are set in stone -- which he said would be 30 days after the full Council vote of April 20.

“We’re currently working with the administration in creating the template of what that (database) will look like so the bill is actually being worked on and it’s something that we hope to pass very soon,” Espinal said. “It’s gonna happen within a month or so.”

In a letter that listed the various capital commitments in the East New York plan, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said her office was working with the Mayor’s Office of Operations and city agencies to “develop a tool that will track the progress made against each commitment and make this information available online for the public.” These commitments, the letter states, will be posted on the city’s website within 30 days of the council’s full vote. MOO will also post an annual progress report online.

“Our goal from the beginning of the process has been to ensure that we create a clear set of commitments, which can be tracked by the community and the Council Member to ensure that we are honoring our commitments made as a part of rezoning,” the letter reads.

These efforts would become mandatory if James and the Speaker’s bill passes. Currently, there is no hearing set for the bill, which would go before the land use committee, but a spokesperson for Speaker Mark-Viverito said they expect to find a date soon. The bill will require one committee hearing to garner feedback from the de Blasio administration and the public, followed by another committee meeting for a vote and then a vote through the full Council.

“Obviously my interest would be to put this in place as quickly as possible,” Mark-Viverito told Gotham Gazette after a recent news conference at City Hall. “We want to be able to track whatever commitments are made on any new development deals or land use deals.”

Both James and Mark-Viverito said that they were having conversations with the administration on the bill. An aide for the speaker said there was a “a normal back and forth that the administration’s generally supported.”

And it appears the de Blasio administration is onboard. "We look forward to working closely with the City Council and Public Advocate on this important transparency measure," said Austin Finan, spokesperson for the mayor, in an email.

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

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

Read more by this writer.

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.



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