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News Feed http://www.gothamgazette.com/ Mon, 24 Nov 2014 09:46:14 GMT FeedCreator 1.8.0-dev (info@mypapit.net) City Council Course Offering: Open Data 101 http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5444-city-council-course-offering-open-data-101-vacca Vacca

Council Member Vacca (photo: William Alatriste)

For civic technologists and the data savvy, New York City's Open Data Portal has been a blessing. After years of limited transparency, City data, which is extremely useful for solving civic problems, is now out in the open to a much larger degree than ever before.


But members of the New York City Council, who are the front lines of constituent services, have not been actively using the portal. Most council members are not software engineers or data scientists; with only one known exception (Council Member Ben Kallos), they don't write software code.

While none of those are requirements to use the Open Data Portal, having a minimum understanding of what the portal offers and how to use it would help council members and their staffs access the wealth of information available. Some guidance for how to take advantage of available information is needed to turn the rows of data into useful formats for analysis and policy-making.

At an October 27 City Council Technology Committee oversight hearing on open data, committee Chair James Vacca mentioned offering an open data training for council members. Less than a month later, that training will become a reality. On Tuesday, November 25, from 10 to 11 a.m. at council office space in 250 Broadway, Council Member Vacca will host a training session led by members from the City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) and the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics (MODA).

The training, closed to the press, will focus on navigating the Open Data Portal, showcasing the data sets that may be most useful to council members, and answering questions.

"I realized that if other Council Members' offices were armed with the knowledge about how to tap into this resource, it could hugely shape the way we craft legislation and conduct constituent services," Vacca said by email Friday. "As Chair of the Committee on Technology, it is my hope that the open government tools that we have sought to uphold through the Open Data Law are also being used by government staff."

As of Friday there were roughly 16 RSVPs from council members or staff representatives, according to a spokesperson for Vacca's office, who declined to provide specific names.

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

MeriwetherK@gothamgazette.com (Kristen Meriwether) Sun, 23 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5444-city-council-course-offering-open-data-101-vacca
The Next Two Weeks in New York Politics http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5445-week-ahead-new-york-politics-november-23-and-30 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week *and next* in New York politics:

This week will be a short one for public political events, but there's quite a bit going on at the start of the week, not the least of which is a busy Monday schedule of committee hearings at the City Council, followed by a full-body Stated Meeting on Tuesday, at which several bills will be passed and others introduced. Tuesday also features a City Council training hosted by Council Member James Vacca aimed at helping council members and their staffs learn to better utilize the City's open data portal.

We're also continuing the watch for word from the Staten Island special grand jury convened by District Attorney Dan Donovan in the aftermath of the death of Eric Garner. We should know soon if the grand jury is recommending charges against the police officer whose chokehold around Garner's neck led to Garner's death. And now, many will be watching for more fallout from the killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black teenager shot late Thursday night by a white police officer in the stairwell of a NYCHA building in Brooklyn.

Mayor Bill de Blasio begins his week with only one event on his public schedule, though it is closed to the press: "Mayor de Blasio will host a community meeting with local elected officials and community members at City Hall as part of the administration's ongoing efforts to engage the community and build more support for the City's bid for the 2016 Democratic National Convention."

Public Advocate Tish James and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will begin their weeks at "Food Bank for New York City Legislative Breakfast" in Manhattan.

What we have for the next two weeks in detail:

Monday, Nov. 24
The New York City Campaign Finance Board will hold a public hearing Monday morning at its Manhattan office on rules regarding text message campaign contributions: "on proposed rules setting minimum requirements for receiving text message contributions to be eligible for public matching funds." Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, among others, will testify. "SMS contributions provide candidates with the potential to engage a wider set of contributors and the CFB with an opportunity to expand the reach of NYC's landmark small-dollar matching funds program. Read more about the challenges and opportunities posed by SMS contributions at the CFB's blog."

On Monday morning, "New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito joins Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank For New York City and others at a legislative breakfast to release a report on the state of hunger and the emergency food network in the city a year after cuts to SNAP, Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College," according to City & State NY. According to her public schedule, Public Advocate James will also be in attendance. This will be followed on Monday by a Council General Welfare Committee oversight hearing on hunger in New York City, among other agenda items (see below).

Monday, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Bureau of HIV/AIDS will launch "New York Knows" in Manhattan (after iterations in the Bronx and Brooklyn), "bringing together Manhattan community partners to encourage those who do not know their HIV status to get tested—and to link those who test positive to care and support services."

On Monday at 1 p.m., "Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance convenes a roundtable with law enforcement partners to discuss a new grand jury report on fraud related to minority and women business enterprises," according to City & State NY.

Monday's City Council schedule will include: a meeting of Committee on Transportation to see the introduction of new bills relating to "increasing the number of accessible pedestrian signals"; the Committee on General Welfare will hold an oversight hearing on "Hunger in New York City"; a meeting of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations to consider a resolution: "recognizing and commemorating January 13th as Korean American Day in the City of New York"; and a meeting of Committee on Health to consider new bills relating to pet shops:

  • Proposed Int. No. 55-A - Regulating pet shops.
  • Proposed Int. No. 73-A - Updating the definition of "pet shop" within the animal abuse registration act.
  • Proposed Int. No. 136-A - Spaying, neutering and licensing of animals sold in pet shops.
  • Proposed Int. No. 146-A - Microchipping animals sold in pet shops

Monday evening is The Riders Alliance 2014 Gala in Manhattan. BP Brewer, among many other elected officials, will be in attendance. [Read our look at the advocacy work of Riders Alliance as it and others seek a more responsive, effective MTA]

Tuesday, Nov. 25
Tuesday's City Council schedule includes: a meeting of Committee on Finance to consider the following:

  • Resolution concerning the increase in the annual expenditure for the Steinway Street, 34th Street, 125th Street, 47th Street, 86th Street Bay Ridge, Columbus/Amsterdam, Forest Avenue, Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn, 161st Street, and Sunnyside Business Improvement Districts, and the setting of the date, time and place for the hearing of the local law increasing the annual expenditure for such districts.
  • Resolution approving the new designation and changes in the designation of certain organizations to receive funding in the Expense Budget.
  • And other such business as may be necessary

And the City Council will hold a full-body Stated Meeting in the Council Chambers at 1:30 p.m., presaged, as always by a pre-Stated press conference led by Speaker Mark-Viverito.

Tuesday evening, NYC Department of Education will hold 2014 Panel for Educational Policy meeting at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan.

Wednesday, Nov. 26
Watch for pre-Thanksgiving news dumps, everyone!

Thursday, Nov. 27 through Sunday Nov. 30
Happy Thanksgiving! We hope you enjoy the holiday. As always, lawmakers, advocates, and many other volunteers will be spending time at food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other places serving those in need.

It's a quiet weekend politically, of course. But, things pick up again starting Monday, December 1 - here's what we have for the first week in December as of now, we'll update for Sunday Nov. 30, and please do send us items to include any time:

Monday, Dec. 1
The League of Conservation Voters will host its annual New York Dinner on Monday, December 1, featuring Hillary Clinton, and honoring the retiring president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Frances Beinecke.

Tuesday, Dec. 2
The City Council schedule for Tuesday, December 2, is set to include: the Committee on Juvenile Justice will meet for an oversight hearing regarding "Examining DYFJ's Juvenile Justice Oversight Board"; and the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will hold an oversight hearing on "Cablevision Franchise Agreement and Collective Bargaining."

Tuesday morning, Dec. 2, the CUNY Graduate Center will host a seminar looking at the implementation of universal free lunch in all New York City middle schools: "This fall, universal free lunch was implemented in all New York City middle schools, feeding 160,000 middle school children in grades six through eight. At this seminar we'll discuss progress, challenges, successes and the way forward."

Community Voices Heard will hold its annual Shirley Chisholm "Lights of Freedom" Awards dinner on Tuesday evening, Dec. 2, celebrating "the hard work of our honorees and members who have been fighting for justice and equality for all low income and working New Yorkers" and honoring NYS Senator and Democratic Conference Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, among others. The event's host committee includes Co-Chair and New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera; Council Members Lander, Rosenthal, Mark-Viverito, and Torres; and Assembly Member-Elect Michael Blake, among others.

Tuesday evening, Dec. 2, will see the latest installment of the popular monthly NY Tech Meetup in Manhattan: "Join fellow technologists for an evening of live demos from companies developing great technology in New York."

Wednesday, Dec. 3
Wednesday, Dec. 3, will feature the "2014 Campaign Roundtables: Reflecting on the NYS Governor and State Senate Races" at the New School, featuring two impressive panels:

Panel on the 2014 Governor's race: 9 am to 10:45 am, moderated by Rob George, The New York Post:

  • Kate Albright-Hanna, communications director, Teachout campaign
  • Alexis Grenell, City & State
  • Peter Kauffmann, senior advisor, NYS Democratic Committee
  • Michael Lawler, campaign manager, Astorino campaign
  • Brian Murphy, CUNY Baruch College
  • William O'Reilly, consultant, Astorino campaign
  • Jessica Proud, spokesperson, Astorinio campaign
  • Zephyr Teachout, Democratic primary candidate
  • Matt Wing, Cuomo communications director

Panel on the NYS Senate Race race: 11 am to 12:30 pm, Moderated by: Jeff Smith, assistant professor of politics and advocacy, The New School, and Brigid Bergin, WNYC Radio:

  • Gerald Benjamin, SUNY New Paltz
  • Tom Doherty, Mercury strategy firm
  • Blair Horner, New York Public Interest Research Group
  • Naomi Konst, The Accountability Project
  • Ben Lazarus, StudentsFirstNY
  • Janos Marton, former special counsel, Moreland Commission
  • David Nir, Daily Kos
  • Jeff Plaut Democratic pollster
  • Basil Smikle, Basil Smikle Associates

Wednesday morning will see "Diane Ravitch on the Uses and Abuses of Education Data" at the CUNY School of Journalism: "Education historian Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University, is one of the nation's leading scholars warning about the uses and abuses of testing, privatization, charter schools and other education strategies. In conversation with Prof. Andrea Gabor of Baruch College and Errol Louis of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Ravitch will talk about the crisis inflicted on public education in the name of reform."

Wednesday, Dec. 3, will also feature the Manhattan Institute Book Forum: Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, with the author and former chancellor of the New York City schools Joel Klein: "In this revealing and provocative memoir, the former chancellor of the New York City schools offers the behind-the-scenes story of the city's dramatic campaign to improve public education, and an inspiring blueprint for national reform."

Wednesday's City Council schedule will include: a meeting of the Committee on Civil Rights to examine a bill aimed at "Prohibiting discrimination based on one's arrest record or criminal conviction"; a meeting of the Committee on Transportation regarding oversight of "App Technology and the Transformation of the Taxi and For-Hire Industries" and evaluation of a bill aimed at "Removing the off-street parking requirement for base station licenses."

Wednesday, Dec. 3, is World Aids Day and there will be a City Council event that evening at City Hall to commemorate the day, with City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Council Member Corey Johnson, and the LGBT Caucus.

An event on Wednesday evening: "The Responsive City: In collaboration with the Program on Profits and Purpose at New America."

Thursday, Dec. 4
Thursday's City Council Schedule will include: a meeting of the Committee on General Welfare regarding oversight of " EarlyLearn NYC" and a meeting of the Committee on Environmental Protection regarding the oversight of "Citywide Localized Flooding" and consideration of a bill in relation to "Filing semi-annual reports on catch basin cleanup and maintenance."

Thursday, Dec. 4, will see "Rebuilding Our Neighborhoods: The Koch Plan 25 Years Later: Join the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development and JPMorgan Chase, with Special Speakers for a policy conference on the 25th anniversary of the historic Koch affordable housing plan and the lessons it holds for today's NYC housing policy. The conference will honor the very first affordable housing Financed with the LIHTC program – Equality House – built on the Lower East Side by Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE)."

SCEC Demo Night will also be Thursday, December 4th: "Interested in learning how teams of NYC teachers are evaluating edtech tools based on real classroom challenges? Come hear from the EdTech Evaluation Fellows about their emerging practices and lessons learned and see their matched companies demo their products. You might just find like-minded teachers and new solutions to common education challenges."

Friday and the weekend, Dec. 5-7
Friday, Dec. 5, will see the Crain's 2014 Best Places to Work Awards.

Saturday, Dec. 6, will include continuation of the "Fall 2014 Chancellor's Parent Conference Series: Middle School" at Tweed Court House.

Beginning Sunday, Dec. 7, "The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will visit the United States of America," arriving in New York and attending "a private engagement on behalf of the American Friends of The Royal Foundation that evening." The Duke will head to Washington, D.C. on Dec. 8 while The Duchess remains in New York, where she will be rejoined by the Duke. [All of the details included here come from this press release]

"On his return to New York, His Royal Highness will attend a reception organised by the Royal Foundation, in recognition of the conservation work carried out by Tusk Trust and United for Wildlife partners: Wildlife Conservation Society; Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy.

"The Duchess of Cambridge will carry out two engagements in New York while The Duke visits Washington. Her Royal Highness will be accompanied by The First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, on a visit to a local child development centre. They will learn about how this organisation fosters the healthy development of children and families by providing high-quality mental health and educational services, which is an issue strongly supported by The First Lady. Her Royal Highness will also attend a lunch, hosted by the British Consul General in New York, to celebrate the achievements of a successful British community in New York from the culture, arts, hospitality and business sectors.

"On Monday evening, Their Royal Highnesses will attend an NBA Basketball game to help launch a new collaboration between the Royal Foundation, United for Wildlife and the NBA.

"On Tuesday 9th December The Duke and Duchess will visit a youth organisation to see the work they carry out in partnership with an inner city youth development foundation. Both organisations focus on programmes and projects that promote positive youth development and social learning. During the visit, The Duke and Duchess will learn about the wide-ranging support services on offer to young people to help them reach their potential, particularly through an arts-in-education model that supports the artistic and intellectual development of the participants.

"The Duke and Duchess will then attend an event celebrating the wealth of British talent in the creative industries based in New York. The reception will be in association with the UK Government's GREAT campaign. The Duke will also attend a technology themed event, hosted by a New York-headquartered technology company, which will bring together entrepreneurs from both the UK and the US.

"The final engagement of the visit will be the University of St. Andrews 600th Anniversary Dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The evening event will support scholarships and bursaries for students from under-privileged communities, new student sports facilities in St Andrews, investment in the university's medical and science faculties and a lectureship in American Literature at St. Andrews."

Note: we will update this post on an ongoing basis over the two weeks included - please don't hesitate to send us additions!

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

by Rati Mukhuradze and Ben Max

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Rati Mukhuradze and Ben Max) Sun, 23 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5445-week-ahead-new-york-politics-november-23-and-30
New York's Part-Time Legislators Look for a Raise http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5441-new-yorks-part-time-legislators-look-for-a-raise cuomo silver skelos

Skelos (left), Cuomo, and Silver will determine if pay raises move (photo: @melissadderosa)

New York's legislative leaders think it is far time they got a raise. They will tell anyone who will listen that it has been 16 years since their last raise, yet they remain one of the highest-paid legislatures in the country. Only California and Pennsylvania pay their legislators more and unlike in New York, both of those legislatures are full time.

Legislators came to Albany for session a total of 55 days from January and June of this year. Each member of the State Senate or State Assembly brings home a base salary of $79,500 a year, with the opportunity to earn more through leadership and committee positions. Lawmakers are allowed reimbursement for their trips to and from stays in Albany.

Their state salary is only the tip of the income iceberg for a great deal of electeds who also work as consultants, lawyers, or home builders. The Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, reportedly made at least $650,000 in 2013 from his "second" job.

Legislators in California take home $90,526 annually but they are full-time legislators not allowed to hold other jobs. Legislators in Pennsylvania make $83,801 a year and are also full-time.

"The legislature needs to give an indication they are interested in reforming themselves before we talk about giving them any pay raises," said E.J. McMahon of The Empire Center, a right-leaning public policy think tank. McMahon said that Legislature needs to reduce the number of pay-bumping leadership titles it hands out as rewards to loyal members, increase the transparency of what is spent internally, and "show an intent to perform."

"I don't know how necessary pay raises are given that New York has the third highest paid legislature in the country," said McMahon.

New York City-based legislators argue that their price of living continues to increase and that not everyone has a high-paying second job with a law firm. They say they dedicate their time in their districts to working with constituents.

With only six weeks left in the year, legislative leaders are sending major signals that they want to make a deal with Governor Andrew Cuomo to get themselves a pay raise. Problem is, they need to pass it before the year is up because state law forbids a sitting legislature from giving itself a pay raise. Legislative staffers are skeptical that a deal will be reached before the end of the year. Multiple sources indicated that it would have made sense for Senate Republicans to call for a special session this week as they were already in Albany on Monday for a post-election conference meeting. Going forward, leaders will be hesitant to call members back around Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas.

Regardless of the odds, a number of issues have been linked to a possible pay-raise deal.

As rumors of a pay raise built earlier this year a number of advocacy groups saw an opportunity for the governor to deliver on the progressive policies he promised on the campaign trail that will likely be blocked by the incoming Republican Senate majority.

Citizen Action of New York demanded that legislators "Raise the Wage Before Your Pay," insisting both houses approve a new minimum wage that is higher, indexed to inflation, and allows municipalities to set their own rates - an item that has major backing from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

On Monday Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos acknowledged that a pay raise was a focus issue, but shot down the idea that he would bargain for one by passing liberal agenda items. "We're not doing the DREAM Act. We're not doing minimum wage, we're not doing taxpayer financing [of electoral campaigns]." He did say he was open to supporting "other reforms we could come up with."

Good government groups would like to see the Legislature agree to more outside income disclosure and increased transparency in how both houses operate.
Speaker Silver, a Democrat, said on Tuesday that he didn't think a pay raise should be tied to a minimum wage increase, noting that both chambers passed a wage increase last year that was not tied to their own salaries. "I believe the members work very hard...and I believe they're entitled to [a raise] after 14 years."
The Legislature passed a bill last year that will introduce staggered increases to the minimum wage until it reaches $9 an hour in 2015. Advocates want the wage raised to $10.10 immediately and indexed to inflation for further increases.

Silver indicated that he would consider moving on per diem reform in exchange for pay raises. A number of legislators have been caught falsely reporting trips to Albany as a way to bolster their pay.

Legislators, including Skelos and Silver, admit that there haven't been any serious discussion about a pay raise deal with the Cuomo administration at this point.

"I'm delighted there are discussions about pay raises," said Democratic Sen. Neil Breslin of Albany. "I believe it is important for legislators based in and around [New York] City who face an escalating cost of living. I think it is important that it be tied to tightened restrictions around per diems."

Deal making for pay raises has had a long and impactful history in Albany. The last time the Legislature got a pay raise, its members allowed Gov. George Pataki to institute charter school programs in the state.

In 1998 the Legislature had gone a decade without a pay increase. With the threat of a veto Pataki traded a 38 percent hike for the institution of charter schools and the threat that legislators would not be paid if they failed to pass a budget on time. The charter plan let an unlimited number of public schools convert to charter schools and allowed for the creation of many new charters.

This time around Cuomo appears interested in securing pay raises for executive staff as he has mentioned a few times during his first term that it is hard to attract talented individuals into state government at the current pay scale.

Good government groups say it would be distasteful for the Legislature to barter a pay in a quid pro quo manner. Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, has advocated per diem reform and limits on outside income to accompany any pay raise.

McMahon of Empire Center said that in general the Legislature has slowed its rate of performance over the years: more bills are introduced while there is little debate over the few bills that actually come to a vote.

"Per diems aren't necessarily the problem," said McMahon. "It's the extras like the leadership stipends that keep people under the thumb of the leaders that need to be reformed. We need them to demonstrate they are intent on earning what they are already paid. I think they could be here [in Albany] less and get more done. The end of session has become such a scam, where the leadership just waits to cut a deal on whatever the governor has got. I don't think the Legislature functions deliberatively," said McMahon.

Some rank-and-file legislators feel the same way. They would like to see more debate and democracy in general and aren't happy that the leadership appears uninterested in moving major policy points before the end of the year. But they also don't want to upset the applecart when so many other members would like to see a pay raise for next year.

A pay raise deal might not be the only thing on the agenda if the Legislature manages to come back before the end of the year. Both Skelos and Silver have said they would like to create a spending plan for the State's $5 billion surplus created from bank settlements. The two legislative leaders have indicated they would like to see the cash used in one-shot investments in infrastructure - a sentiment Cuomo has echoed. But as legislators and insiders point out, it is unlikely all three men have the same definition of "infrastructure."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazzette

dking@gothamgazette.com (David Howard King) Wed, 19 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5441-new-yorks-part-time-legislators-look-for-a-raise
Up In Smoke: Government Funding Vanishes, Smoking Rates Rise http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5442-up-in-smoke-government-funding-vanishes-smoking-rates-rise smokeout

After years of decline, smoking is on the rise in New York City. While pointing to reductions in state and city spending on anti-smoking campaigns, advocates hope this Thursday, November 20, will be a turning point as smokers in New York and elsewhere are encouraged to decline lighting up for American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout.

Anti-smoking groups hope smokers will keep their resolve going after Thursday and bring down New York City's smoking rate, which crept up from 14 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2013 despite bans on smoking in bars, restaurants and other places, and one of the highest taxes on a pack of cigarettes in any municipality.

To blame, some say, is the reduction in funding toward tobacco control programs in the state. This has led to a drop in airing graphic anti-smoking commercials, which anti-smoking groups say were effective in bringing the smoking rate down last decade.

Ads show a man coughing violently while blood drips in a sink, a woman discussing her various amputations, and photos of Terrie as a pretty young cheerleader who is now shown putting on her voice box and adjusting her wig. A postscript at the end of the commercial tells viewers she died at age 53.

"They are very effective," said Michael Burgess, director of government relations in New York for the Cancer Action Network of the American Cancer Society. "Most people want to quit smoking. The more that you bring people face to face with it, that brings them to the point where they think, 'I better do something about this.'"

Just a few years ago, the anti-smoking commercials were blitzing the airwaves. "You're seeing them less often because the state, as well as the city tobacco program, have cut their funding dramatically over the last 5 years," said Kevin O'Flaherty Northeast region advocacy director for the Campaign for Smoke-Free Kids. Five years ago, the state allocation for tobacco control programs was $85 million. This year, the amount dropped to $39.3 million. The amount for 2015 has not been released.

In New York City, the Department of Health has seen its budget cut incrementally in the last five years, from $13.5 million in 2009 to just over half that amount at $7.1 million for this fiscal year.

Fewer airings of the anti-smoking commercials also result in fewer calls to the New York State Smokers' Quitline. Data from the Quitline for 2009 to 2012 show that calls from the Bronx dropped 23 percent and calls from Queens saw a 21 percent reduction. Overall in the city, there was a 22 percent decline in the number of calls.

Taxes and the tobacco industry
Ironically, the tobacco industry funds New York's and most other states' tobacco prevention programs. In 1998, the Attorneys General of 46 states reached an agreement with the four largest U.S. tobacco companies (Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard), as well as the industry's trade associations and PR firms, to settle lawsuits against the tobacco industry regarding the medical costs associated with treating tobacco-related illnesses.

The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement left the tobacco industry immune from future state and federal suits and required the participating tobacco companies to pay approximately $200 billion to the states over the next 25 years to help cover healthcare costs associated with smoking. But much to the chagrin of anti-smoking advocates, the agreement did not place any restrictions on how states spent the funds.

"In 1998 when the master tobacco settlement agreement was signed, all the states acted like they were going to take the lion's share of this money, if not all of it, and dedicate it to tobacco prevention," said O'Flaherty. "And almost immediately they started spending it on anything but prevention.

They take the check and put it in the general fund. There's really no way to say what of this money is going toward prevention and what is going for golf courses or pot holes or anything else that the state, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to spend money on over the last 15 years."

Smokers also fund anti-smoking programs through the state tax of $4.35 and New York City tax of $1.50 per pack of cigarettes. City residents paid the highest state and city taxes in the country until the Chicago City Council approved a city tax hike on cigarettes last fall, making their combined state and city tobacco taxes $6.16, the highest in the nation.

According to the Council of State Governments, New York State collected $1.632 billion in cigarette tax revenue in 2013. However, the funds are not all earmarked toward tobacco control programs. With the last state tax increase on cigarettes in 2010, $440 million was allocated toward healthcare programs, including subsidies for AIDS drugs, money for tobacco cessation programs, and $71.6 million for the state cancer research center in Buffalo.

"Research shows that if the State were spending more money on smoking cessation activities, not only would we have a lower smoking rate, but the State would be saving more in terms of what it spends in long-term health costs," said O'Flaherty. "These programs literally do pay for themselves and they do it in a way that morally make sense."

Higher tobacco prices should also bring down smoking rates. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces consumption by 3 to 5 percent and deters youth from picking up the smoking habit. Last November, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed what became known as local law 97, which created higher prices for cigarette and tobacco products in New York City and required age restriction signs stating that some tobacco products cannot be sold to people under the age of 18, and for some, 21.

But increasing the price of cigarettes (to about $14 a pack) can also backfire with smokers who may seek out other ways to get cheaper smokes. According to a 2013 report by Pew Charitable Trusts, states with high tobacco taxes lost about $5 billion in 2010 revenue because of cigarette smuggling. The report notes that most of the black market in cigarettes occurs when smugglers purchase cigarettes in a low-tax state and transport them to a high-tax state. They then sell them at a discount to smokers, pocketing a healthy profit. The loss of revenue due to smuggling also affects the monies states receive from the Master Settlement Agreement since the amount is based on legal consumption figures.

To combat the loss of revenue from cigarette smuggling, local law 97 defines a retail dealer as any person who possesses or transports more than 400 cigarettes, prohibits the sale of cigarette or tobacco products for less than the listed price and from anyone other than a manufacturer or licensed dealer, and requires retailers to post a sign stating that all cigarettes sold in New York City must be in packages bearing valid New York City and State tax stamps.

Some smokers have also responded to the higher prices by smoking fewer cigarettes per day. The Department of Health reports that while there has been a decrease in the proportion of heavy smokers, there has been an uptick in the numbers of non-daily and light smokers who smoke 10 or fewer cigarettes per day. That group now makes up 76 percent of the New York City smoking population, compared with 64 percent in 2002.

Non-daily smokers are now the target of the Health Department's new media campaign, Imagine for Life, which was produced at a cost of $835,700.

"There is no acceptable level of smoking," cautioned Burgess. "Even if you consider yourself a social smoker, there are health risks and your level of smoking can increase."

by Hayley Camacho for Gotham Gazette

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Hayley Camacho) Wed, 19 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5442-up-in-smoke-government-funding-vanishes-smoking-rates-rise
The Case for Uber Data Sharing http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5443-the-case-for-uber-data-sharing-ari-waldman uber

(photo: @Uber)

The e-receipt from your last Uber ride isn't the only record of your trip. The base that dispatched your car records a "what, when, and where" of your journey, and that information is available to the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) upon request.

Soon, if the TLC's proposed rules are approved on Thursday, November 20, the agency will start storing that data on its servers and require bases to report regularly in a more efficient standardized format. As might be expected, the proposed rule change is letting an old simmering fight boil over: self-professed protectors of the free market, like Uber, are raising privacy concerns. But if Uber's comments at the TLC's October hearing are any indication, the for-hire car company is using privacy as a pretext for protecting its business interests. That makes me skeptical.

Uber is trying to vilify all data gathering when what it really wants to do is keep secret its market share. Data analysis is not inherently a bad thing, especially when accompanied by transparency, regulation, and indicia of trust.

It's hard to argue, as Uber has, that the change will intrude into driver privacy in the traditional sense. Except for identifying the car's home and dispatching bases, the information is already being recorded and required of all licensed for-hire cars in New York City. Plus, the TLC isn't interested in sensitive information about drivers, customers, or for-hire car companies. It isn't even asking for drop-off data, just pick up, base, and license information. And, in any event, the TLC gathers much more detailed information from yellow and green cabs.

But the rule may raise a different kind of privacy concern (and here, I'm relying on the work of privacy scholars like Helen Nissenbaum at NYU and Dan Solove at George Washington University Law School). Let's call it an accessibility problem. There's a big difference between, on the one hand, data being stored in fifty different dusty file cabinets at fifty different bases and, on the other hand, that same information being gathered together into one Excel spreadsheet and accessible on a government server.

I'm not referring to the statistically insignificant likelihood of a leak; any such concern is highly exaggerated. Rather, it's about access and the ease of analysis, aggregation, and (mis)categorization.

That is, admittedly, a very real concern. Recently, in the New York Times, Maryland Law Professor Frank Pasquale warned that an entire industry of data miners is pulling the floor out from under us as it skates by in the dark corners of the unregulated internet. He reminded us that real people can face real harms when sensitive information like prescription drug or medical histories gets tossed into the heap of a Kafka-esque "big data" regime.

But those real dangers are just not applicable here, and it is disingenuous for a company like Uber, which admitted at the TLC's October meeting that it was chiefly concerned with keeping secret its market share data, to turn all information gathering techniques into automatic evils.

Trip data is not as sensitive as, say, a list of prescription drugs we take. Nor is it anything like our telephone call history or our Facebook passwords. The TLC's requested information is sufficiently general so as to make it inordinately difficult, if not impossible, to find out who drove whom where and for how much. Drop-off and fare data, again, are not included.

Plus, this data could provide all sorts of benefits for the TLC and for New York City: from making it easier to keep customers safe, identify dangerous drivers, and investigate customer complaints, to helping determine which City neighborhoods are underserved by for-hire cars, assess the continued value of old laws in a world with a vibrant for-hire market, and evaluate new TLC programs, to name just a few. Data can be a wonderful tool, if used appropriately.

The question then is not whether this data collection should happen at all; rather, it is how it happens. We want information gathering to happen in a manner that protects our interest in privacy, inspires public trust, and serves the TLC's mission and the general welfare.

To those ends, the TLC should continuously fine-tune its protocols to ensure that it is a trusted guardian of trip data. And it is doing just that. It has narrowly tailored the rule to provide it with the minimum amount of data necessary to achieve its public safety goals. The TLC has appropriately balanced privacy interests with its other obligations by limiting what could be released under a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. It has developed internal protocols to keep trip data secure so that only employees who need access to these data to do their jobs would have the login and password to access the data. And it is approaching this policy change by being transparent about what is being requested, how it is being stored, and what could be released.

Privacy interests are fundamental to who we are as a society, and governments need to take them seriously by seeing themselves as stewards of our information. But data collection can open doors: it can help us create a more intelligent, more efficient, more just society. It will take a public-private partnership to do that. Manipulating the public by waving the privacy flag, however, is not good corporate citizenship.

Ari Ezra Waldman is Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School. You can follow him on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Ari Ezra Waldman) Wed, 19 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5443-the-case-for-uber-data-sharing-ari-waldman
Brother Can You Spare A Dime? For a Bag http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5438-brother-can-you-spare-a-dime-for-a-plastic-bag-tax-bertha-lewis bertha lewis

The author, Bertha Lewis, left (photo: @Vote_Bichotte)

A recent New York Times column examined "The Source of New York's Greatness," and its conclusion was no surprise: our greatness comes from our status as the preeminent melting pot, both culturally and economically. We are home not just to doctors, lawyers, and bankers, but to bodega owners, shoe shiners and deli chefs. So I wonder what one of our great orators would say about the New Dime Bag?

New Yorkers, YOU BEEN HAD! A ten cent tax on plastic bags, specifically the regressive tax introduced by Council Members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, is counter-intuitive, and hurts the working class and small business owners that make our city strong. Our communities are still struggling to make ends meet, still suffering economically from the recession, and still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. We shouldn't be asking our citizens to hand over any more of their hard-earned money at the grocery counter, especially when their communities won't reap the benefit of their investment.

New Yorkers, YOU BEEN TOOK! It is hard enough for our city's working families to balance multiple jobs, multiple children, and a checkbook, without having to also worry about whether or not they remember to bring a reusable bag. Council Members Lander and Chin have tried in part to alleviate this issue by proposing to waive the tax for those on food stamps. Unfortunately, this "remedy" creates more problems than it solves. Despite an exemption for SNAP recipients, New York's working poor must still pay this tax.

New Yorkers, YOU BEEN HOODWINKED! Additionally, many small businesses are opposed to this legislation, as they would be unnecessarily burdened to enforce it. The bill is very clear on how businesses will be fined, but is conveniently vague on how small business owners should keep track of their plastic bag compliance. The bill does not mandate any sort of paper trail to help businesses prove that they are in fact complying with the new tax. Why are we making things more confusing for our small businesses, instead of helping them run more efficiently?

New Yorkers, YOU BEEN LED ASTRAY! This bill is supposed to help the environment, but the goals don't match up to reality. Plastic bags make up only 2% of the waste stream, and are nowhere near the top of the list of glaring environmental priorities for our citizens. Reusable bags are also produced overseas from petroleum, a process that is harmful to the environment. Additionally, plastic bags are 100% recyclable, and are reused in a number of ways around the house.

New York City Council has RUN AMOK! If Council Members Lander and Chin really want to make an impact, they should focus their efforts on causes that more directly benefit constituents. A recent survey found that, by a margin of 2:1, voters believe taxing plastic bags is a distraction. New Yorkers think job creation (24%), affordable housing (22%) and quality public schools (18%) are the most important issues for lawmakers to address.

Bag tax supporters like Lander and Chin hurt their constituents by further supporting the punitive and regressive tax on plastic shopping bags. Before writing and supporting legislation, our elected officials should take the time to think through their actions and consider the range of effects their proposals will have on their communities, and not just themselves. Think about all New Yorkers. DUMP THE DIME BAG!

Bertha Lewis is President and Founder of the Black Leadership Action Coalition (BLAC).


Do you have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com


webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Bertha Lewis) Tue, 18 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5438-brother-can-you-spare-a-dime-for-a-plastic-bag-tax-bertha-lewis
With Announcement Expected, Students & Advocates Continue Push for Change in School Discipline Code http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5439-with-announcement-expected-students-a-advocates-continue-push-for-change-in-school-discipline-code UYC rally vets day

Rally on the steps of Tweed (photo: @UYC_YouthPower)

Annual revisions to the disciplinary policies for New York City public school students are typically put into place before the start of each school year. Students in the midst of the 2014-2015 year, however, continue to wait for an updated version as the new Department of Education administration has stalled on its first revision to the code of conduct.

While advocates say that an announcement is imminent, those seeking a key change to the disciplinary code continue to put public and private pressure on officials.

Last week, the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC) led another rally to call more attention to the barriers they say are created by one especially controversial element of the disciplinary rules. Many students, teachers, and advocates argue that infraction "B21" must be removed from the new version of the code. They say that enforcement of B21 has raised serious questions and caused a great deal of damage to young people. They ask: at what point does a disciplinary policy become too stringent? And: if a policy is disparately burdening already marginalized students, is the policy not inherently flawed?

According to Kesi Foster, coordinator of UYC, disciplinary code changes are expected within the next several weeks, before the end of the calendar year. UYC has focused intensely on B21, part of the Citywide Standards of Discipline and Intervention Measures, under which students can be suspended for "defying or disobeying the lawful authority."

"Policies like B21 target black and Latino students, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students. I know not just because of the research, but because I have experienced it," said Markeys Gonzalez, a high school student who spoke of his experience with school disciplinary policies at the rally, which took place on the steps of Tweed Courthouse on Veterans Day and attracted about fifty students, teachers, and advocates.

Gonzalez was suspended for a week under B21 when he refused to take off a "rainbow bracelet" during LGBTQ Pride Week. Gonzalez chose not to divulge the name of his school for fear of being targeted.

Matthew Garcia faced the same punishment when he disobeyed a teacher who wanted him to remove his hat. Alana Cooper was similarly suspended for not eating in the lunchroom, where she felt her personal safety was compromised by bullies. All three students are youth leaders of UYC, an umbrella coalition that organizes for education reform. Recently, UYC has mobilized behind adoption of a comprehensive college preparation program in schools, a movement backed by the City Council last month, and also for reducing the levels of racial segregation in schools.

Now UYC is back to addressing the rate of suspension in schools, which it characterizes as excessive and applied in a discriminatory fashion. In documenting the racial disparities in the number of suspensions, UYC reports, "Of 53,504 suspensions last year, black and Latino students made up 89% of all students suspended. Black students make up only 26% of the student population, but accounted for 53% of all suspensions."

This data echoes a study released by the U.S. Department of Education in March, indicating that the racial disparity begins in preschool nationwide. Research has also revealed a correlation between student suspension and the chance of dropping out, in addition to impeding academic engagement. The Civil Rights Project reports that "being suspended even once in ninth grade is associated with a 32% risk for dropping out, double that for those receiving no suspensions."

The pushout that results from policies like B21 is said to drive the school-to-prison pipeline; students being pushed out of school by punitive measures can make them more vulnerable to becoming ensnared in the criminal justice system. Since some schools have zero tolerance policies that directly involve police officers, minor in-school incidents can lead to arrests. The growth in police presence in schools has been partially attributed to the rise in school shootings since the eighties.

During the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, the number of annual student suspensions in New York City more than doubled, "from less than 29,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2011," according to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

"The de Blasio administration inherited a school system that oversaw unprecedented increases in exclusionary school discipline—suspensions, arrests and summonses," said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU's Executive Director, in a press release.

Similar exclusionary practices to infraction code B21 have also been prevalent in cities around the country, but have been on the decline. Last September California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill banning suspensions for "willful defiance." The bill made California the first to enact a statewide ban on suspensions that involve "defiance" from students, replacing punitive measures with restorative justice practices, which include peer mediation and conflict resolution. Results have been staggering in some places, like school districts in Los Angeles and San Francisco where restorative justice practices were adopted even before the bill was passed. At Garfield High School in Los Angeles, for example, suspensions dropped from over 600 annually to just one suspension over the course of three years, while attendance and graduation rates increased.

Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland similarly reduced suspensions after formalizing discipline policies in a move toward restorative justice, resulting in a 37 percent drop in suspensions and expulsions in the last year. Chicago Public Schools also passed a revised code of conduct last June, stressing remediation instead of suspension. Data revealed that Chicago had more than 50,000 suspensions over the last year, comparable to the 53,504 suspensions in New York City public schools for 2013-2014 (though New York City's student population is much larger).

Amid the calls for changes to disciplinary codes, some point out that the disputed rules may indicate how well a school, as a whole, is serving its students. "Changing the discipline code doesn't get at the root of the problem. High rates of suspension are often a reflection of other problems within a school: disengaged students, strained relationships between teachers and students, a weak or dysfunctional school culture," said Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at NYU.

Moreover, some see dysfunctional school culture as a symptom of a larger issue. "Our schools are often a microcosm for the society and communities around them," said Foster of UYC. Foster also notes the correlation between stop-and-frisk activity in the larger society and the rate of suspensions in schools, which was detailed in a report by NYCLU. In East New York, Brownsville, Mott Haven, Jamaica and Harlem—areas with comparatively higher numbers of stop-and-frisks performed by the NYPD—students were most likely to be suspended from school.

Foster said he believes the new administration, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, is "prioritizing how to change our approach to school discipline. I think they're engaging advocates...we've identified the policy shifts that have to happen for that to be effective and we hope they follow through." Both the mayor and the chancellor have expressed support for moving away from suspensions and toward restorative justice practices, and there has been action in this direction.

Advocates are not only calling for a complete end of suspensions for "defying or disobeying authority" under infraction code B21; they are also looking to enact a more thorough protocol for guidance interventions, wherein all stakeholders are engaged. Such interventions follow the restorative justice model and include meetings with students and teachers, counseling, mediation, and community circles. A reformed protocol, in the eyes of advocates, may alleviate the concern that rescinding B21 would be a hindrance to teachers who are sometimes required to manage disruptive students.

"We want the education process not to be impeded," said Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, when asked by Gotham Gazette what the UFT wants to see in the new disciplinary code, "but we need an approach where if students are acting out, there is a system in place at the school level, dealing with the students' issues on why they're acting out and not impeding the educational process for the rest of the students."

by Alex-Quan Pham, Gotham Gazette

alexqmpham@gmail.com (Alex-Quan Pham) Tue, 18 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5439-with-announcement-expected-students-a-advocates-continue-push-for-change-in-school-discipline-code
Looking for 411 on 311 http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5440-looking-for-411-on-311-new-york-city-council 311

Celebrating 311's birthday (photo: @nyc311)

NEW YORK—The City's 311 system has become a model platform for citizens to give non-emergency complaints to their government. New Yorkers are able to voice concerns by calling, filling out a website form, text messaging, and using a mobile app to report issues like potholes or noisy neighbors. They are also able to get information about a wide array of city services through 311's various platforms.

Launched in 2003, New York City 311 has received over 190 million calls and interacts with over 100,000 residents on a typical day. Thanks to the 2012 Open Data Law, information about the requests are now placed on the Open Data Portal and updated daily.

Information about 311 calls has not only been useful to the public, members of which can map requests in their neighborhood, but also to the City itself. The Mayor's Office of Data Analytics (MODA) incorporates 311 data into its projects and city agencies are also utilizing 311 data to improve operations.

MODA recently worked with the FDNY on its Risk Based Inspection System, which selects buildings to schedule for inspection. The FDNY was able to incorporate 311 data related to building complaints and move those buildings up on the list.

While the 311 system has been largely heralded, there is always room for improvement. Advocates at a city council oversight hearing on Tuesday noted that while you can plainly see what requests were made using the 311 data on the Open Data Portal, you cannot see how the City responded. The data only shows if the issue is open or closed.

That information is kept by the City using a system called DataBridge. Information from DataBridge can be obtained through Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, however it is not published publicly.

"New York City should not have a two-tiered system with public data sets for the public to use, and private data sets for internal use only," Dominic Mauro, staff attorney of Reinvent Albany, said at Tuesday's hearing. "To realize the maximum value of this data, it needs to be shared with the public."

Reinvent Albany estimates it would cost $5 million to publish DataBridge in an open data format, but said the benefits of seeing that data would outweigh the cost.

Leaving out NYCHA
While comprehensive, 311 data does not include complaints at NYCHA, the city's public housing system. With its over 615,000 residents, NYCHA is the largest public housing authority in North America, according to data on the NYCHA website.

Complaints to NYCHA are kept by the agency but not made publicly available. After damaging media reports in 2013 showing tenants waiting months, sometimes over a year, for basic repairs, NYCHA put a small set of metrics online. They do not show complaints by date, building, or borough.

"If complaints to NYCHA are missing from 311, then this is a grave disservice to NYCHA residents, whose concerns and issues are not being represented and fairly evaluated," Lucille Songhai, director of community affairs for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer's office, testified on Tuesday.

Songhai, who was testifying on behalf of Brewer, suggested a special code be devised for 311 agents to continue to send the complaints to NYCHA, but allow for the information to at least be tracked in the 311 data.

Anonymous 311 Requests
The majority of calls to 311 are legitimate: my neighbor is having a party at 3 a.m.; where can I sign up for food stamps?; please fix this pothole in front of my house. But in some cases neighbors with beef to settle choose to anonymously call 311 and make false reports on their neighbors instead of privately hashing out their differences.

As the 311 system is set up now, there is no way for the call center to identify or try and curb the problem. They can't see in real time if, for example, the address they are receiving a complaint about has also had 15 other anonymous complaints. If a call comes in anonymously, it must be answered and if an action is needed, the proper agency must be notified.

Council Member Steven Matteo of Staten Island brought the issue up during Tuesday's hearing saying it has become a big issue in his district. In February he introduced legislation that would address the problem of harassment using 311 complaints.

"I know it is difficult to come up with a solution because we want people to be able to call anonymously about potholes and we want people to call about construction sites that are dangerous," Matteo said at Tuesday's hearing. "The problem is, it is becoming every day."

Joe Morrisroe, executive director of New York City 311, did not offer much in the way of a solution (largely because the hearing was not regarding the proposed legislation), but did say he could provide the Council with data on anonymous calls. The bill has not had a hearing and one is not currently scheduled.

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

MeriwetherK@gothamgazette.com (Kristen Meriwether) Tue, 18 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5440-looking-for-411-on-311-new-york-city-council
Balancing More Than Just the Books: Scott Stringer's First Year as Comptroller http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5436-balancing-more-than-just-the-books-scott-stringers-first-year-as-comptroller Stringer presser flex time

Comptroller Stringer at a press conference (photo: Comptroller's Office)

A look at Scott Stringer as City Comptroller - which is what again?

Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, a lot more New Yorkers know the city has a Comptroller.

That's what the man who defeated the former governor in a dramatic 2013 Democratic primary says, anyway, as he intently discusses his efforts to engage the public during his first year as the city's chief financial officer.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer reveled in his surprising victory over Spitzer last September and his subsequent general election win to become one of three city-wide elected officials. And now, almost a year into his tenure, there's no indication Stringer has anything but relished his new role.

"There is real opportunity to maximize helping people in the city in so many different areas, in all five boroughs from all backgrounds, from kids to seniors," Stringer said of his position in a recent interview with Gotham Gazette.

Stringer appears enthusiastic despite comptroller having been his second choice of new jobs after deciding to leave the Manhattan borough presidency after two terms to briefly run for mayor. Embracing the vast powers of his new office, which employs well over 700 people and has an operating budget of $88.3 million, Stringer is able to make an impact, raise his profile, and even let a little steam out of his bottled mayoral ambitions.

2014 has been a prolific year for the new comptroller and his team, even as it has included a major learning curve for Stringer and much of the staff he brought with him from the borough president's office. The job of Comptroller can be highly technical and requires command of a wide range of financial, investment, and accounting knowledge; it touches virtually every aspect of city government and public life.

Quick studies who have been able to lean on many highly-experienced auditors, economists, and analysts, Stringer and his team have unveiled a handful of headline-grabbing initiatives and announcements while regularly rolling out less flashy but highly important reports.

"We are pushing a responsible progressive agenda," Stringer said. "In the first year I'm going to be able to point to some real success on behalf of the people of the city."

Stringer quickly rattles off achievements: provoking new City funding of arts education by identifying major gaps in its offering; sounding the alarm on limited City business going to firms owned by women and people of color; holding Sandy rebuilding forums around the city and exposing problems with the Build it Back program; saving taxpayers millions of dollars by refinancing debt; and holding the mayor accountable on budgeting and pre-kindergarten-provider contracts. He's made the city's public housing system a major focus, saying that a full audit of NYCHA (the New York City Housing Authority) will be unveiled by year's end.

Stringer said he and his staff have approached their first year on the job with a serious sense of urgency, adding, "We increased the capacity of what the Comptroller's office can do."

Along with reports and audits, Stringer has leveraged interactive technological tools. He's launched Vendor Roadmap: A Guide for Doing Business with the City as well as the new ClaimStat system whereby claims against the City are tracked, with patterns identified in an effort to show agencies trouble spots and, ultimately, save the city money. Stringer has also enhanced Checkbook 2.0, the site by which city expenditures are shown publicly, a tool started under former Comptroller John Liu.

"Scott's off to a very strong start," Liu said when asked to assess what he's seen from his replacement thus far (Liu opted not to seek re-election, running for mayor instead). The former comptroller added that "it's too soon to tell" if Stringer is approaching the office much differently than he did. Both Stringer and Liu are unabashed liberals with a bend toward taking an activist approach to the duties of the office. Stringer has also continued to make a priority of interacting with constituents at public events around the city.

It has not been all smooth sailing for Stringer, of course, as the year has also been marked by the development of a public rift with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Speaking at an October event, Stringer explained his approach: "Part of what I'm trying to do in the comptroller's office is hold the city government to that same [high] standard - to issue provocative reports; to sometimes break some eggs; sometimes agitate at City Hall. And I think that's the best of being a progressive reformer. You see if we all agree all the time and we're all sitting around congratulating ourselves about the next big idea then we're not gonna move the debate."

Stringer has 'agitated' at City Hall a few times this year and quickly embraced the "independent" moniker that is essential to his job as a fiscal watchdog. Stringer, however, has found himself in a unique situation from that of his predecessors, being a Democratic comptroller alongside a Democratic mayor.

Most notably on the egg-breaking front, Stringer challenged the mayor's accounting of certain aspects of a contract deal with the teachers union and very publicly called the administration out over the slow pace with which pre-kindergarten provider contracts were being submitted to his office for review.

Stringer was also critical of the mayor's issuance of an executive order to expand application of the City's living wage, paid to many workers involved with City-subsidized development projects.

Stringer has received praise for sticking to essential accounting and other principles, and for showing his independence. As self-branded progressives swept into power in each of the city's highest political positions, some worried there would be no checks or balances. While Stringer continues to agree with the mayor on the underlying goals of these initiatives and others, where he has taken issue and felt compelled to act has been in terms of process, as is incumbent upon someone in his position.

Critics wonder, though, if Stringer has approached his oversight of the de Blasio administration in the best manner, with grumbles throughout political corridors about the ambition the comptroller has shown, perhaps at the expense of teamwork.

Politics aside, praise for the merits of Stringer's work comes from important places.

"I think he's done a very good job in his first year," said Carol Kellermann, President of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC). Speaking recently with Gotham Gazette, Kellermann added that Stringer "got the ball rolling by requiring that the mayor attribute the money to be paid to teacher retirees be booked in the current year - that was a challenging situation in which he had to go and meet personally with the mayor and he didn't back down. I realize that's an insider issue in a lot of ways, but that was very important."

Kellermann added, "He established he was going to follow generally established accounting principles and wasn't going to allow any shortcuts or avoidance."

Others see a less rosy picture. Nicole Gelinas, a financial analyst and fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, says that Stringer's "biggest mistake so far - and it could come back to haunt us - is going too easy on de Blasio in this first budget."

While fairly complimentary of the comptroller in totality, Gelinas says that Stringer allowed the administration to account for retroactive payments to teachers in out-year budgets down the road when the money must have been included in the current budget. It is "not very good accounting, to put it mildly," Gelinas says of what she sees as paying for operating costs with debt, "[Stringer] should have pushed back on that much harder."

On the issue of the pre-k contracts, which deals with the mayor's signature program and Stringer brought to public attention on the eve of the city's opening of hundreds of new sites, Liu is among those who applaud the comptroller.

"Stringer was totally on the mark pointing out that so many contracts were so late," said Liu. "[The Comptroller] has to ensure proper checks and balances, he has to have time for fraud detection and to ensure safety measures. He was totally on point, you need these contracts."

On the comptroller's side of the issue, the story is that there was ongoing dialogue about the need for contracts to be submitted for review and that Stringer only went public when he absolutely had to. The flip side has people saying that the administration has followed standard operating procedure - that City business often gets done before contracts with providers have been completed and reviewed - and that the comptroller jumped at an opportunity to make headlines. All of the above may be accurate, of course.

Regardless of who you side with, the outcome is that Stringer and de Blasio are on much more distant terms than they were a year ago. Politically speaking, it is unclear if the distance will turn out to hurt Stringer or help him, but in practical application for the city, it mostly appears a benefit to have the Comptroller and the Mayor with a bit of healthy friction between them.

"Sometimes you have to stand alone in the name of being progressive and sometimes you have to be collaborative, and that is the balance I think about in this new role," Stringer told Gotham Gazette.

Double Dichotomy
In interviews and public appearances Stringer regularly hits on or hints at the two major dichotomies at play in his work: first, he aims to be both a responsible fiscal steward and a progressive reformer; second, he must both work collaboratively with the mayor and hold the administration accountable.

In conversation with Gotham Gazette, Stringer was quick to point out that his office has already worked with the mayor's Office of Management and Budget to refinance city debt and save "almost $1 billion," something Kellerman of CBC praised.

Stringer also notes that his office worked successfully with the administration (and the City Council) on addressing funding for arts education and on issues related to claims against the City. The comptroller said that he sees the new ClaimStat tool as something that will be an ongoing source of positive collaboration.

There is likely to be a continued question of style, though, which could keep things icy between Stringer and others in city government. The battle for headlines among politicians is as old as time, of course, and not unlike other elected officials, Stringer clearly wants to see his name in bold. A lifelong politico and an elected official since his 1993 move to the State Assembly, Stringer is no stranger to the media marketplace. Conversations with former Stringer staff members paint the picture of a passionate, caring public servant who is highly attuned to the PR value of virtually every action.

As Stringer pointedly told Gotham Gazette, he feels an "urgency of now trying to make a big impact," adding that term limits don't give you that much time (city officials are limited to two four-year terms).

Additionally, while most of his audits and reports thus far - such as Stringer's scathing profile of City contracting with women and minority-owned businesses (he gave the City a "D") - have mainly elucidated problems from the Bloomberg years, they will soon start to show deficiencies more attributable to the de Blasio administration.

Stringer said that the wisest new agency heads under de Blasio came to his office to request comptroller review, though he noted that few had done so.

Activist Approach
In terms of being a progressive reformer, Stringer is well on his way.

In early November, Stringer announced the Boardroom Accountability Project. It is "a national initiative" he is leading "to improve the long-term performance of American companies by giving shareowners the right to nominate directors using the corporate ballot," he explained in a recent Daily News op-ed.

The "progressive coalition" Stringer brought together has put on notice an initial group of 75 companies including Netflix, Urban Outfitters, and ExxonMobil. The companies, which public pension systems invest in through Stringer and similar officials elsewhere, have been targeted for action around "excessive CEO pay," a lack of "gender or racial diversity on their board," and negative environmental impact.

"I am investment adviser and a trustee of the city's $160 billion pension funds," Stringer wrote. "These funds own shares in nearly 3,500 U.S. companies, and we have a stake in ensuring that each one of them is making decisions that promote long-term, sustainable value."

Stringer and other investment officers around the country are responsible for protecting the pension funds of current and former municipal employees, as well as their beneficiaries. The number of these stakeholders in New York City's pension funds sits at about 700,000. The bottom line for most of these people is, well, the bottom line - but Stringer certainly has room for such shareholder activism, as long as the money continues to flow - and he argues that his progressive push will be beneficial both ethically and financially.

Neither Kellerman of CBC nor Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute cared to comment on Stringer's activist approach, saying that it is all well and good as long as the numbers shine in the end.

It is on pension fund management that Kellermann said she'd like to see pointed action in the near term. Former Comptroller Liu, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and candidate for Comptroller Scott Stringer all said in the past that consolidation of management of the city's five pension funds should be a priority. Kellermann said she hasn't heard anything from Stringer about this recently and that CBC will continue to urge the comptroller to take steps in this regard.

Managing the pension program is perhaps the New York City Comptroller's most important task. Though it is hard to say considering the vast and essential functions of the office that also include reviewing all city contracts and auditing every city agency.

The role has many mandates, but it also includes flexibility. Take audits, for example: the Comptroller must audit each city agency every four years, but it may be just one function of an agency that is audited, it mustn't be a full, top-to-bottom audit.

The Comptroller's website explains of the audit department, "Our mission is to: Reduce the cost of City government; Improve the quality of City government services; and Maintain the integrity of the City government environment."

"You do have room in the office to focus on the issues that you care about," Stringer told Gotham Gazette, explaining that he came into the role knowing that he'd home in on NYCHA, recovery from superstorm Sandy, the city's library systems, arts education, and more. Even in what is a very technocratic position, "you do have your own imprint," Stringer says.

With the discretion that the position allows, it can be unclear why and how certain decisions are made. Stringer and Liu both shed light on the answer. Stringer indicated that you want to make choices that are sure to have an impact, but that with audits it can be difficult because they can take seven months to a year to complete - a timeframe Liu echoed.

Both men said that it was key to encourage deputies and to cultivate office cultures where auditors and others feel empowered. They also said that being out in public and interacting with New Yorkers is essential.

According to the Brooklyn Downtown Star, Stringer recently laid out his audit decision-making process as such: "We don't only respond to the heat of the moment, because something that may be an issue today may not be an issue a year from now," he said. "So we try to come up with the right mix of agencies and boroughs. And when somebody gets to the steps of City Hall and says, 'Hey, Comptroller, we want you to look at this,' we certainly discuss it."

Liu explained that he elevated the audit function in the office and said, "my top leadership would discuss issues and prioritize reports, often times leading on an issue or responding to an issue in the public discourse." He noted minimum wage as one such issue of his tenure.

Whether in regard to audits or less formal reports, Stringer explained that he hears about issues and gets ideas from a variety of sources: New Yorkers on the street or at one of the many public events he attends or at which he speaks; other city officials; and his many deputies and staffers. The day-to-day of Stringer's office is run by First Deputy Comptroller Alaina Gilligo, who convenes regular meetings of the eight deputy comptrollers and other top officials to coordinate operations and discuss ideas.

The comptroller also employs a chief of staff, a general counsel, and a chief investment officer, among others. In speaking with Gotham Gazette, Stringer specifically highlighted Gilligo's work and also boasted of naming the city's first Chief Diversity Officer, who is central to the work Stringer is doing on MWBEs, corporate board diversity, and more.

These top appointees and many other hires make the office go, and bring ideas to the fore. Provocation also comes from elsewhere.

Earlier this year, as part of a budget deal state officials empowered Stringer to audit city charter schools. Stringer's team got to work creating a new protocol and announced at the end of October that audit notices had been sent to four operators, including the highly controversial Success Academy network led by Eva Moskowitz, who Stringer defeated in a crowded 2005 Democratic primary for Manhattan Borough President.

In the press release announcing the commencement of audits, Stringer said, "Nothing is more important than the education of our kids. My office is going to make sure that taxpayer dollars are being used appropriately and that proper controls are in place to ensure that all young New Yorkers are getting the quality education they deserve."

On to Year Two
Many will eagerly await the results of those charter schools audits, which Moskowitz and others have already pushed back on.

Before news from those hits, though, expect more from Comptroller Stringer on NYCHA, diversity and environmental issues, and more. For year one in his new role thus far, Kellermann says, "he gets good grades for showing that he's independent and doing the day to day work of the agency in a thoughtful, consistent way."

As Stringer and his team set eyes upon year two, watch for more on the Green Bonds initiative that Stringer announced in September and told Gotham Gazette we'd be hearing more about soon.

The bond sale would be aimed at funding key environment-related infrastructure projects, Stringer said in announcing the proposal, on which he will have to work with the mayor's Office of Management and Budget.

In a recent interview with Corporate Knights, "the magazine for clean capitalism," Stringer said, "We are working very hard on a green bond initiative, which aims to make us the first major city in the nation to offer the products. New York's market size and presence means that any bond action that we take sets a precedent for the municipal marketplace. We're fielding strong investor interest in a green bond program for NYC, so we're currently working with the mayor's office to come up with a plan."

And there they are again: Stringer working as a progressive trendsetter and his relationship with the de Blasio administration. It has been some time since we've seen the comptroller and the mayor next to each other at a public event, perhaps an announcement on Green Bonds will be the next occasion.

Speaking at a recent event, Stringer noted their shared philosophy: "We had a progressive election," Stringer said, "the citywide elected officials certainly come from that place, we have a mayor who has championed progressive politics and we have a City Council that is very strong in that."

He added, "We should be able to tackle all of the challenges that people talked to us about throughout the campaign."

by Ben Max, executive editor, Gotham Gazette

bmax@gothamgazette.com (Ben Max) Mon, 17 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5436-balancing-more-than-just-the-books-scott-stringers-first-year-as-comptroller
City Announces Payphone Wi-Fi Deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5437-city-announces-payphone-wifi-deal wifi link barclays

image: NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications via link.nyc

NEW YORK—Blazing fast wireless internet speeds. Updated digital advertising. Free phone calls to anywhere in the United States. Cell phone charging stations. What has been impossible for the old payphones that currently dot the streets of New York City will, over the next few years, become a reality.

On Monday the City announced CityBridge, LLC as the winner of the franchise agreement which will bring the city's payphones from the 20th century boldly into the 21st. The agreement, which will extend through June 24, 2026, will create LinkNYC, a first of its kind communication network aimed at bringing Wi-Fi hotspots to all corners of the city.

"It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine the payphone and develop a revolutionary new technology for the citizens of New York and its visitors," Scott Goldsmith, chief commercial officer for Titan and a managing member of CityBridge said at a press briefing. "It's a chance to make the lives of each and every New Yorker better."

CityBridge is a consortium of companies including Titan, Control Group, Qualcomm Incorporated, and Comark; with extended team members Transit Wireless and Antenna Design. Each company brings expertise in advertising, technology, or hardware design to ensure the units will be able to withstand the rigors of New York City, and the ever-changing landscape of technology.

While they will still be able to make phone calls, the new units — called Links — will not resemble the current payphones. Slender and modern in design, they will use a touchscreen tablet interface and keypad for making calls.

Gone are the phone receivers of today's payphones, which often end up broken or vandalized. Users can simply plug in their headphones to the links to make calls and those without can use the microphones and speakers installed on the units. Calls to anywhere in the 50 states will be free.

Links will also allow users to gain access to information on city services and see maps. If there is an emergency, the City will be able to push area-specific notifications to the displays. These could be anything from evacuation orders like in the case of those issued during Superstorm Sandy or notice of where the nearest shelter is in the case of a bad storm.

The links will offer up to gigabit of Wi-Fi service, putting to shame the current offerings of internet service providers most New Yorkers have in their homes. At gigabit speed a user could download a two hour HD movie in roughly 30 seconds, a task that can take hours on traditional home Wi-Fi speeds. The Wi-Fi will extend up to 150 feet from the units. The City has a good deal of information available at its new link.nyc website.

The new technology could be a boon to a city that continues to stay on the leading edge of the technology industry. But much like the old payphones, if they are not monitored, they could end up being outdated long before the franchise agreement runs out.

City Council Member Mark Weprin, along with 28 other council members, wrote a relevant letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio in the spring. The letter expressed concern for the payphone Wi-Fi selection process and took exception to the fact that only one winner would be selected. The council members argued the lack of competition might lead to the new technology going out of date, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

Following Monday's announcement, Weprin said he thought the new design was great and that he is open-minded about what it will bring to the City.

"I am hopeful, given the scrutiny we put them under, they are making sure that they operate in a way that won't make [the units] obsolete in a very short period of time," Weprin said by phone Monday. "Hopefully they will continue to become state of the art as we go through it."

Where these links will be placed has yet to be determined, but the agreement does require equitable distribution of the up to 10,000 units in all five boroughs. This was a crucial sticking point for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made it one of the tenets of his administration to get broadband access to all New Yorkers.

"To be able to walk by a kiosk and access a signal on your cell phone, given the disproportionate reliance on wireless and on mobile [for people of color]...this is a going to be a critical step towards more access and we are very proud," Maya Wiley, counsel to the mayor, said at the press briefing.

Getting access to all, particularly those in the city's poorer communities may take a while. Construction will begin in late 2015 and the contract stipulates 500 links must be installed one year and four months after the Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) approves the contract. A public hearing of the FCRC is set for December 8, with a vote scheduled for December 10.

The contract gives CityBridge four years to build the first 4,000 links which will replace the existing payphones, mostly advertising structures at this point. They must be distributed equally among the boroughs, something that is not done currently.

Advertising dollars will power not only the build-out of this project, but will also create a long-term revenue stream for the City. Under the current payphone structure, the majority of the units are in Manhattan where ads generate the most money.

But in order to ensure equity among all five boroughs and live up to the promise of bringing wireless access to all New York neighborhoods, these units will need to branch into areas currently not highly sought after by advertisers.

Wiley said she did not think it would be a problem.

"There is an assumption that poor people don't spend money. They actually spend a lot of money and arguably they spend more money on some of the goods and services we buy," Wiley said. "One of the tricks is to figure out the advertising that actually are providing the things that folks in all communities are buying and pay for."

LinkNYC is projected to generate more than $500 million in revenue for the City over the next 12 years. Wiley said like the current payphone ad revenue, some of that money will go to pay for internet upgrades in NYCHA, the city's public housing.

The City Council will assume a role in ensuring the links are equitably distributed around the city. Council Member James Vacca, chair of the Council's technology committee, will lead that charge for the next three years, the rest of his final council term. In the spring, Vacca also wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio expressing his concern about having only one company win the franchise.

While the winning bidder was a consortium of companies, it is technically only one entity that won. Vacca said he does feel having one company with a citywide contract will incentivize a more equal distribution, but it will need to be monitored.

"The monopoly issue still bothers me," Vacca said by phone Monday. "My concern, and it continues to be a concern — and I will be using my oversight power to make sure it is monitored — is that these new kiosks would be concentrated in those areas of greater wealth or more pedestrian traffic."

Monopoly or not, everyone can agree, the new links beat the old payphones.

"I think the new design is very compact and I'm excited about that. I think the people will be excited about that when they see what they can do," Vacca said. "From a technology prospective I think it brings the city into the next century in a big way."

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated

MeriwetherK@gothamgazette.com (Kristen Meriwether) Mon, 17 Nov 2014 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5437-city-announces-payphone-wifi-deal