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News Feed http://www.gothamgazette.com/ Mon, 26 Jan 2015 16:28:41 GMT FeedCreator 1.8.0-dev (info@mypapit.net) The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 26 http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5536-the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-january-26 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

As this week begins, we're watching the following storylines, with others sure to emerge (oh, and if you haven't heard, there's some snow coming - please keep in mind that any events listed below are subject to cancellation!):

  • The latest in the Sheldon Silver saga, which will cast a cloud over this year's Albany legislative session. Silver announced on Sunday evening that he is (temporarily) ceding power to a quintet of Democratic Assembly members. The Assembly is back in session on Monday (Silver is expected to be there) and joint budget hearings begin this week (and last about a month) as lawmakers analyze Gov. Andrew Cuomo's FY2016 proposals, which he outlined this past Wednesday.
  • De Blasio starts his week dealing with the impending snow storm - expect updates from the mayor (and from Governor Cuomo throughout the first couple of days of the week - and also expect plenty of scrutiny of how the de Blasio administration handles the storm).
  • Comptroller Scott Stringer begins his week with an appearance at ABNY in the morning (details below) and then on NY1's Inside City Hall and Al Jazeera's "Real Money with Ali Veshi." 
  • In the meantime, we're also watching to see if there's movement in the relationship between de Blasio and the police unions - things seem to be thawing a bit in this cold war. And, will there be further criminal justice reform protest?
  • Who will the Democrats field in the race to replace Michael Grimm as the rep from New York's 11th Congressional District? Will Gov. Cuomo set a date for a special election? The Republicans have already chosen to field Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan as their candidate. Arguments in the case pursuing more info from the Pantaleo grand jury will begin in court on Thursday of this week.

 More to be aware of:

  • Deadlines for applying to community boards are looming in the next week or two - consult your borough president's office for details.
  • The City Council application process for discretionary funding from council members in the next fiscal year is ongoing. Consult the City Council or your local council member for more info.

As always, there's a great deal happening at the City Council and all over the city, with many events to be aware of. The week ahead in more detail below...

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

Monday - please note that Monday evening and Tuesday events are very much subject to cancellation due to the snowstorm
Monday morning, the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) will host New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer for a breakfast discussion of his "first year in office," and his "vision for building a city of shared prosperity and economic growth." [Read our report on Stringer's first year as Comptroller, including an interview with Stringer and other experts, such as former Comptroller John Liu]

As we mentioned, the Assembly is back in session on Monday (and Tuesday). So is the State Senate.

Monday's City Council schedule consists of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services meeting jointly with the Committee on Public Safety for an oversight hearing to examine "how the City Evaluates the Effectiveness of the Provision of Indigent Defense."

Monday afternoon, Council Member Ben Kallos, in association with the City's Department of Health, will host "Safer Sex Seminar for Seniors" at the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center.

*There have already been a variety of Monday evening events cancelled - be on the watch for Tuesday cancellations as well!

(Side note: Monday's a week from Groundhog Day, so watch out for lots of talk about the passing of the groundhog Mayor de Blasio mishandled last year)

Tuesday - be aware that there could well be cancelled events among those listed below!
On Tuesday, the City Council's schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Education for an oversight hearing regarding "overcrowding in NYC Public Schools"; a meeting of the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency jointly with the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services for oversight "Examining the City's Enhanced Emergency Response Plans post Superstorm Sandy"; a meeting of the Committee on Higher Education regarding a bill relating to "Information and city services to reduce college sexual assault"; and a meeting of the Committee on Economic Development for an oversight hearing regarding "economic development in Sunset Park." [Read our preview of this hearing and its controversial backstory]

Joint Legislative Budget hearings commence on Tuesday, Jan 27 in Albany. Tuesday's hearing will concern "Local Government Officials/General Government."

Tuesday morning, the Assembly Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development, will convene for an oversight hearing in Albany "to review the implementation of the State Budget and its impact on the programs under the purview of the Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development."

The New School's Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, will host an all-day conference, "Disaster Recovery & Resilience: The Tips, Techniques and Best Practices for Public and Private Organizations" - "a full-day program drawing upon the lessons learned from the World Trade Center, Hurricane Sandy and other occurrences."

NYCEDC Nonprofit Capacity Building Workshop: "This will be a full-day training made up of four modules, each approximately one hour."

On Tuesday evening, Brooklyn Independent Media will present a live broadcast of their next community town hall event: "Brooklyn for Sale: The Price of Gentrification." Comptroller Stringer is set to deliver opening remarks and the event will feature Council Member Robert Cornegy, among other panelists moderated by BRIC's Brian Vines; 7:00 p.m. BRIC House Ballroom.

Wednesday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management regarding a bill aimed at "Reducing permitted capacity at putrescible and non-putrescible solid waste transfer stations in overburdened districts"; the Committee on Transportation will meet jointly with the Committee on Aging and the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services, for an oversight hearing on "How Access-A-Ride Serves the City's Seniors and People with Disabilities"; a meeting of the Committee on Consumer Affairs to oversee "Education and Outreach on Financial Literacy for Young Adults," and to discuss a bill aimed at targeting "young adults with outreach and education regarding consumer protection issues."

State Senate public safety hearings commence: The Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction will meet jointly with the Senate Standing Committee on Civil Service and Pensions, the Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, and the Senate Standing Committee on Codes; to examine "police safety and public protection in New York City."

There will be a Wednesday Joint Legislative Budget Hearing in Albany on Environmental Conservation.

On Wednesday, Manhattan BP Gale Brewer will attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the first academic building of phase 1 of the Cornell Tech Roosevelt Island Campus.

"Prospects for Election Reform in the Digital Age: One Year after the Presidential Commission on Election Administration," Wednesday evening at New York Law School: "Robert Bauer, Partner, Perkins Coie LLP, former Co-Chair of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration and former White House Counsel, Michael Ryan '95, Executive Director, New York City Board of Elections, and David Becker, Director, Election Initiatives, The Pew Charitable Trusts discuss the impact of technology on the voting process. Anthony W. Crowell, Dean and President of New York Law School, moderates the discussion."

Wednesday evening is also the "Riders Alliance Citywide Membership Meeting" - "We'll meet together with other Riders Alliance members and friends, eat dumplings, and strategize for a year of progress toward better public transit for all New Yorkers."

Thursday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Housing and Buildings for an oversight hearing on "A Review of the 421-a Tax Benefit Program"; a meeting of the Committee on Parks and Recreation to review "the Annual report on non-governmental funding for NYC parks"; and a meeting of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations regarding a bill in relation to "cultural liaisons."

Thursday's Joint Legislative Hearing in Albany will focus on transportation.

Thursday evening will see a "Public Meeting of the Contracts Committee of the Panel for Educational Policy" at Tweed.

City Council Member Costa Constantinides will give his State of the District address on Thursday evening in Woodside, Queens: "All are invited to join me as I give my State of the District address and discuss our upcoming priorities. I'll examine the successes of our neighborhood and my vision for our community."

According to Public Advocate Letitia James, "New York State Supreme Court Justice William Garnett will hear oral arguments in the Garner case on January 29th. The Public Advocate will continue to work to bring police and communities together and increase transparency and accountability in our justice system."

Friday and the weekend
Friday's City Council schedule is a meeting of the Committee on Juvenile Justice for an oversight hearing, "overview of the Division of Youth and Family Justice's services and programs for remanded youth."

Manhattan Community Board application deadline is January 30th (Friday); Brooklyn's is the 31st (Saturday).

The City's Department of Consumer Affairs is organizing "Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Awareness Day Phonathon" for Saturday, with several events throughout the city.

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

by Rati Mukhuradze and Ben Max

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Rati Mukhuradze and Ben Max) Mon, 26 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5536-the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-january-26
2015 'State Of's the Union, State, City & Boroughs http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5535-2015-state-ofs-the-union-state-city-a-boroughs cuomo sots

Gov. Cuomo giving his State of the State speech (@NYGovCuomo)

As politics and governing get going in 2015, we're following elected leaders as they give their "state of" speeches, in which they typically give their assessments of the current, well, state of their domain, along with an agenda for the year ahead. Our "state of" coverage:

State of the Union (Tues 1/20)

State of the State (Wed 1/21)

States of the Boroughs

State of the City


webmaster@gothamgazette.com ({ga=admin}) Fri, 23 Jan 2015 17:17:14 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5535-2015-state-ofs-the-union-state-city-a-boroughs
Katz Shares Vision for 'World's Borough' with Her 'Queens Family' http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5531-katz-shares-vision-for-worlds-borough-with-her-queens-family bp katz sotb

Queens BP Katz delivers her SOTB speech (photo: @FlushingTwnHall)

QUEENS - "If it's good for families, it's good for Queens," said Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, repeating the phrase that she said guides her policies at Borough Hall. Katz spoke to a packed Colden Auditorium at Queens College on Thursday, marking her 387th day in office with her first State of the Borough address.

Katz recapped her first year as Queens borough president while expanding on her vision for 2015. Like each of the other borough presidents in New York City, Katz has quite a bit of room for defining the role, which is less powerful than it was a few decades ago, but still allows for quite a bit of creativity, policy-making, and impact.

Among her accomplishments last year, Katz highlighted the overhaul of the Queens Library Board of Trustees after financial impropriety came to light by then CEO Tom Galante. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," she said at Thursday's speech, reiterating a statement she made on the need for the change in leadership. Katz also discussed being instrumental in the World's Fair Anniversary Committee, which organized cultural events last year to celebrate the 1964 and 1939 World's Fairs. She also worked with the mayor and City Council to raise funds for the renovation of the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, she said.

For 2015, Katz outlined a big vision. She stressed her theme for the speech, calling Queens "The World's Borough," a moniker recently given added credence by popular travel publication, The Lonely Planet, which named Queens the top travel destination in the United States for 2015. Stepping up to the dais, Katz greeted the audience in a number of languages, including Hindi, Mandarin, French and Spanish.

"Being borough president is more than a job for me. It's a passion," said Katz as she emphasized her strong family connections with the borough and the motivations behind her work, chiefly her young sons who she said keep her grounded.

"My parents believed that Queens held all the elements of any great city and that no one should have to cross a bridge or go through a tunnel to get great arts, culture, fine dining and great neighborhoods," she said, stressing the cultural diversity of the 2.2 million residents of the borough, nearly half of whom were born outside the United States.

Katz's priorities for the new year are nothing short of ambitious. A top item on her list is tackling the overcrowding of schools in Queens, an issue she has brought up before. "We need to get our students out of trailers and into classrooms," she said, referring to temporary trailers set up at numerous overcrowded public schools. She criticized the complicated system of new education standards the state has adopted. "It's not a common core," she said. "It's a common problem." Pre-K was also on the list as she called for volunteer organizations to help with hosting pre-K programs - Queens enrollment is expected to quadruple over the next year.

This year will not be without its challenges, as Katz explained her office will be working on a number of formidable causes, including affordable housing. She urged the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to create 2,500 public housing units in the borough this year, up from the originally proposed 750. She called for increasing emergency rooms in the borough and creation of a permanent Rockaway ferry service. But she also took the time to praise the work of the 700 Queens residents working on local Community Boards, stating her outright opposition to term limits on Community Board members.

Among the lighter moments of the speech was Katz's announcement of an annual Queens Day to celebrate the borough's cultural diversity. Referring to a few travel publications, Katz said, "They all agree that Queens is hot and on the move. Sorry Eric!," a cordial joke aimed at Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who was in attendance.

The speech was also attended by many elected officials including New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and many other council members, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, and newly-inaugurated State Senator Leroy Comrie, who was a deputy Queens borough president before his election.

Katz honored the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who called Queens home, and NYPD Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu with a moment of silence.

[This is part of our 'State Of's series wherein we're reporting on so-named speeches by a variety of elected officials, from the President to the Governor, the Mayor, the City Council Speaker, and the Broough Presidents - visit the landing page here]

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

samarkhurshid@nyu.edu (Samar Khurshid) Fri, 23 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5531-katz-shares-vision-for-worlds-borough-with-her-queens-family
Spike in Concerns About Race Provides Opportunity http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5524-spike-in-concerns-about-race-provides-opportunity-evan-thies bdb mlk

Mayor de Blasio speaking at BAM on MLK Day (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

It's hard to imagine a single Martin Luther King Day event in New York City this week which did not include urgent expressions of concern about race in our hometown—both from the podium and in the crowd.

After a torrid summer and fall of protests following the tragic deaths of two unarmed black men – Eric Garner and Akai Gurley – at the hands of police, we are now suffering through a winter of cold war between police unions and City Hall after the assassination of two officers, appallingly gunned down amid the strife.

Recent polling reflects the mood of a troubled public stuck in the middle of all this, supporting police but clearly hearing protesters. New Yorkers are also fearing what the ongoing conflict means for race relations. Just two years ago, more than half of New Yorkers thought race relations were excellent or good. Now less than a third do, according to a Siena College survey released Monday.

Those numbers have undoubtedly dropped because of the disturbing string of events having to do with the police, including the standoff between the police unions and Mayor de Blasio—a fight which is rooted in a basic disagreement over how to even talk about race.

But New Yorkers' race-related anxieties were already piquing during the 2013 mayoral campaign. Though it's reasonable to argue the recent policing issues rapidly escalated concern, our mayor's victory a little more than a year ago was due in no small part to his ardent criticism of the overuse of Stop-and-Frisk in communities of color.

And New Yorkers are not just concerned about race in policing, but also about race's role in general inequality. For instance, more than half of New Yorkers now think the entire criminal justice system treats people of color unfairly. Politicians from every corner of the city talk about a yawning income gap between the haves (mostly white) and the have-nots (mostly black and Latino).

To many in New York, it's as if racial inequality 2.0 is just now being uncovered. Actually though, it's a deep-seated problem that never went away, and has seen little improvement in decades. Yet a large group of people is suddenly realizing how serious a problem it is. Those people, by the way, are mainly white.

When more than half of all New Yorkers thought race relations were excellent or good two years ago, black New Yorkers disagreed. More than half of them thought they were only fair or poor. Since then, there has been a huge increase in the percentage of white New Yorkers who are concerned - just 8 percent thought race relations were poor in 2013. Now that number has tripled to more than a quarter who think so.

It's easy to be pessimistic about progress from here. But, believe it or not, this level of distress is exactly what had to happen for things to get better.

With attention focused on the different experiences whites and blacks have in this city and state, there is an historic opportunity to make real, lasting changes. NYPD Commissioner Bratton, Governor Cuomo and other lawmakers have already put forward policies which could reduce inequality in our criminal justice system. But next we have to recognize other systemic causes of racial inequality, and seek to fix them as well.

Schools that are predominantly black are far more likely to be underfunded and underperforming. Unemployment remains devastatingly high in neighborhoods with large black populations. Even basic things like renovated subway stops and cleaner sidewalks are harder to find in majority-minority areas.

This month, the governor and mayor are setting their agendas for 2015, and our State Legislature and City Council will soon go about the annual task of doling out government funds through their budget processes. This is when we prioritize what's most important to us. This is when we have a chance to reduce the inequality that has created a far less perfect city than we are capable of and deserve.

This may be the most pivotal Martin Luther King Week we New Yorkers have had in a very long time. The current controversy over policing is important and must lead to reform. But it is also necessary to admit there is a broader problem, be determined to fix it, and to act, not just worry. We must do it now, while so many New Yorkers are finally paying attention.

Evan Thies is the president of Brooklyn Strategies, a public affairs and strategic planning firm that offers political advice.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Evan Thies) Thu, 22 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5524-spike-in-concerns-about-race-provides-opportunity-evan-thies
Veterans, Council Members Push City on Contract Goals http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5527-veterans-council-members-push-city-on-contract-goals sbs testimony vets

SBS Commissioner Torres-Springer testifies before the Council (photo: @NYCBusSolutions)

NEW YORK—It has been nearly two months since the Department of Small Business Services and the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs released their long-awaited report on veteran owned-businesses. The report included a variety of plans to support veteran business owners, but recommended against City contract procurement goals for those businesses, a decision that angered many in the tight-knit veterans community.

On Wednesday, veterans were able to publicly voice their concerns about the report at a joint hearing of the City Council's Veterans and Small Business Committees.

First, Department of Small Business Services (SBS) Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer and her policy team, and Catherine LaPorte, chief of staff for Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA) Commissioner Loree Sutton testified regarding the report. (Sutton was unable to attend the hearing because she fell earlier in the day and was injured).

Kelly Dougherty, executive director of SBS, and LaPorte of MOVA stayed to listen to veterans and advocates address the Council.

"The issuance of this report allowed us to discuss this issue at great depth and to get a better understanding of the struggles a lot of veterans face when they come out of active duty and want to open their own business," Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the Veterans Committee said following the hearing. "I wish more folks from the administration would have decided to stay."

Several veterans brought into question the numbers SBS used to make its recommendation against a veteran-owned business contract procurement goal. The SBS-MOVA report, titled "A Roadmap for Supporting Veteran Owned Businesses," estimates 6,200 veterans able to contract with the City, out of a total city veteran population of about 235,000.

"At this point, we believe we can have a larger and more immediate impact within the veteran community by assisting veterans through a wide array of outreach, training, and networking opportunities," Torres-Springer said during her testimony.

But the Veterans Advisory Board (VAB), which operates as a policy liaison between the New York City veterans community and MOVA, argued those numbers don't add up. During his testimony, VAB Chair Vince McGowan asked why the U.S. Census 2007 Survey of Business Owners data was not utilized in the report. The data, provided in McGown's written testimony, showed New York City had 39,236 veteran-owned businesses, excluding Staten Island due to insufficient data. This was in sharp contrast to the estimated 15,400 veteran-owned businesses listed in the SBS report.

The 2007 report is clearly old data, but may very well provide cause for looking at why in just eight years the number of veteran-owned businesses has seemingly decreased so dramatically.

"We encourage the City Council to scrutinize the methodology of [its new] report and consider its findings in this context," McGowen said during his testimony.

Not quite M/WBE
In the report SBS recommends veteran-owned businesses take advantage of the Minority and/or Woman-owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE) or the Emerging Business Enterprise (EBE) programs which already have procurement goals (though according to a report issued by Comptroller Scott Stringer they are often not met). SBS estimates 50 percent of the veteran-owned businesses in the City could take advantage of these programs.

But retired Army Captain Scott Davidson testified that trying to fit veterans into a program not specifically designed for them is counterproductive.

"We lose sight of the fact that a veteran status is the only status that is earned," Davidson said, adding that not having procurement goals is "almost insulting to veterans."

Davidson, who is a white male, said he has been unsuccessful in trying to do business with the City because he is unable to qualify for M/WBE or EBE status. His business, Vets MS, is currently doing contract procurement at the federal level because it has had veteran-owned business procurement goals since the late 1990s.

Using publicly available data, Davidson found there were only 4,024 M/WBE businesses certified to do business with the City, and only 20 enrolled in the EBE program, which is—by SBS's own admission—difficult to qualify for. Davidson argued Wednesday that the pool of 15,400 veteran business owners in the city far exceeds the number of M/WBE businesses currently contracting with the City.

"You are not going to attract any veteran businesses to the City of New York because there is no incentive to contract here," Davidson said.

More than a roadmap
The report's seven recommendations are welcomed by advocates because, as was repeatedly said in the hearing, the issuance of the report is a step in the right direction of more City support for veterans. But as Council Member Paul Vallone pointed out, each of the recommendations ends with similar language: more outreach, better working relationship, more solutions, better partner.

"If I'm a veteran, it's not really what I want to hear," Vallone said. "I like hearing you want to partner in our communities, but I want to hear the administration say, 'this is the resources we are going to commit, these are the programs we are going to institute, this is the staff we are going to use'...But that was not said today."

Torres-Springer countered, saying, "We are not waiting." She pointed to several ways in which the City is making immediate changes based on the recommendations in the report.

In a matter of weeks, businesses which enroll online as vendors with the City using the Payee Information Portal (PIP) will be able to self-identify as a veteran-owned business. This will give SBS and MOVA concrete data on how many veteran-owned businesses are currently doing business with the City.

"To effectively create a goals program, we need to know more about the universe of businesses that want to sell goods and services to the City, which we will be in the position to do through the aforementioned changes to the PIP system," Torres-Springer said.

It should be noted that the onus will be on veterans to self-identify, which often poses a problem for veterans, particularly post-9/11 veterans who have trouble doing so. Torres-Springer said additional training for SBS staff at their business help centers begins next month, which could help eliminate some of the issues around self-identification.

In addition to improvements in PIP, Torres-Springer said the City will launch a new course titled, "10 Steps to Starting a Business for Veterans" in February and is currently recruiting for the Veteran Entrepreneurship Program, which also begins in February.

Outreach will be the key to success for these programs, especially reaching veterans who may not be eager to self-identify.

"Veterans will not come to you, you need to go to them," Avi Leshes, Director of Neighborhood Business Services with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, said during his testimony Wednesday. "You can talk about all these great resources for veterans but if they don't know about it, it is pointless."

If there was one thing veterans can hold onto, it's that it appears procurement goals for veteran-owned businesses are not off the table.

"We have been, are today, and will continue to be open to any strategy or programs that allow us to more effectively serve veteran business owners," said Torres-Springer.

For Council Member Robert Cornegy, chair of the Committee on Small Business, that glimmer of hope that procurement goals for veterans could happen in New York City will work for now.

"I'm satisfied that the door has not been closed on doing set-asides," Cornegy said following the hearing. "Because [the City] chose to go this route now, it doesn't mean in the future they won't do set-asides."

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that a represenative from SBS did in fact stay for the duration of the hearing. An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that no one from SBS had remained after its representatives testified. We regret the error.

MeriwetherK@gothamgazette.com (Kristen Meriwether) Thu, 22 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5527-veterans-council-members-push-city-on-contract-goals
Cuomo's State of the State: What's in it for NYC? http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5528-cuomos-state-of-the-state-whats-in-it-for-nyc cuomo sos wave

Gov. Cuomo on Wednesday (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's combined State of the State speech and budget presentation certainly couldn't have been mistaken for the "Tale of Two Cities" speech his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, gave at the 1984 Democratic Convention. But, the son's Wednesday address at the Empire State Convention Center in Albany did contain a number of similar themes - themes that have been more recently employed by Cuomo's friend, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

When speaking in loftier liberal lines and not, Cuomo gave de Blasio, who was in attendance, much food for thought as the mayor plans his 2015 state legislative agenda and readies to testify in Albany next week and deliver his own State of the City address soon after.

On Wednesday, the governor spoke to concerns shared by de Blasio, describing a public school system that fails the poor and people of color and a growing feeling that there is no longer any way to overcome poverty, that upward mobility is all but vanishing. "Too many believe if you're born poor, you'll die poor," he said. "That is the exact opposite of what The American Dream promised."

Even while invoking these tried and true progressive tomes, Cuomo continued to display his own traditional style wherein he mixes talk of fiscal austerity, balanced budgets, and backwards bureaucracy. In his presentation, Cuomo pleased de Blasio with talk of addressing inequality and measures to combat other issues facing New York City, such as the crisis over policing and what many call a biased criminal justice system. But, Cuomo left unmentioned some contentious issues of great importance to de Blasio and New York City residents, like the rent laws due to expire this spring.

In a move designed at least in some part to placate activists and de Blasio himself, Cuomo proposed a $10.50 minimum wage across the state and an $11.50 minimum wage for the city. "We believe if you work full time, you should be able to pay the rent and pay for food," Cuomo said like both de Blasio and President Obama. "We're not there yet."

Last May, in exchange for the endorsement of the Working Families Party (WFP), Cuomo agreed to a deal that would have raised the state's minimum wage to $10.10, indexed it to inflation, and allowed municipalities to increase it up to 30 percent over the state's wage. De Blasio brokered the deal - he had been lobbying to give municipalities control over their minimum wage. Many advocates insist the wage should be raised to $15.

In a video response to Cuomo's address, WFP head BIll Lipton called on Cuomo to enact a $15 minimum wage without the Legislature. "We call on the governor to follow San Francisco and Seattle's lead and pass a minimum wage people can live on: $15 an hour. If the Senate Republicans balk, Governor Cuomo can do it himself, taking executive action with a wage board."

Showing his usual comfort in the middle, Cuomo also walked a fine line while unveiling his response to outcry over the deaths of individuals at the hands of police and the recent killing of two NYPD officers.

"The promise of equal justice is a New York promise and it is an American promise. We are currently in the midst of a national problem where people are questioning our justice system," said Cuomo. "And they're questioning whether the justice system really is fairness for all. And whether the justice system really is colorblind. And that's not just New York, it's a problem all across the country."

In a 7-point agenda Cuomo said he would seek to allow district attorneys to release more information about a grand jury's findings when an indictment is not reached in a case where police are involved in the death of a civilian. The governor said he would appoint a monitor in cases when civilians are killed by police. The monitor could call for a special prosecutor. Cuomo also called for the creation of a commission on police and community relations; new recruitment initiatives aimed at diversifying police forces; and bulletproof glass in police cruisers, bulletproof vests, and use of police body cameras.

In a move de Blasio has praised, Cuomo is seeking to raise the age of criminality in New York. Currently, New York and North Carolina are the only states to try 16- and 17-year olds as adults. That would change as Cuomo took the recommendation of his panel on youth and the criminal justice system and proposed raising the age at which youth can be tried as adults to 18. "State prisons are no place for a 16-year old," Cuomo declared.

Glenn Lau-Kee, president of the New York State Bar Association, praised the proposal. "Raising the age of criminal responsibility will help all children to embark a more positive path to adulthood. Providing troubled teenagers with support and guidance can help them turn around their lives."

Many city lawmakers were waiting for Cuomo to utter the words "DREAM Act." The governor did so, promising to make a reality the legislation that would provide tuition assistance to undocumented students - but, he is tying it to the education tax credit that is favored by many conservative legislators.That proposal would allow for major tax write-offs for individuals who donate to private or charter schools. Both Sens. Adriano Espaillat and Ruben Diaz said they were overjoyed that the DREAM Act was in Cuomo's budget and were not concerned about the tax credit. Diaz said that he plans to vote for this Cuomo budget after years of voting against them.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, issued a statement decrying the linking of the two items: "The governor's proposal to link the DREAM Act to a scheme that would divert precious resources away from public schools to private, parochial and charter schools is of serious concern. Education is the foundation for future success for both New York's children and the state's financial well-being. Transferring public money to private schools undermines both. It also violates the foundational principle that bars the government from endorsing religion."

De Blasio saw a small victory when Cuomo pointed to his use of mayoral control as a reason to renew it and expand it to other cities, but on other education points Cuomo ran directly up against him. Cuomo called for raising the charter school cap by 100 and doing away with regional restrictions (i.e. the New York City limit, which is close to being hit).

"This is something I've spoken to many times – I think the cap we have now is sufficient," de Blasio told reporters at a briefing after the governor's address. "I want to certainly work with charter schools in New York City, but as I've said many times, the key to improving education in New York City and throughout the state is to do a much better job at traditional public school education."

On charter schools and much else of the education platform Cuomo unveiled, de Blasio and his teachers union allies are likely to fight. The mayor has not expressed any interest in seeing teacher tenure reform like Cuomo is suggesting, nor does de Blasio want to see an increase in the amount that standardized test scores are counted toward teacher evaluations.

However, de Blasio did praise Cuomo for his commitment to funding pre-kindergarden. Cuomo proposed spending $25 million to provide pre-k to high-need 3-year-olds, noting that studies show children are bolstered by earlier education. De Blasio was also complimentary of this idea.

Cuomo repeated his support for a plan to build four Metro North stations in the Bronx and expand Metro North service to Penn Station. He also repeated calls from last year to modernize LaGuardia and JFK airports. He also wants to link LaGuardia and the subway through the 7 line and an air train.

Cuomo pledged $750 million in funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's capital plan--down $20 million from last year. The MTA says it faces a $15 billion deficit for its 5-year capital plan. Cuomo himself has downplayed the MTA's actual need.

Other proposals that could impact the city include:

-Expanding the unemployment task force currently operating in the Bronx to the top 10 areas hardest hit by joblessness.

-Doubling funding for the state's jobs program for urban youth that provides millions in tax credits to businesses that hire disadvantaged youth.

-Providing $220 million for homeless services.

The State of the State did have glaring omissions for some advocates. Cuomo failed any major mention of the Gender Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) that affords protections to transgender individuals. The bill is included in the text version of Cuomo's prepared speech.

While Cuomo did discuss investing $486 million in building new affordable housing for "vulnerable" New Yorkers, he did not discuss renewing the expiring rent laws that keep housing affordable for thousands of city residents. Tenants and tenant advocates are highly concerned about losing affordable units to destabilization.

Asked by Gotham Gazette about the omission, de Blasio said there have been discussions at "a staff level." He added, "I think it's been one of the things that has preserved what affordability we do have in New York City – and we have an affordability crisis in New York City – it's a lot of what we talked about in the last year – it's a lot of why we have the most expansive affordable housing plan in the history of this country – to build or preserve 200,000 units of housing – because we have a profound affordability crisis in New York City. And you can't address income inequality without addressing the affordability of housing, which is the number one expense. So, I'm going to work to protect rent regulation. I'm going to look for ways that we can expand upon it and strengthen it. We've had a huge number of units lost from rent regulation or from other programs that protected affordability, and we have to address that – and I'm hopeful that we can get something done."

Everything in Albany is now in flux with news that powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is facing arrest on charges related to his outside income as a lawyer. Silver has been de Blasio's most important ally in Albany in terms of negotiating with Cuomo and Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos.

De Blasio is scheduled to return to Albany next week when he will address the legislature's joint budget hearing on municipalities. He promised he will have a more detailed analysis of all of Cuomo's proposals at that point. Traditionally, city mayors have come to Albany to ask for an increase in aid to municipalities, but that aid has been missing for New York City since Cuomo took office and his budget proposal calls for continued flatlining.

"I'll have more to say next week on details," de Blasio said at one point. "As I indicated at the beginning, I think there's some very positive elements in his agenda that I agree with, and I'm sure there'll be some other areas I have differences with..."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated.

dking@gothamgazette.com (David Howard King) Thu, 22 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5528-cuomos-state-of-the-state-whats-in-it-for-nyc
Albany Power Dynamics Allow Immense Power, Little Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5533-albany-power-dynamics-allow-immense-power-little-reform silver

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (photo: @NYSA_Majority)

In Albany, that old saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely appears to be holding true as yet another high-profile legislative leader is facing federal corruption charges.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, has been at the table for agreement on just about all the major legislation that has become New York State law since 1994 and his name is inextricably linked with the state capital. On Thursday, he was arrested after turning himself in to federal authorities in Manhattan after being charged with five counts including corruption, conspiracy, and fraud, and for using his public office in a scheme to receive $4 million in bribes and kickbacks. He faces up to 20 years in prison for each charge.

Silver is innocent until proven guilty, of course, and has declared that he "will be vindicated," but it appears to many New Yorkers, yet again, that the fox has been running the hen house.

"Politicians are supposed to be on the people's payroll, not on secret retainer to wealthy special interests they do favors for," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Thursday while announcing the charges against Silver.

"These charges, in our view, go to the very core of what ails Albany: the lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism and self-dealing," Bharara continued.

The problems Bharara refers to have, for some, no greater manifestation than the way in which virtually all major decisions in Albany are made: with three men in a room.

For decades, Silver has been one of those three men. And for decades, the three men, including whomever Silver has been accompanied by, have dragged their feet on ethics reforms - even while legislator after legislator has been indicted.

Despite the fact that New Yorkers across the state elect 63 Senators and and 150 Assembly Members, all major policy that is decided in Albany gets filtered through and approved by what is usually three men in a room. Lately the formula changed as the Independent Democrats' Jeff Klein has also had a seat at the table. But normally there are three men: the governor and the speaker of each house of the Legislature. Silver has been the Assembly's representative since he was elected speaker in 1994 and he has grown immensely powerful in that position, leading what continues to be a heavily Democratic body.

It is this traditional Albany power structure and Silver's ability to control his members that have presided over minimal changes to the state's good government laws. There have been some updates to those laws, though.

"Its ironic, Silver supported the 2011 ethics law that required for the first time public disclosure of outside income and led to his trip up today," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government group.

Although, Silver's outside income as an attorney has been a hot topic for years, no law required he disclose it until 2011 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached an ethics reform deal with legislators. The deal required major electeds and state officials to file outside income disclosures that gave the source and range of their incomes but did not require lawyers to disclose the names of their clients. Flags were raised earlier this year when The New York Times reported that Silver had failed to disclose income from a private practice and another law firm.

"For many years, New Yorkers have asked the question: How could Speaker Silver, one of the most powerful men in all of New York, earn millions of dollars in outside income without deeply compromising his ability to honestly serve his constituents?" U.S. Attorney Bharara said on Thursday. "Today we provided the answer. He didn't."

Silver is accused of pressuring real estate firms with business in front of the State to hire one of two law firms that would then give him a kickback. He is also accused of steering $500,000 in state funds to a doctor who referred patients with asbestos to a Silver-affiliated law firm.

Make no mistake, Silver isn't the only powerful New York State legislative leader to be indicted in recent years. No, five former or current leaders have been indicted since 2000. They include former Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, former Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson, Former Majority Leader Pedro Espada, and Former Democratic Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.

While Silver's immense power is undeniable, Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) says it would be unfair to blame Silver for the watered down ethics reforms Albany has seen over the years or the failure to pass major reform of the campaign finance system. Why? Because there are two other similarly powerful men at the negotiating table.

"It is a political game of Clue," said Horner. "Was it Silver and Colonel Mustard in the dining room with the candlestick?"

Horner said blaming Silver for Albany's ethics morass ignores the obvious flaws in the system.

"The three men in a room, powerful leadership model in New York is a real issue. The governor is extremely powerful in New York so it isn't surprising the Legislature has given itself a strong leader," said Horner. "But the three-men formula makes it extremely hard to see what is really going on in policy negotiations. That secrecy combined with the nonexistent state enforcement and reform efforts that are designed to fail are what is driving the problem."

Both houses of the Legislature sued Gov. Cuomo's Moreland Commission on Public Corruption to stop subpoenas seeking information on the outside income of legislators who make more than $20,000 a year. Cuomo had very clearly stated that he would empanel the commission if the Legislature failed to agree to a number of his ethics reform proposals that he issued after it was revealed one legislator had worn a wire for the FBI, taping her colleagues in an attempt to avoid jail time for a corruption charge.

In a letter to his conference, Silver explained why he was taking legal action: "One or more of the Commissioners have said publicly that the purpose of the Commission is to 'investigate the Legislature.' As well, numerous statements have been made that the reason for the investigation is because the Legislature did not enact proposed 'reform' legislation," he wrote. "One thing is certain: it is an improper and illegal use of Executive authority for appointees of that branch of government to 'investigate the Legislature' merely because the Commissioners would like to compel passage of proposed legislation."

Silver wasn't the only leader making more than $20,000 in outside income--both Republican Leader Dean Skelos and Klein of the IDC also work at law firms and have reported significant outside income.

Dadey of Citizens Union said that federal charges being brought against Silver "shows why Moreland was succeeding at its job."

Bharara is reportedly looking into the Cuomo administration's interference with that commission, as members of Moreland contend that Cuomo staffers tried to kill subpoenas that targeted groups close to Cuomo, such as those tied to the real estate industry. Advocates have questioned whether Cuomo really wants major reform as he is the chief beneficiary of the current campaign finance system and his policy decisions appear to benefit a number of his largest donors.

Bharara made reference to Moreland on Thursday. "But a deal was cut that cut off the commission's work, to the great relief of Sheldon Silver, who furiously fought its subpoenas and urged the commission's early shutdown," he said. "Moreland was made to close its doors after only nine months, its work barely begun, and while litigation over those subpoenas about Sheldon Silver's outside income was still pending before a state judge."

Before wrapping up his presentation, Bharara told reporters to "stay tuned" as his investigations continue.

Meanwhile, Horner said he isn't surprised that Assembly Democrats have yet to condemn Silver. "They are just learning about the charges and he is innocent until proven guilty," he said.

Lobbyists and other insiders point out that Silver has gone out of his way as leader to protect his members from scandal. Silver was roundly criticized for quietly paying a settlement to interns who accused former Assembly Member Vito Lopez of sexual harassment. But one legislator told Gotham Gazette, "They see that as him going to bat for their conference. They see that as him taking the burden on his shoulders to protect them."

Leaders of the legislative houses in Albany are granted immense power by their chambers. On Thursday, as word of Silver's arrest spread through Albany, Assembly Democrats either declined to speak to the press or said they supported Silver.

After cancelling Thursday's scheduled legislative session and conferencing, Democratic members said they voted to support Silver without even reading the charges against him. For decades Silver has fought behind the scenes to protect members while bringing home cash to individual members' districts, fighting for their pet projects and deciding whether their bills live or die. Silver is the end-all for Assembly Democrats--he is all just about any of them have ever known as a leader.

The phrase "he knows where the bodies are buried" became strikingly commonplace at the Capitol on Thursday as some wondered whether Silver might be interested in sharing some of his secrets in an effort to make a more palatable deal for himself.

Complicating matters immensely and bringing it back to the significance of the three men in a room model, Silver is also the counterweight to the Senate Republicans and to Cuomo's fiscal policies. The assembly speaker is a champion to teachers unions and has pushed The DREAM Act, public financing of campaigns, and other progressive measures. All are among the reasons why his Democratic members, with the lone exception of Charles Barron, continue to support him and why Democrats in New York City, such as Mayor Bill de Blasio, were also non-critical in response to his arrest.

In other words, as long as he is not forced to resign due to a guilty plea or conviction, Silver is the Democrats' best hope for favorable policies coming out of that room.

Horner said he hopes the recent scandal will lead to a push for reform. "This isn't outside good government groups calling for change, or a scandal involving a backbencher," said Horner. "This is the guy at the center of everything and there is no ignoring it. Of course muscle memory will be for them to continue along as though they aren't the center of controversy. Maybe it will take more indictments from Bharara to change that."

Dadey said that there couldn't be a bigger impetus for action. "What better example could there be of the need for better disclosure, better ethics laws, and campaign finance reform? If not now, when?" he said.

Cuomo dedicated only a few brief words to reform in his State of the State speech on Wednesday. The governor called for campaign finance reform and a pay raise commission that would offer one level of pay to full-time legislators and another to those with outside income. He also suggested capping lawmakers outside pay. Legislators balked at the idea. Silver was expected to lead the charge against it.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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

dking@gothamgazette.com (David Howard King) Thu, 22 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5533-albany-power-dynamics-allow-immense-power-little-reform
Shelly Silver’s Arrest: 5 Immediate Impacts on Albany http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5534-shelly-silvers-arrest-5-immediate-impacts-on-albany-morgan-pehme silver cuomo

Silver, right, and Cuomo face shifting power dynamics (photo: @NYSA_Majority)

A former member of the New York State Assembly once told me off the record that the real reason Sheldon Silver didn't disclose who his law clients were was not because he was afraid of being exposed for doing their bidding in the Legislature, as Silver's critics have long alleged; Silver's real secret was that he didn't actually have any law clients whatsoever and that he was being paid millions of dollars by the firm Weitz & Luxenberg for doing no work at all. Thursday's five-count indictment of Silver by the U.S. Attorney's Office appeared to affirm that portrait of the Speaker's outside income from Weitz & Luxenberg and another firm, Goldberg & Iryami.

While Silver, an extraordinarily resilient politician, could certainly survive the charges brought again him and hang on as Assembly Speaker, his arrest will undoubtedly weaken him immensely for the rest of his career in office and have major implications for the current political and legislative landscape in Albany. The following are five immediate ramifications of Thursday's bombshell turn of events:

1) POWER SHIFT: For over a generation, Silver has been one of Albany's "three men in a room" and during the troubled administrations of Govs. Spitzer and Paterson emerged as the most powerful of the three, often appearing to be the lone responsible party keeping the ship of state from crashing into the rocks. That power dynamic shifted when Gov. Cuomo, a forceful chief executive, took office in 2010, and Silver was wounded by the series of scandals that have rocked the Assembly in recent years—most notably, the Vito Lopez sexual harassment cover-up complaints—as well as the arrest and conviction of one of Silver's closest friends and associates, Willie Rapfogel.

Still, Silver has consistently been, at least on paper, progressive Democrats' foremost champion in the Capitol. If he does remain Speaker, Silver will have a very difficult time holding the line on progressive priorities, particularly if the consistently rock-solid support of his members starts to break down. If Silver gives up his post or is forced from it, Gov. Cuomo is almost certain to try to heavily influence the succession process to ensure that the next Speaker is a pliant ally. If Cuomo prevails, he will further tip the balance of power in Albany in his favor. If the Legislature holds out for an independent Speaker, there will be enmity in the proverbial "room" which will shake up the relatively amicable working relationship Cuomo, Silver, and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos (and IDC head Jeff Klein) have enjoyed for the past four years.

2) POSSIBILITY OF REFORM: Silver's arrest is already prompting yet another call to address Albany's appalling epidemic of political corruption. Since the allegations against Silver stem from his outside income, the Legislature's rules governing what money senators and Assembly members can make from their other jobs and how they have to disclose it—rules good government groups have long slammed as far too lax—are certain to come up for review. A debate over whether the Legislature should become full-time to eliminate the possibility of members being entangled in any perceived or actual conflicts of interest is also likely to arise, though the Legislature would probably only sign off on this change in conjunction with a significant pay raise for legislators, which it is hard to believe could pass amid the current political atmosphere without a serious voter backlash in 2016.

Leadership term limits may also now be on the table in light of how long Silver was allegedly enriching himself via his position. Since Gov. Cuomo shuttered the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption in March as part of a deal with Skelos and Silver, he will be under significant pressure to demonstrate that he didn't let Silver almost skirt free, and to prove that he is as determined to clean up Albany as he has repeatedly professed. Silencing his critics who claim that he has been soft on—if not complicit in fostering—Albany's culture of corruption will now become one of the governor's chief concerns for the foreseeable future—and will encumber his ability to focus solely on achieving the ambitious agenda he laid out yesterday—with Silver on stage beside him—in his State of the State address.

3) HOUSING FIGHT UNCERTAINTY: Tenant advocates hoping to preserve and strengthen New York City's rent control laws and other key pieces of housing legislation that are sunsetting this year have placed a lot of their eggs in Shelly Silver's basket. Though Silver was Speaker two of the times the city's housing laws were weakened in Albany, tenant advocates widely regard him as their foremost bulwark in the Capitol, as they are suspicious of where Gov. Cuomo, who received millions of campaign dollars from the real estate industry, sides in the fight, despite his having helped them win stricter limits on the deregulation of apartments in 2011 and creating the Tenant Protection Unit, which landlords generally do not like.

If Silver remains Speaker, it will be far more difficult for him to defend the city's rent laws, and if he is ousted, it will matter significantly who takes his place. If his successor is Assembly Housing Committee Chair Keith Wright, who is always quick to point out that he lives in a rent control apartment, a change could end up potentially benefitting tenant advocates, but Wright is also a close ally of Cuomo, who appointed him co-chair of the New York State Democratic Party in 2012, and unlikely to cross the governor. In any event, an already tense situation for tenant advocates got much more stressful for them on Thursday.

4) TORT REFORM BACK ON THE TABLE: Supporters of modifying or eliminating New York State's Scaffold Law undoubtedly are rejoicing today. The law, which holds contractors and property owners 100 percent liable if a worker falls on the job, is detested by business groups and the real estate industry, which insist it dramatically drives up the cost of building, and fiercely defended by union advocates and trial attorneys, the latter of whom receive a lucrative percentage of the often large settlements that can result from lawsuits that hinge upon the statute. Since he became Speaker in 1994, there has been no more dependable and aggressive ally than Silver of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, on whose board Weitz & Luxenberg partner Arthur Luxenberg sits.

Last year Gov. Cuomo called the trial lawyers "the single most powerful political force in Albany" in explaining to Crain's why there was no current path to reforming the Scaffold Law, and that power largely emanates from Silver. With Silver hobbled and his financial ties to law firms centrally related to his indictment, it will be much harder for the Trial Lawyers and related lobbies to rebuff any efforts at reforming the Scaffold Law and other favorite targets of tort reform advocates, like contingency fee limits and trespasser responsibility.

5) MORE SCALPS?: The reason Shelly Silver is only a year short of becoming the longest serving Speaker in Assembly history is because he has been very good at his job. The speaker's principal responsibility is to protect his members, and in that regard Silver has been exemplary, often taking the heat for bad and criminal behavior by his members when he could have easily opted instead to hang them out to dry. With Silver on the ropes, he won't be in a position to protect his members any more, and human nature being what it is, now that they are exposed to the elements some of his members may turn on each other or on him, creating a general atmosphere of paranoia, hostility and shameless opportunism.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has every reason in the world to put in jail every corrupt elected official in the state, particularly after he so publicly took over the Moreland Commission's investigations, and so far he has demonstrated a dogged willingness to do so. In the past there has been an omertà in Albany, kept sacred by the leaders of the Legislature. It's hard to believe that Skelos and Silver will be able to enforce that code of silence moving forward with the same vigilance.

Morgan Pehme is the former editor-in-chief of City & State, and a frequent commentator on New York politics and government on television and radio.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Morgan Pehme) Thu, 22 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5534-shelly-silvers-arrest-5-immediate-impacts-on-albany-morgan-pehme
Striving for Impact, Borough Presidents to Set 2015 Agendas http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5526-striving-for-impact-borough-presidents-to-set-2015-agendas five bps crains

The five borough presidents at a Crain's New York event (photo: Ben Max)

They used to be some of New York's most powerful elected officials, but their roles have changed over the last 25 years. The job of today's borough presidents has become more about creativity than clout.

Recent borough presidents have found ways to stay relevant. And the current crop of five, which includes four borough presidents just a year into their tenures, shows how much flexibility the position allows. Ruben Diaz Jr. is currently far outside of the Bronx leading a delegation of Latino leaders on a weeklong trip to Israel and Eric Adams' work on police-community relations has taken a national stage, resonating beyond Brooklyn. Yet, while there are moments like Adolfo Carrion ousting several Bronx community board members after they rejected plans for the new Yankee Stadium in 2006, the borough president office doesn't carry the same concrete weight it once did.

The position was established in 1898 to give each of the five boroughs equal representation after New York's municipal consolidation created the city in its present form. The mayor, comptroller, president of the Board of Aldermen (later City Council president) and borough presidents sat on the Board of Estimate -- once the most important body in local politics -- to vote on land use, review legislation, control the city budget, and more.

"They had real power, they had to approve everything that went on with all major policy issues," said Joseph Viteritti, chair of the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at Hunter College, of borough presidents in a bygone era.

In 1989, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Estimate was unconstitutional because each borough president got one vote even though they represented vastly different numbers of people. A commission re-worked the city's charter and created New York's current system of municipal government, which corrected the representation issue by making the City Council more powerful, expanding it from 35 to 51 members and setting district population requirements. Voters ratified the charter on Nov. 7, 1989, eliminating the Board of Estimate and diminishing the borough presidents' power.

"I don't think the people on the commission fully appreciated the importance of borough identity," said Viteritti. Albeit with less power, in the years since borough presidents have continued to push borough-specific needs and promote their home turf.

Since 1989, the duties of modern-day borough presidents have included making land use recommendations, allocating a shared five percent of the city budget to local projects, overseeing community and borough boards, introducing legislation, and maintaining an accurate topographical map of their borough. Otherwise, the position is open to interpretation.

"It's a good position for political experimentation," said Gregory Perotta, author of the article "A Case For and Against the Borough President in Twenty-First Century New York City."

When successful, this experimentation can help raise borough presidents' profiles and lead to greater things. Scott Stringer started a program called Bank On Manhattan that helped low-income residents open bank accounts and avoid steep fees for check cashing and money order services. It became a model and he ran on the success of that and other efforts to become the city's current comptroller. In Brooklyn, Marty Markowitz was an energetic supporter of the borough's revitalization, including a push to bring in the Barclays Center. Term-limited, he was rewarded by fellow Brooklynite Mayor Bill de Blasio with a top job at NYC & Co., the city's marketing and tourism agency, and a $20,000 raise.

While borough presidents have racked up plenty of accomplishments over the last 25 years, some people still want to get rid of the position altogether. David Casavis, a local professor, has campaigned to become Manhattan's borough president multiple times on the sole platform of abolishing the office if he won.

"This is a retirement prize for senior politicians," said Casavis. "The sad thing is the money of the borough presidencies could be spent on so many other things."

Borough presidents can serve for a maximum of eight years. They currently earn $160,000 per year and each employ staffs ranging from approximately 30 to 60 people. According to the Independent Budget Office, the combined cost of all five offices exceeded $22 million in 2014.

These numbers may seem high, but a common justification is that each borough is the size of a city in its own right and deserves specific representation. Brooklyn and Queens each have more than two million residents.

"The more people who are watching and the more people who are acting as stewards for those areas, I think the city as a whole is better for it," said Perotta.

Four of the five current borough presidents (BPs) have just completed their first year in office, in which they began to establish long-term priorities. All five appeared active in 2014 and begin this year eyeing greater accomplishments. Soon, New Yorkers will get to hear from their borough president as those from the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn deliver "State of the Borough" addresses and the Staten Island borough president, James Oddo, hosts an open house.

The Bronx
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., in office since 2009, has been especially active.

"I'm trying to keep with the spirit of not just having the borough presidents cut ribbons and give out proclamations," he said on NY1's Inside City Hall while promoting new legislation to require health inspection grades at nail salons and barber shops.

One of Diaz's main accomplishments was advocating for a law that now requires developers who receive taxpayer funding for their projects to pay employees a living wage. He also played a large role in mediating disputes over development plans for the Kingsbridge Armory and has started multiple programs to help stimulate the Bronx economy.

"A lot of it is what you make of it. I think that we've done a very good job of keeping this office vibrant, important, and relevant," said John DeSio, Diaz's director of communications, in a recent phone interview.

On what he has called the borough's top priority, Diaz is pushing hard to get funding for four new Metro-North stations on the Bronx's east side. Governor Andrew Cuomo indicated plans to comply in a speech this week.

In Manhattan, Gale Brewer has carried on with many issues she fought for as a member of the City Council. On the Council Brewer helped pass paid sick leave legislation, focused on the use of technology and data to solve problems, encouraged composting in schools, and tried to get city agencies to purchase more goods locally. Renowned for her availability and constituent services, Brewer will soon open a second office uptown on 125th Street so residents can walk in for help - her main office is in the Municipal Building downtown.

Brewer's team has organized numerous training sessions for community board members on how to understand city data, land use procedures, Robert's Rules of Order, and more. She brought in students from the CUNY Service Corps program to help community boards better utilize the city's open data portal and other technology. With a variety of major land use decisions coming up in Manhattan, such as East Midtown Rezoning and redevelopment of the South Street Seaport area, Brewer wants her constituents to be prepared.

"Giving the real capacity to community boards -- technology and everything else -- that's not sexy stuff, but it absolutely has to get done," she said in a recent interview with Gotham Gazette. "People need this kind of expertise."

New Queens BP Melinda Katz facilitated a dramatic shake-up at the Queens Library. She fired six people from the board of trustees, survived a lawsuit that they subsequently filed against her, and helped pass transparency reform legislation through the City Council. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the dark days of this saga are finally behind us," Katz said in a recent statement.

The Queens borough president also co-led the World's Fair Anniversary Committee, hosted commemorative events, and helped get funding to restore the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Staten Island
On Staten Island, James Oddo set himself apart by holding a private swearing-in at his parents' house for a fraction of the cost of his colleagues' inauguration events. And, he's the only one of the five BPs holding an open house instead of a "State of the Borough."

Oddo's focus has been constituent services and community activism, his mission is to make the office more accessible and transparent.

"I hope you've figured out by now that we at the Borough President's office are not government bureaucrats," Oddo wrote in his December newsletter.

Oddo started an anti-litter campaign and is working on multiple health and fitness initiatives. His office's new phone app, BP Assist, helps Staten Islanders report issues such as potholes and graffiti. He has also played a major role in continued Sandy recovery efforts, most recently calling for the new Staten Island Sandy Task Force to include more local input.

In Brooklyn, Eric Adams has billed himself as "a tough cop" and "a tender borough president." This year the former NYPD officer has established a new tradition by hosting a New Year's Eve celebration on Coney Island. He's worked to update technology in local schools, including a program that will give some students iPads.

Improving police-community relations has become a main priority for Adams in light of recent events and current tensions. As a former NYPD captain, he brings a different perspective to the divide, especially in some Brooklyn neighborhoods. In a Martin Luther King Day speech at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Adams spoke frankly about his position on the dispute between Mayor de Blasio and police unions.

"Unions should always fight for their members, but they should never get it twisted. When it's time to determine what policies are going to impact the people of the City of New York, I did not elect the PBA. I elected the mayor," he said.

The Year Ahead
While they may have different styles, the borough presidents can still come together on certain issues. Collaboration among the borough presidents can be expected going forward - in early 2014 they held several meetings and public appearances all together. Most recently, they opposed the new LinkNYC payphone Wi-Fi proposal until changes were made to ensure equitable speeds across the city.

"In today's world, the borough presidents -- all five of us -- get along very well," Brewer said.

Though that camaraderie may only last until it's time to compete for higher office.

A borough presidency can be a springboard, as was the case with Stringer. Adams has made no secret of his intention to run for mayor and some believe Diaz plans to do the same. Many borough presidents have run for mayor before, but Robert Wagner Jr. and David Dinkins are the only ones to ever win.

Now, the borough presidents are preparing for their various "State of the Borough" events. Katz will speak at Queens College on Thursday, Jan. 22. Oddo is having an open house at Staten Island Borough Hall on Sunday, Jan. 25. Brewer will host a discussion with "four Manhattan thought leaders" at Columbia University on Feb. 8. Diaz will be speaking at the Mall at Bay Plaza on Feb. 19. And Adams hasn't announced plans for a speech yet.

by Cole Rosengren, Gotham Gazette

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Cole Rosengren) Wed, 21 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5526-striving-for-impact-borough-presidents-to-set-2015-agendas
Three Keys to Positive Criminal Justice Reform in New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5522-three-keys-to-positive-criminal-justice-reform-in-new-york-terry-oneill cuomo abny

Gov. Cuomo speaks to ABNY (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

It has been encouraging to hear Governor Andrew Cuomo call for a resolution of the unfortunate conflict that has broken out between Mayor de Blasio and the leaders of the NYPD unions. A number of our elected leaders are proposing responses to this affair and to the larger issue of the execrable state of police/community relations that has erupted across the nation over the past year catalyzed by the Ferguson and Staten Island deaths of young men of color at the hands of police officers.

Based on my experience as a lawyer and legal reform consultant, including several years as criminal justice advisor to the administration of Governor Mario Cuomo, I have three recommendations to make regarding criminal justice reform in the State of New York.

First, over the past two decades, a once vibrant movement toward community policing -- police service founded on true partnership with community stakeholders -- has been all but totally eclipsed by the kind of data-driven policing that Bill Bratton debuted in New York City in 1994. I am a witness to the fact that this style of numbers-driven policing was aggressively promoted throughout the nation and has been hugely influential. It has fundamentally changed the relationship between municipal police agencies and the public they serve and not for the better.

While many credit CompStat and other policing tactics that are descended from it for the historic reductions in crime nationwide, this style of policing has driven a wedge between police and communities of color. Crime may be going down, but public dissatisfaction has been skyrocketing. That is what protesters across the nation are saying. That is what New York City voters were saying when they elected Bill de Blasio last year. Their complaint is both legitimate and urgent. Whomever is tasked with the Cuomo Administration response to this phenomenon should be given a clear mandate to reignite the community policing movement.

Second, former Governor Mario Cuomo, may he rest in peace, signed into law Chapter 55 of the Laws of 1983, the Neighborhood Preservation Crime Prevention Act (NPCPA). This DCJS-administered program was intended to foster the creation of an infrastructure of community-based nonprofit organizations that could access new resources and collaborate with police and other municipal agencies to improve quality of life in neighborhoods that otherwise would slide into decay and criminality. This inspired piece of legislation would have empowered neighborhoods and their residents to have a major impact on the quality of life in their communities. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, NPCPA was never funded, staffed, implemented.

The kind of community-based infrastructure it would have created would have helped neighborhoods and police agencies work together in productive partnership. This law is still on the books. As the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo moves forward in developing its response to the police/community relations crisis, I would strongly suggest taking up this piece of Mario Cuomo's legacy and fulfilling its promise at last.

Third, for over half a century, the decision of the US Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright has guaranteed that poor persons who get swept up in the machinery of the criminal justice system should have effective legal representation. As all know, this promise has not been kept. Certainly, were we to address this decisively and dramatically, we would be leveling the playing field between the poor accused and the police and prosecutors who arrest them in their tens of thousands and force them into plea bargains that ruin their lives.

Any thoughtful person who contemplates the many decades over which this issue has been left on the backmost burner can only condemn the total lack of engagement by the Executive, the Legislature, and the Bar in doing what is so obviously the right thing. The shameful fact is that there has been no meaningful judicial reform in New York since the administration of Nelson A. Rockefeller and he accomplished what he did because he made it a top personal goal of his own. I ask Governor Cuomo to accept the challenge of Gideon right now when doing so would do the most good.

Terry O'Neill is Director of the Constantine Institute in Albany, an organization that promotes constitutional, legal and ethical standards in law enforcement and advises state and local governments on police issues. He is a lawyer and served as a criminal justice advisor to the administration of Governor Mario Cuomo from 1988 to 1994.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Terry O'Neill) Tue, 20 Jan 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinions/5522-three-keys-to-positive-criminal-justice-reform-in-new-york-terry-oneill