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Pointing to Amazon Announcement, Long Island City Co-op Renews Calls for Similar Tax Relief


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CityLights, second building from right (photo: King of Hearts/Wikimedia Commons)


Amazon’s announcement that it will locate one of its two new “headquarters” in Long Island City, Queens triggered immediate backlash among some elected officials and residents of the community who fear the effects it will have on local housing prices and already strained infrastructure, among other consequences. But the residents of CityLights, the largest affordable co-op in Queens, are particularly incensed by the deal, and are calling out city and state officials for giving the nearly trillion-dollar technology giant billions in public subsidies while continuing to deny their own demand for an extension of a property tax abatement that they enjoyed for two decades.

Amazon, CityLights residents also say, will pay far less for leasing land for its new campus than the co-op does each year.

CityLights is a 42-story, 522-unit building home to 1,000 mostly middle- and fixed-income New Yorkers, and is managed by Queens West Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the state-run Empire State Development (ESD), a non-profit economic development agency. The building phased out of a 20-year tax abatement program in July and also saw a nearly doubling of its tax assessment by the city. The building now faces a $5.1 million tax bill -- it was $5.8 million but was reduced after the residents appealed to the city -- which threatens, they say, to push residents out of their homes because of a roughly 60 percent increase over five years in payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT). (The Amazon deal with the city and state also includes a PILOT program, whereby instead of paying taxes an entity contributes to some other fund, such as an infrastructure bank.)

Built on state-owned land, CityLights’ ground lease alone costs nearly $500,000 annually for the 700,000-square-foot building. By comparison, Amazon is expected to pay about $850,000 for the roughly 4 million square feet that the company will occupy in Long Island City.  

In a letter sent Tuesday to ESD President Howard Zemsky, Citylights Board President Joanna Rock called for the CityLights ground lease to be forgiven. “It is absurd that we are forced to pay half-a-million-dollars a year to ESD when our apartments were sold to us by the State under the guise of affordability,” she wrote. “But it adds insult to injury that Amazon will be charged far less than our “affordable” complex for the privilege of being in Long Island City.”

In a phone interview, Rock said it was “shameful” that CityLights residents have had to fight the city and the state for over a year-and-a-half for much-needed relief while Amazon was enticed with untold incentives (the negotiation process was in secret, with non-disclosure agreements signed).

“We watched the neighborhood go from dilapidated warehouses to high-rises and we’re being valued based on the rental buildings around us because that’s how the city does it,” she said, “and then Amazon comes in, and not only are they getting all these incentives, but [their ground lease] is like 85 percent less than what we pay. We’re a co-op, a not-for-profit. They are one of the wealthiest companies in existence.”

In a letter to CityLights residents in June, Zemsky indicated that ESD was working with the city “to craft a tailored solution.” But, he noted that the state could not act without approval from the city’s Department of Finance. Neither ESD nor the city Department of Finance responded to requests for comment for this article.

“I’m not even sure how to put into words how upsetting this is,” Rock said.

Local elected officials also took umbrage at the plight of CityLights residents in light of the Amazon deal. “Empire State Development is supposed to promote and protect our local economy, not pad the pockets of the richest man in the world,” City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Long Island City, said in a statement on Tuesday. “It is ridiculous that the bad HQ2 deal would charge Amazon a significantly lower rate per square foot for its ground lease than Citylights, the largest affordable housing co-op in Queens. The State must preserve the affordability of Long Island City and prioritize longtime residents and working families when dishing out tax breaks, not large corporations.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note -  This article has been updated to note that CityLights' tax bill was $5.1 million, not $5.2 million. 

City Council Pushes Board of Elections on Another Round of Issues at the Polls


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BOE ED Michael Ryan (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Embattled City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan testified before the City Council's Committees on Oversight and Government Operations on Tuesday, explaining that a perforated two-page ballot, never before used anywhere in the United States, was primarily to blame for the issues at polling sites across the city on Election Day.

In a combative hearing initially presided over by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Ryan apologized, after being asked to do so, for the poor administration of the general election but defended the BOE by noting it was forced to work under tight timelines and restrictive administrative law, which required the center perforation on the two-page ballot and did not allow ballot questions, of which there were three this year proposed by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission, to appear on the same side as candidates.

“The board has been advised that an initial analysis points to the perforated ballot requirement as the major cause of the increased ballot jams,” Ryan said in prepared testimony to the joint committees. “Such a ballot configuration has not been attempted in any jurisdiction in the United States for use with a poll site scanner. The perforated two page ballot presented a series of problems never before experienced by the Board or anywhere in the country.”

These problems included malfunctioning scanners without adequate tech support to fix them and lines so long that some voters simply went home without casting a ballot.

The timing of the submission of the ballot questions proposed by the Charter Revision Commission caused the ballot to not be finalized until October 9, and the hundreds of different "ballot styles" across various different overlapping jurisdictions for different offices, prevented adequate testing and the ability to upload different styles on the same machine, Ryan said.

In Manhattan alone, there were 924 different ballot styles, Ryan testified, owing to the various different combinations of overlapping districts for different offices such as Senate, Assembly, and Judgeships, among others.

Staten Island was the lone borough with a single sheet ballot, and did not experience the poll site issues that the other four boroughs did on Election Day.

Though still only about 38 percent, voter turnout in New York City for the general election was substantially higher than in recent non-presidential elections. Ryan said that state law dictates that there must be one scanner for every 4,000 voters, while BOE protocol stipulates one scanner for every 1,400 voters.

Because of both the abnormally high turnout and the two-page ballot, which when separated doubled the amount of paper that machines needed to process, “ballot bins” in the voting machines filled up much quicker than normally. In fact, most of the issues were related to simple overcapacity of ballots in the bins, rather than technical malfunction, Ryan said.

Ryan noted that about 4,000 scanners were in use on Election Day, while about 1,000 were left in the warehouse; they could not be brought out to poll sites due to transportation issues and the fact that individual ballot styles take an hour to upload onto the machine’s ballot reading software.

Ryan said that a two-page ballot was considered a possibility in 2016, but was ultimately not used. Nonetheless, Ryan was criticized for not testing a "generic" perforated ballot in that two-year span.

“There’s nothing that prevents you from testing the machines for a generic two-page perforated ballot,” said City Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Oversight Committee. “For about two years, you’ve had the opportunity to test your equipment for a two-page perforated ballot, and it sounds like over the course of those two years, you’ve failed to do so.”

In fact, Ryan said that the Board did not test for potential malfunctions at all, citing a lack of adequate time between the ballot finalization and Election Day and the inability to predict voter behavior.

“We had just enough time to test the DS200 scanners for functionality,” he said, referring to the scanners that the state has used since switching from lever voting in 2010. “We did not have any time to do any kind of random testing to try to replicate the voter experience.”

Speaker Johnson, who called on Ryan to resign during the Election Day fiasco, expressed displeasure and distrust in Ryan but also condemned the election process in New York generally.

“I am embarrassed as a New Yorker about what happened on Election Day,” Johnson said. “I feel like this happens over and over and over again. I can’t remember an election where people said ‘you know what, it was done in a thoughtful, calm, professional, easy manner.’ New Yorkers deserve that. I don’t have confidence that that is gonna happen.” Johnson noted that he is not confident that the Board can competently administer the upcoming special election for Public Advocate, likely to occur in February.

Johnson was just one of several Council members to detail his own experience voting, noting that his polling place had only a single functioning scanner by 11 a.m., resulting in a significant line that stretched outside into the rain, which was another factor in the day’s issues.

"I expect to hear a plan forthcoming from the city and the state to rectify the issues of this election, and to improve tenfold the election operations for the next election, and the one after that, and the one after that," Johnson said.

Another problem beyond ballot design and machine capacity was staffing, which failed on multiple levels on Election Day, ranging from poll workers unable to handle the influx of voters or scanner malfunctions or a greatly deficient number of tech support workers to fix the mounting issues with the machines. The BOE supplied tech staff commensurate with the number staffed in the 2016 presidential election, which Ryan called a bad idea in retrospect.

"There was an avalanche early in the morning and we just could never catch up,” he said.

Ryan disclosed that the BOE had received nearly 10,000 calls on Election Day, with most related to technical issues, a number he said was much higher than previous elections.

The problem was most significant in Brooklyn, where the Board fielded 3,362 calls and wait times for a technician averaged an hour and 15 minutes. The average wait time citywide was 52 minutes.

Ryan, who is hired by the city BOE to run operations and be non-political, did not take an explicit position on some of the more talked-about election reform proposals for the state, such as early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, or automatic voter registration. However, he urged Council members on multiple occasions to work with the Board to establish a municipal poll-worker program modeled on a similar program in Los Angeles, where municipal workers at city agencies would get a bonus or a day off to work the polls. This could include techs from the city’s technology department, DoITT, or other agencies, who could supplement the existing tech support workers.

In the meantime, however, Ryan wants to staff poll sites in future elections with workers trained to fix malfunctions, rather than relying on a finite number of outside techs.

Brooklyn Council Member Kalman Yeger questioned why the existing poll workers themselves couldn’t be trained to clear ballot jams, comparing the issue to a printer malfunction.

"You make a straightforward and reasonable suggestion. The reluctance going back to 2010 was that we were losing poll workers because of their fear of the new machines,” Ryan said. “So a decision was made in that moment, which carried through to this election, have the poll workers do less with the machines, not more. This election, in a very hard way, taught us a difficult lesson."

Other testifiers, such as Douglas Kellner of the State Board of Elections, agreed with the municipal poll worker suggestion, while also suggesting that staffing in general needed to be improved to comply with the “30-minute rule,” a federal rule which stipulates that no voter should wait more than 30 minutes to vote.

“New York City has not complied with this regulation in its presidential general elections since the regulation was adopted in 2007,” Kellner said. “And I see no meaningful efforts by New York City to come into compliance in 2020.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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'Doubt Upon the Mayor's True Motives': Investigations Commissioner Responds to Firing by De Blasio


Mark Peters

Mark Peters (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, in his final days on the job after Mayor Bill de Blasio fired him on Friday, refuted the mayor’s stated reasons for the termination in a bluntly worded letter sent Monday to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ritchie Torres who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and released to the news media (read the full letter below).

Peters, who was once treasurer to de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign, has had a tense relationship with City Hall over the last few years. Under his leadership, DOI has conducted several investigations into city agencies that have angered the mayor and embarrassed his administration. Peters was asked to resign Friday afternoon but refused, following which he was terminated in a meeting with First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan. De Blasio announced that Margaret Garnett, New York State’s executive deputy attorney general for criminal justice, was being nominated to replace him -- the DOI commissioner is the only city agency head that must be approved by the City Council.

Along with repeated clashes with City Hall, part of the pretext for Peters’ firing was the finding of an independent investigator that the DOI commissioner overreached his authority and made misleading statements to the City Council and to top administration officials about his attempt to bring a Department of Education investigative office under his control. “The DOI Commissioner is supposed to be most pristine of all – that’s not pristine,” de Blasio said at a Friday news conference, where he said he regretted appointing Peters to the post and explained his decision to fire him.

Under the city Charter, Peters was allowed an opportunity to give a public explanation. In his letter on Monday, he pointedly sought to rebut the administration’s rationale for letting him go. He insisted that the independent investigator’s report on his actions, while pointing out issues for which he had apologized, “contains multiple factual errors that the Mayor now repeats” and said that the mayor’s interactions with DOI and current investigations into the administration “must cast doubt upon the Mayor’s true motives.” Peters said the mayor’s actions could have a chilling effect on the independence of the next DOI commissioner and said he was willing to appear before the City Council to apprise them of investigations into the administration “so that the Council at least has a record of these investigations in the event that they are unreasonably delayed or discontinued by my successor.”

He detailed interactions with the mayor and other members of the de Blasio administration, including one phone call on which he alleges de Blasio screamed at him over an imminent report and instances whereby he alleges that administration officials repeatedly attempted to stop him from releasing damning reports, such as those into NYCHA and the Department of Correction.

"The suggestion that anyone at City Hall – including the Mayor – tried to stop any DOI review is entirely false,” de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips said in a statement Monday morning. “What is not in question is that Margaret Garnett is the most qualified, independent person to lead DOI and restore credibility in its important work."

Council Member Torres, in a statement on Monday, said Peters’ letter “reveals a pattern of interference with DOI investigations and intimidation against DOI officials that borders on the unethical and should be illegal.” He did not, however, say whether the Council would call Peters in to testify at a hearing.

Peters' full letter: 

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Amazon’s Recent New York Campaign Contributions Mostly to Members of Congress


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Gov. Cuomo & Rep. Jeffries (photo via Governor's Office)


Before Amazon announced the placement of one of its next satellite “headquarters” in Queens, drawing mixed reactions from local lawmakers and significant overall pushback, the company’s campaign finance footprint in New York shows it was spreading its money around to many New York politicians, mostly those at the federal level.

Eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York City, all Democrats, who signed a now infamous letter last year to compel Amazon to consider the city, received more than $26,000 in total campaign contributions from Amazon from the beginning of 2017 to October 2018, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, with four of the members receiving $7,500 of that total before signing the letter.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, whose district includes part of Queens, received $8,000 total from Amazon in four separate contributions to his campaign since 2017, including $1,500 before he had signed the letter and $6,500 afterward, a time period that coincided with Jeffries’ recent reelection to the House, though he did not face serious opposition. Jeffries’ office did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but he said in a statement to Cheddar that the deal “will supercharge New York City’s reputation as the single best place to do business in America.”

Brooklyn Rep. Yvette Clarke received $5,000 from Amazon, half before signing the letter and half since -- Clarke did face a tough primary challenge this year, narrowly defeating Adem Bunkeddeko before cruising to victory in the general. In a statement for the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) that was sent to members of the media upon the Amazon announcement, Clarke said, “Amazon’s decision to locate a headquarters in New York City is a testament to the strength of our technology sector.”

Other letter signees who received Amazon contributions include Rep. Eliot Engel, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (whose district includes Long Island City), Rep. Gregory Meeks, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, and Rep. Adriano Espaillat, all of the five boroughs. Maloney called for a fair “public review” of the deal in a statement to Politico, arguing that “[a] beneficial deal will withstand public scrutiny.”

Upon the announcement of the deal to bring Amazon to New York City, Espaillat issued a statement of praise, saying in a tweet, “Welcome to New York City, @Amazon. We have the best & brightest technologically skilled workforce that is ready & willing to work & invest in our community & help our economy continue to grow,” while Velazquez issued a statement criticizing the process and outcome, saying, “Many New Yorkers, myself included, are concerned by the enormous incentives this package extends to Amazon.”

Rep. Joe Crowley of the Bronx and Queens received $2,500 from Amazon before he signed the letter, according to FEC filings. He lost his seat in an upset to now Congressional Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been a strident critic of the Amazon deal. The democratic-socialist tweeted that she finds the deal “extremely concerning,” arguing that the money for tax breaks for Amazon could be better spent on the “crumbling” subway and disenfranchised communities.

It’s unclear if any of the members of Congress played a role in the negotiation process, which was apparently led by Cuomo, along with de Blasio and members of their two teams -- those involved apparently signed non-disclosure agreements at Amazon’s insistence. Members of Congress’ support or opposition, however, can play a crucial role in the overall atmosphere around such a deal and the public perception thereof. For the most part, Amazon is more concerned with federal regulations and nationwide tax policy, evident from its campaign funding patterns. Data from OpenSecrets.org shows that Amazon gave about $1.17 million to federal candidate campaigns in 2018 alone, 52% of which went to Republicans and 48% to Democrats.

Amazon has also given some campaign contributions at the local level, including $1,000 to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s campaign committee in January of this year, according to state election records. Heastie did not respond to a request for comment, but the Bronx Democrat told the New York Times in a statement that “this deal has the potential to more than pay for itself.” He added that, “Of course we take our role in approving aspects of this deal very seriously and we will be closely reviewing it.”

The only other local lawmaker whose campaign funds Amazon added to was Republican state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who received $1,000 in January, according to state election records.

New York City and State have agreed to roughly $3 billion in financial incentives to Amazon to settle in Long Island City, including tax breaks and rebates mostly from existing economic development programs that would be applicable to other companies, as well as a roughly $500 million capital grant from the state that is discretionary. The deal is based on a pledge by Amazon to create 25,000 new jobs in the city over 10 years, at an average salary of $150,000 per year. Some of the incentives are directly tied to those jobs coming to fruition. The company may also qualify for new federal tax savings.

Critics have cried foul about a secretive process with virtually no public input before a deal was struck (there will be some before everything is finalized) and that there are billions of dollars of incentives going to one of the wealthiest companies in the world. A number of elected officials did praise the deal, including U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic Senate minority leader. Schumer received a total of $10,000 from Amazon in three separate contributions to his campaign committee in 2015 ahead of his reelection the following year, according to FEC filings. He has not received any funds from Amazon since his 2016 reelection.

Some of the criticism towards the Amazon deal is tied more broadly to Cuomo’s economic development programs and their incentives for companies to relocate or create jobs. Flanagan, whose 2018 campaign got the relatively minor boost from Amazon, criticized Cuomo for giving handouts rather than working to improve New York’s overall economic climate. Flanagan’s majority conference, which is handing over the reins next year to Democrats who flipped the chamber on Election Day, has signed off on budgets that have included Cuomo’s programs.

Amazon, a trillion dollar-company, spent $110,000 lobbying the state Assembly, Senate, and executive branch on bills related to taxation and regulation of internet companies from the beginning of 2017 to October of 2018, according to state lobbying records. JCOPE (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics) lists Amazon lobbying activities as only related to “internet/online sales & related issues,” but specific bills lobbied on include the establishment of a task force to study an internet marketplace tax and bills that propose to regulate voice-recognition technology.

The company also spent over $120,000 lobbying New York City government in the last two years for participation in their cloud computing services, according to city lobbying records.

The records do not show lobbying related to the new headquarters in Queens. That process appears to have been removed from official lobbying and instead part of the competition Amazon announced, wherein it received hundreds of pitches from governments and coalitions around the country. There are no records of Amazon donating to the campaigns of either Cuomo or de Blasio.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and one of the wealthiest people in the world, said in a statement on the day of the announcement that the new “headquarters” split between New York and Virginia “will allow us to attract world-class talent that will help us to continue inventing for customers for years to come. The team did a great job selecting these sites, and we look forward to becoming an even bigger part of these communities.”

Hiring for the new offices is scheduled to begin in 2019, according to Amazon. Governor Cuomo has said that the new office campus and related employment will generate more than $27 billion in tax revenue over the next 25 years.

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by Jake Shore for Gotham Gazette
  

Read more by this writer.

 

 

At First Debate, Candidates for Public Advocate Pitch Visions for the Role


The candidates, moderator and hosts

The candidates, moderator and hosts (photo via Gotham Gazette)


New York City Public Advocate Letitia James’ victory in the race for state attorney general has kicked off what will be roughly three months of jostling by candidates running to replace her. While James won’t be sworn in until January and the nonpartisan special election for her seat won’t be held till February, several candidates have already declared their interest in the seat and, on Wednesday evening, seven of them shared a stage at New York Law School, staking out their positions on the roles and responsibilities of the office and how they would employ the limited powers of the public advocate.

The 90-minute forum, hosted by AARP-NY and good government group Citizens Union, featured New York City Council Members Rafael Espinal, Eric Ulrich and Jumaane Williams, Assembly Members Michael Blake and Daniel O’Donnell, Dawn Smalls, a former Obama White House appointee, and journalist Nomiki Konst. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max moderated the discussion, which largely focused on how the candidates would execute the role of public advocate, but also touched on a number of issues, from development in the city to the recently-announced deal that would bring an Amazon headquarters to Queens.

The candidates were all in the same neighborhood in defining the role of the public advocate as an independent watchdog in city government that provides a voice for the voiceless and holds the mayor accountable. Each presented their vision of the key responsibilities of the office and how they would creatively use its resources, and discussed areas of government function and city agencies where they would focus their efforts. There was minimal daylight among them, all Democrats save for Ulrich, who admitted he was the “elephant in the room” as the only Republican on stage (he calls himself a Rockefeller Republican and is pro-choice, pro-labor union, and opposed to President Donald Trump).

The candidates mostly agreed that the office is underfunded, at $3.3 million for the current fiscal year, and agreed that the budget should be independent of the whims of the City Council and the mayor, though none of them offered specific projections for adequate funding.

Council Member Espinal pitched his record of bringing resources to his district and fighting for affordable housing, chiefly through the East New York rezoning plan that included $250 million in city investments in the neighborhood. He agreed that the public advocate should use their position to hold the mayor accountable for his decisions. “But I also believe that the public advocate should be responsible for making sure that we have a plan that’s going to benefit the future of New York City,” he said, insisting that the role should be about more than just reacting to crises after the fact. “NYCHA’s crumbling, the MTA’s crumbling, but no one’s talking about what are some sustainable solutions on how the city should move forward to make sure those problems do not end up at our steps at City Hall.”

Espinal said the office should be empowered to audit city agencies, conduct independent environmental studies on land use deals, and should run the city’s most efficient constituent services program. Asked how he would work to make the city more aging friendly, he promised to advocate for investments in infrastructure and accessibility, and to push for increased senior services and funding for health care facilities.

Ulrich repeatedly made some of the most forceful pledges to hold the mayor accountable, arguing he is best suited to do so given his party affiliation. “The office of the public advocate was supposed to be, or was designed to be, I believe, a check on the power of the executive branch in this city, not a rubber stamp,” he said, noting that officials sometimes fail that duty when both the public advocate and mayor are members of the same party while giving credit to several prior public advocates for ways in which they used the office.

Ulrich said the powers of the office could be expanded without increased funding, by allowing the public advocate to sit on the boards of more city commissions and authorities, such as the MTA executive board and the CUNY board of trustees.

To aid seniors, Ulrich said he would push to expand support for naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), advocate for legislation in Albany to give tax credits to caregivers of senior citizens and also promote greater affordable housing set asides for seniors. He stressed that it was necessary to set up a communication pipeline, perhaps within the office, dedicated to seniors’ complaints and issues.

The presumed frontrunner in the race is Council Member Williams, who is fresh off a defeat in the primary for lieutenant governor in which he nonetheless won nearly 47 percent, more than 640,000 votes, against the incumbent, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. Williams prides himself on being an “activist elected official” and has vowed to bring that philosophy into the public advocate’s office. “I want to make sure that people feel someone is watching the mayor, the City Council, the agencies to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” Williams said. More than just raising issues with government failures, he said the public advocate should also propose solutions to solve them.

Williams pushed for the office to receive subpoena power and an independent budget with enough resources to hire a dedicated investigations staff and to give them the ability to file lawsuits and see them through. To Williams, the biggest issues facing seniors are the lack of affordable housing in the city and “resource inequality” across neighborhoods for which he pointed fingers at Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, promising that he would prioritize those problems if elected.

Smalls, an attorney who worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations and formerly as a commissioner at the New York State Joint Commission for Public Ethics, pitched herself as an independent candidate from outside the established political structure. “I am running for public advocate because I believe in government as a force for good, but only if it works,” she said.

Smalls said she would reorganize the office to be “laser focused” on a few key areas, in particular the city’s subway system, affordable housing, homelessness, and voting reforms. “Rather than doing a little bit of everything, when you have such a limited budget, and you have such a limited staff, I think the way to leverage that is to really focus in on a few key issues that affect all New Yorkers and really use that watchdog status to drill down and hold leaders accountable,” she said.

Smalls also said she supported providing more affordable housing for seniors and a caregiver tax credit, and said the city needs to put more money into NYCHA which is home to many seniors and is experiencing a “five-alarm emergency.”

Similarly to Smalls, Konst touted her independence from politics as her strongest qualification. “I’m running for public advocate because it is independent, it should be independent of politics,” she said. Konst previously served on the Democratic National Committee Reform Commission, appointed by Senator Bernie Sanders, and has been a vocal proponent of reform within the party. A democratic socialist, she also holds what are in this race likely the furthest left positions on many issues.

She offered several unique ideas for how she would use the public advocate’s office including setting up a unit of out-of-work reporters to investigate public corruption, creating a conflicts of interest map to portray the connections between elected officials, lobbyists, and special interests, and appointing a representative of the public advocate’s office in each of the 51 City Council districts to monitor community issues. “The public advocate is there to shine light on all the dark places in this city, expose it and take it on,” she said.

Konst said senior issues were “intersectional” and argued that across the board, underfunding of government services was the root of the problem, whether it be in NYCHA or the MTA. She promised to sue landlords that improperly evict elderly tenants and inveighed against overdevelopment that she said was leading to services and resources being concentrated in richer communities.

Assemblymember Blake, who was recently reelected for a third term and is also a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the number one responsibility of the office is “to be the watchdog of the agencies and to fight for the people.” He outlined four critical areas where he would “mobilize” the office’s resources -- the MTA, NYCHA, affordable housing, and the Department of Education. Blake repeatedly chided the deal signed between the city and state with Amazon to help the tech giant establish a satellite office in Long Island City. The deal was struck without input from local elected officials and will cut out the City Council from the land use review process. Blake said it was a chief example of why the city needs a strong public advocate.

Blake called for an expansion of the SCRIE program, which provides rent freezes for seniors, insisted that the city should expand transit options for the elderly and also emphasized the need to provide services to senior veterans and seniors living in public housing. Additionally, he emphasized a focus on preventative health care for the city’s aging population, insisting that “too often we’re addressing the crisis on the back end.”

“I’m running for public advocate because I don’t want to be mayor,” said Assemblymember O’Donnell, insisting that anyone seeking to use the office as a springboard should be “disqualified” from the race. (Only Ulrich would later say that he would consider running for mayor, while the rest either denied or deflected). “You have to have an independent outside voice who’s unafraid of the consequences of telling the truth,” O’Donnell added.

O’Donnell said his first legislative proposal would be to give the public advocate’s office the power to subpoena city agencies, later touting his experience conducting investigations as head of the Assembly’s ethics committee. He repeatedly said the top issue the office should combat is overdevelopment and gentrification he says is running rampant across the city.

O’Donnell also raised the issue of so-called food deserts in low-income communities, which lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables and are generally linked to worse health outcomes. He said he would work to solve that problem. “I believe the public advocate’s office is the perfect place to promote it, to organize it,” he said.

He also touted a bill he authored to remove social security income from SCRIE application numbers, alleviating pressure on seniors who cannot afford their rent, and he said the city should take over control of the bus system from the MTA, to ensure better transit options for seniors.

Not all of the participating candidates are officially declared, Ulrich indicated he hasn’t made up his mind about running yet, and others who were not part of the forum are running or may run. Among others who are running or considering a run are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, David Eisenbach, Ben Yee, and Theo Chino. Candidates will have to officially petition in early January to get on the February ballot. As soon as James vacates the seat, Mayor Bill de Blasio, himself a former public advocate, will have to call the special election.

[LISTEN: Public Advocate Candidate Forum - Nov. 14, 2018]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

LISTEN: Public Advocate Candidate Forum - Nov. 14, 2018


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The candidates, moderator and hosts (photo via Gotham Gazette)


With Public Advocate Letitia James' victory to become the next New York State Attorney General, she will vacate her current position on January 1 and there will be a special election to fill it sometime in February, once the Mayor decides on the exact date within a limited window he has to call it. In the days before and after Election Day 2018, candidates for Public Advocate have announced their intentions to run, or at least explore it, in some cases. Seven of those candidates participated in a forum on Wednesday, Nov. 14, hosted by Citizens Union, AARP NY, and New York Law School: Assembly Members Michael Blake and Danny O'Donnell; City Council Members Eric Ulrich, Jumaane Williams, and Rafael Espinal; activist and journalist Nomiki Konst; and attorney and former federal aide Dawn Smalls (there are other candidates who have declared or are exploring a run -- candidates will have to decide early in January at the latest).

The debate touched on a wide range of issues, but was especially focused on how the candidates would approach the office of Public Advocate and what issues they would focus on, and it was moderated by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max. Listen to the debate through the audio embedded below, or find it wherever you get your podcasts under "Gotham Gazette" and "Max & Murphy" -- we've added it to those podcast streams.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Field for Public Advocate Special Election Comes Into Focus


Rafael Espinal

Council Member Rafael Espinal (photo: William Alatriste)


Letitia James’ win in the race to become the next New York Attorney General means there will be a special election early in 2019 to name New York City’s next Public Advocate. The candidates for what will be a roughly three-month race were just beginning to become clear when news broke of planned City Council legislation calling for the position of public advocate to be abolished, as reported by Politico.

Though the post of public advocate has had critics since it was created during a massive 1989 New York City Charter revision process, the Council bill faces an uphill path to passage, and the race to replace James as one of just three popularly-elected citywide officials will capture much of the city’s political attention over the coming weeks.

The somewhat undefined and underfunded role of public advocate is largely shaped by the person who fills it. It is broadly expected that the public advocate will do as the name suggests and fight for public interests, serving as a watchdog over the rest of city government. It is also seen as a stepping stone post -- Bill de Blasio launched his successful 2013 campaign for mayor from the perch.

With James expected to win her race for attorney general since she launched her campaign several months ago, a long list of potential public advocate candidates formed. Now that Election Day is in the past, some are making it official, while others are still officially in the considering phase.

Pushing the decision-making is that organizations have begun to host candidate forums, including the first on Monday night, held in Manhattan by several progressive advocacy groups and Democratic clubs. Another will follow on Wednesday night, hosted by government reform group Citizens Union and AARP-NY. Candidates must also consider fundraising and pursuing endorsements from groups, labor unions, and high-profile individuals.

Even before James won her race, a handful of candidates declared their candidacies: City Council Member Jumaane Williams, state Assembly Members Daniel O’Donnell and Michael Blake, activist and journalist Nomiki Konst, and Columbia history professor David Eisenbach, who ran in the 2017 public advocate Democratic primary against James.

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is said to be nearing the launch of a campaign, while there have been grumblings that her predecessor in that role, Christine Quinn, may also give the race a look. There has also been some question about whether Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams would consider it, though he has expressed his intention to run for mayor in 2021. Both Quinn and Adams appear unlikely candidates at this point.

Meanwhile, along with Williams, who just lost a bid to become the Democratic lieutenant governor nominee, current City Council Members either starting or flirting with a run for public advocate include Rafael Espinal, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican in the mix at this point. (Meanwhile, five of their colleagues - Kalman Yeger, Robert Holden, Ruben Diaz Sr., Mark Gjonaj, and Rtichie Torres -- announced on Monday that they are backing a new bill to eliminate the position.)

Also in the running for public advocate are Dawn Smalls, a Manhattan attorney with a background in federal government, open government advocate and Democratic Party activist Ben Yee, and systems engineer Theo Chino. Other names could easily emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Once James is officially sworn in as attorney general on January 1, Mayor de Blasio will have just a few days to call a special election, likely to take place in late February. That election will be “non-partisan,” meaning there are no party primaries and each candidate must create their own ballot line through petitioning to accrue signatures from voters.

Once the special election is decided, the winner will only hold the office until the end of 2019. In the fall, there will be a “regular” election, with party primaries (as necessary) and a general election. The winner of that election will serve out the rest of James’ term until the end of 2021. He or she would be eligible to run for reelection that fall and able to serve two full terms on top of the partial term, though there is of course talk that whoever holds the seat at the start of 2020 may very well run for mayor in 2021, when de Blasio is term-limited out of office.

The forum on Wednesday will be held at New York Law School starting at 6:30 p.m., participating candidates including Blake, Williams, Espinal, Ulrich, O'Donnell, Konst, and Smalls.

[Updated: Listen to the full Wednesday forum here]

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

This story has been updated to indicate that City Council Member Robert Cornegy told Gotham Gazette he is not running for public advocate and that he is pursuing a run for Brooklyn borough president in 2021.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, November 12


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week we continue to process the results of the past week's elections, but also turn our attention to the race in the special election for New York City Public Advocate, whereby Letitia James will be succeeded after she ascends to Attorney General. The election will likely take place in February, but several candidates have already declared and others surely will soon, and this week will see the first forums for those in the running.

There's also government happening this week, including a lot of action at the City Council - see our day-by-day rundown below. And, this will be criminal justice week in the new “Agenda 2019” project brought to you by Gotham Gazette and City Limits, wherein the two publications are teaming up to set the stage for 2019 in New York City and State politics and government. Read the initial overview: Agenda 2019: Major Policy Tests Ahead for State and City.

***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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
"On Monday, Mayor de Blasio will deliver remarks at the Flight 587 17th Annual Memorial Service. This event is open press." In the evening, "the Mayor will appear on NY1’s Inside City Hall" during the 7 and 11 p.m. hours.

At noon Monday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will deliver keynote remarks at VoteRunLead’s 2018 “Women & Power” National Town Hall, discussing the midterm elections and the future. Other speakers will include Representatives-elect Lauren Underwood and Ilhan Omar. The town hall will take place at the Times Square WeWork.

On Monday evening several Manhattan Democratic clubs and the New York Progressive Action Network will host a candidates' night in the race to replace Tish James as Public Advocate via a special election likely to occur in February. Candidates are set to address the crowd one at a time over the course of several hours at ThoughtWorks in Manhattan.

Tuesday
At the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss a proposed law to “establish a demonstration program to facilitate the creation and alteration of habitable apartments in basements and cellars of certain one- and two-family dwellings.”
--The Committee on For-Hire Vehicles will meet at 11 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws, including laws to “create a task force to study sale prices of taxicab medallions,” creating an “Office of Inclusion” within the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and “financial education for persons considering purchases or leases of for-hire vehicles or taxicab licenses.”
--The Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws relating to information disclosure and trainings on harassment at nightlife establishments and the “disclosure of service fee charges associated with tickets to entertainment events in New York City,” as well as to discuss a resolution “calling on the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Office of Public Safety to update its mandatory security guard training curriculum to include sexual harassment prevention and bystander intervention training for all security guards who work in nightlife establishments.”
--The Committee on Veterans will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws relating to “benefits counseling services for veterans,” “creating veterans resource centers,” and creating a “veterans resource guide.”
--The Committees on Youth Services and Juvenile Justice will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “reentry programs for formerly incarcerated youth.”
--The Committee on Technology will meet at 1:30 p.m. to discuss a proposal to create an “Office of Data Analytics.”

The state commission on legislative and executive branch compensation is set to meet on Tuesday.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Business Council of New York State will host its “2018 Annual Environmental Conference,” discussing “the latest in environment regulation and law.” Speakers will include EPA Region 2 Administrator Peter Lopez; NYSERDA CEO Alicia Barton; Diane Burmon, a member of the Public Service Commission; and State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos. The conference will take place at the Gideon Putnam in Saratoga Springs.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Correction will hold a public meeting at 125 Worth Street.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will deliver remarks at the opening of NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center in Auburn. At 12:30 p.m., Hochul will make an announcement at Bausch + Lomb Vision Care in Rochester. And at 2:15 p.m., Hochul will tour Perry's Ice Cream on its 100th Anniversary, in Akron.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza will be in Cambridge, MA, where he will deliver keynote remarks at the MIT School Access and Quality Summit.

On Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. at City Hall, ""Council Member Rafael Espinal, representatives from Brooklyn venue House of Yes, and other advocates will gather before the Committee on Consumer Affairs hearing to rally in support of a package of legislation sponsored by Council Member Espinal that will combat sexual harassment in nightlife."

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks at the New York State Compensation Committee Meeting.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Deputy Mayor J. Philip Thompson, and DCP Population Division Director Joseph Salvo will host a town hall on the 2020 Census at Queens Borough Hall.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will deliver remarks at the Council's Puerto Rican Heritage Celebration, at City Hall.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the New York City Bar Association will host the City’s Human Rights Commissioner, Carmelyn Malalis, for a discussion on the city’s recently effective Human Rights Law, aimed at eliminating bias in the workplace and public accommodations.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Public Advocate Letitia James will attend the Brennan Center for Justice Legacy Awards Reception & Dinner.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m. at New York Law School, Common Cause New York and Fair Vote will co-host "an in-depth panel discussion that will highlight the current state of election outcomes in New York City and explore the potential impact of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in New York City." It will be moderated by Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause/NY and include panelists New York City Council Member Brad Lander, Karen Brinson Bell, an elections administration consultant, & Betsy Sweet, a former Maine gubernatorial candidate.

Wednesday
The City Council will hold a stated meeting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. Council Speaker Corey Johnson will likely host the usual pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m.

Also at the City Council on Wednesday: the Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss “authorizing an increase in the amount to be expended annually in 14 BIDs.”

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, City & State will host “NY Women’s Power 100” at the New York Academy of Sciences. Public Advocate and Attorney General-elect Letitia James will deliver keynote remarks.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Aging will meet in Albany for a public hearing “to explore programs and services that help older New Yorkers who want to remain in their homes and communities as they grow older, as well as current challenges facing these older New Yorkers and best practices that can enhance the quality of life for older adults.”

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at 120 Broadway.

At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Assembly Standing Committees on Alcoholism + Drug Abuse, Health, and Correction will meet jointly at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for a public hearing “examining the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment programs in state and local correctional facilities in the state.”

At 11 a.m. Wednesday outside the MTA's downtown offices, "The #FixTheSubway Coalition, composed of diverse, progressive organizations focused on labor, civil rights, racial justice, environmental, transit, and other issues and elected officials will rally in favor of a comprehensive transit funding plan with congestion pricing at its core and against the prospective transit fare hike." The coalition is led by Riders Alliance and other groups.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, this week’s Max & Murphy program will air on WBAI radio and will include interviews with State Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins about Democrats' agenda for taking power in the new year and with Assembly Member Latrice Walker about recent and upcoming criminal justice reform efforts in the state Legislature. The show airs at 99.5FM and wbai.org and is later available as a podcast.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Hunter Foundation will host a town hall meeting at Harlem Hospital on “battling K2 and the opioid crisis in America.” CNN’s Don Lemon will moderate a panel consisting of television host and Hunter Foundation founder Wendy Williams; City Council Member Andy King; Dr. Bunmi Asana, addiction psychiatrist at NYC Health + Hospitals; Dr. Ronnie Swift, Chief of Psychiatry at Metropolitan Hospital; and Dr. Lipi Roy, an addiction medicine expert.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza will be the featured guest speaker at the Queens Parent Advisory Board at Queens Borough Hall.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, TransitCenter will host “Fare Capping: A Formula for Fairer Fares,” discussing the potential benefits of fare capping, a technique whereby single-ride fares are “‘capped’ when they reach the cost of an unlimited-ride pass.” Panelists will include Andy Shaw, Senior Product Manager for Payments at Transport for London; Nick Sifuentes, the Executive Director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign; and Jaqi Cohen, campaign coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will hold a board meeting at Saint Claire Catholic Academy in Rosedale, Queens.

On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at New York Law School, AARP NY and Citizens Union are hosting a candidate forum in the race to replace Attorney General-elect Tish James as Public Advocate. Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max will moderate the forum.

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday:
--The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
--The Committee on Contracts will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss a proposed law relating to “reporting of promptness of agency payments to contractors.”
--The Committee on Public Housing and the Subcommittee on the Capital Budget will meet jointly at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing regarding NYCHA’s 2017 Physical Needs Assessment.
--The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at noon.
--The Committees on Health, Immigration, and General Welfare will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “the impact of the proposed ‘public charge’ rule on NYC.”
--The Committees on Criminal Justice, Mental Health, and Hospitals will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding correctional health.
--The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will meet at 2 p.m.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, Crain’s will host its 2018 “Health Care Summit” at the Sheraton Hotel in Times Square, discussing “population health” and how location and other socioeconomic factors can weigh on health outcomes. Speakers will include Dave Chokshi, Chief Population Health Officer at NYC Health + Hospitals, as well as several private health care and hospital executives.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, the Association for a Better New York will join Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia for an “exclusive tour” of the Sanitation Department’s Manhattan garages. Garcia “will give a brief presentation at the beginning of the tour.”

At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Election Law and the Subcommittee on Election Day Operations and Voter Disenfranchisement will meet jointly at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for a public hearing on “improving opportunities to vote in New York State,” “including through early voting and no-excuse absentee ballot reforms.”

At 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the Housing Justice for All coalition will march against “corrupt landlords” and call on the new Democratic leadership in state government to enact “universal rent control.” the march will begin at the Museum of the American Indian in the Financial District.

Friday and the weekend
At 8:15 a.m. Friday, the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School will host David Hansell, Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, for a “CityLaw Breakfast.”

At 10 a.m. Friday, the Assembly Standing Committee on the Judiciary will meet at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for a public hearing on “electronic filing of court papers.”

Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday at 10 a.m.

At 11:30 a.m. Friday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation will meet in Albany for a public hearing on recycling.

***
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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

With Nod from De Blasio and Push from Johnson, Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting in New York City


bdb at voting machine

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


With all three of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision proposals approved by voters by wide margins on Tuesday, eyes are now on the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, empaneled by the City Council and other officials, which will, in some respects, pick up where the 2018 commission left off, possibly considering issues that the mayor’s commission did not act on.

Key among those is ranked-choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting), an alternative method of voting wherein voters rank their candidate preferences rather than simply voting for one. For whichever races it is applied to, if no candidate wins the required percentage of the vote on initial count, the last place candidate is eliminated, and the second preference of the eliminated candidate’s voters receives those votes. This continues until one candidate secures the required percentage, often set at 50 percent.

As of now, New York City only holds runoffs for citywide positions -- mayor, public advocate, comptroller -- and if no candidate receives 40 percent of the vote. Mayor Bill de Blasio narrowly avoided a runoff in the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor, but there was one that year for public advocate.

That runoff, in the Democratic primary between eventual winner Letitia James and Daniel Squadron, led to heightened calls for ranked-choice voting, especially given the high cost of the runoff relative to the budget of the public advocate’s office.

Increasing support from elected officials and among the public led to ranked-choice voting being considered and discussed by the 2018 charter commission; in its final report, the commission said that it had received a “considerable volume of public comment about ranked choice voting.” In the end, the commission demurred on ranked-choice, arguing that more research and time were required and recommending that a future commission tackle the issue.

It may not take long; that commission may well end up being the 2019 commission, which has already met six times, twice in Manhattan and once each in the other boroughs, and has a much longer timeline on which to tackle issues. It is expected to continue deliberations, solicit online feedback, and hold hearings and meetings throughout the first half of next year, with its ballot proposals likely due by early September.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who got to name several commissioner including the chair, Gail Benjamin, testified at a recent hearing in favor of ranked-choice voting, urging the commission to look into it. De Blasio, meanwhile, singled out ranked-choice voting when asked by Gotham Gazette at a press availability what he would like the 2019 commission to tackle, though he did not endorse the idea outright.

“There was a very vibrant discussion in this charter revision commission, for example, about ranked-choice voting,” the mayor said. “For me, the jury’s still out on ranked-choice voting. I grew up with it in Massachusetts. I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses. And I’d sure like to see a lot more research on it. But there’s a lot of people who believe it might be very beneficial in New York City.”

Despite not taking an affirmative stance on the issue, de Blasio’s answer is a signal of his evolving position on ranked-choice, according to Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government group that supports ranked-choice voting.

“I think it’s significant,” Camarda said. “I think what’s telling is we’ve now seen, in the last few months, the mayor last week and the Council speaker at the Manhattan charter revision commission hearing, both called on the commission to consider instant runoff voting, and ‘here are the different arguments for it.’ And I think that’s a signal to the commission that they should seriously look at this.”

“I think there’s a new openness to it on their parts that at least wasn’t public in the past,” he continued. “De Blasio in 2013 went on The Brian Lehrer Show and actually took a position against IRV, and said at the time that the starkness of two candidates in the runoff, he thought was clarifying for voters. So clearly, his position seems to have evolved.”

Aside from good government groups, which almost uniformly support it, ranked choice also has the support of other prominent city elected officials: along with Johnson, support comes from Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate James, who was elected State Attorney General on Tuesday and in May called herself “the face of instant runoff” given her 2013 race. City Council Member Brad Lander has sponsored a bill to implement "instant run-off voting" (James is a co-sponsor) in the Council.

"As the upcoming Public Advocate race shows, Ranked Choice Voting is an idea whose time has come for New York City," Lander said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "Stronger majority support, better outreach to diverse communities, less negative campaigning, and it even saves money. What's not to like?"

Advocates, including those in New York, note that ranked-choice both makes third parties more viable (by limiting the need for “strategic voting”) and forces candidates to appeal beyond their base, in the hope of attracting voters as second preference. Ranked-choice would also allow city elections to avoid costly, low-turnout runoff elections when no candidate secures the required threshold of votes.

“We think that enabling voters to rank candidates creates an environment where there's more substantive policy debate, and there’s less negativity in campaigning, because candidates have to appeal to second choice and even third choice votes,” Camarda said.

In 2013, the runoff between James and Squadron was estimated to cost about $13 million, for a position with a $2 million budget, in an election with 6.5% turnout. In a report released the following year, the city’s Campaign Finance Board recommended that New York City adopt ranked-choice voting for municipal elections.

Advocates also claim that ranked-choice increases turnout, though studies have been conflicting on the matter. Some have charged that it can be confusing to voters, decreasing turnout and the diversity of the electorate. Turnout in San Francisco, the largest American city using ranked-choice, has been generally depressed since the implementation of ranked-choice, while in Minneapolis, the results have been far more promising.

Ranked choice has taken a higher political profile after Maine voters adopted the system by referendum in 2016, after a string of gubernatorial elections going back to 2002 where no candidate received a majority of the vote. The measure survived several legal and legislative challenges and was used in this year’s midterm elections; the Democratic gubernatorial candidate won an outright majority, but the race in the 2nd Congressional District is currently being decided by instant runoff.

Along with San Francisco and Minneapolis, ranked-choice is used in cities such as Oakland and Memphis, where voters approved ranked-choice in 2008 but it has not yet been implemented. On Tuesday, voters in that city rejected a ballot proposal to abandon ranked-choice, and it will be used in 2019. And de Blasio’s hometown of Cambridge has used ranked-choice since the 1940s; Cambridge’s system is a unique hybrid of ranked-choice and proportional representation.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This story has been updated.

The 3 Big Reasons Why Elections in New York City are So Poorly Run


and cuomo nov2

Gov. Cuomo votes (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Election Day in New York City was, as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote on Twitter, “like Groundhog Day,” where yet again, voters were forced to wait in long lines as ballot scanners across the city broke down, a sign of the abysmal election administration that New Yorkers have come to expect every time they visit the polls.

The past few elections -- city, state, and federal -- conducted in New York City have repeatedly shown instances of failure on the part of the New York City Board of Elections, an entity whose name belies the fact that it is a state-created agency charged with administering several elections each year. City BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan -- who is hired by the board’s ten commissioners and reports to them -- suggested on Tuesday, in a brief video posted to Twitter by NY1 reporter Lindsey Christ, that the cause of the latest debacle was a combination of higher turnout, an unwieldy two-page ballot (owing to three ballot questions on the back) and wet ballots because of voters coming in from rainy weather.

The BOE’s problems, long recognized by government reformers, some elected officials, and of course voters, came urgently to the forefront after the 2016 presidential primary, in which more than 117,000 voters were improperly purged from the rolls in Brooklyn, the city’s most populated borough. The purge, originally reported by WNYC, led to a federal lawsuit against the BOE, which later opted for a settlement in which it admitted that it broke the law. But while the settlement prompted improvements to voter roll management, the BOE’s inability to smoothly run elections has stretched far beyond that one area or even the last few years.

“I think there’s many different problems at many different levels that lead to a day like this,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group.

In a statement, Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, who serves on the Rules, Judiciary, Health and Election Law committees, said, “Today’s problems should have been prevented. Rainy weather and high voter turnout should not be impediments to a functional election system.”

So why is the New York City Board of Elections so dysfunctional? What is standing in the way of New Yorkers and easy voting experiences?

A Structural Problem
Part of the reason for the BOE’s continued failures is the agency’s structure itself. Though the agency is funded by the city, and the City Council conducts regular oversight of its function after each election, it is a creation of the state. Its commissioners are chosen by county party committees according to state law -- by the top two vote-getting political parties in the five boroughs, which, for all intents and purposes, means Democrats and Republicans. Each party selects one commissioner from each borough who is then confirmed by the City Council to make up the ten-member board, which decides on everything from election management procedures to candidates’ inclusion on the ballot.

The entire process is rife with patronage, with not only the commissioners, but most of the BOE’s staff employees appointed by county chairs along party lines. The board has been resistant to efforts by the city to professionalize its ranks, pushing back against City Council legislation that would require appointments akin to civil service jobs. Broadly speaking, criticism of the board boils down to the belief that it is more concerned about keeping the county party leaders happy than it is about delivering good service to voters, and that it is not necessarily well-prepared to deliver top-notch service even if that was the main focus.

Immediately following the 2016 election snafu, Mayor Bill de Blasio even offered the BOE an additional $20 million to implement reforms including hiring an outside consultant and creating a blue ribbon panel to conduct a top-to-bottom review of systemic issues, providing more transparency in hiring, and new methods of communication with voters. The BOE, however, refused the offer.  

Speaker Johnson, who called for Ryan’s resignation on Tuesday, said in a phone interview that there is a dire need for reforms at the state level. But, he insisted, “Until that happens, we need competent leadership at the staff level from the Board of Elections.”

Johnson said the reasons Ryan gave in the video on Twitter, including the rainy weather and higher turnout, were “predictable” factors. “Those aren’t valid reasons to have hundreds of machines breaking down...That did not give me confidence in him understanding the depth of anger that New Yorkers felt at the polls,” he said.  

Voting and electoral laws
New York employs what good government groups call “passive voter suppression” with election and voting laws that tend to discourage turnout. The state is one of 13 that does not have early voting, which means that the nearly 13 million registered voters across the state must cast their ballots in a 15-hour period on the day of the general election (During the September primary, poll sites were only open for nine hours in 49 out of 62 counties). Besides depressing turnout, the lack of early voting also forces the BOE to resolve issues as they arise at the ballot box on election day rather than be able to preempt them.

“On the one hand, the problem today seems to be with the scanners, the hardware and software,” Camarda said. “But obviously if reforms had been passed like early voting, that would’ve provided a dry run to prevent these kinds of issues from occurring.”

The state has also failed to pass common-sense voting reforms such as no-excuse absentee ballots, mail-in ballots, electronic poll books or consolidating primary election dates. Case in point, New York held two primaries this year, one in June for congressional seats and the second in September for state candidates. In terms of voting, the state also does not allow same-day voter registration and has one of the longest deadlines for switching party registration.

The Democrat-led State Assembly has repeatedly passed many of those reforms and Democratic leaders, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, have blamed Republicans who control the State Senate for blocking them in turn. Though Cuomo has often said he supports that broad reform platform, he has put little capital behind it and has been promising this year to advance them if the Democrats flip control of the Senate, which they did on Election Day. Senate Democratic leaders have listed voting and election reform as a top priority for early 2019.

Overworked, Underpaid and Untrained Poll Workers
Though there have been efforts in the Assembly to provide raises to poll workers, who are volunteers, and reduce the long shifts that they are required to serve, most workers continue to be underpaid and overworked. Poll worker training is also seen is inadequate and often causes some of the issues seen on election day, contributing to long lines, confusion, and frustration.

The mayor’s funding offer would have required the BOE to provide a plan to improve both poll worker pay and training, including bonuses for those who volunteered at multiple elections in a year. Electronic poll books may also aid efforts to run elections more quickly and smoothly, they are on the list of potential reforms.

Many of the less-controversial reforms are long overdue. An audit released by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in November last year found that in three elections since 2016, out of 156 polling sites, 90 percent showed significant breakdowns ranging from mishandling of affidavit ballots and inadequate staffing to a lack of assistance for voters with disabilities. “After a thorough review of the agency, it’s clear the voter purge is a reflection of larger, systemic, day-to-day breakdowns,” Stringer said in a statement at the time. “Elections matter, and every vote must be counted in every election. That’s why the BOE needs to fundamentally change its operations.”

Camarda’s group has for years advocated for a municipal poll worker program. “The executive director of the Board of Elections has a very difficult job because you’re managing a temporary workforce of roughly 35,000 people across some 1,300 poll sites,” he said. “If you want to have qualified people to do these jobs, you’ve got to pay them.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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