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7 Candidates Qualify for Second Public Advocate Special Election Debate


Public Advocate debate 10 candidates

The first debate (photo: Holly Pickett for The New York Times (pool))


Seven candidates running in the special election for New York City Public Advocate have qualified for the second and final official televised debate, which will take place Wednesday night, just six days ahead of the February 26 election.

There will be 17 candidates on the ballot, 10 of whom qualified for the first televised debate. Now, for the “leading contenders” debate, seven candidates met the threshold set by city law, which includes raising and spending $170,813, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Campaign Finance Board. Candidates made their latest filings to the Campaign Finance Board by midnight Friday.

The seven candidates who will debate Wednesday night on NY1 television are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, attorney Dawn Smalls, activist Nomiki Konst, City Council Members Jumaane Williams and Rafael Espinal, and state Assemblymembers Michael Blake and Ron Kim.

Of the ten candidates who made the first debate, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Eric Ulrich and Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell did not meet the threshold for the second debate.

To make it into the “leading contenders” debate, the candidates then had till February 11 to raise and spend $170,813 and needed to be endorsed by an elected official representing New York City at the local, state or federal level, or by a membership organization with at least 250 members in the city (a labor union or political club, for instance).

Ulrich, the only Republican at the first debate, Rodriguez, and O’Donnell did not meet the financial threshold for the second debate.

At the first debate on February 6, the ten candidates made their pitches to city voters and weighed in on everything from funding for the MTA and NYCHA to the then-happening Amazon deal, and their disagreements with Mayor Bill de Blasio. To qualify for that debate, the candidates were required to show $56,938 in campaign fundraising and expenditure by the filing due just before the debate.

[Read: In First Debate, Public Advocate Candidates Take on De Blasio, Amazon & Each Other]

The debate at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (February 20) will broadcast by Spectrum News NY1 and will be publicly accessible on NY1’s website and Facebook page. It will also be simulcast by NYC Life, the city’s media channel. The hour-and-a-half debate will again be moderated by Errol Louis of NY1, with questions also coming from Laura Nahmias of Politico New York and Bobby Cuza of NY1.

The public advocate special election was triggered after the former office-holder Letitia James was elected New York State Attorney General. James filled a vacancy created by the resignation of former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the wake of allegations of physical abuse by several intimate partners.

The public advocate is a watchdog over city government and an ombudsperson, with the power to introduce legislation to the City Council. The public advocate is also first in line to the mayor if the mayor is unable to serve out his or her full term. The position helped launch James to become attorney general, and her predeccessor, Bill de Blasio, to become mayor.

The sponsors of the debate include Politico New York, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, the Latino Leadership Institute, Borough of Manhattan Community College, NAACP New York State Conference Metropolitan Council, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., East Kings County Alumnae Chapter.

Beyond the ten candidates who made the first debate, the other candidates on the February 26 ballot will be Benjamin Yee, Manny Alicandro, David Eisenbach, Jared Rich, Tony Herbert, Helal Sheikh, and Latrice Walker, an Assembly member who has dropped out of the race but was unable to have her name removed from the ballot.

The election, open to all registered voters across the city, is expected to be low turnout. The winner will hold the seat at least through the end of this year -- there will be a primary election this June and a general election this November to determine who holds the seat for 2020 and 2021.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

City Council Public Housing Chair Weighs in on HUD Deal, NYCHA’s Future


Ampry-Samuel NYCHA

Alicka Ampry-Samuel (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


As Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced his “NYCHA 2.0” plan to secure the future of the city’s public housing authority, an agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that includes a new federal monitor of NYCHA, and a new interim chair to lead the authority, the City Council member charged with oversight of NYCHA has some questions.

Alicka Ampry-Samuel is the chair of the City Council’s public housing committee and represents parts of central Brooklyn, home to many NYCHA residences. During a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio, Ampry-Samuel explained some of her concerns about the latest NYCHA-related developments, said that de Blasio had not reached out to her ahead of announcing that Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia would be named interim NYCHA chair, and promised a public hearing on the city’s deal with HUD in the coming months.

Ampry-Samuel had measured praise for de Blasio’s NYCHA 2.0 plan, which includes fairly aggressive measures to bring in new revenue to address the housing authority’s $30 billion-plus in physical needs, but she joined the chorus of critics who have questioned the mayor’s deal with HUD that includes no new federal money for NYCHA.

“We are seeing better things, but tell that to the person who’s suffering right now,” Ampry-Samuels said of the general situation across NYCHA, particularly relative to last winter, when there were widespread heat and hot water outages. “It’s hard for them to receive that response because they’re thinking, ‘What about me?’ That’s not the case in my home.”

On January 31, de Blasio announced at a press conference with Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson a deal that includes the federal government taking more direct oversight of NYCHA in response to years of crisis, criticism, management turmoil, and federal law enforcement inquiry.

Opponents have criticized the deal as giving too much power to a federal government that has often been at odds with the de Blasio administration and not supportive enough of public housing. The deal includes no new federal funding but a federal monitor who will be tasked with tracking NYCHA’s actions.

“Who is this person?” Ampry-Samuel said of the impending monitor. “Do they care about public housing, or is just a business-minded person who’s coming in to change and reform management, coming in to change the operational structure? Or is this someone who’s going to come in and look at NYCHA 2.0 and raising revenue to deal with the $32 million capital repairs it needs.”

Ampry-Samuel took a measured, pragmatic approach throughout the discussion. “With there now being federal monitor, this is opportunity to have an independent voice and be able to sit down with residents and the City of New York and say, ‘These are the things you have in place’ and review it. Go line by line and say, ‘You have not been able to do what you needed to do in the past and this is a way forward.’”

In December, de Blasio announced NYCHA 2.0, a revamped comprehensive plan to reform NYCHA and bring in more than $20 billion in revenue to repair the crumbling and dangerous public housing home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers. Some of the measures de Blasio had either rejected in the past or supported in far more limited fashion, but he said that without large-scale federal help, the city had no other viable options.

According to a de Blasio press release, the plan will resolve $24 billion in repairs, including renovations for 175,000 residents. Some of that will depend on new development on underused NYCHA land, such as parking lots, where a mix of market-rate and affordable housing will be erected. Ampry-Samuel appeared to acknowledge the elements of the plan as necessities, despite the fact that many have expressed grave concerns about such “infill” housing. The development process must be community-led, she said, and the money from development must be reinvested in the particular NYCHA projects where the new housing is built.

“We have to figure out ways to bring money in, but we have to make sure that the residents who are already part of the fabric of that development benefit from all the deals,” she said. “And we have to make sure it doesn’t happen to them -- it happens with them.”

Just last week de Blasio announced his next choice for interim chair of NYCHA: Kathryn Garcia, commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation, whom de Blasio had also recently put in charge of lead remediation efforts, which came out of the NYCHA lead paint scandal. Garcia replaces outgoing interim chair Stanley Brezenoff who recently criticized the city’s deal with HUD.

“I can’t figure why [the next NYCHA chair] is someone who has no housing background, no one with experience to that level,” said Ampry-Samuel. “She’s a great woman, with a great career, she rose through the ranks at Sanitation, but we can’t play musical chairs with this type of situation.”

A permanent chair, perhaps Garcia, is expected to be named after the federal monitor is in place, given that the monitor will have a say in approving de Blasio’s choice to head the authority.

The City Council Committee on Public Housing plans to hold an oversight hearing with Garcia, the administration, and a HUD representative on the deal between HUD and the city and NYCHA in the next several weeks, Ampry-Samuel said. She called for the creation of a chief resident officer as an advisor to the chair of NYCHA. The position, she hopes, could spur a greater relationship between NYCHA and NYCHA residents, though there are also tenant councils.

Asked about a time frame for the hearing she promised, Ampry-Samuel was hesitant to provide specifics, given how unsettled things are and how fresh the deal with HUD was, but she said she looked forward to a public discussion of all the recent changes and those to come.

[Listen: Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of NYCHA with City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel]

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by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How Many Voters Will Turn Out for the Public Advocate Special Election?


de blasio voting

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Around 200,000 to 700,000 voters are expected to show up to the polls for February 26 special election for New York City Public Advocate, according to political experts and candidates for the office. Though the election is certain to be a low turnout affair, just how low remains unclear, with turnout dependent upon how well the candidates are able to broadcast their messages and push people to the polls, how active labor unions and political clubs are, and other factors, including the weather on election day.

The election for just one of three citywide positions asks voters to choose between more than a dozen candidates vying to become the city’s next ombudsperson, voice for the people, and watchdog over the rest of city government. Former public advocate Letitia James, who served in the role from 2014 through 2018, was elected Attorney General in November, triggering the first citywide special election since governmental restructuring in 1989.

As of February, there were almost 5.2 million registered voters in New York City, according to the state Board of Elections. Of that total, about 3.5 million are registered Democrats; 954,000 registered to vote but unaffiliated with a party; and 523,000 Republicans.

A turnout of 500,000 voters for the Public Advocate special election would represent just over 10 percent of those 5.2 million registered voters.

Several experts view weather as the strongest deciding factor in turnout.

If the skies are clear, as many as 750,000 voters may head to the polls, according to Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and founder of Prime New York. But if snow falls on the twenty-sixth, he estimates that the number could drop to 600,000 voters. Skurnik based his forecasts on turnout for five prior competitive special elections. He defined competitive as “two or more candidates spending real money.”

Other experts are less optimistic about civic engagement. If the unseasonal balminess New York recently experienced holds, turnout could hover around 600,000 voters, according to the projections of Bruce Gyory, a political consultant at Manatt and political science professor at University at Albany. But if the city suffers from another day of “subarctic conditions or a snowstorm or an ice storm,” then Gyory estimates a low end of 300,000 voters.

The last time weather played such a major role in a special election, as Gyory recalled, was the 1978 race for what had been Herman Badillo’s seat in the U.S. Congress representing the 21st District in the South Bronx. “The week before the election there was a big snowstorm,” Gyory said, who was working on eventual winner Robert Garcia’s campaign. “We needed a bigger turnout to win so we were petrified.” Ultimately, more than 14,000 Bronxites voted, securing Garcia’s victory.

In the current public advocate race, City Council Member Rafael Espinal’s campaign is looking to the 2013 public advocate Democratic primary runoff election between James and then-State Senator Daniel Squadron. Espinal, a Brooklyn Democrat, predicted a turnout between 230,000 to 700,000 voters. “I’m also factoring in the fact that we’ve had high turnout in the past primary and general,” Espinal said during a recent candidate forum at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “New Yorkers are activated, there are people who usually wouldn’t vote in local elections, but because of what’s happening in Washington, are feeling they have a duty.”

Another City Council member and public advocate candidate, Ydanis Rodríguez, estimated on the low end, predicting about 300,000 voters. “We don’t live in a democratic system where we really persuade people to go out and vote,” he lamented at the same event.

Factors including media coverage and individual candidates’ ability to drum up excitement about their campaign will also influence turnout, Gyory said. But in an election with so little attention, small details that may not play into a typical election hold the potential to upend the race.

Since the public advocate race is nonpartisan, meaning not for existing political parties, all the candidates will be on one ballot under self-created party names. As a result, Eric Ulrich may have an advantage as the only Republican elected official in a race with more than a dozen Democrats. And with no runoff, divvying up the city’s Democrats could potentially lead to a Republican victory despite the lopsided GOP enrollment disadvantage. While those party labels will not be on the ballot, each candidate, especially the elected officials, are attempting to secure their base plus as many other votes as possible. Ulrich’s goal is to coalesce as many Republicans and conservative and moderate Democrats as he can.

The Queens Council member, who bills himself as a “Rockefeller Republican” and frequently calls his policies “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” is hoping to garner support from voters seeking to rebuke de Blasio’s tenure, perhaps leading to a heightened motivation to turn out to vote. “This election is not going to be a referendum on Donald Trump, it’s going to be a referendum on Bill de Blasio,” he said on the Max & Murphy podcast in January.

With so many contenders in the field, some candidates view their path to victory as contingent on strong networks that stretch throughout the five boroughs. Michael Blake, a Bronx state Assembly member, is relying on a coalition of immigrants who identify with him as the son of Jamaican parents, colleagues in state government who have endorsed him, constituents in the Bronx, support from the United African Coalition, and connections from his time working for President Obama, among others.

When asked about his voter turnout prediction at the Newmark School event, he refused to give an answer. “I’m not going to tell my strategy,” said Blake, who is also a political consultant. “I’m not going to say how I think I’m going to win with other candidates here.” When pressed by moderator and Newmark professor Errol Louis of NY1, and even by fellow candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito, to at least name a potential number of voters, he defiantly shook his head.

Political endorsements could swing the vote in the race, not only by potentially determining the winner but also in broadly fostering excitement about the race and encouraging New Yorkers to head to the polls. How active clubs and labor unions and elected officials are in supporting their candidate of choice will influence turnout. How many clubs and unions and electeds sit the race out, making no endorsement, will also have an impact.

Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams has racked up political endorsements from dozens of state and city politicians, labor unions, political clubs, and progressive organizations. He also benefits from momentum from his 2018 race for lieutenant governor, when he did well in the city, especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn, against incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, from western New York. In the other boroughs, he still stands to gain from name recognition, and this time he’s not competing against an incumbent, though he is facing a deep group of locally-based officials.

The Working Families Party, which endorsed Williams after also backing him in last year’s primary, believes its base is galvanized and ready to show up to support him again. While they don’t have a voter turnout estimate, organizing director Ava Berenza said they’re sending 400,000 texts to likely voters. The New Kings Democrats are coordinating similar efforts for Williams as election day nears, according to vice president of organizing Sage Rockermann. And he recently won the endorsement of the Kings County Democrats, Brooklyn’s official arm of the Democratic party.

Labor unions hold significant political clout in New York City, but their voter outreach efforts appear to be limited for this election, with some of the city’s largest unions perhaps choosing to sit it out as to not take a chance in an especially hard-to-predict race.

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has gained several endorsements from City Council members, Congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a few Latino political organizations, women’s groups, and labor unions.

Teamsters Local 801 endorsed Mark-Viverito for her efforts in helping upgrade sanitation workers’ facilities, especially for women. “I don’t forget people who are good to my workforce,” Local 801 president Harry Nespoli said. He is encouraging his staff to vote for Mark-Viverito and pledged to do “anything we can to help her,” but has not yet engaged in citywide voter turnout efforts.

Meanwhile, one of New York City’s largest and most prominent unions, 1199 SEIU, decided against endorsing a candidate or facilitating voter outreach efforts. This comes as a surprise as Blake frequently notes his father’s membership in 1199SEIU in his stump speech and the union endorsed Blake for Assembly in the past, but at the same time, Mark-Viverito also has strong ties to the union. “There are a number of fierce healthcare advocates running for this important seat,” said president George Gresham. “We are confident that the public will select the best fit for the position.”

Political clubs are endorsing and working on behalf of their selected candidates.

Stonewall Democrats, which endorsed Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell, is “hitting the phones to support him and will continue to do so up until election day,” said club president Rod Townsend. “Having a special election in February is a different kind of animal than we’re used to. We’re hoping that our reach as a large citywide club will spread the word from Riverdale to the Rockaways and everywhere in between.”

While the Lexington Democratic Club is canvassing and phone banking on behalf of Assemblymember Ron Kim, the Grand Street Democrats are also coordinating door-knocking and flyering campaigns to encourage New Yorkers to vote for their endorsed candidate: Benjamin Yee, a civic technologist and political operative.

“With such a large field in this race and very little time to campaign,” said Grand Street Democrats president Jeremy Sherber, “the kind of personal connections clubs like ours can make will have an outsized impact on this special election.” The club does not yet have a turnout estimate, but plans to use past local special elections to gauge voter participation in the Lower East Side.

Some hope that unconventional voter outreach efforts may lead to a surprising spike in voters following the immense boost in the September and November elections in New York. Generator Collective, an online community seeking to “humanize policy through storytelling,” has hosted several events with popular comedian Ilana Glazer – who has also promoted the race on Instagram to her 1 million followers – to inform young about the candidates and encourage them to vote.

The election, open to all registered voters across the five boroughs, is Tuesday, February 26.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Public Advocate Candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito


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Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


February 13, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Public Advocate Candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito

mmv wbaiMelissa Mark-Viverito is a former Speaker of the New York City Council and now a candidate for Public Advocate in the special election set for February 26. She joined the show to discuss her candidacy.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Strips Diaz Sr. of Committee After Latest Homophobic Remarks


ruben diaz sr comm vehicles

(Photo: John McCarten/NYC Council)


In a rare move on Wednesday, the New York City Council voted to dissolve a standing committee after its chair, Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., made homophobic remarks in a recent radio interview and repeatedly refused to apologize for them in the days after.

Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister with a long history of anti-LGBT positions and actions, said last week in the radio interview that the City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community," as reported by NY1. The comment drew a swift backlash from dozens of elected officials, including several openly gay members of the Council, and others demanding that he apologize. But Diaz Sr. doubled down, leading many Democrats, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to call for his resignation.

On Wednesday, the Council voted 45-1 to dissolve the For-Hire Vehicles committee chaired by Diaz Sr. The committee was created at Diaz Sr.’s request last year to oversee the burgeoning ride-hailing service industry and has passed 16 bills in that time, including measures to increase wages paid to for-hire vehicle drivers. It’s jurisdiction will be transferred to the transportation committee under Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

At Wednesday’s vote, Council Member Chaim Deutsch, who also holds anti-LGBT views, was the sole dissenting voice, saying the Council should educate Diaz Sr. and “bring him closer than further and let him know that words are very strong.” Council Members Rodriguez, Andy King, and Fernando Cabrera (also a conservative member from the Bronx) abstained from the vote. Diaz Sr. himself was not present in the chamber.

For Johnson, who is openly gay and openly HIV positive, the vote was an emotional moment as he grappled with his own personal experiences and the hurt he said Diaz Sr.’s comments had caused to Council members and staff. Johnson has spent days apologizing for having given Diaz Sr. the benefit of the doubt and elevating him to committee chair, considering the reverend’s long history of anti-LGBT positions and actions. “I will apologize again, deeply, for making a mistake and having a blind spot to begin with in trying to give everyone a fresh start...I made a mistake. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to all the people who came before me and allowed me to be here today, and I'm sorry to gay and lesbian New Yorkers who deserve so much better,” he said.

Johnson’s comments do not necessarily tell the whole story, though, given that his ascent to the speakership included support from the Bronx Democratic Party, where Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the Council member's son, is especially powerful, and after he had courted Diaz Sr.’s backing.

The resolution to dissolve Diaz Sr.’s committee moved swiftly through the Council. The Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges met on Wednesday morning at a hastily convened hearing and unanimously approved the measure before it was voted on by the full Council. Separately, the Committee on Standards and Ethics is also probing Diaz Sr.’s remarks and could recommend disciplinary action ranging from censure to removal from office.

Council Members Ritchie Torres, Daniel Dromm, Carlos Menchaca, and Jimmy Van Bramer, all of whom are openly gay, took turns critiquing Diaz Sr. and commending Johnson for taking the necessary steps to hold him to account.

“This behavior is not new,” said Dromm, speaking just after Council Member Deutsch. Dromm cited his own decades-long opposition to Diaz Sr.’s homophobia and said, “I don’t think any amount of education at this point is really going to help him.”

Torres, with tears in his eyes, emphasized that Diaz Sr.’s comments were not reflective of the politics of the Bronx, which he also represents, and he said he was “naive to expect redemption” from Diaz Sr. based on his record. “Imagine if someone said the Council was controlled by a black cabal or a Jewish cabal. The Council would take action,” he added.

Diaz Sr. has announced that he is holding a rally with supporters on Thursday in the Bronx. The Council member is eligible to run for another term in the Council in 2021. One of his 2017 Democratic primary opponents, Amanda Farias, has already announced her intention to run for the seat.

Van Bramer, who spoke about struggling with suicidal thoughts as a young gay man, condemned Diaz Sr.’s “hate speech.” “Demonizing people causes real and permanent pain,” he said. “When elected officials speak with such hate, young people internalize that hate. That in and of itself is a form of violence.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Opposing Responses to Cashless Retail on Docket for City Council Hearing


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Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The polarizing issue of local retailers going cashless has gotten the attention of New York City Council members, and on Thursday a Council committee will hear testimony on the topic and consider competing legislative proposals.

The Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, chaired by Council Member Rafael Espinal, a Brooklyn Democrat, will hear the bills for the first time. One, sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, would outright ban retailers from not accepting cash. The other, sponsored by Council Member Fernando Cabrera, would require cashless retail establishments to display conspicuous signage to alert consumers that they are card-only before they get to the register. Both Torres and Cabrera are Bronx Democrats.

After Torres introduced his bill last fall, it generated widespread media coverage and ignited a debate on the convenience of credit and debit cards versus how refusing cash excludes individuals without plastic. Notably, as of Tuesday afternoon, Torres’ bill has 18 co-sponsors in the 51-seat Council, including committee chair Espinal. Cabrera, along with Council Member Andrew Cohen, also a Bronx Democrat, are the lone sponsors of his bill.

Cashless retail establishments are seen as problematic for the “unbanked” or “underbanked,” those without bank accounts and those without easy access to banks, respectively. In 2015, an Urban Institute study surveying New Yorkers found that nearly 12 percent, or 360,000 households, did not have bank accounts. The finding is higher than the approximately 8 percent of Americans nationwide who are unbanked. An additional 25 percent, or 780,000 New York households are underbanked, the study found, compared to the 20 percent of underbanked Americans across the country.

Shoppers in the U.S. are expected to generate 190 billion cashless transactions this year, including e-commerce, according to Kristen Regine, a professor of marketing at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. She cites millennials as leading the way on the consumer side, but the move is likewise a matter of convenience for retailers.

“A lot of people think money is dirty and they don’t want to touch and deal with it. For retailers, it’s more labor intensive to deal with, to reconcile the days’ end transactions. And for the retailer thinking about line queue, it’s swipe and go and quicker to get through the line. In some places you’re not even signing your name anymore,” said Regine. “In areas where there’s a lot of traffic and robberies, it’s safer for the person working behind the counter not to have cash.”

The growing trend of exclusively requiring plastic or mobile pay, like Apple Pay, for purchases is here locally, with fast casual chains such as Sweetgreen and Dig Inn, or higher-end restaurants such as Danny Meyer’s epicurean empire adopting the policy.

Cabrera also sees this as part of the trend Regine described. “This is not new, this is not someday, this is the now. And if that’s their business model, and they have taken into consideration the potential they could lose a few customers, you know, that’s their business model. My bill basically gives them the freedom to use their business model, but at the same time, gives strong consideration to the customers to be able to know right off the bat that business will accept cash or not,” said Cabrera.

Torres, seeking to ban establishments from going cashless, is more concerned with inequality baked into cashless policies. “If you have the money you should be able to use it. Cash is the great equalizer and the universal mode of currency. Not everyone accesses credit or debit, but everyone uses cash at some time in their life,” said Torres. “In New York City, we have a historic opportunity to set a national precedent for rest of country to follow.”

As for the country, according to Regine, over 40 percent of U.S. adults don’t carry cash. “It’s just kind of our way of life,” she said.

Yet, both Cabrera and Torres want to account for that other 60 percent, which may be higher in New York City given the unbanked population. Thursday’s hearing will provide insights into where their legislation may be headed. But, there won’t be any votes on Thursday. The Council committee will hear the bills and testimony from whomever has been invited or signs up to discuss the legislation, such as business owners and consumers. Then the bills will be laid over in committee, at which point they can be tweaked within the Council, or not, and picked back up for a vote by the committee. If successful in committee, a bill heads to the full Council for a vote.

Both Council members are cautiously confident their bills will move forward for a vote. “I believe we’re going to get this through. It’s a common-sense bill,“ said Cabrera.

Torres slightly hedged his bet. “There’s no telling what will happen in a City Council meeting,” he said, adding, “I see a clear path of passage for the bill.”

In Budget Testimony, De Blasio Critiques Cuomo Plans, Presents City Albany Agenda


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Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio received a warmer reception in Albany on Monday than he has in past years as he testified before the state Legislature on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2020 executive budget proposal and how it would affect New York City. Over the course of more than two hours, the mayor argued for more education funding, emphasized the need for a comprehensive revenue plan for the MTA, enlisted legislators to help fend off proposed funding cuts and costs shifts, and defended his administration’s work on multiple fronts.

In prior appearances before the Legislature, de Blasio has faced the ire of Republicans who controlled the state Senate and have used the annual budget hearing to criticize the mayor’s policies and management of the city. But with Democrats now in control of both legislative chambers, the mayor found himself largely in agreement with lawmakers and their priorities on everything from school aid and transit funding to criminal justice reform, rent regulation and marijuana legalization.

He called on the Legislature to give the city design-build authority for infrastructure projects, pushed for the expansion of a speed camera and red light camera program in the city, asked for repeal of Section 50-a of the state civil rights law, which prevents disclosure of police officer disciplinary records, and advocated for a commercial vacancy tax to fight a crisis of vacant storefronts in the city.

De Blasio appealed to the Legislature to aid New York City in avoiding what he said is nearly $600 million in proposed cuts and cost shifts included in the governor’s budget. He reiterated the city’s slightly more rocky budgetary prospects that he raised in his own $92.2 billion preliminary budget proposal last week, where he noted that his administration is implementing a PEG (program to eliminate the gap) for the first time, with the goal of $750 million in total savings across agencies by the time the mayor releases his own executive budget plan in April (at which point he’ll also have to factor in the final state budget, which is due by April 1). City agency cutbacks, he warned, would be exacerbated if the governor’s budget passes in its current form.

The mayor blamed nearly half the Cuomo “cuts” on education funding. Those include a $148 million shortfall in mandated spending on charter schools and special education services and a newly proposed school funding formula that de Blasio said would create a “winners and losers situation” by shifting existing funding away from needy schools. “Although I am certain the proposal’s well-intended, there are real problems with it,” he said under questioning from Assemblymember Ed Braunstein. The governor’s office has disputed de Blasio’s characterizations of “cuts,” noting that some of the mayor’s assessment is based on faulty expectations by the city.

De Blasio also insisted, as he has often done, that the state should provide full funding under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, which would mean about $1.2 billion in additional fair student funding for the city. “We should all be outraged that something that was decided by our highest court to help our children….somehow has not been brought to full fruition,” he later said. Again on this topic, Cuomo has disagreed with the mayor’s interpretation, which is shared by many Democratic officials, with the governor saying that the Campaign for Fiscal Equity has been paid off and is a thing of the past.

De Blasio did commend the governor for backing a three-year extension of mayoral control of city schools, which Republicans often used as a cudgel against the mayor in order to extract concessions from the city. At Monday’s hearing, the mayor was able to tout his administration’s success with little pushback, pointing to record-high graduation rates.

Senator Robert Jackson, however, did prod the mayor for more accountability within the system. “I don’t believe in control...I believe in authority with oversight at an appropriate level,” Jackson said.

De Blasio was willing to concede, “The phrase might be better called mayoral accountability.” At various points, he said that his administration is seeking greater input from parents on issues such as school closures and consolidation, though it could always do better. And he also defended his authority to appoint the schools chancellor through a discretionary process. A nationwide public process would undermine the city’s ability to hire top-notch educators, he said. “The power of [mayoral control] is, everyone here and all the parents of New York City get to hold me accountable,” he said. “That was not true in the past.”

Legislators focused a significant amount of time on the MTA and proposals to find sustainable sources of revenue for the beleaguered authority, responsible for the subways and buses, while making its operations more efficient. Cuomo has proposed a congestion pricing system with some details left undetermined, but that would, among other things, give the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority control over city streets. And he has said the city should split halfway any remaining MTA capital shortfall after congestion pricing revenue is counted. The governor has also been railing against the MTA structure and leadership, who he appointed, and has been arguing for greater control of the agency, which he already effectively controls.

De Blasio has rejected congestion pricing as a silver bullet to solve the MTA’s woes and has said he would prefer a millionaire’s tax to raise the requisite funds for subways and buses. He repeated that argument at the hearing and said the MTA would need a “multi-element” solution that includes several different long-term streams of revenue, including perhaps a mansion tax, an internet sales tax, and revenue from legalization of recreational marijuana use, and a lockbox to ensure congestion pricing revenue is not diverted away from the MTA. Splitting capital costs with the state, he said, would be overly burdensome on the city’s already massive ten-year capital plan, which hit $100 billion for the first time when he released it last week.

He also insisted he could only support a congestion pricing plan that had “hardship exemptions”, which went down well with some legislators but not others. For instance, Senator Jim Gaughran, a Long Island Democrat, agreed, saying he hadn’t seen a feasible proposal yet. He suggested a regional program that could also take into account commuters who use the Long Island Rail Road and bus systems, and a carve out for small businesses. Democratic Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Brooklyn, on the other hand, said the mayor’s insistence on a progressive congestion pricing proposal seemed “disingenuous” since various carve outs would render the program insufficient.

“I think it’s a balance point,” de Blasio responded. “I think there’s a way to figure out what is a fair hardship exemption and what is not, what does it do to our revenue and what revenue we need.”

And though de Blasio has feuded with Cuomo over blame for the MTA’s failings, he generally supported the concept of giving more control to the governor. “I liken it to mayoral accountability for schools,” he said.

De Blasio also found himself defending his role in the deal to bring an Amazon campus and an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 jobs to Queens, which would give the tech giant $3 billion in tax incentives and grants. To persuade Amazon, the mayor and governor struck an agreement to circumvent the local City Council-led land use process, drawing widespread criticism.

De Blasio insisted on Monday that the $3 billion in incentives the company will receive is out of the city’s control -- most of the tax breaks are as-of-right incentives that Amazon would receive like any other company based on its location and job-creation, and $500 million of it is coming from the state in a capital grant. And he also revealed that he did not negotiate with the company to ensure neutrality if its workers attempt to unionize. When asked by Senator Jessica Ramos, a former de Blasio aide, he said he only insisted that the campus be built by union labor and that building services jobs should go to union workers. De Blasio has repeatedly said that he will continue to put pressure on Amazon related to its approach to employee unionization, and that the larger New York City pro-union environment will also play a role.

In back-and-forth with lawmakers, de Blasio also made promises, some concrete and some speculative. He said that a commission looking at the city’s property tax system would release its recommendations this year. He said the city could shave years off the Rikers Island jail closure plan if a variety of criminal justice reforms are passed by the state. He said he would work with legislators to introduce a commercial vacancy tax bill in the coming weeks. And he promised to invest in improved bus service in the city even if congestion pricing does not come to pass.

Of course, there were moments when de Blasio also pushed back. Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat and 2013 primary opponent, pushed the mayor on his “seemingly magical solution” to expand healthcare access to 600,000 uninsured New Yorkers at an eventual cost of $100 million annually. Liu wondered whether that would mean the state could pass a single-payer program that doesn’t include New York City. “I would like to say yes to that but I can’t,” de Blasio responded, noting that single-payer healthcare would be a better option.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who ran against de Blasio in 2017, noted that the mayor was raising alarms about budget shortfalls in the city while also increasing spending by $3 billion. “If we are anticipating all these problems with less revenue coming into the city, why are you continuing to increase the budget dramatically?” she wondered. She also asked the mayor to cap increases of the city’s property tax levy, one of the few tax burdens under the city’s control.

De Blasio did agree that the city needs a “more equitable solution” to property taxes though he disagreed that the city should cap the levy. He also defended the city’s budget more broadly, emphasizing that much of the increased spending has gone to pay increases for the municipal workforce in new labor agreements reached under his administration which had lapsed for years.

The state Legislature will continue budget hearings over the next few weeks before each house -- or perhaps both houses together -- release responses to the governor’s proposal. First, Cuomo will release 30-day amendments to his budget plan. Negotiations will heat up in March as the April 1 state budget deadline looms.

[Read: 9 Key Takeaways for New York City from Cuomo's State of the State and Budget]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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In Second 311 Oversight Hearing, City Council Examines Agency Responsiveness


Holden Yeger City Council

Council Members Holden, right, and Yeger (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The City Council recently held its second in a two-part oversight hearing on the city’s 311 system, the country’s largest non-emergency call center. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, the chair of the governmental operations committee, led both hearings. While the first hearing focused on system upgrades to 311 that are in process and language access, the second was organized around examining responsiveness by 311 to New Yorkers’ complaints and questions, often through how city agencies take up issues that come through the call center.

Cabrera stressed the importance of the second hearing, saying that “New Yorkers should be able to trust that a complaint filed with 311 will not languish in a void.” Joe Morrisroe, the executive director of 311, testified at the first hearing and returned for the second. He was joined at the second hearing by officials from seven city agencies.

Johnson’s primary concerns at the hearing were the quality of the data that 311 collects and transparency in regards to the status of complaints and service requests. “We see extensive data-quality issues,” he said, arguing that data errors prevent the public from following the progress of complaints, and ambiguous complaint resolution descriptions create confusion over agency responses. Johnson said poor data quality meant that the Council could not determine how or if many cases were resolved. He cited the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOMHM), Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), Department of Finance (DOF), and Department of Transportation (DOT) as city agencies with ambiguous resolution statuses.

The DOMHM and TLC each have 99% of their cases that are technically marked closed, but many also appear to be ongoing. Mark Lee, the TLC’s assistant commissioner for licensing and standards, said that he needed “to look into this data further” and that TLC is “proactively communicating to complainants, but we do need to get that reflected to the public.”

About 20% of rodent complaints to DOMHM were listed as resolved on a date before the complaint was filed, to which Johnson incredulously asked, “how is that possible?” Jeff Hunter, DOHMH assistant commissioner for environmental health and administration, said that this could be because multiple complaints were filed for the same location and the resolution date reflected the response to the first complaint.

The DOT and DOF had 46% and 74% of their respective complaint responses determined to be vague by the Council committee. Rebecca Zack, DOT’s assistant commissioner for intergovernmental and community affairs, said that the department’s vague responses directed customers to the DOT website for more information, instead of being resolved within the 311 system. Sheela Feinberg, DOF’s director of intergovernmental affairs, said that the vague responses were due to the sensitive nature of DOF service requests, which include personal information, and that DOF’s direct responses to complaints provide more information that what may be reflected in the Council’s data.

Johnson expressed frustration at how confusing the whole thing is, labeling the agencies’ differing response system to be “ad-hoc.” He suggested an inter-agency working group to work with the Council to improve the whole response system, and to “stop the insanity, there needs to be a better way.” He also expressed the importance of having the two hearings on 311, because “if people lose trust, they stop trying.”

Another major issue that came up frequently at the hearing was how agencies decide the order in which they respond to service requests. Most of the agencies outlined an internal system of prioritization based on a request’s impact on public safety. For example, Patrick Wehle, the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) deputy commissioner for external affairs, said that DOB typically responds to high-priority complaints within nine hours, the next level of priority can take up to 11 days, while lowest-priority complaints sometimes take up to three months. Most of the agencies present followed a similar prioritization hierarchy, representatives said. However, there were some exceptions, such as DOT, which schedules maintenance work, such as refilling potholes, for efficiency rather than by another priority, according to Zack. Council Member Cabrera asked if the volume of calls received about a particular issue affects an agency’s responsiveness. Zack said it depends on the issue, that DOT determines whether to adjust on a case-by-case basis.

The Committee on Governmental Operations also considered one bill proposal, sponsored by Council Member Robert Holden. Holden’s bill would require 311 to indicate if an agency is unable to respond to a service request or complaint. Morrisroe said that his agency “cannot support the bill’s intent in its current form.” He explained that the bill “would drastically change 311’s operations and would not allow it to fulfill its role of providing New Yorkers with the information they seek or help them submit and monitor their service request.” Morrisroe asserted that providing this information would go beyond 311’s “core competency” of making referrals to other city agencies. The bill was laid over by the committee, perhaps for tweaking or further consideration in the future.

Council Member Kalman Yeger voiced his frustration with the city agencies present, saying that 311 was not at fault, but the agencies are failing, calling it “a management problem at every agency.” He expressed particular frustration over the fix rate for rodent problem complaints, which is currently 30%. He said rodent complaints should have a “100% success rate and a picture of the dead rat in the response.” He ended his remarks (he didn’t ask any questions) by telling the officials present to “go back today to the office and say ‘that crazy guy from Brooklyn once again is letting loose with his microphone and maybe we could figure out a way that we don’t have this again.’”

Two agencies notably not represented at the hearing were the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Department of Sanitation, a fact noted by Holden. These two agencies interact most with the public, he said, so their responses to 311 complaints need to be reviewed. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Holden said in the hearing, about the absences of the NYPD and Sanitation.

During the hearing, Johnson did say that “despite these troubling issues, we do see some very positive things,” highlighting Sanitation for its clarity and responsiveness.

[Read: City’s 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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What's The [Data] Point? $92.2 Billion, Mayor de Blasio's Preliminary Budget


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What's The [Data] Point? Episode 65 -- $92.2 billion, Mayor de Blasio's Preliminary Budget, with Sally Goldenberg [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

sally goldenberg wtdp

Mayor de Blasio released his $92.2 billion preliminary budget plan for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1 of this year, and Sally Goldenberg of Politico New York joined the podcast to break it down and preview what's next in city and state budget deliberations.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications


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Council Members Lander, Torres, Barron & others (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The Civic Engagement Commission that city voters approved in November is now accepting applications from New Yorkers interesting in serving on the panel that will help craft strategies for getting more residents of the five boroughs engaged in civic life. Though appointments to the commission will be made by top city elected officials, the open application process allows regular New Yorkers to throw their names and resumes into the pool of candidates for placement on the commission that will deal with things like citywide participatory budgeting and election poll-site translation services.

The commission, which is scheduled to be empaneled on April 1, will consist of 15 members: eight appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council speaker, and one by each of the borough presidents. The initial appointees will have either two- or four-year terms to stagger subsequent appointments; later members will serve four-year terms, with the exception of the chair, who would serve at the mayor’s discretion. The commission was created out of a proposal from a Charter Revision Commission empaneled last year by Mayor Bill de Blasio that put three questions on the November ballot, all of which were approved.

New Yorkers have until February 22 to apply through a fairly simple online form that asks several questions about the applicant’s interest in the commission and relevant experience, with a function for uploading a resume. Potential applicants are reminded that the purpose of the commission is “to enhance civic participation in order to enhance civic trust and strengthen democracy in New York City,” and that the commission will do its own work while also partnering with public and private entities to help foster civic engagement across the city.

Applicants are told to “please take note that an application submitted on this site may not be the only method by which candidates for appointment are identified by the appointing authorities, including the Mayor, and does not create a right to any further process or to appointment to the Commission or to any other City position.”

City Council Member Brad Lander, who had introduced legislation to create a similar entity, an office of civic engagement, and championed the Civic Engagement Commission put forward by the mayor's charter revision commission, sent out an e-mail blast to his constituents on Thursday celebrating the launch of the commission and application process, and encouraging people to apply.

"I’m pleased to report that it’s getting started in the right way, with openness and participation," Lander wrote, noting that "unlike any other citywide board or commission" the Civic Engagement Commission has an open application process. "The Civic Engagement Commission has the potential to breathe new life into our local democracy," Lander wrote. "If you know someone with great experience and relationships, who’d make a difference as a commissioner, please encourage them to apply. We are, of course, looking for a Commission that is as diverse as New York."

While many of the commission’s endeavors will be determined by its members, some are prescribed, chief among them a new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding a program that currently exists in 34 of 51 City Council districts at the discretion of local Council members.

Participatory budgeting, first used in New York City in 2011 when four Council members used some of their discretionary funds for the program, allows residents to propose and vote for specific projects in their district to be financed via capital funds allocated to Council members. At least $1 million per district is budgeted via direct democracy, and residents have funded projects ranging from fixing school bathrooms to mobile showers for use by homeless people, among many other projects.

The commission would be required to develop the program by the start of Fiscal Year 2021 on July 1, 2020, when the mayor would implement it.

The commission’s other initially-delegated tasks include improving language access for New Yorkers at poll sites and in other city programs, assisting and training newly term-limited community boards, and partnering with community organizations in their own efforts at enhanced civic engagement. The commission will also develop new civic engagement initiatives in the years to come.

There are few restrictions on who can apply or be appointed to the commission. An applicant must be a resident of the city and a U.S. citizen, and cannot be an “officer of a political party” or a candidate for various elected offices, from mayor to borough president to City Council. The commission seeks candidates “who are representative of, or have experience working with” immigrants and those with limited English proficiency.

With the exception of the city’s non-citizen population, the commission is essentially open to anyone. The report by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission last year said that, besides the immigrant and non-English-proficient communities, the panel would seek applicants representative of “people with disabilities, students, youth, seniors, veterans, community groups, good government groups, civil rights advocates, and categories of residents that are historically underrepresented in or underserved by City government.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this story.



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