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What's The [Data] Point? $31.8 billion in NYCHA need, with Sean Campion


whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 47 -- $31.8 billion, with Sean Campion [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

sean campion wtdp2

NYCHA needs about $32 billion in upgrades over five years to enter a state of good repair. The housing authority is in nothing short of a crisis, both in terms of its overall needs, which have been building for decades, and the recent lead paint scandal, which has led to a federal consent decree with the city and incoming federal monitor. Just after the new NYCHA needs assessment and its $32 billion price tag was recently released, Citizens Budget Commission released its own report about NYCHA's dire situation and where the authority must go to have a chance to survive. The report's author, Sean Campion, joined the podcast to discuss CBC's findings and recommendations. 

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
     

Read more by this writer.

The July Financial Picture for Former Breakaway Democrats and Their Primary Challengers


liu and ramos via jessicaramos

John Liu and Jessica Ramos (photo: @JessicaRamos)


The deadline for candidates for state office to file their latest campaign finance disclosures with the state Board of Elections was Monday, July 16. The disclosures show candidate fundraising and expenditures from the last six months, from January to July.

All 213 seats in the state Legislature -- 150 Assembly and 63 Senate -- are on the ballot this year, but few incumbents face competitive races. The state Assembly is overwhelmingly composed of Democrats, most of whom do not have a primary challenger. The state Senate, however, has become a battleground for control between Democrats and Republicans, with Democratic conference members holding 31 seats and Republican conference members 32 seats. After a Democratic unity deal in April, bringing a rogue group of eight “independent” Democrats back into the mainline conference, Republicans continued to hold power over the chamber with the help of Senator Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat from Brooklyn who professes no loyalty to political parties and only votes on policies that he believes suit his district’s interests.

In eight races, incumbent Democratic Senators who were once part of the Independent Democratic Conference -- a breakaway group that caucused with Republicans and helped them hold the majority -- face primary contests from progressive challengers. Those challengers are buoyed by an increasingly aware, angry, and active Democratic base that is set on removing the former IDC members from office.

Those former IDC members, led by Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, continue to face criticism over their alliance with Republicans and the progressive legislation and budgeting that it may have held up. The challengers and those supporting them have gained momentum following the recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated ten-term U.S. Representative Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th congressional district. Notably, Crowley had helped brokered the reunification of the Senate Democrats, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo and other top party officials. Cuomo is himself facing a spirited primary challenge from actor and activist Cynthia Nixon.

The former IDC Senators include six representing parts of New York City: Tony Avella of District 11 in Queens, Jose Peralta of District 13 in Queens, Jesse Hamilton of District 20 in Brooklyn, Diane Savino of District 23 in Staten Island and Brooklyn, Marisol Alcantara of District 31 in Manhattan, and Klein of District 34 the Bronx and Westchester, as well as David Carlucci of District 38 and David Valesky of District 53, both north of the five boroughs.

While fundraising numbers only tell a portion of the story of a campaign or a race, campaign finance filings help indicate where candidate support comes from and what resources a candidate has to help get his or her message out to voters. Challengers to the IDC veterans were eager to tout their number of low-dollar donations as indicative of grassroots support, while the incumbents often posted healthy coffers, though possibly tainted by money transferred from a party account ruled in violation of election law.

District 11
Former New York City Comptroller John Liu launched a late-stage challenge against Sen. Avella, jumping into the race earlier this month in time to petition his way onto the ballot. Liu has yet to raise funds for the race but he has an open campaign account, likely from his previous attempt to unseat Avella in 2014, with a little more than $3,000 in cash on hand as of January. Liu won 47 percent of the vote that year, just after he had lost in the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City in 2013.

Avella, whose district covers who represents northeastern Queens, raised nearly $147,000 in the last six months, of which $68,000 was transferred from the Senate Independence Campaign Committee fund set up by the then-IDC and the Independence Party. A state court ruled last month that the joint fundraising arrangement was illegal, and the transfers could possibly even violate contribution limits established in election law. Avella spent about $80,000 over the filing period and has a balance of about $170,000 in his campaign account.

District 13
One of the Democrats likely most affected by Crowley’s loss is Sen. Peralta, who is relying on the support of the Queens Democratic Party -- chaired by Crowley -- to help him retain his seat in northern Queens. With the party having lost the sheen of immense power, some Queens Democratic insiders say it could affect the candidates who have received its endorsement.

Peralta has raised $322,000 and spent $297,000 of it since January. The SICC was more generous with him, transferring $113,500 to his campaign, with the most recent check having been sent just last week. He has about $182,000 remaining in his campaign account.

Peralta is being challenged by Jessica Ramos, a former aide to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Ramos raised $171,000 over the last six months and has spent $102,000 of it. She has just about $99,000 in cash on hand. In publicizing her haul, Ramos promoted the fact that she had raised most of the funds, about $129,000, from more than 1,400 individual donors, contrasting it with Peralta’s 238 individual donors who gave him about $69,000.

District 20
Sen. Hamilton, who represents parts of central Brooklyn, pulled in about $295,000 for his reelection bid and spent $202,000. As with the other IDC senators, the SICC gave him a major boost with $109,700 transferred to his account. He has about $212,000 left to spend.

Hamilton’s challenger is Zellnor Myrie, an attorney from Brooklyn. Myrie raised $163,000 in this filing period and spent about $96,000. He has just under $156,000 left in cash on hand. Myrie had more than 4,400 individual donors accounting for 98 percent of his fundraising haul, a fact he highlighted while pointing out that Hamilton had only 243 individual donors.

District 23
The district covers Staten Island’s northern shore and parts of southern Brooklyn and is represented by Sen. Savino. The senator hauled in $451,000, of which $270,000 was transferred from an earlier campaign account to a new one. She spent $193,000 in the same period and has $259,000 left in her campaign account.

Savino’s primary challenger, community activist Jasmine Robinson, has not yet filed her disclosure with the BOE. She said in an email that her campaign received an extension and will file the report next week.

District 31
Sen. Alcantara, who is running for a second term, represents a district that covers long stretches of the west side of Manhattan. The incumbent, who narrowly won a tight three-way race in 2016, raised $116,000, which was outpaced by her $130,000 in expenditures. She also had the benefit of receiving $66,000 from the SICC. She has about $132,000 in cash on hand.

Alcantara is facing Robert Jackson, a former City Council member who unsuccessfully challenged her in the 2016 primary for District 31. Jackson raised more than $156,000 and spent about $103,000. He has $157,000 remaining in his account.

District 34
District 34 spans across Westchester and parts of the Bronx, and is currently held by Sen. Klein. As the former leader of the IDC, Klein played a powerful role in the state Legislature for more than seven years and was one of the proverbial ‘four men in a room’ who decide the state budget, along with the governor, Senate majority leader, and Assembly speaker. As part of the Democratic reunification deal, Klein assumed the position of deputy to the Democratic conference leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

jeff klein campaign kickoff

Klein raised nearly $740,000 -- $200,000 from the SICC -- between January and July and spent $613,000. He has a whopping balance of $2.1 million, having built up his campaign warchest over the last several years.

Alessandra Biaggi is the upstart candidate taking on Klein in the primary. Biaggi’s latest filings were not available on the BOE website but her campaign said she had raised $260,000 and had about $50,000 in expenditures.

District 38
Sen. Carlucci, who represents Rockland County and parts of Westchester, raised $114,000 for reelection and spent only $32,000. He received $26,000 from the SICC. He has a balance of more than $440,000.

Carlucci’s opponent is Julie Goldberg, whose disclosures were not available with the BOE. Goldberg’s campaign manager, Susanne Kernan, pointed to technical issues with the submission and provided the filings to Gotham Gazette. They showed nearly $17,000 in contributions and and about $4,000 in expenditures, leaving her a balance of under $13,000.

District 53
The district spans Madison County and parts of Onondaga and Oneida, and is represented by Sen. Valesky. He raised $126,000 and spent about $74,000 in the last six months. The SICC gave him $36,000. He has $665,000 remaining in his campaign account.

Valesky’s opponent, Rachel May, raised $84,000 and had expenses worth about $38,000. She has $81,000 in cash on hand.

[Read: New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing]

Other Senate Primaries To Watch
District 22
Democrats see an opportunity this year to unseat Brooklyn Sen. Marty Golden, one of the few Republican elected officials in New York City. His district is situated in southern Brooklyn covering the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Marine Park, and Gerritsen Beach. Golden raised about $32,000 and has spent more than $125,000 since January. But he maintains a healthy campaign account, with $485,000 in cash on hand.

Two Democrats are competing in the September 13 primary -- Andrew Gounardes, who was an aide to former City Council Member Vincent Gentile, and Ross Barkan, a journalist-turned-candidate. The winner will take on Golden in the general election.

Gounardes raised $124,000 and spent $47,000, and had a closing balance of $181,000. Barkan raised about $71,000 and spent $66,000. He has about $59,000 remaining.

District 17
Felder’s role in propping up the Senate Republicans has prompted a primary challenge from attorney Blake Morris.

Felder represents the neighborhoods of Borough Park, Midwood, and parts of Flatbush, Kensington, Sunset Park, and Sheepshead Bay. The senator is well resourced, having raised more than $430,000 since January and having spent about $110,000. He has a balance of $637,000, far surpassing his opponent.

Morris had raised $41,000 by the Monday deadline and had spent $31,000 of it. He has a little over $10,000 in his campaign account with under two months till the primary.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Sen. Jeff Klein's fundraising and expenditure over the last six months. The numbers previously included were from his latest disclosure report which only showed his campaign finance activity since May. 

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report


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Mayor de Blasio votes (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


With less than two months left to complete its work, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission released a preliminary report on Tuesday outlining five broad issue areas -- campaign finance, municipal elections, civic engagement, community boards, and redistricting -- that it will continue to explore in public hearings and community events over the next two weeks.

The report was prepared by the commission staff after two initial rounds of hearings held in the last three months across the city at which members of the public, advocacy groups, subject matter experts, and elected officials recommended improvements to the City Charter. “New Yorkers have been engaged since the start of this process and this report reflects the wide range of issues we discussed in all five boroughs,” said Cesar Perales, commission chair, in a statement.

Though the commission was empowered to examine the entire charter, it closely followed the mayor’s brief in empaneling it: that it look at improving electoral participation and reducing the effects of money in city elections. At a meeting on Tuesday at Pratt University, the commission members discussed their positions and concerns on the staff report. 

An outline of the commission report was provided to Gotham Gazette and other news outlets Monday evening. To reform the campaign finance system, the staff recommends in its report that the commission should consider ballot proposals to lower donor campaign contribution limits and enhance the Campaign Finance Board’s voluntary public matching funds program, which currently matches small-dollar contributions at a 6-to-1 ratio and is seen as a national model. The CFB caps the amount of matching funds a participating candidate can receive at 55 percent of the spending limit for the position they are seeking. The report recommends a proposal to increase that cap. Those suggestions are in line with the ones made by the CFB to the commission.  

Carlo Scissura, secretary of the commission, urged caution about the level of increase in matching funds, noting that more and more candidates run for office each election cycle. "Let’s be careful of the city budget," he said. Commissioner John Siegal worried that lowering contribution limits could affect people's First Amendment rights and could only be justified with a "compelling anti-corruption rationale", while Commissioner Sharon Greenberger said the commission should carefully consider the timing of rolling out changes to the campaign finance system.  

The staff report is less definitive on improving municipal elections through voting reforms, urging the commission to continue reviewing proposals such as instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, and improved language assistance services. Perales said there was no unanimity among his colleagues on instant runoffs. Some found it "intriguing" while others like Commissioner Larian Angelo wanted more data on its benefits and drawbacks. Perales also noted that the commission can do little to change election law, which falls under state jurisdiction. "This is going to be a tough one," he conceded. 

Voter participation could also be improved through civic engagement, the report states. The commission has been assessing a proposal, put forward by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander, to create a new Citywide Office of Civic Engagement. At hearings, commission members have spoken of the idea approvingly, and the staff report suggests that they evaluate how that office would function, how it would be structured and whether it can bolster the city’s DemocracyNYC and participatory budgeting programs. On Tuesday, though, Perales said it was another area where the commission lacked consensus. Scissura, for instance, said he was "a fan of less bureaucracy," and did not support the creation of a new office. Participatory budgeting was a more popular subject, with a few commissioners agreeing to explore ways to expand it across the city. 

On community boards, the staff recommends term limits that can diversify board composition, a standardized appointment process, increased resources, and ensuring representative membership. Commissioner Marco Carrion, who is also Commissioner of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, said Tuesday that the commission report was a "very good starting point" on how to democratize community boards.

The most complex and perhaps most politically charged question before the commission was whether they could make improvements to the process of redistricting City Council boundaries. There are currently 51 Council districts across the five boroughs, the lines of which will be impacted by the next U.S. Census, set for 2020. But, the charter commission may recommend to voters a change to the redistricting process, which could even include changing the number of Council districts.

The charter commission report does not take a hard position on redistricting other than recommending that the commission keep studying it, keeping in mind “procedures to address the effects of the redistricting process on the voting power of racial and ethnic minority groups,” including perhaps independent review mechanisms. The report also underscores the importance of limiting the role of elected officials in districting commissions and putting in place plans to mitigate the effects of a potential undercount in the 2020 census from the addition of a citizenship question by the Trump administration, a plan that is currently the subject of litigation. On Tuesday, it was clear that the commissioners were not in full agreement. Commissioner Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, stressed that redistricting needs to be "more inclusive" to reflect the city's diversity, and Perales said the commissioners "need to see alternatives" to the current process to make an informed decision. 

“This preliminary staff report reflects a focus on civic life and democracy in New York City — a theme that is particularly appropriate and relevant in contemporary times,” said Matt Gewolb, executive director of the commission, in a statement.

The commission’s final report is expected by the end of August and its proposals, which will be presented as ballot referenda in the November general election, are due by September 7 at the latest. The mayor’s commission is also distinct from another one created through legislation by the New York City Council, which held its first meeting on Monday evening at City Hall and aims to put its proposals on the November 2019 ballot.

[Read: Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with coverage of the commission's meeting on Tuesday, July 17.  

City Council Investigating Diaz Sr.'s Use of Government Email for Political Messages


Ruben Diaz Sr. City Council

CM Diaz Sr., standing (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York City Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics held a hearing on Monday concerning Bronx Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr. and his alleged use of government email to send out political messages to colleagues and staffers across the Council, three knowledgeable sources told Gotham Gazette.

The Standard and Ethics committee, chaired by Staten Island Council Member Steven Matteo, would not reveal the subject of Monday’s hearing and only noted on its agenda that the hearing was about Section 10.80 of the Council rules, which covers “disorderly behavior” including “willful violation or evasion of any provision of law relating to such Member’s discharge of his or her official duties; commission of fraud upon the City; conversion of public property to such Member’s own use; knowingly permitting or allowing by gross culpable conduct, any other person to convert public property; or violation of the Speaker’s policy or policies against discrimination and harassment.”

The committee met Monday at City Hall and immediately went into closed session, emerging to divulge that it would indeed further investigate an allegation of impropriety, but without providing details as to the member, the subject matter at hand, or how it had come to the committee's attention.

Members of the Council are bound by the city’s Conflicts of Interest law, contained in Chapter 68 of the City Charter, which prohibits city officials from using government time and resources for campaign-related purposes. According to one Council source who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely, Diaz Sr. has frequently sent out emails from his government account with his thoughts on issues he has worked on and those emails often crossed the line into political activity. A second Council source confirmed that the hearing was about Diaz Sr. and his emails, while a third said Diaz Sr. was the subject of the committee hearing, having to do with use of government resources for political purposes.

The emails mirror Diaz Sr.’s “What You Should Know” dispatches that he sent out when he was a state Senator, before being elected to the Council in 2017, and that he continues to publish occasionally in The Bronx Chronicle. The Council member did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

Just last week, on July 10, the first Council source said, Diaz Sr. sent out an email blast of a column that essentially read as an endorsement of Governor Cuomo and criticized his primary challenger, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. The email was among those published as an op-ed in The Bronx Chronicle and was headlined, “The Christians Should Be Upset With Cuomo, Not The Gay Community.”

In it, Diaz Sr. praised the governor’s efforts, along with former state Senator Tom Duane, to pass marriage equality in the state Senate. Cuomo “went out of his way” to bring Republican Senators on board, Diaz Sr. wrote. “Now, a member of the LGBTQ community and other leaders of the community are going all the way to kick Governor Cuomo out of the Governorship. After what he did, this is what he is getting in return? It is mind-boggling,” he added.

Diaz Sr., who is a pastor, mentioned his own role in opposing the marriage equality bill. “I could understand gays getting angry at me, spending their money trying to get me out and launching all kinds of political diatribes against me. Because as a legislator, pastor and minister, I was the one opposing gay marriage. But attacking Governor Cuomo and going after him? I don’t understand that,” he wrote.

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson declined comment for this article. The most recent Council action on standards and ethics found a substantiated claim of sexual harassment against Bronx Council Member Andy King, whom the committee found had made repeated unwanted advances toward a Council aide. King was ordered to undergo additional training.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed reporting.

What's The [Data] Point? 1,441, with Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett


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What's The [Data] Point? Episode 46 -- 1,441, with Dr. Mary Bassett, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

wtpd dr bassett w maria and ben

Dr. Mary Bassett is the city's health commissioner, a position she has held since 2014, when newly-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her. Her portfolio includes helping New Yorkers achieve better health practices and outcomes, fighting the opioid addiction epidemic, combatting lead poisoning of children, and more. She joined the podcast to discuss some of her efforts to improve health equity in New York City.

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
     

Read more by this writer.

City Council Progressive Caucus Urges Cuomo to Sign Bill Creating Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission


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City Council Progressive Caucus (photo via Progressive Caucus website)


The Progressive Caucus of the New York City Council sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo urging him to sign a bill, passed at the end of the legislative session in June, which would create a new state commission on prosecutorial misconduct. The caucus, which includes 21 of the Council’s 51 members, referred to the bill as “the most substantive criminal justice reform passed in the state this year.”

The state bill passed with bipartisan support in both the Assembly and the Senate, and awaits Cuomo’s signature or veto. The commission, consisting of eleven judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys appointed by the state’s chief judge, the governor, and legislative leaders, would be empowered to investigate and recommend disciplinary action against prosecutors in the state accused of misconduct. The commission would be similar in structure and purpose to a commission established in the 1970s to investigate misconduct claims by judges.

Cuomo has not indicated whether he supports the legislation or not, and the state district attorneys association has called it unconstitutional and threatened to sue if the governor does sign it into law. The commission would have oversight of the state’s 62 district attorneys and their assistant district attorneys.

The letter from the Council’s Progressive Caucus notes that, according to the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations, New York is fourth in the nation for wrongful convictions, behind California, Illinois, and Texas.

“Across the United States there is a growing crisis of confidence in prosecutors as the role District Attorneys, historically, played in driving mass incarceration has become better understood by the public,” the letter reads. “The exonerations of wrongfully convicted people have sometimes exposed egregious misconduct by prosecutors, many of whom remain working as lawyers today.”

Misconduct can take various forms, including failure to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense, intimidation of defendants or witnesses by police, and knowing submission of false testimony. Oftentimes, these occurrences can lead to false convictions, including for serious crimes that carry long sentences. In 2017, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded 13 exonerations in New York State, for individuals who had served as little as one year to as long as 28 years for crimes they did not commit. So far in 2018, 12 exonerations have been recorded.

False convictions are such an issue in New York that some district attorneys have formed entire units within their offices dedicated solely to examining past convictions and their validity. The Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit, for instance, requested 24 exonerations for wrongfully-convicted defendants between its creation in February 2014 and December 2017.

The bill is strongly supported by defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates, but is sharply opposed by district attorneys throughout the state. The Staten Island District Attorney told Gotham Gazette in June that oversight measures, such as grievance committees, already exist, and that the bill would hinder the ability of prosecutors to do their jobs and “potentially threaten the safety of those we are sworn to protect.”

The grievance committees, which are bodies within appellate divisions that serve to investigate and censure both prosecutors and defense attorneys, have been characterized as toothless by advocates of the bill on both sides of the aisle, and criminal justice reform writ large. The Progressive Caucus wrote that the committee system in place has “not curbed bad behavior” among prosecutors, and that discipline is a rarity.

“Public officials entrusted with incredible power should be held to the highest of standards,” reads the letter, signed by 12 members of the caucus. “Instead prosecutors have come to expect that there will be no punishment even following a judicial finding of egregious misconduct.”

(Read the full letter here)

The grievance committees rarely discipline prosecutors, but frequently discipline defense attorneys or other attorneys in private practice. In 2016, the First Appellate Division’s Grievance Committee, which covers Manhattan and the Bronx, disbarred 30 attorneys, suspended ten, and publicly censured six; none were prosecutors. When prosecutors are disciplined, sanctioned, and disbarred, it tends to make the news, as occurred with former St. Lawrence County DA Mary Rain.

The Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, meanwhile, told Gotham Gazette that previous working groups, including one led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, found no evidence of “rampant prosecutorial misconduct.”

David Soares, the Albany District Attorney and the new president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY), told host Susan Arbetter of the Capitol Pressroom radio show in June that DAASNY would sue the state if Cuomo signs the bill into law.

For the Council’s Progressive Caucus, a majority in favor leads to an action like the letter. It was signed by caucus Co-chair Ben Kallos and fellow Council Members Jumaane Williams, Anonion Reynoso, Brad LAnder, Carlos Menchaca, Keith Powers, Deborah Rose, Daneek Miller, Justin Brannan, Steve Levin, Carlina Rivera, and Alicka Ampry-Samuel.

Notably, the non-signers of the caucus include Council Speaker Corey Johnson, caucus co-chair Diana Ayala, and public safety committee chair Donovan Richards.

A spokesperson for Richards told Gotham Gazette that Richards is in support of the bill, but was unable to sign it because Richards was out of town when the letter was sent. “I am absolutely in support of creating a state commission to look into prosecutorial misconduct,” he said. “In order to truly reform our criminal justice system, we must root out misconduct in all levels of law enforcement.”

A representative for Johnson did not return a request for comment, while Ayala’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Representatives for Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Mark Levine, among the other members of the Progressive Caucus who did not sign the letter, told Gotham Gazette that they support the bill.

Governor Cuomo has not signaled whether he intends to sign the bill or not. Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said that the governor’s office is still reviewing it.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Scott Stringer on His ‘Agency Watch List,’ De Blasio’s Housing Plan & Restructuring NYCHA


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Comptroller Scott Stringer and Deputy Comptroller Marjorie Landau (photo: @NYCComptroller)


Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s chief fiscal officer who placed three city agencies on a new “watch list” in February due to concerns about their escalating spending and questionable return on investment, said recently that his office will be holding public hearings to provide stronger oversight, better transparency, and more urgency for reforms.

“We need more robust public hearings to the agencies, we need to demand more accountability from our government, and if we’re really going to be a progressive government, we need to ask whether the programs we’re putting forth are meeting the needs of struggling New Yorkers,” Stringer said during a recent appearance on the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission. “I’m going to continue to think about ways the comptroller’s office can hold these agencies accountable.”

During the discussion, Stringer not only explained his watch list, but also repeatedly criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio over what Stringer sees as an insufficient affordable housing plan; explained his belief that New York City public housing needs a new management structure; and said that the city is not budgeting responsibly.

As part of his analysis of the city budget, Stringer singled out the Department of Homeless Services, Department of Education, and Department of Correction as agencies whose spending was of most concern, forming his initial “watch list,” which includes a new web portal with detailed information about the three and plans for more robust examination of their spending and effectiveness.

In addition to public hearings, Stringer’s office inspects agencies through audits, investigations, and reports. The comptroller’s office is also responsible for approving contracts that city agencies enter with outside vendors. While Stringer mentioned on the podcast a general plan to hold his own public hearings on the watch list agencies, his office declined to provide more information in response to follow-up questions.

Stringer included the Department of Homeless Services on his watch list after determining that despite citywide spending for homelessness across all agencies more than doubling from $1.1 billion in 2013 to an anticipated $2.6 billion in 2019, the number of individuals living in shelters has grown from 49,000 in 2013 to more than 61,000 in early 2018.  

Stringer said unravelling the homeless crisis in New York City starts with taking accountability for unnecessary expenditures.

“I think we have to look at changing policy and I think we have to look at making sure every dollar counts because if we continue to house people in commercial hotels that cost $100 million and if we continue to stuff people into these terribly conditioned homeless shelters, that’s the core of what we believe in that has to change,” Stringer said. “Budgets are priorities, but you have to be smart about expenditure and analyze whether that money is doing the right thing by the people.”

While Mayor Bill de Blasio has put a variety of plans in place to combat homelessness, it has been one of the central struggles of his time in office. Stringer and de Blasio are both Democrats who were elected to their current positions in 2013 and reelected in 2017. They will both be term-limited out of office at the end of 2021; Stringer is widely expected to run for mayor in the upcoming election cycle.

When resetting his approach to homelessness a second time, in early 2017, de Blasio announced a plan to open 90 new shelters while leaving notoriously troubled cluster site shelter apartments and expensive commercial hotels. He also said the plan, which includes ongoing and enhanced mechanisms like rental subsidies and free lawyers for housing court, would result in a very modest decrease in the homeless population.

"What is the plan to really reduce homelessness?,” Stringer said. “Do not even say to me that, well, ‘our plan is to reduce homelessness by 2,500 in five years.’ At the cost of $3 billion? You’ve got to be kidding me. I mean everybody wake up here."

As for the Department of Education, another “watch list” agency, Stringer’s office has found that the DOE was spending inefficiently and he has questioned its ballooning central staff. In a trial test of eight schools, Comptroller audits found that one third of computer hardware was unaccounted for with no follow-up actions to implement basic controls. Stringer’s staff also discovered that despite a $1 billion investment in high-speed broadband, one in three teachers are still displeased with the service. Moreover, in what Stinger’s office called “a rampant waste and lack of accountability,” $2.7 billion in no-bid contracts were doled out by DOE.

“I don’t want to see a 24% increase in administrative costs at DOE,” Stringer said on the podcast. “I want money to go into the classroom.”

Stringer included the Department of Correction on his watch list in order to highlight increases in spending and violence despite a decrease in inmate populations at city jails. Since 2008, the average daily inmate population dropped from 13,850 to 9,500 in 2017 (and as of July 2, it was just about 8,200). However, the average annual cost to house an inmate more than doubled over that same period. Over the last decade, the number of violent incidents at city jails more than tripled.

“At Department of Correction, this is something amazing, population is going down, but violence is going up,” Stringer said on the podcast. “And now we’re spending $270,000 a year [per inmate] on holding 9,000 inmates on Rikers Island. OK, this is madness.”

The agency watch list relates to overall budgeting by the mayor and the City Council, and to the effectiveness of spending on key city services, as well as how much the city is spending overall, its long-term financial commitments, and its reserves. Mayor de Blasio and the Council recently passed an $89.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2019, which began July 1. The size of the city budget has increased dramatically under de Blasio, and Stringer has been sounding alarm bells all along about the rate of spending, the lack of a recommended savings program that was used under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and potentially insufficient reserves for the inevitable economic downturn.

On the podcast, Stringer said the city’s projected “budget cushion” — reserves as a percentage of city operating expenses — must be bolstered.

“I do think that there’s been a lost opportunity as it relates to putting more money aside for a rainy day,” Stringer said. “And we have now a record budget of $89 billion...I think we are going down a road that could cost us or hurt in the long run.”

The current budget reserves are about 9 percent of projected 2019 spending, about $8.5 billion in reserves, lower than what Stringer says is the optimal range of 12 to 18 percent. The “budget cushion” debate is a long-running one between the mayor and the comptroller. De Blasio has repeatedly stated that the city has “record” reserves, which is true in terms of absolute numbers, but as a percentage of spending, Stringer remains concerned.

Reserves are vital, Stringer explains, because when crisis inevitably hits the city, it often hurts the most vulnerable people, which was was the case after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, he said. Stringer has called on de Blasio to compel his agency commissioner to “scrub” their departments for savings, recommending the type of program Bloomberg used where he insisted on commissioners identify a certain percentage of their budgets for slashing, even if the cuts were not followed through on. De Blasio has not required this of his agency heads, instead instituting a voluntary savings program.

“Well, let’s go scrub the agencies for efficiencies,” Stringer said on the podcast. “That’s something that hasn’t happened in four years. Lets go agency by agency. Say to commissioners, ‘Look, there’s new technology. You haven’t looked at how to save money in an agency in four years.’ Previous mayors used to scrub those budgets and say, ‘Hold on with those expenses.’ That’s one way to do it. The city, the mayor’s refused to do that, I disagree with him. Get in there, get those savings, put is aside for that rainy day.”

As for de Blasio’s affordable housing plan -- which seeks to build or preserve 300,000 rent-regulated units by 2026 -- Stringer had perhaps his harshest words.

"There’s no real affordable housing plan to meet the needs the poorest New Yorkers," Stringer told podcast hosts Maria Doulis and Ben Max. “[W]e need a robust new housing plan," Stringer said.

"We need to think about a new subsidy program. Problem is, right now, for-profit developers is a lot of cases are, yes, they're building more density, and bigger projects in places in Brooklyn like East New York, but the reality is the affordable housing that they’re proposing, the [affordability] is not reflective of the population of the community, so the affordability is not affordable in the community, and we are gentrifying people out of the communities they built,” Stringer said.

And on the New York City Housing Authority, NYCHA, home to more than 400,000 residents of public housing that is falling apart and in need of more than $30 billion of repairs and upgrades, Stringer said it is time to change the governance model.

"That’s why I said to all who would listen, that we need to change the management structure at NYCHA,” Stringer said on the podcast. “It is abysmal. You’ve got a seven member board that doesn’t know what’s up. You’ve got a Chair, and then a [general] manager -- depending on the politics within NYCHA, one has power, the other one doesn’t, vice versa. Even in this crisis, you know, we don’t have a counsel, a chief financial officer in NYCHA, these positions are going unfilled, there’s no capacity in NYCHA.”

“I mean look, City Hall, wake up, do your part,” Stringer said, to ensure there’s “a structure in place” to oversee spending of billions of dollars and work with the federal monitor that will soon be hired based on a consent decree the city has entered with federal investigators. “But at the end of the day, the monitor doesn’t run it, management runs it, so we need one Chair, one person in charge,” Stringer continued. “Also, this is a time to get private industry involved, let’s get the best in the business from around the city, from all walks of life to begin looking at this amazing challenge before NYCHA falls apart.”

De Blasio’s office declined to respond to the comptroller’s criticisms and proposals.

***
by Jordan Kimmel, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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City Council Charter Revision Commission Takes Shape


gg city council hearing committee

(Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)


The New York City Council’s commission to review the city charter -- a separate effort from an existing commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio -- has been fully appointed and is set to begin its work next Monday, July 16.

The City Council passed a bill in April, spearheaded by Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to create a commission to analyze the city’s governing document and recommend potentially significant changes to the structure and functions of city government. Although any such commission is allowed to consider the entire composition of the city charter, Brewer, James, and Johnson have pointed to a few broad priority areas including improving the city’s land use policies, strengthening the City Council’s ‘advise and consent’ role in approving mayoral appointees to city agencies and commissions, enhancing the Council’s power over city budgeting, and implementing stronger oversight of the mayoral administration.

At a March 17 hearing on the bill, James emphasized that the commission could achieve groundbreaking improvements similar to the 1989 charter commission that upended the entire structure of city government. She contrasted it with the mayor’s approach, which she said suffers from “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.”

The Council’s commission, composed of 15 members, is meant to carry out its work over the next 16 months, presenting ballot referenda to voters during the November 2019 general election. The mayor’s commission, created by de Blasio through an executive order, has a shorter timeline and a narrower brief, and will be proposing its own recommendations on Election Day this year.

The Council commission’s members include four appointees of the speaker, including the chair, four mayoral appointees, and one each chosen by the public advocate, the comptroller, and the five borough presidents.

Johnson picked Gail Benjamin, the former director of the Council’s land use division, to serve as commission chair. His other appointees include Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former de Blasio deputy mayor and the former chair of NYC Health+Hospitals, the city’s municipal hospital system; Rev. Clinton Miller, pastor at Brown Memorial Baptist Church; and Merryl Tisch, the former chancellor of the state Board of Regents and current vice chair of the SUNY board of trustees.

“The appointment of these members of the Charter Revision Commission is the first step towards bringing the City Charter into the 21st century,” said Johnson in a statement announcing the full commission. “All of these individuals represent civic engagement at its best, and I am so grateful for the time they are giving to make our city a better place…The City Charter is in good hands.”

In a phone interview, Benjamin said she was "excited" about leading the commission. "This is kind of the culmination of my career as a government official,” she said. Benjamin drew a distinction between the work she will oversee and that of the mayor's commission, which is expected to release its preliminary report soon. “This commission has a much broader mandate than the mayor gave to his commission and I think that all of the 15 members who have been appointed are excited about the broadness of the mandate and the ability to really examine how this city functions governmentally and what we can do to move it into the future," she said.   

Though the two commissions will not overlap substantially, Benjamin said the Council's commission will review the testimony presented to the mayor's commission, as well as the reports and testimony from every commission convened since 1989. "There are lots of issues that [the mayor's] commission, I don’t think, has had the time to really flesh out," she said, citing city procurement practices, non-citizen voting and instant run-off voting as a few examples. "I would think that we would want to look at those kinds of issues also and that we’ll have the time to do that because we’ve got over a year and not just a few months," Benjamin said. 

Mayor de Blasio mostly plucked his Council commission appointees from his own administration. Among them are Lisette Camilo, the commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services; Paula Gavin, the city’s Chief Service Officer who heads up NYC Service, the agency tasked with promoting volunteering efforts; Lindsay Greene, a senior advisor to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen; and former City Planning chief Carl Weisbrod, currently a de Blasio appointee to the MTA board.

Most other elected officials had already announced their selections to the commission or had quietly appointed members with little publicity.   

In late May, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams chose former City Council Member and repeat mayoral contender Sal Albanese to represent him, citing Albanese’s outspoken positions on campaign finance reform. “I have called for, and am reiterating again now, for 100 percent publicly-financed campaigns where every candidate has an equal footing to express their ideas,” Adams had written in testimony at the March hearing before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which was considering the charter commission bill. “Fully publicly-financed elections will see more women running for office at a time when representation in the City Council has decreased since our last election. Fully publicly-financed campaigns have shown to increase minority participation in elected politics. A fully-funded system also takes away the quid pro quo corruption and will help restore faith in our electoral system.”

Albanese, in a statement accompanying his appointment, said, “Charter revision is an opportunity to make our government more democratic and responsive to its citizens.” During his 2017 primary challenge to de Blasio, Albanese’s top policy plank was the “democracy vouchers” program that would drastically reduce the influence of private money in municipal elections.

Last month, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. appointed former City Council Member James Vacca to the commission. “Jimmy has a wealth of experience in government and cares deeply about our borough and our city,” Diaz Jr. tweeted at the time.

More recently, Public Advocate Letitia James tapped Sateesh Nori, a Legal Aid Society attorney, as her representative on the commission. “Mr. Nori brings with him the wisdom and expertise necessary for the role, as well as a lifelong commitment to public service and to his City,” James said in a statement. Comptroller Scott Stringer’s pick was Alison Hirsh, the vice president of 32BJ SEIU, the prominent property services workers union.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer chose her general counsel and director of land use, James Caras, to serve as her representative. “After three decades, it’s time for a thorough, expert review of how our City Charter is serving New Yorkers and how to make our government work better,” Brewer said in Monday’s announcement.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz picked Eduardo Cordero Sr. And Staten Island Borough President James Oddo’s choice is Richmond County Clerk Stephen Fiala, who was previously a City Council member.

While the Council-created commission is about to begin its work and will take an extended timeline before its ballot proposals are announced next year, the mayoral charter revision commission is in the final two months before it makes its recommendations public by early September, in time to be included on the November ballot. That commission recently made clear its areas of focus -- voting and election reform, campaign finance reform, land use decision-making, community boards, civic engagement, and independent redistricting -- and held relevant expert hearings.

[Read: Chair Says Mayoral Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform]

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, July 9


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

As we move past the July Fourth holiday week and into the depths of summer, attention turns squarely to the state-level primary elections that will be voted on September 13. We're just over two months away from those votes, with especially interesting Democratic races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and a number of state legislative seats, especially in the state Senate, most notably the primary challenges to the senators who until April made up the Independent Democratic Conference. We'll know more soon about challengers' efforts to garner enough ballot petition signatures to appear on the September ballot, as those are due to the Board of Elections this week.

While Governor Andrew Cuomo, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and party designee for Attorney General Letitia James were all guaranteed ballot spots becaue of the party convention vote, candidates including Cynthia Nixon, Jumaane Williams, Zephyr Teachout, Leecia Eve, Sean Patrick Maloney, and others had to collect signatures to get their names on the ballot.

We'll also know more this week and into the following about how candidates are doing with raising money, as there is an important filing deadline this week.

Continuing this week are two major federal corruption trials involving state government. One is headlined by Alain Kaloyeros, former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, who Governor Cuomo empowered to run major economic development projects and is accused of rigging bids to favor Cuomo donors. The other is the retrial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Mayor Bill de Blasio returns from a week of (mostly) vacation this week (he briefly flew home to attend a street renaming ceremony for a police officer, Miosotis Familia, killed in the line of duty last ear). There are two major land use decisions coming up that the administration is deeply invested in and worth watching as final negotiations unfold over the coming weeks: efforts to rezone part of Inwood and the rezoning plan to build a tech center in Union Square. Both proposals are still being negotiated with other stakeholders, especially the local City Council members, who will ultimately have significant say over the final details of deals that are reached or over the defeat of the proposals. There is a Tuesday Council hearing on each.

See the day-by-day rundown for the week below -- and check back as we update The Week Ahead from Sunday night through Monday night as additional events are publicized and advised by elected officials, candidates, advocacy groups, and others.

 ***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
This week’s Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits will be recorded and published Monday and will feature Democratic Attorney General candidate Zephyr Teachout.

On Monday at 10:30 a.m. in Jackson Heights, Democratic candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon and state Senate candidate Jessica Ramos will endorse each other. Nixon is attempting to defeat Governor Cuomo and Ramos is attempting to defeat Senator Jose Peralta, a former member of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC, in the September Democratic primaries.

At 2 p.m. Monday, Governor Cuomo will make an announcement at Manny Cantor Center on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will be in attendance.

Mayor de Blasio will make his usual weekly appearance on NY1's Inside City Hall Monday in the 7 and 11 p.m. hours.

Tuesday
Governor Cuomo will hold two Tuesday rallies "to protect reproductive rights." One at 10 a.m. in Yonkers and one at 11:30 a.m. in New Hyde Park.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday outside Grand Central Terminal, leading transit advocacy groups will release the agenda they will urge state-level candidates to adopt this election season. "During a busy campaign season for the governor and state legislature, the city's leading transportation advocacy organizations will unveil for the first time a comprehensive state policy agenda. Highlighting the relationship between transportation and equity, the advocates will encourage candidates for state office to fund badly needed transit improvements with a fair, sustainable and sufficient source of revenue that it's up to state government officials to create. The advocates' 2018 state policy agenda includes funding and implementing the MTA's Fast Forward plan to fix the subway, redesign the bus network, and make transit accessible, adopting the state's Fix NYC panel proposal to raise transit funds by charging cars and trucks to drive in the Manhattan central business district, and enacting fully automated camera enforcement of traffic signals, speed and bus lane restrictions." Participants will include "Leaders and members of transit, environmental and disability rights organizations including the Riders Alliance, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, New York League of Conservation Voters, Regional Plan Association, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, StreetsPAC, Transportation Alternatives, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign."

At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, "Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner O’Neill will hold a media availability on crime statistics. This event is open press. There will be Q-and-A." The event will take place at the 40th Precinct in the Bronx.

"On Tuesday, the First Lady will attend the Gracie Mansion Board of Advisors meeting. This event is closed press."

At noon Tuesday there will be a rally in Foley Square opposing President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Public Advocate Letitia James will be among those speaking.

At the City Council on Tuesday: The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m. and at 1:30 p.m. The committee will hear testimony on the plan to rezone an area in Union Square during the morning meeting and on the plan for part of Inwood during the afternoon meeting. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will testify at both hearings.

At noon on Tuesday, before the Inwood rezoning vote, "Upper Manhattan tenants, faith leaders, workers and small business owners will hold a rally outside City Hall as the New York City Council prepares to hold a hearing on the proposed Inwood NYC neighborhood rezoning. The rezoning has received considerable opposition from the community and local elected officials, with both Manhattan Community Board 12 and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer voting against the proposal at earlier stages in the land use process." Participants will include "Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association, Ft. Washington Collegiate Church, Uptown Community Democrats, Laborers Local 79, Northern Manhattan Community Land Trust, Save Inwood Library, the Inwood Small Business Coalition/Coalicion de Pequenas Empresas de Inwood, Metropolitan Council on Housing, Altagracia Faith & Justice Works, NY State Ironworkers District Council, NYC Community Alliance for Workers Justice, United Auto Merchants, Moving Forward Unidos, Lower Seaman Tenants Association and Inwood Preservation."

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

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 3 will be opened by Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, U.S. Rep Nydia Velazquez, Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, Senator Brian Kavanagh, City Council Member Stephen Levin, and Brooklyn Bridge Park President Eric Landau.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the Four Freedoms Democratic Club will host a forum on the state of the subway “and what can be done to remedy it.” Speakers will include City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, Charles Komanoff of Transportation Alternatives, and Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism.

Wednesday
This week’s What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission will be recorded and published on Wednesday and will feature city Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will meet at the McKinley Community Center in Morrisania, Bronx.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Democratic candidates for Attorney General will participate in a forum hosted by seven Democratic clubs at the New York New Church in Murray Hill.

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday: The Committees on Health, Immigration, and General Welfare will meet jointly at 2 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “the impacts of Trump administration family separation policy on New York City,” and to discuss a resolution “calling on the U.S. Congress to pass, and the President to sign, the Keep Families Together Act (S. 3036), to immediately stop the Department of Homeland Security from taking children from their parents at the U.S. border, except with express directive from a child welfare expert, and for additional legislation that would end family detention as an unsafe and harmful alternative.”

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

***
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

De Blasio ‘Jails to Jobs’ Program Launches


Rikers jails to jobs

On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Judith is a newly-minted head chef. She had previously been a line cook, and was nervous about interviewing for a job running her own kitchen, but decided to take the plunge after some convincing. When it came time to speak to the hiring manager, Judith, in her own self-assessment, “killed it.”

Before Judith was head chef, before she was a line cook, before she knew kitchen skills, she was incarcerated. But it was her time in “Rosie,” the Rose M. Singer women’s jail on Rikers Island, that placed her on her trajectory to becoming a chef.

In April 2017, four months before her release from Rikers, Judith began participating in the workforce development programming offered onsite by the Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit that provides social services for the currently and formerly incarcerated. Osborne offers a number of professional education workshops and certification programs on Rikers, and Judith began training intensely with the group.

“I took advantage of...everything I could get my hands on,” she told Gotham Gazette, and ended up leaving Rikers with certificates in food handling, culinary arts, building maintenance, and job safety.

Upon her release, Osborne’s housing staff helped her secure a home, and its employment team reviewed her resume, coached her on interview skills, organized her paperwork, and placed her in an apprenticeship in a kitchen. When the apprenticeship ended, Osborne helped Judith find permanent employment and supported her emotionally as she progressed professionally.

“They kept encouraging me that it’d be okay, that I need to keep pushing forward. It wouldn’t have happened without them,” she said.

The Osborne Association is one of several organizations in New York City providing services to those incarcerated in city jails, both during their confinement and after their release. Most have been operating for decades — Osborne was founded in 1933, and its peer group, the Fortune Society, has operated since 1967 — and receive city funding. But it’s only been within the past year that the city government has mobilized the Osborne Association, the Fortune Society, and six other incarceration-services organizations — Samaritan Daytop Village, Fedcap, Housing Works, Friends of Island Academy, the Women’s Prison Association, and the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College — to provide short-term transitional employment to every individual leaving a city jail after serving a sentence.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that lofty goal, which he promised to actualize through the new “Jails to Jobs Initiative,” in March 2017. Jails to Jobs is now a component of the mayor’s ten-year plan to shutter the city jails on Rikers Island by reducing the jail population, combating recidivism, and opening or expanding modern borough-based facilities. The mayor’s announcement was scant on details on the program, simply promising that “everyone leaving city jails after serving a sentence will be offered paid, short-term transitional employment to help with securing a long-term job.”

Employment after incarceration has been shown to reduce recidivism by 22%, and de Blasio says that the city needs to reduce its jail population to 5,000 — almost a 50% drop from figures at the time of his announcement — in order to make feasible the closure of Rikers. In 2017, the average total population of those incarcerated on Rikers or the city’s other jail facilities stood at 9,148. On Monday, July 2, the total city jail population was 8,208, including 6,138 on Rikers, down from 9,206 one year prior.

Roughly 8,500 people leave city jails each year after serving a sentence (many more are incarcerated after an arrest but do not necessarily serve a sentence in a city or any jail or prison). It is not clear what capacity the city needs to ensure through provider agencies to make sure that each of those individuals has access to a “paid, short-term” job. The program is in its infancy. There is no set duration for “short-term,” a mayor’s office spokesperson said, indicating that it depends on the needs of the client and the service-provider.

Employment is, by most empirical measures, both crucial to successful post-incarceration reentry and disproportionately difficult to attain for the formerly incarcerated. In 2017, 80% of those who served a sentence in a New York City jail had been unemployed at the time of their arraignment, and the National Institute of Justice estimates that between 60 and 75 percent of formerly-incarcerated individuals are jobless up to a year after their release.

This joblessness does not seem to be for lack of effort. A survey conducted by the Urban Institute reported that 79% of formerly-incarcerated individuals sought employment once out of jail, but data show that justice-involved individuals consistently face legal, perceptive, and racialized barriers to employment. More than 80% of employers in the United States perform criminal background checks on potential employees, and a government-published study conducted in New York City found that a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a job callback by almost 50%.

Still, white justice-involved applicants were twice as likely to hear back from a potential employer than black justice-involved applicants were. In a city that jails black and Latino people almost exclusively, this racial disparity has far-reaching effects.

Guaranteed employment for the formerly-incarcerated, then, would radically alter the conditions of thousands of New Yorkers leaving a city jail, and Jails to Jobs seems to be the first initiative of its kind in the United States. It may prove to be a massively complex undertaking.

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) is spearheading the initiative in collaboration with eight criminal justice nonprofits. “The bulk of the initiative,” said Patrick Gallahue, MOCJ’s senior press director, “includes paid transitional employment and supportive services in the community.”

The city works with groups that provide an array of services. For instance, the Friends of Island Academy holistically focuses on the needs of formerly-incarcerated youths while the Women’s Prison Association offers gender-specific services, and Housing Works helps the formerly-incarcerated secure stable housing, a well-documented struggle for justice-involved individuals.

Several leaders of the city’s partner organizations spoke to Gotham Gazette of Jails to Jobs’ collaborative nature, whereby affiliated groups freely refer individuals to other organizations that may be better suited to their needs. For instance, if a Brooklyn resident sought assistance from the Fortune Society, based in Long Island City, Queens, staff there said they might refer them to the Osborne Association, which runs a center in Brooklyn Heights.

The Jails to Jobs initiative officially commenced on January 1 of this year, but most organizations began providing services under the program’s auspices in the spring, meaning the program has only recently launched in earnest.

The network of groups finding employment for formerly-incarcerated people is labyrinthine, and Jails to Jobs runs slightly differently between organizations. When MOCJ solicited programming proposals for Jails to Jobs, it wrote that the city would “strongly favor proposals that demonstrate partnerships through subcontracting or formal cost-sharing arrangements.” As a result, most Jails to Jobs participants are placed into internships through subsidiary organizations.

As of mid-June, the Osborne Association had employed 30 formerly-incarcerated individuals via three different, smaller groups — the Center for Employment Opportunity, Exponent, and the Hope Program — though it hopes to reach 150 people by the end of this year and 200 by the next.

The Center for Employment Opportunity primarily provides day labor cleanup crews and employs Jails to Jobs participants for four to five hours a day at $13 an hour. Exponent, a substance-use program, provides services and certifies in counseling. Programs have not yet begun at the Hope Program.

The Fortune Society, for its part, hopes to place 300 individuals in employment by the end of the year, and had enrolled 128 as of mid-June, 2018. That enrollment figure, as with all similar statistics from service providers, includes more than just the individuals who are currently employed in a paid, temporary internship — Jails to Jobs also funds hard skills training, including culinary, construction, and CDL driving certification.

“It’s going to look different for each person,” said Katharine Samberg, the Fortune Society’s Manager of Trainings and Transitional Programs. “Some don’t have job experience, and the transitional work program is for people who need to get a footing and realize they can be a beneficial employee.”

Experiences vary along lines of gender, as well. In 2015, women comprised roughly 6% of the city jail population, and their experiences before, during, and after incarceration differ from those of men, said Nyasha Rivera, who oversees the Jails to Jobs program at the Women’s Prison Association.

“We are not using tools that were created for men or are gender-neutral,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette. Since they are often the primary caregivers of children, meaning they must live in bigger homes, be nearer to sources of support, and are often more undesirable to landlords, women typically face less housing stability post-release than men do, which depresses their ability to find employment. And gender-specific “trauma that women experience prior to incarceration, during incarceration, and in the reentry process...serves as a barrier,” Rivera said.

The Women’s Prison Association offers, through various partnerships, employment tracks in culinary arts, building maintenance, and front-of-house restaurant work. As part of Jails to Jobs, the Association offers eight paid weeks of job training followed by a two-week paid internship, a different program than those run by other service providers.

Still, explained Jim Hollywood of Daytop Samaritan Village, “all Jails to Jobs contracts across the city have a similar construction to the programs.” Job training services begun during incarceration place individuals in contact with service providers, who continue employment support after release, which comes, in part, in the form of a city-subsidized temporary internship.

MOCJ allocated almost $9 million -- $8,885,492 -- to the Jails to Jobs program in its first year, which it’s spent mainly in the form of grants to service providers. That money pays for the minimum wage salaries of program participants for up to 21 hours a week, assuaging, the hope is, any sense among employers that to employ a formerly-incarcerated person is to undertake a risk.

Employers can choose to supplement the schedules and salaries of their formerly-incarcerated employees beyond what the city guarantees. Such is the case of Alexandra, who spent 18 months on Rikers Island and a little over a year in state prisons. She connected with the Fortune Society while on Rikers through taking its anger management, family safety, and job training workshops. Upon release, Alexandra entered into an internship at a home health services facility that employs her for over 40 hours a week, paying the half of her full-time salary that the city, through the Fortune Society, does not cover.

Like Judith, Alexandra (Gotham Gazette agreed to withhold last names) credits her connection with an incarceration-services group for her stable re-entry process. Immediately following her release from the Taconic State Prison, where she was sent after time on Rikers, staff at the Fortune Society helped Alexandra open a Medicaid account, apply for food stamps, and begin learning skills necessary for re-integration. She called it a “one-stop shop” in an interview with Gotham Gazette, and is now poised to be hired full-time as a coordinator at the home health services facility once her internship ends this month.

It is difficult to ascertain whether the successes of Judith and Alexandra are representative of most participants’ experiences with Jails to Jobs; most organizations only began running the program two or three months ago. But each service provider, as per the terms of MOCJ’s solicitation for proposals, already has extensive experience in reentry programming in New York City.

Data points for the program are tricky to come by. For example, Gallahue, the MOCJ press director, told Gotham Gazette that the city does “not have a precise number” regarding the expected demand for jobs among recently-released individuals. Though at this time it is known that approximately 8,500 people leave city jails after serving a sentence each year, MOCJ could not say how many individuals who had served a sentence could be expected to be looking for a job at any given time.

No organization told Gotham Gazette of having to turn away an individual for lack of space in an employment program; if anything, most are eager to grow. But, in the words of City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Committee on the Justice System, without a figure from the city, it is nearly impossible to assure that “every person serving a city sentence would have access to this job training, job placement program...it’s incumbent on the city to explain how it’s going to meet its commitment of serving every person serving a city sentence.”

Anecdotally, a minority of those released from city jails, even those who’d been involved with a service provider while incarcerated, seek post-release services. Judith said that she is the only one of her roughly 20 peers who’d been enrolled in Osborne’s classes on Rikers to seek out the organization’s help once off the island.

Her two closest friends from Rosie “have every excuse [to not go to Osborne]...For one, it’s easier for her to sell drugs on the street, and, for the other one, it’s her boyfriend.”

Improved outreach would help, she said — for some, organizations should “take them by the hand.”

The employment services Jails to Jobs has added resources to have changed Judith’s life, she said.

“I’m so grateful to that program. They did a wonder job on me. A wonder job.”

***
by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

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Gotham Gazette: Max & Murphy Podcast: Attorney General Candidate Zephyr Teachout Max & Murphy Podcast: Attorney General Candidate Zephyr Teachout Gotham Gazette: De Blasio 'Jails to Jobs' Program Launches De Blasio 'Jails to Jobs' Program Launches Gotham Gazette: New York Democrats' Season of Choosing New York Democrats' Season of Choosing Gotham Gazette: Bill to Create Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission Awaits Cuomo Decision Bill to Create Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission Awaits Cuomo Decision


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