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How To Become a New York City Council Member


bdb cms muni id alatriste

Mayor de Blasio, a former Council member, with several current CMs (William Alatriste)


Ask any New York City Council member and they'll tell you— there is no set formula that will send an aspiring candidate to City Hall.

"If you want to be a lawyer, the path is the same: get a bachelor's degree, take the LSATs, go to law school, take the bar exam, and voila, you're a lawyer," Ritchie Torres, the 51-member Council's youngest rep, told Gotham Gazette. "Whereas in politics, there is no single path."

Torres' ascent to deputy leader in the Council— he is an openly gay, Afro-Latino, college drop-out who grew up in public housing in the Bronx— is perhaps most emblematic of this truth, reflected in the broad expanse of backgrounds present in today's class of Council members.

The sole member of the Council with a doctorate of medicine, Mathieu Eugene, has another unique story. "I grew up in a country of many challenges. If somebody told my mother when I was a child, 'your son will be an elected official in New York,' she would've said, 'you're crazy,'" said the Haitian-born Eugene, of Brooklyn.

But while it's true that there's not a single path to becoming a member of the New York City Council, it is also true - as indicated by data and Council members' own admissions - that some paths are more commonly travelled than others.

Gotham Gazette found that nearly 40 percent of current Council members have served on the staff of a Council member or state Assembly member, with 60 percent of that group serving as chief of staff; and nearly 30 percent of Council members served on a community board.

Several Council members have come to the body directly from the state Assembly, the path being taken by soon-to-be Council Member Joseph Borrelli, of Staten Island. Borrelli is running unopposed in a special election to replace former Council Member Vincent Ignizio, who resigned recently to take a non-profit leadership job.

Meanwhile, last Thursday's primary day saw Barry Grodenchik emerge from a crowded Democratic field in a race to fill a vacant Queens Council post. Grodenchik, a former Assembly member and current aide to the Queens Borough President, still has to defeat a general election opponent, but is favored to do so.

Asked about his government experience preparing him for the Council, Grodenchik emailed Gotham Gazette to say that elected officials deal with many challenges in office, one being "the level of bureaucracy you sometimes face in navigating government on behalf of constituents." He believes that "experience doing so matters - and I believe my experience in the Assembly, as well as at [Queens] Borough Hall will help me be a better Councilman if elected."

Grodenchik continued to say that throughout his "career in public service" he's "gained insight on how to get things done in government." His experience likely appeals to voters, especially the small number willing to vote on a Thursday in an "off-year." It is also what led him to garner the support of the Queens County Democratic "establishment," which helped him get elected - establishment support is often a key to electoral victory in City Council races.

While many Council members come from other parts of government, including elected bodies like the Assembly, their predecessors' staffs, and local community boards, others come from community organizing and labor. Some enter the Council from the private sector, but usually have community ties to speak of.

Gotham Gazette spoke with current Council members about their journeys to City Hall and how the demographics of the Council are changing.

Chief of Staff
Many Council members who served in the role of chief of staff look back on the job as a pivotal position that gave them the tools to be an effective Council member.

"I think that anyone considering running for office should have some experience in government because I think it's important for people to know about the job that they are seeking," Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos said. Kallos served as chief of staff to former Assembly Member Jonathan Bing. "I can say that being a chief of staff, I was able to learn about the most important part of the job, which is constituent services and helping individuals with their cases."

Kallos also said he was able to learn about "how the legislative process works, how to get things done in a collegial environment...and ultimately as a chief of staff you get to learn a lot about the different jobs and what is necessary to run a well-functioning office."

Queens Council Member Costa Constantinides told Gotham Gazette his experience working as deputy chief of staff to former Council Member James Gennaro provided him with a strong skillset on which to run.

"When I made the choice to run for City Council I had a foundation in policies and I felt that was really important," Constantinides said. "I talked about, 'I have a record of getting bills passed, I have a record of knowing how this institution works, I have a record of taking on real fights already.'"

Council Member Torres, a former constituent liaison for now colleague Council Member Jimmy Vacca, said the role of chief of staff is particularly crucial: it allows for "far more access to the political establishment" than employees in a Council member's district office have.

"Yes, one path to elected office could be employment in the office of an elected official, but within that category there are huge differences between chief of staff and the role of a constituent organizer," Torres said. "The center of political action tends to be in City Hall and if you're in the district office, you're disconnected from the political dynamics."

Underlining the importance of working for an elected official: when asked what advice they would give a college student aspiring to serve as a Council member, each current member interviewed by Gotham Gazette suggested interning for a Council member or working on a campaign for City Council.

Community Boards & Name recognition
For many interested in helping their community, joining a community board is a natural first step, and one that may develop into the desire to run for City Council. For some, the perception exists that community boards may be used a springboard or requisite stop along the road for aspiring elected officials.

"Absolutely, community boards are supposed to be a voice for the community and naturally those that are providing that voice will be interested [in becoming a Council member], but often times— and one of the things I'm trying to discourage— is a place where it becomes a solely-owned subsidiary of the political establishment where it just ends up being full of people running for office," said Kallos, who served on Community Board 8. "So there needs to be a delicate balance."

To that end, Kallos is pushing community board reform legislation, including term limits.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a former Council member and community board member now in charge of appointing community board members, sees the boards practically, as a place where aspiring Council members can learn about the issues facing their community. If successful and effective as a board member, Brewer says, individuals can make a name for themselves and help their communities.

Brewer disagrees with Kallos' assertion that community boards are overly politicized (a fact they both amiably alluded to in interviews— Brewer is opposed to Kallos' term limits bill), noting that her office interviewed over 700 community board candidates this year alone.

"If you are going to be on the community board, you're going to take it seriously. So I think we are beyond the politicization, what's happened in the past is in the past," Brewer said, referring to more stringent reforms in the application and appointment processes now in place. "So I think people who think they're going to get on [the board] just so they can run for office— I mean it could happen, if you do a really good job on the community board then you should run, in my opinion, because you know the issues."

Brewer says it is good that for aspiring elected officials community boards can be a training ground and necessary step.

"I think unless you have some extraordinary circumstance in terms of name recognition, which I did not, and most people don't, then if you're a college student and you want to be a lawyer and then come back and run for office, you really do need to get on the community board, make a difference somehow," Brewer said, citing Helen Rosenthal and Corey Johnson as examples of current Council members who showed promise as leaders on their community boards. Rosenthal was elected in 2013 to replace Brewer on the Council.

"I have found it now that I'm on the Council really helpful that I was on the community board for so long," Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette. "I was on it for 15 years, so when issues come up I have a long history on them...So now as a Council member, when these same types of issues come up, I have a good toolbox to draw from."

Name recognition often rules the day when it comes to elections, and for local races, that neighborhood notoriety can be essential. Name recognition can also come in other ways.

"Look, you have the pure insider and the pure outsider," Torres said. "I'm neither purely an insider or purely an outsider, I think most of us fall in a spectrum in between, but I think what was unique about my candidacy was that no one had ever heard of me before. I think most Council members have much more name recognition with the political establishment than I did when I ran for public office."

In speaking of the importance of name recognition, Manhattan BP Brewer referenced the Weprins, of Queens— Assembly Member David Weprin and his brother, former Council Member Mark Weprin. The Weprin brothers have each held both the Assembly and Council seats that they were holding until Mark resigned this spring to work for Governor Cuomo; their father Saul was the Speaker of the Assembly.

Then there is the Rivera family— Assembly Member Jose Rivera and former Council Member Joel Rivera— for over 20 years Joel held the seat Torres now occupies.

Before joining Congress, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke succeeded her mother Una Clarke in the City Council. Current Council Member Inez Barron and her husband, Assembly Member Charles Barron, completed an easy seat swap recently when he was term-limited out of the Council.

But according to political consultant and executive director of the New York State Democratic Party Basil Smikle, candidates with private sector backgrounds who toe the edge of what Torres referred to as the "outsider" side of the spectrum still can be appealing to voters.

"Voters tend to respond to candidates who can convey both an understanding for the issues as well as a passion to actually want to impact them. So you can be active in your community and not convey to a voter that you want the job. You can work in the private sector and be able to speak of a vision with a fervor that come across to the voter," Smikle said.

"I think ultimately no matter what path you take," Smikle continued, "having that so-called 'fire in the belly' always is important no matter where you come from and no matter what your trajectory. Having said that, I think even if you come from the private sector you still need to have a sense of what is going on with the voters in your neighborhood. You have to know that. A voter needs to know you can take whatever it is in your background up until this point and apply it to their situation."

Labor unions
"Unions are the other place people come out of," Brewer said. "It's where Melissa [Mark-Viverito, the current Speaker] came out of, where [Council Member] Annabel Palma came out of...You have to have some unions with you to win."

Council Member Daniel Dromm was a delegate and chapter chair for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) before he became a Council member and enjoyed the union's support once he decided to run. Dromm told Gotham Gazette that the UFT had thrown him an early endorsement in 2008 a few months before term limits were extended, enabling the Council member he was running against to seek a third term.

"So the UFT had to make a decision again the following June what to do because the incumbent who was also very supportive of the union decided she was going to run, and what they decided to do was do a dual endorsement," Dromm said. "But at that point I had gotten what I had needed out of the endorsement from the UFT, so it was very helpful to me in that sense and gave my candidacy a lot of legitimacy."

It is well-known that in Democrat-heavy New York City, unions can make a difference both in building legitimacy and name-recognition, but also in helping get out the vote come primary day. New York City Council elections often see crowded Democratic primaries, as was the case when Rosenthal was elected in 2013 and the primary that Grodenchik just won in Queens.

Smikle told Gotham Gazette that earning the support of unions is important both operationally and symbolically.

"You're still looking to represent districts that chances are have labor union representation among your constituents. If you're living in an area that has a large number of TWU workers, [for example], that union endorsement is very important. If other unions come on board, it looks like you are a friend to the working people, to laborers, and you get the symbolism that's attached to that as well because you're not just a friend to organized labor, you're a friend to people's aspirations. That is extraordinarily important," Smikle said.

The shift in demographics
The power unions hold to get candidates elected underlines the importance of having contacts in politics.

"If you're a poor kid from the Bronx without a college education and no position in politics, for all intents and purposes you have no means of fundraising," Torres said. "You have no social capital, no economic capital, no rolodex you can tap into for fundraising purposes. So you either need to have some position— even if you're at the margins of the political establishment, you need some position in politics— or you need to be part of the professional class."

Brewer, however, said that being a part of the professional class may actually put candidates at a disadvantage compared to people involved in community organizing or activism.

"If you work on Wall Street and then decide to come back and run, then you'll be able to raise money but you won't know the people...In Manhattan you can always raise more money whether you're on a community board, work for an elected official, or not," Brewer said.

The public campaign financing system in New York City, which provides public matching funds for small donations, "gives you the opportunity," Brewer said, "to raise a little money and still win. What you have to do is develop your own list. Initially you run and win financing-wise on friends and family."

At a forum hosted by the Campaign Finance Board in July, Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, also emphasized the importance of the city's matching funds program in equalizing the playing field for aspiring Council members.

"If it were not for the Campaign Finance Board I would never have been elected to City Council. I did not come from a political family, I came from a single parent household, we didn't come from money," Ulrich told attendees.

Constantinides also cited the CFB's matching program as being a game changer, adding the importance of the change in term limits.

"That's a huge, huge part to seeing this demographic shift," Constantinides said, referring to the changes in the age, race, and ethnic diversity in the Council. "Term limits have changed, it's leveled the playing field, it's allowed people to come in and say- you have matching funds, you're not worried about raising 300-, 400-thousand dollars, you're focused on raising a certain amount and then going out and making your case to your constituents."

The demographic shift to which Constantinides references came at the confluence of the implementation of stricter term limits and the rise of the Progressive Caucus, a liberal bloc of Council members formed in 2010 in response to the Bloomberg administration's more conservative policies and the city's shifting population.

"What you actually saw was this dramatic change in the Council where progressive Council members are helping other progressive Council members [and candidates]," Kallos, who was elected to the Council in 2013 and joined the Progressive Caucus upon taking office in 2014, said. "So whereas typically you'll have seen independent expenditures from the Real Estate Board of New York shaping elections, now what you'll see is organized activity by [progressive] members trying to elect more. So I think what you saw was a much more progressive body getting elected by virtue of members making that happen."

The rise of the caucus, which began with 12 and now includes 19 of the 51 council members (with several other close allies who are not official members), was viewed by many as a shift away from machine politics and toward community organizing and advocacy. But Torres, a caucus member whose ascent into politics is emblematic of this shift, said he thought the picture was more complicated.

"It is certainly true that you have an organized progressive movement, progressive infrastructure that operates independently of the traditional centers of political power, and it is true that the progressive movement has made a priority out of electing younger people to public office, people of color to public office, and more women in public office," Torres, who is 27, said. "So that is true, but I will caution you not to distinguish or completely separate the progressive movement from the establishment."

Even the progressive movement can be in danger of becoming an insider's game, where the progressives who get the endorsements are the ones who have the relationships and can raise money, Torres said. There is also always a question of how closely aligned unions and progressives are with the different county political machines.

"Even in the progressive world, the two currencies are the same: money and relationships," Torres said. "I think someone like me has a greater chance of succeeding in the new world in which we are operating, but I want to caution that. Relationships and money continue to be the dominant forces of politics."

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by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

State Constitutional Convention: Holy Grail or Pandora's Box?


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photo: @NYSenDems


With a legislature now routinely shaken by major indictments, pressing issues left perpetually unresolved, and voter dissatisfaction with state government on the rise, some see a constitutional convention as perhaps the only way to bypass the legislature and institute serious reform. It just so happens that in 2017 voters will get to decide whether to have such a convention.

"A lot of the reforms people want to see don't need a convention to be instituted, but political will on the part of the legislature," said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group, who was involved in the last conversation about holding a constitutional convention.

"The constitutional convention becomes a vessel that some pour their hopes into," says Horner. But, as supporters of a convention discovered in 1997, public support for conventions has proven to be unreliable when it comes time to vote to hold one.

This summer, a July 15 Siena College poll found 90 percent of New York voters feel government corruption is a serious problem. The same poll found that 69 percent of voters surveyed supported having a constitutional convention, which could reconfigure the state's governing document.

The poll results have boosted the hopes of those who see a constitutional convention, which would occur in 2019 if approved by voters in 2017, as the only real chance to fix state government. And yet the poll also contains chilling, bad news for those advocates: 75 percent of voters surveyed say they haven't heard anything about a constitutional convention.

Delegates could examine an untold number of changes to the constitution, but some of the areas advocates express interest in are better balancing the power between the executive and legislature; changing term limits; creating a full-time legislature; making pay-to-play politics illegal; and changing the redistricting process.

It's a familiar position for advocates who were involved the last time the topic came up in a serious way. Public support for constitutional conventions has proved to be a fragile thing in the past. "I think in general there was a lot of public discontent with state government not meeting budget deadlines; the business community was more upset then about taxes, as the government was less responsive to their concerns, and there was deep concern about local government issues," said professor Gerald Benjamin, who was appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo as Research Director of the Temporary State Commission on Constitutional Revision during the last discussion of a constitutional convention.

"There was a broad, but not deep, willingness to have a convention--but it dissipated when groups who were opposed to it for various reasons attacked it," Benjamin says.

State law requires that voters be asked every two decades whether they want a constitutional convention. The last such vote was in 1997. If the voters' answer is yes, they elect delegates to represent them at the convention, and any convention-negotiated changes are then put in front of voters as ballot referendums.

The last convention occurred in 1967 and was actually called by the legislature. Voters at that time said no to the proposed changes. The last voter-called convention occurred in 1938; voters rejected conventions in 1957, 1977, and 1997.

In 1997 initial public support for a convention was dissolved by the efforts of groups that were concerned measures they favored in the constitution would be done away with by conservative delegates. The League of Women Voters led opposition, attacking the delegate selection process for being accessible only to politicians and other connected individuals. "The League successfully argued that the convention would essentially be run by the same people who run the capital," said Horner.

But the League wasn't the only group opposed. Public labor unions poured considerable cash into the opposition movement, fearing pension guarantees could be stripped away. Environmental groups joined the opposition movement in fear that provisions that keep state parks "forever wild" would be excised. That fear stems in part from the fact that convention delegates are elected based on state Senate districts, which are drawn in favor of Republicans (the Assembly has Democrat-friendly lines).

"Some view the constitutional convention as putting state parks and other constitutional issues at risk," said Horner. "Last time there was public support, as Mario Cuomo created the rationale for a fourth term around a convention. And [Governor] Pataki later supported it, but it went down in flames because of the efforts of those who opposed it based on what they could lose over the efforts of those who had hopes for what they could gain."

Former Assembly Member Richard Brodsky, now a senior scholar at Demos who calls himself "the last surviving progressive supporter" of a constitutional convention, said that the fears of many of these groups are well founded. "Those issues should weigh very heavily on the conversation," said Brodsky. "There is a lot of good stuff in the constitution we don't want to lose. However, voters in this state are by and large thoughtful and educated. Those issues are likely to be supported again."

Horner said it is far too early in the current process to tell if the pro-convention side will have funds that match those of the opposing sides.

New York City voters have historically had the most say over whether there is a constitutional convention as mayoral elections fall at the same time as the ballot question is put to voters. That makes it easier for those for and against the convention to target the city's generally liberal voting base in the lead up to a convention vote. This time the vote will likely coincide with Mayor Bill de Blasio's re-election bid.

Convention supporters like Brodsky have proposed legislation that could alleviate concerns about delegate selection. One Brodsky-backed measure would have created a public financing system for delegates so that average citizens could run. It also would have changed the way voters selected delegates, making voters select individual delegates rather than a ticket.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican, has advocated banning delegates from being elected officials or lobbyists. "Our first priority must be to eliminate politics from the delegate selection process," said Kolb in a statement. "My "Peoples Convention To Reform New York Act" would require any elected or party official to vacate their office in order to serve as a delegate; and prohibit delegates from accepting contributions from PACs or party campaign committees. It is imperative that political influence is removed."

Horner said he expects a spike in debate over the convention in 2016 as reformers introduce bills to change the delegate selection process. "The problem some see is regular people--a teacher, a cop--would lose their career track if they ran as a delegate. They don't have the flexibility of a lawyer or a career politician. And who has the apparatus to run as a delegate other than an elected official?"

Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters said her group is focused on public education and has yet to take a position this time around. Her organization and other groups are teaming with the Rockefeller Institute for a series of public forums to inform New Yorkers about delegate selection and what issues are likely to come up.

"We want to make this more a people's convention than a politicians' convention," said Bartoletti. "I've lost a lot of faith in what the legislature will do. So we want to make sure we capture the public's imagination on how important this is. The more the public is involved, the better checks and balances we will have on the governor and legislature."

Many scholars and good-government groups are currently working on formulating proposals on how to reform the delegate process and how best to revamp the constitution, but many groups have yet to take a firm position.

"What we are really looking at is citizen education and at the end of 2016 we will come up with a position if we think enough changes have been made around the delegate selection process," said Bartoletti.

Brodsky said that voter education is key at this stage in the process and is encouraged that it has begun so early. "We have to start with very basic things, instead of focusing on ethics or reform of government. What is really important here is the social content: the rights of working people, the right to wilderness, a bill of rights - things that have a tremendous impact on people's daily lives."

Brodsky said that unlike the federal constitution, which is a "how-to document," most state constitutions are "what-to-do documents."

"The public needs to become aware of the social impact, the daily-life impact of the constitution," Brodsky argues. "We need to focus on questions like: 'Are the state's privacy laws adequate,' 'Should there be a right to higher education,' 'Should the state be able to use authorities to give public tax dollars to private corporations?'"

Brodsky says these are issues that may galvanize public interest, rather than questions of process and procedure.

Kolb stressed that while delegates would set the agenda, he would "hope that a Constitutional Convention would address areas such as ethics reform, government spending, debt accumulation, and unfunded mandates – just to name a few."

Meanwhile, many interested parties are watching to see how much energy Gov. Andrew Cuomo expends on the issue of holding a convention.

"Reformers were remarkably reticent due to concerns about who might be elected as delegates," said Professor Benjamin of efforts related to the 1997 ballot question. "The legislature was presumptively hostile, was hands-off, but the one thing we did have was the great advocate for constitutional change in Mario Cuomo. Had he been re-elected I believe we would have had a larger conversation, as gubernatorial involvement has been shown to make the question of a convention much closer."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed support for a convention during his 2010 run for governor but has been quiet on the topic recently. Benjamin points out that most governors are opposed to the status quo, but this time reformers have Cuomo's budget powers in their sights.

In an interview earlier this year, Brodsky told Gotham Gazette that he thought one of the prime questions facing a constitutional convention would be the governor's considerable budget powers, which basically allow the governor to enact the executive budget through extenders, without legislative approval.

Cuomo spokesperson Richard Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo still supports a constitutional convention.

Talk of a possible convention started earlier than normal this cycle as advocates began calling for a convention in light of the 2009 Senate coup, which was enabled in part by Gov. Eliot Spitzer's abrupt resignation. State law did not specifically allow for Gov. David Paterson to name his successor as Lieutenant Governor. The Lieutenant Governor would have theoretically been able to break the coup by voting with Senate Democrats. Paterson eventually did name Richard Ravitch to the position at the urging of good government groups, and the appointment held up in the courts. Regardless, the drama did lead to conversation about a convention.

Mario Cuomo suggested in 2009 that rank-and-file legislators could support a convention as a means of regaining credibility with the public. "Why are people afraid of fundamental change?" Cuomo asked The New York Times rhetorically. "You don't like three men in a room, or three women in a room? Then change it."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

The Week That Was in New York Politics, August 17-21


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday August 21

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio at a Thursday ground-breaking for what will be affordable housing for low-income seniors and Mayor de Blasio on Thursday evening at the site of an explosion, both via the Mayoral Photography Office on flickr

de blasio groundbreaking far rockaway

de blasio school explosion

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. De Blasio Toplessness Task Force: On Thursday Mayor de Blasio announced that a multiagency task force will be studying the "legal and oversight issues with regulating topless individuals and costumed characters." The task force will be co-chaired by Police Commissioner Bratton and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, it will also include representatives from the Manhattan District Attorney's office, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Law Department, and more. The issue, mostly focused around topless women working for tips in Times Square, led to much controversy over the idea, presently forcefully by Bratton, that the city could undo the pedestrian plazas in Times Square.

[IS IT TIME FOR THE MAYOR TO DO TOWN HALLS?]

2. State Emergency System: On Monday Governor Cuomo announced the "NY Responds" initiative, which will "coordinate and strengthen the State's emergency preparedness," in large part due to a new universal emergency management software system. Every county will have access to this software at no personal cost and will allow vital "disaster-related" information to be shared and dispersed.

[ASSEMBLY TRANSPARENCY GROUP OPERATES IN SECRET]

3. Legionnaires' Outbreak Over, Source ID'd: An AC unit from a historic Bronx hotel, the Opera House Hotel, had strains of legionella that matched the strains from patients infected in the outbreak that killed twelve. The Opera House stated that its cooling system is only two years old and that it will go beyond new regulations and test the cooling tower every 30 days (instead of every 90 days now required). Over 18 buildings with cooling towers tested positive for the bacteria.

4. Hudson Tunnel Meeting Without Cuomo: Governor Cuomo has said repeatedly that the Hudson Tunnel, which is used by New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, is not "his tunnel." He declined to attend a meeting with federal and NJ officials earlier this week, saying he's happy there is progress being made, but that NY will not be paying for a new tunnel. Even though New York doesn't own the tunnel, the passengers who use it are key to the New York economy.

5. Public Advocate Sues City Again: Public Advocate Letitia James is suing the city, again, this time saying that the Department of Education is violating a law that requires air conditioned buses for children with disabilities when temperatures are above 70 degrees. James first complained to the city last summer and even though reps assured her that the problem had been fixed, she continued to hear from parents and students, in some cases about temperatures reaching 90 degrees on the buses. [ Read our in-depth look at James' use of the public advocate's office and her use of a bigger budget to hire lawyers and sue the city at a rapid pace ]

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 10% decrease in taxi pickups in the first six months of 2015 means that the yellow cabs' pickups were down 8.5 million, from 85.5 million last year to 77 million this year.
  • $8 million in federal grants will be used to fund new screening initiatives from the State Health Department for colorectal cancer, announced Governor Cuomo earlier this week.
  • 16,000 supporters of raising the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 an hour gave public comment to the state's Department of Labor.
  • 1,000 workers are collectively owed $3.7 million after contracters failed to pay the prevailing wage on public projects over the past 10 years. Comptroller Stringer announced on Wednesday that his office is unable to locate workers but urged people to check his website to see if they qualified.

THE FLASH:

  • Eight years ago around this time, on August 22, 2007, a bill was introduced "allowing schoolchildren to carry cellular phones to and from school for safety purposes." Mayor Bloomberg eventually vetoed the bill. 
  • Two years ago around this time, on August 16, 2013, the New York Times released results of its poll of New Yorkers on Mayor Bloomberg's legacy, his effectiveness and priorities. Over two-thirds of New Yorkers say New York City's schools have stayed the same or worsened, while most New Yorkers agreed that his policies favored the rich over the middle class and the poor.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max

Is It Time For The Mayor To Do Town Halls?


bdb stickball

Mayor de Blasio greets a constituent (photo: @BilldeBlasio)


Scott Stringer has led 16 town hall-style events since becoming Comptroller; Letitia James, the Public Advocate, hosted her 28th on Wednesday night in Brooklyn. As has been well-documented, Mayor Bill de Blasio - along with Stringer and James, one of three popularly-elected citywide officials - has not yet held a town hall event himself.

Is it time for the mayor to host one?

As de Blasio and his team wrestle with how to combat sagging public opinion poll numbers, what they see as unfair press coverage, and a perception gap that many agree leaves New Yorkers thinking de Blasio is performing worse than he actually is, it may be time for de Blasio to take his message directly to the people and hold his first town hall.

"He might want to look at where his criticism is coming from in his base," says Fordham political science professor Dr. Christina Greer. "If you're going to do a town hall, be strategic about it, so that it is effective for you and for New Yorkers," Greer advises.

Greer says that de Blasio should target where he had the deepest support in his 2013 election, with an eye, though, "especially on people feeling neglected," and go communicate with them. She said that these would be "productive places to start, but can't be the end."

Political consultant Evan Thies argues it would be smart for de Blasio to utilize his elected allies to get his message out, possibly at town hall-style events. "If they believe they can get those surrogates to host friendly conversations with real New Yorkers they should do that," Thies said, adding that de Blasio is suffering from a major perception problem and that he and his team need to resume "politicking."

"The perception" among the public, Thies says, "is not just that he's not the doing the job they hired him for, the perception is that he doesn't care about opinions that aren't his. And I just don't think that's true. He's trying to lead on issues of affordability - it's really just a perception problem and he needs to get out there and talk to people."

Doing so in the form of town halls would surely be risky for the mayor, who mostly plays things safe, but public forums are high-risk, high-reward opportunities. De Blasio could show New Yorkers that he is engaged, that his ear is to the ground, and that he is both tough and humble.

"The risk is not any worse than having the tabloids portray him as they are now," says former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who held many town halls when in office and has urged de Blasio to adopt the practice.

Sure, Weiner says, there can be some tough moments, and the TV cameras will gravitate toward those. But, holding town halls has many advantages: "You become a better representative when you do it...you hear the language real citizens use to describe the problems in their lives," Weiner tells Gotham Gazette.

"It would help him with a lot of the problems that he has," Weiner argues of the mayor. "He develops a little bit more of a fighter identity. If you're standing up in a hostile room, people respect that. There's a sense he's being pushed around too much, town halls gives you the opportunity to change that."

As of now, no one would call de Blasio a hothead or peg him as likely to commit a serious gaffe, but of course a public event with open microphones would leave the mayor prone to all sorts of challenges. (For example, we've seen of late what Black Lives Matter activists have accomplished at several presidential candidate events.) But, these events are always well-staffed with aides and security.

Even if he does a few town halls, there would be inevitable questions about where he's held them, and surely some media latching on to any outrageous moments.

However, nothing says 'I'm listening' like actually listening. And it appears the mayor needs a bit of a correction to perceptions that he's distracted by national politics and not a strong enough chief executive of this very hard to manage city.

In correspondence with City Hall, it does not appear that a de Blasio-led town hall is afoot.

Spokesperson Karen Hinton wrote Gotham Gazette saying, "Mayor de Blasio hears directly from New Yorkers in both formal and informal ways - whether it's through taking calls on public radio, or being stopped on the street - as he often is."

Indeed, in what was a rare formal opportunity for the mayor to engage in unscripted conversation with constituents, de Blasio took calls while on air with radio host Brian Lehrer Wednesday morning. All told, de Blasio's WNYC appearance lasted more than 40 minutes and gave the mayor a chance to speak directly to a wide swath of New Yorkers, and with several who called in.

Doing so, de Blasio again showed he is adept at responding to impromptu gripes about the city and his stewardship of it. Yet, the mayor has made only sporadic appearances on call-in radio.

Hinton's response echoes what the mayor himself has said when asked about holding town halls, something that his predecessors did with varying frequency - but did - and that his current fellow citywide electeds are clearly doing fairly regularly.

Public Advocate James held one town hall in each borough specifically about mayoral control of city schools, releasing a report afterward in which she called for some modifications to the system that would weaken the mayor's power. Among her twenty-plus other open events, James held a public safety town hall Wednesday evening in Brooklyn in response to a recent wave of shootings.

Comptroller Stringer has held at least one town hall in each borough, according to his office. Stringer held a "Sandy Oversight Hearing" in each borough other than the Bronx, which was the borough least damaged by the superstorm.

A spokesperson for the comptroller, Eric Sumberg, said that Stringer "believes that listening to constituents and meeting with them in their communities is one of the best ways to learn how he can use his office to root out waste and fraud and fight for working families."

Hinton, the de Blasio spokesperson, told Gotham Gazette that representatives of the administration are "out in neighborhoods across the city every single day, working directly with New Yorkers and bringing that feedback to City Hall to further shape our work. We are continually looking for additional opportunities to hear directly from New Yorkers across the five boroughs."

Highlighting efforts by the Community Affairs Unit, Hinton cited "dozens of town halls" organized around informing small business owners, improving city services for LGBTQ New Yorkers, and providing information on the city's handling of the recent Legionnaires' Disease outbreak in the Bronx.

To New Yorkers who feel good, bad, or iffy about the mayor, though, those efforts may not be enough. "Sometimes people want to see the mayor, not his proxy," says Dr. Greer, Fordham political science professor.

This, in part, is why the mayor marches in many parades, speaks at churches, and appears at a variety of other community events. There may be nothing quite like the unfiltered town hall, though, to move the public image of de Blasio, as Weiner points out.

In May, de Blasio was asked about plans to hold town halls on at least two different occasions. On May 11, de Blasio said he hears from New Yorkers all the time. "[I]t's amazing how many conversations I have with people every single day because they're not shy about coming up and starting a conversation, I assure you – every time I'm on the subway, every time I'm walking down the street and whether it's the Upper East Side or Park Slope or anywhere else. But beyond that, I talk to people who represent a whole host of communities all the time."

On May 18, de Blasio said of holding town halls, "I don't have a specific plan, but, you know, what I do all the time is go out around different communities in different settings...people just come up and talk about things, and offer their views, raise concerns...I go around all over the place – and the subways, and walking down the street – talk to everybody."

A spokesperson for Public Advocate James wrote Gotham Gazette that the public advocate has "worked aggressively to bring government to every corner of this city" and that the best way to connect constituents and government "is by reaching the people where they are."

It is certainly not a sentiment de Blasio would disagree with, and the mayor often highlights that he's bringing government to those who need it most, whether or not he is holding the type of open evening events his colleagues are. On Thursday, de Blasio held a ground-breaking in Far Rockaway for what will be 154 affordable housing units for low-income seniors.

At the mid-day press conference, de Blasio said affordable housing is the number one thing brought up to him by New Yorkers "on the subway, on the street - wherever I go."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

Suing the Hand That Feeds You


Tish James rally via her office

Public Advocate Letitia James


Capitalizing on a boost to a historically anemic budget, Public Advocate Letitia James has emphasized the use of litigation in her capacity as the city’s elected gadfly, often suing the city that funds her.

 

James is utilizing her office’s limited funds in accordance with her own background as an assistant attorney general and public defender, hiring additional attorneys to her team and filing several suits against the de Blasio administration— a mayoralty with which she is politically aligned. Since taking office in January 2014, James has filed over a dozen suits, amicus briefs, complaints and petitions against the city and its agencies, with mixed results. She is set to announce another lawsuit on Wednesday, according to Politico NY.

 

The public advocate, alongside the comptroller and City Council, is tasked with oversight of city agencies and programs, ensuring good government and good living and working conditions for New Yorkers. The public advocate may introduce legislation in the City Council and will serve as mayor in his or her extended absence.

 

The Office of the Public Advocate has traditionally been limited by budgetary restraints, the result of years of mayors implementing retributive and devastating cuts. But, Mayor Bill de Blasio, the first public advocate to move into the mayoralty, added $700,000 to the office’s budget his first year - a small amount relative to the overall city budget, which totals over $78 billion, but fairly large in terms of the public advocate’s office. The budget bump was an attempt to compensate for budget cuts made during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, according to the public advocate’s office.

 

“The Public Advocate serves a critical role as the City's watchdog - something the Mayor knows firsthand from his own time serving in that office,” a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette. “It's important to our City's democratic process that the office have sufficient resources.”

 

Now, in de Blasio’s second budget, which took effect July 1, Letitia James’ office has $3.27 million for the 2016 fiscal year, according to a spokesperson for the public advocate. To put that in perspective, a newly created Department of Education task force also dedicated to performing an oversight role— rooting out cheating by teachers and administrators in city schools— is likely to utilize $5 million a year.

 

Both Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum, who served as the city’s first and second public advocates before de Blasio became the third, agree that the office suffers from having its budget controlled by the very person it is supposed to be watchdogging.

 

“The structure of the office of the public advocate— it’s something that should be looked at and changed. The mayor…should not be controlling the budget of the person who’s looking over their shoulder. It’s silly, it doesn’t make any sense,” Gotbaum said. “Because [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] would get furious at me and then come June, July, he’d cut the budget.”

 

In 2009, Bloomberg infamously declared the office a “total waste of everybody’s money,” even after he and the City Council nearly halved Gotbaum’s budget from $2.9 million to $1.8 million.

 

That’s a situation that James has not found herself in, Green notes, saying she will likely not suffer at the hands of de Blasio.

 

“Of course, the new mayor has a special appreciation for the budget difficulties of the public advocate since he was the prior occupant of that office,” Green said, “and that increase should help [James] do the kind of long-term investigations that can yield real benefits to city performance and law.”

 

With these new funds, James has molded the role of public advocate into one with an aggressively litigious attitude.

 

The role of public advocate as an ombuds and watchdog has always, somewhat necessarily, been tied to litigation. As public advocate under Bloomberg, Gotbaum sued the city (along with city Comptroller William Thompson and sundry council members) in the lawsuit Molinari v. Bloomberg, opposing an extension of term limits.

 

As public advocate under Mayor Giuliani, Green famously pursued litigation against the city in Green v. Safir, (in which Green won the right to access documents on the conduct of the New York City Civilian Complaint Board after the police commissioner refused to provide them to his office) and Green v. Giuliani (in which Green successfully sought a judicial inquiry into whether the mayor obtained and released information that had been sealed pursuant to state criminal procedure law concerning the criminal record of a man who had been shot and killed by an NYPD officer).

 

As public advocate, de Blasio sued Bloomberg to compel the mayor’s office to turn over data on the city’s revenue from business fines.

 

But James has been particularly robust in taking legal action against the city.

 

“Everyday New Yorkers don't have access to expensive lawyers and fancy lobbyists, which is why they need a Public Advocate who will fight for them,” James said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette. “We've resolved to use every tool at our disposal, whether it's litigation, legislation, or agitation to stand up for working people.”

 

The list of lawsuits, petitions, or complaints James has filed is long and getting longer: her office sued the city’s Department of Finance over a rule change to the city’s rent freeze program; filed and won a lawsuit against the Department of Education, opening school leadership team meetings to the public; filed and won a lawsuit to block co-located charter schools; and petitioned unsuccessfully to unseal the Eric Garner grand jury proceedings, though she continues to appeal decisions in this pursuit. James also petitioned the Board of Corrections to enact rules to protect inmates at Rikers’ Island from sexual assault.

 

Recently, the office filed a class action lawsuit against New York City and state foster care agencies. The lawsuit alleges the city Administration for Children’s Services and the state Office of Children and Family Services fail to protect children from maltreatment, to ensure that services provided are effective, and to ensure appropriate placements. Some have questioned the suit, asking why the city’s usual legal opponents on child welfare issues did not sign on and citing nuances in New York law that explain some of the data cited in the suit.

 

The public advocate’s office employs 44 staff members, including six attorneys (other than James herself) and one legal assistant. Two of the six attorneys were hired this year. According to the office, feedback received by the constituent services unit can spur the litigation unit to file a suit or complaint. After tenants reached out to the unit, the public advocate was compelled to file a lawsuit on behalf of four Bronx residents, asserting that the city’s Department of Buildings is violating the civil rights of people with disabilities by permitting landlords to deprive mobility-impaired tenants of access to means of egress during extensive elevator outages.

 

James’ office also scrutinized the quality of life for children and families and workers in the city, releasing reports on the child care available to CUNY students, the city’s foster care system, and car wash and nail salon workers.

 

In September 2014, almost eight months before The New York Times ran its incendiary “Unvarnished” series, James released a report on the state of nail salons in the city, calling for designated city nail salon inspectors, the implementation of a citywide nail salon safety study, and a healthy salon incentive program.

James finds herself in an unprecedented situation— she is the first public advocate to share the same party affiliation with the mayor (the position has only ever been held by Democrats and existed during the terms of Giuliani and Bloomberg). Some questioned whether her ability to act as a watchdog over the mayor would be compromised by their common viewpoints.

“If you’re the public advocate and you have a lovebird relationship with mayor, what’s the point of the office?” one Democrat who backed James asked the Observer (James once described the mayor as her “political husband.”)

Critics claimed that James left de Blasio largely unscathed in the first year of her term as watchdog, taking “safe” stances on equipping police with body cameras, authoring a bill against campus sex crimes, and completing her work on nail salons.

Gotbaum noted that she often thought the public advocate could be more effective if they had a positive relationship with the mayor.

“I thought it was better for the city that if I found out there was a problem and I called an agency or the mayor himself and it was solved quickly, then I wouldn’t have to have a press conference and I wouldn’t have to jump all over the mayor,” Gotbaum said, adding that the contentious relationship Giuliani had with Green rendered Green the “municipal nag.”

“Giuliani ordered his agencies not to talk to Mark Green, which to me makes the whole thing ridiculous,” Gotbaum told Gotham Gazette. “I thought it was better for the city if [the public advocate and the mayor] had a positive relationship. That’s what you’re there for, you’re there to help people who are desperate, have no place else to turn, and it’s generally allied with some sort of city agency.”

But in recent months, it appears that James has become increasingly comfortable with publicly criticizing the mayor and city agencies.

During budget season, James held a late May press conference advocating for universal free school lunch and condemning the mayor’s opposition to the program.

“I was shocked and disappointed that Mayor de Blasio said during his executive budget presentation that no expansion of free lunch would happen this year,” James said at a press conference outside the Department of Education headquarters. “Mr. Mayor, you’re wrong. Universal free lunch works and the results are in.”

In her report on mayoral control of city schools, James also recommended that the mayor lose his deciding majority on the Panel for Educational Policy in favor of increased parent engagement. The report came after James conducted public town hall meetings on the subject in each borough, a general strategy for constituent feedback that de Blasio has not adopted.

According to James’ office, she has held 27 town hall-style events, with a 28th scheduled for Wednesday evening in Brooklyn - the subject will be public safety.

Green, the city’s first public advocate (who endorsed State Senator Daniel Squadron over James in the 2013 public advocate primary), said that regardless of party affiliation, the public advocate must act as a gadfly and compel reform rather than simply espouse ideals.

“I laud her earlier initiative looking into the problems of nail salons, which is a real home run because it helped inspire others to follow up and now the governor and mayor are in a competition who can clean up this early 20th century sweatshop,” Green said earlier this summer. “I just wish there could be more of that and fewer press releases saying I believe in ‘x.’ The issue isn’t so much what she believes in— which is very similar to what Bill de Blasio believes in— but to blow the whistle on problematic agencies that the mayor won’t own up to.”

Indeed, James’ office frequently issues releases on a variety of topics, including gun control, collision avoidance technology in city vehicles, ending the sale of toy guns, and the one-year anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping in Nigeria among them.

According to Green, James has yet to take full advantage of the uniquely situated role.

“Because the charter gives the public advocate a lot of discretion, this public advocate is somewhat free to contour the office to his or her temperament, values, skills. If the question is has she evolved more toward oversight ombudsman role over city services, I think the only fair answer is ‘not yet,’” Green said. “In my personal opinion, it doesn’t add that much value when a longtime ally of the mayor spends so much of her valuable time either saying ‘yay’ or ‘I wish he could’ve done [something] a little better or sooner.’”

Gotbaum, who at times during her tenure as public advocate struggled to assert the relevance of the office, noted the difficulty of drawing attention to causes and the importance of highlighting substantive ones.

“I think it’s very hard to get traction, there’s so much going on in New York, unfortunately it’s very hard to get publicity,” Gotbaum said. “It’s hard to get attention to some of these issues and the more [Public Advocate James] gets it the better, when it’s on issues of real substance, and she isn’t just attacking the mayor.”

Most recently, the office has lobbied the New York City Employee Retirement System, the board of the city’s largest pension fund, to divest from gun retailers, including Walmart. In response, NYCERS passed a resolution James authored that would commision a study of the board’s investments in gun retailers and would analyze the transitional costs of divestment.

“Any council member or council body can sound off about what they think is a better way,” Green said, “but the public advocate is uniquely situated to do policy and performance audits of city agencies, respond to patterns of complaints in the thousands they receive, do investigative reports way beyond what any individual councilman can do.”

***
by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson 

De Blasio Moves From Media Criticism, Toward Direct Contact


BdB Gibson August 18 willalatriste

Mayor de Blasio at City Hall Tuesday (photo by William Alatriste)


Mayor de Blasio declined to discuss his recent criticism of the media at a press conference on Tuesday. When asked about it, de Blasio said he wanted to stay focused on substance. The choice, along with several other moves, may be indicative of a turn in communications strategy aimed at promoting more positive news from the de Blasio administration and boosting public approval of the mayor, which recent polls show at its lowest level since the mayor took office.

Regardless of his decision to comment Tuesday, de Blasio has been a somewhat regular media critic during his tenure, appearing frustrated by what he sees as a focus on political rivalries and personalities, and a lack of substance. The mayor, his allies, and those who see much good in what he's done during his first nearly 20 months in office are frustrated that the narrative around de Blasio is not more positive. De Blasio has expressed faith, though, that everyday New Yorkers are seeing and feeling real progress under his watch. On Tuesday the mayor said, "a lot of work is being done and done effectively."

"Crime is down, the number of jobs is up, test scores for our schools are up, the amount of affordable housing being created," the mayor cited as examples of the city heading in the right direction.

Still, the mayor and his team must be noting what many outside City Hall are: the public opinion polls, the perception gap, the caricature of the mayor that has formed, and, likely, the need to reevaluate some of the administration's approach to communications.

The mayor said on Tuesday that he is always "figuring out what can help me be as effective as I can be." He said this, though, in specific reference to a question about his exercise routine, which has come under scrutiny because he continues to work out in Park Slope despite having moved to Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side.

De Blasio and aides were responding to renewed questions about the issue on Friday when the mayor went to work out during a "live-shooter" standoff on Staten Island. Among those aides is a new press secretary, the mayor's top liaison with members of the media, who joined his team in June. Karen Hinton has brought a more attentive and aggressive style to the press office and even to de Blasio's public comments. Both Hinton and de Blasio pushed back against media coverage of the mayor's choices Friday.

It's unclear if the mayor has now begun a long break from media criticism, but experts and observers say he should indeed change tack. They say that the mayor and his emissaries need to get the administration message out more, and directly to the public. This shift may be happening.

While it wouldn't hurt the mayor to win some front pages, he has more control over opportunities for himself and members of his team to speak directly to New Yorkers. Cases in point: the mayor is scheduled to appear live Wednesday morning on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. This, after Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen was a guest on NY1's Inside City Hall Monday evening.

On Tuesday the mayor said that "the most important way we get information out is through the media," but this can come in different forms, of course. The mayor has many members of his administration that are strong on radio and television and good at public forums. Among the strongest are Deputy Mayors Glen and Richard Buery, and commissioners like NYPD's Bill Bratton and head of the Department of Consumer Affairs Julie Menin.

While administration officials do make regular public appearances, it may be smart for City Hall to push the pace of such availability. The administration appears to have missed an opportunity to have the mayor and Menin tout drastic reductions in fines on small businesses that were recently announced with little fanfare.

"The stories have been about him and his feelings, not about his policies," says Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. "You want the stories to be about what you're doing for people."

While Greer sees some merit in de Blasio's critiques of media coverage, she acknowledges that going after the press doesn't appear to be working in the mayor's favor. Political consultant Evan Thies agrees, saying, "They need to try something different. Blaming the media is not going to work. Getting the message through surrogates may be a better plan."

Thies says that it's not only time to make sure that de Blasio officials are making public appearances, but to also go outside the administration. "One thing that most elected officials do when their poll numbers are sinking is call on friends that they have various areas of agreement on and ask them to join with them for an event, an announcement, a policy issue, or meeting voters," Thies says. "It may be time to start treating this like a campaign again."

Thies specifically cited powerful allies such as City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. All three have been strong de Blasio backers and can help the mayor stay in good standing with his Democratic base, including people of color who continue to support the mayor in stronger numbers than white New Yorkers.

Greer cautions, though, that "sometimes proxies aren't a substitute for the real thing. Sometimes people want to see the mayor, not his proxy." No matter how many appearances are made by deputy mayors, agency commissioners, and other allies touting the administration's moves, it is likely there will continue to be questions about how often the mayor himself is available for interviews or takes questions directly from members of the public - on the air or at town hall-style events.

The mayor, who is strong thinking and responding on his feet, has not held any town hall meetings himself and has taken only a few call-in questions during sporadic radio appearances on WNYC and other stations, including Hot 97. De Blasio was last on WNYC with Lehrer in early June and took a few questions from callers. He is likely to take a few more on Wednesday morning as he discusses year two of his pre-Kindergarten program, jobs, and housing with Lehrer.

Asked about a shift in approach, Hinton wrote Gotham Gazette that "Mayor de Blasio has been in front of the media speaking to New Yorkers since taking office. Nothing has changed except he has many more accomplishments to report on than his first month on the job."

Whether this week shows a shift of any kind is to be determined, and media appearances are different from in-person contact with constituents. The mayor did visit a senior center in the Bronx last week amid the Legionnaires' Disease outbreak his health, buildings, and communications teams have been dealing with. As de Blasio said to the New York Times over the weekend, his administration "can always communicate things better."

On NY1 Monday evening, Deputy Mayor Glen said, "We're not going to worry about poll numbers" and touted progress on education, jobs, and housing. She said what appears to be true about the administration's accomplishments, though: "maybe we need to share them with the public more."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

Assembly Transparency Group Operates in Secret


Heastie tour wind

Assembly Speaker Heastie, middle, on a business tour (photo: @WeaverWind)


A host of good government groups and legislators say that a state Assembly working group tasked with reforming the chamber's rules to increase transparency and participation has been anything but transparent, operating in secret and rebuffing outside offers of help. One of its two chairs says his group has just been slow to move.

Creation of the 12-member working group, chaired by Assembly Members Brian Kavanagh and Gary Pretlow, was just one reform measure announced by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie after he took the reins from his indicted predecessor Sheldon Silver. And since that May announcement, it appears the group has only issued a single email soliciting ideas from members.

"It's a mistake not to reach out to the public and groups dedicated to making the legislature more open and independent," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "They are just making it harder on themselves by having an unclear process at this point."

"There seems to be no momentum and the Assembly leadership is not laying the groundwork for the kind of big, positive changes we need," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, another good government group. "It does not seem that the Assembly is creating an open process in which bills can progress to a committee hearing, then a vote, then to the floor for a vote. For that matter, there is no process to get a bill voted on when a large portion of the Assembly supports it. In other words, the Assembly process still seems to be about as undemocratic as it was when it was run by Sheldon Silver," says Kaehny.

Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that the task force was moving "slowly" in part because it is the summer and said he expected the group could have recommendations by December. "We only had a few responses from the members to Kavanagh's email so I'm going to start calling them individually," Pretlow said.

Pretlow added that he hadn't ruled out input from good government groups and would eventually contact them. "There are a lot of things that just don't matter," said Pretlow referring to the Assembly rules. "I don't want to do anything that might detract from the Speaker's power, but we are going to take a look at a number of things. I want to make sure every member has a say."

Under Silver, the Assembly became known as a place where it was impossible for younger members and members of the Republican minority to have bills considered or to win membership on an important committee. That perception has changed under Heastie as members say they have input like never before. Good government groups worry that without rules changes the new environment could quickly change when or if Heastie decides to consolidate power.

"The Speaker has done a great job including younger members," said Queens Assembly Member Nily Rozic. Rozic told Gotham Gazette that the working group asked members for their ideas and she specifically put forward her thoughts on using technology. She says Heastie has already made major changes on the technology front as members now get texts alerting them to hearings.

"Individuals are really more empowered than ever before," said Rozic. "Every single member is now on a subcommittee and I'm in my second term; that really speaks to Carl empowering the rank and file. We are lightyears ahead of where we were."

Rozic declined to comment on the working group as she is not a member. Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh's office did not return calls on the subject over a series of months. Calls to other members of the working group were not returned or Gotham Gazette was told to reach out to Kavanagh and Pretlow.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb told Gotham Gazette that his conference has not been kept in the loop about the reform efforts. In an emailed statement, Kolb said, "In the spirit of transparency, we [the Assembly Minority] have not been contacted by anyone in the Assembly Majority working group to strengthen operations and promote transparency and public participation, nor have we seen any recommendations for improving the way in which the House conducts the people's work. We believe they should reach out to us, because this is about the entire Assembly, not just the Assembly Majority."

Speaker Heastie announced smaller reform measures during his speaker bid and afterward. Facing major scrutiny for his particularly large travel expenses, he announced a plan to overhaul the Assembly's reimbursement system. He also created The Office of Ethics, designed to keep members informed about ethics rules and oversee ethics trainings. A bipartisan search group is currently looking for an executive director.

Some of the pressure Heastie faced to back reform came, of course, from the circumstances of his ascent - Silver has been indicted for using his office to enrich himself. However, during the few days when the Assembly was considering new leadership, a new and quickly formed 'reform caucus' comprised of 23 Assembly members, including Kavanagh and Rozic, issued all candidates for speaker a list of questions that appeared designed to boost a reform agenda, and asked any aspiring speaker to pledge to create a group tasked with reviewing the Assembly's rules with an eye towards increasing transparency.

Examples of reforms put forward by members of the caucus include those to create a measure whereby members could petition to have their bills moved out of committee and to a floor vote; to give freshman members more resources; to give members say in leadership appointments; and to increase opportunities to debate bills in committee.

"We recognize that implementation of many of these reforms will require extensive thought, discussion, and further detail," the reform caucus members wrote in February. "Therefore, we ask that the candidates for Speaker commit to appointing a task force on reform, representing the diversity of the conference. This task force would develop specific proposals on these and other reforms. In addition, we ask that all meetings of the task force be open to all members of the conference. We believe that these reforms are the best way to restore faith in our ability to serve the public."

Heastie did win the support of the reform caucus and has begun to address a number of its concerns. However, the only official work of the task force has been an email sent from Kavanagh soliciting ideas from members, which Pretlow referred to when speaking with Gotham Gazette.

However, observers worry that with Heastie firmly in control he no longer has any reason to deliver major reforms to the rules to enable rank-and-file members to advance their own legislation. Doing so would require him to give up some of the power he fought for, though it appears Heastie knew that he would not wield the same strength Silver did.

"Since becoming Speaker, I have made a special effort to create issue specific workgroups and a new subcommittee structure that promotes member participation while exploring new ideas to move New York forward," said Heastie in a statement announcing the creation of the working group on May 12. "Members have a lot of great ideas, and the creation of this new workgroup is an opportunity for us to build on the strong processes already in place that promote transparency and accountability."

At the time, members of the good government community were hopeful about the reforms but now many say they've simply given up on the idea that the working group is actually independent of the speaker's office, and they now expect a dog-and-pony show. Heastie's office did not reply to a request for comment.

Horner said he remains hopeful but is confused as to why the group charged with increasing transparency hasn't been open itself.

"We don't know even know what issues are on the table," said Horner. "They should be doing more publicly by now. It's been six months."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, August 17


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week may be one to really focus on the fact that New York's two baseball teams are both in first place. With the Mets and Yankees atop their respective divisions, there's a lot of buzz in the air about Big Apple postseason baseball. It could be a fairly quiet week in New York politics - though this is never something the smart money is on. But, the City Council has no public hearings on the calendar this week (last week, the Council held several meetings and its lone full-body Stated Meeting of the month) and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is away on vacation, Governor Andrew Cuomo has had a quiet schedule of late as he has been attending to the health of his longtime partner, Sandra Lee, and, well, it's the middle of August. Still, though, Mayor Bill de Blasio may be looking to stir some good news as he has had a tough summer with lower public opnion poll numbers, rough-and-tumble rivalry with the governor, and some public relations missteps. More:

TRACKING DE BLASIO: the mayor had a tough PR day Friday after deciding to go to his Park Slope YMCA for a workout after learning that an FDNY firefighter had been shot and during the subsequent standoff on Staten Island. The incident ended with the gunman dead and no other casualties. Meanwhile, the injured firefighter was treated over the weekend and able to go home. Many questioned de Blasio's choice to go for his workout, though the mayor and his team insist he was getting briefed all morning and that he went to Staten Island when his fire and police department chiefs, who were there all morning, gave him the go-ahead. Still, the day's events highlight the questions around de Blasio commuting from his temporary mayoral home on the Upper East Side at Gracie Mansion, to his old Park Slope neighborhood to work out, even on days without a real-time crisis playing out. There are also, of course, the ongoing issues related to Staten Island and whether the borough gets its due attention from City Hall (under any mayor) - read our new deep dive on the issue, Does Staten Island Gets Its Fair Share?, which was weeks in the making and happened to coincide with Friday's events.

Over the weekend: on Saturday, de Blasio was on Long Island for the annual event, "Apollo in the Hamptons." On Saturday afternoon, the mayor joined Alexander Soros (son of billionaire philanthropist George Soros) and others for lunch, according to Soros' Twitter feed. Sunday the mayor had no public events.

The week ahead could very well see the mayor sign into law new legislation passed by the City Council on Thursday aimed at preventing outbreaks of Legionnaires' Disease, as well as other new bills passed through the Council, such as one mandating fire sprinklers in pet stores. Indicative of the slow pace that the week could see, the mayor is spending Monday in Rhode Island, with no public events scheduled.

LEGIONNAIRES' LATEST: the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that has taken 12 lives in the Bronx appears to have abated. The mayor's office reports that there have been no cases with onset of symptoms after August 3. A total of 124 people are reported to have had symptoms during the outbreak, with 94 treated and discharged. The 12 deceased were all "adults with underlying medical conditions." Many of the water cooling towers at the heart of the outbreak (which is airborne and similar to pneumonia, not contracted through drinking water or person-to-person) have been disinfected and the City Council passed new legislation aimed at preventing future outbreaks. As Council Member Corey Johnson, chair of the Council health committee, and others have said, Legionnaires' isn't going to completely go away, and there are many cases each year, but important steps can be taken to prevent major outbreaks.

There is a town hall meeting on Legionnaires' scheduled for Monday in the Bronx, see below for details.

It's looking like a quiet August week as of now - only a few events on our radar for you to be aware of - though others will surely pop up as the week begins - read our initial day-by-day rundown below.

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

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
On Monday, "Governor Cuomo's administration hosts a summit on emergency planning attended by hundreds of disaster management officials and local leaders from across New York State." At 10 a.m., "Senior administration officials kick off the summit with a presentation on emergency preparedness and make an announcement – Empire State Plaza Convention Center," and at 1:15 p.m., "Tour of the New York State Office of Emergency Management's Emergency Operations Center and various State emergency response assets – Building 22, Harriman State Office Campus."

At 2 p.m. in Glendale, City Council Members Rory Lancman and Elizabeth Crowley, the Anti-Defamation League, Queens Jewish Community Council, Family members of Leo Frank, Public Advocate Letitia James, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Assembly Member David Weprin, and others will mark "the 100th anniversay of the lynching of Leo Frank" with "a memorial to commemorate this tragic event in Jewish-American history. Following his wrongful conviction for murder in a trial marked by antisemitism, Frank was kidnapped from prison, brutally beaten and hanged in 1915 in Marietta, Georgia. He is buried at the Maple Grove Cemetery in Glendale, where the ADL dedicated a monument to him in 2003."

At 6 p.m. community leaders in the Bronx will host a town hall on Legionnaires' Disease at Hostos Community College. Sponsors include Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Public Advocate Letitia James, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, the NYC Health Department and NYC Emergency Management, and the Mayor's Community Affairs Unit.

Tuesday
There is a rally planned for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall to protest how homeless New Yorkers are being portrayed and treated by the New York Post, police unions, and others. [Read: Homeless Solutions Not Homeless Shaming]

At 6 p.m. Tuesday NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services presents a NYC Civil Service 101 session, on "everything you need to know about applying and becoming a civil servant." Sponsors include Council Member Laurie Cumbo, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, Senator Jesse Hamilton,Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblyman Walter Mosley and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson.

Wednesday
At 6 p.m. Wednesday NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services presents a NYC Civil Service 101 session, on "everything you need to know about applying and becoming a civil servant." Sponsors include Council Member Laurie Cumbo, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, Senator Jesse Hamilton,Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblyman Walter Mosley and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson.

Also at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Letitia James is hosting a public safety town hall meeting in Brooklyn, with NYPD Chief of Patrol Carlos Gomez and Brooklyn North Borough Commander, Jefferey Maddrey.

Thursday
At 8:30 a.m. Thursday the Manhattan Borough Board, led by Borough President Brewer, will hold its August meeting.

At 10 a.m. Educators 4 Excellence will kick off the school year with its 2015 Member Summit and host new State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia as a guest speaker. There will be sessions on leadership, advocacy and finish the day with a school culture policy paper on climate change.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, the New York Young Republican Club is hosting its monthly meeting. Former Mayor of Walden, Brian Maher, will be the speaker. Elected at 23 years old, Mr. Maher was the youngest mayor in New York State.

City and State's fifth annual "On Energy" forum is scheduled for Thursday.

Friday and the weekend
Looking quiet right now, but we'll be keeping an eye out for end of week events, and you should too!

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

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, August 10-14


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday August 14

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: a Brooklyn street was officially renamed "Do The Right Thing Way," after the iconic Spike Lee movie, via Council Member Jumaane Williams

 do the right thing way jumaanewilliams

 TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Staten Island Standoff: There was a dramatic scene on Staten Island Friday as an individual with a long criminal record set fire to his home and began shooting at firefighters who responded, injuring one. Along standoff ensued, resulting in the apparent suicide of the suspect.

2. State Test Scores: 20% of 3-8 grade students opted out of taking New York State standardized test this year. Districts that fall below 95% participation could face sanctions from state and federal education departments. Opt-out in NYC was just 2%, though, and city students posted small gains on the annual exams, which were in their third year being much tougher and Common Core-aligned.

3. Legionnaires' Update: On Thursday, the City Council passed a bill that requires buildings with cooling towers to conduct quarterly inspections, in an effort to prevent future outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease. Mayor de Blasio has promised to sign the bill into law. The current outbreak is the largest in New York's history with more than 100 cases in the South Bronx, leading to 12 deaths. The outbreak appears to have abated, though, with no new cases diagnosed to have occurred since August 3.

4. Nail Salon Wage Bonds: Governor Cuomo announced that nail salon owners are required to secure a wage bond by October 6, 2015 or incur fines and penalties, which could include closing down the business. The wage bond requirement is part of the reforms Cuomo recently moved related to worker exploitation.

5. New Laws Signed - ADA, Uber, More: Monday, Mayor de Blasio signed a few new bills into law. One bill will show which parks are and are not in full compliance with ADA standards. One much-anticipated "Uber bill" was also signed, it requires the Taxi and Limousine Commission to study and present the impact of the growth in the taxi and for-hire vehicle industries.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 13 new members were appointed to the Mayor's Committee on City Marshals. The committee "establishes qualifying criteria for marshal candidates, identifies and recruits candidates, and recommends qualified individuals for appointment by the Mayor."
  • 74% of trains on weekdays and 81% of trains on weekends reach the end of their line within five minutes of their scheduled time in 2014, according to a new audit, which also shows a lot of delays.
  • 7 LaGuardia airport taxi dispatchers have been arrested and accused of bribery for letting cab drivers pay to skip the line.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for James Ferrara who will serve as acting President of New York City Transit.
  • It was a bad week for former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein: Amplify, the News Corp subsidiary he has been running is being shut down and sold off amid significant financial losses.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time last year, August 13, 2014, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced plans to reduce gun violence, with an initiative called "Gun Violence Crisis Management System." The initiative is based identifying and engaging individuals more likely to be involved in gun violence and intervening.
  • Twelve years ago, on August 15, 2003, was the largest blackout in history. At least eight states from the Northeast to the Midwest lost electricity and New York City was largely in the dark.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

***
by Erika Wang and Ben Max

Does Staten Island Get Its Fair Share?


si wheel

Rendering of proposed New York Wheel on Staten Island. (Perkins Eastman via NY Times)


There may be no other borough that has the local pride and identity felt by Staten Islanders. To be a Staten Islander often means to be of New York City and to be disconnected from New York City. It often means to know your family, but wonder if you were switched at birth.

Since New York City adopted its outer boroughs in 1898, Staten Island has always been the odd child out. Even for a city of islands, Staten Island seems, and is, far away. It is the enigma of New York City in virtually every aspect - at least most of it is, as the stereotypes of Staten Island sometimes belie its diversity.

Stand Island sits apart, though. Even the island accent is a bit more bombastic — more expressive, even — than the standard New York intonation. It’s important to have your voice stand out when you’re struggling to be heard.

The Staten Island existence has been, and continues to be, in some part dominated by its uneasy relationship with the larger city it is a part of, and the ongoing struggle its residents and elected representatives engage in to ensure that “the forgotten borough” gets its fair share.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Staten Island is the size of a key at the bottom left of the MTA subway map, which, of course, shows few lines cutting through the borough. It is a borough geographically far from the others, and population-wise, nowhere near a fifth of New York, with just under 500,000 residents in a city of over eight million. While much of the city is chasing rent, Staten Island has higher home ownership than any other borough, and its residents rely heavily on cars. For the most part, Islanders are big supporters of law enforcement, and it is a suburbia to many current and retired uniforms.

This is not to say that Staten Island is homogenous, of course. It is not.

The Island, aka Richmond County, looks more like America than the rest of New York City. Or, as Joe Borelli, one of only four Staten Islanders who serve in the 150-seat New York State Assembly, told Gotham Gazette, “New York looks at Staten Island weird, but it’s the rest of the country who’s looking at New York weird.”

It is the only borough with a clear white majority, at 77 percent of the population, compared to 12 percent African-American and 18 percent Latino, according to recent census figures. And the racial divide is stark: the North Shore is far more ethnically diverse and less wealthy than the South Shore and much of Mid-Island, with a reliance on public housing and apartment complexes to accommodate booming immigration populations. Staten Island has more registered Democrats, but most of its elected officials are Republican. This ruling conservatism makes it an outlier.

There’s been a longstanding feeling of disconnect, both figuratively and literally, between the residents of Staten Island and City Hall — pleas unheard, problems ignored. There is an ongoing sense on Staten Island that things simply aren’t fair.

It is the only borough without a full-service public hospital. Its transportation system, as many residents will tell you, is abysmal: besides the ferry, there is no direct route to Manhattan. Commuters are left with the more expensive buses that route through Brooklyn, and the always congested, pricey Verrazano Bridge, whose toll now stands at $5.50 each way (at the resident discount). The only intra-borough train in existence is the SI Rail, while no train operates from east to west. And the borough has been left with spots of land that are widely inaccessible by public transit.

The discontent is about funding, for sure, but not just about the money. It’s simply often part of what it means to be a Staten Islander - a sense of otherness, of not being understood or served by the public servants who are supposed to represent the *entire* city. But the question is: has the borough really been shortchanged? Under Mayor de Blasio or anyone else. That’s up for debate.

And Gotham Gazette is not the only entity looking for answers. Last week, the College of Staten Island announced that a $20,000 study will be conducted into whether or not the “forgotten borough” is truly forgotten. Pushed by City Council Member Steven Matteo and his predecessor as Minority Leader, Vincent Ignizio, the Council-funded research will essentially evaluate city services to see if Staten Island is getting its fair share. So, next time its delegates negotiate the city budget or other upcoming policy, the island will have a better idea of where it stands.

Well before that study gets underway, we set out to assess how much of its due Staten Island receives.

*****

As is the case with the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, Staten Island often votes against the city grain — it was the only borough de Blasio lost in his landslide 2013 victory over Republican Joe Lhota. In the City Council, Staten Island has three seats of the 51, which are allotted by population. Brooklyn has 16. “We have less representatives in the Council and Albany, which puts us at a disadvantage,” Borelli argued.

So, in late July, the small City Council delegation from Staten Island — Council Members Debi Rose, former Council Minority Leader Vincent Ignizio, and Steven Matteo — held a press conference alongside elected officials to announce big news for the borough: $30 million of Council funding in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget for capital and expense projects across the island.

The new infusion of cash would be pooled by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office, the Staten Island council member delegation, and the Borough President’s office. Causes from libraries and school lunches to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center were getting a financial boost. A Council spokesperson also pointed out efforts in last year’s budget to increase ferry service and establish business improvement districts.

“This Council recognizes the important contributions of Staten Island and is thrilled to invest back into the borough in order to strengthen New York City as a whole,” Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito noted.

“I thank Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and my colleagues in the Staten Island delegation for being partners in crafting a budget that responds to the real needs of Staten Islanders,” Council Member Rose added. Rose is the lone Democrat representing Staten Island in the Council, she is African-American and hails from the North Shore.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the $30 million jackpot is due more nuanced analysis. The new city budget includes a total of $78.6 billion for expenses. Then there’s $13.9 billion for capital projects across the city. Much of the full picture of what Staten Island receives is buried deep in those amounts, through mayoral agencies and city operations. This fogs up how the $30 million factors into a larger total, and what it means on the local level.

Take, for example, the funds for the borough presidents. James Oddo, Staten Island borough president and former member of the City Council, received the smallest BP allotment, $4.2 million, while Eric Adams, of Brooklyn, has $5.8 million to work with. Yet, per capita, Oddo has more money than any other BP. Adams has $5.8 million to spend on 2.6 million people, about five times the population of its somewhat distant neighbor.

ignizio oddo si heynowjo

(former SI Council Members Ignizio, foreground, & Oddo)

Generally, it’s quite difficult to break the city budget down borough-by-borough, so much so that the College of Staten Island needs a well-resourced study to get to the bottom of this. You cannot flip open city budget documents to see a full accounting of what resources are devoted to each borough - it’s just not so easy to decipher how much of FDNY or Department of Health expenses are going to serve Staten Islanders, though estimates are surely possible.

Still, there’s the concept of insurance, that as part of the larger city, Staten Islanders can believe that there are virtually unlimited resources available were they to need them. Though, one need not look further than Superstorm Sandy to see the complicated nature of such a point.

There are many complicating factors to really trying to suss out how the city allocates resources.

“Let’s say a nonprofit agency based in Manhattan provides some of its services in the Bronx. The value of the contract for the work in the Bronx would show up in the Manhattan district where the agency is located,” Doug Turetsky, a spokesperson for the Independent Budget Office, told Gotham Gazette. “Another problem with these statements, or assigning dollars to a particular location, comes up with NYPD. An officer may be assigned to a particular precinct and that’s where he or she gets paid from, but on any given day that officer may be working in any part of the city.”

Turetsky was referring to what are known as District Resource Statements, which are provided by the Office of Management and Budget. These show analyses of the funds dedicated to the districts in every borough by each agency - but, as Turetsky explained, they don’t necessarily give the full picture of what Staten Island is getting, or, perhaps, not getting from the city.

Instead, Turetsky pointed to Community Board Geographic Reports, which are also OMB documents. This is a fuller borough-by-borough breakdown of the major agencies in the city (e.g. Parks and Recreation, Sanitation, NYPD). So, to get an idea of how Staten Island stacks up, looking at an agency like Parks and Recreation can be helpful.

According to the latest Community Board Geographic Report, for FY 2016, which began July 1, the funds for Staten Island borough-wide parks and rec total upwards of $1.8 million, with 27 full-time park employee positions. Queens, meanwhile, has $3.9 million allocated for borough-wide recreation, with 47 full-time positions. Around the same budget increase is set to occur next year for both boroughs: $55,000.

Staten Island parks see about half the funding of Queens’ while the borough has more park land, but many fewer residents. The island boasts the title of “Greenest Borough,” having 113 city parks, which, with state parks included, constitute a third of the island’s land mass, 12,400 acres in total. Queens has more parks, but covering fewer total acres: 284 parks, 7,000 acres. Queens, though, has 2.3 million residents, while Staten Island has just over 500,000.

It is no surprise that in every category for the Department of Sanitation, meanwhile, Staten Island ranks lowest out of the boroughs — less people, less garbage.

That’s the main obstacle in comparing Staten Island, in general, with the rest of the city: the demands are completely different. Brooklyn, for comparison, serves nearly 300,000 students in its public schools, while Staten Island has 60,000 students. Speaking with Joseph Viteritti, the chair of the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at CUNY Hunter, about this, Gotham Gazette asked him how to sort through this reality and analyze any discrepancies. “It’s very hard to answer that,” he responded. “You can’t do a straight budget analysis, because the budget is driven by demand.”

And it’s not all about population, of course. Yes, Staten Island police districts may have smaller budgets, but if areas in Brooklyn have higher concentrations of violent crime, then it makes sense that Brooklyn precincts receive a bigger piece of the pie. The same applies to schools, sanitation, parks, and so on. Think about Manhattan, Viteritti said. Even with the smallest land mass of the five boroughs, it is home to Wall Street, countless skyscrapers, Central Park, and 1.6 million people; not to mention the hordes upon hordes of tourists.

“Of course Manhattan gets more money from the city [than Staten Island],” he explained. “How can you even compare the two?”

*****

Joe Borelli, the Assembly member set to soon replace Ignizio in the City Council, says Staten Island’s blues arise from its uniqueness. He says the problems faced by residents are unlike those anywhere else in New York. “Since as far back as the American Revolution,” Borelli muses, “Station Island was different, and disconnected.”

And though there are sections of Queens and other boroughs that resemble large swaths of Staten Island, there’s nowhere in the city with the combination of characteristics of the island, including its remoteness, limited public transportation, and more.

As a result of “the failures of urban liberalism” in the 1960s and 1970s, Borelli argues, his home island served as a refuge for white flight as crime skyrocketed elsewhere. This is why on the island, “everyone you know is related to a cop,” Borelli added. Yet, after Manhattan and other parts of the city regained social stability, many of the developments achieved over the past decade-plus have failed to make it across the Verrazano.

For example, the ferries that now ride up and down the East River, servicing the re-emergence of neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Long Island City. Albeit suspended until 2017, even Rockaway Beach, at the far southeast corner of Queens, had some sort of ferry service (in addition to the A train). Residents on the South Shore of Staten Island, on the other hand, are still waiting to be picked up.

Then there’s bikes. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg peppered the city with bike lanes and pedestrian plazas throughout the 2000s, Staten Island watched from the sidelines: the borough is more car-dependent than any other, with a far distance between the North and South shores. Hylan Boulevard, which is arguably the busiest thoroughfare in the whole borough, has rows of perpetually empty bike racks, which the city spent $60,000 to build, because a solid portion of the avenue has no lane dedicated to cyclists.

Whether Staten Islanders wanted bike racks—or lanes, for that matter—is up for debate. But the situation, Borelli explained, demonstrates this “general distaste” of residents towards the city’s larger urban planning ideas, of which they’ve been largely left out of. It is this uneven growth that has driven Borelli’s current (and unopposed) campaign to fill the empty seat left by Ignizio, who recently became the CEO of Catholic Charities on Staten Island. "Somebody has to speak for the millions of outer-borough, middle class homeowners that are lately placed on the back burner of city policy,” Borelli told DNAinfo, referring to more than just Staten Island woes.

When asked about the stark differences — population, size, demand — between Staten Island and the other boroughs, Borelli said that, yes, those things are true, but shouldn’t be the reasoning behind neglect. He then listed conundrums that could happen few places in the city but Staten Island. Parks built without sidewalks leading to them. Bike lanes delayed because of too much brush blocking them. Nearly $5 million spent on replacing trees.

“We have a lot of resources, but they’re left vacant or without funding,” Borelli argued. “We have more parkland than any other borough, and somehow have less of the Parks budget than everyone else. Where else can you ride an ATV in the city?”

“Find me a property anywhere else where the city builds a park but doesn’t put sidewalks in,” he continued. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

This frustration, as expressed by Borelli, is part of the Staten Island id. In 1993, it came to a boiling point when Staten Island attempted to secede from New York City. The referendum effort, led by State Senator John Marchi, was, of course, a culmination of built-up emotions, but the immediate catalyst was the approval of a new City Charter in 1989, which did away with the Board of Estimate. Instead of having one vote of five, like every other borough, Staten Island now had just three City Council members to represent its interests across the Narrows. The borough arose in protest.

At the time, Joe Viteritti was the staff director of a commission that looked into the economic self-sustainability of Staten Island, or if an island with the population of a small city could manage alone without the help of sister boroughs and City Hall. The studies showed that it was feasible, Viteritto says, but his team also found that, in 1993, the cost of Staten Island to the city outpaced the revenue it generated by about $200 million. In other words, the city was putting more into Staten Island than it was receiving.

“These analyses point to the surprising conclusion that separation of Staten Island from New York would actually provide budget relief for the city,” he wrote then, in City Journal. “From a strictly economic perspective, the other four boroughs would come out ahead.”

This didn’t convince either Mayor Ed Koch or Mayor David Dinkins, both of whom strongly opposed the referendum. When Governor Mario Cuomo let the legislation proceed in Albany, Koch said the Democratic leader was “plunging a dagger into the city’s heart.” But it wasn’t up to him.

“Honestly, the only reason secession didn’t go through is that the legislation needed approval in the State Assembly, and it didn’t get it,” Viteritti told Gotham Gazette. “Cuomo, and then Pataki, were ready to sign it. [Former Assembly Speaker from Manhattan] Sheldon Silver bears sole responsibility for why Staten Island is not its own independent city right now.”

Now, over twenty years later, Viteritti doesn’t know if things are the same on Staten Island. The most immediate demands of the secession movement were met, and, in many ways, that’s why everyone Gotham Gazette spoke with for this article said Rudy Giuliani is still the most popular mayor on the island, by far.

Giuliani, a Republican, had a 1994 platform aimed at addressing the island’s two main grievances: making the Staten Island ferry free and closing the Fresh Kills dump (both were eventually accomplished). “To think, what was more symbolic to Staten Islanders than a place where the city can leave all of its garbage?” Doug Muzzio quipped.

At the time, Muzzio, a political scientist at CUNY Baruch and longtime city expert, was tasked with polling Staten Island residents. He said a “victim narrative” existed, in which residents felt their input surpassed the output (later found to be untrue) and, in return, they got the city’s garbage. While their transportation issues are “legitimate” reasons to be angry, Muzzio added, “Staten Islanders have always thought they were forgotten, and if they did get city services, they were ill-timed,” he said. This is part of the island’s “mythology” - too little, too late.

Yet, to Muzzio, Giuliani fit the Staten Island mold. His last name sounded like it was cut from the borough’s fabric. He was close with the renowned Borough President then, Guy Molinari. He was incredibly pro-NYPD, and he was a Republican. Staten Islanders still reminisce about the Giuliani days as a time when the island was truly a part of the city. In a recent tweet, James Oddo, the current BP, named the Giuliani Years as one of the few times in its history when “Staten Island was treated better than fairly.”

The same can almost be said about Bloomberg. Once again, a Republican, if only in his early mayoral years, and very close with the law enforcement base. To Staten Islanders, Bloomberg’s reign was praised for lower crime rates, much-needed rezoning and development, and finally, a focus on fixing their vast parkland. His property tax hike wasn’t received well, but, like with the rest of New Yorkers, maybe it will be down the line.

"I think his legacy is not fully baked,” now former Council Member Ignizio said when Bloomberg left office. “I think coming from Rudy Giuliani, who was wildly popular on Staten Island...following that act was tough.”

More controversially, Bloomberg was mayor during Superstorm Sandy, a storm that devastated Staten Island, perhaps more so than any other borough. It left millions of dollars worth of damages, and still, to this day, has residents rebuilding their homes. Bloomberg’s attention to the disaster was received well, but his funding program — Build It Back — was not. The initiative, which was meant to siphon federal funds to those not insured, hadn’t issued a single check or broke ground on any related construction programs when he left office.

It was an utter failure in Staten Islanders’ eyes. And one that was saved by an unlikely, if quite unpopular, new figure who Islanders did not want elected and are still coming to terms with.

*****

There were all the ingredients for Staten Island scorn: a persecuted policeman, a progressive mayor the borough didn’t vote for, and a publicly drawn-out war that put the hometown base and new city leader on opposite sides. Not to mention that it happened just minutes from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and for all the world to see. The death of Eric Garner at the hands of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo set off what had already been a begrudged populace. Within a year of his mayoralty, de Blasio had lost any goodwill many Staten Islanders had extended him, largely because of his comments in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo.

Since then, his administration has made efforts to make it clear that City Hall does care about the mid-Island and South Shore constituency, with more visits, more funds for extensive capital projects, and a continued overhaul of Build it Back that finally has the program up and running - though many still find the pace too slow. Even with a 19 percent approval rating amongst Islanders, de Blasio seems set on establishing some island credentials, even against all odds. A progressive Democrat, from Brooklyn; at least he has the Italian last name.

"Mayor de Blasio has invested nearly $5 million a year to deliver 24/7 half-hour Staten Island ferry service, added over $240 million to improve road conditions, brought faster [snow] plowing to Staten Island residential streets, and improved the Build it Back program so residents are finally receiving checks and rebuilding their homes,” Monica Klein, a deputy press secretary for de Blasio, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “showing time and again that he is committed to improving the lives of Staten Islanders and giving the borough the attention it deserves.”

For the announcement on the repaving efforts, de Blasio made a trip to Staten Island after mounting criticism that he had zigzagged the country while spending little time in the “forgotten borough.” But praise was in the air from Staten Island officials. “Mayor de Blasio heard our pleas for help and delivered, and we are thankful for his commitment to improving our roads,” BP Oddo said, alongside the mayor, and a large "pave baby pave" sign from the borough president's office.

 

pave baby pave heynowjo

(via BP Oddo)

Still, many car-owning Islanders happy about new investments in roads may continue to point to de Blasio’s handling of the Eric Garner saga and a perceived lack of support for the NYPD. They are likely to pin any upticks in crime or perceived quality-of-life issues to the mayor’s legacy; a sentiment that is true across the city, but most acute on Staten Island. But regardless of what happens between the mayor and Islanders, there are strong forces at work that could drastically change just about everything on and about the island.

In April, the New York Times beat the gentrification drum with a headline that read, “Staten Island’s Turning Point?” The writer, C.J. Hughes, pointed out major developments that will mark the island coast in the near future: the New York Wheel (a massive London-Eye-esque ferris wheel), Empire Outlets (a huge mall complex), and numerous stores, coffee shops, and breweries. Not to mention a condo complex called Lighthouse Point and another called URL Staten Island, which, along with the Wheel and outlets, have been deemed the “core four” by The Real Deal, a development-focused publication.

While some are excited and see jobs afoot, others are skeptical. One resident remarked, “I like the small-town vibe, and I don’t mind that there’s a little bit of grit.”

Linda Baran, the director of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, says that the impending development is a conversation that the borough has yet to have. What will it do if thousands of New Yorkers start to move in, once again escaping the mainland, this time because of high rents, not crime? The spike in prices is something that “resonates through every conversation,” she said. Is Staten Island really ready for that?

“There is no dialogue about how the borough should receive the people coming in,” Baran told Gotham Gazette. “Now the idea is to bring new businesses here so people don’t have to leave.”

Baran argued that development could solve one of the main issues the island faces, and has always faced: vacancy. The shore, she said, is lined with empty industrial lots, which are not only a blight on the islandscape, but bad for business. She’s hoping that development will bring more attention to major borough-wide concerns, like infrastructure and healthcare, as it has in Brooklyn and Queens.

She added that the de Blasio administration has done a fine job of cutting red tape for small businesses, but other City Council-backed measures, like paid sick leave and ‘ban the box’ legislation disallowing background checks, are “good initiatives,” but have left Staten Island owners weary of City Hall intrusion. “I think the city has talked about fixing the business community here,” she told me. “But the businesses aren’t seeing that just yet.”

Still, Baran touched upon what could be a new chapter in the Staten Island mystique. After feeling forgotten for decades, this could be the future the island has longed for; one where it is on an equal playing field, both economically and culturally, with its borough brethren. There is a fear — or irony — that the borough could be on its way to getting more than it bargained for, with high-rise condos and public attractions threatening the Staten Island way of life, causing more traffic. Be careful what you ask for, some seem to be saying.

“We were always used to being last on the totem pole,” Baran said. “We were an escape for everyone. And now, the boroughs are saturated, and growth is a good thing.”

She paused, then said, “Things are changing.”

***

John Surico is a freelance metro reporter. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and here, on Gotham Gazette. He lives in Queens. Find him on Twitter @JohnSurico

@GothamGazette



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