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Progress Elusive as Bronx DA Cruises Toward Reelection

BX DA Johnson (AP)

Bronx DA Robert Johnson, foreground (photo: Associated Press) 

There’s a rooftop rock garden at the Bronx County Hall of Justice, the sprawling ten-story glass building that houses the county’s criminal and supreme courts. In theory, the space was designed to be a contemplative, community place, but in practice, it is not open to the public. Lawyers quip it has something to do with a potentially precarious confluence of angry people, the courthouse’s glass facade, and rocks.

The suggestion that people would throw rocks from a zen garden is both an ironic joke and emblematic of the frustration acutely felt in the Bronx court system. A central figure at the heart of this discontent is District Attorney Robert Johnson, up for re-election this year and seeking - so far unopposed - his eighth straight four-year term.

Elected to represent “the People,” Johnson is a virtual lock to secure a mechanical mandate returning him to the office, whether he faces a token opponent or not. It is likely that he will, yet again, be uncontested in a race that will culminate with little voter turnout.

Though just one cog in an overburdened system seen as dysfunctional in many ways, and operating in the city’s poorest borough, Johnson’s office has faced particular scrutiny, with many, including those who once worked in the office, questioning its efficiency and competence. Notably, it also appears to be an office home to little innovation, even as other district attorneys try new things.

To what extent criticism of Johnson is deserved is not immediately clear— the aggregate failings of the figurehead, the 400 attorneys who work for him, and “the system” are nearly impossible to parse and distinguish. But that does not diminish the pervasive dysfunction, manifested in astonishing backlogs, delays, low conviction rates, and concerns about how the office evaluates cases and handles the most high-profile among them.

The extreme likelihood that Johnson, a Democrat, will be re-elected with little to no pause serves to retain that status quo, and ensures that the Bronx District Attorney will be held to minimal public accountability leading to Election Day, but for by the press.

Culture of Delay
The overburdened Bronx criminal justice system, with an unprecedented backlog and slew of delayed cases, is notorious for being mired in a culture of delay.

In 2013, a New York Times series chronicled the dysfunctional system, finding that 73 percent of felony cases in the Bronx had exceeded the state court’s guidelines for excessive delay— 180 days.

Day to day, the signs of backlog are everywhere. On a recent visit to a courtroom processing arraignments at Bronx central booking, Gotham Gazette saw that nearly 20 of the thirty-plus people on the list waiting to be arraigned had been arrested and detained for over 24 hours, spending most of that time in the basement of the courthouse; the rest were approaching the 24-hour mark.

Next door at the Hall of Justice, defendants missing work or school can sit through hours of hearings as they anticipate their turn to stand before the judge. When Gotham Gazette visited one courtroom, an observer yawned, provoking a sharp rebuke.

“I heard someone yawn with a loud mouth. If you find out who it is, remove them,” the judge instructed a court officer. “There is no yawning with a loud mouth in my courtroom.”

The district attorney’s office was criticized for its role in maintaining the culture of delay— often attributed to a lack of judicial resources and defense attorneys— after 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide in June. Before his release and struggle to regain his footing, Browder spent three years at Rikers Island waiting for his day in court after allegedly stealing a backpack. Behind bars, Browder was beaten by guards and inmates, and spent months upon months in solitary confinement. News that the Bronx district attorney’s office finally admitted it had no witnesses, evidence, or a victim infuriated the public, spurring activists and politicians alike to call for criminal justice reform.

In a Daily News column, NY1 anchor Errol Louis wrote the responsibility for Browder’s death could not be placed on an abstract criminal justice system, but on its leaders, singling out Johnson.

“It must be noted that a heavy measure of responsibility lies with Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whose bungling subordinates contributed to the long delays in Kalief’s case. Johnson, who is up for re-election this year, is named in the lawsuit Kalief filed against the city before his death,” Louis wrote.

For Bronx City Council Member Andy King, the three years Browder spent in prison are the result of prosecutors’ preoccupation with getting convictions.

“What happened here with Kalief Browder, is that the district attorneys are more interested in convictions rather than the truth,” King said at a June press conference in front of Johnson’s office.

King introduced a bill to amend state criminal procedure law to compel open and early discovery— a policy King says Johnson does practice. In a separate interview, King told Gotham Gazette he likes Johnson and approves of the job he has done, but thinks that, as is the case with anything, there is room for improvement.

At the same press conference, Browder’s attorney Paul Prestia rebuked the district attorney, criticizing the delays he says Johnson’s office introduced that kept his client in prison.

“Kalief Browder languished in jail for three years while prosecutors delayed his case without any accountability,” Prestia said. “But I won’t digress into that and all of those details. You can speak to the so-called DA of this borough, and perhaps he’ll have the answers for you or something to say about it.”

District Attorney Johnson was not made available for an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Prestia told Gotham Gazette he hoped district attorneys would be held accountable for creating unreasonable delays.

“You’d think that with such a bureaucracy there’d be enough oversight that this wouldn’t happen,” he said of the backlogs in the Bronx court system. “Basically there’s no real sense of urgency on their part to go forward on cases.”

But a lack of urgency on the part of the district attorney’s office, real or perceived, likely does not tell the full story behind the pervasive culture of delay. Terry Raskyn, a spokesperson for Johnson’s office, attributed the delays to logistical issues and a lack of judicial resources.

“The law does not permit a “Law & Order” style of case management,” Raskyn said, referring to the TV series. “Every defendant and ‘the People’ have requirements that have to be met with regard to the opportunity to appear, plead, have motions made and decided upon, pretrial hearings, etc. Add to that the scheduling issues and you have delays,” Raskyn wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

“And then there is often delay in getting defendants produced, either from Rikers Island or other facilities – prisoner movement often delays scheduled appearances by hours, and those hours compound the problem.”

Also citing a lack of resources, Robert Dreher, an executive assistant district attorney in the office, dismissed the notion that prosecutors purposefully introduced delays.

“One of the primary problems we deal with is resources: judges, court rooms, stenographers, court officers that are needed...the more of that we have, the more efficient the system would be,” Dreher said. “We’re in favor of speedy trials...people sometimes think prosecutors like delays, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We want cases to go to trial quickly. Delays are for defendants’ benefit. Obviously no one wants someone sitting in jail waiting for trial for a long time, that’s not acceptable.”

The Bronx district attorney’s office is set to receive just over $58 million in funding through the city’s fiscal year 2016 budget, putting it behind New York County (Manhattan) and Queens County. The new fiscal year began July 1.

Though the office has seen slight increases to its budget in the last few years, in 2010 it was slashed and the office laid off 12 assistant district attorneys, Above the Law reported. In 2014, NBC news reported that Johnson led efforts on behalf of the city’s five district attorneys to meet with Mayor Bill de Blasio to discuss their budgets. A meeting was finally arranged after NBC’s report.

While the office did not respond to Gotham Gazette’s request for an interview, Johnson has discussed the function of his office in the recent past. “The major changes that need to be done are not in the way the system operates but in how the system handles the capacity of all the cases that come in. This is a statewide problem...I believe that we have really trailed behind in this issue for the past couple of decades,” Johnson told the Bronx Chronicle in 2014. “We need to take a long-term look concerning additional judges, additional courtrooms, and additional staff to better handle the caseloads we are getting in.”

A former assistant district attorney under Johnson, attorney Paul Martin, agrees.

“There were never enough courtrooms to meet the needs of having a defendant tried in a timely fashion, there is no doubt about that. So with more judges and more courtrooms, we’d be able to address the backlog of cases,” Martin said.

At the Hall of Justice, many of the trial parts — the term used to label a specific courtroom — were simply not open when Gotham Gazette visited on July 13. But it is also unclear how it is determined when a trial part is in use: a judge told attorneys all trial parts were in use when a visit to one nearby found another judge sitting in an empty room.

Even as it demands more trial parts, data shows that the Bronx district attorney’s office actually declines to prosecute cases more often than any of its counterparts across the city.

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, in 2014, the Bronx district attorney's office declined to press charges in 24 percent of violent felony arrests and roughly 16 percent of both felony and misdemeanor arrests. In contrast, in the same year, the Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to press charges in 4.1 percent of violent felony arrests, almost 3 percent of felony arrests, and just over 2 percent of misdemeanor arrests.

Those numbers— along with (and perhaps caused by) plummeting jury trial success rates— have led many to question whether the office is letting dangerous people walk free.

But Executive Assistant District Attorney Dreher says that the rates at which the office declines to press charges are indicative of the office’s practice of immediately rooting out weak cases.

“It’s not quite what it appears. Each office has a different way of approaching [evaluating a case]. Some offices, when the police officers make the arrest, they’ll bring the case in, they’ll process it, and then they go through and determine is it going be sufficient for trial, is it going to be sufficient to charge,” Dreher said. “We do triage much earlier in the case, we do it in the very beginning.”

But the office’s self-described careful triage has not prevented it from either accumulating a low conviction rate or from making a series of high profile blunders.

In April, the office came under fire after Bronx Criminal Court Judge John Wilson publicly condemned Assistant District Attorney Megan Teesdale for failing to reveal evidence that would have freed a man held on Rikers Island who was falsely accused of rape, the New York Daily News reported.

Later that month, the office was criticized for its “inexplicable” lack of follow-up in its role handling crimes committed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s mother. Prosecutors from the office failed to file routine papers to help recover stolen funds. As a result, Heastie was allowed keep a house his mother purchased with embezzled money; he later sold it and pocketed the profits, reported the New York Times.

In 2013, Johnson’s office declined to prosecute a group of corrections officers at Rikers who ignored a dying inmate’s pleas for medical assistance, citing a lack of evidence. The inmate’s death was ruled a homicide due to “neglect and denial of medical care.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged one of the officers, Captain Terrence Pendergrass, and was successful in seeking a conviction.

Community Context
In interviews, attorneys and politicians stressed the importance of understanding the problems specific to the Bronx when evaluating the district attorney. For attorney Jason Foy, a former ADA in the office, that understanding is particularly important when scrutinizing the Bronx DA’s conviction rate.

“I see articles about the conviction rate in the Bronx being lower than in other places. Well, that’s not necessarily the DA’s problem because that comes from a historical problem between the police and the community,” Foy said.

Bronx jurors are notoriously distrustful of the police— a dynamic rooted in policing practices like “stop-and-frisk,” broken windows enforcement, and Operation Clean Halls, in which police patrolled and searched apartment buildings and questioned residents. Johnson was lauded by Bronx residents in 2012 when he announced that his office would no longer prosecute people accused of trespassing in public housing who were searched and frisked unless the arresting officer explained the arrest to the office.

“When you’re an innocent person walking home, you don’t want to be searched and asked where you’re going. That experience, when you become a juror, impacts how you see the case. It’s hard for innocent people on those juries to just believe a cop automatically,” Foy said. “You may not have that same experience in Westchester County. In the Bronx it’s not that same type of deal...Now is that the DA’s fault?”

There will be little opportunity for voters to express their opinions of Distrcit Attorney Johnson at the polls this fall, given the lack of competition.

For former ADA Paul Martin, more troubling than the low conviction rate is what he described as “the lack of understanding or consistency” in the office’s recommendations for punishment.

“I thought there was a lack of understanding for the nature of the situation of the individuals and the community and situation in which they came from,” Martin said. “It was that lack of understanding that led individuals who never had any of that experience to be somewhat heavy-handed in the manner in which they would pick their cases.”

Foy noted that most lawyers in the office didn’t grow up in the Bronx.

“Most of them are not from there, they’re from other parts of the country, other less dysfunctional environments,” Foy said. “So that’s going to give you a different perspective.”

“Now, if you’re saying that the way the prosecutor's office doesn’t take into account some of these social issues that have historically plagued the area— that might be true, but,” Foy continued, “the prosecutor is there to do a job, they’re not there to address the social ills.”

by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, August 10

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

LEGIONNAIRES' FALLOUT: Monday morning at City Hall, Mayor Bill de Blasio will hold a bill-signing ceremony, beginning at 10 a.m. (full details below), and then, around noon, "the Mayor, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and elected officials will host a press conference to introduce new legislation to reduce future risk of Legionnaires' disease, and provide an update on the containment of the outbreak," according to the mayor's public schedule.

The Legionnaires' outbreak - the worst one the city has seen in many years - seems to be abating, with no new cases diagnosed since August 3 (just over 100 people have been treated for the disease in this outbreak) and no deaths reported over the past few days (the death toll stands at ten), according to the mayor's office on Sunday evening. There is ongoing investigation, cleaning, and scrutiny over the handling of the outbreak and the response has become another touchpoint in the ongoing drama between de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. At the end of last week, Cuomo announced he was sending state teams to do inspections and deployed his health commissioner. He refused to say that the city had been doing its job and indicated that it was necessary for the state to step in because the city was not handling the outbreak well. Federal CDC officials gave the city credit for taking all due actions. While de Blasio is introducing legislation this week, Cuomo is promising statewide regulations (Legionnaires' is not just a problem in the Bronx or in New York City).

POLLS & POLS: Meanwhile, on Sunday the mayor and the governor were both marching in the Dominican Day Parade. Before the parade, Cuomo was honored by elected officials and others: "Cuomo was honored at two Dominican Day Breakfasts in New York City before marching in the Dominican Day Parade. The Governor was presented with the Juan Pablo Duarte Award for his commitment to the Dominican community at a breakfast hosted by Senator Adriano Espaillat. The Governor also received an award for his leadership in combatting worker exploitation at a breakfast hosted by Assemblyman Guillermo Linares," according to the governor's office. Virtually all of the city's top Democrats (Cuomo, AG Schneiderman, Public Advocate Tish James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, etc.) were at Espaillat's event other than the mayor.

Last week was a busy, and tough, one for de Blasio, including announcements on action to combat violence committed by people with severe mental illness and that his Legionnaires' Disease legislation would be coming, as well as that a new FDNY labor deal had been struck, and more. There were also new poll numbers released by Quinnipiac, including on public approval of de Blasio and Cuomo, among others, with some tough numbers for the mayor. More issue-related results from the latest Quinnipiac Poll are due out Monday morning.

SPECIAL ELECTIONS: We're just a few weeks away from the special election in City Council District 23, where the September Democratic primary to replace Mark Weprin, who resigned to work for Gov. Cuomo, will all but determine the next rep for the Queens district. It's a crowded primary field and, along with the other races on the ballots of New York City voters, will kick off a packed series of voting opportunities over the next 14 months, culminating with the November 2016 presidential election. Read our full rundown here.

SPEAKING OF THE CITY COUNCIL: The New York City Council is back in action this week, with several committee hearings and the lone full-body Stated Meeting of August (on Thursday). The Council will likely be passing through new legislation aimed at preventing Legionnaires' Disease outbreaks, like the one currently occurring in the Bronx, and other legislation. [Read our look at City Council legislation on the table to regulate city airspace in terms of helicopter and drone use]

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our 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:

At 6 a.m. Monday on a press conference call, Quinnipiac Polls' Maurice Carroll will discuss the latest results, including New Yorkers opinions on Uber, bridge tolls, and Wal-mart, among other things. Keep an eye out for those poll numbers and related stories, along with more analysis of the results released last week by Quinnipiac about Mayor de Blasio and other city officials and issues.

At 9:30 Monday morning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will speak at Black Girls Code summer camp kickoff, at Pace University. At about 11:30, Brewer will attend High School for Media and Communications mural unveiling celebration, at the George Washington Educational Campus.

At 10 a.m. at City Hall, Mayor de Blasio "will hold public hearings for and sign Intros. 849 and 235, in relation to the naming of 51 thoroughfares and public places and renaming of Court Square in Queens, amending the official map of New York; Intro. 558-A, in relation to an annual report on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act standards for accessible design; Intros. 89-A and 830-A, in relation to the City's Adult Protective Services program; Intro. 847-A, in relation to a study on the impact of growth in the taxicab and for-hire vehicle industries; and Intro 425-A, in relation to communications resiliency...Immediately following the public hearing, the Mayor, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and elected officials will host a press conference to introduce new legislation to reduce future risk of Legionnaires' disease, and provide an update on the containment of the outbreak."

Also at 10 a.m. Monday, Public Advocate Letitia James will attend the funeral for Magnus Mukoro at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn. At about 12:15 p.m. Monday, James will speak at a "Human Trafficking Roundtable" at Queens Borough Hall.

And at 10 a.m. the Department of Consumer Affairs is hosting a public hearing and "opportunity to comment on proposed sidewalk cafe insurance rule."

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, Comptroller Stringer will distribute the first copies of the Haitian Creole Edition of the Immigrant Rights and Services Manual, at Flatbush Caton Market in Brooklyn.

At 1 p.m. Monday, "Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus hold criminal justice roundtable discussion of Executive Order 147 and other community issues," according to Cuomo's public schedule. It is a closed press event, but "a media Q&A will be held following this briefing, at approximately 1:45 p.m."

At about 5:15 p.m., Cuomo and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will be honored by the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee "for their work to combat sexual assault and rape on college campuses," at the Grand Hyatt, Manhattan.

At 5:30 p.m. the Department of Education is hosting a public meeting of the contracts committee of the Panel for Educational Policy.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will hold a hearing on several land use items. Please see agenda for details.
  • The Committee on Housing Buildings will hold a hearing on Introduction 145-2014 in relation to the installation of fire sprinklers in certain establishments that provide services for animals,  Introduction700-2015 in relation to required disclosures by persons making buyout offers, Introduction 757-2015 in relation to amending the definition of harassment to include certain buyout offers, and T2015-3428,  in relation to regulation of cooling towers.
  • The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will hold a hearing on several land use items. Please see agenda for details.
  • The Committee on Consumer Affairs will hold a hearing on Introduction 287-2014, in relation to price displays on all signs posted by gas stations other than signs on dispensing devices, Introduction 586-2014,  in relation to signs, posters or placards that advertise gas prices, and Introduction 682-2015, in relation to conduct in connection with offers to induce a person to vacate a dwelling unit.
  • The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will hold a hearing on several land use items. Please see agenda for details.

At 3 p.m. there will be a "Grow Your Small Business With Tech" workshop with speeches from Comptroller Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley, counsel to the Mayor.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board is offering a Compliance only training session for the 2017 election cycle at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. "Compliance trainings cover campaign finance laws and CFB rules. C-SMART trainings provide an overview of the CFB's web-based application, which campaigns must use to manage and disclose financial activity. The candidate, treasurer, campaign manager and any individual with significant managerial control over the campaign is legally required to attend both a Compliance and a C-SMART training."

On Tuesday evening in Manhattan, 350 NYC, the local affiliate of 350.org, an environmental group, is holding a forum on climate change and fossil fuels: "We will explore various financial strategies for how we can keep fossil fuels in the ground to prevent catastrophic climate change. Should institutions divest from fossil fuel companies? Or, should they remain invested in these companies to influence their policies as shareholder activists?" Confirmed speakers include City Council Member Helen Rosenthal; State Senator Liz Krueger, and Scott Zdrazil, Director of Strategy and Corporate Engagement, Office of New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. Many co-sponsors of the event include Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition; Sierra Club, NYC Group; and Greater NYC for Change.

On Tuesday evening in the Bronx, there will be another town hall on the Legionnaires' Disease outbreak, led by Public Advocate Letitia James and many Bronx elected officials like Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Assembly Member Michael Blake.

At 9:30 a.m. the Department of Consumer Affairs is hosting an open house training series on NYC paid sick leave.

At 10 a.m. the New York City Department of Probation, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and New York City's Young Men's Initiative are sponsoring the 2015 Brooklyn Youth Anti-Violence Summit.

At 11 a.m. the City Council Committee on Land Use is meeting.

At 6 p.m. the New York League of Conservation Voters Young Professionals will be holding a happy hour event. City Council Member and Chair of Environmental Protection Committee Costa Constantinides will be a guest speaker.

The New York City Panel for Educational Policy will meet Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. in Manhattan.

At 6:30 p.m. the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board will host a public board meeting.

At 7 p.m. BetaNYC will host its weekly hacknight, this time at Civic Hall and in partnership with Code for America Brigade program, Microsoft Civic and Accela.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board is offering a C-SMART only training session for the 2017 election cycle at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. "Compliance trainings cover campaign finance laws and CFB rules. C-SMART trainings provide an overview of the CFB's web-based application, which campaigns must use to manage and disclose financial activity. The candidate, treasurer, campaign manager and any individual with significant managerial control over the campaign is legally required to attend both a Compliance and a C-SMART training."

At 9 a.m. there will be a "Capital Region Campaign School 2015" hosted by Emily's List and NYSUT, the teachers union, and open to "progressive women candidates, future candidates and campaign staff."

The next public meeting of the New York City Campaign Finance Board will be held on Thursday at 10 a.m. The meeting will be located at 100 Church Street, 12th Floor, in the CFB's Board Room in Lower Manhattan.

At 10 a.m. the City Council Committee on Finance is "approving the new designation and changes in designation of certain organizations to receive funding in the Expense Budget."

At 1:30 p.m. City Council is holding its lone August full-body Stated Meeting.

At 2 p.m. the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and American Society of News Editors are hosting a "community dialogue on pedestrian safety and traffic policy in New York City and the media's role in covering the issue."

Friday and the weekend
We're keeping an eye out for weekend events as the week begins.

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

by Erika Wang and Ben Max

Note: this article has been corrected to remove mention of the City Council possibly passing through new mandatory inclusionary zoning rules this week. That will not be happening.

The Week That Was in New York Politics, August 3-7

week in review bus readers

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

Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday August 7

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and others carry a symbolic casket as part of an anti-violence campaign, via Ross Barkan; Mayor Bill de Blasio and comedian Louis C.K., who was shadowing the mayor for two days, outside City Hall, also via Ross Barkan

adams casket barkan

BdB Louis CK Barkan


1. Schneiderman Special Prosecutor Case: Earlier this week Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his first case as special prosecutor in police involved deaths of unarmed civilians would investigate the circumstances surrounding Raynette Turner’s death. [Read our in-depth look at how the new executive order shifts the relationship between oft-rivals Gov. Cuomo & AG Schneiderman]

2. Academic Integrity Task Force: After new allegations of issues with academic integrity at certain schools, NYC DOE Chancellor Carmen Fariña is establishing a permanent task force that provides oversight and training to ensure all schools comply with “rigorous policies and standards.”

3. Legionnaires’ Outbreak: On Friday, the numbers stood at just over 100 people infected, with ten dead in the most recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, this one in the Bronx. New York City buildings with water-cooling towers have to “assess and disinfect the units within the next two weeks,” under Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett’s new directive. On Thursday Mayor de Blasio said that there would be “substantial action next week, legislatively.”

4. De Blasio Mental Health/Public Safety Initiative: On Thursday Mayor de Blasio announced “NYC Safe,” a $22 million initiative, designed to find and help people with severe mental health issues and violent tendencies. The initiative will combine clinical treatment and law enforcement to intervene before or after violence occurs. The plan is part of a larger “mental health roadmap” that First Lady Chirlane McCray will unveil in September.

5. UFA Contract Agreement: On Thursday the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which covers 8,000 firefighters and FDNY personnel, and the City announced they had reached a tentative contract agreement. The deal includes new disability legislation, a key point of contention in negotiations. According to the administration, 83 percent of the city workforce is now under contract, after the number was zero when de Blasio took office.



  • It was a good week for firefighters, who agreed to a new contract with the city that will see pay rise by 11 percent over seven years, including retroactivity. There is also good news for the 8,000 or so members of the UFA in terms of engine company staffing and disability pension.

  • It was a bad week for Mayor de Blasio - according to a new Quinnipiac poll, his approval rating among NYC voters is at 44%, “the worst net approval rating of his tenure.”


  • About 125 years ago, on August 6, 1890, in New York, William Kemmler became the first person to be executed by electrocution. The alternative method would have been a hanging. Kemmler was shocked twice, the second time at 1,030 volts for two minutes, before he died.

  • About this time last year, August 7, 2014, Mayor de Blasio announced a public-private partnership that would allow the City to “unlock and analyze municipal decision-making information” from the City Record and publish the record online while signing new legislation into law. The City Record has daily info from the city on government procurement, public hearings, and hiring, among other topics.


All from a big Thursday evening:

  • New York Senator Chuck Schumer announced he is voting against President Obama’s Iran deal.

  • The first Republican presidential primary debate was held Thursday evening.

  • Jon Stewart signed off as host of The Daily Show after 16 years. Watch his final episode here.

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

No Fly Zone: Council Members Push Helicopter, Drone Regulations

garodnick vallone drones

Council members introduce drone legislation (photo: William Alatriste)

Pointing to insufficient efforts on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration, New York City Council members are taking regulation of the city’s skies into their own hands.

In asserting their authority with respect to helicopters and drones on a turf traditionally maintained by the federal government, council members may find themselves in ambiguous legal territory. But they tell Gotham Gazette that they are acting in the interest of public safety and in part to push other levels of government to act.

Council Members Carlos Menchaca, Helen Rosenthal, and Margaret Chin introduced a legislative package of two bills last month that would prohibit the operation of sightseeing helicopters, citing concerns about noise pollution. The council members are supported by “Stop the Chop NYNJ,” a group of community members who complain the noise from sightseeing helicopters are diminishing quality of life.

“What we’ve tried to do is approach this issue from the perspective of the FAA, from the federal body that’s required to regulate this industry. And we’ve tried so hard to regulate this industry to some avail, but not totally dealing with the problems,” Rosenthal said a press conference in July. “What we’ve done at the City Council is identify a different way to deal with the problem, and that is through the issue of noise. And in fact what the city can do is to ban tourist helicopters...they are responsible for this incessant noise.”

The City Council does not have the authority to regulate airspace over the city in terms of flight patterns— that’s under the purview of the FAA. But the council does have some regulatory power, as Rosenthal referenced.

“If the federal government is regulating a field, then federal law generally will trump state law or local law and the question is, did the federal government intend to preempt the field—  that is, is the federal government doing all regulations of of all helicopters, or did it allow some discretion to the City of New York?” Steven Mirmina, a professor at Georgetown Law and expert in aviation law, told Gotham Gazette. “It looks like [City Council members] did a balancing where they said the federal government regulates a lot of aspects for helicopters, but there is some discretion for the city to regulate also.”

Part of the regulatory power stems from the city’s capacity as a proprietor, according to aviation attorney Brian Alexander.

“The heliports themselves are owned by the city or the Economic Development Corporation, so…their control of the heliports is the principal way in which the city can control or even ban these types of flights,” Alexander said.

This power was affirmed in 1998 after Mayor Giuliani and the City Council approved regulations to reduce helicopter traffic at the 34th Street heliport by nearly 50 percent and to ban weekend flights. The Second Circuit Court largely upheld City Hall’s regulations in an appeal after the operator of the heliport, National Helicopter Corporation, successfully sued the city.

As proprietors of the heliports, the City Council has the power to impose “reasonable, nonarbitrary, and non-discriminatory” regulations on noise levels. In the 1998 case National Helicopter Corporation v. City of New York, the Court held that the city was acting lawfully in its role as a proprietor— and not as a “police power”- when imposing regulations. Had the city been acting as a police power, the legal grounds for regulating the heliports would have been much more tenuous.

“The regulation [banning weekend flights] is based on the City's desire to protect area residents from significant noise intrusion during the weekend when most people are trying to rest and relax at home,” and thus was permissible, Chief Judge Winter wrote in the decision.

Importantly, the bill introduced last month prohibits the operation of helicopters based on their “stages,” or noise levels designated by the FAA (There are three stages— the bill bans all of them). When the Council tried to regulate noise from helicopters in 1996 by putting restrictions on the size of helicopters that could fly in and out of the 34th street heliport (the rationale being that larger helicopters are noisier), the Second Circuit Court found that such regulation was discriminatory.

But Mirmina, the law professor, pointed out that the helicopter bill’s scope— targeting only sightseeing helicopters— could be problematic.

“If they’re concerned about the noise, they could say no helicopters over a certain decibel level. What about media helicopters? Those could be noisier than the tourist helicopters. You could have a sightseeing helicopter that’s really quiet. Why are we going to ban all sightseeing helicopters?” Mirmina asked. “So such a ban to me is, while on its face nondiscriminatory, it may also be viewed as not reasonably calculated to achieve their objective of keeping the skies more quiet.”

Another potential problem with the bill: because the city does not have the authority to control airspace, it can’t ban the tours outright.

“Anything that the city does regulating helicopters…will have no effect on how many helicopters will fly in the city’s airspace, that is 100 percent under the control of the FAA,” said Chapin Fay, vice president of Mercury, the public strategy firm representing tour industry group Helicopters Matter. “So for example, they could take off and land in New Jersey, they could go to Connecticut or Long Island but they still could fly the same routes they’re flying now.”

But sightseeing helicopter operators in New Jersey may soon find themselves shut out of the state as well: in March, three Garden State Assembly members introduced a bill that would prohibit tourist helicopter operations from taking off and landing on “all aviation facilities licensed by the state.”

The bills, now introduced to the City Council Committee on Environmental Protection and with eight sponsors in the 51-member body, may see a first hearing as soon as September. They are the latest in a long line of efforts to regulate helicopter traffic in New York.

In 2010, the Economic Development Corporation and helicopter operators agreed that helicopters would no longer fly over Central Park, the Empire State Building, or Brooklyn. The agreement also eliminated short tours between four and eight minutes. Those tours made up one-fifth of sightseeing traffic at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, and were the most profitable for helicopter operators, the New York Times reported.

In 2008, Air Pegasus, the operator of the heliport at 30th Street, agreed to eliminate sightseeing tours after the Friends of the Hudson River Park sued the company, arguing that the location of the heliport on the land side of the park violated the law. This agreement— paired with the 1998 ruling of National Helicopter Corp. v. City of New York— left the downtown Manhattan heliport the only one open to sightseeing tours.

While helicopter regulation has a fairly lengthy New York City history, drone regulation does not. The question of the extent of the city’s authority to regulate aircraft becomes perhaps more pressing— and more ambiguous— as unmanned aviation vehicles (UAVs), or drones, become more prevalent.

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) famously described New York City as the “wild west” of drones. Underlining his point is the series of near-collisions drones have caused near John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports and a close call with a NYPD helicopter over the George Washington Bridge, to name a few of the twelve or more incidents in the past year alone.

In considering regulation, elected officials have also cited privacy concerns, as drones with cameras attached to them become more affordable for the average citizen to purchase. But federal regulations lag behind the increase in popularity.

In 2012, Congress passed a reauthorization act related to the FAA that, among other requirements, compelled the agency to release finalized rules for UAVs by September 2015. A government audit last March, one month after the agency released proposed rules, concluded they would not make the deadline. Finalized rules are not expected for another year.

In the interim, state and local governments are under pressure to tread into the murky territory of drone law.

“Local governments right now are in a really tough position when it comes to drones. And in New York I think that's probably especially true, not just because of what happened at JFK last week. So every time there’s a negative drone incident, it puts additional pressure on local officials,” said attorney Stephen Hartzell, who specializes in UAS law.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown released a statement Tuesday urging hobbyists to “use common sense when choosing to employ unmanned vehicles,” noting that his office “will utilize all legal tools available to insure the safety of those in the air and on the ground.” Queens, of course, is home to both of the city's major airports.

City Council members have introduced two bills looking to curb the use of drones. One, introduced by Council Member Dan Garodnick would ban drones from the city’s airspace with the exception of NYPD drones that had obtained a warrant. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Garodnick acknowledged that his bill starts from the “strictest possible place.”

“Our bill is very strict, largely because there exist insufficient tools for enforcement. If you start allowing drones at certain heights or in certain areas or conditions, law enforcement needs to have the ability to both monitor and take action when people do not follow those rules,” Garodnick said in reference to what could become quite onerous enforcement. “Today, there is no credible way to do that.”

Garodnick said that he believes there is reasonable place and time for drone enthusiasts to operate their unmanned aerial systems, but doesn’t want to “open the floodgates” before tools to enforce regulations exist.

The second bill, introduced by Council Member Paul Vallone, would seek to impose a series of regulations on drone usage.

Vallone’s bill would prohibit using UAVs for surveillance purposes, at night or operating them within five miles of any airport and within a quarter mile of schools, houses of worship, hospitals and “open-air assemblies.” Importantly, it also would require users to operate their drones within their line of sight, a requirement also suggested by the FAA.

“The legal side of me is always looking to put in a bill that’s actually got a good chance of passing, an outright ban on something to me is a real hard way to go about a proper balance,” Vallone said. “This bill was put in with the intention of trying to find a balance of places that really need to be protected and giving people a place to fly these if they so choose to do so for their recreation.”

The two drone bills take different degrees of approaching the same issue. Both bills enjoy support from other council members: Garodnick’s bill has 14 sponsors, Vallone’s has 23 (as of August 7). Interestingly, there’s overlap within those numbers, with Council Members Costa Constantinides, Daniel Dromm, Julissa Ferreras, Rory Lancman, and Jumaane Williams listed as co-sponsors of both bills.

Vallone explains his bill would act as an interim measure until the FAA releases final rules for UAS operation.

“With the absence of federal, or FAA, guidelines, then we as the greatest city have to take steps to protect ourselves. Once we have our hearing - let’s be positive - the bill gets passed and becomes law, it still would be preempted or superseded by whatever FAA guidelines come out,” Vallone said. “But hopefully they would take note of the steps we took as a city.”

Garodnick struck a somewhat cooler stance when asked how he envisioned his bill would interact with the FAA’s forthcoming regulations.

“When the FAA puts together rules that protect the safety of New Yorkers, and when they fully occupy the field of law with their own rules, we will defer. Until that happens, we need to act to protect the privacy and safety of people here,” Garodnick said.

Whether local governments’ efforts may be preempted by FAA regulation is unclear and likely won’t be resolved for several years, according to Hartzell, the attorney.

“It’s very easy for people to say, ‘wait a second, isn’t this preempted? The FAA regulates the airspace, the federal government has sovereignty over our airspace so therefore how can any local or state authority possibly do anything?’” Hartzell said. “And the answer is, it depends on what they want to do and how they do it, and what I promise you is that we won’t fully know unless and until there is a law passed that winds up being challenged in court.”

To Hartzell, an interesting ambiguity in both Vallone’s and Garodnick’s bills is the clause that would allow someone to operate a UAV “pursuant to and within the limits of an express authorization by the Federal Aviation Administration.”

Express authorization, according to Hartzell, could be interpreted to include FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, which sets voluntary guidelines for flying model aircraft. Though the circular was signed into effect in 1981, its scope includes recreational drones (the FAA put in a request last year to formally cancel the advisory).

“There’s going to be someone that challenges a rule or law that flatly prohibits drone operation. This [language] is interesting because it seems to contemplate some sort of operation as long as somebody is expressly authorized by the FAA,” Hartzell said. “So the question is, what does that mean? It could mean that the FAA has to grant somebody specific permission or what somebody is likely to argue is [the advisory circular] could be interpreted as an express authorization written by the FAA itself.”

Garodnick told Gotham Gazette that he does not interpret AC 91-57 as giving “express authorization” because it’s an advisory memo, not an individual grant.

The FAA does grant companies and individuals such authorizations, giving them the permission to operate drones in a “continuing effort to safely expand and support commercial unmanned aircraft operations in U.S. airspace.” The FAA has passed over 1000 of these so-called “Section 333 exemptions.” Those who receive Section 333 exemptions would be allowed to operate drones over the city, Garodnick said.

“Councilman Vallone and I are after the same thing, which is a responsible set of rules that protects New Yorkers in a changing technological environment. We put those bills out to start this conversation,” Garodnick said (he and Vallone held a joint press conference to announce their bills). “We want to hear feedback from the public at a hearing and we hope that we will be able to craft cutting edge rules which protect New Yorkers and also open the door to some of the novel and exciting uses for drones once we have appropriate enforcement mechanisms.”

by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette

Another Way of Looking at Infill Housing Development

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The Mayor's NYCHA plan (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

The mayor touted the number of affordable apartment units - 20,325 - as a one-year record, and far from anything seen in the city since Mayor Ed Koch’s ambitious housing plans of the ‘80s. The 20,000-plus, which includes both new and preserved units, is a big first step toward the de Blasio administration’s plan to build 80,000 entirely new affordable units and preserve another 120,000 over the next ten years. And, at a July 13 press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the accomplishments of his first full fiscal year in office.

But, in addition to political and economic capital, the 80,000 new units key to de Blasio’s plan require substantial space: a challenge in crowded and expensive New York real estate. In an attempt to clear this hurdle, the administration is revisiting an idea from the final months of the Bloomberg years: facilitating private development on property owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

De Blasio is seeking to at once short up NYCHA finances, make inroads toward his affordable housing goals, and, it appears, foster community development around public housing long seen as isolated. In fact, the latter may see the most progress of all three goals as the administration moves on so-called “infill” development.

In May, the de Blasio administration announced NYCHA Next Generation, a ten-year plan to raise capital for the beleaguered public housing authority through focused private development on its campuses. Under the plan, land on NYCHA campuses will be leased out to private developers, who will build new rental units adjacent to existing public housing. While NYCHA will not operate the developments, new apartment buildings will be required to include a proportion of affordable housing, and the agency will retain ownership of all property and receive revenue from the ground leases.

The mayor heavily stressed that Next Generation intends to both alleviate NYCHA’s capital budget woes and contribute to the broader affordable housing effort. “These two pieces will work hand in hand,” de Blasio said on May 19, “to begin with, there will be 10,000 new units of affordable housing created on underutilized and unutilized NYCHA property…It will contribute a crucial piece of our affordable housing plan — almost five percent of all the units that we create and preserve will be through [NYCHA Next Generation].”

Although the numbers are promising, impact from the newly built housing may be greatest as a targeted investment in community development, rather than just a five percent contribution to the goals of Housing New York. Infill can be a vehicle toward integrating public housing in a surrounding community. Beyond affordability, smart development on NYCHA’s “underutilized and unutilized” land has the potential to make an impact on other long-awaited reforms called for by community, transit, and planning advocates.

The Nature of Infill
Developing on under-utilized land in urban areas is often broadly referred to as “infill development” -- and combining infill development with affordable housing has a notably mixed history in New York City, especially when involving NYCHA. High costs of developing on small parcels of land can often become unfeasible for developers unless building at incredible density -- often defying existing zoning codes -- or for a small number of luxury units.

Historically, in an effort to spur affordable housing, the city has offered incentives both in the zoning code and in tax breaks, including the state’s controversial 421-a program, which was infamously used by the developers of the luxury tower One57 Park to earn a tax abatement of as much as $66 million, in exchange for building only 66 affordable units at a different site in the Bronx.

In 2013, the Bloomberg administration similarly proposed leasing NYCHA property for private development. The plan drew ire from affordable housing advocates and politicians, including then-candidate de Blasio, for extending the same low proportion of affordable housing as in other Bloomberg-era affordability programs: 20 percent affordable, 80 percent market-rate. Under fire and counting the days until exit, the Bloomberg administration ultimately deferred action on the NYCHA infill plans to the de Blasio administration.

The recent revision of 421-a in Albany, Mayor de Blasio’s recently announced mandatory inclusionary zoning proposal, and NYCHA Next Generation all similarly aim to mandate higher proportions of on-site affordable housing development than the norm during the Bloomberg years.

NYCHA and the Mayor’s Office have been quick and adamant to emphasize that Next Generation is different, particularly in that it will require much higher proportions of affordable housing when building on NYCHA grounds. The first three Requests for Proposals for three sites in Brooklyn and the Bronx are all for 100 percent affordable housing units. And going forward, the exact proportion of affordable housing requirements will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

So far, community advocates seem to be pleased with this new approach. Moses Gates, Director of Planning and Community Development at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), praised the current administration’s approach as balanced: “under Bloomberg we saw it go all the way to one direction, where the idea was let's just do the deals and get as much money as we can for NYCHA,” said Gates. ”The de Blasio approach is a balanced approach, where we are trying to build low-income housing but we are also trying to improve NYCHA's financing situation.”

But where some see balance in this plan, others see tension. Howard Husock of the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute considers infill development on NYCHA land a “neat solution for all those concerned -- there's no need to rezone, there's no need to buy the land, there's no need to finance the purchase of the land.”

However, Husock worries that filling in land with affordable units may have much more limited effects than market rate development would. “20,000 units, $618 million in direct city funding, that means that a relatively small number of New Yorkers are going to get the benefit of an extremely large investment on the part of the city,” Husock said, referring to the 20,000 new or preserved units touted by de Blasio for fiscal year 2015.

Moreover, affordable units risk wasting an opportunity to fully leverage the ground-leasing revenues at potentially high-value sites such as the Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn -- one of the sites included in the first round of RFPs. In Husock’s view, when NYCHA opts for 100 percent affordable sites, “the beneficiaries become those in the apartments and not those in the surrounding areas.”

Balancing the value of building more affordable units against the prospect of raising revenue is a task that the administration will have to carefully navigate when drafting each RFP. With each decision, NYCHA is likely to draw criticism from those who would prefer to see either maximum affordability or maximum revenues. Ultimately, to Husock, it comes down to the question, “is our goal to create more units no matter where, or is our goal to diversify economically as many neighborhoods as we can, even if it’s for a relatively small number of lower income tenants?”

While Husock’s question may be a very good one, a fundamental idea underpinning Next Generation is that development on NYCHA campuses could have potential knock-on effects beyond the apartments for the new residents themselves or the revenue for NYCHA.

Community Development by Another Name
To some affordable housing advocates, development outcomes are decidedly not just about the number of units, despite the mayor’s focus on the figures. Gates of ANHD is explicit: “it's not the point to just produce whatever you can however you can … When we give the administration credit or try to hold the administration accountable, it's not because they hit their number or they didn't hit their number, it's because they're building the right kind of housing, and they're approaching it in a community-based way.”

The perspective is not limited to advocacy. City Council Member Brad Lander, a leading voice on affordable housing in the Council’s Progressive Caucus and the Council’s Deputy Leader for Policy, acknowledges that in the grand scheme, “the new units proposed in the mayor's plan won't be enough to change the broader market dynamics.”

Rather, Lander highlighted that new units would not only benefit their future residents, but also alter an entire neighborhood’s “ability to stay diverse and be inclusive down the road, and [the new units] certainly prevent the problem from getting worse.”

NYCHA complexes are often a series of public housing towers that become isolated, insular neighborhoods unto themselves.

For Gates and ANHD, considering affordable housing as an element of a larger community empowerment initiative is ideal. “Optimally, the approach of the housing plan, and the administration policy overall, is a way to empower local communities, to invest in local communities, to create stable sustainable livable neighborhoods,” Gates says.

In some instances, community development could be achieved by just the act of building anything at all, regardless of whether the focus is affordability or generating revenue.

Rethinking “Towers in the Park”
A near-inevitable consequence of developing NYCHA-owned land is a revision of the widespread “tower in the park” design of many campuses. From the 1940s to ‘70s, many public housing sites were designed as several stand-alone towers among large superblocks of open space. Community advocates and urbanists, famously including Greenwich Village journalist and activist Jane Jacobs, have long criticized the designs for their insular nature and inefficient use of space. Proponents, on the other hand, point to the value of urban campuses and green space among an ever more congested New York.

Often, the question comes down to what counts as meaningful open space. In this light, parking lots have been the source of much criticism from not only design- and planning-oriented urbanists, but also policymakers and developers, who view the land as a latent opportunity for either new development or more responsive urban design.

In many city zoning codes, new residential developments are mandated to provide a minimum amount of parking. Reforming these requirements on NYCHA campuses is already popular with transit advocates, who warn of worsening traffic and incentivizing car ownership. Recently, transit advocates, looked to a Department of City Planning report issued in the final days of the Bloomberg administration as a vague sign of movement on parking reform.

Two of the three developments initially announced for infill in the NYCHA Next Generation plan capitalize on parking lots as sites of development. The Mill Brook and Van Dyke sites, in the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively, will both see development directly on existing accessory parking lots; and at all three sites, there are no new parking requirements accompanying new housing.

While the Department of City Planning remains tepid on addressing larger parking mandates explicitly, the RFPs issued by HPD so far suggest that transit advocates’ desire for discontinuing parking requirements finally holds sway within some city departments.

Council Member Lander endorses the sentiment behind utilizing parking lots as sites for development, noting “I don’t think the city has an obligation to provide free or reduced-cost parking to car-owning New Yorkers, whatever kind of housing they live in. I would in many cases rather see parking lots used in ways that bring more public benefit.”

Renewed Community Outreach
Perhaps the most striking difference between the Bloomberg and de Blasio plans so far appears to be not on paper, but in public reception. Community advocates back up the current mayor’s claim that community outreach efforts have been far more robust than during the last administration. “There is a really different approach to NYCHA and NYCHA development between this administration and the last administration…this administration is more engaged with NYCHA residents,” said Gates.

Of course, some residents and tenant associations remain skeptical, even when developments  are 100 percent affordable, such as those to be built at the Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville. Some tenant association leaders dispute that NYCHA incorporated community input into the final RFPs, and claim that some residents were misled into thinking they would be moving into the new units themselves. While the new developments will give preference to applicants living at any NYCHA site across the city, funding and fair housing rules prevent the agency from guaranteeing any new units to residents at Van Dyke in particular.

Lander acknowledges that much of that skepticism surrounding development on NYCHA land is “warranted by what people have seen in the past,” and that in any case, there is “just always some understandable resistance to change for [NYCHA infill].”

When evaluating sites for infill, the ability to consider local context is seen as a strength. “You have to take them on a case-by-case basis,” Lander notes, “obviously there's a big difference between a garden and a parking lot, which is not meaningful public space.”

by Brit Byrd for Gotham Gazette

Executive Order Shifts Cuomo-Schneiderman Dynamic

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Cuomo and Schneiderman (photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order on July 8 giving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians, he did something he rarely does: he empowered a rival. In doing so, Cuomo made clear that the results of the order would be up to the AG's office, thus alleviating some of the pressure on himself to address what he has called a "crisis of confidence" in the criminal justice system, especially in communities of color.

But instead of shifting responsibility to Schneiderman and moving as far as possible from the matter, the governor has trumpeted the move as a national model and had an event with Schneiderman where the pair briefed clergy on the order. Cuomo and Schneiderman - bitter rivals who have thrown personal jabs at each other and feuded over power, money, and policy - are now by most accounts attached at the hip in one very important sense.

District attorneys across that state, angry that their power has been undermined and fairness questioned, have united to attack the move. But Schneiderman and Cuomo, to the surprise of many Democrats, have stood together to swat away criticism. And now, as Schneiderman has announced his office's first investigation under the order into a death in police custody, the two top Democrats will be judged together on the results.

It was only a few months ago that Schneiderman was being touted by many Democratic state legislators as their progressive savior--the progressive who may primary Cuomo in 2018, the politician with enough strength to publicly challenge Cuomo to deliver for the party. Schneiderman repeatedly challenged Cuomo on ethics reform throughout a spring legislative session marred by corruption. He's called on Cuomo to call a special session to deal with ethics, to push sweeping reform yet seen and including details of the AG's own legislative package.

"I have read Genesis. There is no Biblical injunction that the legislature has to shut down shop on the 17th of June," Schneiderman said at a press conference in Manhattan earlier this year. "And I think the people of the State of New York would welcome a few extra days of session."

While still in session Cuomo shot back that it was "late in the day" for ethics negotiations, but sources close to Schneiderman continued to insist that Cuomo should act. Post-session, Cuomo has dismissed calls for bringing lawmakers back to the capital, saying there's no political will and it would be a waste of taxpayer money.

Now, things have changed drastically in the Cuomo-Schneiderman dynamic. Schneiderman has quieted his rhetoric on reform and a number of insiders tell Gotham Gazette the AG has insisted to them that he will not run for governor if Cuomo seeks a third term in 2018.

"The relationship has changed; they are in this together," said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College. "This is actually good politically and policy-wise. The governor should share his powers with the attorney general where it is appropriate and the governor and the attorney general should be working together. They are members of the same party."

Cuomo took great pains during the executive order signing to indicate that he was not coming down on one side or the other of the debate about how to better deliver justice in instances of police killings of unarmed civilians. He said the order was meant to deal with a "perceived conflict," perception being that DAs are too close to local police departments to investigate them.

"I kept waiting to see how the governor was going to screw him," one legislator with ties to Schneiderman told Gotham Gazette when talking on the condition of anonymity. "It's hard not to think the worst of everything Andrew does."

Schneiderman has since been tasked with dealing with the fallout, working out just how his office will interact with district attorneys and local police and any public backlash. But Cuomo did participate in the clergy briefing on the executive order with Schneiderman and the two appear committed to ensuring that the new arrangement begins smoothly. After all, they each have a lot on the line, now tied in what can only be highly fraught circumstances.

It is still surprising for some to see the two working together. In June of this year Schneiderman's team called foul after Cuomo's office circulated a 22-question survey asking other agencies to rate Schneiderman's performance.

The last time both men worked so closely was during the activities of the short-lived Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. Cuomo had supported giving the AG the powers to investigate public corruption during his time in that office, but resisted doing so as governor, despite requests from Schneiderman.

However, when the governor empaneled the Moreland Commission he did work with Schneiderman and allowed him to name a number of appointees to the commission. Schneiderman remained quiet as reports broke that the Cuomo administration was meddling with the commission and steadfastly declined comment after Cuomo cut a deal to shutter it. However, sources from Schneiderman's office indicated at the time that their boss was frustrated and embarrassed.

After U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara seized the Moreland records and indicated the law might have been violated in closing the commission, Schneiderman faced questions about what his involvement was. He soon had a conspicuous lunch meeting with Bharara as if the US Attorney was giving him a public "all clear."

Cuomo teamed with the legislature in his first term to strip control of millions of dollars in settlement funds away from Schneiderman, and it was thought that Cuomo had worked fervently behind the scenes trying to prevent Schneiderman from becoming AG in the first place.

The political tides have shifted dramatically since then. Cuomo has been on a fence-mending tour targeting his liberal base since a fairly disastrous legislative session. Shortly after session ended Mayor Bill de Blasio openly questioned Cuomo's motivations and loyalty to progressive issues. More recently, Schneiderman and several other progressive leaders stood with Cuomo to celebrate the fast food wage board called by the governor having recommended an eventual $15 per hour minimum wage.

Cuomo Schneiderman wage rally

With the executive order Cuomo may have effectively silenced Schneiderman as a critic and made sure their fates are tied together for the length of the order as they both fend off slings and arrows from Republicans, district attorneys, and other law enforcement.

On Monday, Schneiderman announced that his office's "Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit will investigate the death of Raynette Turner, consistent with Executive Order No. 147 and a conforming order to be issued by the Governor at my request."

Turner, a black mother of eight, died in police custody in Mount Vernon after being arrested on a shoplifting charge.

Soon after word came from Schneiderman's office, the governor released a corresponding statement. "Today, the Attorney General informed my office that he intends to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute any unlawful acts arising from the death of Raynette Turner, who died last week while in the custody of the Mount Vernon Police Department," Cuomo said.

His statement continued: "Ms. Turner's death is a tragedy for her loved ones, and it raises questions not just from her family, but from her neighbors, elected officials, community members and the media – questions that deserve answers. This kind of situation is the reason that I signed Executive Order 147 last month, because the justice system must have the trust of our communities. With the Attorney General as special prosecutor leading an independent investigation, I believe that we can begin to restore trust, eliminate any perceived conflicts of interest, and let the community know, once and for all, that justice truly is blind."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Republicans Face Moment of Truth After Conviction of Senate Deputy Leader

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Sen. Flanagan, standing, & former Sen. Libous (photo: Lori Van Buren)

When Senator Tom Libous, deputy majority leader for the state Senate Republicans, was convicted last week it sent a shockwave through the capital. Sure, indictments and convictions of powerful sitting legislators are a dime a dozen these days thanks to the efforts of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, but many in Albany felt Libous' case was different.

Well-liked on both sides of the aisle, many legislators felt the case against Libous was weak, that the charge of lying to the FBI about using his power to help his son secure a job was the prosecution grasping at straws. Libous' colleagues were so confident he'd avoid conviction that new Majority Leader John Flannagan kept him on as deputy majority leader after Flanagan's ascension in the wake of the indictment of his own predecessor, Sen. Dean Skelos.

Not only was the 62-year-old Binghamton-area legislator thought to be honest by many, but Libous is also battling terminal cancer and was too ill to make most session days this spring. Many expected the jury to acquit Libous and that he would retire with his honor intact, with time for the GOP to prepare a strong replacement candidate. But, it took the jury just six hours to find Libous guilty. He now faces up to five years in prison.

"The amount of time it took for the jury to reach a decision sends a real message," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. The indictment of Sen. Skelos certainly set Senate Republicans into a spiral, but in some ways Libous' conviction was more impactful.

"This really sets a new bar," said one lawyer-legislator on the condition of anonymity. "It was a shock to most of us because it means anyone can be found guilty on whatever charge is made."

It is well-documented that anxiety, even paranoia, was already running high among Albany lawmakers as indictment after indictment comes down.

The message for a number of Republicans is that their former leader, Skelos, is not likely to get off scot-free and that prosecutors are likely to keep digging. Libous' conviction is different than that of Democrat John Sampson's, also reached last week, in that Senate Democrats had turned again Sampson long ago, ousting him from the conference, and actively tried to defeat him in the last election. Democrats have been on a rebuilding and rebranding spree for the last four years, though their mission took a hit with the charges against Silver. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have been delivering the same message: 'stay the course,' despite the fact that they hold a tenuous grasp on the majority.

It is a razor-thin majority that is at risk not only in the race to replace Libous, the election for which will occur this fall, but in the 2016 elections for every seat of the Legislature set to occur during a presidential year when Democrats typically perform better.

"The message the U.S. Attorney has sent with his indictments of Skelos, Sampson, Libous, and Silver was already very clear," said Karen Scharff of Citizen Action NY, a left-leaning reform group. "[Bharara] is very serious about looking into their behavior," she said of Albany legislators. "This conviction isn't anything new and is why it's so frustrating that Senate Republicans aren't willing to talk about real reform."

Senate Republicans are desperate to weather what is expected to be a 2016 Democratic storm thanks to the presidential race. Senate Democrats have won a numerical majority coinciding with the last two presidential elections and Democratic turnout is expected to be relatively immense in 2016, especially given what is likely to be a Hillary Clinton candidacy.

Democrats are sure push ethics and campaign finance reform, such as closing the infamous LLC loophole, throughout the rest of 2015 and 2016.

Libous' conviction spotlights another one of the conference's major liabilities - a shallow bench. While Democrats have a number of young sitting senators and have been recruiting and building up candidates in districts where they expect close contests, Republicans are dealing with a number of aging members who appear close to retirement, though committed to staying on to preserve the majority but not to do much else.

Libous was long talked about as a future majority leader and his name would periodically come up as a potential replacement for Skelos whenever there was dissension in the ranks. He was known for working across the aisle and continuing dialogue with Senate Democrats during even the most acrimonious episodes. "They are dealing with an aging conference and while we've seen Democrats recruit new faces each election, Republicans appear to be struggling to attract young, noteworthy leaders," said Scharff.

Sen. John DeFrancisco was recently named to replace Libous as deputy majority leader and while many Senate Republicans see it as a great, almost inevitable choice, it also exposes how thin their ranks are. DeFrancisco has long served as the chair of the finance committee and is integral in producing favorable budgets. Not many other members have the knowledge, commitment, or interest to replace DeFrancisco in that role, which he all but certainly vacates to become minority leader. "I'm afraid that he is going to try to do both," said one member on the condition of anonymity. "I really don't see that as being possible. It's too much for one man to do."

With Libous' seat now up for grabs the math for retaining an already thin majority becomes more difficult even though the seat is in a heavily Republican district. "We will absolutely hit the ground running," Flanagan said in Cooperstown last Wednesday. "I expect to spend a lot of time in Binghamton. It's a very important race. It's critical not only to our conference, but to the people of the State of New York."

Now, Republicans are coalescing around Broome County Undersheriff Fred Akshar. Denver Jones, who has campaigned as a Republican in the past, also appears to be seeking the seat, which could cause some trouble for Akshar and the party.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already endorsed the Democratic candidate, Barbara Fiala, even before she was officially a candidate. "Barbara Fiala is a quality person," Cuomo told reporters last week. "I've known her for a number of years, she was a member of my administration, she was a commissioner for the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Cuomo's endorsement surprised Republicans, as Cuomo has previously worked closely with them in preserving their majority and has praised a number of sitting Republican legislators. However, Libous still maintains a great deal of power and popularity in the district and could turn the tide if he is able to campaign.

Legislative corruption is almost certain to come up during a campaign for a seat rendered empty by the conviction of a sitting legislator. Democrats are likely to try to paint Republicans as roadblocks to sweeping ethics and campaign finance reforms, though it will be a tricky message to craft given the party's own corruption issues.

The vote to replace Libous will take place in November unless Cuomo calls a special election, something he has been loathe to do in the past. Whoever wins this year will have to turn around and defend the seat in 2016. Meanwhile, Skelos' case remains in the news as Bharara has introduced new charges and it heads toward trial. Both Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are scheduled to be on trial in early November, in the days surrounding the general election.

A recent Siena College poll found that public corruption is very much on voters' minds and likely to impact their votes come November. Ninety percent of voters surveyed for the poll released July 15 said public corruption is a major problem and 49 percent said recent scandal would make them less likely to reelect their incumbent legislator come 2016.

Horner said he believes Republicans hope the Libous case blows away as so many other scandals have so that they can attack Democrats on corruption in their ranks. Running races with corruption as an issue isn't exactly easy for Republicans as they have opposed every major reform measure good government advocates support.

"They really have no world view on reform other than term limits," said Horner of Senate Republicans. "And they back term limits in the same way Democrats back campaign finance reform - because they know the other side won't let it pass."

Meanwhile, reform groups and some legislators continue calls for a special session to address public corruption which in turn has forced Cuomo to point the finger at Senate Republicans for their recalcitrance. "I haven't heard a legislator say, 'OK, my mind is changed.' I haven't heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly saying, 'Our minds are changed, we now want to pass a bill that we didn't want to pass," Cuomo said in defending his dismissal of those calls for special session.

Cuomo, who was close to Libous and has spoken kindly of him even of late, is seen by many as a roadblock to true large-scale reform. Cuomo said Libous "never stopped serving the people of his district," despite having terminal cancer and added: "It's a sad, sad personal tragedy. This is a man who was a quality public servant for a lot of years."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

18 Months of NYCHA Scrutiny, Reform and Conflict

de blasio nycha olatoye

Mayor de Blasio at a NYCHA announcement (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

"If we were to lose public housing," warns City Council Member Ritchie Torres, "we might have a shelter system overflowing with hundreds of thousands of people."

With more than 400,000 residents, the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, is the largest public housing system in the country. Never far from the headlines due to ongoing problems, NYCHA is under even more scrutiny courtesy of a series of audits by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has made the authority a central focus of his early tenure.

Torres, who grew up in public housing in the Bronx and now chairs the so-named committee in the City Council, points to the stakes as debates over NYCHA management and oversight rage. Mayor Bill de Blasio has made NYCHA a far greater priority than prior administrations, but the push to ensure a sound public housing stock remains urgent for many.

NYCHA houses many of the city's poorest residents. Under NYCHA rules, those residents pay rent that does not exceed 30 percent of their family's income. The housing may be low cost but is often also low quality with recurring and widespread complaints of leaky roofs, mold, slow repairs, unhygienic living conditions, and lack of security. The comptroller's audits - six in 18 months - have aimed a spotlight at these and other long-running problems at the authority.

Representatives of NYCHA, headed by Chair Shola Olatoye, and of de Blasio's office, which is ultimately responsible for NYCHA, have on several occasions pushed back against Stringer's audits. They cite many changes implemented over the past year and a half since de Blasio's inauguration. There has been back-and-forth as the administration and the comptroller's office continue to argue over the data used in the audits and whether Stringer's reports give enough credit for work already underway. But what all stakeholders, including de Blasio, Stringer, Olatoye, Torres, and others do agree on is the need for reform.

"The status quo has forced NYCHA residents to shoulder the burden of billions in disinvestment from the federal and state governments, and live with mold, broken heating, vermin and too many other symptoms of a crumbling Housing Authority," de Blasio stated in May when announcing the "NextGeneration NYCHA" plan. "We will take every action to help NYCHA emerge from the financial crisis that has crippled its ability to provide safe housing in good repair to hundreds of thousands of our city's hardworking families."

According to the announcement of NextGeneration NYCHA, it is "a comprehensive ten-year plan to stabilize the financial crisis facing New York City's public housing and deliver long-needed improvements to residents' quality of life by changing the way NYCHA is funded, managed, and how it serves its residents." And one formulated "with the input of hundreds of stakeholders and residents."

Created in 1934 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, NYCHA is the country's oldest public housing authority. But since 2001, a steep drop in funding from federal, state, and city governments has led to severe deterioration of living conditions in NYCHA housing. Many buildings are crumbling, not having undergone any major repairs or renovations for decades.

"Most municipalities have demolished their public housing," says Torres. "So far, our approach has been demolition by neglect."

As conditions worsened, calls to deal with long-neglected NYCHA housing increased. By 2012, the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to respond due to "the extent and duration of resident outcry," according to Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at Community Service Society. In its last year, the Bloomberg administration redirected part of NYCHA's administrative budget toward a concentrated effort to target repairs and tackle over 420,000 outstanding work orders.

In 2013, conditions in NYCHA housing were highlighted in the mayoral election, with candidates agreeing that reform was needed. In July, the top five Democratic candidates spent a night in a NYCHA building in Harlem. The 'sleepover' arranged by Rev. Al Sharpton was to raise awareness of the decrepit living conditions and backlog of unresolved repair requests in NYCHA buildings across the city. "People in the city in a million years would never accept this," then-candidate de Blasio said after his night in public housing. "Yet NYCHA tenants are forced to accept this every single day."

With that in mind, since de Blasio became mayor, the administration has taken significant steps to improve life in NYCHA housing. "This administration, this mayor, from day one has made the Housing Authority a key component of his agenda," Olatoye recently told NY1.

To help the financially struggling agency, the mayor has both directed additional funding toward NYCHA as well as relieving it of financial obligations. The most significant changes under de Blasio include waiving NYCHA's $30 million annual payment in lieu of taxes and waiving the $72 million payments the housing authority was being forced to make to the city each year to cover the cost of its policing. "NYCHA effectively every year has over $100 million more to go into its operations for management and repairs than it did before the new mayor," explains Bach. Some of those funds are being used for roof repairs, the removal of unneeded scaffolding and shedding, projects to improve security and energy efficiency, and "fix-it-forward," an initiative to overhaul maintenance by increasing the speed and efficiency of repairs.

In May, NYCHA announced the 10-year NextGeneration plan to cut costs, get new sources of revenue, and improve and modernize its management. "Our plan reflects the tough decisions necessary to deliver a stronger, more effective housing authority that can take care of its buildings and its people," said de Blasio when announcing NextGen.

"What is cause for hope is that NYCHA has a master plan for preserving public housing over the long haul with political capital behind it, the backing of the mayor himself behind it," Council Member Torres told Gotham Gazette. While supportive of Olatoye and of de Blasio's approach, Torres is also wary, and told Gotham Gazette that he will hold oversight hearings this fall.

The NextGen plan includes initiatives such as OPMOM, a pilot program currently operating in 18 NYCHA developments to localize decision-making and give on-site housing management more autonomy. The agency describes such initiatives as a learning experience for its own administration. "We're learning what works and what doesn't on our end as an authority," says Aja Worthy-Davis, NYCHA's deputy press secretary. "It's an ongoing process."

Meanwhile, Comptroller Stringer has carried out six audits of the housing authority, revealing the scale of the problems with NYCHA management and maintenance, including questions about its inventory, apartments kept vacant for years due to renovations, and long wait periods for repairs.

No other city agency has been audited this many times by Stringer. Some, like Council Member Torres, believe this emphasis is justified. "There's no other institution that is confronted with an existential crisis to the extent that NYCHA is," he says.

Stringer frames his focus on NYCHA as a matter of equal treatment for those who live in public housing. "They don't make a lot of money, but they're the heart and soul of the city and they've been discriminated against for too long," he told Brian Lehrer of NYCHA residents, on WNYC radio.

To examine NYCHA's progress so far under its NextGen plan, Torres' Committee on Public Housing will hold a series of hearings, starting in September. "One of the problems with Council oversight is that the Council is largely dependent on the information from the very agencies it oversees," says Torres. "That is why the comptroller's audits are so critical, because it provides the Council with a source of independent information on which to conduct oversight hearings."

Torres has expressed support for de Blasio and Olatoye thus far, even co-authoring a Daily News op-ed with a NYCHA resident association president in June. In the column, the authors highlight major problems at NYCHA and that they "do not agree with everything NYCHA does or plans to do." But, they say that they know they can work with Olatoye and that "it's clear to us, and should be clear to all New Yorkers, that Mayor de Blasio has made the city's Housing Authority a priority."

The Council hearings will give NYCHA a new, very public chance to respond to the comptroller's data and highlight progress under the new administration. So far, NYCHA's response to the succession of Stringer audits has been mixed, at times accepting and at other times defensive.

In a joint press conference with the comptroller on May 15, after an audit of NYCHA's supply inventory, Olatoye took a conciliatory tone. "I thank the Comptroller for uncovering some troubling deficiencies in our supply chain and inventory management practices that hamper our ability to provide timely and quality service to our residents," she said. "These deficiencies are simply unacceptable. We are working in partnership with the comptroller to overhaul our supply and inventory practices to become a more effective and efficient landlord."

"The inventory audit – that was helpful," acknowledges Worthy-Davis. "That was something we stood with him on because that was a clear area that was not handled the way it should have been handled."

While conceding some problems, NYCHA has also defended itself on occasion and responded to some of the criticism in the comptroller's audits, contending the use of outdated information and pointing to reforms made under de Blasio and Olatoye.

The series began with Stringer's first audit of NYHCA, released July 24, 2014. The audit criticized the housing authority for depriving residents of wages by not ensuring that contractors comply with federal laws mandating that 30 percent of new hires are NYCHA residents and low-income New Yorkers. The audit looked at capital project contracts that NYCHA awarded between 2010 and 2012.

NYCHA pushed back, questioning the numbers used - its response read, "Under the new leadership of New York Housing Authority Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye, NYCHA is proud of its job growth and retention initiatives that continue to support our residents and the NYC economy too, so we're disappointed to see these efforts so publically [sic] misrepresented with old and incomplete data."

A financial audit of NYCHA was released on December 16, 2014; it found that cash-strapped NYCHA missed out on at least $692 million in revenue and cost-saving opportunities, and failed to meet revenue and savings projections. In its audit response, NYCHA agreed with "a number of the recommendations" but called the report "seriously flawed" in key aspects, citing the comptroller's use of information from several years prior to the scope of the report and questioning its use of "decisions and activities" that "virtually all" occurred before de Blasio took office. And, NYCHA wrote that the report "exaggerates and/or mischaracterizes" key information around cost-savings opportunities.

Another financial audit, released in May of this year, examined whether NYCHA procedures for verifying Section 8 Housing voucher program participant-reported information met the requirements of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The audit looked at Section 8 participants who were active up to November 2013 and found that NYCHA generally met the HUD requirements though there were discrepancies in the records of some participants. According to Stringer's office, "NYCHA officials were pleased with the report's conclusion" about its general procedures, but pushed back on other conclusions. The audit says that "NYCHA officials do not appear to have closely reviewed the results of our data analysis" and "did not provide any documentation or analysis" to support their claims.

"NYCHA agreed with four of the report's five recommendations," the audit says.

More recently, there was pushback from NYCHA and the de Blasio administration after the release of the June 24, 2015 audit, which stated that NYCHA keeps apartments vacant for an average of seven years while doing major repairs. De Blasio representative Peter Kadushin and Stringer spokesman Eric Sumberg got into an argument on Twitter over the validity of the data used in the audit. While Sumberg pointed out that NYCHA told auditors there were 2,342 vacant apartments as of September 2014, Kadushin responded that the number had gone down to 1,024 by May 2015. However, in a Daily News report at the time of the audit, NYCHA shared that it had 2,196 vacant apartments in May - good, though, for "a 39% decrease from the beginning of 2013." According to Stringer's audit, as of December NYCHA had a waiting list of 273,391 people, the News reported.

Earlier this summer, on July 13, Jean Weinberg, NYCHA's chief communications officer, issued a statement in response to the latest audit: "The Comptroller is recycling old news on NYCHA's maintenance and repairs." She called the data used in the audit "outdated," referring to the fact that it had reviewed work orders from January 1, 2013 to July 31, 2014.

The difference in figures is at least in part a matter of timing. Audits take several months to a year to complete and are based on figures available to the comptroller's office at the time they are started. But during the months that an audit is carried out, the situation on the ground can change.

This appears to have been the case with the vacancy audit released in June 2015, which used September 2014 vacancy figures. "We had already started work on a good chunk of those units," NYCHA's Worthy-Davis explains. She says that by the time the report was released, many of the apartments were ready to be rented to tenants. "We didn't get this information and decide to rent those units and start breaking down walls," she added. "This is work that's already been ongoing. It's our goal, even though we already have a low - very, very, very low - vacancy. Our goal is always to obviously turnover apartments and get folks who are on these waiting lists, in them."

"We respect the work that the Comptroller is doing," Worthy-Davis continued. "It's important work, but we as an agency, we make decisions based on the best interests of our residents and what we need to do to sustain our buildings and our infrastructure and keep NYCHA running."

In most cases, NYCHA representatives have agreed with Stringer's assessments in terms of general problems, but don't appreciate the comptroller painting a picture of ongoing dysfunction when they have reforms well under way.

Stringer has pulled no punches, and given NYCHA little credit for implementing reform. He has promised to follow up on his audits and has told Gotham Gazette that NYCHA would remain a central focus. In releasing the latest audit, he said, "For the 400,000 New Yorkers who live in NYCHA housing, the Authority's handling of repairs is a case study in mismanagement." He did add, though, "I know that NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye is committed to turning the Authority around." But, the latter statement was a way of introducing Stringer's own "four-part reform agenda to expand transparency and accountability at the Authority."

While NYCHA and the Comptroller's office debate numbers, for others, those numbers are fairly irrelevant. "I think the findings of the audits point to things that NYCHA needs to pay attention to," says Bach of Community Service Society. For Bach, the difference in the figures presented by both sides is marginal considering the scale of the problem. "I'm less concerned with the nitty gritty of the numbers that the comptroller includes in his audit than with the direction of change and whether things are better than they were two years ago, or worse, or the same."

And he believes things are headed in the right direction. "The problems are still enormous, NYCHA still faces a major challenge," says Bach. "But I think there's no question that the situation today is better than it was two years ago."

"Improvement is happening as broadly across the board as possible, as quickly as possible," says Worthy-Davis. She says the agency understands the frustration of residents who have been dealing with NYCHA over the years under various administrations. But, she adds, "It's going to take a little bit of time."

"This is 40 years of neglect that is not going to change in 15 months," Olatoye said on NY1.

After years of neglect, some NYCHA residents, like Sumner House resident association president Raymond Ballard, are also cautiously optimistic. While he has not yet seen much improvement, he says, he is hopeful that the new NYCHA initiatives will make a difference. "We have to go up now," says Ballard. "I know there are programs put in place to correct some of the things that they have been neglecting over the years." He has already seen efforts to fix brickwork at risk of collapse and the start of roof repairs. Yet, a lot more remains to be done. "I believe now that there will be some changes," he adds.

"I have to be hopeful because otherwise I think we'd be close to being homeless," says Ballard. "That's the shape that most developments are in now."

by Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, August 3

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

LEGIONNAIRES' DISEASE in the BRONX: the city continues to monitor and combat an outbreak of legionnaires' disease in the Bronx, where 65 are reported to have contracted the disease as of Saturday, according to the New York Times, with 55 hospitalized and four dead. The mayor's office and Bronx elected officials are holding a town hall on the subject Monday evening, details below.

SUMMER CRIME: There were several shootings over the weekend, including four separate incidents Saturday night, according to Public Advocate Letitia James, who issued a Sunday statement saying, "These senseless acts of violences took two lives and left fourteen people injured. My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. As a City and as a country, we must do more to take guns off our streets and end the madness that continues to bring us death and destruction."

On Monday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer, will launch a new gun violence prevention initiative - details below. The annual National Night Out Against Crime is Tuesday - NYPD officers and officials team with community groups and electeds to promote safety and anti-crime initiatives.

TRACKING DE BLASIO: Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday delivered remarks at the Ecuadorian Parade Breakfast and marched in the parade; then delivered remarks at the Pakistan 86th Independence Day Celebration in Queens. To start the week, the mayor has no public events scheduled on Monday.

As of our publication, there are no hearings scheduled for the City Council this week. The Council's lone full-body Stated Meeting of the month is scheduled for Thursday, August 13.

It's a quiet week, but a few events to be aware of - read our 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:

At 10 a.m. the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services and the Department of Youth and Community Development and HHS Accelerator are holding a “Community Development Workshop Series” for nonprofits to learn about funding and City contracting services.

At 11 a.m. Monday in Brooklyn, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will - along with Council members, day laborers, and advocates - host "a press conference to celebrate $500,000 in City Council funding to support day laborers" at Bay Parkway Community Job Center.

Also at 11 a.m. Monday, outside Brooklyn Borough Hall, Borough President Eric Adams "will launch a weeklong gun violence awareness campaign by staging an open casket with provocative imagery outside Brooklyn Borough Hall for five straight days and promoting a "Take Five to Stay Alive" plan of action for New Yorkers to help reduce the impact of gun violence in their community. The effort is intended to engage Brooklynites in serious conversations about gun violence following a recent spate of bloodshed in the borough, including nine people shot at a party in East New York earlier today and a fatal shooting early Saturday in Canarsie. Borough President Adams and gun violence advocates will speak about the ongoing violence and the need to take action."

At 1 p.m. Monday in Manhattan, "Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman will make a major announcement regarding the sale of toy guns in New York." He is expected to announce a deal with retailers to stop selling many real-looking toy guns. Schneiderman will be joined by City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, Co-Chair of the NYC Task Force on Gun Violence; Leah Gunn-Barrett, Executive Director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence; Jackie Rowe Adams, Founder of Harlem Mothers Save; Rev. Dr. Gawain F de Leeuw, Westchester United; Adam Barbanell-Fried, Lead Organizer for Westchester United; June Rubin, Marie Delus and Natasha Christopher, Members of Moms Demand Action.

On Monday evening in the Bronx, the Mayor's Office and Bronx elected officials including Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie are holding a "Town Hall on The Facts About Legionnaires' Disease" at 6 p.m. at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. According to the Mayor's Office, as of Sunday evening 71 people had been infected with the disease, including four who have died. Public Advocate Letitia James is set to speak.

Tuesday various NYPD precincts will participate in the annual "National Night Out," sponsored by the National Association of Town Watches. There will be anti-crime rallies with local business and civic organizations and many elected officials will participate. Most events will take place in the afternoon and evening. Public Advocate James will speak at a 1 p.m. press conference against gun violence in advance of National Night Out, at Brooklyn Borough Hall. In the evening, James will attend National Night Out events with the 105, 109, 107, 111, and 17 precincts. Speaker Mark-Viverito will attend events with the 88 and 25 precincts.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday the Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing and meeting to follow.

At 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, Governor Cuomo will make an announcement at Kirkwood Industrial Park West in Binghamton. At 1 p.m. Cuomo will participate in "Topping Off Ceremony at RiverBend" in Buffalo.

At noon Tuesday the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs is hosting an information session on the borough-specific processes of applying for and securing City funding for arts and cultural nonprofits in Brooklyn and Queens.

At 1 p.m. in Washington Heights, "New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and other elected officials will announce the construction and installation of enhanced lighting at Polo Grounds Towers. The Polo Grounds Towers is part of the Mayor's Action Plan (MAP) for Neighborhood Safety, an initiative to reduce crime at 15 NYCHA development sites. NYCHA is installing new and improved lighting at MAP sites as part of a comprehensive effort to reduce crime thanks to a total of nearly $80 million in funding--$40.5 million from the City Council, $25 million from the Mayor's Office and $13 million from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office."

At 2 p.m. Tuesday the New York City Department of Small Business Services is hosting a Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) certification workshop.

Also at 2 p.m., Comptroller Scott Stringer will attend the New York Financial Control Board meeting.

Also at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will speak at Harlem Week 2015 Senior Citizens Day "Demystifying Technology" conference, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building.

At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in Brooklyn, "Brooklyn elected officials [led by Council Members Brad Lander and Stephen Levin] will distribute free reusable bags (courtesy of the Citizens Committee for New York City) at Sahadi's, a locally owned Middle Eastern grocery store that's been serving Brooklynites from its location on Atlantic Avenue since 1948...The event also marks a recent endorsement from the Atlantic Ave BID (Business Improvement District) for City Council bill (Int. 209) that would encourage reusable bag use by charging customers 10 cents for single use plastic or paper bags."

At 6 p.m. the Center for Constitutional Rights will update attendees on their stop-and-frisk case Floyd v. City of New York during its "First Wednesdays Discussion."

At 7 p.m. BetaNYC will host its weekly hacknight, this time at Civic Hall and in partnership with the City Council Speaker's Office to discuss the 2015 NYC BigApps competition.

Thursday evening will be the much-discussed first Republican presidential primary debate, with a pre-debate forum for the candidates who did not poll well enough to make it into the primetime debate featuring ten candidates.

Thursday evening is Mayor de Blasio's Dominican Heritage reception, at New York County Supreme Courthouse. Manhattan BP Brewer is among those who will attend.

At 7 p.m. the Mayor's Community Affairs Unit presents a "West Bronx Town Hall for Small Businesses." Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Julie Menin and General Counsel to the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs Sonia Lin, among others, will attend.

Friday and the weekend
Nothing on our radar as of now, but stay tuned as things pop up once the week gets going.

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

by Erika Wang and Ben Max

The Week That Was in New York Politics, July 27-31

week in review bus readers

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

Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday July 31

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: rendering of the next LaGaurdia Airport, via the Governor's Office on flickr

La Guardia rendering


1. New LaGuardia: Governor Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden announced that LaGuardia Airport will be overhauled by 2021, with an estimated first-phase cost of about $4 billion. Experts say the project could take more than 10 years to build and cost about $8 billion.  

2. MTA Budget Battle: MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast sent an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, pushing for the city to add $3.2 billion over five years to the capital budget for MTA funding. Governor Cuomo has said he’s agreed to add more than $8 billion to the state budget plan towarding closing the MTA budget gap, and the governor has repeatedly pointed out that the city benefits the most from MTA services; while a spokesperson for the mayor said that “New York City, through taxes, tolls and fares already contributes over 70 percent of the MTA’s operating budget.”

3. JCOPE Controversy: Four of the 14 commissioners from the Joint Committee on Public Ethics wrote an open letter on the questionable hiring of “special counsel,” a position excluded from the original JCOPE staffing plan, but created previously and now being again filled, this time with Kevin Gagan, who will be chief of staff and counsel, by the outgoing executive director, Letizia Tagliafierro, at the behest of the governor, whom she is leaving to work for. Gagan has worked with the governor in multiple positions previously, part of a lengthy public sector resume, and the commissioners are calling this an example of “incessant interference.”

4. City Mental Health Plans: First Lady Chirlane McCray, Chair of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, announced a $30 million public-private partnership to support the new Connections to Care program, which will “integrate mental health services into programs already serving low-income communities.” It will be part of a larger mental health roadmap McCray is preparing, which will be unveiled in September.

5. Flanagan Names DeFrancisco Senate #2: New Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Republican from Long Island, named Syracuse Sen. John DeFrancisco (who had a friendly battle with Flanagan for the top post when indicted Sen. Dean Skelos stepped down) as Deputy Majority Leader - a seat also vacated due to corruption, this one when former Sen. Tom Libous was convicted on charges of lying to the FBI.


  • 400,000 New Yorkers now have an IDNYC six months after the program began, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced.

  • 31 cases of Legionnaires disease have been diagnosed in the South Bronx since July 10 through July 29. New York City health officials are tracking the unusual increase, but say that there is no cause to panic.


  • It was a good week for Governor Cuomo, who not only unveiled plans for a new La Guardia Airport, but was lauded by Vice President Joe Biden in multiple appearances Monday - Biden called Cuomo, “about the best governor in the United States.”

  • It was a bad week for New York Canna, Inc, the sixth-placing company in the competition for medical marijuana licences in New York. Five winners were announced Friday by the State Department of Health and will be allowed to dispense medicinal marijuana. Canna just barely missed out - the scoring revealed it was just .15 points behind the fifth-place company.


  • Last year, on July 28, 2014, Governor Cuomo called the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption (created by Governor Cuomo in July 2013 and shuttered less than a year later) a “phenomenal success,” following a report into the relationship between the governor’s office and Moreland amid reports that Cuomo was being investigated by United States Attorney Preet Bharara for interfering with the commission’s work.

  • 29 years ago, on July 30, 1986, Mayor Ed Koch, city, state and federal law enforcement held a press conference at City Hall and called for “more state judges, more Federal judges, more prosecutors, more courtroom space and the deportation of all illegal aliens convicted of narcotics offenses.”



  • WNYC’s The Takeaway tackles the economic effects of raising the minimum wage after a New York State Wage Board unanimously finalized their recommendation to gradually raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 per hour.
  • City Comptroller Scott Stringer released his office's analysis of the city's new fiscal year 2016 adopted budget.
  • Capital New York goes inside a meeting of New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and a Bronx superintendent.

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

Note: this article has been updated with more detail about the JCOPE storyline, noting that the counsel position had been filled previously and adding other information.

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