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Citizens Union


Awaiting the Next Storm: Staten Island Balances Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Needs


Staten Island after Sandy; Nov. 9, 2012 (photo: Walter Jennings via FEMA)

Just over half of the deaths caused by Superstorm Sandy, 22 to be exact, occurred on Staten Island's East and South shores, as the storm's waves battered homes and swept some off their foundations.

Now the island is in a race against time to prepare for the next major coastal storm. Multi-million dollar resiliency projects are coming to Staten Island, from a sea wall on its East Shore to the expansion of innovative "natural drainage corridors."

The projects are on target, say local officials, but the pace needs to be faster.

The island's East Shore is directly exposed to the New York Bight, a coastline formation that can channel powerful storm waves and surges into areas within New York Harbor.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to construct a "mega" sea wall that will protect over half of the East Shore, from the Verrazano Bridge to Oakwood, said Staten Island Borough President James Oddo in a phone interview.

The Army Corps will be releasing a draft feasibility study on the proposed wall to the public next month.

Oddo estimated that the wall would be completed by 2020 or 2021. The city and state are also assisting with its construction, he said.

"This is a different timetable than [the initial plans] we talked about," added the borough president. "Help has been all too slow in coming...There will be several hurricane seasons."

What happens between now and 2020 or 2021?

Oddo said that smaller-scale protective measures were underway, such as the elevation of several hundred homes using new FEMA flood maps as a guide.

The city has also rebuilt 26,000 linear feet of dunes between South Beach and Conference House Park. But "[the dunes] were not designed to handle an historic storm," said Oddo. "They were designed to handle beach erosion."

What happens if you're not behind the mega wall?
One area on the eastern shore that won't benefit from the Army Corps mega-wall plan is the district of New York City Council Member Vincent Ignizio.

There, a package of other solutions has been developed in conjunction with the city, the state's New York Rising program, and the federal government. They include construction of a series of "living breakwaters" and protective berms, home elevations, and, in some cases, strategic retreat.

Ignizio expects these initiatives to be effective, and the lack of a wall not necessarily a problem. "People want to be protected but not walled off," he explained.

But what is missing, Ignizio added, is a more robust home elevation program. The city's Sandy rebuilding program, Build It Back, will only pay for an elevation if half or more of the home was damaged, he said.

Since the goal is to elevate, the city and homeowners could share the cost in cases where less than half of the home was damaged, Ignizio argued. The city is reviewing his proposal, the council member said. The Mayor's Office did not respond to questions about the idea.

Ignizio said that the de Blasio administration is moving at a faster pace than that of its predecessor, but he added that no matter what, "The sad reality is that these projects will be extremely helpful but will take a long time."

Concluded Ignizio: "I'm getting tired of the studies and the reviews. ...I want to see shovels in the ground and hammers in the streets."

It's more than coastal flooding
Staten Island's vulnerability to flooding is tied to both a changing environment and lack of planning by the city over several decades.

Oddo said some neighborhoods along the East Shore still have no storm drains because of their haphazard conversion from summer bungalow to year-round communities.

"This community still remains vulnerable to moderate rain," he said. "We are paying the price in 2013, 2015 for what we did in the 1950s and 1960s."

The city has started to construct storm sewers and drains where possible. Some areas – like Midland Beach - are below sea level, a further complication.

The city has also been acquiring land for a "comprehensive Mid-Island Bluebelt," which would drain a 5,000-acre area, encompassing the South Beach, New Creek (Midland Beach), and Oakwood Beach watersheds.

"It's a decades-long, 30-year plan," said Oddo. "We're still a ways away."

The hope is that the Mid-Island Bluebelt will mirror the success of the Staten Island Bluebelt, which makes use of natural drainage corridors — such as streams, ponds, and other wetland areas — to convey, store, and filter stormwater. Concrete pipes along the corridors move stormwater from conventional storm sewers into the Raritan Bay or the Arthur Kill.

The city describes the Staten Island Bluebelt as "one of the most ambitious stormwater management efforts in the northeastern United States."

Ready to move inland
The ultimate objective, said Oddo, is to "help people re-start their lives." And for many Staten Islanders on the East and South shores, this means moving back from the sea.

Oddo said that he and Council Member Ignizio brought the concept of acquisition for re-development to the Bloomberg administration in March, 2013 - about five months after Sandy. The idea was to allow residents to sell their homes to the government in order to be able to rebuild more safely somewhere else within the area.

The state and city have launched an acquisition program in three neighborhoods: Ocean Breeze, Oakwood Beach and Graham Beach. Representatives from neither the city nor the state responded to questions about the status of the program.

"Bloomberg should have embraced acquisition for redevelopment," argued Oddo. "If you can acquire a block, then you can raze structures, and raise property — that never happened. Two years, four months later — what are the holdups?"

Failure to embrace the concept of acquisition for redevelopment is self-defeating, maintained Ignizio, since using the approach would limit exposure of homes to storm surge and lessen the need for resiliency projects.

"It's hard not to be frustrated and angry," said Oddo. "No mayor of New York City has stood up and told the people of Staten Island, 'We fully believe in acquisition for redevelopment and are committed to it.'"

The city could show the type of truly resilient housing that may be constructed, said Oddo. And concerns about government [effectiveness] could be overcome. "People can buy into their neighborhood again."

Added Oddo: "I believe in this program. It truly would have worked on a wide scale if we had gotten support from the Bloomberg administration. [It would be] a really powerful message if Bill de Blasio stands up [and] says 'we're ready to go.' You'll see lots of Staten Islanders come forward."

[Related: Assessing Resilience Planning: Is the City Preparing Smartly for the Rising Risks of Climate Change?]

by Sarah Crean for Gotham Gazette
in partnership with AdaptNY and NY Environment Report

State Senate Democrats Poised to Ride Hillary Clinton Wave


Hillary Clinton during a recent appearance in NYC (photo: NYC Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio may not have endorsed Hillary Clinton's presidential bid yet, but her candidacy could be instrumental in accomplishing something he and Governor Andrew Cuomo failed at last year: putting the State Senate in the hands of Democrats.

"I think she will have longer coattails next year than Cuomo did last year," said Kenneth Sherrill, who taught political science at Hunter College for decades. "Turnout will be higher and more partisan. There won't be any winks and nods toward Republican incumbents."

If the Democrats can wrest control of the Senate in 2016 they would control both houses of the Legislature come 2017 (they already hold a significant majority in the Assembly), and, at least in theory, be able to force the governor to the left.

"A presidential year with a rock star from New York running for president will immensely help voter turn out," State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, predicted enthusiastically.

Democrats have been creeping toward the majority in the Senate after holding it briefly from 2009 to 2010. In 2012 the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, a splinter cell of dissatisfied Democrats, gave Republicans the majority - with Cuomo's blessing.

In 2014 de Blasio launched a campaign to win outright control for Democrats and pressured the IDC to return to the fold - its members promised to conference with Democrats, but that seemed to hinge on the Democrats winning enough seats to have a majority. Cuomo, who faced a tepid response from his liberal base, barely campaigned for himself let alone Democratic candidates and flirted with backing Republican legislators who had supported his major policies in the past.

Republicans won outright control, in part thanks to Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, an elected Democrat who conferences with Republicans. Now de Blasio and like-minded Democrats face a Senate Majority that holds a grudge and the fate of rent laws, mayoral control of schools, and other key elements of de Blasio's progressive agenda in its hands. Cuomo holds a bag of progressive 2014 campaign promises that Senate Republicans seem dead set on preventing him from delivering, while they do enable him to deliver on the more conservative or centrist pieces of his economic and education agendas.

However, a massive advantage in voter registration and a younger base appear to make a Democratic takeover an eventuality. Hillary Clinton's candidacy could be the shove Democrats need to get them over the threshold and to never look back. Compared to Republicans, Democrats see larger turnout fluctuations in presidential and non-presidential years, with Clinton expected to provide a significant (if not Obama-esque) boost.

Cuomo would be faced with a liberal tidal wave in the Legislature and he might not be able to find a strong middle ground, though underestimating his ability to do so might be dangerous. Democrats further to the left, including de Blasio, would have two houses of the Legislature looking to deliver on progressive issues.

For some Democrats 2016 is D-Day. They expect Democratic turnout will spike and Clinton coattails - Hillary is technically a New York resident who represented the state in the US Senate and whose campaign office is in Brooklyn - will drag Democrats into perhaps permanent control of the chamber.

"I really think this is it," said New York State Senator Neil Breslin, a Democrat from Albany. "Her candidacy will be a strong attractor for new candidates, for veteran legislators to increase their involvement, and it will boost Democratic turnout."

Krueger said that with Clinton's candidacy, the push by US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to recruit more women candidates, and efforts from advocacy groups and PACs, "I do think we will see more interest in people who are willing to run for state government. The trouble is that a lot of people say: 'Albany, really? Yuck!' We need to get people...past that cynicism. When women see other women in leadership it makes [them] think, 'I can do this,'" she added.

Breslin believes Clinton's candidacy will also give some Republicans pause, and perhaps lead to the retirement of some more senior members.

Senate Republicans have been playing defense for years, fighting off changes to election law, redistricting, and campaign financing. They've also had to convince older members to stay in their seats for fear that their name recognition, not their party affiliation, is what has kept their seats in Republican hands.

"I get a 25,000 boost in votes in a regular presidential year," said Breslin. "That is the margin of victory for most candidates. Now translate that to Hillary."

Senate Democrats have worked diligently on presenting a unified front during their time in the minority, rallied around leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and even begun to openly challenge the policy decisions of Gov. Cuomo, who has done little to help them electorally and undermined and overlooked them legislatively.

In a sense Democrats have been liberated and become less fractious because they have lost some of their more rural and conservative districts to Republicans; meanwhile, districts that used to be fairly conservative are trending more liberal.

"We are in an extremely strong place regardless of whether 2016 is a presidential year," said Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat of Queens, who noted the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee is out of debt for the first time in years. "We have 31 elected Democrats [in a 63-seat chamber] and there could be special elections before then for any number of reasons. Now add a Clinton candidacy to that - [she] is a daughter of New York - and we are in an amazing position."

Gianaris incudes members of the IDC in his count - they may quickly attempt to reconcile with mainline Democrats if the party is able to take a majority.

Republicans have laboriously tried to maintain some level of bipartisanship, fostering their alliance with the IDC and allowing them to bring some more Democratic issues to the floor including the DREAM Act and parts of Cuomo's Womens Equality Agenda. And they partnered with Cuomo to pass marriage equality and the SAFE Act - but they also saw incumbent legislators defeated after facing backlash on their votes on those two issues. And in the past two years Majority Leader Dean Skelos has pushed back hard against the progressive agenda.

Even some Senate Republicans say privately that passing the DREAM Act could be beneficial to the conference in certain districts with growing Latino populations, but Skelos has been adamant that the conference remain united in its public opposition to the measure. It's a certainty that Clinton and other presidential candidates will be heavily courting Latino voters.

Skelos has also refused to budge on a new round of minimum wage increases, and appears to have opposed a number of criminal justice reforms put forward after the July death of Eric Garner in New York City.

"We want to see these policies enacted for the good of the people of New York," said Gianaris of a progressive agenda. "The more these guys reject these common sense issues like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave for things like tax breaks for yachts and private jets the more it becomes obvious to voters how out of touch they are."

As bright as the state Senate future may seem for Democrats and as inevitable a 2016 Democratic ticket headed by Clinton may seem at the moment, some in the party acknowledge that without Hilary they could be in serious trouble. "Forget it," said one Democrat who asked to remain anonymous."If Hillary loses the primary we are in major trouble. All bets are off."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Left Out of Ethics Deal, LLC Loophole Faces Renewed Scrutiny

Cuomo Heastie

Gov. Cuomo & Speaker Heastie shake on an ethics deal (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

The New York State Board of Elections opened up a floodgate in 1996, allowing cash to flow virtually unabated to political candidates. The BOE issued a ruling that allowed limited liability corporations, or LLCs, to be treated as individual donors and individuals to donate unlimited funds to candidates for state-level offices by creating multiple LLCs. Efforts to change the law in the Legislature have failed miserably and now a coalition of progressive and good government groups are asking the BOE to correct what they say is a major mistake that has damaged New York democracy. On Thursday, the BOE will take up what has come to be known as the "LLC Loophole," and interested parties on both sides of the debate will be watching.

Meanwhile, State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat from New York City, is expected to use a parliamentary measure to force the Republican-controlled Senate to consider a bill to fix the loophole when the Legislature returns to session next week. Coming out of a budget season where ethics reforms were passed, but the LLC loophole was largely ignored, there appears to be spring life to the issue.

"The loophole is based on a ruling that hasn't been relevant since the last century," Squadron told Gotham Gazette. "I would hope the board would act to remedy that." He said he will push for a vote on his bill, but added, "I hope that won't be necessary."

The BOE is a political entity made up of Republican and Democratic appointees. Its members have tight connections to their party bosses and the BOE has shown a major reluctance to pursue and punish officials who violate election laws and campaign finance limits. But advocates remain hopeful that some in power might want to see things change. "We've seen this continual finger pointing between the Board of Elections and the Legislature, [each] saying 'they could do it if they wanted to,'" said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for good government group Citizens Union. "The Legislature failed to act, now we are saying to the Board 'it is your turn.' We are going to actually put people on the record."

The BOE added discussion of the LLC loophole to its agenda for Thursday, as Capital New York reported, but no formal action on its status is expected. Fauss and her good government colleagues plan to be there, though.

A coalition of reform groups including the Brennan Center, the League of Women Voters, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Citizens Union wrote Governor Andrew Cuomo this week urging him to ask the BOE to close the loophole. The letter to Cuomo follows one from the Brennan Center and Emery Celli Brinkerhoff & Abady LLP to the BOE last week asking its members to do three things: rescind the 1996 opinion; treat LLCs as corporations or partnerships depending on the tax status they select (just as the Federal Elections Commission does); and clarify BOE rules to make it clear that no individual can upend donation limits by using LLCs.

In New York, corporations are limited to giving $5,000 to a political candidate, while LLCs fall under limits of individuals and can therefore give $150,000.

Governor Cuomo has a complicated relationship with the LLC loophole. He has taken in millions of dollars from single donors who use multiple LLCs to maximize their giving. According to NYPIRG, 20 percent of Cuomo's $35 million campaign chest he utilized last election cycle came through the LLC loophole.

The most striking example of this loophole largesse is via Leonard Litwin. Using LLCs and corporations, Litwin, a real estate mogul, gave Cuomo over $1 million during the last election cycle. And Litwin is the largest single donor statewide - he blankets state elections in cash - giving to candidates and committees regardless of party.

Cuomo has spoken out against the loophole and his budget included a proposal that would ensure LLCs were restricted to the $5,000 corporate donation limit, which he also proposed reducing to $1,000. But advocates note the proposal did not call for stopping individuals from donating through multiple LLCs. Even Cuomo's "half loaf" proposal was rejected by the Legislature during budget negotiations. It is unclear how hard the governor fought for LLC reform.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette, "Whether by legislation or action taken by the Board of Elections, the Governor believes the LLC loophole should be closed."

Advocates note that the BOE's 1996 decision was based on a federal ruling that has long since been changed. "In 1996, the Board of Elections decided to treat LLCs as human beings, rather than as corporations or partnerships, despite the fact that there was no indication the Legislature ever intended such treatment," the good government groups wrote to Cuomo. "The Board justified its decision by citing a single phrase in state law and stating that it sought to follow federal practice. But the short-lived federal rule it emulated was quickly changed, and the relevant state law in fact provides the Board with leeway to make a more common-sense decision. Federal rules now treat LLCs as corporations or partnerships, and in most contexts New York state law treats LLCs like other business entities, rather than as humans. There is no legal reason the Board should refuse to correct its error."

State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat whose conference has been stymied in its attempts to fix the issue legislatively, said he hopes the BOE acts. "We want to see it closed anyway possible," he said of the LLC loophole. "I believe it was created under a misguided ruling based on a federal rule that was quickly changed. They created it, so it would make sense for them to fix it."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who has two bills pending in the Legislature to address the loophole, said he favors BOE action on the matter. "I am confident I will be able to move something in the Assembly this year, but the cleanest way to do it would be for the Board of Elections to correct their misguided ruling."

Fauss said that it may take more public scrutiny of the loophole to finally force action and some groups have begun to try to engage their members and the public in what may seem like an obtuse and wonky issue.

Activist groups like Common Cause, Every Voice, and the Working Families Party have asked their members to contact the BOE to pressure them to rethink the loophole. "If we're ever going to end Albany's culture of corruption, we need to stop letting billionaires secretly dump millions into campaigns," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York. "The Board of Elections must rein in this flood of cash now as a first step toward returning New York state government to voters."

Jess Wisneski of Citizen Action said that the time is right because voters have become more keyed in to the influence of money in Albany. "They see the guys with the most money are just pouring an enormous amount of cash into the system and people are more aware of it than ever," said Wisneski. "Governor Cuomo says every year that he has reformed the system and it is functioning, but people can see that just isn't the case and this might be the single biggest way to change that."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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

Public Advocate Files Brief to Expedite Garner Case Appeal

tish james city hall

Public Advocate James at a rally at City Hall (photo: @JaviLacayo)

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James will file a brief today with the New York State Supreme Court seeking expedited appeal hearings against the denied petitions to release grand jury transcripts and evidence in the Eric Garner case.

After a Staten Island grand jury decided in December not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the July chokehold death of Eric Garner, a request for disclosure of the transcripts and evidence presented to the grand jury was brought before the court by Public Advocate James, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and The New York Post.

But on March 19, State Supreme Court Judge William Garnett refused to unseal the evidence saying in his opinion that the petitioners had failed to show a "compelling or particularized need" for the evidence. James had then vowed to appeal the decision.

Today, James will file a motion to expedite the appeal, which itself will be filed sometime this week. "Without [the motion to expedite] it'll likely take a year for it to be heard," she said in a phone interview this morning. "A decision in about a year is unacceptable."

The motion's justification is simple. A speedy appeal is necessary since the case implicates a "pressing and time-sensitive matter of deep public concern," the motion states. It also says the appeal will have direct bearing on legislation and policy reform that is currently being considered.

"There's a crisis of confidence in our criminal justice system," said James. "But we're undaunted in our quest for justice. The secrecy of the grand jury process is not sacrosanct. This is bigger than the Garner case, bigger than one borough, bigger than one individual. it's about restoring confidence in our criminal justice system."

Grand jury evidence is protected by state law, and New York has strict laws about concealing most information from grand jury proceedings. After the Eric Garner case decision, there was widespread outrage against what people saw as a failure of a broken system, sparking weeks of protests in the streets. The release of evidence would bring more transparency to the system, James said. "The public has a right to know."

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who presided over the Pantaleo grand jury and is now running for Congress, urged the court to deny the petition for disclosure and later called Judge Garnett's decision "well-reasoned."

But James argues that Donovan set the precedent for their appeal. He had originally filed a motion for limited disclosure of the evidence and it was granted. "We're arguing the same law," James said.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

City Council Unveils 'Council 2.0' Digital Engagement Plan

council tech plan alatriste

Council members unveil Council 2.0 (photo: William Alatriste)

NEW YORK - City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and several council colleagues released today a civic technology plan aimed at making the legislative body more transparent while facilitating direct engagement with constituents.

The "public technology plan," dubbed Council 2.0, is being touted as a new "roadmap to digital inclusion and open government" and has origins as part of the Council's rules reform package enacted in May of 2014. "We want to meet people where they are digitally active and we want to expand the conversation around civic tech so that it reflects the diversity of this city," said Mark-Viverito at a City Hall press conference on Monday.

"The council must grow into a digitally agile institution that can easily adapt to emerging technology while remaining grounded in our communities," she later added.

The Council 2.0 framework will employ social media and mobile communication to engage New Yorkers, crowdsourcing feedback on hearings, programs, and proposals. As part of the project, which will be implemented in phases, a public tech team will analyze open data, redesign the Council's website, use social media, and create easy-to-use interactive digital tools. The Council's legislative database will also be revamped and made more accessible, and reports provided to the Council by city agencies will be publicly displayed in user-friendly formats. It has been widely agreed that the Council website is in need of significant upgrades.

In updating its website and other digital platforms, the Council will also be mindful of accessibility. "We have to recognize that not everyone is a tech guru," said Council Member James Vacca, chair of the Council's technology committee, stressing the need to make civic technology user-friendly. "There's more to come," he promised.

Council Members Vanessa Gibson, Brad Lander, and Ben Kallos were also at the press conference, as were advocates Andrew Rasiej of Civic Hall, Jukay Hsu of Coalition for Queens, and Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG.

"We're the kind of government that's closest to the ground," said Lander of the City Council. "We want to hear what people have to say and we want to make sure that they understand what we're doing, and that's gotta be not just a two-way street but a real fundamental set of bridges."

The Council has partnered with Civic Hall, a new civic tech business, and others for expertise on digital solutions. In the fall, the Council will also launch "Council Labs," a mobile-friendly website to help New Yorkers navigate city government functioning; for instance, visualizing the budget process.

"This is truly what government is about, reaching everyday New Yorkers where they live, work, and raise their families," said Gibson. She called texting "a way of life" that will help with direct engagement at a local level.

In July, to help develop the public tech initiatives further, the Council will host a "Digital Inclusion Summit."

"Government is going mobile first, from a click away to a swipe away," said Ben Kallos, who chairs the Council's governmental operations committee and is himself a software deveoper. "Inclusive government means using every tool at our disposal, now and in the future, to engage New Yorkers where they're at, whether by text or online."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Council Bills Aimed at Clarity, Improvement Around School Discipline and Support

torres alatriste

CM Ritchie Torres at a recent event (photo: William Alatriste)

At a joint hearing of the City Council's Committees on Public Safety and Education on Tuesday, council members will discuss and hear testimony on three bills addressing school safety.

One bill, sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, would require the city Department of Education (DOE) to report the ratio of school safety officers to guidance counselors in each school.

The bill, Torres said, has the support of the Council's Coalition of Young Men of Color, which includes Torres and his colleagues Council Members Antonio Reynoso, Donovan Richards, Rafael Espinal and Carlos Menchaca.

The legislation is an attempt to gauge the "imbalance of resources" in the education system, Torres told Gotham Gazette. "In order to solve the problem, we need to diagnose the problem," he said, indicating concern over there being too many police agents and not enough counselors in the city's schools.

The information gleaned from the DOE will help determine how resources are allocated toward punitive or restorative practices. Torres said he wants to address the "school-to-prison pipeline" created by disciplinary policies where suspensions lead to dropouts; with both leading young people to the criminal justice system. "Our public education system is defeating it's own purpose instead of putting [youth] on a path to a career," he said.

"The people to blame are not the teachers and administrators, but the politicians and bureaucrats who create these policies," Torres said.

Torres does commend Mayor Bill de Blasio for making a genuine effort toward reform. In February, the administration revised the school discipline code and established more careful punishments for certain student behavior, including the new requirement of approval from the Department of Education for student suspensions. "But it's important to match changes in policy with the investment of resources," said Torres. "A key part of the equation is access to restorative resources. It's about reforming the criminal justice system. If ever there was a time for reform, it's now."

A second bill to be discussed on Tuesday, introduced by Council Member David Greenfield, requires the police department to assign school safety agents to public and nonpublic schools that request them. And the third bill, sponsored by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, requires the schools chancellor to submit an annual report to the Council, also made available on the DOE website, on the discipline of students and the referral to emergency medical services for incidents related to disruptive behavior.

For advocates of reform, the package of bills is a move in the right direction. A number of groups including Make the Road New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) are expected to testify at the hearing to show their support for both Torres' and Gibson's bills.

"[Council Member Torres' bill] gets at the heart of where schools are allocating resources," said Karen Farkas, senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. Farkas deals with issues related to education and counsels students between 16- and 19-years-old.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction in communities and among lawmakers that safety is equated with the presence of safety agents," she said. "But my clients and students of color don't equate that with safety. It detracts from a positive community and school culture. It makes it harder for schools to be schools."

Many of her clients, Farkas said, come from communities that are already over-policed. "Schools should be a place where kids are given the benefit of the doubt, not considered bad or criminal."

Farkas believes Torres' bill could reveal the effects that fewer police agents and more positive counseling would have. She also praised the administration's recent steps for laying the groundwork and initiating discussions on restorative justice practices, whereby instead of being suspended from school, students work to make damaged relationships whole again. But, Farkas insisted that "Unless there's a whole school reform model, and it's done well, little piecemeal measures won't change the whole problem."

Shoshi Chowdhury, coordinator of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, said the bills would help provide more data and transparency, shedding light on school discipline. "The Student Safety Act of 2010 was the first time in New York City history that we started getting data on suspensions. But there was some data missing," she said. The amendments proposed in Gibson's bill are aimed to address these. At the hearing, members of Chowdhury's organization will testify along with students, parents, and educators.

Nick Sheehan, staff attorney at Advocates for Children, shares Chowdhury's view. Torres' bill, he said, would increase transparency "about how the City chooses to allocate its resources."

He went further, saying the bill should also add ratios of social workers and school psychologists to school safety agents, and the ratio of those staff members to students. He also agreed that Gibson's bill would address the limitations in the Student Safety Act. "They're technical tweaks, but they're important," he said.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 13

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Hillary Clinton is running for President. You probably heard. The former New York Senator has her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn and will be looking for a strong boost from her New York base of supporters, including her 2000 senate campaign manager New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio was on Meet the Press Sunday morning and said that he is eagerly waiting to see a progressive vision from Clinton. Since Clinton had not officially declared her candidacy (she did so in the afternoon), de Blasio remained especially cautious in his remarks, but repeated his general mantra that all 2016 candidates  - for President and other offices - should be directly talking about economic inequality and offering solutions for how to reduce it. He faced some criticism for not quickly endorsing his former boss. Clinton is on her way to campaign in Iowa, and de Blasio is set to head there soon himself to talk fighting inequality. New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are all-in behind Clinton, as is Governor Andrew Cuomo.

As the week begins, there's a whole lot of Hillary buzz, of course, and other presidential candidates, mostly on the Republican side of things, continue to jump into the race, with new announcements expected at the start of the week. Meanwhile, New York State and City politics kicks back into gear after a slow week last week, brought on by post-budget recess in Albany and school vacation in the city. Advocates, activists, and legislators will be gearing up this week for the Albany legislative session set to begin next week, on April 21. The lobbying will be fierce and furious through mid-June, when the session will likely end in a "big ugly" agreement on several policies among Gov. Cuomo, Senate Republicans, and Assembly Democrats. One key issue to watch is criminal justice reform, which was among the several major issues pushed from the budget to session and may very well see increased urgency given new examples of police killing unarmed black men.

In the city, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and colleagues are moving forward with efforts to reform both the criminal and civil justice systems. A large contingent of activists will depart on their eight-day "March to Justice" on Monday, leaving from New York City and heading to Washington, D.C. The march will start with a rally and departure from Staten Island.

The City Council gets going again with a very busy week of hearings, including one on a bill to create an Office of Civil Justice Coordinator. These sessions come as the Council prepares to release its response to de Blasio's preliminary budget, due out Tuesday and to include a renewed call for adding 1,000 new officers to the NYPD force. See below for full details of the Council schedule. While the Council is between a March full of preliminary budget hearings and a May full of executive budget hearings, for the rest of this month it mostly returns to looking at bills on the docket. De Blasio will receive the Council preliminary budget response, then release his executive budget toward the end of the month (or in early May as he did last year).

The mayor begins his week with one public event: "Mayor de Blasio will attend opening ceremonies for the New York Mets' home opener at Citi Field. The Mayor will join members of the NYPD and family members of Detective Wenjian Liu and Detective Rafael Ramos for the ceremonial first pitch." The ceremony is slated for about 12:45 p.m., just before game time a little after 1.

This week is also the big one for participatory budgeting voting in the 24 city council districts where council members have opted to implement the program. Voting kicked off this weekend.

The increasingly controversial New York State tests for third-through-eigth graders in math and English language arts are this week. The still-new common core-aligned tests have become more and more political, watch for further push by many to discredit the tests and for students to opt out of taking them. There will also continue to be efforts to defend the tests and the common core standards, and to convince parents of the importance of their children taking the exams.

And we're just a few weeks from the May 5 special elections in New York's 11th Congressional District and 43rd Assembly District, so keep an eye on those races - there will  be an Errol Louis-moderated NY1-televised debate in NY11 on Tuesday evening. Details below.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of; see our day-by-day rundown below...(oh, and make sure you file your taxes by the end of the day on Wednesday)

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

The run of the week in detail:

Monday morning, ABNY will host a breakfast event with “His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop, New York” at Mandarin Oriental. Cardinal Dolan will present "The Archdiocese of New York:  Not a Business, But Still Having a Vision and Projects."

Also Monday morning, Assembly Members Jeffrey Dinowitz and Richard Gottfried will hold a public hearing on a bill "which would require warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in New York State"; 10:30 a.m. at 250 Broadway..."Rates of obesity have increased dramatically in New York State and across the country over the past 30 years, adding an estimated $147 billion to our country's annual health care costs...Extensive research links rising rates of obesity, as well as diabetes, tooth decay, and other ailments, with the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks, sweet teas, and sports drinks. Evidence suggests that warning labels can increase consumer awareness of health risks of harmful products such as sugar-sweetened beverages."

On Monday at 11 a.m. at City Hall, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and Council Members Brad Lander, Ben Kallos, James Vacca, and Vanessa Gibson will unveil the "New York City Council Public Technology Plan."

At 3 p.m. Monday, Mark-Viverito will participate in "Public Service is Worth It" Google Hangout moderated by Political Parity.

Monday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises to review the land use calendar; a meeting of the Committee on Finance to review land use applications; and an off-site meeting of the Committee on Juvenile Justice for a tour of Horizon Juvenile Center.

As mentioned, Mayor de Blasio begins his week at Citi Field for ceremonial first pitch duties just before the Mets home opener around 1 p.m. There will be a press conference on Monday at 11 a.m. at Harlem hospital with several de Blasio administration officals outlining guidelines around "infant safe sleep," so that parents and caregivers do not accidentally suffocate young children while sleeping. The mayor penned a Sunday Daily News op-ed on the subject, but he is not scheduled to attend the press conference: "Deputy Mayor Barrios Paoli, ACS Commissioner Carrion, DOHMH Commissioner Bassett, DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor, and HHC CEO and President Dr. Raju will launch tomorrow a comprehensive infant Safe Sleep campaign to increase awareness among parents and other caregivers about the potentially fatal risks of sharing a bed with an infant, and how to prevent injuries and deaths associated with other unsafe sleep practices, such as excessive bedding, bumpers and toys in cribs. There are nearly 50 preventable safe sleep deaths every year."

Monday afternoon, Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Queens Borough Board Meeting.

Monday evening, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, will host a town hall to discuss improving community-police relations: “We only survive and prosper as Brooklynites if we engage with one another in a calm and civil conversation. I invite you to come let your voice be heard at our upcoming town hall about improving police-community relations.”

Also Monday evening, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth in collaboration with El Puente, UPROSE, Riders Alliance, and StreetsPAC, will host a Move NY North Brooklyn Town Hall: “Learn and talk about reducing congestion in North Brooklyn, modernizing and expanding the transit system, and fixing our roads and bridges."

And, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will attend a "town Hall meeting of District 31's Community Education Council" on Staten Island.

Tuesday morning, Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Queens Borough Cabinet Meeting.

Also Tuesday morning, City Council Members Elizabeth Crowley, Darlene Mealy, and Laurie Cumbo, and others will hold a Rally For Stronger Equal Pay Laws on the steps of City Hall.

Tuesday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Subcommittee on Non-Public Schools, jointly with the Committee on Public Safety, and the Committee on Education, discussing school discipline codes and the assignment of safety agents to schools; a meeting of the Committee on Governmental Operations jointly with the Committee on Consumer Affairs and the Committee on Small Business concerning various items; and a meeting of the Committee on Economic Development jointly with the Committee on Community Development for an oversight hearing regarding the economic impact of the city’s foreclosure crisis.

The Council is set to unveil its preliminary budget response to Mayor de Blasio's FY16 spending plan on Tuesday.

Tuesday evening at 6 p.m., Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte and the Shirley Chisholm Democratic Club will present Honoring Women in Politics: A Mix & Mingle Fundraiser. Honorees will include State Senator Valmanette Montgomery and Council Member Laurie Cumbo. Public Advocate Letitia James - the first woman of color elected to city-wide office in New York - will make a guest appearance.

Also Tuesday evening, the Staten Island Advance and NY1 will co-host the only live televised debate between Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan (R) and City Council Member Vincent Gentile (D) in their race for Congress: “The Republican Donovan and the Democratic Gentile will face off at the hour-long live event. NY1 political anchor Errol Louis will moderate the debate, with questions coming from three panelists: Staten Island Advance senior opinion writer Tom Wrobleski, political reporter Rachel Shapiro and NY1 political reporter Courtney Gross.”

Tuesday evening, Pratt Area Community Council, CAMBA and other organizations will host Brooklyn Town Hall on the right to counsel in eviction proceedings at Brooklyn Borough Hall: “Did you know that approximately 300,000 New Yorkers are taken to housing court to fight eviction every year? Did you know that while 90 percent of landlords have attorneys representing them about 90 percent of tenants do not? Join the Right to Counsel Campaign and learn about legislation that will give New Yorkers the right to legal representation in NYC’s Housing Courts!” [Read our in-depth look at the proposed right to counsel legislation]

Wednesday, April 15, is tax day.

On Wednesday activists will be moving around the minimum wage. This will include students from 170 colleges, including University of Albany, taking part in a fast-food worker strike: “The Fight for $15 labor movement is planning an ambitious expansion on April 15, coordinating a series of global labor strikes with protests on college campuses. The tax-day strike will include rallies and marches on 170 university campuses, including Columbia University and University of Southern California, the organizers said.”

Wednesday morning, Crain's  will host its 'Business of' Series at John Jay College of Criminal Justice: “Join Crain’s as we examine one of New York’s fastest growing industries. Our expert panelists will discuss how life sciences is creating economic diversification, stimulating job growth and tapping into the vibrant young talent from top universities and leveraging New York’s access to capital.”

Wednesday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Transportation to discuss various bicycle safety topics as well as establishing civil penalties for theft of a bicycle or motor vehicle; a meeting of the Committee on Aging concerning development of a guide for building owners regarding aging in place and the elimination of the sunset provisions related to income threshold increases for the SCRIE and DRIE programs; a meeting of the Committee on Land Use to discuss items reported out of the subcommittees; a meeting of the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency to discuss the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s re-examination of National Flood Insurance Program insurance claim payouts related to Hurricane Sandy for possible underpayment; a meeting of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services around a law to amend the New York City Charter in relation to creating an Office of Civil Justice Coordinator. [Read our look at reforms being pushed by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and others to reform the city's criminal and civil justice systems]

Wednesday evening at 7 p.m., State Senator Jesse Hamilton, Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon, and City Council Member Brad Lander will host a School-to-School Dialogue on High Stakes Testing at Old First Reformed Church, in Brooklyn.

Also Wednesday evening, Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz will hold a town hall meeting at the Kingsbridge Public Library “to discuss and hear feedback on New York’s tenant protection laws, which are due to expire in June. Joining Assemblyman Dinowitz to speak will be Delsenia Glover, Campaign Manager for the Alliance for Tenant Power, and Judith Goldiner, Attorney-in-Charge at the Legal Aid Society.”

On Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, NYCVotes, the voter engagement arm of the City Campaign Finance Board, "is having a #VoteBetterNYC Advocacy Day training session for partners...acquainting them with the policy agenda...social media strategy and general day of logistics, ahead of the event" set to take place on April 22. The trainings will take place Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday at 10:00 a.m. at 100 Church Street.

[Read the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette]

On Thursday morning, Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a land use hearing at the Queens Borough Hall.

On Thursday morning, at 11 a.m. at Brooklyn Borough Hall, it's a "Rally for Family Friendly Brooklyn" hosted by BP Adams: "We want Brooklyn to be THE place to raise healthy children and families! Join me Thursday, April 16th at 11:00 AM on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall as we rally for Family Friendly Brooklyn, a new initiative where I am calling for: Statewide Paid Family Leave; Breast Feeding Empowerment Zone Expansion; Support for Post-Partum Depression Screening...We will be making some exciting announcements about my administration's plans to advance Brooklyn's families, so please come out and add your support!" [Read our recent story on the push behind passing paid family leave legislation in New York]

Thursday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Finance discussing the senior citizen rent increase exemption program and the disability rent increase exemption program; and a City Council full-body stated meeting at 1 p.m.

On Thursday evening in Queens, the borough's Republican Party head Bob Turner and City Council Member Eric Ulrich are hosting a fundraiser for Staten Island District Attorney and NY11 congressional candidate Dan Donovan; 6:30 p.m. at Russo's on the Bay.

Friday and the weekend
On Saturday, de Blasio administration members and their allies will participate in a Pre-K Day of Action, working to spread the word about the availability of universal pre-K, for which enrollment is open: “New York City is about to take a historic step: This fall, the City will provide free, full-day, high-quality pre-K to all 4-year-olds in the five boroughs."

[Read the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette]

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 Rati Mukhuradze, Marco Poggio, and Ben Max

Mark-Viverito's 'Justice for New York City' Means Changes to Criminal and Civil Systems

MMV April 10

Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: Ben Max)

NEW YORK - Lamenting a "simply unsustainable" status quo, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito outlined changes she's pursuing to the city's criminal and civil justice systems in a speech Friday morning at New York Law School.

Attended by about 125 lawyers, law students, community activists, and civic leaders, the breakfast event provided Mark-Viverito an opportunity to reiterate some of the key proposals she and many of her council colleagues believe will create "justice for New York City," as her talk was titled.

"Other cities should take note of what we've done here in New York," Mark-Viverito said, touting work she and her colleagues have done to expand rights and protections for immigrants. Looking forward, she highlighted recently-introduced legislation to create an Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator, which, if created, will be charged with "ensuring adequate legal representation for every New Yorker." "When New York leads, others follow," she said.

The speaker framed her speech by referencing recent police killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in Ferguson, MO; New York City; and North Charelston, South Carolina.

Having spent a large portion of her February State of the City address on the same topic, Mark-Viverito did not offer any new proposals Friday, but spoke about the central tenents of her plan: expanded legal representation for New Yorkers in civil court; increased use of desk tickets and summonses over arrests for smaller infractions; a citywide fund to help those who can't afford bail; and an expanded NYPD headcount in order to enact "true community policing."

There was little dissent evident in the room Friday morning: a fairly lengthy question-and-answer session that followed Mark-Viverito's prepared remarks yielded only two instances of challenges to the speaker's reform agenda. One questioner asked why a city council "right to counsel" bill that has over 30 sponsors and would require a public defender for tenants in housing court who cannot afford an attorney is stalled. Another audience member asked Mark-Viverito how she can justify calling for an expansion of the NYPD force when aggressive broken-windows style policing is the norm.

On the former, Mark-Viverito said that the bill is still under consideration and is not "off the table." The speaker has expressed strong support for expanding funding to provide such legal representation to tenants facing eviction, but she has not moved the bill that would codify the practice. There remain questions over funding and about whether the City actually can legally extend such a right.

On the latter issue of expanding the NYPD, Mark-Viverito said "to demand reform and to demand more resources, [are] not mutually exclusive" and touted City Council efforts to create an inspector general of the NYPD and push other reforms, such as changes to stop-and-frisk practices. "Reform is needed," she added, saying that the NYPD is "not perfect," but that she is encouraged by greater collaboration among the Council, the NYPD, and communities. She added that "effective community policing needs more resources, not less."

by Ben Max, editor, Gotham Gazette

Scott Shooting May Help Reignite New York Criminal Justice Debate

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Sen. Jose Peralta with NYPD officers (photo: @SenatorPeralta)

A video of South Carolina Police Officer Michael Slager fatally shooting Walter Scott as he ran away appears to have relit the debate over criminal justice reform in New York.

The graphic video has reminded many advocates and legislators of the video that brought attention to the death of Eric Garner while he was being arrested by members of the NYPD on Staten Island in July. Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who could be seen in the video placing Garner in a chokehold, was not indicted by a grand jury.

Legislators say they expect reforms proposed earlier this year to be front and center when the Legislature returns from spring vacation later in April. Sen. Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens who has championed a number of criminal justice reforms, said that he was struck by how quickly South Carolina officials reacted to the video of the shooting.

"It makes me wonder why it took New York so long to act," Peralta told Gotham Gazette. "The South Carolina system acted immediately - they fired the officer and filed charges. Here it took a while for anyone to do anything. It took outcry. What better case to show the discrepancy between the criminal justice system of a supposedly progressive state like New York and a more conservative state."

Video of Garner's July 17 death circulated widely as many officials resisted passing judgement on whether Garner was murdered. His death was ruled a homicide by the city's medical examiner August 1. On August 19, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan announced a grand jury would hear charges against Pantaleo. The grand jury began hearing evidence September 29 and decided not to charge Pantaleo December 3.

In South Carolina, Slager shot walker on April 4; he was arrested and charged with murder April 7; and he was fired April 8.

After the grand jury decision in the Pantaleo case, protesters took to the streets across the country, especially in New York City, and an anti-police brutality, criminal justice reform movement continued to build in the aftermath of the deaths of Garner and Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson, MO.

New York politicians took notice.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised a "soup-to-nuts" review of the justice system and met with prominent leaders of the criminal justice reform movement, including Jay-Z and Russell Simmons. Simmons said Cuomo had promised to issue an executive order putting a special prosecutor in charge of cases where police kill unarmed civilians, Cuomo's office insisted the governor had simply promised to push for legislation to that effect. (On April 9, Simmons wrote an open letter to Cuomo expressing frustration over a lack of action.)

In the weeks that followed Cuomo's December promise of a review, hearings were held, some led by Democrats, others by Republicans; bills were proposed, and lines were drawn. And then a sort-of vortex opened up and swallowed the issue: Christmas, then former Gov. Mario Cuomo passed away on January 1 and Cuomo postponed his State of the State Address until later in January; the indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver soon followed and Albany was thrown into chaos. Budget negotiations were on hold, set to heat up when the Assembly replaced Silver with Carl Heastie in February. Some of the proposed criminal justice reforms were included in ensuing budget negotiations but eventually dropped for expediency's sake.

"I was hopeful because of the dialogue we were having that New York would be a national leader on criminal justice reform," said Justine Luongo of The Legal Aid Society. "But I can't say I was surprised it didn't happen [in the budget] because so many critical reforms are needed."

Exactly why criminal justice reforms were dropped appears up for interpretation. Sen. Diane Savino, who has championed a bill that would create more transparency in grand jury deliberations, told Gotham Gazette that items were dropped from the budget where consensus already existed to save time. "I think there is a future for all of them," Savino said when asked what criminal justice reforms she thought would be in play when legislators return to session. "It will all be dealt with along with mayoral control and the minimum wage and everything else." Savino's bill was referred to the Senate's codes committee on January 15 and has seen no action since.

Luongo said she expects the debate over raising the age teens can be tried as adults in New York to be settled fairly quickly. Cuomo included the policy in the budget but it was dropped after concerns were raised about how it would be implemented. While policy must be negotiated, funding for the program did remain in the budget.

"Clearly we can't wait any longer," said Luongo. "The time must be right to make sure the system treats everyone fairly." Luongo noted that New York and North Carolina are the only two states that try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

"The promise of equal justice is a New York promise and it is an American promise. We are currently in the midst of a national problem where people are questioning our justice system," Cuomo said during his State of the State speech in January. "And they're questioning whether the justice system really is fairness for all. And whether the justice system really is colorblind. And that's not just New York, it's a problem all across the country."

In the speech, Cuomo proposed a fairly balanced set of policies, with some intended to please those concerned with police safety following the murder of two NYPD officers and with public safety in general. Those policies include creating a statewide commission on police and community relations, helping police departments hire more people of color, providing funding for bullet-proof glass and vests, allowing district attorneys to issue reports on what happened in closed-door grand juries involving police killings and allowing the governor to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the findings in such cases and then be able to appoint a special prosecutor.

Appointing a special prosecutors to such cases may be the most contentious issue regarding criminal justice reform. Advocates including The Legal Aid Society and a number of Democratic legislators have asked Cuomo to name Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as an independent monitor. That appears unlikely as Cuomo and Schneiderman are rivals, with Cuomo actually working to weaken the AG's reach since becoming governor. On December 8, Schneiderman asked Cuomo to issue an interim executive order allowing the AG's office to investigate and, if necessary, appoint a special prosecutor in cases where police kill unarmed civilians. "While several worthy legislative reforms have been proposed, the Governor has the power to act today to solve this problem," Schneiderman wrote. "I strongly encourage him to take action now."

Sen. Gustavo Rivera has said he plans to use parliamentary procedure in the Senate to force a vote on his bill that would put the AG in charge of cases where police kill unarmed civilians. Rivera requested committee consideration of the bill on March 20. Even if the bill comes to a vote it isn't clear Senate Republicans would go for it as many of them favor keeping local DAs in charge of the cases. The bill is much more likely to pass in teh Assmebly, where it has major support. Assembly Member Keith Wright is the bill's sponsor in that house.

A number of Democratic legislators said that they expect some form of special prosecutor legislation to get done but they aren't quite sure what it will look like in the end. Senate Republicans are looking to deliver on tax breaks and are facing major pressure on the education tax credit from religious groups who have even threatened to primary legislators if the bill doesn't get done. That could give Democrats some leverage when it comes time to negotiate criminal justice reforms - but, there are so many other major issues at stake for Democrats including a minimum wage increase, renewing mayoral control of schools, the sunset of rent laws, and The DREAM Act, that there is a chance that the debate could be overshadowed yet again.

"We really had a perfect storm that kept a lot of these issues in at bay," said Peralta "We had an overly ambitious executive budget and a lot of important things fell out, but now we have three months to get it all done. Its time to get to work."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Experts Target Influence of Big Money, Voter Apathy

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Panel at BRIC event (photo: Ben Max)

BROOKLYN - An expert group was called together Thursday night in Brooklyn for a town hall on the influence of big money on politics and to answer questions about what can be done to fix a system that virtually all in attendance agreed is broken.

Hosted by non-profit organization Brooklyn Independent Media, or BRIC, panelists broadly diagnosed the disease eating away at New York politics and offered antidotes, which combined may provide a cure.

About 100 people attended the event in space at BAM in downtown Brooklyn as the panel of politicians, activists, and advocates argued solutions to the problems of voter apathy and lack of engagement among New Yorkers who feel powerless to effect change in a system heavily influenced by monied special interests.

The panel included Fordham Law professor and recent gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout; New York City Public Advocate Letitia James; Executive Director of Citizens Union Dick Dadey; former New York Assemblymember and City Council Member Al Vann; economic journalist and author Doug Henwood; and comedian-political activist Ted Alexandro. Brian Vines of BRIC moderated the panel discussion and audience Q&A that followed.

Solutions offered by the esteemed panel largely revolved around campaign finance reform and reducing barriers to voter participation.

"One of the ways, and this is a traditional american way to deal with the problem of money in power, you change the campaign finance system but you also take it out at its root and make sure that we have decentralized power instead of this concentrated power," said Teachout, stressing that big banks need to be broken up to reduce their influence on politicians.

Teachout focused heavily on campaign finance reform while challenging incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year. "In some ways these campaign contributions are the gateway drugs to bribes," she later added as the panel discussed corruption in government.

The public financing of elections was instrumental in James being elected the first woman of color in a citywide office, the public advocate said. With its public matching system and spending caps New York City is a model for campaign finance reform and encourages political participation, James said. It was a point echoed by others, including Dadey, who leads a good government group. James also highlighted New York City's expanding participatory budgeting initiative by which City Council members allow their constituents to determine how some capital funds are spent.

The panel spoke of apathy among voters juxtaposed with politically engaged but disillusioned youth. "We're at the bottom of the barrel in the country in terms of the number of voters, eligible voters, coming out and voting," said Dadey of Citizens Union. "And why is that? I think people feel a sense of powerlessness, a sense that they're not able to influence the decisions. But by not voting we're giving up and what we need to do is take a look at ways that we can engage people more in our democracy."

Dadey said public funding of elections can both counteract the influence of big money and also motivate people to get involved in political life. He also called for a series of voting reforms to make it easier for people to cast their ballots.

Ted Alexandro, who was an active member of the Occupy Wall Street movement, said people are disillusioned by a "suffocated system" where only money ensures access to power. "People may [ask], 'What happened to Occupy?' but if you look around Occupy may have sparked a thousand other little things and made activism potent again," he said.

The movement, said Doug Henwood, momentarily changed the political discourse where influence and wealth were concentrated at the top. "People then get the feeling that everything is being decided for them," he said. "There's no popular influence over public policy so 'why bother?'" He emphasized the need to turn this popular spirit of uprising into long-term goals.

Al Vann was on the same page. "There is a significant role for the power of protest but it has to lead to the real power," he said. Beyond getting people's attention, protest "has to have more to it," he added. He prescribed four elements to restore and sustain democracy: an informed and engaged citizenry; an expectation of integrity of and adherence to some moral standards by elected officials; professionalised electeds; and stricter penalties for those who betray the trust of the public.

Dadey reiterated, and other panelists agreed, that New York must remove barriers to democratic participation by establishing early voting, mail-in and online voting, and easier voter registration. As they touched upon broad subjects from gentrification to increasing the power of the public advocate, net neutrality, and public education, one thing rang clear: hope.

All those on stage - and many in the audience - showed energy and enthusiasm about making change. James put it succinctly: "I'm not dismayed by apathy." Instead, James said she wants to inspire people to run for office and speak to the "bread-and-butter" issues that affect the everyman but politicians are afraid to talk about. "I'm drunk on hope," she said.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

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

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