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Citizens Union


The Silver Parks Doctrine

silver parks

Parks Commissioner Silver at a City Council hearing (photo: William Alatriste)

As New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver approaches his first anniversary on the job, advocates and officials are still getting to know the new steward of the city's green spaces. One of Silver's more common mantras may help provide a better understanding of his mission, if we can decode it.

"My goal as commissioner is to make sure our agency culture shifts from one of just maintaining our parks to truly caring for our parks, which will reflect an even greater degree of emotional attachment and dedication to the work that we do," Silver said at a City Council preliminary budget hearing on March 9.

The first duty of the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) according to the City Charter is indeed to "manage and care for all parks," but the definition of "caring" versus "maintaining" is still unclear. Gotham Gazette asked Commissioner Silver's office for clarification.

"Practically speaking, that translates to seeking more community input in park development, identifying new ways to engage with our 1,800 community partnerships, increasing our focus on neighborhood parks, and giving staff the tools they need to nurture relationships with community stewards and care for parks across the city," Silver said in a statement.

This definition reflects Silver's background as an urban planner who thinks about the larger role that parks play in their neighborhoods. Silver was originally in the running to become chairman of the City Planning Commission, as reported by Crain's New York in January, but became the parks commissioner instead.

At his introductory press conference last year, Silver said that parks are more than just green spaces because they mean different things to different people by offering "spiritual, physical, social, and economic benefits." He followed up on this idea in an interview with The Guardian and said that parks serve as a "living room" for many people.

By this logic, basic maintenance alone - mowing the grass, trimming the trees, emptying trash cans - isn't enough to make a park successful. Local residents must feel an attachment and want to get involved. Developing this connection with community groups will require the more "caring" approach that Silver talks about.

Yet some advocates say that caring community support, even in large helpings, can't make up for low city funding.

"Our park system is in desperate need of reform and greater funds," said Geoffrey Croft, president of watchdog group New York City Park Advocates. "Parks do not look like Central Park."

Croft, who said he has visited every park in the city, believes that the DPR budget is about one-third of what would actually be required to restore and maintain the city's 29,000 acres of parkland to good condition.

Maintaining that baseline of quality would require many more workers, possibly thousands, than are currently employed. The preliminary budget for Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) actually reduces the headcount of park enforcement patrol officers, gardeners, urban park rangers, and maintenance workers.

As outlined in Mayor Bill de Blasio's preliminary FY16 budget, DPR's proposed budget of $428 million is up overall, though the amount contributed by the City is down. City funds account for $336 million of the agency's preliminary budget number, a $12 million decrease from the City's contribution during the current fiscal year. Parks expenditures amount to about .4 percent of the City's total budget being spent to maintain 14 percent of its land.

Advocates, such as Croft, say that this continues a trend of underfunding for DPR and an increased reliance on park conservancies. These conservancies often benefit from wealthier residents who can donate the large sums required to maintain their green spaces in top condition.

This type of community involvement may constitute "caring," but it often favors a small group of parks in high-end neighborhoods. In 2012, the Central Park Conservancy received a $100 million gift from one person. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg recently announced a $113 million commitment to build a deluxe green pier in Hudson River Park - with an additional $17 million coming from the City.

On the other end of the spectrum, Mayor de Blasio's Community Park Initiative will renovate 35 small parks in underfunded areas at a proposed cost of $130 million - some of which is already being spent in the current fiscal year. Silver and de Blasio have touted this as a start toward funding equity. Another 100 sites were also identified as needing capital investment, though this would require more money in the future.

Tupper Thomas, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, agrees that additional funding will be necessary. Her organization - which is listed as a "partner" on the DPR website - has published reports on the challenges of mid-sized or "neighborhood" parks in particular, green spaces that are often too small to attract high-level donations and too big to be fixed by City Council funding or other allocations.

"You can't have every park out trying to raise money for itself, that's not going to be the ideal way," she said.

Mark Levine, chair of the City Council's parks committee, has called for $500,000 to fund a master planning process for these mid-sized parks and upwards of $200 million in capital funds to renovate them. As for what "caring" means in terms of the overall DPR budget, Levine is also confused.

"If it means more loving care, emphasis on the care, I'm all for it," Levine said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. "That's why City Council funded additional gardeners and maintenance workers [last year] and I would hope that they would not be cut in the final version of the budget," he added, referring to the mayor's Executive Budget, due in April, and the adopted budget deal that must be reached by July 1.

Levine also said that the idea of "caring" could mean an increased role from community volunteer groups.

Both Levine and Silver will be participating in the upcoming 2015 Partnerships for Parks Conference on Saturday, April 11, where residents can learn about volunteering and fundraising strategies.

The program is part of the City Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with DPR to organize recreation programs and help train volunteers. This involves coaching on how to work with elected officials, apply for grants, and recruit residents. Heather Lubov, the foundation's executive director, agreed that more city money would be helpful but emphasized the importance of volunteers regardless.

"I think you always want community support for your park, no matter how well-funded the maintenance for those parks," she said. "If you have an interested community, you have a well-cared for park."

A recent $5 million grant from American Express, in partnership with the Department of Interior, will also help increase volunteer participation in the city. The money will be distributed in 50 cities throughout the country, starting in New York. Silver was part of the announcement at Castle Clinton, but it's unclear how much of a difference this will make in the city's parks.

With interest in volunteerism and conservancy management on the rise as City funding for maintenance declines, Silver's mantra of "caring" over "maintaining" may just be an attempt to embrace the new direction in which New York's parks system is headed.

by Cole Rosengren, Gotham Gazette

Advocates: Cuomo, Legislature Squandered Moment for True Reform

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Gov. Cuomo & AM Nolan shake on an ethics deal (photo: the Governor's Office via flickr)

The arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was supposed to spark the moment for true reform in Albany. It felt to many a simultaneously shocking and galvanizing event, strong enough to splinter, if not destroy the dam, allowing the flow of real discussion about regulating lawyer-legislators, loopholes allowing unlimited LLC donations to candidates, and conflicts of interest. It was a time for bold leadership.

"There was no appetite for incremental change," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, of good government groups, legislators, and others rejecting Governor Andrew Cuomo's ethics reforms as "tinkering around the edges."

"The governor could have challenged the Legislature by imposing on himself restrictions that would have bolstered his efforts and shamed them by leading by example," Dadey added, expressing the general sense of regret that many have around what is being called another missed opportunity to drastically reform the culture in state government.

Cuomo did come out swinging after Silver's arrest, loudly proposing a five-point ethics reform plan he said he was so committed to that he would hold up passage of the budget if necessary. But as the governor engaged in discussions with leaders of the state Legislature, the proposals that many had originally called too weak became even less bold and the final compromise included in the budget deal landed with less than a thud.

Reform-minded legislators and good government groups say that as ethics reforms were molded they were shut out by the Cuomo administration, which has become increasingly standoffish. It is said that good ideas went unused because Team Cuomo refuses to entertain anything it doesn't come up with first and in the end what could have been a transformative moment resulted in more of the same, Cuomo's third incremental ethics reform package in four years (see timeline below), revealed to most legislators with a heap of voluminous budget bills only hours before they came to a vote up against the final deadline.

A number of legislators were expecting much more drastic reform after Silver's arrest. They feel that the ethics discussion should focus on preventing legislators from earning any outside income, or at least disallowing lawmakers from practicing law in the private sector. Silver is charged with using his power as a legislature to advance the interests of a law firm that paid him for referring cases.

Some lawyer-legislators are leading by example.

Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat and non-practicing attorney, said that a new commission included in the budget to study legislative pay raises could answer some objections that legislators aren't paid enough not to have outside income. Legislators currently make a base salary of $79,500 a year, a rate that has not been increased in more than fifteen years.

Sen. Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference, broke with his Republican allies, saying the ethics plan doesn't go far enough because it fails to ban outside income. Klein divested himself from his law firm following Silver's indictment. "During this crisis we need to win back the voters' trust," Klein said. "I think the way we do this is to not have any potential conflicts at all moving forward. I think this is sort of a clarion call for all. If you want to earn outside income, you shouldn't be in public service," Klein told State of Politics in February.

Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos is reportedly under investigation related to his outside income. He is of counsel at Ruskin, Moscou & Faltischek. Senate Republicans appear to be steadfast against banning outside income and at least one Republican lawmaker was insulted by questions about conflicts of interest. As part of a sweeping set of reforms he unveiled in a speech at a Citizens Union event, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a former state senator himself, called for an all-out ban on legislators' earning outside income.

During the budget debate, Hoylman, insisted that lawyers should not be allowed to be legislators, citing their loyalty to clients that comes from cash retainers. He advocated banning outside income completely. Republican State Sen. John DeFrancisco, chair of the finance committee, objected, calling Hoylman's comments "out of line" and "discrimination" against lawyers.

DeFrancisco also challenged Democrats' characterization of the law that allows donors to use LLCs to donate unlimited funds as a "loophole." Sen. Daniel Squadron, a Democrat, introduced a hostile amendment to end the LLC loophole, and quoted a series of newspaper editorials that suppot its end in his argument that the amendment was germane to the budget discussion. He and his amendment were shot down. Then, DeFrancisco challenged Squadron's use of the word "loophole" and said it was simply part of the law.

The new ethics package - being hailed as transformative by the governor and some legislative leaders - includes increased financial disclosure requirements for legislators, gives the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) much-needed funding, and forces legislators to use a swipe card to check in at the Capitol to get their travel reimbursements. As Capital New York reported, the changes do not address the types of corruption Albany has seen most over the years. There is one other reform in the works that could take legislators' pensions away if they are convicted of corruption.

The changes come with loopholes. Lawyer-legislators can apply to two agencies to keep their disclosures private (while JCOPE is already controlled by legislative and gubernatorial appointees and has proved generally ineffective).

Never on the table, it seems, was closing the massive LLC loophole. Cuomo is the largest beneficiary of the system that allows corporations and individuals to funnel unlimited campaign funds to candidates through various LLCs.

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said it does not generally behoove good government groups to attack reform measures. "You quickly become the boy who cried wolf," said Kaehny. "You hit a single this year, and another next year, but that just isn't happening." Kaehny said that with lawyer-legislators protected from full disclosure the package lacks any real meat.

"What are you left with? A swipe card system that can be easily defrauded," said Kaehny, who notes the standard in the corporate world is biometric ID systems that are not easily cheated and are relatively inexpensive.

Dadey said that the reforms are not insignificant but that they should have come much sooner. "These changes were significant but would have been more significant in 2011. This is what we wanted to see in 2011," said Dadey. "This ethic reform is bigger than what we got in 2014 but it is not as big as it needed to be to battle corruption in Albany. We always suspected corruption bigger than we knew and the speaker's arrest blew it up. This was a huge opportunity to change Albany's ethics."

Dadey and representatives of other good government groups say that in past years they were included in discussions on ethics reforms early in the process but this year were only consulted when a deal was in place.

Kaehny said that the he believes the administration needs to start leading by example to sway the debate. But, he said he doesn't have a great deal of faith that that is going to take place as, for example, Cuomo has not taken unilateral action to end his administration's 90-day email deletion policy, saying, "The governor has absolutely not led by example on this - he has led backwards."

Rather than ending the policy (as Schneiderman did in his office) that good government groups have called "devastating to transparency," Cuomo defended the policy, then attacked the Legislature for not being open to the Freedom of Information Law, and proposed an email summit to occur before the end of March. That deadline has passed and good government groups and stakeholders including the offices of the attorney general and the comptroller say they have not been contacted.

"Its disappointing because we have a strong decisive governor," said Kaehny. "The proof is in his actions, but here he is trying to mislead, distract, and throw up smoke and mirrors. To this day we haven't gotten a response - not acknowledging our letter [requesting an update on the summit], not saying: 'we disagree and we are gonna yell at you.' So we are exasperated and disappointed in this lack of leadership."

Reform-minded legislators and good government groups agree that it is likely that a discussion about a new ethics reform package will start again before end of the upcoming legislative session, which will run from April 21 to mid-June. "This ethics fight isn't over," said Dadey. "We will need to be talking about it again very soon when the U.S. Attorney comes out with a new set of indictments," he added, referring to Preet Bharara, who has brought charges against Silver and others. "We peeled off one layer of the onion this time," Dadey continued, "but we will get to the core, if only because the public will demand it."

A look at Cuomo's attempts at reform:

2011: The Clean Up Albany Act established The Joint Commission on Public Ethics to investigate corruption in the legislative and executive branches. Labeled "independent," the agency is actually headed by gubernatorial and legislative appointees with deep connections to those elected officials. It only takes three votes out of 14 members to stop an investigation. A required review of JCOPE's effectiveness in 2014 was not undertaken and the latest ethics law extends the deadline for such a review.

Cuomo's quote: "This bill is the tough and aggressive approach we need. It provides for disclosure of outside income by lawmakers, creates a true independent monitor to investigate corruption, and spells out tough, new rules that lobbyists must follow. Government does not work without the trust of the people and this ethics overhaul is an important step in restoring that trust."

2013: After a slew of legislators are indicted, Cuomo announces a package of reforms that good government groups call "watered down," but legislators balk. Cuomo threatens to convene a Moreland Commission to investigate corruption in the Legislature and makes good on the promise in June. Moreland began holding hearings and taking testimony across the state but was quickly hampered by interference from the Cuomo administration when it began investigating major Cuomo donors.

Cuomo's quote: "Since the Legislature has failed to act, today I am formally empanelling a Commission to Investigate Public Corruption pursuant to the Moreland Act and Section 63(8) of the Executive Law that will convene the best minds in law enforcement and public policy from across New York to address weaknesses in the State's public corruption, election and campaign finance laws, generate transparency and accountability, and restore the public trust."

2014: Cuomo goes into details of a budget deal on a Saturday press conference call with reporters and reveals he has shuttered The Moreland Commission in exchange for a set of reforms that he sought the previous year. Those reforms include stronger bribery laws, a trial campaign finance system that only applied to the 2014 Comptroller's race, and a new enforcement position at the Board of Elections. Good government groups slammed the move and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara launched an investigation into Cuomo's involvement in the commission.

Cuomo's quote: "It's not a legal question. The Moreland Commission was my commission. It's my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow. So, interference? It's my commission. I can't 'interfere' with it, because it is mine," Cuomo told Crain's.

2015: After Silver's arrest Cuomo gives a speech at the NYU School of Law where he discusses major reforms like a full-time legislature and a public campaign finance system. He says he is willing to have a late budget if it means getting his proposed reforms. However, a following statement from his office indicates the bigger reforms are not part of his ultimatum. When the budget deal is finally reached it includes more funding for JCOPE, a swipe card system for lawmakers to prevent per diem fraud, and a set of new rules he calls "The nation's toughest diclosure laws."

Cuomo's quote: "I said I would not sign a Budget without real ethics reform, and this Budget does just that, putting in place the nation's strongest and most comprehensive rules for disclosure of outside income by public officials, reforming the long-abused per diem system, revoking public pensions for those who abuse the public's trust, defining and eliminating personal use of campaign funds, and increasing transparency of independent expenditures."

Unlike years past, Cuomo and leaders of the Legislature did not hold a press conference to discuss the budget or the ethics reforms.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 6

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

It appears to be a fairly quiet week, as it can be this time of year with schools on vacation and the City Council following suit, and the state Legislature adjourned until April 21 in its post-budget, pre-legislative session hibernation. It's promising to be a very busy legislative session as so many key policy issues were not a part of the budget deal and will be taken back up. There will, of course, be news and there are a few things pre-scheduled. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will speak at New York Law School on Friday and this weekend will see the beginning of voting in the many city council districts where participatory budgeting is happening, for example. See below for our day-by-day rundown.

In the meantime, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo start the week wrapping up long weekends in the Caribbean. It does not appear that they were traveling together (the mayor said that he and his wife were heading to Puerto Rico, the governor's office was not as specific about the destination for him and his family), but it is fun to imagine the two laughing it up under the sun about their perfectly orchestrated budget dance and ongoing faux conflict.

The mayor will return to New York City and his team will continue to work on their Executive Budget, due later this month, highly informed by the state budget deal reached by Cuomo et. al. this past week. The City Council will soon be delivering its formal response to the mayor's preliminary budget, which he will also take into account in preparing his next iteration - which the Council will then evaluate during a set of May hearings. A city budget deal is due by July 1. As we continue to sift through the new FY2016 state budget, there are sure to be other stories coming this week on aspects of that deal and what they mean for the state and the city.

The race in New York's 11th Congressional District is heating up, though it is unclear if the Democratic candidate has much of a chance. Vinny Gentile, the Democrat, and Dan Donovan, the Republican, met at a debate this past week in Bay Ridge (they were also joined by Green Party candidate James Lane). The two will meet again in a debate on Staten Island to be televised on NY1, but not until April 14.

See below for more...

***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:

On Monday morning, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will be a guest on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC.

At 11:15 Monday morning, "Justice League NYC will officially announce the April 13th March2Justice at a press conference with the march's Honorary Chairs Harry Belafonte and 1199SEIU President George Gresham at 1199 Offices - 330 W 42nd Street, Penthouse, between 8th & 9th Ave. March2Justice will begin in New York City on Monday, April 13 and will span 5 states and 250 miles to end in Washington, DC on Tuesday, April 21." The press conference will be led by Tamika D. Mallory & Linda Sarsour, March2Justice Co-chairs and feature New York State Senators Gustavo Rivera and Ruth Hassell-Thompson, New York State Assemblyman Michael Blake, City Councilwoman & Chair of Public Safety, Vanessa Gibson, and others.

Monday evening, Effective NY, led by Bill Samuels and Morgan Pehme, will host: "Bill Samuels and Michael Shnayerson Debate Cuomo's Political Future," asking, "Is Governor Andrew Cuomo still a contender for the presidency?" More: "Michael Shnayerson's new book, The Contender, concludes that even a flawed Andrew Cuomo still has a shot at the presidency. But Democratic activist Bill Samuels and others think Cuomo has sabotaged his chances, after a series of damaging events and missteps in recent years. At this lively event, Shnayerson and Samuels will debate Andrew Cuomo's political future, and dissect his career as Governor, focusing on the psychology and motivations behind his actions."

Also Monday evening, "Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens President Michael Mallon and club co-founder and New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm host forum on Rikers Island" in Jackson Heights, according to City & State NY.

Tuesday evening, Bronx City Council Member Andy King will host a constituent services night at a NYCHA development in his district: "I believe it's important to meet with NYCHA residents in their developments because it gives me the opportunity to see things up close and first hand, as well as show my constituents that their representative in city government cares about their community and will bring their concerns to management." Services covered will include resources and solutions for housing, food stamps, immigration, Access-A-Ride and basic services.

Also Tuesday evening, at 7 p.m., "Join fellow technologists for an evening of live demos from companies developing great technology in New York" for the April New York Tech Meetup.

And, Governor Cuomo is having a campaign fundraiser Tuesday evening in Manhattan, according to Capital New York.

[Read the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette]

PSA: Wednesday is one week till tax day.

"Big Money and Politics: Can Your Voice Count?" will be Wednesday evening in Brooklyn, hosted by Brooklyn Independent Media, with a panel discussion featuring Public Advocate Letitia James; former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout; Executive Director of Citizens Union Dick Dadey; former Assemblymember and Councilmember Al Vann; economic journalist Doug Henwood and comedian/activist Ted Alexandro. Brooklyn Independent Media's Brian Vines will moderate. "This town hall will take a look at the inequality created when wealth holds the power to make policies that affect us all. From Sheldon Silver to Michael Grimm, political corruption is becoming so commonplace that it's hard for voters to feel they have a voice. A ballot is cast and the elected official goes to work, but the system in place can make your vote seems like pennies compared to funding from big donors and corporations. Is there a way for the average citizen to have a say in a pay to play system? How do we approach changing the policies that pit community voice against big money?"

Wednesday evening, the Digital NYC Five Borough Tour will hit Staten Island. Panelists will include John Salis, CEO at SIABC, Aileen Gemma Smith, CEO at Vizalytics, and Kevin Lawrie, Co-Founder and CTO at INBOX25.

Wednesday evening, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer "hosts and delivers remarks at reception celebrating the 50th anniversary of New York City's Landmarks Law, Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House Rotunda."

Thurday evening, the governor's office, in collaboration with a variety of Queens lawmakers, will host a citizens preparedness training: the event in Queens is in cooperation with Congress Member Gregory Meeks, Senator Leroy Comrie, Assembly Member William Scarborough, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Council Member Daneek Miller and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.

Friday and the weekend
Friday morning, New York Law School will host another in its CityLaw Breakfast Series, featuring City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Friday and Saturday is Organizing 2.0, the annual conference for progressive activists and advocates. Hosted at the Murphy Institute at CUNY this year, "The 2015 Organizing 2.0 conference will bring leaders, organizers, fundraisers, techies and activists together for workshops, trainings, discussions, consulting, networking, visionary speakers, and thoughtful debates about movement building strategies and practices." More: "What is special about this conference is our focus on the needs of people working at labor unions, community based organizations, local campaigns and small organizations that are often short on resources. Our trainings help you work smarter and better. You will grow your skills no matter what level of expertise you have from total beginner to experienced online organizer." Sample Sessions include "Facebook and Twitter for campaigning" and "Online advertising on a budget." Guests and trainers will include "Mark Winston Griffith - Brooklyn Movement Center. Paul Baker & Andrew Angelos - lead digital organizers for the Chuy Garcia campaign in Chicago. Beth Becker - Becker Digital Strategies. Colin Delaney - ePolitics.com. Libero Della Piana - Alliance for a Just Society. Asher Huey - AFT. Jennifer Edwards - Purpose. Elizabeth McKenna - New York District Council of Carpenters. Kevin Eitzmann - NY AFL-CIO. Ben Kallos - NYC Councilmember. Dara Silverman - Standing Up for Racial Justice. Joe Dinkin - Working Families Party. And many more!"

On Saturday, "400 New Yorkers will get hands-on tips and training for improving their neighborhood parks—including Fundraising 101— at an upcoming parks equity conference hosted by City Parks Foundation and the NYC Parks." The conference is being put on with "Hundreds of NYC Parks Volunteers," City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, City Parks Foundation Executive Director Heather Lubov, and City Council Parks and Recreation Committee Chair Mark Levine - 10:15 am – 12:35 pm at New York University School of Law.

Saturday marks the start of the community voting week of the participatory budgeting cycle, taking place in over 20 city council districts around the city.

Saturday evening, "Ready for Hillary, the pro-Clinton super PAC, will host a fundraiser at South West New York in Battery Park City." Communications strategist Jodi Ochstein, Manhattan district leader Jenifer Rajkumar and event planner Ny Whitaker are hosting the event.

On Sunday at 12 p.m., the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs and NYCImmigrants will co-host an executive action legal screening for immigrant New Yorkers who might be eligible for the DACA/DAPA programs. "Get the latest updates on executive action. Find out if you might be eligible for deferred action through DACA or DAPA. Learn how to prepare to apply."

Also Sunday, at 2 p.m., Council Member Carlos Menchaca will deliver his state of the district address at Sunset Park High School.

[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

In Changing District, Cumbo Continues Culture Crusade

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Council Member Laurie Cumbo (photo: William Alatriste)

In one of Brooklyn's most rapidly changing districts, where brownstones sell for millions of dollars around the corner from deteriorating public housing complexes, Council Member Laurie Cumbo believes that arts and culture can be a unifying factor.

"The whole purpose of humanity is to create culture and to advance culture. So it can't be separated from all of the other priorities," Cumbo said during an interview in her legislative office. "If you're not creating culture there's very little purpose to life in a way."

This idea has motivated Cumbo for decades, but during her first year in the City Council she's had a bigger platform than ever before to help put it into action. Since taking office in January, 2014, Cumbo quickly established herself as a vocal member, in part as chair of the Women's Issues Committee. Having founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and worked at several other city cultural institutions, Cumbo, 40, is now seen as one of the strongest arts supporters on the Council.

Last year, Cumbo contributed more than half of her capital budget to a larger $22 million investment in her district's cultural institutions by the de Blasio administration and other elected officials. Out of the more than $4 million that Cumbo spent, $1.4 million was for MoCADA. This move drew some charges of favoritism, though Cumbo said it was all part of a broader mission for her 35th Council District.

The district - comprised of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights, as well as parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant - has seen some of the most rapid gentrification in the city.

"Brooklyn is a victim of its own success in the sense that we've become the hottest place on Earth and so as a result some 60,000 people want to move here every year," said Cumbo.

Dealing with these influxes has become one of Cumbo's toughest challenges. While excited about the new possibilities, she is also concerned about helping Brooklyn's longtime residents too. Recent comments at a Council hearing about the perception that "blocs" of new Asian residents were getting preference for NYCHA housing over local residents caused some controversy. Cumbo later apologized - not the first time she's had to so for similar racially-charged statements - and said that she "embraces" all new residents.

"She's really concerned about people not getting shut out in the prosperity that's happening in Brooklyn," said Aaron Zimmerman, a longtime colleague and executive director of the New York Writers Coalition.

With her district among those at the center of the city's changing landscape, and Mayor de Blasio's affordable housing plan set to create even more density, Cumbo has a formidable task. She has tried to strike a balance by helping fund new projects to encourage cultural tourism - such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music's expansion - while also moving money toward auditorium renovations and new technology for local schools.

Growing up in East Flatbush, Cumbo got an early appreciation of how the arts can give people a connection to life outside their neighborhoods. Her mother was an opera singer and worked at Lincoln Center, her father created mixed media art pieces, and her brother was a photographer who once had his own gallery in Tribeca. Interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she was 15 further inspired Cumbo to pursue her own artistic interests.

Later, Cumbo saw black artists underrepresented in Brooklyn and decided to change that by starting a new museum to feature their work and help educate the surrounding community. She wrote a proposal to found the museum for her master's thesis in Visual Arts Administration at NYU's Steinhardt School. In 1999, with limited funding from friends and family, MoCADA was born.

It started as a small operation in a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone and eventually moved into a larger, more visible Fort Greene location in 2006. Over more than 12 years, with funding from elected officials and private foundations, Cumbo expanded MoCADA beyond its gallery space. The organization holds film festivals in parks, teaches art in schools, hosts cultural events at local community centers and more. She also displayed controversial pieces about subjects such as gentrification and police brutality, which sparked debate due to the museum receiving some city funding.

In 2008, the piece "The Blue Wall of Violence" by an artist who calls himself Dread Scott drew particular outrage. Target practice silhouettes and corresponding dates were posted on a wall to represent the specific deaths of unarmed men at the hands of police officers. Each silhouette held items - a set of keys, a candy bar, a squeegee - that police said they mistook for weapons in each incident. Underneath all of this lay a coffin with mechanized batons banging on it.

Some newspapers and police union officials denounced the piece, but Cumbo refused to take it down.

When asked by a reporter from community paper The Local in 2010 whether she intentionally chose provocative exhibits, Cumbo said she was responding to real life events.

"You can't have a man in the Bronx shot by police with 41 bullets and have an exhibition on quilt making," she said, in reference to the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo.

[Related: The City Council Definition of Women's Issues]

In 2012, Cumbo stepped down from her duties at MoCADA to run for now-Public Advocate Letitia James' council seat. Cumbo wouldn't elaborate on the specifics of her decision to run, but it's clear that she wanted a larger forum than MoCADA's gallery to share her ideas about Brooklyn's future.

She beat four challengers in the 2013 Democratic primary - winning 36 percent of the vote by a margin of almost 10 points - and ran unopposed in the general election to become the 35th District's newest representative.

There were questions about whether Cumbo would be ready to handle issues outside of the art world, but she said that wasn't a problem because of the connections she'd made from more than a decade of networking in Brooklyn.

"If you're in the art world, they feel like you're in this bubble that's disconnected from the rest of the world," said Cumbo. "But if you're doing your job right you're integrated in every aspect of society."

Some areas of her new job have come easier than others. Participating in a Council "die-in" inspired by a non-indictment in the Eric Garner case and co-sponsoring the "Right to Know Act" fall in line with Cumbo's past comments on policing. Her former and frequent comments against gentrification have made contentious discussions about upzoning in Crown Heights even more challenging.

cumbo williams twitterCMs Cumbo & Williams (photo: @JumaaneWilliams)

Overall, Cumbo claims to have had a successful first year. She passed her first bill, which will require annual reports on graduation rates of foster children to help track their success after high school. Cumbo also worked with other council members to allocate funds to anti-domestic violence programs and restore money for 57 NYCHA community centers during budget negotiations, she said.

Cumbo points to these community centers, and their extended summer hours, as a key part of reducing violence in NYCHA complexes. In what she said is an example of culture helping in unconventional ways, Cumbo and her staff spent multiple nights last year playing games, showing movies, and doing other activities at the Ingersoll Community Center. In December, Mayor de Blasio announced that crime at the Ingersoll Houses had dropped by 18 percent.

While Cumbo attributes some of that success to her efforts, she agrees that more funding is needed to continue improving her district's NYCHA buildings.

"You know, you have to make choices," she said. "You have to see things holistically in the sense that last year I had a strong focus on art and culture. This year I'm going to have a stronger focus on NYCHA developments."

Even with these new plans, Cumbo can't help but gravitate back to the art world. At the beginning of March, she hosted her first State of the District event at the Brooklyn Museum. Nearly 20 years ago she was an intern at the museum. Now she has the power to allocate hundreds of thousands of dollar to it.

On a snowy Sunday afternoon, nearly 100 people came to hear about Cumbo's first-year accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. Among the guests were Senator Charles Schumer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and other council members.

Amid jokes about her colorful fashion sense and attention to detail, Cumbo also received plenty of praise from her colleagues.

"Everyone said Laurie had some big shoes to fill. That's not true. Laurie had her own shoes," said Public Advocate James, Cumbo's predecessor. "Her shoes have been much higher and much fiercer than mine. So she has blazed her own trail."

Her cultural focus was also emphasized by a longtime colleague and mentor.

"The arts are so critical to our city, to our country, to our society," said Ella Weiss, president of the Brooklyn Arts Council. "We have to feed people, we have to house people, but we also have to nurture the soul."

Cumbo couldn't confirm future plans until her discretionary and capital funds are finalized in the city's Fiscal Year 2016 budget, but she gave a preview of what's on the agenda. MoCADA will be moving into the new "BAM South" tower, which is currently under construction, ensuring a permanent home for her creation. Other ideas range from a large-scale renovation of the Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights to reopening the Walt Whitman Community Center to allowing women temporary leave after they give birth in prison.

Many of these ideas are ambitious, and will take plenty of time and money, but Cumbo is undeterred.

"All we can do is keep working in the right direction," she said. "If we can do it here in New York then it can happen anywhere."

[Related: The City Council Definition of Women's Issues]

by Cole Rosengren, Gotham Gazette

As Warmer Weather Approaches, Safety of City Playgrounds Questioned


The Oodle Swing broke at least five kids’ legs two summers ago in a Park Slope playground. Parents rallied, outraged by the apparently botched installation of the large multi-person discus of a swing which was allegedly too close to the ground and trapped the childrens’ legs between the swing and the rubber mat beneath.

“If any responsible inspection would have been made by an intelligent person working for the City, none of these children would be hurt,” said Robert Kelner of the law firm Kelner & Kelner, who is representing three of the injured children.

“I think, shame on them if they are not sufficiently inspecting areas where children are playing,” Kelner said. They are still waiting for the deposition, he said.

As another spring and summer of outdoor activity approaches, playgrounds across the five boroughs will soon be full of children. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has a few systems in place to inspect and ensure that playgrounds are kept safe. One is the Parks Inspection Program (PIP), which conducts frequent and random inspections of parks and submits regular indicators of the safety levels and cleanliness of park facilities. In the most recent inspection, PIP found that 86.5% of parks had an “acceptable” overall condition.

The Parks Department also has Daily Immediate Attention Systems to respond to safety hazards and provide thorough documentation that it has adequately repaired a problem.

In spite of this, personal injury claims from playground accidents have cost city taxpayers over $20 million over the past 10 years, according to a report from the office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer released March 1. The majority of these claims were due to missing or defective rubber matting, known for burning kids’ feet and skinning their knees. Five percent of the claims were directly swing-related. According to the report, playground injury claims have gone up 53% since 2005.

Most of these personal injury claims paid by the City came from Brooklyn, with 209, compared to Manhattan’s 123, the Bronx and Queens with 111 apiece, and Staten Island with 23. The most dangerous playground has been Mullaly Park Playground in the Bronx, with seven claims and settlements over the span, which included $3.5 million paid to a woman who became paralyzed after hitting her neck on a fence installed too close to the swing set.

The playgrounds in Brooklyn with the most claims were the Stroud Playground in Prospect Heights and Slope Park (of Oodle Swing infamy). Stringer penned a letter to the Parks Department asking officials to get the playgrounds up to safety standards. As the playgrounds atrophy and nails begin peeking through old construction, matting wears thin, and new safety standards become increasingly strident, the City will need to devote extra resources to the maintenance or reconstruction of the playgrounds.

In his report, Stringer recommends that the Parks Department ensure that its facilities are up to date with current safety regulations. The comptroller also recommends boosting the City’s “playground associates” program, consisting of a group of Parks Department employees who, officially, facilitate outdoor programs and maintain comfort stations.

“Our experience with them is that they do play a calming role and generally create a safer environment,” said Manhattan City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council’s parks committee. He also said that the salaries of the playground associates would account for significantly less than the amount that the city is paying in personal injury claims.

“It seems to be pretty clear that this will save the City some money,” he said of increasing the number of playground associates.

At his committee’s March 9 preliminary budget hearing, Levine proposed an increase of $5 million for playground associates on top of the $4.5 million already in the Parks budget. This would add 200 playground associates, on top of the 145 already stationed, who work only during the summer. The addition would edge the number closer to covering the city’s 680 playgrounds with comfort stations (their other job would be maintaining public toilets).

However, Levine said that the problem of playground safety will require more action than just supervision. He said that the real issue is retrofitting parks to meet current safety standards.

In a statement, Stringer added a similar solution. “With claims at their highest point in a decade, it’s clear that the Department of Parks and Recreation must find ways to improve safety in our City’s playgrounds,” Stringer said. “We owe it to our kids to adopt best practices for safety and install state-of-the-art equipment in our playgrounds that reduces the potential for injuries.”

This work would mean costly overhauls of the city’s playgrounds, dipping into a dry well of funding for retrofits or new equipment.

To boot, the Parks Department currently ranks last among city agencies in completing its capital projects, according to a separate report from Comptroller Stringer issued in late February. According to that report, Parks completed only 24% of its capital commitments for fiscal year 2015, while sanitation and education completed 89% and 82% of projects, respectively.

Council Member Levine recently proposed a bill that would mandate a report from each park with its progress in retrofitting toward accessibility to people with disabilities. All new construction has to fit the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the ADA does not mandate retrofitting. Levine said, unlike the bill that is meant to push parks to become more handicap accessible, there is no current movement toward making the city’s playgrounds safer.

However, in the preliminary budget hearing for the Parks Department, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver made it clear that he has a team devoted to making repairs where they see a safety hazard. “We have a whole team in place where we do certain inspections and prioritize them to make sure our playgrounds are safe,” said Silver. “We’ll sit down with the comptroller to go through his reports so we understand that information a bit more.”

However, there has been no mention in this round of budget negotiations of allocating money to redo hazardous parks that are not in disrepair, but are still not safe. The only funding being proposed to enhance playground safety is the $5 million for the playground associates.

Parents are concerned that more playground supervision might hamper the spirit of free play that the playgrounds represent. While they are glad that the City is concerned about their children’s well-being, they are not completely sold that the playground associates program is the answer to the broken legs and burnt feet.  

Dan Janzen is the president of the PTA for P.S. 295 in Park Slope, directly across the street from “the swing of death,” as he calls it, in Slope Park. He is conflicted about the idea of playground associates.

“I get it in principle. But if your playgrounds are so crowded that they have hundreds of kids and need supervisors, maybe we need more playgrounds,” he said. Janzen said that playgrounds should be preserved as positive and protected spaces for play. It is outside of the playground, on the streets, where supervision is needed most. Playgrounds are safe zones where kids should be encouraged to run, spin, and swing mostly unsupervised, he said. That is ultimately the beauty of the playground.

Janzen added that the money could be better spent on baselining a project to make the facilities less treacherous. “Five million bucks. Think about how many rusty Tetanus shots you could avoid.”

Kelner, the attorney, said that he felt like increased supervision could save the City money and most importantly reduce injuries. But he was also skeptical of the City’s plan to increase supervision without making equipment at old playgrounds safe.

“I don’t know if this is someone who is going to do a very necessary job,” he said referring to playground associates, “or if they are just padding the peril.”

by Samuel Lieberman for Gotham Gazette


With New Budget, Key Issues Championed by City Officials Left for Later

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Governor Cuomo (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

As state budget negotiations delivered a new deal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was willing to drop many priorities from his spending plan, several of which are of great importance to New York City officials, including his sometime friend Mayor Bill de Blasio.

With adoption of the state's fiscal year 2016 budget, a host of progressive issues de Blasio and his allies touted were abandoned. Both Cuomo and the Democratic Assembly Majority headed by new Speaker Carl Heastie listed a host of major progressive touchstones in their budget proposals this year, such as paid family leave, a minimum wage increase, the DREAM Act, and more. Cuomo draped himself in several of these issues while campaigning in the city in 2014 and they were key parts to the budget plan he labeled the "2015 Opportunity Agenda."

And yet the 2016 budget lacks most of the progressive punch that Cuomo cloaked his budget proposal in. Insiders say that his budget negotiating powers were hampered by the fact that Cuomo's influence has been significantly damaged by a rough election and recent ethics scandals, and that the governor focused what political capital he had on education reforms and an ethics deal that has been dismissed by good government groups as "window dressing."

Meanwhile, Heastie, who enjoys de Blasio's backing, was new to negotiations and was focused on fighting Cuomo's education agenda. Senate Republicans dug in against progressive issues, bolstered by the success they had during the last election where many of their candidates ran against the DREAM Act. They were also motivated by spite of de Blasio, who publicly vowed to defeat them and tip the chamber into Democratic hands. Also pushed into legislative session beyond the budget is mayoral control of schools, which de Blasio asked be made permanent and Cuomo suggested a three-year extension of - during his closing remarks to the chamber on Tuesday night, Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos ominously remarked that Senate Republicans would consider "how and if" to renew mayoral control.

In the end, contentious debates were mostly abandoned for the sake of an on-time budget. Without the leverage of budget negotiations it is questionable whether many of the larger issues will be addressed later in legislative session, which runs until mid-June.

Legislators from the city were hopeful that 2015 would be a major year for their issues, like the DREAM Act, despite the fact that Senate Republicans managed to win a clear, although narrow majority.

Assembly Members defended the budget deal, publicly supporting Heastie, but many of them acknowledged they were voting for it while holding their noses. Senate Democrats unleashed a host of hostile amendments trying to attach legislation including The DREAM Act, a minimum wage increase, and paid family leave. All of the measures were ruled non-germane.

A look at the major issues important to de Blasio and other city officials that were not addressed in the budget despite being pushed previously by Cuomo and Assembly Democrats:

Paid Family Leave
Perhaps no other issue this year better represents the odd political dynamics at play during budget negotiations. On paid family leave, it's unclear who really wants what and what they are actually willing to do to get it. The issue became a surprise budget touchpoint when Senate Republicans included it in their one-house budget as a hat tip to their partners in the Independent Democratic Conference. The Assembly has been pushing it for years. Republicans are keen to keep the IDC happy as they only enjoy a one-member Senate majority and have members who are under federal investigation, who are considering retirement, who are dealing with health issues, and who may be vulnerable in 2016.

Paid family leave calls for new parents and those taking care of sick relatives to have several weeks of paid leave from their work. Different plans outlined different parameters, including where funding would come from - Cuomo did not include the measure in his budget and seemed caught off guard when it was included in the one-house spending plans of each chamber of the Legislature.

Cuomo claimed the Legislature had "no appetite" for the measure in February. Later he said his office would have to study the issue. Most legislators agree that it was never really at play in budget negotiations. Needless to say, it is favored by de Blasio and most New York City Democrats.

On Tuesday Queens Senator Joseph Addabbo tried to introduce a hostile amendment in his chamber mirroring the Assembly's plan, which is more generous than the Senate's. The amendment was struck down.

Mayoral Control of Schools
With Cuomo supporting a three-year extension and the Assembly supporting seven, even a number of Republican lawmakers told Gotham Gazette earlier in the year that the renewal of mayoral control of schools would not be much of a fight. Diane Savino of the IDC old Gotham Gazette that the renewal should be fairly simple because Senate Republicans had renewed mayoral control before. However, at that time they were dealing with a Mayor (Bloomberg) who donated millions to their campaign accounts.

Senate Republicans feel de Blasio makes a great foil for them and they appear to at least want to make him sweat on mayoral control. Insiders say his push against Cuomo's education reform plan also put him in an even more vulnerable position in budget negotiations. It reasons that Cuomo himself doesn't mind pushing the mayoral control conversation down the line - he himself has called it still an "experiment."

"On something like mayoral control of education, where there's an extraordinary consensus that this is the only effective way to reform education, and the alternative is to go back to a system that was rife with corruption, we're going to win the day on that issue, I believe in my heart, regardless of things that happened last year," de Blasio told reporters on Monday.

Proponents of the DREAM Act, including de Blasio and his close ally City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, went into 2015 more hopeful than they had been in years. They had assurances Cuomo would make the DREAM Act part of his budget - and he did - but he tied it to the equally controversial education tax credit.

During his re-election campaign, Cuomo finally gave full-throated support to the DREAM proposal and would allocate $27 million to give undocumented immigrants access to tuition assistance. He used the issue on the campaign trail as though it was a major priority, and legislators and advocates had seen what Cuomo could do when he made something a priority (see marriage equality and the SAFE Act). Cuomo had successfully changed Republican minds to ensure passage of progressive legislation before, he could do it again. But as negotiations started, Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos was adamant that he would not support the legislation despite it being linked to the education tax credit he supports. Skelos and his spokesperson repeatedly said he did not believe the State should pay for college for "illegal immigrants."

"We're nowhere close to an agreement," Cuomo said on March 24. "So it was pointless in the budget." And like that DREAM Act momentum was dead.

Activists are conducting a hunger strike and the measure will surely garner much attention in the coming weeks and months. And, Democrats plan to run on the issue in Republican districts where there are large Hispanic populations. But for this year, most Democrats agree the DREAM Act is dead because of opposition from Senate Republicans.

"Today is the birthday of the great labor leader Cesar Chavez," Sen. Jose Peralta, Senate sponsor of the DREAM Act, said on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday. "And we are still talking about a lack of respect for immigrants who come to this country, who work hard and live the American dream...here we go again another year and another budget without the DREAM Act, another year of intolerant propaganda."

Minimum Wage Hike
De Blasio, the Assembly and progressive advocates want a staggered minimum wage hike for the city that would reach $15 an hour by 2019. Cuomo favored $11.50 by 2017, with $10.50 for the rest of the state, and it looked to many like there would be room for negotiation. And yet, no raise has made it into the budget as Skelos again shut it down. The budget is likely the only place there would have been leverage sufficient enough to convince Senate Republicans to support it. Advocates for raising the wage have seized on the fact that the budget includes tax breaks for yachts and airplanes and no wage increase.

Criminal Justice Reforms
Changing the grand jury system and repairing police/community relations was at the top of the legislative to-do list at the start of the year. Protests over the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer and the murder of two NYPD officers dominated the headlines. Cuomo promised he would tackle the issue head-on and legislators from all over the state proposed solutions, including having more information released about how grand juries arrive at their decisions and bringing in special prosecutors for police-involved shootings. None of those proposals made it into the budget.

Cuomo's complex "Raise the Age" proposal that would have stopped New York from charging 16- and 17-year-olds as adults and would have made a number of changes to how young people accused of serious crimes are treated had been carefully interwoven into the budget. Resistance from Senate Republicans who want to prove tough on crime and Democrats who say Cuomo's proposal is ill-considered and would actually lead to juvenile offenders spending more time in jail appears to have derailed the measure in the budget. Funds for the initiative have been included, though, so the details of the plan could be worked out later in the year more easily than starting from scratch.

What The City Celebrates
On Monday, De Blasio celebrated the fact that the budget would allow the city the first crack to fix "failing" schools, a change to Cuomo's plan that would have let the state put those schools in receivership. "Per this budget agreement, the city will continue to play the primary role in determining the ways to best address those struggling schools," said de Blasio.

The mayor also expressed his pleasure with the large increase in education funding it will include, which again allows for $300 million toward pre-kindergarten in New York City. "We are certainly pleased with the additional funding for our school system, the additional funding for pre-K and for public housing, those are all steps in the right direction and will certainly help people in New York City," de Blasio said on Monday.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) will get $100 million in added funding - a major boost compared to previous years - and City Comptroller Scott Stringer will be required to more regularly audit the agency.

While the Legislature is on recess following the budget deal, expect a refreshed Albany agenda from de Blasio when legislative session begins in late April. Now, the mayor must adjust his city budget to reflect decisions the State has made.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Council Members Aim Help at Parents Returning to Workforce


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Council Members Kallos (middle), Cumbo (left), & Cornegy (photo: @BenKallos)

NEW YORK - City Council Members Ben Kallos, Laurie Cumbo, and Robert Cornegy today introduced a bill and five-point plan to help working parents re-enter the workforce after temporary disruptions in employment.

The proposed legislation, of which Kallos is the lead sponsor and he introduced at the Council's Stated Meeting, would expand the city's "Workforce1" job training program and provide additional online resources for parents returning to work.

The five-point plan calls for training in technology, partnerships between public agencies and private companies, resume assistance, a proactive outreach campaign to spread the word about job training, and more online information for parents.

The council members announced the legislation earlier Tuesday at a press conference in front of City Hall, backed by supporters from women's rights groups. On the last day of Women's "Her-story" Month, said Council Member Cumbo, "We must recommit to the struggle that women face daily." Cumbo chairs the council's women's issues committee. She called attention to issues of gender pay equity, the lack of a paid family leave law at the state and federal levels, and the limited resources to help new parents transition back to work, all of which contribute to the loss of a "critical braintrust."

"Parent's should have our city's full support when they choose to return [to work]," Cumbo said.

The council members appear to be responding to a critical issue. Nearly 40 percent of women took significant time off for family-related reasons, as did 24 percent of men, according to the Pew Center for Research. Only 10 percent of men quit their jobs while 27 percent of women quit for those reasons. For 31 percent of mothers, time off hurt their careers; 18 percent of men felt the same.

"The fight for gender equity cannot be confined to just one month," said Council Member Kallos, echoing Cumbo's sentiment. "We must fight for gender equity every day of the year."

Kallos stressed the diversity of stay-at-home parents, who span all socio-economic classes and races, and the potential impact on the local economy from facilitating the transition back to the workforce. "We envision a city where any parent is confident that he or she has the support necessary to reenter the workforce and does not need to struggle to do so," he said.

The Workforce1 program's 18 career centers helped 40,000 people get jobs in 2013, according to Center for an Urban Future. Kallos hopes to increase the number next year by expanding the program with more technological training and making it a "one-stop shop for information and training, not just a way to connect to in-person resources."

Erica Cohen, a young parent and graduate student, worked with Kallos on this campaign. She has been unemployed for five years and has found it tough to find a job while being the primary caregiver for her daughter. "There are some skills that I don't have or I'm rusty at and I think any re-entry program that can help me with those skills and help me with the unique obstacles of returning to work," she said. "Whether you're a stay-at-home mother or father, there are unique challenges, I think this plan would help parents with these unique obstacles."

Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. has been a strong supporter of women's equity and gender issues, and he is also chair of the Council's small business committee. Last year, Cornegy created the first community lactation station in his office in Bedford-Stuyvesant for mothers to breastfeed their infants in private. Today's bill, he said "acknowledges that the barriers that (women) face are real and have real consequence for their present economic security and their futures."

Representatives from advocacy groups including the Women's City Club of New York, The Lower Eastside Girls Club, Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro Choice, and New York Communities for Change also showed their support for the proposals.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Frustrated and Confused, Legislators Vote on Largely Unseen Budget

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Gov. Cuomo during Sunday's Greek Independence parade (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

Voting on a murky budget "framework" began in Albany on Monday evening under a cloud of confusion and anger. Debate in both houses of the state Legislature stretched from afternoon into evening, with the Assembly adjourning around 9 and the Senate around 10 p.m. Both will be back to finish voting on budget bills Tuesday morning - legslation that members mostly have not had a chance to read.

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators sprint to an on-time budget, frustration at the Capitol is clear. Budget agreements were things to be grandly celebrated during the first three years of Cuomo's tenure, now in its fifth year. But the past two deals have oozed out with little fanfare and plenty of criticism.

Last year Cuomo went over a deal with reporters on a Saturday conference call, quietly revealing he had agreed to shutter The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. This year, a Sunday announcement of the "framework" of a deal by Cuomo's office appeared premature on Monday when no formal press conference was held and legislators involved in discussions said that a number of areas were still under negotiation.

In the rush to ensure a fifth straight on-time budget before the April 1 deadline, Cuomo even issued messages of necessity to expedite the passage of the bills and allow them to be voted on without the required three-day review window - something he had tried to avoid previously in an effort to escape criticism.

On Monday evening rank-and-file legislators were unclear on exactly what they were being asked to vote on. State Senator John DeFranciso. who helped author a much-touted ethics agreement, admitted it would only be available for review for a few hours before legislators from both chambers would vote on it.

The ethics package isn't alone. A little past 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Sen. Kemp Hannon said that the capital projects portion of the budget was still being negotiated. As of 9 p.m. legislators still hadn't been provided with education runs that show how state cash will be distributed to school districts. It is unclear if key education policies have fully been agreed upon.

"This budget is shaping up to being nothing more than a glorified extender," Sen. Michael Gianaris said on the floor on Monday. Senate Democrats voted against the budget bills because their leader, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, has been left out of budget negotiations and because the budget was bereft of so many pertinent issues Democrats had been fighting for, such as the DREAM Act.

Blair Horner, of New York Public Interest Research Group, said that it wasn't exactly surprising the budget was so thin on details, even this late in the game. He noted that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is negotiating his first budget, Cuomo has a new second term staff, and Senate Republicans are trying to maintain a "razor-thin majority."

After the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges earlier this year Cuomo said he was so set on getting a new set of ethics reforms that he would even sacrifice an on-time budget. But with public opinion turning against him, especially around his handling of education reform, Cuomo and legislators appeared to abandon some of the other policy pieces he had touted. Gone from a final budget deal are an increase to the minimum wage, grand jury reform, the 'raise the age' initiative, an extension of mayoral control of schools, raising the charter school cap, an education donation tax credit, the DREAM Act, and paid family leave. The two minorities - Senate Democrats and Assembly Republicans - attempted a number of hostile amendments to derail the deal, or at least poke holes in it.

What is in the budget agreement appears to be a $1.6 billion increase in education spending, a new plan for revamping the teacher evaluation system through the state education department, $1.5 million in funds for upstate economic development, infrastructure expenditures, and state operational spending capped at an increase of 2 percent.

Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the education funding included in the budget on Monday, but noted he would like to have seen more action on progressive issues. "I think I made my views known on mayoral control of education, I made my views known on the Dream Act. I was hoping both of those issues would be addressed here and now, but they have been postponed," de Blasio said during a press conference on Monday. "We'll obviously continue our efforts to get the Dream Act passed and mayoral control of schools renewed for a substantial period of time."

A Capital New York report that the budget all of a sudden included a sales-tax exemption for boats that cost over $230,000 (and private planes) became the talk of the capital as legislators prepared to vote on the budget bills that had been settled. Many legislators hammered away at the "yacht exemption" as they noted the budget does not include a DREAM Act or minimum wage. Many still voted for it.

Grievances about what is or is not in the mysterious ethics bill were also aired. The deal appeared to involve a mandate that lawyer-legislators disclose clients who pay them more than $5,000, but they would be allowed to appeal to state agencies to not make certain disclosures. Legislators will also be forced to check in to the Capitol with a swipe card to earn their per diem travel reimbursements.

The irony of an ethics reform bill being among the last to be seen as the budget is being passed through was not lost on many. Meanwhile, during a floor vote on budget bills in the Senate, Sen. Daniel Squadron questioned DeFranciso about whether the missing ethics bill would close the LLC "loophole" that allows one person to donate unlimited campaign funds by using multiple LLCs. DeFranciso admitted the provision would not be part of the bill but took exception to the "loophole" label.

"The LLC loophole is unconscionable to leave out of this year's budget at a time when ethics reform has been put forward as necessity," Squadron told legislators. Later, Sen. Brad Hoylman wryly suggested, "Maybe we should call this the New York State Senate LLC exception." Both the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Cuomo had advocated for ending the loophole. Sources told Gotham Gazette the provision was removed at the behest of Senate Republicans.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman slammed the ethics package earlier Monday. Schneiderman is advocating major reform of the Legislature - including making it a full-time body. "I have not seen the final copy of this, but, from what I understand, it does sound as though this is more tinkering around the edges, accompanied by some fairly strong and recycled language about how this really solves all the problems."

Floor debate in the Senate also revealed that Senators, even from the majority involved in negotiations had no knowledge of major policy details. Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger asked DeFrancisco, a Republican, about the state's brownfields program and DeFrancisco admitted he had no knowledge of the final details and said he would get an "analyst" to answer Krueger's inquiry. "I can't intelligently give you an answer on that question," DeFrancisco said. Krueger said she "sympathized" with DeFrancisco because so much was unfinished in the budget. "We are voting on a budget that isn't a budget; budget bills that aren't budget bills," said Krueger.

Horner said that it was "mind-boggling" even by Albany standards that "an agreement to open up Albany would be delivered under darkness with so much secrecy."

Senate Democrats, who have been increasingly critical of Cuomo in public in the last few months, simultaneously congratulated Schneiderman for his work securing settlements with major banks on mortgage fraud and contributing to the state windfall while decrying the budget deal Cuomo negotiated for not using those funds to help neighborhoods hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.

Democratic Senators Adriano Espaillat and Leroy Comrie both lamented a lack of help for those in mortgage crisis in their districts.

In the days leading up to the budget vote - including Monday - Cuomo faced blistering, unrelenting attacks from teachers unions and some parent groups on his plan to change teacher evaluations to rely more on students' state test scores and to boost charter schools. New Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie won accolades from education lobbyists for standing up to Cuomo on education issues, while Senate Republicans appear to have come out the biggest winners as they stymied any effort to move major progressive issues. Meanwhile, Cuomo's mystique as a man who can move mountains and votes to achieve his policy goals has been all but exterminated. "Mario Cuomo said that in politics friends are scarce and enemies accumulate," said Horner.

Cuomo admitted this year's budget was the toughest for him to negotiate, pointing to his push for major ethics and education reforms.

"It isn't surprising Andrew had so much success in his first term - first-term governors tend to get what they want and he had allies spending money to defend him," Horner said. This year, Horner said Cuomo was operating with a new team of aides, with his list of enemies growing, and without organizations like the controversial Committee to Save New York that raised funds at his behest to run advertisements to support his policies.

Cuomo also lost much credibility with reform groups when he decided to negotiate the end of Moreland with legislators. This year he is seeing the impact - good government groups have thrown their backing behind Schneiderman's ethics plan and are dismissing an ethics framework Cuomo says will "address intractable problems that have vexed our state for generations," because they have seen him tout previous deals that ended up fragmented and loaded with loopholes.

"We are waiting to see the plan to cast official judgement," Horner said of NYPIRG and other good government groups. "We've seen in the past that we will be told one thing only to see the language in the bill is the exact opposite."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Bill Would Require City Planner at Each Community Board

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CM Kallos at a committee hearing (photo: William Alatriste)

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, will introduce a bill Tuesday to provide a professional urban planner to each of the 59 community boards in the city.

The bill, Kallos said, is a move to empower communities in the city's land use process. Speaking exclusively to Gotham Gazette, Kallos said, "The City has two main powers. The first is over budget and the community boards have a say in that. They make their budget priorities known. The other is land use. In order to give community boards power and a voice in that land use process, they need skilled technical help."

Kallos' bill would create a planning department in each of the five borough president offices which would staff at least one planner for each community board. There are 12 boards in Manhattan, 12 in the Bronx, 14 in Queens, 18 in Brooklyn and three in Staten Island.

The council member cited a number of concerns which prompted the bill, including lack of support from the City Planning Commission and the proposed rezoning of East Midtown. "This is the age of the super-scraper," Kallos said. "I'll be getting a 900 foot tall building in my district soon. Development is running rampant. Developers are making billions off new buildings and communities don't really have a say. The idea is to put planning back in 'community planning board' as it once was and empower the community boards."

Currently, community boards only play an advisory role in any zoning or planning issues. Land use deals that need City Council approval typically hinge on the decision of the council member whose district is home to the project. The City's Planning Department falls under the mayor and community boards that disagree with the administration may not get the planning support they need, Kallos said. Changes in the city's zoning laws proposed last month by Mayor Bill de Blasio will affect the entire city and Kallos believes the community boards may not necessarily have the expertise required to deal with them. The law would require the City to appropriate funding through each borough president's office and the borough presidents would have a say in the new hires, as they do with community board member appointment.

Kallos will introduce the bill at Tuesday's full-body Stated Meeting of the City Council and it will head to the governmental operations committee, which he chairs.

The demand for technical help already exists. At a recent hearing of the governmental operations committee, representatives of Manhattan community boards called for an increased budget for professional hires, although not specifically for planners. "This law is in line with that," said Kallos.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Memories of a Fatal Fire Inspire Generations of Reformers


Speaker Mark-Viverito at the fire commemoration (photo: @IvanLS24)

New Yorkers Gather to Honor the Triangle Factory Dead and Rally for a Living Wage

Dozens of cut-outs of cloth shirtwaists fluttered in the air on Wednesday outside the gray brick building near Washington Square Park. Some of the blouses were patterned, others were adorned with chantilly lace and intricate embroidery. All were affixed to wooden poles and branded with the name and age of a victim of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred at the site 104 years ago.

On a mauve shirtwaist decorated with delicate white-beaded flowers, 19-year-old Rose Liebermark.

On a pink-and-green striped version, 18-year-old Bettina Maiale.

These two were among 146 workers, mostly Italian and Jewish young women, who perished in a factory fire on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street - an event that became a flashpoint in the Progressive Era fight for workers' rights and an ongoing symbol of such efforts.

More than a century later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory has a new identity as New York University's Brown Building of Science and the anniversary of the tragedy has become a rallying point for minimum wage advocates.

From the science building's elevated floors, students in chemistry class, still clad in their goggles, peer out at the crowd. They look bewildered; there are few reminders remaining of the tragedy that took place long ago and of the bodies that once littered this asphalt street.

The crowd of about 150 on Wednesday hoped to change that. Every year, union workers, young students, advocacy groups, and members of the New York City Fire Department gather at the site to remember the victims and bring awareness to the ongoing fight for labor reform. At this year's ceremony, a roster of high-profile speakers pledged to continue to fight for labor laws that provide safe workplaces and higher living wages for the more than 594,000 minimum-wage workers in New York State.

"Today, like every year, let us recommit to educate and of course remember," said Vinny Alvarez, president of the New York Central Labor Council. He urged the crowd to "fight for laws that save lives and continue to advocate for all working people."

Paying respects and honoring the victims is the top priority, says union worker and auditor Chester Modzelewski. He makes an effort to attend the remembrance ceremony every year. "Never, ever forget," said Modzelewski. "That's the most important thing."

Modzelewski was joined by a fellow union worker, Mike Cummings, a supervisor for Unite Here, a labor union spanning the U.S. and Canada, which counts more than 265,000 members. Cummings said the event is a reminder of the consequences of cutting costs, something which he says still happens again and again. Workers at the Triangle factory had no way to escape because the doors were locked and nearly all fire exits were blocked in attempts to ensure that workers kept at their jobs virtually non-stop.

Edgar Romney, president of the local Workers United affiliate, believes that while much has changed over the decades, there is still a long way to go. Workplace regulation is subpar and union workers continue to be under attack, he says.

"It frustrates and angers me to stand here every year," Romney said. "As though the fire never happened, as though the world is a safe place for workers around the world."

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito expressed similar sentiments. Mark-Viverito spoke of carrying on the hopes and dreams of the 146 victims by fighting for workplace reform like paid sick leave, a living wage, and better benefits for workers. "We recommit ourselves to the fight for equity, justice, and humane working conditions," she said.

In New York right now, where the statewide minimum wage is $8.75, this means the fight for a living wage. Today, more than half of New York City's hourly workers over the age of 25 are earning $10.50 or less. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is currently promoting his Fight for Fair Pay campaign, which recommends increasing the minimum wage by the end of 2016 to $10.50 across New York State, and $11.50 in New York City. Though prominent business executives, including Viacom President Philippe Dauman, have thrown their support behind the proposal, state Senate Republicans are largely against any additional bump to the wage, while not all agree that Cuomo's proposed increase is enough.

Instead, many are calling for a hike to $15, an initiative that Mayor Bill de Blasio supported in his 2015 State of the City address in January. He proposed a minimum wage increase that would gradually reach $15 an hour by 2019. In his speech, de Blasio said that Cuomo's plan doesn't do enough to help New York City.

The Fight for 15 campaign agenda isn't limited to New York City. Last May, Seattle became the first city to announce a $15 minimum wage, and cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are also taking initial steps in this direction. The future of New York's minimum wage is being debated in state budget negotiations, and will likely be discussed in the legislative session to follow.

The 1911 fire brought the grim realities of sweatshops to the nation's attention. Just two years earlier, in 1909, more than 20,000 Triangle Shirtwaist workers abandoned the factory floor to protest for improved benefits and wages. The effort was mostly unsuccessful, raising their weekly wage two dollars. After the fire, the nation knew who these women were, said Cecilia Rubino, an assistant theater professor at the New School and director of the award-winning play "From the Fire," which is about the tragedy.

"Because they had been in the newspapers, they were figures that New Yorkers knew," said Rubino. "They were not just a name and a number, not just immigrants."

The fire spurred many changes. In the following months, labor reform laws and factory safety regulations were readily passed, including the Sullivan-Hoey Fire prevention law mandating the installation of sprinkler systems in factories. "There's where this wheel of change happened. I would say it's unprecedented in American history," said Rubino. "It was just this incredible surge of energy around peacefully legislating change."

After Wednesday's rousing speeches, there was a quiet, thoughtful moment. Members of Ladder 20/Engine 13 in Nolita raised their firetruck's ladders to the eighth floor, where the factory fire began its fatal path. Young school children, adults, and family members read each of the 146 names, one by one. "Rose Weiner, our great aunt," said one couple in unison, laying a white carnation on the ground. A Fire Department official in uniform solemnly tolled a bell.

It was a moving ritual — one that will happen again next year.

"It's a really important moment of convergence," said Rubino. "As a culture we need to believe that there are things that actually do change, there are moments where collectively we turn, and for the better."

Christine Chung is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School. She's on Twitter @chrisychung.

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