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Citizens Union



Assembly Reform Group Will Miss Own Deadline

assembly capitol

(photo via the governor's office on flickr)

The Assembly working group on operations, participation, and transparency is set to miss its self-imposed December deadline to issue recommendations on how to make the chamber more accommodating to the public and rank-and-file members.

Assemblymember Gary Pretlow, the group's co-chair, told Gotham Gazette: "We wanted to get it out before the end of December but that's not gonna happen."

The 12-member group was put together by newly-minted Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in April as a concession to pressure from reform-minded members and good government groups. The group has gotten off to a slow start and it is unclear how promising the endeavor will be.

In August Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that he and fellow co-chair Brian Kavanagh had only solicited ideas from members via email and not had much response. Heastie defended the group's pace that month.

"The idea was for them to meet and have conversations and come back to us with recommendations in the next session. So I've left that to the 12 members of the committee...they have time," Heastie was quoted by State of Politics. However, by Pretlow's description, only two of the members have had any real say so far.

Pretlow says things have picked up for at least himself and Kavanagh, if not the rest of the working group.

"Assemblyman Kavanagh and I have been wading through 15 pages of recommendations. We've been meeting about every week. We didn't want to bring everyone to Albany every week because then you guys would say we were milking per diems. So it's damned if you do, damned if you don't," Pretlow told Gotham Gazette.

Pretlow said he hopes to present the 12 other members of the group with recommendations within the next two weeks and then share what they agree on with the full Assembly when it returns to session January 6.

Proposals the group could be considering include ones that would more equally distribute resources amongst members, allow for a more open committee process, mandate use of the internet to better publicize important hearings, and allowing rank-and-file members to more easily advance their bills.

The group has faced criticism for not including Assembly Republicans who have long complained of having their voices silenced in legislative committees and bills killed before they reach a vote.

Pretlow said that he and Kavanagh have met with some groups with outside interest in reforms, "We met with the so-called good government groups to take their suggestions and we looked for input from the public but we haven't got any," Pretlow said.

When asked how the group solicited public input, Pretlow said he thought perhaps there was "something on the internet," and encouraged Gotham Gazette to contact Kavanagh for specifics. Kavanagh's office did not return request for comment.

"We've gots lots of recommendations from what's been in the press," said Pretlow. "It's not like this is a secret group."

Representatives of good government groups had slightly varying takes on their meeting with the working group but agreed it wasn't particularly eventful.

Blair Horner, of The New York Public Interest Research Group, said it was hard to read the pair either way and that he felt they were on a "fact-finding mission."

"It was hard to read the tea leaves, they played it close to vest and they were non-committal," said Horner who noted that the working group can't make promises as the Democratic conference will have to approve the recommendations.

Other attendees felt the pair outright rejected many of their proposals without even the slightest consideration and that it seemed they were more concerned with perception and political power than moving on major reform. "We essentially read a list of proposals to these guys and they told us why they can't, or won't, do them," said one attendee.

Some reformers were hoping the group would have recommendations that would have been debated in public hearings, and agreed on in time to pass during their first day in session. It is more likely the conference will discuss the recommendations for the first time as a body on that day.

"The only thing I have to say is that now is clearly the time for Heastie and the Assembly Democrats to make a clean break with a very corrupt and undemocratic past," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, when told about the delay. "It's on the Assembly Democrats to change the culture and the rules that have been a breeding ground for scandal after scandal. We hope Speaker Heastie is up to the challenge."

Heastie, who replaced his predecessor, Sheldon Silver, when Silver was indicted (he has since been convicted on federal corruption charges), has received praise from a number of his younger members for listening to a wider range of legislators than Silver and for empowering rank-and-file members.

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

However, there is growing concern among reformers in and out of the Assembly that Heastie is essentially punishing Kavanagh for pushing for more reforms, which could theoretically weaken Heastie as leader, by sticking him with a group that is meant to be a dog and pony show. Pretlow told Gotham Gazette in August that he wanted to make sure the group didn't do anything to infringe on Heastie's "power."

"This has got to be torture for the guy," said a fellow Democrat of Kavanagh, "He actually wants change and Carl is making him pay for it."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Cuomo's FOIL Order Has More Limited Scope Than Vetoed Bills

Cuomo event thumbs

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed two bills that would have strengthened the Freedom of Information Law last Friday he framed his action as though the bills were an assault by the legislature--a legislature that refuses to operate under the same set of FOIL rules. A message accompanying his subsequent executive order, which calls for the speeding of FOIL appeal responses, promised: "We will introduce a bill early next year to bring the same, necessary high standards of transparency to the legislature."

Cuomo is now expected to meet with a number of stakeholders in the FOIL debate on Wednesday, including representatives of good government groups.

Assemblymember David Buchwald, sponsor of one of the vetoed bills, told Gotham Gazette that he rejects the ideas that his bill was an attack on the governor and that the issue is one that pits Cuomo against the legislature. He notes that the Assembly has passed his bill for years, that is has been around since before Cuomo became governor, and that, importantly, it has a far wider scope than Cuomo's order. Buchwald says his bill would make executive agencies, local governments, the comptroller and attorney general offices, and the legislature file appeals to FOIL requests within 60 days.

Cuomo is certainly correct that the Freedom of Information Law significantly limits the type of legislative records that are available to the public.

"There are always people who argue that you can't improve some things until every single thing has been improved, but that position doesn't improve things for New Yorkers. It is designed to make sure there is no change," Buchwald told Gotham Gazette.

"This piece of legislation primarily comes out of the Committee on Open Government, which is an executive branch agency. The governor might be right to point back to the legislature, but this legislation has been on his desk and he could have acted at any time. It is not a mere football to be part of this battle," Buchwald said.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, noted that most state legislatures are not subject to FOIL and that New York's FOIL is modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act which does not cover legislative or judicial records. Reinvent Albany issued a report on Tuesday comparing Cuomo's executive order to the vetoed legislation, declaring the order a "setback for transparency."

The report goes on to rebut Cuomo's criticisms of the vetoed bills:

"Previous governors have signed bills strengthening and modernizing FOIL, including the biggest recent change, which explicitly addressed emails. Yes, FOIL should apply to the state legislature, as it does in almost two dozen states. But it is bizarre and unprecedented for a governor to veto FOIL bills which strengthen the existing FOIL—which applies to state agencies and authorities and non-profits, the attorney general, comptroller, and all local governments—because it does not apply to the legislature."

Buchwald noted that Cuomo could have introduced legislation at any time to increase the strength of FOIL.

The governor's subsequent executive order took part of Buchwald's bill and implemented it for the executive branch - requiring executive agencies to appeal a judge's decision to grant a FOIL request within three months, down from nine. But Buchwald's bill would have required an agency submit an appeal within 30 days and finalize the paperwork within 60.

Additionally, Buchwald's bill applied those rules to not only the executive but the comptroller, attorney general, local governments, and authorities. Authorities have become of particular interest to the press corp and good government groups as the Cuomo administration has funded the Buffalo Billion economic development program through such mechanisms and has been criticized by many for a lack of transparency. United States Attorney Preet Bharara is reportedly investigating contracts related to the Buffalo Billion.

Bob Freeman of The Committee on Open Government told State of Politics that he is involved in discussions with the governor's office about revamping New York FOIL. "Although they were indeed vetoed, I've already spoken to the counsel to the governor, we will be working soon on developing legislation that involves a meeting of the minds that would advance the goals the Committee on Open Government has expressed," Freeman said of the two bills.

"The executive order the governor issued hours later shows that there is a lot of merit to my bill but it would have applied to local governments, the attorney general, comptroller and authorities. And the governor's order doesn't touch any of Assemblywoman Paulin's bill," Buchwald said.

Paulin's legislation, also authored by The Committee on Open Government, would have changed a single word in the law from a judge "may" award legal fees if an agency is found to have improperly denied a FOIL request, to "shall." Five other states, including California, New Jersey, and Illinois have such a law.

The Cuomo administration appears to be responding to criticisms of the vetoes and subsequent executive order with a heightened sensitivity. Sources say Cuomo counsel Alphonso David has made an unprecedented number of calls in a short period of time on the matter. A number of sources told Gotham Gazette that they hope the Cuomo administration is actually looking for input from interested parties during Wednesday's meeting and not simply going to reveal their plan while demanding endorsements. Cuomo appears ready to make a renewed push on ethics reform in January when legislators return to Albany. This appears likely to include an expanded FOIL bill.

Freeman told State of Politics that Cuomo's executive order is a "positive step forward," but that "It's not nearly as expansive as a law would have been."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Negotiations to Extend Important Affordable Housing Tax Break Said to Reach Impasse

Cuomo empty lot

(photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)

It appears that labor leaders and real estate developers are at an impasse in their negotiations of an extension for a controversial tax abatement program meant to encourage affordable housing. Known as 421-a, the program gives real estate developers significant property tax breaks for building affordable housing as part of otherwise market-rate buildings. State lawmakers decided in June to leave the future of the expiring program contingent upon an agreement between labor and business.

Sources close to negotiations characterized discussions as "dead," adding that the Real Estate Board of New York was "unhappy" with the direction of negotiations with the construction workers union. Others told Gotham Gazette that there hasn't been any movement for some time, while other key stakeholders appeared not to have thought or heard anything about the status of negotiations in weeks.

However, spokespeople for John Banks, head of the Real Estate Board of New York, and Gary LaBarbera, head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, told Gotham Gazette that negotiations continue.

"These are ongoing, good faith, negotiations and we are not going to discuss them publicly," said Jamie McShane, of REBNY, by email. "The negotiations mark a great opportunity to engage in frank and honest discussions about how we can build much more affordable housing, ensure construction workers are treated fairly and create job opportunities for residents of the city."

LaBarbera, issued a similar statement: "We continue to meet with REBNY representatives and are hopeful we will reach an agreement on an extension of the 421-a program in the weeks ahead which provides workers with good wages and benefits and needed affordable housing across New York City."

Both groups say they are working toward a deal by the January 15 deadline. It is unclear whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office is involved in mediating negotiations - Cuomo helped spearhead the deal that left extension of 421-a, a government tax and housing policy, up to private parties. The Cuomo administration did not return request for comment.

The 421-a exemption is a favorite of the development industry that has been applied liberally but enforced loosely. It is also seen as essential to building affordable housing in New York City, especially in most desirable neighborhoods.

When 421-a was expiring in June, Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed on a compromise. The deal temporarily extended the program, to the end of the year, while setting up tighter requirements for the affordability component but leaving the future more precarious. Seemingly spurred by concerns that federal prosecutors were watching closely, legislators left it up to labor unions and real estate representatives to negotiate the final, crucial aspect of the deal: the prevailing wage component. Allowing labor unions and the real estate industry to decide legislative policy has been questioned by a number of tenant and good government groups, as well as people in government.

In announcing the major aspects of an end-of-session deal on June 25, Cuomo's office outlined the 421-a extension: "The legislation extends the 421-a program for six months, with a provision that allows representatives of labor and industry groups to reach a memorandum of understanding regarding wage protections for construction workers. If such an agreement is reached, the program will automatically be extended for four years."

Sen Liz Krueger, Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, told Gotham Gazette that she has been informed that negotiations are on the rocks. Krueger has been against putting 421-a negotiations in the hands of real estate and labor. "I've heard through the grapevine that negotiations aren't going well and, OK, that says to me that the program comes to an end," said Krueger. "I believe that it is inappropriate for groups that benefit from a tax break to be in charge of negotiating it."

Having control over the tax breaks, which can be worth millions of dollars, and the jobs created by construction is a major motivator for real estate and labor but many speculate that developers would be more willing to walk away from the negotiating table if labor demands for worker pay eats too far into their bottom line. There are also questions about how easily LaBarbera is able to negotiate with one voice on behalf of the various unions within his larger organization.

Though an agreement may be on the verge of alluding stakeholders, there is more time till the deadline, and deals do tend to get reached at the eleventh hour.

One party certainly paying close attention, if not working to influence negotiations, is the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose affordable housing goals rest, in part, on 421-a-related development.

"We fought hard to secure a program that eliminated tax breaks for luxury condos, doubled affordable housing production, and slashed subsidies per apartment by a third," said Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for the mayor. "Against some strong political headwinds, we got these reforms passed. The rest is in the hands of the parties that officials in Albany chose to hammer out final program details."

In Fiscal Year 2015, 421-a accounted for more than $1.1 billion in government tax expenditures.

Yet, a recent ProPublica investigation of 421-a found "The failure of city and state regulators to effectively police the tax break at the heart of such deals and hold developers to their word."

This discrepancy is something de Blasio and his team have vowed to change and are working with state partners to correct. It is also part of the impetus for changes in the policy that Norvell alluded to.

When developers apply for and receive the tax abatement, they do not have to pay property taxes for three years during construction, after which their exemption lasts decades in exchange for keeping some units in their new buildings under rental affordability caps. It is part of the state tax code, but applies to New York City development and is overseen by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Though he has decried how it has been applied and enforced in the past, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to see 421-a extended, and his ambitious affordable housing plans include units accrued through the program. In the spring, de Blasio offered his own 421-a reform plan, which he got real estate buy-in for, but was rejected by Cuomo, who insisted in more protections for labor. The deal reached by Cuomo and legislative leaders was actually very similar to de Blasio's proposal, but was indeed more favorable for the construction unions - if they could reach a compromise with real estate leaders, of course.

"The story of 421-a has been told," said Krueger. "We don't get the bang for our buck; It has been abused; the real estate industry has learned how to avoid delivering affordable housing and it drives up land prices, which is not helpful in New York City."

Vicki Been, head of de Blasio's housing department, said in November that the administration hoped a deal on 421-a would be reached, but that the city and the administration's affordable housing plans would survive even without one.

"Life will go on," Been said during an event at New York Law School. "There was life before 421-a, and there will be life if 421-a fails. We will survive and still deliver our 200,000 units," Been said, referring to the administration's ten-year goal of preserving or building 200,000 affordable units. Still, Been indicated she would like to see 421-a extended and that, in a newly strengthened form, it would be helpful in achieving the administration's goals.

Cuomo has indicated that he is confident in whatever negotiations might yield. "Organized labor is part of the process and that's what this legislation stipulated," Cuomo said in July, according to State of Politics. "The legislation speaks for itself and it sets up the process and whatever the process yields, that's what the process yields."

If no deal is reached, there may be several fingers pointing at Cuomo for abdicating responsibility. Meanwhile, enough 421-a funded affordable housing is in the pipeline already that an expired program later renewed sometime in 2016 may not cause too many problems for affordable housing development in the city. Some have expressed concern, though, about the ability of nonprofit affordable housing builders to survive without 421-a; and those builders are not necessarily well-represented by REBNY.

Krueger said that she would be happy to negotiate an all new affordable housing program that takes into account the lessons learned from 421-a. She'd like to have a public debate with all the stakeholders involved. However, she fears if a deal with REBNY and labor fails to materialize, a replacement might be negotiated behind closed doors at the last minute in the state budget--specifically the funding bill that is usually presented to legislators and voted on after all the other budget bills.

"I believe now is the right time to negotiate a bill with all the facts on the table," said Krueger. 

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Assemblymember Blake Decides Against New Consulting Job


blake nypd

Assembly Member Michael Blake, center (photo via @youngblackkings)

Two days after announcing that he would be joining a consulting firm as a partner while retaining his seat in the New York State Assembly, Michael Blake has changed his mind.

"I've decided that the clear priority is and always has been the constituents of my district, and I'm not going to allow anything to distract from that. I'm not going to be a partner at Hilltop," Blake told Gotham Gazette Sunday evening, meaning Hilltop Public Solutions, the consulting firm.

"I'm not going to let the noise that's been out there continue," he added, referring to the immediate negative response that the announcement garnered from good government advocates and in the media. "I'm not going to let this be a distraction for the people. I want to be focused on the work and focused on my family."

The change of mind comes after the Friday uproar when, on the same day that former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was convicted of using his public office for private gain, Hilltop announced that Blake was joining the firm. Blake and Hilltop both said he would only be handling national and international clients - none with business before New York State - and Blake explained that the move had been cleared by an Albany ethics commission. But, the timing and the cynicism around Albany lawmakers and their real and perceived conflicts of interest led to a powerful backlash against the move.

Blake, a Democrat elected in 2014, is upset about how the announcement was portrayed, but acknowledged the bad timing and that the atmosphere around New York elected officials is toxic. The reaction to Blake's announcement came not just the same day as Skelos' conviction, but soon after that of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, also found guilty of abusing his government power for private gain.

"There is an environment and climate that we're in right now, that it is believed that anything that we do outside the legislature is wrong," Blake said during a Sunday interview. "While it's not a fair assessment in my eyes, we have to be sensitive that that's the reality. I did above and beyond being transparent and communicating what I would be doing, but even with that, you have people who have conveyed a narrative that there would be a conflict. Perception is reality, I did not want this to continue to be a distraction."

Dick Dadey, executive director of good government group Citizens Union, was one of Blake's toughest critics when the news broke on Friday. Told of Blake's decision on Sunday, Dadey said, "Michael Blake's bold decision to give up the Hilltop job is what true leadership is about. His taking the job was perfectly legal, but it did give the perception that there was a conflict of interest that could affect his ability to represent his constituents. He's gone from appearing to be 'more of the same' on Friday to being the kind of legislator that we need to send to Albany more often."

While saying that he will continue to push for transparency in state government as well as increased democratization of the Assembly, Blake argued that not all legislators should be painted with the corruption brush because of those who have abused their positions, such as Silver and Skelos.

"It is not accurate that there is a culture of corruption in Albany," he said, directly refuting claims by critics including good government groups and U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara, who brought the cases against both Silver and Skelos. "There are 213 of us" in the legislature, Blake said. The bad actors "are the minority. The supermajority is doing everything above board and appropriate."

Blake has worked closely with Silver's replacement, Carl Heastie, who also represents part of the Bronx. He said that reforms were happening under Heastie, "Progress has already begun," Blake said Sunday. "Heastie was pretty phenomenal right out of the gate," getting newer Assembly members involved and opening up the decision-making processes.

"I've been one of the more public and ardent advocates for reform the entire year," Blake said, noting his push for Assembly members to be more involved in the budget process. "Just because you're providing for your family doesn't mean you can't also advocate for reform," he said.

Explaining that he is the primary income earner for his family, that his is the home at which family members gather during the holidays, Blake explained his need for earning beyond his $79,500 annual salary as an Assembly member. He also stressed that he is both against banning outside income and very careful about disclosure - Blake already runs his own small consulting firm.

"I'm not in agreement with banning outside income. I think we are ignoring race and class issues when we do that. You have no idea of the dynamics for someone who is serving," Blake said. "If you ban all outside income, you create a scenario where only the rich and wealthy can serve."

While running for office in 2014, Blake made money giving speeches and providing consultation for several clients. He disclosed the firm he founded, Atlas Strategy Group, his clients, and his income on a form submitted to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is available on the JCOPE website. While he sought a vacant Assembly seat in 2014, Blake earned at least $80,000.

Blake, a former aide to President Obama and veteran of both of Obama's presidential campaigns, continued to perform paid speaking engagements and consulting in 2015, he said on Sunday. He will disclose all of his 2015 income as necessitated and he will handle clients in 2016, he said, while also explaining that he would be working with fewer clients through his own small firm than he would have if he had joined Hilltop.

"We know this decision hits Assemblymember Blake's family pocketbook hard," Dadey of Citizens Union said. "We look forward to working with him and his colleagues as we try to address the issue of state lawmakers' outside income and salary."

Blake said he will indeed bring in some income in addition to his base salary. "I'll still work in the same way I've been preaching and public speaking, I'll still consult from time to time," he said. "In the same way [legislators] can be a professor or a lawyer, and as I've done in the past, I'll disclose in the future."

Blake said he had informed those at Hilltop of his decision. "They have a great track record of electing progressives," he said of the firm. "I was going to help them with that national work. But they are understanding of the bigger picture. They are understanding of the work we could have done to help push progressive values across the country, it has to be secondary for me to the primary point of not doing anything that is perceived to be not helping folks at home."

"I understand the environment we're in," Blake repeated. "I don't want us to be talking about trials...I want us to be talking about these kids."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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

Vetoing FOIL Bills, Cuomo Points Finger at Legislature, Issues Executive Order

Cuomo awards stage

Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)

In response to the conviction of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on multiple federal corruption charges, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared on Friday that the legislature "must stop standing in the way of needed reforms." Only a few hours later he vetoed two bills designed to speed and reform Freedom of Information Law response and require the state to pay court costs incurred by FOIL users whose requests a judge finds have been improperly denied.

Facing searing backlash from good government groups and accusations of hypocrisy, the governor partially reversed himself the next morning by issuing an executive order "to expedite the freedom of information law appeals process," requiring agencies to handle FOIL appeals within 90 days.

In a statement accompanying announcement of the executive order, Cuomo said, "My administration is proud to lead by example in making government more open and transparent." Pointing to the essence of his approach to the bills he vetoed, the executive order, and controversy around FOIL, Cuomo added, "and we will introduce a bill early next year to bring the same, necessary high standards of transparency to the legislature."

The legislature is currently exempt from FOIL.

The governor's weekend moves, appearing somewhat contradictory, garnered mixed reactions, including much criticism Friday evening, then some support on Saturday.

"The governor was given a clear choice between being part of the problem in Albany or part of the solution," wrote a coalition of good government groups in a statement released in response to the vetoes. "These vetoes call into question the governor's commitment to transparency and Freedom of Information."

Cuomo framed his vetoes as part of a concerted effort to make the legislature subject to the stricter FOIL rules. He called the reimbursement bill, sponsored by Assembly Member Amy Paulin, "myopic" and said he was concerned for "judicial discretion in FOIL cases."

On Saturday, a Cuomo spokesperson, Rich Azzopardi, continued pressing the idea that the veto was designed to force the legislature into action, telling various outlets: "The governor will not let the legislature off the hook for not being subject to FOIL."

Some advocates are pleased with the temporary compromise while others say Cuomo is not "leading by example" and is instead deflecting attention to the legislature to prevent the executive from having to comply with measures that will ensure greater transparency.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and New York representative of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, pointed out that the FOIL bills were written by the state's own director of open government, Robert Freeman of the Committee on Open Government. Kaehny characterized Cuomo's executive order as "so weak it is close to meaningless."

"It takes Incredible chutzpah for a governor who just vetoed two important FOIL bills to say he 'won't the legislature off the hook,'" Kaehny told Gotham Gazette. "The governor's 'comprehensive FOIL reform' is another way of saying that the governor has no intention of strengthening FOIL. Skelos and Silver just got convicted, and it's the same old games in Albany."

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, characterized Cuomo's vetoes as "unfortunate" but welcomed the executive order and said he believes the governor plans to move forward with FOIL reform in good faith.

"What the executive order represents is common ground between the governor and the legislature," said Dadey. "The governor had concerns about judicial discretion and putting an unfair burden on executive agencies over others. I take the governor's concerns as legitimate and not a smoke screen because otherwise he wouldn't have issued an executive order."

Cuomo is due to give his State of the State address in combination with his budget presentation on January 13 in Albany. At that time, or near it, the governor is expected to unveil his FOIL reform proposals, including to make the legislature subject to FOIL.

Assembly Member David Buchwald, sponsor of the bill designed to speed state agencies' FOIL appeals, told the New York Times the executive order was "A step in the right direction."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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

Cuomo Urged to Sign Executive Transparency Bills Before Looming Deadline

Cuomo shadows transparency FOIL

Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has until midnight Friday to sign or veto two bills that would strengthen the state's Freedom of Information Act, often known as FOIL. "In a nutshell, these two bills are the difference between FOIL working and not working," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a good government group that has been instrumental on the issue and is urging the governor to sign the bills.

Cuomo's decision comes with the backdrop of the conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges and the ongoing trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos--both cases have focused on what happens behind the scenes in Albany, far from public view. Calls for drastic measures around ethics and transparency reform have heightened, with many looking to the governor for leadership.

The two bills are designed to make state government respond faster to FOIL requests and to reduce the prohibitive impact of legal costs on pursuing FOIL requests. Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever told Gotham Gazette both bills are still "under review."

Assembly bill 114 would reduce the time a government agency has to appeal a judge's decision to grant a FOIL request from nine months to two. The other, Assembly bill 1438B would amend a single word in state FOIL law: instead of saying a judge "may" award legal fees if an agency is found to have inappropriately denied a FOIL request, the new law would say a judge "shall" award legal fees. Both bills passed the Legislature unanimously and The State Committee on Open Government recommended their passage.

Assembly Member Amy Paulin, sponsor of the latter bill, A.1438B, told Gotham Gazette that she spoke to the governor's counsel this week and explained the motives for the bill. "We're hoping for the best," she said.

States including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey have FOIL laws that require the courts reimburse those who file FOIL requests and are wrongly denied by the state.

On Dec. 4 a host of groups that regularly utilize FOIL, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, The Brennan Center, Consumer Union, Sunlight Foundation, Citizens Union, and Common Cause, wrote Cuomo asking him to sign the bills.

"The Freedom of Information Law is the single most important tool for open and transparent government in New York State. Journalists and government watchdog groups depend on FOIL to help hold government accountable," reads the letter. "Businesses rely on FOIL to ensure the government procurement process is fair. Unfortunately, state agencies often deliberately delay the FOIL process, or simply do not provide the requested records. Agencies know that it is very expensive for the public to appeal a FOIL request to the courts. Because of this, agencies are often able to effectively ignore FOIL without being challenged."

While there is unified support from legislators and good government groups for the legislation, there is still concern among advocates that Cuomo will decide to veto the bills.

Despite having run on the promise of "the most transparent administration in history," Cuomo's government is known for withholding information, moving at a snail's pace on FOIL requests, using Blackberry messaging to avoid leaving records of communications, and even implementing a policy where state agency employees were directed to purge their emails. That email policy was rescinded only after major outcry from good government groups, legislators, and journalists, and only after an initial email purge was complete.

"The criticisms of Albany we've heard from both the Silver and Skelos trials are that Albany is too opaque, so signing these bills could go a long way to sending a message that things are changing," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. However, Horner noted that both Silver and Skelos have been members of the legislature and the legislature is basically exempt from FOIL - something advocates have been looking to change.

Kaheny told Gotham Gazette that he expects the bills could be "challenging" for the Cuomo administration because they would "immediately produce transparency demands on the administration."

At least six newspapers have editorialized in favor of the legislation this month. FOIL is a particularly significant issue for journalists who find that pursuing information requests regularly fall to costly legal battles due to government resistance. The costs are so prohibitive for many outlets that any government resistance effectively defeats the quest for transparency. Groups like the NYCLU and the Empire Center, which routinely use FOIL, are used to absorbing those costs that can reach tens of thousands of dollars because judges have the tendency not to force agencies to reimburse FOILers' legal fees.

Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, said he finds it unlikely that any state agency would encourage the governor to sign the legislation as they are the ones who would end up paying for fighting FOIL requests and on top of what, Kaehny asks, "Who wants to be more transparent? No one."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated to reflect that a "pocket veto" is not applicable in this instance.

Cuomo Increasingly Uses State Power to Undermine De Blasio

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De Blasio & Cuomo in January, 2014 (photo: Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)

The feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio escalated yet again last Friday when a spokesperson for the governor said that "the mayor can't manage the homeless crisis" and that the governor's State of the State address will feature the administration's intervention plans.

Finger-pointing continues from both sides, with Cuomo questioning de Blasio's competence and intelligence. This, after de Blasio called out Cuomo, though not by name, when making his own supportive housing announcement, signaling that negotiations on a joint city-state plan had stalled. Advocates and legislators heaped praise on the mayor and called on the governor to match his commitment to the homelessness-fighting program.

Cuomo, however, appears ready to go it alone himself, eyeing his January 6 speech, which will include an untold number of plans to outflank, undermine, and frustrate de Blasio. With nearly two years of evidence, at this point it appears to insiders in Albany and around the state that a significant part of Cuomo's policy making has become infused with his animus toward de Blasio and that it could be hurting the city.

As seen on a variety of issues from housing to policing to minimum wage, Ebola to Legionnaires' Disease, Cuomo has decided to deny the mayor's requests, co-opt an issue, or act unilaterally, while being sure to weaken de Blasio's standing.

"It's clear that the mayor can't manage the homeless crisis and the state does intend to step in with both management expertise and resources," a Cuomo spokesperson, Dani Lever, said Nov. 27. On Nov. 24, Cuomo told reporters about combatting homelessness, "To me, it's not just the money. It's more managing the city properly, efficiently, effectively, smartly, especially on this issue that causes so much pain to people."

De Blasio dismissed the criticism as "political posturing," but advocates and observers are having a hard time dismissing the latest developments in the feud. It appears now more than ever that Cuomo is deciding policy based on exacting a price from his former friend. Cuomo hasn't missed many opportunities to needle de Blasio, thwart his priorities, or use state resources to highlight the mayor's vulnerabilities.

"An outsider has got to look at this and say, 'What's with the governor?' You don't want to get into armchair psychoanalysis here, but I think you've got to get into armchair psychoanalysis," said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch. "And beyond that you have to ask: is this good for the city and state?"

What was once more clearly defined as policy disagreement over taxes and charter schools has morphed into something different. As the state legislative session wound down last spring, Cuomo appeared determined not to allow de Blasio any wins, even seeming to welcome only a one year extension of mayoral control of city schools - a major factor leading to de Blasio's June 30 tirade against the governor, which may have moved Cuomo to his current approach to the mayor.

"As the Mayor has said, we work with the Governor to ensure New York City's interests are protected. When they are in jeopardy, we communicate that to Albany and to city residents," de Blasio press secretary Karen Hinton told Gotham Gazette.

It appears clear that de Blasio is not particularly interested in mending fences. While he has resolved to refer more to "the state" or "Albany" than "the governor," de Blasio has shown he continues to feel disappointed with Cuomo and has not walked back his shockingly frank summer criticisms of the governor.

Some advocates fear Cuomo, offended beyond repair, is willing to throw out proven policy just to spite de Blasio, as in the case of supportive housing.

Cuomo teamed with charter school advocates against de Blasio, stood against de Blasio's plan for the 421-a real estate tax break, undermined the mayor's push for stronger housing laws, and, more recently, has threatened to cancel funding for bonds that would allow de Blasio to go forward with part of his affordable housing plan.

At other times Cuomo has sought to outflank de Blasio, or seize on perceived weaknesses. While de Blasio urged calm on Ebola and counseled that the threat was under control, Cuomo held a press conference with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and announced they would quarantine travelers returning from West Africa.

Cuomo gave de Blasio short notice when he shuttered the subway for the first time in 111 years due to a January snowstorm. The governor criticized the mayor's response to a Legionnaires' Disease outbreak in the Bronx and sent in state officials; he inflamed tensions between de Blasio and the police union, seized on fears the city is getting less safe, and sent more state troopers to the city. The governor has taken ownership on minimum wage, something that could have easily been a joint effort.

"The governor hasn't missed any opportunity to kneecap the mayor and the only rational explanation is the Machiavellian one, that one has to kill off any potential rival," said Muzzio.

However, Muzzio and many other observers say that in most cases it isn't clear that the governor's focus on the mayor is doing any harm to the city. "It might help to have more troopers in the city. It might help for the governor to send assistance on Legionnaires'. His actions on Sunnyside Yards and charter schools could be both positive and negative. You'd have to tally the costs and benefits along a wide swath of issues," Muzzio said.

As the governor spent the summer and fall swinging back to the left, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish legitimate policy disagreements between Cuomo and de Blasio.

However, with the recent clash over supportive housing, there is now a growing unease with and distaste for how Cuomo is carrying out his political maneuvering against de Blasio. The grotesque impact the beef appears to be having on the governor's policy-making decisions is raising more and more eyebrows. Insiders say that the feud with de Blasio has even influenced recent Cuomo administration hiring decisions.

"We're really hoping they can both rise above it. We hope they are going to come together because this isn't about them, this is about the homeless," said Laura Masuch, executive director of The Supportive Housing Network of New York.

"The [hoped for New York/New York IV] agreement will last beyond these two gentlemen and it enables nonprofits and the private sector to keep doing it the same way they have for years. It would be a shame to walk away from years of commitment," said Masuch. "We are basically ready to go, there is construction just waiting on the agreement."

Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, his chamber's chief proponent of supportive housing, echoed Masuch's concerns. "What we saw last week from the governor was spin," Hevesi told Gotham Gazette. "It was someone trying to avoid their commitment. The state has contributed to [New York/New York] for the last 20 years, every governor has been part of this including Mario Cuomo, and now it is Andrew's turn."

Hevesi said although he is used to strife between Cuomo and de Blasio this particular issue should not have been allowed to fall into the feud quagmire.

"There are 20,000 people who need help," said Hevesi of those eligible for supportive housing, adding, "Find something else to fight about."

For some insiders the current situation is reminiscent of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's feud with then-Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. Spitzer was so enraged that Bruno stood in the way of his policy initiatives that he assigned state troopers to track Bruno's use of state airplanes and then used his press office to leak the findings. It led to the "Troopergate" scandal and an investigation by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo's office found that Spitzer had misused the state police for political purposes. Spitzer was roundly criticized for being so aggressive and vindictive that it actually prevented competent governing.

"We know the man has a streak, he has thin skin and tends to be very vindictive," said Barbara Bartoletti, of the League of Women Voters, about Gov. Cuomo. "It's unclear to me whether this is about turf or something personal but he certainly does seem to have a problem with the mayor. He just constantly keeps him off balance, co-opts his policy and cuts him off at the knees every chance he gets."

Cuomo hasn't been accused of misusing state assets to undo de Blasio. Instead, Muzzio said the governor is deftly using the power he has as governor to systematically weaken the mayor. That style of utilizing policy decisions to dispatch or handicap potential rivals has become part of the Cuomo brand.

"This is looking like a one-of-a-kind feud," said Muzzio with a historical perspective on mayor-governor relationships. "Just looking at the kind of range of issues over which this is being waged is unprecedented. This is hardball politics with Roger Clemens throwing at your head."

[Read: Did De Blasio's Tirade Help Cuomo Get His Groove Back?]

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Pressure Shifts to Cuomo as De Blasio Announces Supportive Housing Plan

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Sen. Golden, de Blasio, McCray on Wednesday (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is in an unusual position this week as Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies, including large bipartisan groups from both the Senate and Assembly, attempt to pressure him into matching the city's investment in supportive housing for the homeless.

On Wednesday de Blasio was joined by advocates and legislators for a fairly raucous, celebratory announcement that his administration plans to create 15,000 supportive housing units over 15 years at a cost of $3 billion. Some of the units will become available as soon as next year, the mayor said, also noting that there are other units being created from a previous deal with the state, which has run its course.

De Blasio, service providers, those concerned with city expenditures, and many others say supportive housing is the best way to address rising homelessness in the city and want the state to devote significant resources to add to the number of units being created. Stakeholders have been awaiting word of a new "New York/New York" deal, as the previous three city-state supportive housing plans have been called, but with negotiations at an impasse, de Blasio said the city couldn't wait for Albany any longer.

"Let's be clear, the city of New York is acting, we're acting decisively, we are not waiting on Albany," de Blasio said. He quickly added that a number of state legislators were leading on the issue and standing on the stage with him.

De Blasio wouldn't call on the governor by name, but others did on Wednesday, saying that Cuomo must step up as de Blasio was doing.

Mary Brosnahan, the head of Coalition for the Homeless and "a voice of conscience," according to de Blasio, said, "It's really hard to overstate the significance of this tremendous announcement" and called it "a victory for all New Yorkers."

"Today's announcement needs to be part of a fourth New York/New York agreement," Brosnahan added. "We need Governor Cuomo to step up and match this tremendous, unprecedented commitment that Mayor de Blasio has made today."

Next, on Thursday, advocates plan to march in solidarity just before the City Council is to pass a resolution calling on the city and the state to commit to creating 35,000 supportive housing units statewide. Supportive housing is permanent residence and services offered to homeless individuals dealing with addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, and other acute challenges.

De Blasio's announcement came after insiders say the mayor walked away from the negotiating table with Cuomo after the governor made it clear he was only willing to commit a fraction of the funds the city thought necessary to provide 30,000 city-based units of supportive housing that advocates and some city officials say are necessary to truly impact the city's homelessness crisis - which stands at about 60,000 individuals, 57,000 of whom sleep in shelters.

Advocates and legislators hope to pressure Cuomo into a new and significant commitment before the start of the next legislative session when he returns to negotiate with the legislature over the budget.

A spokesperson for the governor said on Wednesday, "Everyone understands the City has had a very real homeless problem and we're glad the city is starting to act on it," according to the Wall Street Journal. "Given the severity of the situation the State will be providing management assistance to the City and additional resources."

Cuomo has repeatedly jabbed at de Blasio recently by commenting on the city's homelessness problem. "We have a major homeless problem all across the country," Cuomo said in September, "and I think the mayor is now acknowledging that we have a very serious homeless problem." Cuomo also indicated that he thought the homelessness issue in the city had been alleviated but had come back under de Blasio.

The city and advocates for the homeless say the state shoulders significant blame for rising homelessness because of 2011 cuts to the Advantage rent-subsidy program. Advocates and legislators favor supportive housing programs because they appear to save money and have a success rate of 85 percent in keeping formerly homeless housed.

De Blasio has battled the perception that quality of life has deteriorated under him as tabloids have focused on shootings and regularly printed pictures of homeless people.

What is unique about this policy battle in the ongoing Cuomo/de Blasio feud is that it appears the mayor has a great deal of the legislature on his side. A bipartisan group of 133 Assembly members signed a letter to Cuomo asking him to support the creation of 35,000 units of supportive housing over the next ten years. Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, who chairs his house's social services committee and led the letter campaign, praised de Blasio's plan and said that Cuomo, "Now has a chance to rise to the occasion." He added that he hopes the governor, "Acts quickly."

A bipartisan group of 26 state senators sent a separate letter to Cuomo asking the same. It was sent on the letterhead of Republican Sen. Martin Golden and has the signatures of a number of upstate Republicans. Golden was front and center during de Blasio's announcement on Wednesday. "Supportive housing has bipartisan support because it has a proven track record," Golden said. He added that he looks forward to working with the mayor, the governor, and his colleagues on a larger city-state deal.

Cuomo now faces de Blasio, a surprisingly united legislature, and a swath of advocacy groups that want him to commit to funding more supportive housing before the end of the year.

"As the governor has said many times, the state stands ready to help the city address the homelessness crisis," a spokeswoman for Cuomo told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday as the news of de Blasio's pending announcement broke.

"We applaud the mayor's extraordinary commitment to – and investment in – supportive housing, the solution to homelessness among our most vulnerable," said Laura Mascuch, Executive Director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, in a statement. "In the past, Governors and Mayors have stood shoulder to shoulder in their commitment to supportive housing; now we look to Governor Cuomo to come to the table as well. Only in working together can we meet the true need for 30,000 homes in New York City for our neediest citizens."

Advocates and legislators want to force Cuomo's hand before legislative session starts in January because at that point budget negotiations start and Cuomo will have a plethora of issues to hold over the legislature's head. Cuomo is due to give his State of the State address on January 6 in Albany.

Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch, acknowledges that it is unique to see a New York City mayor, let alone de Blasio, with bipartisan support from the legislature on any issue. De Blasio rankled Senate Republicans by trying to unseat them in 2014.

Still, Muzzio wonders if the support will hold up if Cuomo digs in his heels - Cuomo has only publicly offered to fund 5,000 supportive housing units. "If in fact the commitments are real and the mayor's got majorities from both houses and then the governor ignores it, it could get messy," said Muzzio. "This does seem like a game of chicken and the legislature likes to avoid conflict. The governor has more carrots and sticks than the mayor. So maybe there is enough legitimate feeling on this issue to make it happen but if the governor holds out, I'm betting on the governor."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Warnings Cuomo Must Not Declare Premature Victory on Women's Equality

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Gov. Cuomo at a bill-signing (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Late last month Gov. Andrew Cuomo sat at a desk at Hunter College surrounded by applauding women, including advocates and elected officials led by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. At that desk, Cuomo signed eight bills that were part of his Women's Equality Agenda. It was declared a historic occasion as new protections against discrimination versus women were made law. But, the bills the governor signed were an incomplete version of the ten-point WEA Cuomo had debuted with great fanfare during his 2012 State of the State address and insisted for quite some time must be passed as a package.

Recognizing that they could not get state Senate Republicans to concede on a bill to codify abortion protections into New York law, Democrats including Cuomo decided to pass the WEA bills for which they did have bicameral support (nine points became eight bills). Despite Cuomo's triumphant tone last month, many women's rights advocates and legislators feel the governor is declaring victory too early. They say that New York is not leading on women's issues nationally, notwithstanding the governor's claims, and that there must be a renewed push for further action - on the final pieces of the WEA and other measures, such as paid family leave.

In 2012, Cuomo announced the legislative agenda addressing pay equity, abortion, and human trafficking, among other key issues related to gender equity and women's rights, such as protecting domestic violence survivors.

"This State has a legacy of leading the way in advancing equal rights and today we are making New York a model of equality for women," Cuomo stated at the time of the October bill-signing. "This comprehensive set of laws will help to ensure that women are supported, protected, and given all of the opportunities they deserve in life. Today, New York stands once again as a monument for progress, and a sign of what can be achieved when we come together to do the right thing for women everywhere."

Many saw Cuomo's involvement in women's equality issues as a way to ensure greater equity and finally pass a controversial measure that supporters and detractors say encodes abortion protections into state law. "The belief was that if we packaged all these important bills together anti-choice Republicans would have to come to the table," said state Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.

Asked if she expected movement on the abortion measure in the coming 2016 legislative session, Krueger responded: "I will never take reproductive rights off my priority list and despite what opponents say a bunch of states have better laws than New York and that is a shame."

The decision to pass the other measures of the WEA without the abortion bill was a difficult one for many who were pushing the entire package. A number of advocates and analysts see other moves by the Cuomo administration as designed to pander to women without actually achieving anything substantive. One major example is the Cuomo-created Women's Equality Party, which has been mismanaged and largely seen as an attack on the liberal Working Families Party, with which Cuomo has had a contentious relationship.

Prior to the WEA bill-signing, Cuomo spent significant time enacting and promoting his new campus sexual assault policies, which he described as essential to protecting women in New York and an example of the state as a national leader.

Some legislators and advocates say that while the governor likes to lead on progressive issues and point to partisan gridlock in Washington, the abortion plank of the WEA is one area where the governor was either unable, or unwilling, to deliver truly progressive leadership.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization of Women (NOW) NYC, said that she doesn't consider the fight for the abortion plank of the WEA over. "It is full-steam ahead as far as we are concerned," she told Gotham Gazette. "Everyone involved did not start with the WEA. The legislation has been around for some time. We will keep beating the drum."

Further, Ossorio said that a full press on the measure from Cuomo ending with passage of the abortion plank could serve as a message to the rest of the nation that New York rejects the recent onslaught against Planned Parenthood that was sparked by videos that have now been discredited.

"It would send a very positive message in a time when we are seeing so many states passing laws designed to restrict access to reproductive health and abortion," said Ossorio.

The Cuomo administration did not return requests for comment about whether the governor will pursue passage of the final plank of the WEA, or what other legislative priorities he might have that involve what might be called women's issues.

Karen Scharff of The Working Families Party and Citizen Action New York issued a statement following Cuomo's October bill-signing. The first half of the statement praised his action on the eight bills. The second half was less celebratory: "Glaringly absent from today's announcement were two pieces of legislation that should be priorities for the Governor and legislature in 2016: protecting a woman's reproductive rights, and guaranteeing paid family leave. Full equality for all women in New York requires both. Women need to be confident that we will be safe from national Republican attacks on reproductive rights and know that we will no longer be forced to choose between caring for our families and making ends meet. We urge the legislature and the Governor to make passing the 10th plank of the Women's Equality Act and paid family leave a priority next year."

State Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference who has been supportive of paid family leave, said he simply doesn't see how the final WEA measure makes it through the Senate, despite his support.

"I support it, I don't believe it is a controversial measure. We need it it if the Supreme Court goes wrong way so that New York still has the protections but I don't believe we have 32 Senators who are pro choice," Klein said, referring to a majority in the Republican-controlled 63-seat Senate. Klein's IDC does have a ruling partnership with the Republicans that helps the latter keep hold of the chamber.

Now, many advocates and legislators appear to have their sights set on Cuomo's minimum wage campaign and a push for paid family leave as they say women are deeply impacted by both issues. While Cuomo is getting a lot of credit for his wage push, supporters of paid family leave want to see real action from the governor on that issue.

Ossorio said that both the campaign for a $15 minimum hourly wage for all New Yorkers and for paid family leave in New York would be overwhelmingly positive for women across the state. "Forty percent of single mothers in New York City live in poverty," said Ossorio. "So raising the minimum wage in New York is undoubtedly massively important to women as is the movement for paid family leave. These are issues that are really significant for working families and when we are talking working families we are often talking about mothers."

Krueger said 2016 could be a year to tackle a number of issues that help improve the lives of working women.

"It does seem this is a ripe year for having a discussion about the economic issues women face. When we talk about the minimum wage we are talking about a women's issue because it disproportionately impacts women," Krueger told Gotham Gazette.

Cuomo's push for a $15 minimum wage is already facing pushback from some Senate Republicans and a number of business groups that say that type of increase will force companies to downsize their workforce. Cuomo took another big step toward putting enough pressure on Republicans to back a $15 phase-in by announcing he was implementing a timeline for raising state workers to an eventual $15 per hour minimum.

The issue of paid family leave was a surprisingly live topic toward the end of this year's legislative session. Assembly Democrats and the Independent Senate Democrats each had their own proposals on paid family leave. Senate Republicans included a measure in their budget proposal, surprising many observers.

Debate over the bills did not end harmoniously, with each conference blaming the other for failed talks. Cuomo initially told reporters that the legislature had no "appetite" to negotiate paid family leave, but as it became clear both houses of the legislature supported some version of a program, a spokesperson clarified the governor's position. "This administration strongly supports the notion of providing paid family leave in New York State," Melissa DeRosa told Politico New York in March. "Unfortunately, the Senate and Assembly have advanced differing versions of this policy that do not see eye to eye and that fail to form the comprehensive solution that the issue requires."

Klein said he is optimistic there can be some kind of compromise on the issue this year and believes the governor was simply looking for both houses to reach an agreement at the end of last session. "That didn't happen," Klein told Gotham Gazette. "This an extremely important issue that resonates with residents across the state."

In the Cuomo administration press release celebrating the WEA bills being signed, a statement from Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, captured the lens of many: "By closing loopholes in many existing protections for women and demonstrating a commitment to equality, the bills signed today set the stage for further, future reforms, such as protecting women's fundamental right to choose, ensuring access to reproductive health care and allowing new mothers paid family leave to care for their children without facing debt or bankruptcy."

Ossorio says there are a number of other issues that have mostly flown under the radar that she hopes the legislature will address. They include making childcare more affordable, funding sex education and "consent education" in schools, and making sure the state enforces an existing law that bans pregnant prisoners from being shackled during delivery, as well as expanding the law to banning shackling throughout a prisoner's pregnancy.

"This is a basic human rights issue that New York lags behind on," said Ossorio. "It's an issue that this state should lead on."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Citing 'A Violence Problem,' Cuomo Calls on New Yorkers to 'Respect the Police'

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Gov. Cuomo with graduates of the state police academy (photo: Governor's Office via flickr) 

Governor Andrew Cuomo is concerned that New York City is sliding backwards when it comes to order, citing disrespect for law enforcement as a key example and decrying a lack of leadership in allowing what he sees as an unacceptable atmosphere to permeate.

In comments to reporters after the recent killing of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder, Cuomo took veiled shots at Mayor Bill de Blasio and lamented the state of society when it comes to respect for the police. Calling violent incidents against police officers "troubling signs," Cuomo said, "I believe we've had more police officers assaulted in New York than any city in the country."

In the past ten months, four NYPD officers have been shot and killed while on duty. The most recent, Holder, was posthumously promoted to detective, and his death appears to have led Cuomo to conclude there is "no doubt that we have a violence problem against police officers."

Saying that he understands police officers feeling unsupported and repeatedly stressing in a frustrated tone that New Yorkers must "respect the police," Cuomo not only intimated that he believes de Blasio has allowed an anti-police environment to take root, but raised eyebrows among some who see the governor's comments as vilifying the police reform movement.

Further, critics say Cuomo's feud with de Blasio is getting in the way of a real discussion of how to improve relations between the police and communities and that the two leaders should be working together on the issue.

On the other hand, Cuomo's comments were met with applause from some who believe that there is not enough regard for the job police officers do in New York City and their role in making the city much safer than it was a generation ago.

"The police are not the enemy," Cuomo said last week, "and we've let the dialogue shift."

"They're public servants of the highest order and leadership has to communicate that message. I'm gonna do my part because the police are right," Cuomo said, referring to what he says are police officers feeling like targets and not feeling supported.

Norman Siegel, famed civil rights attorney and police reform movement leader, told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo should hold a summit with de Blasio that brings together law enforcement officials and reform advocates.

"His fight with de Blasio isn't necessary," Siegel said of Cuomo. "We need grownups in the room. The governor could bring us together instead of pandering. It might score political points in some communities but it won't change anything. He could be in the middle of this providing the leadership that is needed."

Cuomo had given his own explanation of what type of leadership is needed at this time. "As leadership, we have to send a different signal. And the signal is 'respect law enforcement.' I understand your civil rights, I understand freedom of speech, but I also understand the role of the police."

The governor continued, "The police are right when they say there's now an atmosphere, now an attitude that the police are fair game. They're not."

When asked if City Hall was not properly leading on the issue, Cuomo declined to say which officials have not been sending the right message, only that he was going to do his part.

Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo's latest comments achieved two things. "The bottom line is this is another shot at de Blasio. [Cuomo] does not miss a chance to take a shot at the mayor. It is both him using the mayor as his perpetual punching bag and at the same time making strategic calculations to appeal to certain constituencies. He is making a cost-benefit analysis with the dual purpose of taking a jab at de Blasio and appealing to certain communities."

As it turns out, de Blasio's message is not one that conservatives or many law enforcement officials want to hear, while Cuomo's is.

"Police need to have the upper hand in the street," Eugene O'Donnell, professor at John Jay Rockefeller School of Criminal Justice and former NYPD officer, told Gotham Gazette. "Our leaders are perpetuating this lie that police are like everyone else. And they aren't. They volunteer to put themselves in harm's way to enforce our laws and they need our support and respect to do their jobs."

O'Donnell actually blames Cuomo for some of that anti-police sentiment because of his executive order allowing the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians.

"The governor is trying to have it both ways." said O'Donnell. "The special prosecutor order is basically feeding into the notion that police are out there killing people indiscriminately, that this is a 1950s throwback force, with "In the Heat of the Night" kind of stuff."

Cuomo has faced stiff backlash from law enforcement and district attorneys for his executive order, which he said was part of his efforts to reduce both real and perceived problems with the criminal justice system, and he has sought to put the burden of mending hurt feelings on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Advocates who fought for the order say they felt they had to drag Cuomo to the signing "kicking and screaming" and were only successful because of immense political pressure.

Cuomo had promised he would sign such an order if the legislature didn't act on reforms. It became clear early in this year's session that Senate Republicans wanted nothing to do with Cuomo's proposals. The governor is expected to look for legislative action on the matter again next year, but those same Republicans appear fairly dug in and advocates note that Cuomo's rhetoric against criticizing the police is starting to more closely match those more strident supporters of law enforcement.

Republican Brooklyn state Senator Martin Golden, also a former NYPD officer, released a statement following Holder's death that called for the return of stop-and-frisk and condemned recent attempts to reform the criminal justice system.

"We must restore the practice of stop, question and frisk so to allow our police the opportunity to better secure our neighborhoods. There is no doubt that the suspension of this policy has resulted in the uptick in crime and shootings in our City, which for many years has been the safest large City in America," Golden said, referring to de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton overseeing a continued drop in the controversial tactic.

"At a time when we should be looking to keep criminals in jail and off our streets, the New York City Council is looking to create a publicly funded taxpayer bail program. I urge the City Council to immediately suspend these efforts and instead, focus on legislation that will make New York safer, not more dangerous," Golden said.

Both the de Blasio administration and the City Council have begun efforts to provide bail assistance to those arrested for low-level, nonviolent crimes who cannot afford bail.

Golden called for state lawmakers to soon propose and pass new, "meaningful legislation to make our streets safer." 

O'Donnell said officials need to reiterate that the police need support. "Everyone is a reformer these days. The police force has been orphaned. There is now a gotcha culture in our society around the police," O'Donnell told Gotham Gazette, sounding much like Cuomo had last week.

"We want the bad guys to cross the street when they see the police instead of the police crossing the street when they see the bad guys," O'Donnell continued, "and right now there is an environment where police are being threatened, mocked on the streets - people are crossing the street to start altercations with them."

De Blasio ran on reforming the NYPD after what some advocates, elected officials, and law enforcement officials see as an era of "over policing" under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, highlighted by their abuse of stop-and-frisk. Police officials quickly went on the defensive saying that de Blasio didn't fully support them. Several months into de Blasio's term, law enforcement officials and others were incensed when they felt de Blasio put controversial Rev. Al Sharpton on equal footing as Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

The situation was further exacerbated when, after the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner's death, de Blasio said he had advised his son Dante that he should be "very careful" when stopped by police.

Not long after, two members of the NYPD were ambushed and killed while on duty and hundreds of officers turned their backs on the mayor during the January funerals.

De Blasio has worked tirelessly since then to patch relations and has dialed back his rhetoric on police reform, but Cuomo has continually sought to open the wound with public comments that appear designed to exploit the rift between de Blasio and law enforcement, such as in September when Cuomo spoke after receiving the "Man of the Year" award from the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

Following Detective Holder's death, de Blasio struck a unifying tone. "This painful cycle we've been through reminds us, the people who serve us come from all our communities. They look like us, they are us," de Blasio said. "The police are us, they represent us."

Norman Siegel, the civil rights attorney, told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo's comments could inflame the situation between police and the community and that his feud with de Blasio is counterproductive.

"This type of rhetoric is not helpful in understanding the situation or in attempting to fix things," Siegel told Gotham Gazette. "We have to be careful nobody engages in unnecessary rhetoric or even panders on these issues because officers can be killed, citizens can be killed."

Siegel said that Cuomo should call a summit aimed at improving communication and police-community relations. He noted that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, himself a former NYPD official with whom Siegel has worked on strengthening police-community relations, opened up Borough Hall for the first game of the World Series and that NYPD officers and community members enjoyed the game together. "I wish the governor could have been there," Siegel said. (Cuomo flew to Kansas City for the game on the Mets owner's private plane.)

O'Donnell said he would also like to see Cuomo take charge of the situation because he feels the police are forced to stand down in some neighborhoods because of the negative reaction they are getting from the community. He too said a summit would be a good idea, but said Cuomo should first hold a press conference to "tell the public that the police are here to enforce the laws."

Cuomo said as much when speaking to reporters last week: "[N]one of it works if you don't have the values underneath, and the fundamental value has to be this a city of law and order - yes, it's a city of civil rights - but it's a city of law and order, and one of the primary rules is 'no violence against a police officer,' period. And we need to send that message and we need to send that loud and clear - because the police are right when they say 'we're afraid to go out there because we feel that we may be a target and that whatever we do is going to be second-guessed,' that is a real problem and that's what we have to address."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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