Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Public Money Is For Public Schools

greefield rally

Council Member David Greenfield, colleagues, & others rally for Intro 65

Earlier this week the City Council, with the blessing of the mayor, passed Intro 65, a bill that will give $19.8 million of public money to Yeshivas, Catholic, and private schools to pay for security guards. In defending the legislation and public money for private school security as an appropriate use of city funds, Council Member David Greenfield explained that the city is "flush with cash."

His statement about the city being flush with cash is insulting; especially when you look at the district he represents. Mr. Greenfield's district includes part of Borough Park, where the poverty rate is about 32 percent, the same as East New York. Does he think that his constituents feel "flush with cash"?

The City Council, including Mr. Greenfield, are ignoring the realities of the communities they serve and the City as a whole when they pour cash into private institutions and ignore the dire needs of public schools that depend on public funds. Schools throughout the city go without vital resources every day. Yet over and over again, they are told to do more and more with less.

What could nearly $20 million from the City Council do for our public schools? It could be used to add instructional time and expand the school day for dozens of schools struggling to raise student achievement. It could be used to provide social and emotional support services for students and families through community schools, of which there is only one in Greenfield's district, or to provide college counselors in high school, helping to ensure that students apply to and are accepted to schools that best fit them.

Those funds could also be used to spread research-based models of parent engagement throughout the city, to grow the skills and capacity of families to assist in the academic improvement of their children. The funds could be used for translation services for schools like IS 96 in Mr. Greenfield's district, where families speak dozens of languages and struggle to engage in their children's education.

How many students sit in front of outdated computers or go without a library in their schools? If the city is "flush with cash," why are students across New York sitting in schools that are under-resourced and understaffed? The $20 million in public money that will now go to private schools would have been much better spent on schools that are open to all children: public schools.

Ayishah Irvin is Coalition for Educational Justice parent leader from Community School District 5.

In Zoning Amendment, One Size Does Not Fit All

richards de blasio presser

Council Member Richards, the author (photo: William Alatriste)

As the de Blasio administration pushes forward its Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) plans coupled together, the City Council plans to take the time to look at these two proposals separately. As chair of the Land Use Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, my committee has significant responsibility in this process. One thing is clear: a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

Community Boards across the city have voiced their concerns about these two plans and we must let them know that we are listening. There are a variety of valid concerns.

As the proposals make their way to the City Council in early 2016, the administration needs to factor in community feedback and make appropriate changes to ensure that the voices of residents are not ignored. We must make sure we are not weakening existing zoning laws or the very process that allows residents to fight to protect the character of their neighborhoods.

After speaking with my colleagues, and as Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has said, the Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan will not pass muster in the City Council without changes.

One glaring issue of concern to me that should be removed is the as-of-right policy. We should not be eliminating the need for special permits to build nursing homes and healthcare facilities - doing so would push the city in the wrong direction. The construction of these buildings should have more oversight, not less, and the reason for the current process is to prevent the oversaturation of particular areas that are doing more than their fair share.

Currently, the permit process goes through the Department of City Planning. Developers should have to go through a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Oversight is essential and communities need to be involved in any planning process that will affect their neighborhood.

While we share the goal of providing housing faster, we must not sacrifice the oversight process in doing so.

As-of-right would also give landowners the ability to remove already existing parking spaces without any due process, which is simply unacceptable to seniors who may come home to find out they are losing the parking spot they rely on.

The goal of reducing parking mandates in areas that the administration has deemed transit hubs is a serious concern, especially in my home borough of Queens, where transit options are limited. Many Queens residents are reliant on their cars and the ability to find parking.

These zones where people have somewhat better access to public transit and there is a focus on decreasing parking need a closer look - it is imperative that city agencies explain how they are going to invest in the infrastructure to account for denser populations. With the city's recent $2.5 billion investment in the MTA capital budget, plans to improve access in these areas need to be included. Simply living near mass transportation does not mean that the infrastructure is at the level it should be to make it a viable option.

We also need assurances that the allowance of a height increase on ground floors will be used for commercial purposes and developers will not be able to turn it into residential space. I would also like to see strategies from the city Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Small Business Services that will ensure the commercial space is used to stimulate economic development in our communities.

While these plans would have an effect on all New Yorkers, Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) will also have a major impact on seniors in neighborhoods across the city, whether in nursing homes or senior housing developments. The administration must show us that senior housing will contain quality apartments that are not unreasonably small. Seniors are the fabric of our communities and built the groundwork for everything we have today, so we should ensure that we are not limiting their ability to be active.

Due to the complexities of both MIH and ZQA, I am calling for two separate hearings since these plans each deserve their own time in front of the City Council before any final proposal is brought to chambers.

I commend the Department of City Planning for all its work to develop with these proposals and for traveling to communities across the city, and I give Mayor de Blasio and his administration credit for making the affordable housing crisis a priority. But, it is imperative that the final plan for zoning text amendments is the best it can be for all communities. In a city as large and diverse as New York, one size does not fit all.

[Related: Next Steps for The Mayor's Zoning Proposals]

City Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Land Use Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, represents District 31 in Queens, which includes Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens and Far Rockaway. He is on Twitter @DRichards13.

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Give Police Tools to Reduce Arrest and Improve Community Health

NYPD training hall

(photo via @NYPDnews)

How do we respond to people in our society who might appear threatening, but who most urgently need medical help? Shortcomings in our community health and social services systems mean that many people who live in poverty, use drugs, and live with mental illness end up in our justice system.

In too many cases, a police officer’s response to someone experiencing a psychotic break or self-medicating with drugs involves an arrest, which can lead these medically-vulnerable people into a cycle of arrest and incarceration. Many of the issues that both public health and law enforcement agencies address in the communities they serve are rooted in health inequities, violence, trauma, racism, and poverty—problems that are often exacerbated by a stay in jail.

Of course, police officers should not be responsible for identifying social and medical needs in their communities, but they often serve as de facto street-corner psychiatrists and social workers for the people they encounter.

This is because they are called to respond to low level infractions that stem from people’s behavioral health needs. For instance, of all drug-related arrests in 2013, 83 percent were for possession of a controlled substance. Nearly 10 percent of all police interactions involve people with a mental health disorder—an interaction that too often leads to injuries and fatalities. In fact, it’s been estimated that more than 70 percent of people with mental health disorders in the justice system also have a substance use disorder. Currently, police lack alternatives to arrest for responding to these problems—officers report that they are more likely to arrest somebody displaying signs of a behavioral health disorder if they believe jail is the only option to provide basic medical services for that individual.

As gatekeepers between the community and the criminal justice system, police need to have the tools to appropriately respond to people who need treatment or services that do not require arrest, especially considering the long-term, steep collateral costs of justice involvement on individuals, communities, and taxpayers that include housing instability, underemployment, and reduced economic mobility.

Harm reduction and health promotion, two bedrock principles of the modern public health field, can serve as guiding approaches for police looking to minimize the negative impacts that too many low-level arrests have had on our communities—especially those of color. Though these burdens arise from the failures of current community health, justice, and social services, police officers can and should be an asset to public health work.

In contrast to abstinence-based interventions, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies that aim to minimize the negative impacts of drug use and other high-risk behaviors, even when people are not ready or able to give up these behaviors. And health promotion is designed to help people increase control over, and improve, their health.

Jurisdictions around the world have demonstrated that police who are able to incorporate a public health approach can not only reduce arrests of these medically-vulnerable groups, but also improve the health of communities.

Harm reduction-based interventions that deliver vital services to people engaged in drug use or sex work, such as condom distribution programs, overdose prevention training, or syringe exchange sites, can reduce the spread of infectious disease and prevent overdose deaths. And programs that incorporate health promotion principles, like Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs)—which consist of specially trained teams of officers who answer emergency calls where mental illness might be an issue—can leverage police training to equip officers to implement a safer response to people in psychiatric crises.

To ensure that vulnerable people are not driven underground and away from the services that benefit them and improve the health of communities, police should work with existing syringe exchange programs and local harm reduction advocates when possible to build trust and develop collaborative policies. Several harm reduction programs in New York City—like those of BOOM!Health, VOCAL-New York, and Washington Heights CORNER Project—have successfully worked with law enforcement agencies to develop policies and practices that don’t target people who utilize their services and that actively improve the safety of these clients as well as that of their communities.

Law enforcement agencies have also had success by reaching out to advocacy groups to increase their officers’ knowledge about harm reduction. The Harm Reduction Coalition has worked with police around New York State in a collaboration that resulted in the NYPD adopting their training manual. In the first year of this partnership, more than 5,000 officers were trained in using Naloxone, a life-saving antidote that prevents death when administered to somebody overdosing on opiates.

Many jurisdictions have also created collaborative diversion programs, where police departments partner with local health departments and behavioral health service providers to develop pre-arrest and pre-booking diversion programs. San Antonio’s Smart Justice programs provide CITs and two different kinds of drop-off centers—a short term crisis center and a longer term psychiatric center—where police can bring people instead of arresting them. It’s promising to see that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s task force on behavioral health and criminal justice is adopting some of these strategies—the NYPD is increasing training for CITs and creating a drop-off center.

However, long-term impacts won’t be fully realized without an alignment of not only practices, but also metrics and incentives. Any review of police officers’ performance should include the number of their referrals to locally available community health and social services, metrics that reflect community perception and satisfaction with police encounters, and the number of lives saved through overdose prevention.

Arrests averted, rather than arrests made, should be a core guiding principle for police.

Additionally, health agencies, interventions, and professionals need to consider arrest and incarceration metrics of success for their programs in addition to more straightforward health outcomes.

Accessing public health services for people with substance use and mental health disorders should not require an interaction with law enforcement or a jail stay. Until alternatives are provided, police can draw on harm reduction and health promotion principles to most effectively ensure public safety for everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Chelsea Davis is a Research Analyst in the Substance Use and Mental Health Program at the Vera Institute of Justice, and is co-author of its recent report, First Do No Harm: Advancing Public Health in Policing Practices.

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Harmful Legal Reform Is Not an Ethics Solution


Here's the lead I wish I could write: "Corporate groups join government watchdogs to push for a New York State ethics overhaul." Fortunately, it's partly right - watchdog groups like NYPIRG and Citizens Union are certainly doing so. But some corporate groups are responding to the ethics mess in Albany, well, differently.

Consider the Dec. 2 op-ed "After Silver: Legal Reform is Ethics Reform" from the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York or "LRANY." This group has seized on the ethics crisis to promote an incongruous agenda. With 90 percent of New Yorkers rightly believing that state ethics laws are too weak, LRANY's response would be to weaken the legal rights of 99 percent of everyone who lives here.

A big LRANY priority, for example, is undermining New York's common-sense scaffolding safety law. Currently, New York's law ensures that owners and contractors are exclusively responsible for limiting hazards like unsound scaffolding, ladders, and other equipment, as well as flooring and elevators. LRANY's proposal would substantially weaken the obligations of owners and contractors to ensure a safe worksite. As someone who lives in New York City, with active renovation and high-rise construction everywhere, I think I can speak for most in saying: Albany, please do not weaken this safety law.

Another LRANY priority is a bill that would delay and deny justice to people suffering from lethal asbestos-related diseases. The asbestos industry covered up the dangers of asbestos for over 50 years, more than 3,000 Americans still die from asbestos diseases annually, and asbestos is still not banned in the United States. The Lawsuit Reform Alliance proposal would essentially allow the asbestos industry to delay and avoid cases until the victims are dead. As Elihu Inselbuch, from the corporate firm Caplin & Drysdale, testified in Congress, such legislation, "has nothing to do with reducing fraud; instead, it is a gift to the asbestos industry, which continues to try and avoid accountability and decrease compensation to the victims of its past wrongs." Nor is this a bill about "transparency." Nothing in this legislation would stop the asbestos industry's continuing practice of hiding where asbestos is present and was used, and demanding secrecy from victims when they settle cases, as they routinely do.

Speaking of sick and injured New Yorkers, LRANY is also focused on medical malpractice. Medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States. In New York, we actually have some experience solving this problem. When the labor and delivery unit at NY Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center implemented a comprehensive obstetric patient safety program, not only were catastrophic errors dramatically reduced, but also compensation payments fell by 99.1 percent. I think most New Yorkers would agree that the best way to reduce claims and lawsuits is to reduce injuries and deaths.

Unfortunately, this message seems completely lost on the medical and insurance lobbies, including groups like LRANY. Their focus continues to be stripping away the legal rights of injured patients after they've been hurt. Indeed, New York State doctors and hospitals already benefit from more liability protections than virtually any other industry or profession in the state. More specifically, in the mid-1980s, New York enacted three out of four "medical liability reform" agenda items pushed by LRANY's corporate partner, the American Tort Reform Association, all of which harm patients.

These laws added to legal obstacles that New Yorkers already faced, which residents in most other states do not. They include an archaic "wrongful death" law dating from the 1800s that does not allow compensation for emotional hardship in loss of a child killed by medical malpractice; and a restrictive statute of limitations law that prevents claims involving latent injuries, like a cancer misdiagnosis. In June, a bill to change that discriminatory law passed the Assembly and would have been signed by the Governor had it not been blocked by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, in cahoots with New York's powerful hospital lobby.

And that's not the only damage the hospital lobby has done recently. In 2011, New York became the only state in the nation to enact a law providing that, if a baby suffers a catastrophic brain-injury at birth due to a doctor's negligence, the at-fault hospital is largely off the hook. Even if a jury finds the medical team at fault and awards the family compensation, the child's family cannot receive most of these funds. Instead, they are forced to go to a state program to pay for the child's care. Moreover, by law these children are condemned to a lifetime of suboptimal Medicaid care for any necessary therapies, no matter what a jury says they need.

Meanwhile, New York State law does not force insurance companies to disclose even basic information to lawmakers or the public about what they actually pay in claims, allowing them to price-gouge policyholders with virtually no oversight or regulation. In fact, New York State is one of the least transparent states in the nation when it comes to the insurance industry and claims data. Even Texas has better disclosure laws than New York. The impact of this goes far beyond simply harming public confidence in city and state government and major institutions. This secrecy also has serious public safety implications, allowing groups like Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York to engage in fear-mongering, not facts.

What we do know is that New York is among the top states in the nation for physicians practicing in the "high-risk" specialties of OB/GYN and surgery. Last time NYPIRG examined this, New York State had the fourth highest number of OB/GYNs per capita in the country, second highest number of general surgeons, and the highest per capita number of surgical specialists.

Physician shortages that exist in New York's rural areas are longstanding and correlate to stagnating local economies and decreasing populations in those regions, not to insurance rates (which, in any event, are relatively low in those areas). LRANY claims in its article that "at least eight New York counties have no OBGYN services at all," suggesting that women and injured babies should give up even more of their legal rights as a result. When a lobby group made spurious allegations like this a few years ago, we decided to check the counties about which these claims were made. By making a few simple phone calls, we found that those counties indeed either had obstetricians practicing within the county or had obstetrical services available from doctors very nearby. The entire argument was bogus, not to mention unethical.

History is clear on one thing: taking away the rights of the most seriously injured New Yorkers has been and continues to be failed public policy. Our laws should hold accountable those who commit harm. And if insurance companies are engaged in price-gouging, the solution to that problem lies with the insurance industry and stricter insurance regulation and disclosure laws. Transparency and oversight are the only way to stop corporate lobbies from abusing their economic influence here, and promoting a legislative agenda that severely harms New Yorkers.

Joanne Doroshow, Executive Director, Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School; on Twitter @centerjd.

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City's Rezoning Plans Won't Improve Affordability or Quality

Berman protest flickr

Andrew Berman, the author, at a rally 

The Mayor's 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability' (ZQA) and 'Mandatory Inclusionary Housing' citywide rezoning initiatives, released jointly this fall, are finishing the first stage of public review at the city's 59 community boards. They're receiving a resounding thumbs down, by a 7-to-1 and 3-to-1 margin respectively. Why are measures aimed at increasing affordability and quality in new construction getting such a cold shoulder?

Perhaps because they would do little or none of either, and possibly more harm than good. The central tenet of ZQA is that if you increase the allowable height of new buildings, quality and affordability will improve.

For purely market-rate buildings, to which many of the proposed height limit increases would apply, this premise is almost laughable. The City's main contention is too many new buildings have 10- or 11-foot-tall ground floors instead of a more generous 13.5 feet, and new buildings should set back from the street to make room for planters in front. Neither is a concern I have heard a single New Yorker raise about new construction, but to achieve this, the City is willing to give developers an additional 5-20 feet in height for new buildings.

Never mind that many new buildings already have 13-foot-high ground floors, and sometimes more modestly-scaled ground floors are actually preferable. Or that setback buildings with planters make no sense on the large commercial streets where the new rules would often apply, and developers would get the extra height ZQA offers whether or not they set their building back and provide the planters anyway.

Such folly aside, the city's argument for raising height limits for 'affordable housing' is more insidious. In certain zoning districts, market-rate developments are now encouraged but not required to set aside 20 percent of units as affordable housing by offering additional market rate square footage if they do. There are height limits for these and all other new developments, to ensure that they fit in with their surroundings.

But the City claims the height limits prevent developers from including the affordable units, leaving no way to cram in all the extra space for the affordable and additional market-rate units, at least not without cramped, substandard spaces.

However, the facts don't bear this out.

About 50 percent of the new developments in such zoning districts in our area, Greenwich Village and the East Village, include the affordable units and the generous dimensions the City says we want in new developments. At the same time, we've seen many developers who had ample room to add the affordable units within the current height limits, but simply chose not to. The height limits were not an impediment; within this voluntary program, these developers simply decided it wasn't worth their while.

Nevertheless, the Mayor is proposing to lift the height limits for such developments by 25 feet or more, or up to 31 percent, though there is little or no evidence that it will result in a single additional unit of affordable housing being built. What it will do is increase out-of-scale construction in residential neighborhoods, and eliminate hard-fought-for height limits which were often delicate compromises that took years to craft and achieve.

While ZQA would do little or nothing to help affordability, making the current voluntary affordable housing program mandatory clearly would.

Many people think Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), the companion to ZQA, will do that. But under the Mayor's plan, it won't.

MIH would require that new residential developments include 25-30% affordable units. But under the Mayor's plan, MIH would only be applied in areas where rezonings also allow a large increase in the allowable size of market-rate housing development.

But many areas of the city will probably never see MIH because such large increases in the allowable size of development, especially market-rate development, are just not tenable. This will likely include many of the more affluent parts of the city with the strongest real estate markets, which are most lacking in affordable housing, and where the city's own studies say new housing is most likely to be produced.

So why limit MIH only to areas where you're substantially increasing the size of development allowable?

The Mayor claims he's doing this because if the program is too onerous, developers just won't build at all.

But this argument does not seem credible. In strong real estate markets of the city, developers are opting into the affordable program about half the time, which shows they are willing to build under these conditions (and the other 50 percent probably would if required to). And clearly developers are making money when doing so, meeting the legal requirement for allowing a "reasonable return" which zoning must meet.

By contrast, linking MIH to large-scale increases in the allowable amount of market-rate development might undermine the supposed goal of increasing affordability, to say nothing of maintaining neighborhood character and livable communities.

Cases in point: the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront and West Chelsea/Hudson Yards. These are the two areas of the city which have seen the largest production of affordable housing in recent years, through programs similar but not identical to MIH.

But the price for the affordable housing in those neighborhoods was the tsunami of large-scale, market-rate housing to which it was attached. This resulted from zoning changes significantly increasing the amount of market-rate housing which could be built, which the city says would also be a prerequisite for using MIH.

The result: two of the most rapidly gentrifying, unaffordable neighborhoods in New York, with a scale and sense of place more like Hong Kong or Miami than New York. While the percentage of affordable housing under MIH might be slightly different (in those cases 27-28 percent was promised, as compared to MIH's commitment of 25-30 percent), the net effect would be pretty similar.

So why would the Mayor so aggressively pursue ZQA, which has little or no likelihood of increasing affordability, and choose to significantly diminish the effectiveness of MIH, which would?

It seems the Mayor is intent upon staying on the good side of the real estate industry, and thus far he has succeeded. As has been widely reported, industry players have been his biggest financial backers, and generous to the "Campaign for One New York," the nonprofit fund which supports the Mayor's 'affordable housing' and other initiatives. The Mayor seems to be trying to make his plans as palatable to big real estate as possible, regardless of how it affects the outcomes.

A further example: right now we are pushing the Mayor to rezone a 12-block area of Greenwich Village that allows 300-foot-tall towers, and guarantees they will be 100 percent luxury housing, hotels, or dorms. We want reasonable height limits for new development while keeping the allowable square footage the same, elimination of incentives for dorms and hotels, and incentives (or requirements, if the City agreed) for including affordable housing.

The administration's response: an adamant no. De Blasio wants to keep the existing luxury tower-only zoning. ZQA and MIH as proposed may please the Mayor's real estate backers, but won't accomplish their purported goals of increasing affordability and quality. Community Boards and groups across the city appear to be getting that. It remains to be seen if the City Council and others that will decide these measures' fate will as well.

Andrew Berman is Executive Director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. On Twitter @GVSHP.

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After Silver: Legal Reform is Ethics Reform

silver ethics law reform

The author, Thomas Stebbins 

For decades it was an open secret in Albany that the New York Assembly was functionally controlled by the trial lawyers. Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly Speaker, was known to have a lucrative "of counsel" position with the powerhouse trial lawyer firm Weitz & Luxenberg, and most Albany insiders believed that Mr. Silver would not do anything to jeopardize that income. Governor Cuomo himself stated that the trial lawyers were the "single most powerful political force in Albany," no doubt in partial reference to Mr. Silver's position as an employee at a trial lawyer firm.

With the trial and subsequent conviction of Mr. Silver on corruption charges, we now know that the former speaker did virtually no real legal work to earn his "of counsel" income. What he did do was carry the legislative water for the trial lawyers, and we as New Yorkers are left with a state ravaged by lawsuits and litigation.

New York has the highest medical liability payouts in the nation, by a wide margin – even higher than California, which has nearly five times the population. The difference is that California passed meaningful reforms to control medical liability costs, reforms that had no chance in Sheldon Silver's Assembly.

These runaway medical insurance costs are more than a financial issue, they are also an issue of access to healthcare. Hospitals across New York City have been closing at an alarming rate, in large part due to the cost of medical liability insurance. Some hospitals are "going naked" and foregoing insurance entirely, just to keep the doors open. The access to care issue extends upstate as well – at least eight New York counties have no OBGYN services at all.

New York also has the highest construction insurance costs in the nation, due to the odious so-called "Scaffold Law," which Mr. Silver cravenly defended.

The oddly-named law has little to do with scaffolds. What it does is hold contractors and property owners absolutely liable in a lawsuit for workers' injuries even if, in the words of the court, they had "nothing to do with the plaintiff's accident."

New York is the only state to apply absolute liability to contractors. In 2014, Mr. Silver proudly shut down Scaffold Law reforms that would have put our legal system in line with the rest of the country by creating a standard where negligence is proportionate to fault. Silver stymied this common sense reform despite findings that the law cost the state government $785 million a year and corresponds with an increase in injuries. In the wake of his corruption conviction, New Yorkers are right to wonder if Mr. Silver blocked Scaffold Law reform on behalf of his trial lawyer employers.

At the center of U.S. Attorney Preet Bahara's case against Mr. Silver was a referral scheme regarding asbestos plaintiffs. It is no surprise that, given Mr. Silver's control over state government and profit from asbestos lawsuits, New York's asbestos courts were recently rated the worst in the nation, routinely paying out three times the national average. In the aftermath of Silver's arrest it was reported that Mr. Silver's employers, Weitz & Luxenberg, received priority access to juries for asbestos cases. In a particularly brazen conflict of interest, Mr. Silver appointed Arthur Luxenberg, a partner at the firm, to the judicial screening committee, while claiming there was no conflict of interest at all.

We can fix this.

Albany can undo the years of corruption under Sheldon Silver by passing meaningful legal reforms. First, we can enact reasonable controls on medical liability payouts, as California has done, and impose higher standards for the expert witnesses in medical cases. Podiatrists should not be allowed to testify in neurosurgery cases.

Second, we should reform the outdated Scaffold Law to the common sense and widely used standard of comparative negligence. No law symbolizes the corruption of the Sheldon Silver era more than a law that holds contractors and property owners absolutely liable under nearly any circumstance. In doing so we could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year and reinvest that money in schools, roads, and bridges.

Lastly, we need to open up the asbestos trusts to transparency. Currently, plaintiffs are able to sue asbestos trusts, potentially recover millions, and then turn around and sue solvent companies for the same injuries. Because the trusts are not open to transparency, plaintiffs can allege entirely different sets of facts with little fear of discovery. In a recent case against the New York company Garlock Sealing Technologies, the judge forced discovery on the asbestos trusts cases and found fraud in 13 of the 13 cases the court reviewed. Opening the trusts to transparency would go a long way to ensure the funds are reserved for those who are legitimately injured as intended.

It is a new day in Albany. With these changes and more the New York legislature can show us that they work for New Yorkers, not the trial lawyers.

Thomas B. Stebbins is Executive Director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York

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Let's Be Prepared for America's Biggest Corporate Takeover

george w bush obama transition

Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, via White House archives  

Imagine taking over an enterprise with 4 million employees and an annual budget of more than $3 trillion dollars. What if on your first day as CEO, you had to operate without more than 1,000 of your top leaders, faced global emergencies requiring immediate attention and had an agenda dependent on multiple, time-consuming votes by your board of directors?

That's exactly what will happen when the next president takes office on January 20, 2017. And it is why we must prepare better for this presidential transition than we have for any prior.

The new president will inevitably need to deal with an unexpected international crisis, pressing economic issues and many controversies, while simultaneously having to make some 4,000 political appointments, including nominees for about 1,000 key management and policy positions that require Senate confirmation. The new chief executive will have to build relationships with world leaders, take immediate control of the national security and financial sectors, pursue a brand new agenda that requires congressional approval and manage a huge, complex enterprise.

There is an expectation that the nation's newly elected chief executive will hit the ground running, but the transition of power and knowledge from one president to another is often rushed, inefficient, overwhelming, and fraught with risk. Being ready to govern requires hard work and many months of preparation that must start well before Election Day. Candidates must simultaneously campaign to win and prepare to govern if they expect to be effective.

The 2008-09 Bush to Obama transition was one of the best in modern history – with both sides understanding that national security and economic conditions required them to work together in unprecedented ways. But it was only as successful as it was because of the vision and goodwill of the leaders involved; we need a system that is not at the mercy of good intentions, but one that enhances rather than diminishes the capacity of our government to function at a high level.

On December 9, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce will team up with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service to host an event about why the presidential transition matters to the business community, and how this often incomplete and chaotic process can be fixed so that the next chief executive will be ready to govern on day one.

The Partnership for Public Service has created a Ready to Govern initiative designed to get the presidential campaigns to seriously think about standing up transition operations as early as the spring of 2016. This will require designating staff and resources to map out personnel and policy strategies, getting up to speed on the work of more than 100 agencies, developing a management agenda and coordinating with the Obama administration for the transfer of power and responsibility.

As citizens, business leaders want a competent and high-performing government. There can be disagreements about the size and role of government, but there should be absolute agreement that whatever government does, it should do well.

From the business side of the equation, executives need federal agencies to be responsive, and they want some certainty, not ambiguity, about economic policies as well as federal programs and regulations so that they can plan and make the hard decisions that will affect their bottom lines and employees.

If a new administration is unprepared or cannot get its top political appointees in place quickly, it is inevitable that critical decisions on matters small and large will be put on hold, problems will fester and businesses will lose both time and money. All too often, a new president has been in office for a year or more before a full leadership team is in place – and that dearth of leadership has contributed to government dysfunction and ineffectiveness.

If a new administration fails to pay close attention during the transition to choosing capable leaders and planning for effective management - two issues the business community knows a great deal about - policy implementation will suffer and that will affect us all.

The presidential transition cannot be left to chance. Too much is at stake. The candidates must engage in extensive planning, Congress must devote resources and confirm appointees quickly, and the private sector should contribute its expertise when possible and hold those seeking the presidency accountable for preparing to govern.

We may not agree on who should be president, but we surely can agree that better processes and mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that our new government gets set up as quickly and effectively as possible.

Ken Biberaj is the chairman of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and David Eagles is director of Presidential Transitions for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

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Ethical Treatment of Our Homeless Neighbors

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At a recent NY/NY event at New York Society for Ethical Culture, via @TOPnyc

I usually approach the New York Society for Ethical Culture, where I serve as clergy leader, from Central Park West and look across the street from the park at the words carved into stone on the corner of our meeting house: "Dedicated to the ever-increasing knowledge and practice and love of the right."

Today "the right" is used to identify a socially conservative political stance, but in 1910, when these words were inscribed, it referred to ethics and a community determined to do the right thing in challenging times. Since founding the Society in 1876, members have sought ways to make the world a better place for everyone, beginning with improving living conditions in tenement housing and forming settlement houses that built affordable housing.

Nearly 140 years later, we still live in challenging times and continue our commitment to treating the homeless as our neighbors and working for affordable housing. Today, we have many partners in the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Affordable Housing. In addition to providing shelter for homeless women for over thirty years, the Society hosts events that gather advocates from across the city and state to work in concert for affordable housing.

The latest event, held on October 23, "Campaign 4 NY/NY Housing," called upon Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to work together and with the more than 200 state and local organizations calling for 30,000 new units of supportive housing over the next ten years for our most vulnerable neighbors: the homeless, now about 60,000 people who sleep in city shelters or on city streets every night. This statistic includes over 14,000 families with nearly 24,000 children; and it has reached the highest levels since The Great Depression of the 1930s.

How did this happen? Research compiled by the Coalition for the Homeless from data collected by the city Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration shows that the primary cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing, triggered by eviction and job loss, severely overcrowded and hazardous housing conditions, domestic violence, and serious mental health disorders. This social "perfect storm" has put a strain on the resources of private and public organizations throughout the city, especially in Manhattan, which holds nearly 60 percent of our unsheltered homeless.

How do we address this community reality? Mayor de Blasio, whose administration recently announced a plan to create 15,000 supportive housing units over fifteen years at a cost of $3 billion, will face pushback from neighborhood leaders who oppose the siting of those units. But, it is absolutely essential. Negotiations with Governor Cuomo over a new "New York/New York" deal, the much-anticipated fourth city-state supportive housing plan, are at an impasse. Local advocates, including we clergy in the Interfaith Assembly, are frustrated with the de Blasio-Cuomo feud and have written to both politicians imploring them to stop playing politics and start acting like the leaders we elected them to be. This is an ethical issue that demands immediate and non-egotistical action.

In the meantime, how can we be the good neighbors that so many of us want to be? NYPD Commissioner Bratton has urged New Yorkers not to give money to homeless people living on the streets, and Mayor de Blasio has said that the best way to help is to donate to nonprofit organizations serving homeless people. I agree, we should donate to shelters and organizations, and I hope that more people will volunteer at shelters, including ours. But I see no harm in making a direct and personal donation to individuals. Offering money can be awkward, but offering a piece of fruit, a wrapped sandwich, or a coupon to a restaurant is appreciated. We can also provide information about local sites that offer meals and hot showers. Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing offers a helpful resource that can be referenced, printed, or circulated by email or on social media.

The most important way of helping is to see others as people worthy of dignity and respect. Bear in mind that many people who live in shelters are employed, but their income isn't enough to cover housing; they are not lazy and useless.

When I leave the Society for Ethical Culture's meeting house, I always stop to read at least one passage from the "sacred" text mounted on the north wall of our lobby: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a document that set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected, and was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, in the wake of World War II.

Today I read very closely Article 25(1): "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

No doubt some New Yorkers have become numb to seeing homeless people on our streets. Homelessness in our city has nearly doubled in the last decade, and "compassion fatigue" can occur, especially if we feel there is nothing we can do to make a difference. But when we acknowledge our common humanity, encounter people with an open heart and gentle words, educate ourselves about the resources available in our communities, and resolve to act, we can make a real difference in the lives of our neighbors.

Dr. Anne Klaeysen is a Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

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Time for New York to Cut the Coal

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Sen. Krueger, the author, visiting a school (photo via @LizKrueger)

In October, Governor Cuomo stood alongside former Vice President Al Gore and reiterated his commitment to reducing New York's carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030, as well as his willingness to phase out New York's coal-fired power plants. These were laudable statements in a high-profile public forum. Unfortunately, these goals will remain out of reach as long as the state continues to send the wrong market signals by requiring New Yorkers to underwrite dirty and uneconomical coal plants through increased electricity bills.

With just weeks left before global climate negotiations begin in Paris, now is the time for the Governor to make an enforceable commitment to phasing out coal-fired power by the end of the decade and ensuring a just transition for workers and communities dependent on coal.

New York's four remaining coal-fired power plants – Cayuga, Dunkirk, Huntley and Somerset – contribute 13 percent of New York's electricity sector carbon pollution. They no longer make a profit, yet the state has been keeping them operational at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Dunkirk plant has received $90 million to continue operating through the end of 2015, and the Cuomo administration approved up to another $200 million over the next ten years; the Cayuga plant is receiving $155 million to continue operating through 2017, and has recently asked for an additional $145 million. These costs are paid for by local electricity customers, with plant owners pocketing the profits. Yet according to the utilities National Grid and NYSEG, transmission upgrades, many of which will be needed regardless of whether the coal plants remain operational, could address reliability issues at significantly lower cost when the plants close.

Taking these plants off-line will get us one third of the way to the state's carbon reduction goal while safeguarding the thousands of New Yorkers threatened by dangerous coal-fired pollution. But the state is currently sending market signals that directly contradict the Governor's emission reduction and renewable energy goals.

Coal plant owners are coming to expect that they can rely on New York's energy customers to keep their outdated and unnecessary plants on life support, a fact made clear by the recent request from Beowulf Energy to purchase Cayuga and Somerset. Time after time our government has required New Yorkers to foot the bill for dirty energy rather than investing in transmission upgrades that could get ahead of the curve on local reliability issues at a fraction of the cost.

New Yorkers are ready to pitch in to help transition away from coal. There is strong public and political support for a responsible transition plan for coal reliant communities - one that would require only a small portion of the money currently being spent. Earlier this year I joined over one-third of New York's legislature in signing a letter, authored by Assembly Member Barbara Lifton, urging Governor Cuomo to end coal subsidies and create a thoughtful statewide transition plan. Next, we will rally with elected and other allies, including the Sierra Club, as we continue to push for a smart, responsible path forward.

We are nearing a tipping point when it comes to the damage we're doing to our climate. As we approach the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, New York is poised to be an international leader in the fight against climate disruption. If we stop clinging to policies that keep our energy sector stuck in the past, the Empire State has the potential to lead the world in the bold transition to a clean energy economy. Governor Cuomo could lead us there by speeding up his commitment to phase out coal-fired power and taking a key step toward ensuring carbon pollution becomes a thing of the past.

Liz Krueger is a State Senator representing Manhattan. She is on Twitter @LizKrueger.


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A City We All Want to Live In

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Mayor, PC (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In 1992, the Manhattan Institute's quarterly policy magazine, City Journal, published a special issue focused on "The Quality of Urban Life." At the time, New York was a dangerous, dirty, and purportedly ungovernable city. "Cities should be comfortable places," wrote the magazine's then-editor Roger Starr before setting out an ambitious agenda to reclaim New York's public spaces. In the years to come, New York followed through, cleaning up the streets and subways, reducing crime dramatically, and prospering.

Victories are never permanent, though, and serious challenges remain. Education tops the list. Strong schools are crucial for cities looking to attract and retain families. Yet New York's schools still suffer from many of the same problems that plagued them in 1992: union contracts that favor teacher seniority over performance; a lack of choice and alternatives for parents; and lax standards and curricula in the classroom.

We can point to signs of progress. With the encouragement of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, charter schools have proliferated. The first city charter opened in 1999; more than 200 now operate in the city, and they've put up strong results. Black and Hispanic charter students outscore their counterparts in traditional district schools in both math and English language arts. Yet charters remain a too-small portion of the more than 1,800 schools that make up the public school system.

The teachers' unions remain powerful, but they face significant legal challenges. A case currently before the Supreme Court could put an end to the mandatory dues collection that makes public-employee unions so politically formidable in New York and elsewhere around the country. Common Core, though controversial, is establishing a more rigorous set of academic standards.

These are positive developments for the city's schoolchildren and their families, but New Yorkers deserve more from their education system—namely, greater levels of choice, competition, and access to information. With this goal in mind, the Manhattan Institute helped to launch, which provides a transparent assessment of public school performance across the country. More such resources, combined with an embrace of flexibility in education by Albany and City Hall, could go a long way.

The remarkable improvement in New York City's quality of life since the 1990s has attracted new residents, an encouraging development but one that has multiplied demands on the city's aging infrastructure, including its public transportation system. Subway ridership hit a 65-year high in 2014 and is up over 60 percent from 1992 levels.

Major train lines—such as the 4, 5, and 6— regularly run at more than 103 percent capacity during peak ridership periods, as anyone who has crammed into a packed train during rush hour can attest. And the stations themselves are increasingly dismal, blighted by pooled water, litter, and crumbling walls.

Successful cities must plan for the consequences of success. This means building and maintaining the infrastructure to support new residents. A subway system unprepared to transport those people could quickly run into crisis.

Our political leaders must do better. Governor Andrew Cuomo once again stalled the few new stations on the long-planned Second Avenue subway. While three stops are slated to open next year on the Upper East Side, we're decades away from completing this vital project.

Concern over public order has also crept back into headlines. We're still a long way from the chaos of the 1980s and early nineties, but there's reason for concern. The rising numbers of vagrants, the more aggressive panhandlers making their way into Times Square, the growing push for decriminalizing "minor" offenses such as public urination and fare-jumping—these and other trends suggest a city on the verge of forgetting just how much effort it took to revive itself two decades ago.

We must avoid what longtime Manhattan Institute senior fellow Fred Siegel described in 1992 as a "collapse of common standards" in our city. When ordinary citizens retreat from public spaces, it leaves a vacuum to be filled by the forces of disorder. We know where that leads: to a city that repels people and businesses.

Whatever problems persist in New York City, we must remember how far we've come. The reformers of 1992 sought to rescue a city on the brink. This week, during the Manhattan Institute's quality-of-life week, we call on all New Yorkers to help preserve the city's gains for future generations.

Lawrence Mone is President of the Manhattan Institute. Read City Journal here and follow the Manhattan Institute on Twitter @ManhattanInst.

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IDNYC Cardholders Await Assurance Ahead of Year Two

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photo via @IDNYC 

In September 2014, Mayor de Blasio held a major press eventaround the city’s IDNYC program that centered entirely on one benefit of the new municipal identification card: the free one-year membership offer at 33 museums and cultural institutions part of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG). In the accompanying written announcement, 16 city and community leaders were quoted praising the program, especially this cultural enrichment aspect. One said it “has the potential to transform lives.”

And indeed it surely has, as many New Yorkers have jumped at the perk - over 30,000 IDNYC cultural memberships were accessed as of the end of July, according to the city. The transformative potential of the ID is not entirely nested in a cardholder’s newfound ability to visit the Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum over the summer, of course. Identification is a fundamental societal resource. In fact, the city announced at the end of July that over 400,000 IDNYC cards had been granted. It is this number, and the real target populations of the program - undocumented immigrants, people lacking stable housing, and others - that are indicative of the importance of the program. But the larger-than-expected enrollment and the vulnerable populations involved are indicative of how important it is that the city clearly indicate what year two of the program will look like.

Thus far, there has been little information from the mayor or his Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), which has led the IDNYC program. As Thanksgiving approaches, it is time that cardholders are informed about its future. While MOIA representatives have said that the program will continue to grow and no one should feel at risk of losing the card’s basic benefits, cardholders would surely feel more at ease hearing details from their mayor.

New Yorkers realize how important identification is, though many who have had a driver’s license since being a teenager may need a reminder. ID is required to perform a number of seemingly innocuous tasks: enter certain spaces (e.g. municipal buildings and schools, to access city services), apply for an apartment lease, open a bank account, get a public library card, sit for the high school equivalency exam, and, during encounters with the NYPD, receive a summons or desk appearance ticket in lieu of transport to a police station.

Basic identification is a less flashy, but essential benefit of the municipal ID; the ID gives a wide variety of city residents (in particular, undocumented immigrants, homeless individuals, transgender individuals, and victims of domestic violence in non-stable housing situations) a means to perform a number of life-stabilizing tasks. In addition to providing a vehicle to access services and material resources, the ID itself is proof of societal membership.

This notion of “membership” is especially important for actualizing some of the less visible benefits of the municipal ID program. The card provides formal recognition, which can command respect from others, particularly during encounters with the police, and instill a sense of self-respect among cardholders who enjoy fresh opportunities to take advantage of resources and services. Respect is not just “the golden rule;” in the eyes of established social justice theorists, “respect” is actually an essential dimension of well-being.

The municipal ID provides each cardholder with a sense of everyday belonging in society and entitlement to access available resources and support. These phenomena (“belonging” and “perceived availability of support”) are two mechanisms by which physical and psychological well-being can be improved, according to social science research. Furthermore, the public health tradition of inquiry, endorsed by the Institute of Medicine/National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, known as the “social determinants of health” suggests that the perception of greater resource availability is likely to increase utilization of accessible support and positively impact health. How? With more resources (such as money, knowledge, and social connections) people are better able to buffer against adverse health events and prevent health shocks from being catastrophic if/when they do happen to occur.

With such potential and obvious resonance with de Blasio’s OneNYC vision for a “strong and just” city, the future of the IDNYC program and the longevity of its benefits should not be murky this late in the year.

Contacted about the program and its future, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Nisha Agarwal said in a statement, “From its launch, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration have said that the IDNYC program and its utility will grow over time. IDNYC will continue to progress and serve even more New Yorkers in Year Two. We look forward to sharing more detailed news before the start of the second year of the program.”

The card and benefits are free, between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015, for anyone that can meet the proof of identity and city residency requirements (which make allowances for non-stable housing situations). But, puzzlingly, there has been little public discussion about what happens come January 1, 2016. Will the card and its benefits remain free? Will the hallmark CIG promotions lapse? The elimination of the CIG benefit could have potentially deleterious effects, given that it was a strategic move to make the card universally appealing (and reduce potential for associated stigma). Most importantly, will the municipal ID continue to be, or even expand its usefulness as, formally recognized identification? Or will it become less useful over time? There are already several restrictions on the utility of the card (it can only be used at certain banks to open accounts, it does not serve as proof of identity for a driver’s license, does not authorize receipt of public assistance benefits, and cannot be used as identification during plane travel).

Certainly, there are life-changing benefits associated with this municipal ID program, and as the largest in the country (with those 400,000 cardholders as of July), this program is in urgent need of a long-term plan that ensures: the municipal ID continues to be regarded as formal and useful identification, cardholders maintain essential benefits, and the card remains universally appealing – such that cardholders are not required to inadvertently accept a potentially isolating and stigmatizing “other” status.

Like many New Yorkers, I eagerly await information about year two of IDNYC. 

Lauren A. Haynes is an MPH candidate studying health policy and social determinants of health at Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health. She has also worked for New York City’s public hospital system.