Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Queens Deserves Better Transportation

 dr jvb

Council Members Van Bramer, left, and Rchards, right, flank an advocate

When Rockaway Peninsula's only subway connection to Manhattan – the A Train – was not in service for seven months after Hurricane Sandy, it shined a bright light on the inadequate transit options the outer boroughs rely on. The Rockaways, however, weren't just cut off from Manhattan, they were isolated from the rest of Queens.

Last year, 4.1 million people visited the Rockaways – a 25 percent increase over 2012. But the Rockaways are more than just a destination, they are a starting point for residents who travel to work, school, and doctor appointments throughout the city. As more people make their way to Queens, we stand at a pivotal juncture. Yet, we do not have the transportation infrastructure in place to support this kind of growth. From Far Rockaway and Arverne to Jackson Heights and Woodside, there is a need for something better.

In his State of the City Address, Mayor de Blasio not only outlined his support for improved public transportation, but specified the role that bus rapid transit would play in the borough of Queens.

An important step in solving the problem of inadequate transportation infrastructure is the introduction of a Select Bus Service (SBS) corridor that includes full-featured Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) where feasible along Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards, extending to Far Rockaway.

SBS is designed to reduce travel time with off-board fare collection and bus lanes painted a different color than others. Full-featured BRT includes dedicated, center-median bus lanes, traffic signal prioritization, platform level boarding, and protected bus lanes - all of which cut down travel times even more than SBS. Carving out space for specific street users will not only reduce congestion, but will make boulevards safer for everyone.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and MTA are developing a plan to improve Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards for drivers, bus riders, pedestrians, and bicyclists. We are happy to hear that the DOT is planning to implement full-featured BRT where possible along the corridor and into Far Rockaway. Transportation options like BRT can make a significant, positive impact for the commuter who lives on Beach 25th and needs to get to their job at LaGuardia, the student who lives in Broad Channel and needs to get to York College for class, or the mom who needs to get from her job at Elmhurst Hospital Center to her home in Hammels in time to have dinner with her kids before they go to sleep.

Hurricane Sandy was a tragic event. Nearly two years later, we now have the chance to build a more resilient, more connected Queens. It is our hope that DOT and MTA follow through on their commitment to improve transportation along Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards and in the Rockaways.

This past week the City Council's Committee on Transportation held a hearing on the state of transit where a number of our colleagues voiced their strong support for BRT and other initiatives to help move New Yorkers. We represent the length of the Queens corridor extending from the Woodside 7 Train-LIRR Station to the Far Rockaways and believe that better bus service – in the form of SBS and full-featured BRT – would provide the affordable, convenient, and reliable transportation options that our borough so desperately needs and deserves.

by Council Members Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer
Richards is Chair to the Committee on Environmental Protection and represents the neighborhoods of Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Springfield Gardens and Rosedale.
Van Bramer is Majority Leader and represents the neighborhoods of Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside and Woodside.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Ensuring Long-Term Oversight and Accountability at Rikers

bdb ponte rikers

Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Ponte at Rikers (photo: Susan Watts)

Rikers Island reached a new level of infamy last summer when a Department of Justice report detailed systemic violence and despicable mistreatment of inmates. Following that, shocking reports of abuse continued to emerge, validating a damning investigation and legal action by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. And now, in just the past month, we have seen both a report describing the lack of background checks during Rikers hiring practices, and news that healthcare complaints in New York's jails nearly doubled in two years.

After dropping a high-ranking Department of Correction official and appointing three new members to the watchdog Board of Correction months ago, New York City's new Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte recently fired a captain and five guards tied to an inmate abuse case from 2012. It was also recently announced that New York would end its practice of putting adolescents under 21 in solitary confinement—a landmark decision in our jail system's troubled history.

That's all a good and necessary start down a long road. But the shake-up can't end there, To be sure, Rikers needs a transformative overhaul, but so does the oversight system that so badly failed to raise the flag on the atrocities at Rikers over the last few years. To do one without the other is to guarantee more failure.

Much attention has been focused on the deplorable acts that took place on Rikers. Equal attention, though, must be paid to understanding why the oversight system was so ineffective. Either a mayoral commission must be appointed to investigate, or, alternatively, the City Council must conduct its own exhaustive review.

While such a process is underway, quick changes should also be made within the existing oversight system.

The documented horrors were being committed at Rikers and there was nary a public word of concern from two – that's two – appointed inspectors general (IGs). In fact, the Department of Investigation (DOI), where the IGs are housed, found hundreds of incidents of previously undocumented violence, but did not make the findings public in any way that we at the Citizens Crime Commission can find, nor did it include them in a City submission to federal investigators.

The Board of Correction (BOC) – our civilian oversight body for jails – also has a responsibility to educate the public about wrongdoing at Rikers, and it could have done much more. To the BOC's credit, it did issue three condemning reports—one last year and two this year, including one just last month. The BOC even brought up the question of inmate violence at its meetings. But when there was no action from the department or City Hall, BOC should have been much more vocal and proactive.

Now, U.S. Attorney Bharara has made clear that he will move for federal oversight if a thorough overhaul at Rikers is slow to materialize. In response, the de Blasio Administration has pledged to make serious changes at the jail, and outlined a sensible plan of action. But how do we make sure those reforms are working? And that this doesn't happen again?

First, the City's Inspector General for the Department of Correction (DOC) must be more accountable and assigned new responsibilities.

The DOI commissioner is directed by law to turn over cases to an appropriate local prosecutor when IGs find potential criminal behavior, and the investigation which led to the findings was commissioned by the Mayor, the City Council, or DOI itself. Those referrals should also be reported monthly to the Council for review, and released to the public—as should the results of all DOC IG investigations. After all, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously pointed out, "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Second, we must put BOC on the public stage, and give it stricter responsibilities. Right now, the Board receives and is tasked to evaluate all internal reports of abuse and wrongdoing at Rikers. Its reporting of these incidents and their findings, however, is largely at its own discretion. That's not independent oversight. BOC must therefore be required to issue regular reports on inmate conditions and complaints system-wide.

Critically, BOC must also be empowered to receive complaints of violence directly from inmates, and directed to establish a secure system for filing them which fully insulates inmates from retribution.

The current grievance system discourages reporting. It is primarily managed internally at the DOC, with little oversight. For example, allegations regarding staff-on-inmate non-sexual assault are referred to a commanding officer. Putting guards on notice that there is active, independent oversight may well make them think twice before engaging in violence.

We can also add real-time oversight by requiring corrections officers to wear body cameras when amongst the jail population. The NYPD is field-testing cameras now, and the same reasons for police to wear them – safety and accountability – clearly apply at Rikers. The Corrections Commissioner has said he will add CCTV cameras—but that's not enough coverage.

A Rikers with real oversight is the best way to ensure our jail doesn't continue to be a national embarrassment. There's no time to lose. If our City and State are serious about real reform, they will undertake a plan that locks down a better future at Rikers, not just a fix for today.

Richard Aborn is the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Public-Private Partnership Preserves Homes for 2,000 New Yorkers

olatoye ny1

NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye, the author, on Inside City Hall (photo: @NYCHA)

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), home to more than 600,000 New Yorkers who live in public housing and Section 8 rentals, is the largest landlord in New York City and the largest public housing authority in the country. As federal support for public housing continues to decline and our properties continue to deteriorate, we must find creative ways to maintain and protect this vital resource for current and future generations.

To that end, NYCHA has formed a public-private partnership, Triborough Preservation Partners, which will provide $80 million in capital work for 875 units of Section 8 housing. Unlike NYCHA public housing, these properties are subsidized by Housing Assistance Payments from HUD. Steady reductions in HUD funding since 2001 has resulted in a deficit of more than $1 billion, making it impossible for NYCHA to keep up with critical repairs at all of its properties. In addition, the project-based Section 8 developments are ineligible for federal capital funding. This scarcity of funding has taken its toll – all told, the six developments need about $48 million of capital work over the next five years, and about $113 million over the next 15 years.

Limited government investment demands that we become creative about solutions to urgent problems, in particular, the infrastructure needs of our properties. Project-based Section 8 regulations allow NYCHA to partner with private entities to support capital repairs and rehabilitation without giving up our control or ownership of those properties. In fact, the affordable housing industry – and Public Housing Authorities in places like White Plains, St. Louis, and Miami – have leveraged private funds to preserve their buildings for residents for more than 30 years.

These project-based Section 8 units – located at Bronxchester Houses, Saratoga Square, Campos Plaza, Milbank-Frawley, East 4th Street, and East 120th Street – will remain Section 8 housing and are subject to rent stabilization regulations. NYCHA retains approval rights over major decisions. Under Section 8, residents' share of the rent will not increase – it will remain at 30 percent of their income.

Our trusted Triborough colleagues are experts in tenant-in-place rehab projects and will do everything possible to minimize the impact of renovation on residents. Repairs will include new kitchens and bathrooms for every apartment, renovated lobbies and community areas, energy-efficient technologies, and security enhancements. In the event that a resident must be relocated, the relocation will be temporary and at no cost to the resident. Additionally, Triborough has committed to training and hiring NYCHA residents for at least 20 percent of the construction work and 50 percent of the maintenance workforce for at least $15 an hour. So far, 21 NYCHA residents have been hired for these jobs.

In total, we expect this partnership to generate a return to NYCHA of approximately $360 million over the next 15 years, vital funds that helped close NYCHA's 2014 operating deficit and will fund capital work at our public housing developments as well.

This partnership is a win for everyone. Residents of the six developments will quickly benefit from completed repairs and enhanced living conditions. NYCHA residents across the five boroughs have another source of training and employment. New Yorkers can be assured that public housing – including project-based Section 8 housing – remains a valuable asset and a trusted resource for not just this generation, but also the next generation of New Yorkers.

At NYCHA we are committed to not just sustaining public housing for the future, but in making it better – not just painting over the problems, but creating safe, clean, and connected communities wherever there are NYCHA developments.

Shola Olatoye is Chair and CEO of NYCHA.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Time to Pass the Homeless Protection Act

cuomo opp agenda

Gov. Cuomo outlining his 2015 agenda (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

On Saturday morning, in yet another example of the growing trend of attacks on homeless individuals, a traveler at the Newark Liberty International Airport beat a 62-year-old homeless man. The victim, a client in the Urban Pathways Newark Airport Outreach Program, was sleeping when he was attacked. The perpetrator put an innocent man in the hospital with serious injuries. He also potentially disrupted the trust and comfort that the victim developed during outreach, which is so critical to moving him from the street into housing.

Attacks like these against homeless persons appear to be growing in number and severity. In recent days, a homeless man sleeping under a New York City bridge reportedly had his mattress set afire. Last year, a homeless man sleeping on the steps of a Bronx church, a place he often slept because he told the priest that he felt safer at the church, was beaten to death. These are among hundreds of attacks on the homeless that occur each year.

As we work to help the homeless, among the most vulnerable in our society, find stable housing, we must also act to protect their well-being.

New York State should pass the "Homeless Protection Act" (A.1353 and S.813). Stalled in the Legislature for the past six years, the Act would designate certain offenses against the homeless as hate crimes, protecting them from future violence and abuse. Passing the legislation could also raise consciousness about the stigmatization problem at the heart of this issue. If the number of attacks are as high as advocates contend, statistics will open eyes and hopefully cause a long overdue response, further helping homeless individuals move off the streets and into self-sufficiency.

Organizations across the New York City metropolitan area, such as Urban Pathways and Care for the Homeless, provide outreach services to the street homeless, attempting to engage the most difficult to reach. Outreach staff engage homeless individuals on the streets and at transit hubs, "where they are at," and offer case management and referrals to move individuals from the street into housing and treatment programs in order to minimize the chance of a return to the streets.

For the past 15 years, the National Coalition for the Homeless has issued an annual report, documenting the increasingly frequent and severe violence against the homeless by housed individuals. The Coalition report, largely based on media reports, recorded 1,437 attacks and 357 deaths nationally from 2009 to 2013. Precise data on the attacks doesn't exist, since they are often not reported or when reported, not recorded. Attacks as extreme as setting a victim on fire, and videotaping attacks to post online, only further encourage the mistreatment of the homeless.

Homeless people, or those perceived as homeless, are not usually targeted for robbery; they have too few monetary resources for that. According to the Coalition report, perpetrators either have no explanation for the attack or claim they attacked those so in need because they were so vulnerable – so easy – to victimize. Homeless advocates and social scientists often cite "stigmatization" as the base cause. In the ultimate "blame the victim" phenomenon, the poorest among us, are further stigmatized and dehumanized.

A national effort to address this disturbing trend in attacks against the homeless is underway. Poverty and social justice advocates are working to include people attacked because they are homeless, or perceived to be homeless, under hate crime laws. In January, Cincinnati became the third U.S. city to provide hate crimes protection to the homeless. New York State can and must make a major statement by passing the Homeless Protection Act this year.

Nicole Bramstedt is the Policy Analyst at Urban Pathways and Jeff Foreman is Policy Director at Care for the Homeless.
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

'Broken Windows:' Immoral, Ineffective, & Out of Time

nypd leaders

NYPD leaders discuss crime (photo: @NYPDNews)

Even with the publicized results of the recent work slowdown by officers — cops stopped arresting and ticketing people for minor infractions and crime went into a steep decline — Mayor de Blasio continues to defend 'broken windows' policing. A serious moral and political lapse by the city's most progressive mayor in at least 20 years.

The NYPD's quota-driven, 'broken windows' practices target low-level, often innocuous activities like carrying an open alcohol container, walking between subway cars, begging, and jaywalking. A mockery of justice, now exposed in an "emperor has no clothes" moment as ineffective, 'broken windows' policing everyday inflicts harm and hardship on hundreds, if not thousands, mostly low-income people of color. This stark racial bias which includes the aggressive bullying of marginalized groups like the homeless, sex workers, the mentally ill, street vendors, and LGBT youth prevails without, for the most part, organized opposition or outcry from any quarter, including the good people working within the system. Relevant are the telling words from Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we just celebrated: "In the end we will remember most not the voices of our enemies but the silence of our friends."

The daily racial bias and injustice of the system is undeniable. Here are sample statistics that we have culled from the NYPD and other government agencies that indicate how 'broken windows' is enforced and why it must end:

-From 2008-2011, the police issued an average of eight bike-on-the-sidewalk summonses in Park Slope, Brooklyn. During the same time period, for these kinds of tickets the annual average in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn was 2,050.

-For the first 9 months of 2014, the NYPD made 174,823 misdemeanor arrests (648 per day), 86.2 percent involving people of color. Despite the fact that a new administration began in 2014, these figures represent a remarkably similar pattern to the arrest practices of the same span in 2013 when the numbers were 173,625 arrests, 87% involving people of color.

-95 percent of the people incarcerated on Rikers Island are black or Hispanic, confined because of two main factors: the NYPD arrested and locked them up; and they were too poor to make bail.

-In 2011, the height of the NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk, black and Hispanic males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6 percent of stops even though they are only 4.7 percent of the city's population. The number of stops of young black men in 2011 exceeded the entire city population of young black men — 168,126 stops compared to 158,406 people.

Compounding the harm done by 'broken windows' policing are the collateral consequences of these petty arrests and summonses: loss of one's job or time at work, denial of access to scholarships or public housing, loss of child custody, even deportation in some cases. More than any current government policy or practice, 'broken windows' causes and reflects the everyday social, economic, and racial inequities that afflict our city. 'Broken windows' policing and its consequences represent "a tale of two cities" writ large.

New York City cannot have two different criminal justice systems.

The significance of now, of this moment is that it is the first time in the city's history that the issue of abusive and biased policing is front and center in the political landscape and the policy debate. Previous outcries focused on egregious incidents of police brutality and excessive force such as the shooting deaths of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell. Never before has there been a sustained and highly visible movement aimed at exposing and correcting the daily systemic practices that compromise the lives and well-being of people, practices that serve to devalue the worth and lives of black and Hispanic people and create the circumstances wherein it is inevitable that fatalities occur at the hands of police officers.

In sum, here's the bad news: these terrible and unjustifiable practices have persisted for decades, are indisputably racist and deeply immoral, represent a dark stain on our city's legacy and question its reputation as a diverse and welcoming metropolis.

But here's the good news for Mayor de Blasio and the rest of us: because of the growing attention on this issue; because more and more people outside the community most often victimized are aware of abusive policing and its widespread ill effect;, because the affected constituency is actively mobilized in the movement for sweeping reforms; and because the NYPD work slowdown has exposed the myth of 'broken windows' as a successful crime reduction strategy — all unprecedented developments — New York City has an historic opportunity to fully redress long-standing injustices and to create public safety measures that bring together community groups, public and non-profit service providers, and law enforcement, and that make significant progress toward establishing a truly inclusive and equitable city. The first step is an end to 'broken windows.'

Robert Gangi is the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP). Find PROP online at its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Bill Cosby of Albany

silver lopez

Sheldon Silver, foreground, and Vito Lopez (photo: AP/Mike Groll)

Since Sheldon Silver's downfall, various members of the Assembly have expressed tears and praise for a man whose progressive politics allowed his supporters to forgive all manner of sin. What's a few broken and brutalized women compared to a choice committee, or a successful bill?

As supporters sentimentalize a man who systematically protected sexual predators over female staff, Silver's legacy comes into horrifying relief: women are expendable for the right policy agenda.

"It's horse-trading with someone's humanity," commented one of several victims of sexual harassment in the Assembly, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Silver was first elected to the Assembly in 1976, the same year Bill Cosby allegedly drugged and raped Theresa Serignese, one of three dozen women who recently came forward after decades of silence. While an evolving social intolerance finally ended Cosby's career, Silver's flourished despite a repeated indifference to rape, assault, and sexual harassment of Assembly staff. When the once powerful Speaker was finally ousted last week, it was not for strong-arming victims into settlements and gagging them with confidentiality clauses. No, in fact Silver is still being sued because a judge found that former Assembly Member Vito Lopez's second set of victims "have a plausible claim that Silver participated in and caused the deprivation of their rights."

Unsurprisingly, a 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that 58% of New Yorkers wouldn't want their daughter to be an intern in the State Legislature.

But the Cosby effect has yet to hit Albany. Since 2003 when Elizabeth Crothers first reported being raped by Silver's aide Michael Boxley, the chamber has been all too happy to let the Speaker deny women their rights, and degrade them further in the process. Boxley himself has survived thanks to Silver's support and the culture of indifference, but only after allegedly raping a second woman and pleading to a lesser charge. He's now a lobbyist in Albany at Brown and Weinraub. In 2012, a deluge of media reports revealed the disturbing details of Lopez's serial predation and the outrageous lengths to which Speaker Silver went to cover it up. And still, members were willing to defend Silver, eject Lopez, and carry on.

In lamenting the Speaker's eventual fall from grace, the otherwise outstanding Chair of the Assembly Health Committee, Richard Gottfried, explained the calculation thus: "There is no one in public life in New York who has fought more effectively, for decades, for almost everything I care about in public policy than Sheldon Silver."

This is the same kind of justification that Cosby's defenders, like Phylicia Rashad, use to excuse the violence and terror he allegedly inflicted on 35 women: "What you're seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And it's a legacy that is so important to the culture."

Where does that leave the women who were brave enough to stand up for themselves, and the potential others who never could?

"I am angry but I am also tired of being angry at the obscene injustice of New York's calls for fair and equal treatment falling on deaf ears in Albany," one victim derided. "I feel deserted"

"You'd think now that he's no longer in power what are people afraid of?" wondered another.

Indeed. Why continue the charade of standing by the Speaker now that he's gone?

Like Cosby, Silver's legacy is inextricably linked to his callous disregard for the women who needed his protection. But the Assembly's doesn't have to be. It's time to end the charade and acknowledge the full reality of Silver's tenure: there is no amount of political rights which can excuse his grievous wrongs. 

Alexis Grenell is a Democratic political strategist, she writes a regular column for City & State. You can find her on Twitter @agrenell.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

What Shelly Did

silver walking

Sheldon Silver (photo: AP/Mike Groll)

It's not very hard to grasp Shelly Silver's strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses especially are on full display. Putting aside legal judgments, Shelly exhibited a kind of moral obtuseness, a grand inarticulateness, and the haughtiness of the ultimate powerful political insider. He tried to control events and people, rather than manage them. Under his leadership there was little warmth or camaraderie, and a metastasizing public discontent with the order of things.

His strengths were many, but understanding them will take a special kind of effort. The public, including perhaps you, Dear Reader, have absorbed a meme about Albany, especially the Legislature, that goes like this: "They're all sheep, crooks, or idiots, and three men in a room run the place." If you believe that maybe you should stop reading here. It's not true, it interferes with an understanding of events, and in the end it slows up needed reforms.

There are a few truths that need repeating. The overwhelming bulk of state elected officials are honest, hardworking, and give a damn. The system is not intrinsically corrupt. Most important things are decided by Members. The real corrupt practices, mostly campaign fundraising, are legal.

In that world, Shelly's hold on the Assembly becomes understandable. Members trusted him to fight for the things they cared about. He was the best and most effective negotiator I've ever met. For almost twenty years I watched him listen carefully to his Conference, and plunge into negotiations with difficult Governors and reactionary Senators and emerge with the best possible deal. In fact, during all this time, the progressive agenda was the child of the Assembly's Democratic Conference and was substantially advanced. If you care about school aid, or the environment, or women's rights, or civil rights, or the minimum wage, or the rights of the disabled, or tax policy, then thank your lucky stars for the Assembly Democrats and Shelly Silver's talents. Rank and file Members knew it and were reluctant to lose him.

Take pre-K, everyone's favorite educational advance. Ten years ago, after many conferences decrying the state's educational program, Shelly came to us with a proposal to use the Assembly's limited budget powers to start pilot pre-K programs largely in New York City. He won a tiny, initial victory, and for several years nurtured the program until Governors, Mayors, Senators, and the educational establishment decided to embrace it as their own. Now it's mainstream.

Take the death penalty. Under Govs. Mario Cuomo and George Pataki this was a powerful political issue. The Assembly repeatedly voted against reinstituting the death penalty, and managed the electoral politics. As public sentiment and the courts shifted, the Assembly quietly oversaw its end.

Many of the same things that Shelly did poorly on the public stage served him well as the Conference's negotiator. He listened, didn't respond, mumbled a little, kept his own counsel, and had exquisite timing. It worked. Given the overwhelming constitutional powers of the Governor (especially on budget matters) and the reactionary tendencies of the Senate, Shelly got the Conference more than its political power deserved.

This mattered to Members more than the legal and ethical cloud that he brought on himself. In a sense they were wrong to stand by him. No democratic institution can survive a collapse of public confidence, and fairly or not, public confidence in Albany has collapsed. In a sense they were not wrong. Most Members have a deep and abiding concern for the things they do that impact peoples lives. The launch of the 2015 budget process wasn't the time to switch leaders.

Shelly's ouster was driven by a rank and file revolt. In the end the appalling moral cloud that attached to the Federal Complaint was more important than any diminished capacity to protect the Assembly's budget agenda. It was the right course of action. But it wasn't accompanied by the kind of editorial board outrage that's everywhere. It was done because it was necessary and important to elevate ethical concerns over narrow legal and political arguments. The short-term effect on budget priorities will just have to be managed.

Shelly's demise should provoke a thorough re-thinking of Albany's laws, culture, and practices. This includes the Legislature to be sure, but needs to apply to the Governor, the State Constitution's bizarre power arrangements, the political system, and to our understanding of the interplay between government and politics in a democracy. It would be nice if that could be done without cartoonish descriptions of elected officials, or state government. Or even Shelly Silver.

Richard Brodsky is a former Assemblyman now practicing law and serving as a Senior Fellow at NYU and at Demos.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Climate Justice Mayor: How De Blasio Can Reduce Emissions and Create Good Jobs

climate march

The People's Climate March (photo: @NYCEJAlliance)

After last year's historic People's Climate March, many people have asked: what comes next? Environmental justice advocates, labor unions, working people, and community leaders are answering with a major new campaign called Climate Works for All.

The core platform is simple and already has broad support: let's ensure that efforts to address climate change create good jobs in communities most vulnerable to harm and disaster. Indeed, if Mayor de Blasio goes bigger and bolder on addressing climate change, he can create nearly 40,000 good jobs a year, and transform the future of New York City for the better.

That is the major finding of an eye-opening new report, Climate Works for All: A Platform for Reducing Emissions, Protecting Our Communities, and Creating Good Jobs for New Yorkers released by ALIGN and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, along with the National AFL-CIO, the New York City Central Labor Council, and the BlueGreen Alliance.

Mayor de Blasio has set a bold goal of reducing New York City's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. The Climate Works for All agenda is a concrete and specific roadmap for reaching the 80x50 goal while creating a more equitable economy and a massive number of new employment opportunities for struggling families, especially in low-income communities and communities of color where income inequality and climate change are most deeply felt.

The de Blasio administration should pursue policies that will have the biggest impact on making vulnerable communities more resilient—both environmentally and economically. One key proposal that should move forward quickly is mandating energy efficiency retrofits on New York City's largest buildings, which are responsible for the majority of the city's greenhouse gas emissions. These retrofits alone would create many thousands of jobs a year; and labor unions, community groups and businesses are ready to help ensure that the jobs have strong safety protections, good wages and benefits, and provide career opportunities to unemployed and underemployed local residents.

Building owners and real estate developers can't be expected to do these retrofits voluntarily. The only way to meet the climate crisis head on—and our 80x50 goal—is to enact a smart city-wide policy that includes mandates.

Other key proposals include installing solar energy on the rooftops of NYC's 100 largest schools, and increasing recycling rates and efficiency in commercial waste hauling.

By enacting these proposals, Mayor de Blasio can create clean air and new careers for New Yorkers who are facing the greatest hazards of climate change and economic unfairness. New York City can elevate the voices of residents and communities on the frontlines of a growing movement for climate justice, and in the process, become the national leader on climate jobs and resiliency.

We have an unprecedented chance to strengthen workers and communities most exposed to the harmful effects of climate change by building better and more sustainable infrastructure. It is crucial that climate protection and good, union jobs are brought together within the same overall planning process and policy framework for a more livable and inclusive New York City.

The expiration of Bloomberg's PlaNYC is in April. In the months ahead, de Blasio should show that he will make climate justice a top priority and legacy-defining focus of his administration. He should use his power to help create a climate that truly works for all of us.

Matt Ryan is Executive Director of ALIGN & Eddie Bautista is Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Ten Key Takeaways from Governor Cuomo's Executive Budget

cuomo sos

Governor Cuomo outlining part of his 2015 agenda (@NYGovCoumo)

Last week, Citizens Budget Commission listed the Top Ten Things to Look for in the NYS 2016 Budget. Here is how they fared in the Executive Budget Proposal outlined by Governor Cuomo on January 21:

1. Windfall Settlement: Will these funds ultimately be spent prudently, with returns on investment?

The FY2016 Executive Budget uses $5.7 billion in bank settlement proceeds for one-time expenditures and investments. Although one-time uses are appropriate, the merits of specific proposals vary. The value of using $1.5 billion for an Upstate Revitalization fund to award $500 million apiece to three upstate Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs) is speculative at best. But the proposed allocation of $1.7 billion to the Thruway Authority and the MTA is likely to pay off, especially if viable capital plans are developed for each. $850 million set aside to settle federal Medicaid liabilities is sensible.

2. School Aid: Will education reforms include a plan to fix broken school aid formulas?

A series of dramatic school reforms – including modifications to teacher evaluations, teacher tenure, and others are proposed along with a super-size school aid increase of 4.8 percent, or $1.1 billion, contingent on their adoption. Missing from the proposal is any discussion of school finance reform, an unfortunate omission. It is time to overhaul antiquated and byzantine school aid formulas to ensure funding flows according to need and district ability to pay.

3. Medicaid: Will spending stay under the cap of 3.6%? Will the cost of newly eligible immigrants be affordable?

The FY2016 Executive Budget grows Medicaid by 3.6 percent to comply with the "global cap," set at the 10-year average of the health inflation index. Both the global cap and Commissioner of Health's special authority to unilaterally reduce spending would be made permanent. To afford the cost of covering newly-eligible immigrants the Executive Budget establishes a Basic Health Plan which entitles the State to additional federal aid to offset costs.

4. Budget Growth: To meet 2% growth assumption, what spending will be reduced to make a surplus a reality?

Last year the State's financial plan began to show placeholder savings from limiting spending growth to 2 percent in future years. The presentation masked a true baseline gap of $1.8 billion in FY2016. To close the gap to meet the 2 percent growth target, state agency spending is held flat for savings of $92 million, and $1.4 billion is subtracted from planned spending in local government assistance. These reductions net against $176 million in new initiatives. Additional resources come from the upward revision of receipts and use of prior year surplus ($373 million), and capital and debt management initiatives ($121 million).

5. Tax Credits: Will expansion in programs continue without clear benefits documented?

The expansion of tax credit and other economic development programs continues. In addition to investing $1.5 billion through upstate REDCs, the FY2016 Executive Budget proposes a fifth round of $150 million in capital grants, a $50 million expansion of the State's venture capital fund, and $110 million to SUNY and CUNY for 2020 challenge grants. Excelsior tax credits also cover entertainment companies retroactively, entitling The Late Show to $11 million.

6. Design-Build: Proven tool in reducing construction costs has expired. Will the Governor continue to champion the cause, propose extension or PPPs?

With design-build, one contract is issued for the design and building of a capital project, allowing for better-designed, lower-cost projects. New York's three-year authorization saved 27 percent on Department of Transportation projects but expired as 2014 ended. The FY2016 Executive Budget makes design-build permanent and expands it to all State agencies.

7. Personal Income Tax: Lower tax rates for middle income brackets expire in 2017. Will the Governor propose an extension and how will he pay for it?

The FY2016 Executive Budget does not extend lower personal income brackets for middle-income earners or higher brackets for high-income earners. The plan assumes these tax policies expire on December 31, 2017. If the current middle-income brackets are extended without extending the higher-income brackets, future year budget gaps will grow.

8. State Agencies: Will this be the 5th year of frozen agency spending? Are there specific plans to realize greater efficiencies or just "do more with less"?

Agency budgets are held flat. Spending discipline has reduced the Executive-controlled workforce from 131,741 in FY2010 to a projected 119,160 in FY2016, a reduction of 12,581 positions, or 9.5 percent. The Governor committed to unveiling the NY Performs platform, recommended by the 2012 Spending and Government Efficiency or SAGE Commission. NY Performs has the potential to improve agency productivity if unit costs are paired with effectiveness measures.

9. Brownfields Tax Credits: Laudable veto of attempted extension by the Governor. Will sensible reforms follow?

In December the Governor vetoed the two-year extension of the Brownfield Tax Credit program. The FY2016 Executive Budget modifies the $500 million per year program by limiting eligibility to economically disadvantaged sites. Credits are limited to remediation costs, prohibiting developers from claiming them for building development costs.

10. Transportation: Clues to how the gigantic holes in the MTA and Thruway Authority capital plans will be filled? Tappan Zee financing plan?

The FY2016 Executive Budget proposes $1.3 billion from bank settlements for the Thruway Authority for the new Tappan Zee Bridge and other needs. The MTA would get $400 million for Penn Station Access and parking and development at suburban stations. Apart from the settlement funds, the State's five-year capital plan adds $750 million in capital appropriations for the MTA for FY2018 to FY2020. Although these investments are prudent, they constitute a proverbial "drop in the bucket" when compared to need. Viable financing plans are imperative for both entities.

Elizabeth Lynam is Vice President & Director of State Studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog organization dedicated to improving the fiscal condition and services of New York State and City governments.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

New York Must Strengthen Sex Trafficking Laws

DA Vance

Manhattan DA Cy Vance (photo: DA's office)

Sex trafficking is a lucrative criminal enterprise in which youthful looks are in high demand and actual children command top dollar. Yet, gaps in New York State's sex trafficking laws limit prosecutors' ability to convict traffickers of high-level felonies, making sex trafficking of children in New York a relatively low-risk proposition.

Forty-six states in this country recognize that prostituted children are victims of sex trafficking. These states acknowledge that vulnerable children innately deserve the strongest protection, and their laws enable prosecutors to seek tougher convictions and prison sentences for those who traffic minors. Currently, New York is not one of those states.

Traffickers are not merely common criminals, but often calculating heads of criminal enterprises that rake in thousands of dollars over the course of months – or even years – before their rings are dismantled. They know that Sex Trafficking is often difficult to prove, given the unwillingness of victims to testify against their abusers due to the trauma they have suffered, fear of retribution, and the complex psychological bonds many have developed.

In New York State, Sex Trafficking convictions require proof of force, fraud, or coercion, even if the victim is under 18. According to data compiled by the Polaris Project, New York is one of only four states where that is the case. That means, for instance, if New Jersey prosecutors prove that a defendant sold a sixteen-year-old girl for sex, that defendant would be convicted of Sex Trafficking – but in New York, prosecutors would additionally have to prove that the defendant used fear, fraud, or coercion to compel that teenager into trafficking. New York's laws are similarly weaker than the federal and international definitions of sex trafficking. That must change.

As national Human Trafficking Prevention Month draws to a close, I am calling on New York State legislators to give our prosecutors the same tools, allowing us to better protect the children traffickers target for sexual exploitation and profit. The penal code must be changed to recognize the fact that children do not have the legal, psychological, or emotional capacity to consent to sexual activity, as reflected in our statutory rape laws. This view of children should not change simply because there is an exchange of money.

Of course, New York takes trafficking very seriously. Recently announced state legislative initiatives include many significant proposals, such as changing Sex Trafficking from a nonviolent to a violent felony, and offering more support and services for victims. But there is a gaping hole in our State's laws governing the trafficking of children – one that would be simple to correct. We need to amend our penal code so that Sex Trafficking can be proved without evidence of force, fraud, or coercion when the victim is less than 18 years of age.

Law enforcement in jurisdictions that have this proposed statute, such as New Jersey and our counterparts in the Southern District of New York, are better able to secure high-level felony convictions and correspondingly lengthy sentences of traffickers. In contrast, New York State prosecutors have occasionally found that the only way we can bring a trafficker to justice is to seek prosecution in another jurisdiction.

Let me give you an example. Royce Corley, who also went by the name "Ron Iron," ran a prostitution ring in Manhattan in 2011 and 2012 that included underage girls. He photographed the children – including three 16-year-olds – in explicit poses, advertised them on, and made thousands of dollars by selling them for sexual services. Working with our partners in the NYPD, Corley was arrested after an undercover sting.

Despite the fact that Corley was prostituting children, my office's Human Trafficking prosecutors were unable to charge the defendant with Sex Trafficking under current New York State law. So, we asked the Southern District of New York to take the case, and to seek appropriate justice where we could not. Following his trial conviction under Federal sex trafficking statutes, Corley was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 10 years of post-release supervision.

Prosecutors should not have to hand-off cases to ensure that victims in New York get justice. My proposal would not only ensure that offenders could be convicted of higher felonies and therefore receive stronger sentences, but would also ease the traumatic experience a victim may face if a case goes to trial.

Eliciting testimony about sexual conduct and force, fraud, or coercion is incredibly difficult for any victim, let alone a child. With the proposed changes, a child's testimony could essentially be boiled down to two questions: How old are you? And, were you prostituted by the defendant on trial?

At its core, this proposal is an acknowledgement that a child sold for sex is a victim, plain and simple. Let's follow in the footsteps of the overwhelming majority of other states, the federal government, and the international community. Let's ensure that those who profit from selling children will face consequences commensurate with their crimes. Let's do what is just for the most vulnerable among us.

Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. is the Manhattan District Attorney.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Shelly Silver’s Arrest: 5 Immediate Impacts on Albany

silver cuomo

Silver, right, and Cuomo face shifting power dynamics (photo: @NYSA_Majority)

A former member of the New York State Assembly once told me off the record that the real reason Sheldon Silver didn't disclose who his law clients were was not because he was afraid of being exposed for doing their bidding in the Legislature, as Silver's critics have long alleged; Silver's real secret was that he didn't actually have any law clients whatsoever and that he was being paid millions of dollars by the firm Weitz & Luxenberg for doing no work at all. Thursday's five-count indictment of Silver by the U.S. Attorney's Office appeared to affirm that portrait of the Speaker's outside income from Weitz & Luxenberg and another firm, Goldberg & Iryami.

While Silver, an extraordinarily resilient politician, could certainly survive the charges brought again him and hang on as Assembly Speaker, his arrest will undoubtedly weaken him immensely for the rest of his career in office and have major implications for the current political and legislative landscape in Albany. The following are five immediate ramifications of Thursday's bombshell turn of events:

1) POWER SHIFT: For over a generation, Silver has been one of Albany's "three men in a room" and during the troubled administrations of Govs. Spitzer and Paterson emerged as the most powerful of the three, often appearing to be the lone responsible party keeping the ship of state from crashing into the rocks. That power dynamic shifted when Gov. Cuomo, a forceful chief executive, took office in 2010, and Silver was wounded by the series of scandals that have rocked the Assembly in recent years—most notably, the Vito Lopez sexual harassment cover-up complaints—as well as the arrest and conviction of one of Silver's closest friends and associates, Willie Rapfogel.

Still, Silver has consistently been, at least on paper, progressive Democrats' foremost champion in the Capitol. If he does remain Speaker, Silver will have a very difficult time holding the line on progressive priorities, particularly if the consistently rock-solid support of his members starts to break down. If Silver gives up his post or is forced from it, Gov. Cuomo is almost certain to try to heavily influence the succession process to ensure that the next Speaker is a pliant ally. If Cuomo prevails, he will further tip the balance of power in Albany in his favor. If the Legislature holds out for an independent Speaker, there will be enmity in the proverbial "room" which will shake up the relatively amicable working relationship Cuomo, Silver, and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos (and IDC head Jeff Klein) have enjoyed for the past four years.

2) POSSIBILITY OF REFORM: Silver's arrest is already prompting yet another call to address Albany's appalling epidemic of political corruption. Since the allegations against Silver stem from his outside income, the Legislature's rules governing what money senators and Assembly members can make from their other jobs and how they have to disclose it—rules good government groups have long slammed as far too lax—are certain to come up for review. A debate over whether the Legislature should become full-time to eliminate the possibility of members being entangled in any perceived or actual conflicts of interest is also likely to arise, though the Legislature would probably only sign off on this change in conjunction with a significant pay raise for legislators, which it is hard to believe could pass amid the current political atmosphere without a serious voter backlash in 2016.

Leadership term limits may also now be on the table in light of how long Silver was allegedly enriching himself via his position. Since Gov. Cuomo shuttered the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption in March as part of a deal with Skelos and Silver, he will be under significant pressure to demonstrate that he didn't let Silver almost skirt free, and to prove that he is as determined to clean up Albany as he has repeatedly professed. Silencing his critics who claim that he has been soft on—if not complicit in fostering—Albany's culture of corruption will now become one of the governor's chief concerns for the foreseeable future—and will encumber his ability to focus solely on achieving the ambitious agenda he laid out yesterday—with Silver on stage beside him—in his State of the State address.

3) HOUSING FIGHT UNCERTAINTY: Tenant advocates hoping to preserve and strengthen New York City's rent control laws and other key pieces of housing legislation that are sunsetting this year have placed a lot of their eggs in Shelly Silver's basket. Though Silver was Speaker two of the times the city's housing laws were weakened in Albany, tenant advocates widely regard him as their foremost bulwark in the Capitol, as they are suspicious of where Gov. Cuomo, who received millions of campaign dollars from the real estate industry, sides in the fight, despite his having helped them win stricter limits on the deregulation of apartments in 2011 and creating the Tenant Protection Unit, which landlords generally do not like.

If Silver remains Speaker, it will be far more difficult for him to defend the city's rent laws, and if he is ousted, it will matter significantly who takes his place. If his successor is Assembly Housing Committee Chair Keith Wright, who is always quick to point out that he lives in a rent control apartment, a change could end up potentially benefitting tenant advocates, but Wright is also a close ally of Cuomo, who appointed him co-chair of the New York State Democratic Party in 2012, and unlikely to cross the governor. In any event, an already tense situation for tenant advocates got much more stressful for them on Thursday.

4) TORT REFORM BACK ON THE TABLE: Supporters of modifying or eliminating New York State's Scaffold Law undoubtedly are rejoicing today. The law, which holds contractors and property owners 100 percent liable if a worker falls on the job, is detested by business groups and the real estate industry, which insist it dramatically drives up the cost of building, and fiercely defended by union advocates and trial attorneys, the latter of whom receive a lucrative percentage of the often large settlements that can result from lawsuits that hinge upon the statute. Since he became Speaker in 1994, there has been no more dependable and aggressive ally than Silver of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, on whose board Weitz & Luxenberg partner Arthur Luxenberg sits.

Last year Gov. Cuomo called the trial lawyers "the single most powerful political force in Albany" in explaining to Crain's why there was no current path to reforming the Scaffold Law, and that power largely emanates from Silver. With Silver hobbled and his financial ties to law firms centrally related to his indictment, it will be much harder for the Trial Lawyers and related lobbies to rebuff any efforts at reforming the Scaffold Law and other favorite targets of tort reform advocates, like contingency fee limits and trespasser responsibility.

5) MORE SCALPS?: The reason Shelly Silver is only a year short of becoming the longest serving Speaker in Assembly history is because he has been very good at his job. The speaker's principal responsibility is to protect his members, and in that regard Silver has been exemplary, often taking the heat for bad and criminal behavior by his members when he could have easily opted instead to hang them out to dry. With Silver on the ropes, he won't be in a position to protect his members any more, and human nature being what it is, now that they are exposed to the elements some of his members may turn on each other or on him, creating a general atmosphere of paranoia, hostility and shameless opportunism.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has every reason in the world to put in jail every corrupt elected official in the state, particularly after he so publicly took over the Moreland Commission's investigations, and so far he has demonstrated a dogged willingness to do so. In the past there has been an omertà in Albany, kept sacred by the leaders of the Legislature. It's hard to believe that Skelos and Silver will be able to enforce that code of silence moving forward with the same vigilance.

Morgan Pehme is the former editor-in-chief of City & State, and a frequent commentator on New York politics and government on television and radio.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.