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GothamTalks: So Many Ways to Get Involved Locally


GothamTalks commentary New Leaders Council


Gotham Gazette and New Leaders Council -- a nonpartisan, nonprofit leadership institute -- have partnered with Manhattan Neighborhood Network to create a series of video commentaries by New York City civic activists. GothamTalks is short video essays submitted through the New Leaders Council alumni network, which consists of hundreds of New Yorkers working in advocacy, government, campaigns, nonprofits, business, law, and other aspects of city life.

Like both the reporting we do at Gotham Gazette and the written op-ed columns we publish, the GothamTalks video commentaries range in subject, but are all meant to move the public discussion forward. Please watch, listen, and let us know what you think. Use #GothamTalks on social media, and tag us @GothamGazette and @NLC_NYC.

Note: The views expressed in GothamTalks are entirely those of the commentators, and not of Gotham Gazette or New Leaders Council.

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November 10, 2017
Elizabeth Adams
Getting involved locally

Where the Mayor Opposes Affordable Housing and Neighborhood Character


union square tech hub rendering1

Union Square tech hub image rendering via EDC


Mayor de Blasio claims that creating and preserving affordable housing in our city is a top priority for his administration. But in Greenwich Village and the East Village, he has consistently blocked rezoning plans that would help create and preserve affordable housing where little exists, and opposed eliminating loopholes that aid developers, including his campaign fundraisers, in getting around existing affordable housing provisions.

For over three years, we have asked the mayor to change zoning rules for the University Place and Broadway corridors in our neighborhood, where intense development is rapidly accelerating. Current zoning only allows luxury condos, hotels, and office buildings to be built there. As a result, a 300-foot-tall luxury condo tower has just topped out on 12th Street, with no affordable housing (under our rezoning plan, that development could have included 29,000 square feet or more of affordable housing). A slew of office towers catering to high-end firms are going up or being planned in the area at a similar scale, along with other luxury condo projects; we can only expect more of the same under the existing zoning.

Our plan calls for switching to zoning of the type that exist in other neighborhoods which incentivizes the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments, or to make that inclusion mandatory. Our zoning plan would not fundamentally change the allowable overall size of new development, but would cap new building heights at about half that of these new out-of-scale towers, preserving neighborhood scale and character.

Next door, along 3rd and 4th Avenues, we are seeking to close a loophole in the zoning for these blocks that allows developers to sidestep the existing incentives for creating affordable housing by building purely commercial buildings. That loophole recently resulted in the demolition of five modest walk-up apartment buildings with scores of housing units, many of them rent-regulated, to make way for a 300-room hotel being built by David Lichtenstein (founder and CEO of the Lightstone Group), who raised funds for the mayor and was appointed by the mayor to the Economic Development Corporation. Our zoning plan would cut the size of commercial developments in this predominantly residential neighborhood, so new development would almost certainly be residential and subject to the affordable housing incentives. Here too, those incentives could be made mandatory.

The mayor’s response? A resounding “no.” In fact, until publicly confronted about this at a recent town hall, the mayor’s planning officials even refused to meet with us. The situation is made even more urgent by the plan by the mayor and his Economic Development Corporation to rezone a nearby site to create an enormous “tech hub.” Lacking the zoning protections we are calling for, this will only accelerate the rate of high-rise condo and commercial development in the nearby residential area, with no affordable housing (the proposed tech hub site had been earmarked for affordable housing years ago to boot).

The mayor has a policy of only allowing rezonings that mandate affordable housing, for which there are strong arguments. What lacks any justification is the mayor’s insistence that such rezonings also allow vast increases in the allowable size and amount of new market-rate housing. Because our proposed rezoning does not, the mayor opposes it. But his way not only undermines the entire purpose of including affordable housing, by also flooding the area with much more high-end housing than would otherwise be built, but destroys the scale and character of neighborhoods at the same time. This is why so many communities across the city have resisted the mayor’s rezoning plans, while putting forward their own, much more reasonable ones.

If the mayor has his way, this part of the Village and East Village will retain zoning that will only lead to a vast flood of out-of-scale condos, hotels, and upscale office towers, and miss opportunities to create or preserve affordable housing where it is sorely lacking.

Under our plan, supported by every local elected official and community group, new development would have strong incentives or requirements to include affordable housing, and would remain in scale with the neighborhood without unduly taking building rights away from the developers.

So, which side are you on, Mr. Mayor?

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

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Paid Family Leave for City Teachers Now


de Blasio classroom visit

Mayor de Blasio visits a classroom (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


Every work day for the past nine school years, I have taught and learned with young people from stressed economic backgrounds as a New York City public school teacher. Every day, I confront the realities of a system that puts short-term profits over children’s well-being and the long-term health of our city’s families.

I see scars on adolescents whose parents were forced into a bind that Mayor de Blasio has described as “the impossible choice between bonding with their child and paying their bills.”

Scars on students whose parents were unable to take the time to bond with them because of economic pressures. On others whose parents did take time off, but now struggle even more to make ends meet. I see adolescent children fall behind their peers because they have to take on responsibilities at home providing childcare to infant family members so that their parents can rush back to work.

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child confirms what those of us who work with young people know: “responsive relationships early in life are the most important factor in building sturdy brain architecture,” the neurological foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. When parents do not have time to bond with new young ones in their lives we all suffer.

For too long, New York denied the children of all city employees access to the benefits that come from paid family leave for parent-child bonding.

Nearly two years ago, Mayor de Blasio publicly recognized the foolishness embedded in this system. He created and imposed on city managers a program that provides up to 12 weeks of paid family leave.

But that program penalized many managers with the loss of promised salary and vacation benefits. According to the city’s Independent Budget Office the program was not a cost to the city budget, rather it actually resulted in a savings to the city of close to $6 million. The mayor used his unilateral power to create a system where he got more than he gave up. That is not my understanding of how a “benefit” works.

In order to extend paid family leave to members of municipal labor unions, the city and unions must collectively bargain a new agreement. Teachers cannot sign on to the kind of one-sided plan that de Blasio instituted with managerial employees.

We know that governments can create family leave without breaking the bank. Cities across the country — including ones in the south and midwest that are not known for progressive social policy — have found ways to fund paid family leave policies for all city employees without going bankrupt. For example, Wake County, North Carolina funds the cost through the city budget.

We also know that negotiation means give and take. All of us understand the benefits of parental leave for children and families, but different teachers will have different understandings of the cost side. I’m a chapter leader in the UFT and I would love to have conversations about the appropriate costs of such a plan. We could have these conversations in our chapters and as a union if the mayor’s team would be up front about their calculations and requirements. But the team has provided none of these details publicly. I’m left to wonder if they are trying to accomplish the Mayor’s lofty goals without expending any resources to do so.

For 21 months, New York City has formally recognized the importance of paid family leave while accepting a policy that denies this benefit to our city’s educators and their children, as well as many thousands of other union employees and their families. Like a decision that restricts mail delivery for postal service workers, this hypocritical policy denies us what we provide to the rest of the city. The people who care for, educate, and support the young people of New York City should have the chance to care for, educate, and support our own children and families.

A good city takes care of the people who take care of it. We do this because it is the right thing to do, the right way to show value for the hard-working folks who make our city run. We also have a self-interest in providing services to city employees — services that make them more effective workers, services that make our city a more appealing place to live. Rather than treating teachers who want family leave like we are asking for a handout, the city should be partnering with us to find ways to support the youngest and most vulnerable of our city’s citizens without sacrificing the work we do. Rather than dragging its feet, the mayor’s team should use the political capital from his re-election to create a family leave policy for all employees.

In the mayor’s own words, “Paid parental leave means healthier and more financially stable families, more effective workplaces, and a stronger and more just city – which everyone can get behind.”

It’s time the administration got behind a real effort to create a parental leave program that works for everyone.

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John Troutman McCrann is a math teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan.

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Politics, Money, and the ‘Spirit of the Law:’ Why New York Needs a Constitutional Convention


vote for a constitutional convention

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


The federal corruption trial of Norman Seabrook, former head of the correction officers’ union, has introduced new evidence of the contaminating role money plays in politics throughout the state. Jona Rechnitz, a wealthy real estate developer with a taste for power, became a star witness in the case after he got caught in the middle of an alleged deal that allowed Seabrook to get a kickback for investing the union’s pension funds in a risky hedge fund. Rechnitz had also been associated with allegations concerning the Port Authority and Westchester County, was found to have given expensive gifts to police brass in New York City in exchange for special treatment, and had donated so much money to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election campaign in 2013 that he was appointed to the mayor’s inauguration committee.

In the course of testimony, Rechnitz could not seem to restrain himself in bragging about his easy access to City Hall after raising more than $150,000 for the mayor -- access the mayor partially denies. In March, de Blasio had been relieved of criminal charges in two investigations when the Manhattan District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney issued coordinated statements indicating that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him or his staff.

In a ten-page public letter, however, District Attorney Cyrus Vance declared, “the parties involved cannot be appropriately prosecuted,” but added, “this conclusion is not an endorsement of the conduct at issue.” He elaborated, “the transactions appear contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws that impose candidate contribution limits,” further explaining that the relevant statutes “are meant to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption in the campaign financing process.”

With all due respect to Mr. Vance, I beg to differ with his conclusion, at least in part.

“Spirit of the law” is a legal concept that commonly refers to higher order values that statutes are designed to fulfill. In this particular case, the laws in question could have been intended to limit contributions, or more generally “prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption,” but practically speaking, they are only half-hearted attempts to do either. When it comes to elections or politics, the real intent of the state law in New York is to create the illusion that legislators intend to limit the role money can play, while they incorporate loopholes to undermine effectiveness. Such a charade is the real “spirit of the law,” and one reason to seize opportunity to change it.

Let me be specific. In New York State, an individual cannot donate more than $10,300 to the campaign of a single candidate. Ostensibly, the objective here is to prevent a donor’s undue influence over an elected official. A person can, however, donate up to a $103,000 to county political committees, which in turn can support a candidate with that money and more.

District Attorney Vance had his own explaining to do last month when it was disclosed around two controversial and high profile cases that he took campaign contributions from lawyers who conduct business with his office. When asked about the practice, Vance’s response was “It’s legal.”

The sad reality is that money is the fuel of American politics. If you want to enter the political arena, the first thing you need to do is fundraise. Unless you are independently wealthy, you need to attract donors. People don’t always contribute to campaigns out of altruism to greater causes or belief in a candidate’s capacity to do good. Donors, especially big donors, expect to be granted influence that may or may not benefit them personally.

Independently wealthy candidates who can afford to spend their own money on an election bring their own problems. Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent such unfathomable amounts of money to get himself elected three times (nearly $110 million in 2009 alone) that it distorted the democratic process. (His main opponent, William Thompson, spent $10 million). Under the law, there is no limit to what a candidate can spend on his own campaign, even in New York City, which has significantly more robust campaign finance laws than at the state level.

In fact, Bloomberg had so much money that he famously gave it away. When he was in office, Bloomberg’s top deputy mayor simultaneously served as the CEO of his private philanthropic foundation, which dispersed millions of dollars to applicants for various projects. The city Conflicts of Interest Board approved the arrangement, making it legal. When Bloomberg petitioned the City Council to overturn a term limits law so he could seek a third term, there were press reports that his aides pressured beneficiaries of his philanthropy to testify on his behalf.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature have ignored appeals to enact meaningful election reforms to reduce the influence that money has in politics. In 2014, Cuomo abruptly and controversially dismissed his own Moreland Commission investigating corruption in the state. The Legislature in Albany is reputed to be one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional in the country. Over the past ten years, more than two dozen of its members have been convicted or sanctioned for wrongdoing, including the top leaders of both houses, who have been sentenced to jail (their convictions were each recently overturned based on new Supreme Court precedence, but they will be retried in 2018).

The legislative process is invested in the status quo and rigged against reform.

New Yorkers have a legal way to circumvent the legislative process by holding a constitutional convention if they vote to do so on Election Day. It is question one on the back of the ballot, where a “yes” vote would trigger the convention process.

A convention would open discussion on a range of controversial issues, and it cannot fix all that is wrong with a money-driven political process that has been further compromised by the federal judiciary. Yet, given the hidebound thinking that immobilizes Albany, a convention is the only way to get the reform ball rolling on matters that go to the heart of the democratic process and its fundamental integrity.

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Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College and author of The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York.

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Why Tenants Should Vote Against a Constitutional Convention


seniors affordable housing

(photo via The Mayor's Office)


Every 20 years, the New York State Constitution mandates a statewide vote on whether to convene a convention to consider amending it. On Tuesday, Election Day, New Yorkers will vote “yes” or “no.” This measure, question one of three on the back of the ballot, is more important than anything on the front.

Tenants Political Action Committee debated this question at length, and despite many arguments in favor, we voted unanimously to oppose a “con con” this time around.

This was not a decision we took lightly. With a state government that is a model of dysfunction and gridlock, it is tempting to try an end-run around the governor and state Legislature to attempt necessary reforms they have refused to enact despite the stunning number of politicians who have been convicted of corruption and gone to prison.

Many New Yorkers of good will believe that a constitutional convention could force such reforms into being, and indeed that is a theoretical outcome. But the risk of a negative result for tenants and other constituencies that do not have access to piles of cash is very real.

One negative is that delegates are chosen based on the 63 state Senate districts. Because Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed the state Senate Republicans to draw hyper-partisan district lines to preserve their shrinking majority, this could result in Republican delegates to a convention having a majority.

There is every reason to believe that the very politicians we now criticize for refusing to enact progressive reforms would control the convention. Current and former elected officials, and even lobbyists, are eligible to run, and legislators could use their superior name recognition and campaign funds to outgun grassroots candidates. Anyone who understands how Albany really works sees the probable composition of a convention as inclined to do the bidding of special interests.

Beyond the potential to water down critical protections for poor people, workers, civil rights, and wilderness, there is one possible “reform” of special importance to tenants: allowing special interests to place legislation directly on the ballot by petition. Many states allow this already. New York does not.

If such a referendum process was added to the state constitution, it is not hard to imagine the real estate lobby initiating a statewide referendum to terminate rent control laws, which only exist in New York City and the downstate suburbs. In fact, this is exactly how Massachusetts ended rent controls in 1994, passing a statewide referendum 52 to 48 percent. Only three cities in the eastern part of the state had rent control – Boston, Cambridge and Brookline – and the landlords’ multi-million-dollar media campaign in central and western Massachusetts made much of the fact that the mayor of Cambridge lived in a rent-controlled apartment.

The analogy with New York is clear. New York City landlords would spend any amount to get rid of rent regulations via statewide ballot initiative. And if they failed the first time, they would keep trying.

Some progressive groups take the position that this would be a good change in New York. They should consider the downside. Ballot initiatives are easier to mount by groups with superior resources, and easier for them to win for the same reason.

We think there is a better way: in the last year, thousands of New Yorkers have become involved in organizations that work to raise political awareness and seek to hold politicians accountable, with a focus on swing districts and turncoat Democrats. The energy coming out of these efforts is inspiring. Let’s harness it to elect better legislators and change our laws at last.

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Michael McKee is treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee. On Twitter @TenantsPACNY.

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GothamTalks: Why You Should Vote in Local Elections


GothamTalks commentary New Leaders Council


Gotham Gazette and New Leaders Council -- a nonpartisan, nonprofit leadership institute -- have partnered with Manhattan Neighborhood Network to create a series of video commentaries by New York City civic activists. GothamTalks is short video essays submitted through the New Leaders Council alumni network, which consists of hundreds of New Yorkers working in advocacy, government, campaigns, nonprofits, business, law, and other aspects of city life.

Like both the reporting we do at Gotham Gazette and the written op-ed columns we publish, the GothamTalks video commentaries range in subject, but are all meant to move the public discussion forward. Please watch, listen, and let us know what you think. Use #GothamTalks on social media, and tag us @GothamGazette and @NLC_NYC.

Note: The views expressed in GothamTalks are entirely those of the commentators, and not of Gotham Gazette or New Leaders Council.

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November 3, 2017
Max Markham
Voting in Local Elections

New York’s Con Con Ballot is Biased


(sample ballot excerpt - image via NYC Board of Elections)


When New Yorkers vote on Nov. 7 on whether to call a state constitutional convention, the question they will see on the ballot is: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” This ballot text is the only form of convention related media that every voter will see immediately before voting—and when many voters are most impressionable.

Unfortunately, this seemingly innocuous question is highly biased because it doesn’t specify whether it refers to the federal or New York state constitution. Close to 100% of New Yorkers know they have a national constitution, but less than half know they have a state constitution.  Thus, millions of New Yorkers may go to the polls assuming that what is being referred to is the United States Constitution. And since Americans are taught to revere their federal constitution like the bible, the question could just as well have been worded: ‘Shall the Bible, written by god, be rewritten?”

In short, the ballot language is strongly biased against a “yes” vote.

In 1846, when this language was first inserted into New York’s Constitution, it wasn’t biased in the same sense that it wasn’t then biased to refer to voters as white males. Only since the Civil War, with the growing chasm between knowledge of the federal and New York state constitutions, did it become biased.    

Prior to the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment to the federal constitution (which extended federal rights protections to the states), states played a much greater role in American government. The pre-Civil War era was one of state rights, state power, and state glory. The federal government was often subservient to state government, provided far fewer services, and was even often viewed by some politicians as a stepping stone to serving in state government. Since the state and national constitutions were largely co-equal, students studied both. State constitutional reform was also often in the news, partly because New York’s constitution had been the subject of high-profile revision during every middle-aged adult’s lifetime (e.g., conventions in 1777, 1801, 1821, and 1846), something that wasn’t true of the federal constitution. Between 1803 and 1865 there were no federal constitutional amendments, let alone high profile conventions.

Today, in contrast, New York’s constitution is often treated as a ragamuffin. Those who attend New York’s K-12 schools, visit its leading museums, and watch its history on TV, will rarely if ever be told that New York even has a constitution, let alone what’s in it or how New York’s nine state constitutional conventions shaped it. In contrast, the federal constitution has retained and even raised its position atop its Bible-like pedestal.

To be fair, by the time most voters enter the voting booth on Nov. 7, they will know they have a state constitution. The ballot abstract provided by the New York State Board of Elections does explicitly refer to the constitution as a “State Constitution.” But the fraction of voters who read the abstract will be exposed to an arguably even worse type of bias. For the abstract describes only the cost of a convention; nowhere does it describe any benefits. Thus, a rational person who reads this description would infer that a convention only involves costs—which mimics the message being promoted by legislative leaders and others who are leading the campaign to oppose a “yes” vote.

Instead of focusing on a convention’s costs and other procedural details, the ballot abstract should explain the convention’s democratic purpose in the context of the constitution. This would include explaining why New York’s framers provided for two methods of constitutional amendment, why New York courts have ruled that calling a convention is an inalienable right of the people, and why New York’s constitution (Article XIX, §3) specifies that when there are two conflicting amendments ratified by the people, the convention-proposed one trumps the legislature-proposed one.

This year Evan Davis, a leading advocate for calling a convention and former Counsel to Governor Mario Cuomo, sued New York State’s Board of Elections regarding its placement of the convention referendum question on the ballot. The suit’s admirable goal was to have the question more prominently placed on the ballot. This would signal its importance to voters and thus encourage them to vote on it. The remedy sought, which the court denied, was to have the ballot question placed on the front side of the ballot, where voters choose candidates.

A better proposed remedy, which would have avoided forcing judges to decide on the relative importance of candidate versus referendum questions, would have been to place the two different categories of questions on different ballots. This remedy would have treated candidate and convention questions equally, and it is used by legislators in other states when they want to discourage voters from leaving a legislature-initiated constitutional amendment question blank.

On the other hand, since the convention question embodies New Yorkers’ most fundamental of all democratic rights—the people’s right to constitutional reform—it should arguably be given the most high-profile ballot position. Many states have granted it that position by calling a special election, but that remedy is both undesirable (e.g., it reduces turnout) and illegal (New York’s constitution specifies that the convention referendum be held at a general election).

My own preferred approach would be to eliminate government control over ballot media—a power that government officials routinely abuse despite claiming to practice objective ballot journalism. But as I argued in a prior column, New York currently lacks the election infrastructure to make this reform viable. Fixing that antediluvian infrastructure should be a priority for any convention the voters approve.

With only days to go before the election, the press should educate the public on the most basic constitutional and convention facts that New York’s public and non-profit educational institutions have shamefully failed to teach.

First, a New York state constitution exists, and the convention referendum refers to it.

Second, the New York constitution greatly differs from the federal constitution. It is about seven times as long (about 8,000 versus 55,000 words); full of provisions made obsolete by new federal laws; pockmarked with hundreds of legislatively-passed amendments that make the document incoherent and unreadable; and shunned by New York’s most prestigious educational institutions, including schools and museums, as unworthy of their educational efforts.

Third, the framers of New York’s convention process believed that it had not only costs but great benefits, as it is New York’s only available mechanism to bypass the Legislature’s gatekeeping power over constitutional amendment—an essential component of New Yorkers’ right of constitutional reform.

Fourth, the question’s obscure placement on the ballot should only signal incumbent state officials’ political self-interest, not the question’s importance as a safeguard of a vital democratic right--the people’s right to alter their constitution in the face of a legislature’s opposition. There is no more important question on the ballot, as signaled by the many millions of dollars New York’s most powerful legislative lobbying groups are spending to defeat it.

Addendum: Readers, including Karen Biesanz from the League of Women Voters, and Evan Davis from the Committee for a Constitutional Convention, have pointed out to me that the wording of the ballot question also misleadingly implies that a convention will not only propose but ratify amendments. In Ms. Biesanz’s words, it “implies that there WILL be revisions/amendments” despite a convention’s proposals not being “a done deal till the electorate votes to accept [them].” They have made an excellent point. The ballot’s wording bolsters the opposition’s strategy of implying that the people lack the power to vote a convention’s proposals up or down; it should have clarified that the people retain a veto power over any convention proposed constitutional reforms.

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J.H. Snider is the author of "Does the World Really Belong to the Living? The Decline of the Constitutional Convention in New York and Other U.S. States 1776-2015" and editor of The New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse.

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Vote ‘Yes’ on Question 2 and Send Albany a Message


de blasio town hall

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/NYC Mayor's Office)


This Election Day, New Yorkers have an opportunity to vote for ethics in government. You won’t see the words “anti-corruption” or “integrity” on the ballot, but make no mistake – these essential elements of trust in government are at the core of Ballot Proposal 2, which will be put before voters on November 7.

Proposal 2 -- which can be found on the back of your ballot with two other questions -- seeks the public’s approval to amend our state constitution to “allow a court to reduce or revoke the public pension of a public officer who is convicted of a felony that has a direct and actual relationship to the performance of the public officer’s existing duties.”

If a majority of New Yorkers vote “yes” on Proposal 2, no longer will pension dollars automatically go to felons sitting in jail who have thoroughly violated their oaths of office. For crimes committed after the enactment of the constitutional amendment, not only would taxpayer money be saved, but also the message would go out that the Empire State no longer tolerates – and bankrolls – corruption.

When I proposed a pension forfeiture constitutional amendment during my first year in the State Assembly, 2013, I was told there was no chance of this idea passing in Albany. Criminal conduct among elected officials was all too common. Many ethics reforms had gone nowhere in our state capitol. The State Assembly was led by Sheldon Silver and the State Senate headed by Dean Skelos, two men who would be forced from office after being embroiled in corruption scandals. But broad backing from the citizens of New York helped this idea overcome many hurdles, leading to the 2016 and early 2017 legislative passage of this proposed constitutional amendment, which placed the measure on this November’s ballot.

A vote in favor of Proposal 2 would send a clear message to state officials that we no longer tolerate corruption, forewarning them of what is to come if they violate the public trust they’ve sworn to uphold. Proposal 2 empowers voters to respond by putting ethics reform directly in our state constitution. (Don’t confuse this vote with the vote on Proposal 1, which asks whether New York State should hold a constitutional convention – a convention would likely deal with many other topics beyond ethics reform.)

If voters overwhelmingly support the pension forfeiture amendment, Proposal 2, New Yorkers will then be on firm footing to pressure the State Assembly and Senate to take up other needed reforms. These should include closing the “LLC loophole” that allows the use of limited liability corporations to funnel massive amounts of cash into election campaigns, and banning companies and individuals bidding on government contracts from making campaign contributions to state elected officials who have authority to approve or reject those bids.

A big win this Election Day for Proposal 2 would demonstrate that the public wants ethics reform. Too many people in Albany believe that ethics reform is something voters don’t care about. Prove them wrong – vote YES on Proposal 2.

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David Buchwald is a New York State Assemblyman from White Plains. He represents over 130,000 residents of Westchester County. On Twitter @DavidBuchwald.

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Open Primaries and Overcoming the Racial Divide the Parties Prop Up


city hall statue

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Today the dominance of the two major parties has frozen the country’s political development along a racial divide: the Republican Party uses law and order, tax cuts and anti-immigrant rhetoric to capture white voters, and the Democratic Party depends on high black voter turnout to win elections, while failing to address the ongoing inequality between people of color and white people. Pollster Cornell Belcher has found that 63% of black people feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party. The current highly partisan political environment is producing both government dysfunction and a general sense of dread that the county is moving backward.

The American people have been so manipulated and divided by politicians and our political process so over-determined by two-party control that for ordinary people of good will to meaningfully come together requires a wholesale break from politics as usual. We should not confuse multiracial solidarity—when people of different races come together to fight for a common goal—with the dynamic of political party constituency groups such as African-American, Latino, LGBT people, and women making demands within the Democratic Party and fighting each other for the attention and resources of the party and its elected officials.  

I recently had a conversation with a close friend whose history is very different from my own.  We agreed that perhaps the most dangerous effect of the current political environment is that people of different races are being pushed further and further apart. My friend Nancy, who is white, grew up under segregation in the 1950s in small towns all over northeast Arkansas. As a child, she "experienced and witnessed and joined the fight for integration in the South.” Fifty miles from her home and 20 years earlier, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union was formed, a federation of tenant farmers that united black and white sharecroppers to reform the system of sharecropping and improve the lives of all its members. Women played a key role in the development of this organization. As we talked about this, Nancy said to me, “I think this history is good to have in our tool box. I certainly will not forget where I come from. This history is important to me because I witnessed the fight for integration in the South.”

I grew up in the black community of south Philadelphia in the 1960s. My grandmother, Adell Chandler, owned and operated a large soul food restaurant that was open 24 hours a day and was a pillar of the cultural and social life of the community. She was a supporter of the civil rights movement and she encouraged me to become a doctor. I dreamed of becoming a doctor who could be a role model and help transform the conditions of the black poor.  

I remember hearing Dr. King’s voice on the radio. It was his unbending stance for nonviolence, his courage, his willingness to sacrifice his life, his humble yet soaring commitment to fight against poverty, racism, and war that inspired people of all colors to take a stand. When Dr. King asked people to come to Selma to march for voting rights for African-Americans, Americans from across the country responded.

Nancy and I are both independents who are activists in the progressive wing of the independent political movement founded jointly by Dr. Lenora Fulani—who ran for president as an independent and in 1988 became the first woman and African-American to appear on the presidential ballot in all 50 states—and Jackie Salit, the author of Independents Rising and the president of Independent Voting, the country’s largest network of independent voter activists.  These two women are working to build multiracial solidarity by creating independent tools to revitalize American democracy and transform our political culture to one of inclusion and opportunity for all.

Multiracial solidarity stretches throughout American history from the founding of the country in which black soldiers fought alongside white soldiers in the Revolutionary War, to the anti-slavery movement of black and white abolitionists who worked together and built the Underground Railroad. And examples from the Civil War, when Union officers like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Robert Gould Shaw led regiments of black soldiers, many of whom were recently emancipated slaves (Shaw died fighting alongside his black troops).

A little-known demonstration that preceded the modern civil rights movement was led in January 1939 by Owen Whitfield, an African-American preacher and organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union. He led the Missouri Sharecropper Roadside Demonstration, where black and white homeless sharecropping families camped out on the side of the road in the dead of winter as a means of getting the government’s attention to the vast poverty and injustice for tenants who were pushed off the land by planters. In the face of the segregated south they stayed together and though the public demonstration was crushed by the state police, it remains an inspiring example of poor people crossing the racial divide to stand in solidarity and demand justice.

Today in most states there is a political divide between the Democratic and Republican parties that corresponds to a racial divide in which people live in segregated communities.

A recent New York Times article on the obstacles to getting the governor, the mayor and the state Legislature to agree on a plan to invest in New York City's badly aging subway noted: "The future of the nation's busiest subway system, which has become engulfed in crisis, could well depend on New York State lawmakers…who live hundreds of miles from the city.”

The distance between New York City and much of the rest of the state is not only geographic, it is also a racial divide that is sustained by the parties. Though people of color live throughout New York State and New York City is racially and economically diverse, downstate New York City where more people of color live is dominated by the Democratic Party and upstate New York, where fewer people of color live, is dominated by the Republican Party. This arrangement maintains the parties’ duopoly control and both parties have carefully protected it, including through gerrymandering of districts.  

In a closed primary state like New York, where party insiders control the process of voting, only party members are allowed to vote in the corresponding primaries. Over 3 million “independent” voters are excluded from primary voting as a result. Of those, 35% are millennial voters, 33% are Asian voters, 20% are Latino voters and 18% are African-American. Under these exclusionary, partisan elections, the New York State Legislature has proven itself to be one of the most dysfunctional and corrupt state governments in the country.

This November, New Yorkers will have an opportunity that only comes around every 20 years: to vote “yes” on a constitutional convention, through a ballot referendum question on Election Day, and break free of the constraints to begin a process that puts reforms such as open primaries in the New York State Constitution.

In contrast, California has nonpartisan open primaries, passed by the voters in 2010. The impact has been significant. People of color are winning some local elections in majority white districts and California is leading the nation in passing effective government reforms. Moreover, under its open system two women - one African-American and one Latino -- faced off in the general election for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016. Kamala Harris, the African-American of the two, won to become the junior senator from California.

Americans can only truly come together if we can build a democratic process that empowers all voters outside the framework of a political party. Nonpartisan structural reform such as open primaries provides that opportunity.

Forty-three percent of American voters now self-identify as independents and many people, no matter how they identify, want the chance to vote and to participate in politics in new ways. The government dysfunction we see in Washington will not be reformed from within the parties. The future of our democracy depends on the American people carrying it forward. Those stepping outside the parties are leading the way to build bridges rather than walls.

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Dr. Jessie Fields is a Harlem based physician, an organizer with the New York City Independence Clubs and a board member of Open Primaries, which advocates for nonpartisan election reform.

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A More Transparent City, with A Page for Every Capital Project


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Construction in Corona Plaza (photo via DOT)


Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the city’s “capital projects.” These projects create, maintain, and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use every day, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. In 2018, the capital budget will be $16.2 billion, approximately 17% the size of the city’s $85.2 billion “expense budget.” What are these projects? How can you find out about them? It’s not easy, but it should be.

The Capital Budgeting process is a complex endeavour. The City maintains a 10 Year Capital Strategy that it updates every two years, and an Annual Capital Budget that is passed every year by the City Council, and a Capital Commitment Plan that is prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) three times a year, which outlines precisely how and when funds are being allocated to agencies on a project by project basis. The Commitment Plan is the most interesting because it’s the closest to the reality of how the city is planning to spend our money. It comes in fourvolumes” of PDFs containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall.

In 2017, why isn’t all this information in an easy-to-use spreadsheet or database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.

Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets into web applications. And that’s what I’ve done at projects.votedevin.com, where you can now find a web page for every single capital project, organized by agency and sortable by project’s cost. Of course, our ability to display useful information about projects is limited by the information in the capital budget reports - but there’s more than enough information to pique any budget conscious New Yorker’s interest.

Here’s an example: Project HBMA23216 from the DOT is a $312 million construction project for the “Promenade over FDR E81st - 90th St Bin 2232167.” That’s a lot of money for a promenade. By Googling the project’s name, description, and various internal codes (FMS Number, Budgetline and Commitment Codes) we can find a lot more information, like the RFP Notice, proposed architectural plans, and more.

As you browse the budget, sorting the most expensive projects by agency, more questions arise: Why does the City’s 311 system need a “Re-Architecture” that costs over $20 million this year? Why isn’t the press reporting the over $120 million in renovations planned for the Brooklyn Detention Center (search BKDC)? Why does the “Vision Zero Street Reconstuction” [sic] go from $2 million in 2018 to $100 million per year in 2021-2023?

I’m sure good answers exist for these and other, more probing, questions. These projects are, after all, funded by us taxpayers. Making this information more accessible would not only create more opportunities for civic engagement, it would also allow the public, journalists, academics, and others to serve as watchdogs, which might result in millions of dollars of identifiable cost savings.

A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.

What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on their “Capital Project Dashboard,” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions.”

Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now that’s the types of transparency we should expect from our city government!

Who has the power to make this information public? Certainly the Mayor's Office, but it's easy to see why it doesn't. The Mayor is responsible for directing the people and agencies leading  these projects, so creating more avenues for additional scrutiny, which could easily lead to bad press, is hardly a priority. Fortunately, New York City’s Public Advocate, which is an entirely independent office, has some statutory jurisdiction within the Capital Budget process and could force the city to better document the capital budget.

Section 216 of the New York City Charter states, “Upon the adoption of any such amendment by the council, it shall be certified by the mayor, the public advocate and the city clerk, and the capital budget shall be amended accordingly.” While I’m not a lawyer, it sounds like the Public Advocate could threaten to stop certifying amendments to the budget until the city releases a database of all capital projects with additional information to help New Yorkers better understand how their tax dollars are being spent.

That’s precisely what the Public Advocate should do, and as a candidate running for that position, I commit to making that demand when elected. It’s up to you, the public and the media, to ask other Public Advocate candidates how they’d use their oversight power over the Capital Budget. Will they also pledge to demand "A Page for Every Project"?

Until the city offers a page for every capital project, I’ll will keep updating projects.votedevin.com so New Yorkers can learn more about what the city does with our money. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.

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(image of the city's capital commitment plan vs. our website) 


Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Where Mayor De Blasio Must Take Vision Zero Next


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Mayor de Blasio and Vision Zero (photo via DOT)


Vision Zero is a singularly successful legacy project for Mayor Bill de Blasio. It would be more successful if his safety projects were decoupled from parochial interests.

In 2011, Transportation Alternatives and the Drum Major Institute published Vision Zero: How Safer Streets in New York City Can Save More Than 100 Lives a Year, the first Vision Zero report in the United States. In 2013, thanks to that report and assiduous follow-up advocacy by the victims’ group Families for Safe Streets, candidate de Blasio adopted Vision Zero as a key campaign promise, pledging to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. Many saw this as an impossible goal, especially after the impressive safety strides made during Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms in office. How much further could traffic fatalities really decline?

Mayor de Blasio officially launched Vision Zero at PS 54 in Woodside Queens on January 15, 2014, just two weeks into his term. Since then, traffic fatalities in New York City have declined 23%.

Whereas 290 used to die annually in New York City traffic crashes, today that number is about 240. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this success. If the pre-Vision Zero average annual traffic death rate had continued over the past four years, 122 more New Yorkers would be dead today and many thousands more would have been seriously injured. Considering that nationwide traffic deaths are up 17% over this same four-year period, the mayor’s effort is even more impressive. If New York City’s Vision Zero program were a vaccine, it would be heralded as a miracle drug.

What is more remarkable is how little the streets have changed to achieve this massive reduction. While the Mayor has championed transformative redesigns of many notoriously dangerous streets, the vast majority of known dangerous streets have yet to be affected by the DOT’s modern menu of traffic safety fixes such as pedestrian friendly traffic signal timing and protected bike lanes.

Queens Boulevard, the former “Boulevard of Death,” which used to kill a dozen New Yorkers every year, has not seen a single fatality in the past two years since being redesigned. Yet there is a backlog of more than 150 dangerously-designed streets and nearly 300 intersections that still need fixing. This long list of dangerous streets, outlined in the DOT’s own Vision Zero Pedestrian Safety Action Plans, represents an opportunity to save hundreds more lives. If Mayor de Blasio is re-elected, clearing this backlog of known-dangerous streets should be his first priority.  

To help clear this backlog, the mayor recently increased the Department of Transportation’s budget by $1.6 billion. The problem is this: while the agency shows remarkable results at calming traffic and reducing crashes on any given street, it is moving at a snail’s pace to complete those projects. Now that his agency has the money, Mayor de Blasio must empower the DOT to deliver safety projects much more quickly and insist that it happens.

Today it takes a minimum of three years for the DOT to turn a dangerous highway-like city street into one that is designed for safe walking, cycling, and driving. Actually redesigning and repaving a street can happen in as little as a few months. Most of that three years is taken up walking on eggshells; the DOT attempts to anticipate and placate every parochial concern, as though safety infrastructure were a hot-button issue, and not a life-or-death public health concern. We’ve seen simple safety projects take years longer than they should, like the protected bike lane on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, which the community first requested in 2013, or get watered down to be less safe, like with Woodhaven Blvd., or get tied into petty power-brokering, like on 111th Street in Queens.

Before Vision Zero safety projects were proven life-savers, Mayor de Blasio could be forgiven for his timidity. Now, with the data strong and getting stronger (see Manhattan Institute’s recent report Vision Zero and Traffic Safety) it is time for the administration to elevate these projects to the urgent public health imperatives that they are. This means giving DOT freer reign to complete safety projects more quickly and break a few eggs, or rather break the hearts of a few petty power-brokers who care more about parking than people.  

To further reduce preventable death on our streets, the mayor should also reconsider his opposition to congestion pricing.

More than just a way to fund transit and thin traffic so buses can move, congestion pricing is an effective safety tool. With fewer traffic jams,  there can be more space for expanded safe pedestrian space and bike lanes. After congestion pricing was implemented in London, traffic crashes declined by 40%. A similar reduction in the proposed pricing zone in Manhattan would save dozens of lives per year.

And, as Mayor de Blasio doubles down on data-driven traffic-safety policies that work, he should cease those that do not. Every officer tasked with outfitting senior citizens’ canes with reflective tape or writing tickets to cyclists is one less officer assigned to rein in reckless drivers, who kill pedestrians hundreds of times more often than reckless cyclists do. (In fact, a cyclist has not killed a pedestrian since 2014.)

Targeting cyclists and pedestrians in the name of Vision Zero may placate some vocal complainers but it does nothing to make streets safer. In fact, evidence shows the opposite: the more walkers and bikers are harassed the less safe we all are -- bikers bike less, for example. It’s the opposite of the “safety in numbers” effect, well-documented by researchers, showing that the more people there are on the streets, the more motorists habitually exercise caution and care, even if they are a little bit annoyed. The only way to improve bicyclist and pedestrian behavior that has been proven to work is to build better, safer infrastructure.

Vision Zero is not “traffic safety as usual.” Rather, Vision Zero says that protecting human life is more important than preserving parking spaces or speeding drivers. It’s time for Mayor de Blasio to make this principle the rule, not the exception, and empower his agencies to manage traffic and deliver safety projects accordingly.  

If Mayor de Blasio is re-elected, and launches his second term by doing what I’ve laid out here, he will save at least 100 more lives per year. He will be a hero. Nothing else that Mayor de Blasio did in his first term has gained him as much national recognition as Vision Zero, as dozens of cities are following in New York’s footsteps. It’s time for him to show the city, and the nation, the way forward again.   

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Paul Steely White is executive director of Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @PSteely & @TransAlt.

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