Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Higher Marks for Scandal-ridden Legislature Decoded

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The New York State Senate (photo via

Here's a fact for Ripley's Believe It Or Not: we New Yorkers seem to be feeling a lot better about our state legislature lately. Responding to a Mid-march Sienna survey, 41% of those polled expressed a "favorable opinion" of the Assembly, while 46% were unfavorable. A slightly larger proportion, 44%, expressed a favorable view the Senate, with 46% unfavorable. The gap between those favorable and those not (with those undecided excluded) was within the +/- 3.5% range of error for the poll. Startlingly, this means that a plurality of the state's registered voters may actually hold a positive view of our legislature.

One comparison brings the point home. Public approval of the way the U.S. Congress is doing its job over the past five years as measured by the Gallup poll has ranged between a low of 9% (March, 2013) and a high of 24% (May, 2011). Though the recent trend has been generally upward from the 2013 low point, the March, 2015 level of public approval of Congress's performance was 18%, less than half that for either of New York's legislative houses in the same month.

The highest recent levels of public approval of Congress, which of course has had its own massive troubles with non-performance and corruption, are below the lowest for the New York State Assembly (25%, recorded in August of 2010). The lowest recent approval for the New York Senate (20%) was recorded in August of 2009. Remember 2009? It was the chaotic year in which the Democrats, newly elected to the Senate majority, failed miserably when offered an opportunity to govern. The party's organization of the Senate was blocked by the notorious "Gang of Four" dissident Democrat members, three of whom later went to jail.

It is a massive understatement to note that corruption and ethical lapses in the legislature have not ceased being problems in New York over the past half-decade, the time during which approval of the state legislature has increased. According to Citizens Union's "Corruption Tracker," four legislators left office for criminal or ethical reasons in the 2009-2010 legislative session, three during 2011–2012, and eight during 2013-2014. Currently, four more are facing criminal charges: Republican Senate Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous, former Democratic Senate Leader John Sampson, Democratic Assemblymember William Scarborough and, most recently and dramatically, former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Increased approval for the legislature side-by-side with persistent corruption: What's going on here? One possible (sad) answer is that corruption is accepted by most New Yorkers as part of our state's political DNA. Preeminent federalism scholar Dan Elazar argued that the Empire State is among those with an "individualistic political culture." Like our neighbors in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, he thought that we in New York routinely expect our elected officials and others with a foothold in the system to advance their own interests, not some broader public interest. With politics already seen to be about personal gain, it is only a short step to tolerating corruption as a routine part of the game.

New York's feared ungovernability was a framing theme of the 2010 race for governor. Years of failing to meet the April 1 adoption deadline made late budgets a metaphor for state government dysfunction. Governor Andrew Cuomo highlighted the passage of on-time budgets in every year of his first term as evidence of bi-partisan executive-legislative collaboration that had, he said, moved the state from "dysfunction and chaos" to "government that is working."

Because the Assembly missed the mark by about three hours, there has been some caviling about whether the state budget was passed timely again this year. The man in the street would certainly say 'yes, it was.' A second explanation of the legislature's recently healthier poll scores may therefore be that they reflect New Yorkers' reasonable view that the institution lately has actually been performing better. The governor takes the credit but, as John Kennedy once said, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

Earlier this year, stung by the Silver indictment just a day after he had barely mentioned political reform in his State of the State address, Governor Cuomo built an ethics package into his budget, and pledged to give its adoption priority even over achieving timely passage for a fifth year in a row. In reaction, when surveyed by Sienna in February of 2015, New Yorkers said that corruption remained a serious problem, but gave priority to passing an on-time budget over ethics reforms. This highlights a third point. Citizens are making a distinction between good institutional performance and bad individual behavior, and saying that, on balance, achieving the former trumps punishing the later.

Contrary to his initial hard line, in the final budget negotiations Governor Cuomo accepted compromises on his ethics package while again achieving budget timeliness. In reaction, some argued critically that substance was more important than process. They said that the governor traded away too much this year on ethics and a number of other issues to achieve a budget by the April beginning of the fiscal year. This undervalues the long-term importance of demonstrating that government can work, and especially that legislatures can work, in a time of increased skepticism about the viability of representative democracy in New York and across the country.

Albert Einstein once famously defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." New York has been incrementally tightening regulations and increasing sanctions to reduce corruption in government for generations, to little apparent effect. Perhaps we should shift our focus to the front end of the process, to altering the expectations of the voters and reforming our deeply flawed electoral process (read: more competition, public financing of elections), and consequently the values and behavior of those we elect.

In our book Tales From the Sausage Factory, my co-author former Brooklyn Assemblymember Dan Feldman reports remembering thinking, when he first entered the historic chamber, "I knew that no one could take my job away from me for the next two years unless I committed a felony, and I knew I was not going to commit one." Electing 213 legislators to the Assembly and Senate with this predisposition would likely solve our corruption problem once and for all, while also assuring an even better functioning legislature.

Gerald Benjamin is Director, Center for Research Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) - SUNY New Paltz

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Property Tax Reform Now!

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Assemblymember Quart (left), the author (photo: @DanQuartNY)

New York City's property tax system has been broken for years. It's byzantine at best, full of incomprehensible classifications and a mess of exemptions and abatements intended to correct earlier mistakes. The entire system is long overdue for reform.

The last major change to New York City's property tax system was the introduction of the Cooperative and Condominium Tax Abatement in 1996. Apartment buildings are assessed differently than single-family homes, subjecting homeowners in co-op and condo buildings to much higher tax burdens than those in single family homes. This tax break was designed to compensate for that inequity.

The abatement was intended to be a stopgap measure until the city created a comprehensive plan to solve inequities in the property tax system. In the intervening 18 years, the State Legislature has extended this abatement five times, each time tasking the Mayor's Office with devising a permanent solution to this problem. So far, no Mayor has done so.

This abatement is critical for many co-op and condo owners. Without it, their property taxes would increase substantially and immediately, leaving them suddenly unable to afford the apartments they have called home for many years.

What's more, this tax abatement preserves basic principles of fairness in our property tax system. There is simply no reason to tax homeowners who live in denser, more efficient, more environmentally sustainable apartment buildings at a higher rate than homeowners who live in detached houses.

While the entire property tax system still needs reform, it's time to stop pretending that this crucial tax abatement is a stopgap. After five renewals, it's clear that taxpayers and legislators alike believe in its importance. However, as long as the abatement remains temporary, it's a potential pawn in the inescapable political horsetrading in Albany. As long as it is temporary, co-op and condo owners are in peril.

It is time to permanently enshrine this abatement in our laws. Now that the budget is settled, I will be leading the charge to do just that, making this tax relief permanent and doing the right thing for co-op and condo owners across the city.

East Side Assemblymember Dan Quart is the author of a white paper detailing inequities in the NYC property tax system.

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Sunset Park Redevelopment Proposal Misses the Mark


On a recent Sunday afternoon, an impressive array of leaders from Sunset Park's tenant advocacy, environmental justice, small business, and community-based institutions, and their citywide allies gathered to announce their participation in a coalition to monitor and raise concerns about Jamestown Properties' $1 billion dollar redevelopment and rezoning proposal for Industry City.

Of key concern is the incongruity of the Industry City proposal for a hotel, university facility, and retail in one of the city's few remaining industrial, working waterfront neighborhoods. In addition to an extensive industrial building stock, Sunset Park has an inter-modal infrastructure and is anchored by two massive city-owned facilities - South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and Brooklyn Army Terminal. As one of the speakers noted, the last time a New York City waterfront neighborhood faced a similar scaled development proposal was in 2005, when Greenpoint-Williamsburg was rezoned with devastating consequences for the area's Latino community.

Sunset Park is a vibrant, working class, immigrant Latino-Asian neighborhood with a much-lauded walk to work population. Recent media accounts, however, describe a derelict, moribund, and gritty industrial waterfront. This skewed representation is similar to the New York Times coverage of Queens's pan-Latino, immigrant Roosevelt Avenue as a "corridor of vice" in order to rationalize a controversial proposal for an expanded Business Improvement District. These characterizations help prime a neighborhood for transformative private sector interventions such as that proposed by Jamestown Properties and their partners.

There is no question that deindustrialization and private and public disinvestment have taken a heavy toll on Sunset Park, but some businesses – not just storage and warehousing – have long co-existed in a manufacturing-maritime ecosystem. These include garment cutters, sewing subcontractors, furniture makers, auto repair shops, construction material suppliers, moving companies, and food manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributers. They may not be part of Jamestown Properties' vision of an artisanal and hip innovation-maker economy but these small businesses are an important part of Sunset Park's local economy and immigrant employment base.

In 2010, I met with two Chinese garment contractors who relocated their factories from Manhattan Chinatown to 39th Street in Sunset Park due to rising rents and real estate instability. One produced evening gowns for a Midtown Garment Center manufacturer and he was optimistic about the future since he had secured an affordable space for his business. A short three years later, the building 353 Fashion Inc. occupied was sold to a real estate investment company that has recently obtained a Department of Buildings permit to demolish the 7 story building. According to my review of the NYS Department of Labor Apparel Industry Taskforce data, the number of garment contractors at Industry City was halved from 39 to 20 in the year, following Jamestown Properties' acquisition of a 49.9% ownership share.

This past August, I met with a few Bush Terminal tenants including the owner of a furniture and cabinet manufacturer, Dean & Silva, who were concerned about their tenancy amid a growing buzz about transformative waterfront redevelopment. Given the spectacular views of the Upper New York Bay and the drumbeat that NYC's manufacturing future is premised on an innovation economy, these businesses may not be deemed the "highest and best" uses for Sunset Park's waterfront.

The Industry City proposal claims to generate 20,000 jobs but there is little detail to substantiate this projection. So far, the proposal and design renderings focus on the proposed hotel, retail streetscape, and bicycle path. What we do know about job creation in the innovation economy is based on a 2013 Pratt study of the Brooklyn Navy Yard which found that 60% of Navy Yard tenants employ fewer than five employees. Given the realities of modern manufacturing that innovators typically require small spaces and hire few employees, this leads one to wonder whether most of the projected jobs for Sunset Park residents will be generated by the planned hotel and expanded retail.

On a recent tour of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the guide lamented the threat posed by "residential creep" in industrial districts but the immediate concern for Sunset Park's waterfront may be more appropriately described as "retail creep." Several years ago, then Federal Building #2 designated developer, Times Equities Inc., was unabashed in naming their proposed project: Sunset Marketplace. While the 2008 financial crisis doomed this project, the current owner of Federal Building #2 (renamed Liberty View Industrial Plaza) just announced that a Bed Bath and Beyond will lease more than 100,000 square feet for four of its retail outlets.

The threat of displacement due to rising property values is real not only for industrial businesses but also for the sizable residential population in Sunset Park's manufacturing zoned area. Grandfathered by the 1961 Zoning Resolution, Sunset Park's waterfront bounded by 65th and 15th Streets, 3rd Avenue, and the Upper New York Bay represents four census tracts which according to the most recent 2013 American Community Survey includes about 10,000 residents. Living adjacent to the Gowanus Expressway and the industrial waterfront, this population has been on the frontline of neighborhood environmental justice struggles. Now, they face another type of threat. Among this population, 66% are Latino and a third have incomes below the poverty line. The educational attainment level for an overwhelming majority (63%) of the adults is completion of high school at most. These are families at imminent risk of displacement.

Community stakeholders are right to raise concerns about Williamsburg in part because the city largely dismissed the Greenpoint-Williamsburg 197a plan in its 2005 rezoning of the industrial waterfront. After a 13-year planning process, Sunset Park's 197a, which focuses on protecting the manufacturing and maritime waterfront, was adopted by the New York City Council in 2009. That same year, NYC EDC designated Sunset Park a "sustainable urban industrial district" in its Sunset Park Waterfront Vision Plan.

UPROSE also recently completed a NYS Brownfield Opportunity Areas planning process which engaged community residents, small business owners, and local non-profit organizations in developing a plan for the remediation and redevelopment of waterfront sites. All three plans emphasize shared goals to protect and grow industrial employment, promote green manufacturing and climate resiliency, and increase the efficient movement of goods.

Along with UPROSE, organizations represented at the recent press event include Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Trinity Lutheran Church, So.Biz, Working Families, Association of Neighborhood and Housing Developers, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, SEIU 32BJ, Teamsters Local 812, Pratt Center for Community Development, and ALIGN. It is a broad coalition with important demands.

Recent news that Mayor de Blasio is considering a ban on hotels as an "as of right" development in light manufacturing zones is a small but positive step towards protecting Sunset Park's industrial waterfront. We need all our elected officials to affirm Sunset Park as a working waterfront, to honor the years of hard work and good faith in community planning, and to advance developments that truly support a sustainable industrial district that is job intensive for local residents.

Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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As Both Crime and Enforcement Decline, No Legitimate Policy Justification for More Cops

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Speaker Mark-Viverito with a new NYPD vest (photo: William Alatriste)

As bi-partisan groups came together in Washington, D.C. last week for a summit on mass incarceration with a focus, specifically, on shrinking the carceral enterprise, a similarly disparate bunch of political leaders here in New York City have coalesced around the opposite message: expanding the size, authority, and mission of the New York City Police Department. Outside of the vague concept of "community policing" no one is offering a cogent policy argument of why the NYPD needs to increase headcount, rather than realign its current resources.

At about this time last year, City Council progressives, led by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, lobbied for 1,000 more police officers and the funding for them, stating that an uptick in shootings in public housing developments warranted more boots on the ground. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton swatted down the proposal, stating at the time that the new cops would not solve the problem the City Council was attempting to address and that the City didn't have the funds to support the plan anyway.

Fast-forward a year, and City Council progressives, led by Mark-Viverito, are once again pushing for 1,000 more officers – at a price tag of at least $94 million, before benefits and pensions are considered. They have pivoted on justification and gained furtther support from the political right, members of which approve for the council members' prior rationale. Mark-Viverito's plan for more cops has the supprt of Council Member Steven Matteo, one the Council's three Republicans; Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan; Patrolmen's Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch; Bratton; and the New York Post.

The new cops are, according to Mark-Viverito, this time essential to the implementation of "community policing," an opaque term of art used by NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing Susan Herman earlier this month to describe pilot projects in four of the city's 77 precincts (there are also 12 transit districts and nine housing departments). For a small cadre of officers, thirty percent of their days would be spent in social situations with community members, Herman said. On March 12, Assistant Chief Terrence Monahan told the City Council that "community policing" is what the NYPD has always done.

Mark-Viverito and Herman have suggested that increasing the headcount of the NYPD will free up officers from responding to 911 calls, allowing them time to interact with local communities. Herman said the agency is only waiting for smartphones, tablets, and other technology the officers will carry with them before rolling out the program. Why the NYPD needs these and other surveillance gadgets to chat with community members was never asked. But, more importantly, neither Bratton nor the Council has explained why the NYPD, under its current headcount, cannot implement Herman's initiative. Mark-Viverito has made it clear she wants the new cops, no matter what for, even as she has displayed an infirm grasp on what broken windows policing – the ideological underpinnings of the Bratton/de Blasio NYPD – is actually all about.

Critics of NYPD practices have been poking holes in the plan. "Too often, community policing means more intensive and invasive policing of minor disorderly behavior that serves to criminalize mostly people of color without dealing with the underlying causes of this behavior like poverty, homelessness, problematic drug use, mental health issues, and more," Alyssa Aguilera and Alex Vitale wrote recently in Gotham Gazette.

Marbre Stahly-Butts and Dante Berry have made the case for fewer police, not more. Josmar Trujillo has called the NYPD's promised policy change nothing more than a re-branding strategy.

The omission of any critical, number-crunching analysis by lawmakers around adding $100 million to the already stacked $4.7 billion NYPD budget shows the lack of legitimacy the proposal has from a policy standpoint.

The call for more cops is incongruous with the routine trumpeting by the mayor and police commissioner of low crime rates in the city. After all, since 1980 violent crime has fallen precipitously, from 6,500 events per 100,000 residents that year to fewer than 1,000 events per 100,000 residents in 2013. Similarly, nonviolent crime is four times lower today than it was in the 1980s.

Along with falling crime, there has been a decline in enforcement actions. In 2011 the NYPD made 685,724 stop-and-frisks; de Blasio proudly boasts that this number has dropped to under 40,000 in 2014 – although people in highly-policed neighborhoods dispute the characterization of a drastic improvement.

In 2005 the NYPD issued 650,000 criminal summonses, in 2013 that number was just over 450,000; in 2014 it was lower still. In 2010 there were 249,641 misdemeanor arrests (up from 65,041 in 1980); in 2013 there were 225,684 similar arrests. Recent changes in marijuana enforcement should push these numbers lower.

All told these enforcement declines add up to more than 850,000 fewer interactions between the police and public – most gained in just the past five years. Bratton has pegged the number closer to 1 million. With the police doing less work, has this not freed up any time for community interaction?

An officer can get through a stop-and-frisk report or a summons in as little as ten minutes, retired NYPD Detective Carlton Berkley told me recently. But a typical arrest, depending on the seriousness of the charge and the backlog of cases at the precincts and central bookings, can take anywhere from two to ten hours. A homicide, much longer, Berkley said. Even for a misdemeanor arrest the officer has to take the person into custody, bring them to the precinct, take them to the desk officer, place them in the cage, research the penal law, start doing the paperwork, type out the report, fingerprint the arrested person, photograph them, have the case reviewed by a sergeant, transport the prisoner to central bookings, bring them through emergency medical services, and present the charges to the district attorney, Berkley said. All of these steps are delayed if there is anyone else being processed simultaneously, which is usually the case. Most of the time up to the custody transfer at central bookings, officers remain with their partner, so the time is actually doubled.

"Usually cops arrest people not only because they did something wrong, but they do it for overtime purposes. As a second grade detective, my overtime rate was something like $85 dollars an hour, one arrest could mean and extra $850 dollars. A couple extra arrests every month, that's like a second job," Berkley said.

Bratton says that police are simply responding to 911 and 311 calls from communities, but this assertion has been mostly debunked. For example, during the second week of January, one Brooklyn precinct issued 3,300 quality-of-life summonses, which corresponded to just 12 quality-of-life 311 calls during the same period.

It's hard to believe that anyone phones 911 to report a person taking up two seats on the subway, theft of services, possession of drug residue, or standing outside the lobby of the building that they live in, common arrests documented by the Police Reform Organizing Project.

Of course, there are quotas as well. Although NYPD brass have long denied these, Bratton showed his hand following the slowdown last winter, referencing the need to get back to the "normal" numbers. A group of officers is currently suing the City over the practice. PBA President Patrick Lynch, who regularly derides the quota practices, has even made a distinction between necessary and unnecessary arrests, though he too wants more officers.

The bread and butter of the NYPD remains issuing vehicle tickets and arresting and summonsing people for minor crimes, violations and infractions. Excluding traffic tickets there are still nearly 1 million punitive interactions a year despite the reductions. It has gotten so bad that the City is looking to rework low-level offenses because the courts can't manage the workloads. Even Bratton admits that the public wants less enforcement.

District Attorney Donovan should know as well as anybody the extent to which the NYPD could be arresting fewer people. Campaigning to replace disgraced U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, who resigned in December after pleading guilty to felony tax fraud, Donovan got behind the Mark-Viverito/Bratton plan at an endorsement rally with the court officers' union. "If [Bratton] says we need 1,000 new police officers, we need 1,000 new police officers," he said.

Donovan's office tosses out on their face roughly 10 percent of all cases brought by Staten Island precincts. Over the past five years, Staten Island judges dismissed about 30 percent of all felony cases they saw and 35 percent of all misdemeanors, suggesting a low-level of merit to nearly half the arrests in that borough.

The New York Times recently suggested that the City Council has lost its stomach for standing up to overreach by the police department, making the 1,000-officer gift seem even more like a peace-offering than a legitimate proposal from Mark-Viverito and others who just a few short months ago were walking out of City Council chanting "I can't breathe."

A $100 million political stunt (really $1 billion over the next decade) seems selfish and irresponsible. This time of year one can't escape coverage of the various budget holes that might be plugged with these resources. Just this week high school students marched on City Hall over cuts to their sports programs, and working people across the city reworked their budgets to deal with yet another MTA fare hike.

"To me, they don't really need those 1,000 new officers," Berkley, the retired NYPD detective said. "They'd be better off spending the money to open up some of these community centers."

Nick Malinowski is a social worker and independent journalist, living and working in Brooklyn; and is on Twitter @nwmalinowski.

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New York Needs Electronic Health Records

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State Sen. Hoylman gets a flu shot (photo: @bradhoylman)

Teenagers aren't the only ones keeping up with the latest technology. Today, nearly three-quarters of Americans over the age of fifty are "plugged in" and regularly using the internet. As we get more connected, however, we're demanding the same of our medical care. Because many patients often have multiple doctors, it's important that all of their providers have access to their medical records.

This year, Governor Cuomo's budget again includes support for the continued development of New York's Statewide Health Information Network (SHIN-NY). This important state investment will enable patients and their doctors to seamlessly exchange electronic health records wherever they are in the state. The network is already gaining momentum: over 50,000 doctors and healthcare providers participate in SHIN-NY, and over 7 million New Yorkers have given consent to have their records shared.

SHIN-NY will be a game-changer for millions of people in New York State, especially those living with chronic conditions. Sixty percent of the American population over the age of fifty may have at least one chronic illness, whether it's heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis. In fact, many have more than one condition. For these New Yorkers, SHIN-NY will greatly simplify and improve the way medical care is delivered.

For example, it will no longer be necessary to hand-carry blood tests, x-rays, MRI scans or charts between doctors. If you're away from home and have an unexpected emergency, it means the doctor treating you will be able to access your health history, including drug allergies and pre-existing conditions, in order to provide the best possible care.

SHIN-NY will also help doctors share vital care information with other doctors, greatly improving the coordination of your care. This is critical, for example, if you see multiple doctors or have several medical conditions because doctors can make sure that the medication they prescribe doesn't conflict with your other medications or conditions.

Further, SHIN-NY will allow doctors and providers across healthcare settings to work together to address different parts of a person's illness. For example, a woman who recently had open-heart surgery and is a diabetic can be assured that her cardiologist, dietician, and primary care physician are coordinating effectively by accessing information through SHIN-NY to ensure she fully recovers from the surgery and receives proper, post-operative care, even after she's been discharged from the hospital.

Longer-term, increased care coordination will dramatically impact the cost and quality of healthcare in New York by reducing hospital re-admissions and avoiding unnecessary tests. And, this coordination will have the most profound impact on New Yorkers over the age of 50.

With budget negotiations ongoing, I urge the New York State Senate and Assembly to join Governor Cuomo in renewing their efforts to continue the development of the SHIN-NY.

by Carol Raphael, a board member of the New York eHealth Collaborative and former CEO, Visiting Nurse Service of New York.

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The 'Either/Or' of an Assembly Member's Stand on Education

Rally outside AM Rodriguez's office (photo: Alliance for Quality Education)

Last Friday, and despite a snowstorm, dozens of parents, students, and education advocates picketed in front of Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez's East Harlem office demanding that he stand up for all public school children. Many in his district are frustrated by the fact that he has turned a deaf ear to their concerns, as reflected in his wrong stands on education.

While many of the public schools in his district can no longer support co-locations, Mr. Rodríguez has pledged his support for raising the charter school cap, which will lead to additional co-locations.

In a recent column printed in this publication, Assembly Member Rodriguez tried to paint himself as fair, but his arguments proved his charter bias. While he mentions the 143,000 students attending struggling district schools, he makes no reference to the troubling disparities in student population at charter schools and the suspension rates that are ten times those in public schools. Like the Assembly Member wrote, "education isn't either/or."

In his district, for example, public district schools serve 30 percent special education students compared to only 17 percent in charters. The disparity in the children taught in self-contained special education classes is not any better – 9 percent in district schools versus only 1 percent in charters, according to data from Alliance for Quality Education.

During the picket, parents delivered an over-sized copy of a letter that the assembly member refused to sign, which not only highlights all those staggering facts about charters but that also has been signed by two dozen Democrats in the Assembly. Parents are still waiting for an answer.

In his column, he does ask for an increase in funding for children with special needs who can be in mainstream classrooms, but rather than a call for inclusion, his argument sounds more like an excuse for why charters exclude high-need student populations.

More privately-run charter schools will divert funds from our local public schools desperately in need of those resources.

Raising the charter cap will only benefit the pockets of hedge fund billionaires who are now driving Governor Andrew Cuomo's education policy - and clearly now Assembly Member Rodriguez's too. He is responding to the $20,700 he has received in campaign donations from the same group of donors who have contributed so heavily to the governor's campaigns. That's why parents and advocates have urged him to return it.

We need our elected officials to stand up for a government that works for all of our children and not the interests of the wealthy. That's a position that Assembly Member Rodriguez has yet to prove.

by Carlos Ruiz, East Harlem resident, public school parent, and member of New York Communities for Change

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Sky’s the Limit for Solar in New York


The author, far left, & others at a solar panel event

Fifteen years ago, flat-screen televisions were a rare luxury item, a smart phone was one with an address book, we kept our music on plastic discs, and video chats were a feature in Star Trek episodes. Now there's widespread use of handheld devices that enable us to listen to music, watch videos, talk, text or video-chat with friends or colleagues, while also providing immediate access to a world of information.

Times have changed, and solar power is a case in point. Fifteen years ago, solar was used by a small number of true believers. Now, because of advances in technology and growing economies of scale, solar costs 25 percent of what it cost in 2000.

Solar panels are popping up all over: on homes, businesses, places of worship, and government buildings. Just over two months ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama summed it up when he said, "Every three weeks, we bring as much solar online as we did in all of 2008."

Here in New York, solar energy grew 63 percent per year between 2010 and 2013. That's fast enough to reach a goal of 20 percent solar in New York by 2025– a goal once thought ambitious, if not impossible, but now readily achievable.

"Star Power: the Growing Role of Solar Energy in New York," a recent report by Environment New York Research & Policy Center, shows that growth could actually slow down to 47 percent and solar energy would still provide 20 percent of our power in the next decade.

This is a critical finding at a time when state regulators are trying to transform the New York's energy efficiency and renewable energy programs through Governor Cuomo's "Reforming the Energy Vision" (REV) initiative.

Boosting solar energy power production is more urgent than ever. Scientists have never been clearer that global warming is real, happening now, and will only get worse without meaningful action. In New York, we're already feeling consequences like Hurricane Sandy and other more extreme weather.

Achieving 20 percent solar energy would cut as much carbon pollution as 3 million cars emit in a year, and put New York more than halfway to the benchmark set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which requires cuts in power plant carbon pollution of 44 percent.

More solar isn't just good for the environment. It's also good for our economy. Solar is currently the fastest-growing industry in the country, adding 143,000 jobs nationwide in 2013. According to the latest solar jobs census from the Solar Foundation, the solar industry employed more than 7,000 people in New York last year.

Of course, 20 percent solar is just a sliver of the possible. The state is home to more than 1.9 million residential and commercial rooftops that could host solar panels, and it has enough technical potential to meet the state's energy needs 11 times over.

We've made progress. But we can't take that progress for granted. Powerful interests, including the fossil fuel industry and electric utilities are working hard to slow gains. To take solar to the next level, we'll need a strong commitment from our local, state, and national leaders. By adopting a goal of getting 20 percent of our power from the sun by 2025 and working together, we can begin to move New York and the nation toward a future where we get all of our power from pollution-free energy sources. Our quality of life and our children's future depend on it.

Heather Leibowitz, Esq. is the Director of Environment New York, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.

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Education Isn't Either/Or

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Assembly Member Rodriguez, the author (photo:

Each year education advocates head to Albany to fight for our children, this year was no different as thousands arrived on the steps of the Capitol last week clad with signs, flyers, and banners. Yet, among all the differences, all the arguments they bring to the table, one thing is clear – our children need our help.

There are a bounty of choices for parents: public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools; I hear the benefits of each and we feel the successes of their graduates in our community. There are a million reasons to choose one over another, but the choice is limited if they don't receive adequate funding to stay open.

There are 143,000 children, the majority of them children of color from low-income neighborhoods, stuck in failing schools that are crippled by a lack of basic resources, including equitable funding. The $1.8 billion increase in school funding put forth by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, myself, and my colleagues will fill the Gap Elimination Adjustment and start meeting the $4.9 billion Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) commitment we so badly need to keep schools funded.

It's simple to fix this problem by allocating more money in the budget for schools through tax proposals - we already have a school system that has been hurt by property tax caps. However, dedicating a larger portion of the State's bank settlement funds towards CFE will allow us to make the needed improvements to our schools.

As we fight for what we deserve from the CFE settlement, we must also explore education reforms. Funding and improving our schools must not be an either/or conversation; we should willingly implement reasonable changes that provide the best results for our kids.

First, we must ensure adequate funding for quality pre-Kindergarten programs. Pre-K is integral in identifying and helping special needs students early in the educational process. The ability to detect special needs early will allow parents to work with teachers to identify the best course of action to ensure their child gets the help they need and can potentially eliminate their need to be enrolled in special education (SPED) to begin with.

Second, we need to reevaluate our SPED programs. African-American and Hispanic children are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be identified by teachers as having serious learning disabilities, and they are 1.5 times more likely to be funneled into SPED services than all other racial and ethnic groups combined.

In New York City, district schools receive an extra $2,309 to $8,609 per SPED student, and often even this is insufficient. Further, If a school graduates a student out of SPED status and provides only supplemental support, the extra school aid drops to just $500, creating a disincentive for schools to graduate students from SPED. While there are schools, both district and charter, which do serve special needs students, and serve them well, many do not. We should increase special education funding for students who can be in mainstream classrooms but need additional services, eliminating the disincentive to move students out of SPED.

Third, we need to explore what accountability looks like through fair and unbiased evaluations. Our teachers can't be portrayed as villains, they are our greatest ally in ensuring our children get the best education.

Last, where teachers and principals have been found to have committed a violent crime, been involved in misconduct involving the sexual abuse of a student, or found incompetent through a pattern of ineffective teaching, a swift suspension or removal process must be implemented to protect our children. Lengthy processes hurt our schools' abilities to educate our children and thus hold our students back.

As we work toward a budget that includes what is owed us from the CFE lawsuit, we must not ignore the areas where we can learn and enhance the opportunities we provide to our children. Our educators and communities, our teachers, our district schools, our charters, and ultimately, our students, have too much on the line to ignore the necessity for bold action, structural improvements, and needed investments to end our state's failing school crisis.

Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez represents East Harlem/El Barrio and the Upper East Side.

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New York Colleges Need the DREAM Act


Francisco Curiel, one of the co-authors

Queens College is a special place. As one of the country's most culturally diverse campuses—we serve men and women from more than 150 countries—the college seeks to "prepare students to become leading citizens of an increasingly global society," as our mission statement notes. We pride ourselves on being accessible and offering a rigorous education. In keeping with our motto—"We learn so that we can serve"—we provide an education that will enable our graduates to better serve their communities and the needs of our beloved New York State.

We strive to make Queens College as accessible as possible to all New Yorkers who meet our high admissions criteria. But there is a major roadblock confronting many DREAMers (undocumented immigrant students). The roadblock is that, because of their status, DREAMers are ineligible for financial aid.

All of New York State's colleges and universities would benefit from the passing of the DREAM Act. Its passage would open up the state's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to DREAMers who meet TAP's eligibility criteria. We would also be better able to achieve our goal of educating all New Yorkers and putting them on the path to high-skilled employment.

There are three main reasons why the DREAM Act should be passed immediately. First, the DREAM Act would open the doors of educational opportunity to thousands of students who otherwise would be unable to earn a college degree. This would be life changing for these young people and their families. The DREAM Act would also benefit immigrant youth who already are on campus. One of us (Mr. Curiel) is an undocumented youth and a Queens College student who maintains good grades and participates in campus life. However, he has no access to state-funded financial aid, which means significant financial strain on his family, as it does on thousands of other New York families.

Second, the DREAM Act could further advance academic excellence on our campuses. Numerous studies show that all students benefit when they are part of a diverse student body. Queens College students benefit from the rich exchange of ideas and experience that occurs in our classrooms, cafeterias, and common spaces among students from different backgrounds—whether those be national origin, race, culture, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Having more DREAMers on our campuses would further invigorate classroom discussions and campus life, benefiting DREAMers and non-DREAMers alike. It could also help DREAMers feel more comfortable on campus by eliminating the arbitrary barrier that immigration status can sometimes impose.

And third, the DREAM Act would enable us to fulfill our mission of educating all New Yorkers and developing a skilled workforce grounded in a liberal arts and science education. In today's global economy, it is essential that we develop an educated workforce to keep New York State ahead of its competition. To do this, we must ensure that every qualified young person who wants to go to college can do so.

Queens College President Matos Rodriguez
Queens College President Matos Rodriguez

A report by the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) found in 2014 that "the short-term costs of extending financial assistance to undocumented students would be outweighed by the long-term economic benefits." Having more DREAMers in our colleges would significantly increase the ranks of high-skilled workers contributing to our state economy. It would also strengthen our state's tax base, as the OSC found that "a person earning a bachelor's degree would pay more than $60,000 in additional State taxes, compared with a maximum TAP award of $20,000."

In short, the DREAM Act makes sense on three fronts: expanding educational access to New York's youth, enriching our campus life, and benefiting our state economically and socially.

The only challenge now is the willingness to act. By passing the DREAM Act, New York State would be standing up for its talented immigrant youth. It also would be standing up for the continued excellence and vibrancy of our higher education institutions. These are goals we can all support.

by Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and Francisco Curiel. Matos Rodríguez is the President of Queens College; Curiel is a Queens College student and a Youth Power Project member of Make the Road New York.

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Legitimacy of City Land Use Process at Stake in Brooklyn Park Problem


The Bushwick Inlet (photo: Janos Marton)

I think there is zero chance of developers walking away from this waterfront. Look at this view! This is the best view in New York City, maybe in the whole world. You've got the entire Manhattan skyline right in front of you. - Council Member David Yassky (Williamsburg/Greenpoint), 2005

In Williamsburg and Greenpoint, luxury condos have been popping up like mushrooms after the rain. Yet ten years after North Brooklyn was promised a 28-acre park on the East River, that park's prospects seem as remote as ever, in danger of slipping away for good. Recently, neighborhood groups have revived the clamor for Bushwick Inlet Park. At stake is not only greenspace for a community that desperately needs it, but the fundamental legitimacy of the city's land use policy. In 2005, Williamsburg/Greenpoint underwent an enormous rezoning, allowing today's luxury buildings. That rezoning came with a promise from the city, and if the city cannot deliver Bushwick Inlet Park, New Yorkers should not trust the city when it comes to rezone their neighborhoods.

Some New Yorkers think of Williamsburg as a gentrified monolith, but it is full of working class communities that have been there for decades: Polish and Italian on the North Side, Puerto-Rican, Dominican and Hasidic on the South Side. These cultural groups have clashed a great deal over the years, but little has brought them together like waterfront development, long blocked off to all of them by heavy industry.

Activists began organizing around waterfront development in the mid 90s, collaborating on Brooklyn Community Board 1's comprehensive 197-A Plan for the waterfront. A 197-A Plan is the most powerful (though still non-binding) tool under the City Charter for neighborhoods to chart their own long-term development, and this plan recommended large open spaces, public access to the waterfront, mixed use development along Kent Avenue, and a strong commitment to affordable housing. The plan was approved by the City Planning Commission in 2001 and City Council in 2002.

Yet in 2005, when Mayor Bloomberg went all in on his Olympic bid and needed the Williamsburg waterfront for beach volleyball, his administration tossed the 197-A plan in a recycling bin and put forward a whole new rezoning vision for the waterfront rooted in luxury development. The community fought that proposal with everything they had. Elected officials opposed it. People rallied at City Hall. Guerilla activists in costume raised awareness. Articles were written. Forums were held. Multiethnic alliances were forged. TV on the Radio played a show in support of neighborhood activists! You couldn't have asked for better democracy in action.

When modifications were made to the rezoning proposal, some remained upset, but others admitted that the affordable housing, public park and economic development opportunities made the deal a fair one. City Council Deputy Leader Brad Lander, then with the Pratt Center, raved, "The communities of Williamsburg and Greenpoint win because today there is a guarantee of new and permanently affordable housing, instead of a virtual guarantee that new development would price residents out of their homes."

The revised 2005 rezoning, which featured 54 acres of new parkland, including a 28-acre park at the Bushwick Inlet, passed overwhelmingly. To help visualize the promised park, it would be 80% the size of McCarren Park, flank the Bushwick Inlet, and include a beach and boating. North Brooklyn is currently 5% parkland, a third of the city average, is nowhere near a major park, and has one of the lowest open space ratios in the city. If luxury condos were going to change the neighborhood forever, at least the neighborhood would be getting something it needed in return.

The 2005 deal wasn't without its critics, specifically because of concerns that promises to the public wouldn't be delivered. Kimberly Miller from the Municipal Arts Society observed that Jersey City's recent waterfront rezoning had similarly made promises based on private development that never came to fruition. The legendary Jane Jacobs predicted "with utter confidence" that the 2005 plan "will maybe enrich a few heedless and ignorant developers, but at the cost of an ugly and intractable mistake." (Like one developer who built 4,000 waterfront condos after contributing heavily to NY2012, the Bloomberg committee behind NYC's attempt to win the Olympics.) 

There's a lot more to this story:
visit Janos.NYC to continue reading

by Janos Marton for Gotham Gazette and Janos.NYC

The Challenge of Cultural Change on Rikers Island

BdB rikers

Mayor de Blasio at Rikers (photo: @MonicaCKlein)

After three years of volunteer service, I recently stepped down from the New York City Board of Correction, which is responsible for ensuring that all city jails, including Rikers Island, meet certain minimum standards regulating the care of inmates.

It wasn't the happiest experience I've ever had. While I was on the Board of Correction, Rikers Island became a topic of intense local and national concern. Thanks in no small part to intrepid reporting by Graham Rayman, Jake Pearson, Michael Winerip, Michael Schwirtz and others, there is now widespread agreement that Rikers Island requires significant reform.

One of the statistics we monitored at the Board of Correction is the use of force by correction officers. While I served on the Board, there were a number of horrific incidents where inmates were injured. In several cases, inmates died. Even though I have worked in criminal justice for more than 20 years, I found these incidents shocking and appalling.

On my tours of Rikers Island, I had the chance to meet numerous correction officers. I always sized them up, looking for signs of cruelty. To be honest, what I found more often were signs of compassion. Many (but by no means all) of the correction officers I met expressed real pride in their jobs and real concern for the inmates in their charge. Even in the most horrible of settings – and make no mistake, the jails on Rikers Island are horrible places to be – these officers were capable of small acts of kindness and understanding.

How do we square this reality with The New York Times reports of "medieval levels of violence" meted out with "startling ferocity" by guards at Rikers? Or to ask the question another way, how do we encourage more kindness and less brutality by correction officers?

I have come to the conclusion that the answer is not necessarily more rules or more scrutiny.

In truth, there is no shortage of oversight of Rikers. In addition to the New York City Board of Correction, there is the New York State Commission of Correction, the New York City Council, the media, the courts, and the U.S. Attorney's Office. And this doesn't even begin to list the advocacy groups that keep tabs on what happens on the Island.

Despite all of this, a recent Times headline reported a hard truth: "Even as Many Eyes Watch, Brutality at Rikers Island Persists."

There is an old business adage that "culture eats strategy for breakfast." I fear that the current approach to change on Rikers Island leaves the "deep-seated culture of violence" identified by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara mostly untouched.

Any effort to change the culture on Rikers must reckon with the deteriorating physical plant, which is beyond antiquated. Even with the reductions in volume that we have seen over the past 20 years, there are still too many people on Rikers – the daily headcount is typically around 10,000 inmates. It is exceedingly difficult to manage this many people humanely in facilities that are falling apart. As the MacArthur Foundation and others have argued, we must explore ways to reduce the number of people in jail, particularly those who are detained pre-trial. And, as former NYC Correction Commissioner Marty Horn has said, we should be looking at options to close Rikers Island and create smaller, county-based facilities with modern amenities (like air conditioning).

Even as we attempt to reduce head counts and improve the physical environment, we should also be having an honest conversation about discretion. A generation ago in the seminal book Street-Level Bureaucracy, Michael Lipsky pointed out that the exercise of discretion is a critical dimension of the daily life of frontline government workers, be they police officers, social workers, teachers, or correction officers.

While we can and should develop baseline standards for correction officers, the truth is that it is impossible to create protocols for every situation that they will experience on the job – no matter how hard we try, there will always be room for officers to exercise discretion, for good or for ill.

Given this reality, we must work harder to create a clearer sense of mission at the Department of Correction. Rules cannot do this. As professor Mark Kleiman (channeling the spirit of James Q. Wilson) has written: "Organizations prize autonomy...Deprivation of autonomy tends to worsen morale and thus performance. The impulse to over-regulate the public sector is a destructive impulse."

In visiting Rikers Island, I never once felt I was in a place of "correction," where the dominant philosophy was one of rehabilitation. To change this will require a significant investment of energy, money, and time. This means taking unglamourous steps that may not yield dividends for years to come, including increasing the salaries of corrections officers, changing the union dynamic, raising hiring standards, investing in research to help promote a learning culture, and giving correction officers a meaningful voice in reform plans as a means of increasing their buy-in.

While many demand immediate change, the reality is that Mayor de Blasio inherited problems on Rikers Island that were decades in the making. We should be realistic about what his administration can accomplish in the short term – and encourage the formulation of a long-term plan that truly changes the culture of the institution.

Greg Berman is the Director of the Center for Court Innovation and author of Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration: Essays on Criminal Justice Innovation (Quid Pro Books).

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