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Opinion

Time for Real Reform to Curb Police Brutality


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Commissioner Bratton (photo: @NYPDnews)


James Blake's treatment by NYPD officer James Frascatore was appalling, and only reinforces the need for substantive reforms that have yet to be acted on by Mayor de Blasio, Commissioner Bratton, and the New York City Council.

While the incident may have been shocking to some, it was unsurprising to those of us living in black and Latino neighborhoods throughout our city. And if it hadn't happened to a tennis celebrity with a Harvard pedigree, it may have never come to public light, with Officer Frascatore spared the same scrutiny.

For those of us working towards constructive changes that eliminate police abuse and brutality, James Blake was sadly just the latest incident of police brutality.

The reality is that some officers too often abuse the power they wield in communities. Whether it's excessive use of force, violation of basic rights, or disrespectful conduct, these transgressions occur on a regular basis.

Yet, the mayor and police commissioner have balked at addressing the issue of abusive policing head on with action, while paying some rhetorical service redirecting public attention from real accountability.

Neither their vague neighborhood-policing plan – without comprehensive community engagement – nor their commitment to provide new training to officers will address this systemic problem. Commissioner Bratton's latest announcement about enforcement of the NYPD's minor rules on officers also won't impact the failure to hold them accountable for violating their primary oath to protect and serve.

Until departmental policy and the fundamental nature of police-civilian encounters are changed, abuses will continue unchecked.

Beyond the New Yorkers, such as Eric Garner, who have been killed by police in an unjust or questionable manner during the two years of the de Blasio administration, many other troubling non-fatal incidents have come to light: the police officer who punched a teenager unconscious in Clinton Hill, the NYPD officer who shoved two women, one of whom was five-months pregnant, and the most recent piling on and punching of a man in a Brooklyn Target.

That's just a small sample of incidents known to the public.

The fact that Officer Frascatore is the subject of four lawsuits for excessive force during false arrests and five Civilian Complaint Review Board complaints in only four years in the department demonstrates that the problem isn't training or neighborhood policing; it's the lack of accountability for officers who conduct themselves in this way. Paid suspensions or moving someone around within the department is not enough.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo – who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold – similarly had provoked multiple lawsuits. As long as officers see no real consequence for conduct like this, we will not see change.

The problem is historic and systemic, which is why we called for Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton to implement zero tolerance for police brutality in our end of 2013 transition report, Safety & Civil Rights for All New Yorkers: The Mayor's First 100 Days. That would mean that there is no place in the NYPD for officers who brutalize civilians.

The fact that neither Frascatore nor any of the officers on the scene identified themselves as police or showed their badges speaks to a chronic problem that New Yorkers face when interacting with officers.

As Mr. Blake so aptly explained, had he actually defended himself from someone in plain clothes who never identified as law enforcement seemingly assaulting him, the incident could have escalated and he could have ended up seriously injured or worse.

There are solutions to these systemic problems. De Blasio and Bratton must get serious about police brutality by enacting a strict policy that removes officers who brutalize civilians from the department. The New York City Council must also pass the Right to Know Act, which would require officers to identify themselves to civilians and to explain the reason for law enforcement activity.

If Officer Frascatore had taken these simple steps, the whole despicable incident might have been avoided. And if these simple steps, or real consequences for not taking them, become law, other incidents like this can be avoided as well.

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Winston-Griffith is the executive director of Brooklyn Movement Center, which is a member of Communities United for Police Reform.

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Pope Francis' Green New York


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Pope Francis (photo via The Vatican on flickr)


Nothing Pope Francis does is by accident.

Read the schedule of the Pope's visit here and you'll see Pope Francis' view of New York City as a home to millions and a seat of international influence. In addition to connecting personally with New Yorkers, he'll leverage New York's status as an iconic global city to reinforce his papal priorities: climate change and poverty.

The People's Pontiff will visit an East Harlem grade school that is teaching students to be stewards of the earth. He'll greet thousands of New Yorkers in a drive through Central Park, New York's green heart where 400,000 people took their first steps in the largest-ever march for climate action. And he'll deliver the opening speech at the United Nations' Summit on Sustainable Development Goals, where world leaders will try to ramp-up global efforts to ensure that poor nations are lifted up and our resources and planet are protected through investing in renewable energy.

The Pope's visit to New York comes almost exactly on the anniversary of the historic 2014 People's Climate March, which transformed the way the American public, lawmakers, and world leaders understand climate change. No longer an abstract scientific phenomenon, climate change became an immediate threat to our people and our children.

World leaders jolted to action. In the year since the march, countries have been working diligently to reach an international climate agreement curbing the planet's dangerous warming. The United States and China agreed to reduce the carbon emissions that are driving climate change. President Obama announced limits on pollution from power plants and drilling. New York State mapped out a plan to get halve our energy from renewable sources within 15 years, and New York City committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent in the next 15 years.

We've continued the momentum of the march by organizing the People's Climate Movement. Strengthening the ties between labor, faith, indigenous, and green groups, we're holding a National Day of Action on October 14. It will be an opportunity for those who have heard the Pope's call to push for big, meaningful solutions - like a global climate deal in Paris in December.

Pope Francis deepened the global climate policy discussion, penning an Encyclical articulating the moral crisis of climate change - that the poorest countries and communities who have contributed the least to climate change are the most vulnerable to its most dangerous effects.

The evidence is in the communities that have yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, the high rates of asthma in the South Bronx, the Native Alaskan villages that are sinking into the once-frozen Arctic Ocean, and the farmers in California's Central Valley whose fields are parched to the point of cracking, to name only a few.

Pope Francis speaks about interconnectedness and brotherhood. Seemingly divided by political boundaries, we are connected by the natural world. We are not separated by oceans - there is no greater unifying challenge than rising seas.

Pope Francis is using the world's brightest spotlight to lift up the lives of people threatened by climate change, and to hold institutions accountable to their responsibilities. Long after His Holiness' visit, we'll be working to realize the changes he calls for here in New York, and across the country. We can get it done, but it won't be a walk in the park.

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Eddie Bautista is the Executive Director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance and an organizer of the People's Climate Movement.

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Latest Prison Sentencing Recalls History of Legislative Corruption and Achievement


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US Attorney Preet Bharara prosecutes corruption (photo via justice.gov)


Ex-Queens Assemblymember William Scarborough is the latest New York State legislator to be convicted of corruption. Scarborough, a lawmaker for two decades, filed 174 phony travel vouchers between 2009 and 2012 to receive more than $54,000 in unwarranted per diems. He put in for travel reimbursements on some days when he was at home in his district, not in or in transit to Albany.

Scarborough resigned his Assembly seat after being indicted last spring. He was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison for his crimes. He also received a year on state charges for misuse of campaign funds, which will be served at the same time as his federal incarceration.

But at his sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. McAvoy was almost apologetic for imposing the prison term. "I think essentially you're a good, decent human being who just made a mistake...a good representative of the people," he told Scarborough.

Since 1999, more than 30 state lawmakers have been forced from office due to ethical misconduct or conviction for crimes. Earlier this year, the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate were both indicted and forced from their leadership posts.

But Judge McAvoy's comments remind us of how complicated New York politics can be. Scarborough was both a good representative of the people in his district and also a crook. New York is a politically complicated place. Appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes, legislative corruption and progressive legislation exist side by side.

Albany politics from a century or so ago provides some useful comparisons and insights.

History books often focus on corruption in the legislature in the last years of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th, including corporations influencing legislators to secure beneficial legislation and political "bosses" unresponsive to the people heading both parties.

Senate Majority Leader Jotham Allds resigned in disgrace in 1910 after it was revealed that he had taken a bribe to kill a legislative proposal when he had been in the Assembly years earlier.

Governor William Sulzer was impeached and removed from office in 1913 for misuse of campaign funds. Legislative investigations and newspaper revelations turned out other instances of influence peddling, misuse of state funds, or other misconduct.

But during the same time period, from the late 1890s to about 1914, under governors, legislative leaders, and political bosses from both parties, the state legislature passed progressive legislation that surpassed any other state.

On the Republican side, governor Charles Evans Hughes (1907-1910) was one of the most progressive governors in the nation. He set a high tone for ethical government, reminding his fellow New Yorkers in his inaugural address that "We subordinate individual caprice to defined duty."

On the Democratic side, as historian Terry Golway demonstrates in his book "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics," Tammany Hall, often pilloried as the embodiment of corruption, quietly backed reform measures that benefitted its urban constituency. Two Tammany Democrats destined for future greatness rose to leadership positions-- Senator Robert Wagner became Majority Leader and Assemblymember Alfred E. Smith became Assembly Majority Leader in 1911 and moved up to Speaker in 1913. Wagner later went on to a distinguished career as U.S. Senator, and Smith later became one of New York's most effective governors.

For instance, the legislature passed the state's first gun control legislation, in 1911, sponsored by a Tammany stalwart and sometime scoundrel, Assemblymember Timothy Sullivan.

It created the first state labor department in the nation.

Legislation placed severe restrictions on child labor in 1903. The legislation was quietly championed by one of New York's least remembered governors, Republican Benjamin B. Odell (1901-1905).

In the wake of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911, the legislature passed a suite of industrial fire and safety regulations that made New York the model for the rest of the nation. Wagner and Smith headed the legislative commission that investigated factory working conditions after the fire, shaped the legislation, and shepherded it through the legislature.

In 1910, New York passed the nation's first workers' compensation law, guaranteeing partial wages and support for medical expenses to workers injured on the job in a range of occupations.

Another law unified state education oversight through creation of the State Education Department.

A law was passed establishing the Health Department with broad responsibilities for public health.

Legislation was enacted that set standards prohibiting the construction of overcrowded tenement buildings and requiring adequate ventilation and fire safeguards in housing construction.

A law was passed that established the Public Service Commission to regulate railroads and other public utilities.

The legislature created a state highway commission, launching the state's 20th century road building.

The legislature also passed the state's first direct primary law.

Insurance and banking regulations were enacted or substantially strengthened.

Corrupt practices were rampant in the legislature in that era. Sometimes, there was political logrolling and occasionally do-over's. For instance, the worker's compensation law was declared unconstitutional in 1911 by the State Court of Appeals. Within two years, however, the legislature passed and voters ratified an amendment to the constitution which made it acceptable.

These accomplishments reflect the progressive spirit of the times: negotiation and pragmatic compromise between the two political parties, keep government responsive, reform it to meet real problems, use government to keep New York in the forefront of the nation on social and economic reforms. Looking back over New York State's long history, legislative accomplishments and unethical behavior sometimes seem to flourish almost side by side.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is the author of the book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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Charting the Path for Immigrant Advocacy, Together


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(photo: Make the Road NY)


Serious moments call for serious discussion, and action. And so it is with immigration politics in our country today.

Three years after President Obama's deferred action for DREAMers, two years after the Senate's passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and one year after the President's announcement of deferred action for parents of US citizen children and others, the movement for immigrant justice has clearly won tremendous victories.

At the same time, we continue to confront intransigence in Congress, roadblocks to immigration relief, and now a Republican presidential primary that has fueled a host of cynical anti-immigrant rhetoric.

This moment clearly calls for action—as immigrant groups around the country continue to mobilize against anti-immigrant forces and advocate for sensible federal, state, and local immigration policies—but it also warrants reflection.

And that's why, this year, New Yorkers should be extremely excited that we're hosting the National Immigrant Integration Conference (NIIC, niic2015.org), the country's largest annual conference dedicated to discussions about how to enrich our democracy by welcoming and integrating immigrants into the fabric of our nation.

To be held at the Brooklyn Marriott from December 13-15, the NIIC will bring together immigrant leaders and advocates from across the country to discuss issues like the implementation of deferred action, how to ensure workplace justice and workforce development for immigrant workers, and where our immigrant rights struggles fit into the landscape of other social movements.

And there's simply no better place to have these discussions than New York. With roughly 3 million immigrants representing nearly 40 percent of the population, 45 percent of the workforce, and 49 percent of small business owners, immigrants are an essential part of our city's dynamic economy and culture.

And, in recent years, New York City has been at the forefront of path-breaking immigrant integration policy victories, including guaranteeing language access in the provision of government services, removing immigration enforcement from Rikers Island, crafting a universal public defender program for immigrants facing deportation, and creating a municipal identification program that is open to people regardless of immigration status.

These examples offer important lessons for other parts of our nation, just as New York can continue to learn from developments throughout the country. And that's why immigrant New Yorkers and those working with our communities should be sure to join us for the NIIC, which will be co-hosted by the National Partnership for New Americans and the New York Immigration Coalition, along with Make the Road New York and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

As we move into 2016, when immigration will continue to be at the forefront of our national discussion, it's vital that our communities come together to chart our course forward. But, to do that most effectively, we need everyone in the same room together.

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Javier H. Valdés is the Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community, and a member of the Fairness Coalition of Queens. On Twitter: @maketheroadny.

For more information and to register for NIIC, go to www.niic2015.org

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Mayor's Needed Computer Science Plan Holds Great Promise


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De Blasio giving his education speech (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


 

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday that the city will invest $81 million to ensure all New York City students have access to computer science classes, he took a major step towards preparing those students for the high-tech world of work they will eventually enter.

It is a long-needed commitment – enhanced by philanthropic support – to bring quality STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) coursework to every neighborhood and every student in the city. The mayor is right to be critical of our current education system where only five percent of public school students now get access to computer science. As the mayor said, "too many students are learning to type instead of learning to code."

At Brooklyn Tech High School, the commitment to creating the future leadership of computer science and programming was on display this month when four Brooklyn Tech students won one of the top prizes in the recent PennApps hackathon in Philadelphia. The students finished third in the world's largest such annual competition, which this year drew more than 2,000 participants on teams from 147 colleges and graduate schools from 11 countries and 24 states.

The success of the four Tech students – senior Mary Karroge and juniors Ben Spiegel, August Trollback and Kevin Zhang – underscores the commitment Brooklyn Tech has made to computer science. The students won for developing a coding system called SemQuery, which uses structure and semantics instead of conventional textual searches that enhances flexibility by enabling users to construct more efficient, accurate, and language agnostic queries than the current textual or regex-based searches.

If you ask me to explain in detail what the students presented, I would be stuck going beyond the buzzwords. I was a chemical engineering major at Tech, but that was in the 1960s, a time when we still used slide rules and carbon paper, and sometimes even counted on our fingers.

But their recent win at a worldwide college level hackathon shows how important and relevant Brooklyn Tech remains today to advancing the education of our city's students coming from working class, immigrant, and poor families. Most of Tech's students qualify for free or subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

As proud as we are of our Tech students – who benefit from the most rigorous and challenging STEM-based curriculum in the city and beyond – we know that there are talented students across the city in every neighborhood that will benefit from the program announced by Mayor de Blasio.

Many other elements in the program the mayor announced show that commitment, which is consistent with his earlier expansion of universal pre-kindergarten programs to make New York City kids the best prepared for the future. Insisting that every child be offered algebra – the precursor of all advanced mathematical, technical and scientific education – by the ninth grade is essential as well.

The city must go further, to insist that every district and neighborhood in the city include the kind of gifted-and-talented programs in elementary schools that allow students from every ethnic and racial background, and from every economic background, to succeed on the Specialized High School Admissions Test used for entrance to the city's eight most competitive high schools and to succeed in those schools' demanding curriculum.

But it is still the case that your chances of educational success are too closely correlated with the neighborhood you grow up in, an utterly unacceptable circumstance that hobbles chances to attack the persistent social and economic inequality the mayor has committed his administration to attacking.

(I would be remiss if I did not point out, though, that the city once again has provided only 87 percent of the funding Brooklyn Tech is entitled to under allocation formulas, continuing to shortchange talented working class students from all over the city who deserve the full support to which they are entitled.)

Still, the commitments announced by the mayor to ensure that all students get the opportunity to succeed in a quality STEM-based curriculum is a critical step in closing the digital divide. We all benefit if it succeeds.

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Larry Cary is the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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The LaGuardia VaporTrain?


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Cuomo & Biden announce LAG plan (image: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


In Silicon Valley, the technology industry regularly releases new hardware and software to eager customers. Tech companies are also known for announcing vaporware; products that receive a great deal of favorable publicity but are never actually manufactured or officially canceled. In New York, we've been hearing praise for something along those lines, a project that we refer to as the LaGuardia VaporTrain.

Since Vice President Joe Biden's remarks last year that LaGuardia Airport is reminiscent of "a third-world country," there has been a great deal of coverage of its proposed overhaul. In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that a new $450 million Air-Train would connect LaGuardia with both the 7-train subway line and the Long Island Rail Road in Willets Point next to Citi Field.

This summer, Biden and Cuomo said that as part of a $4 billion overhaul, LaGuardia will essentially be torn down and rebuilt. A new central terminal will be constructed and two miles of new taxiways will lead to shorter and fewer gate delays. The governor said "best of all, it's not a plan, it's not a sketch, it's not a dream, it's not a vision...it's actually happening."

The media has been reporting that the metropolitan area's third busiest airport is finally going to get what Newark and JFK already have: a connection to the region's rail system. But, reporters haven't been reading the fine print.

When the governor and vice president announced the $4 billion project for the new and improved LaGuardia, it did not include any funding for the AirTrain. Instead, the state's documents indicate that the AirTrain will be designed to incorporate a future AirTrain terminal. That's a little bit of wishful thinking, like saying that the garage in your new home will be designed to accommodate a Ferrari.

State officials have not released any AirTrain details that would allow us to determine whether the proposal is a good or a bad idea. However, there are some good reasons to be skeptical about it.

The Project Will Be Expensive and Offer Limited Benefits
Considering the costs of other recent transportation projects in the region, a LaGuardia AirTrain will certainly cost more than $450 million. The project will include two airport stations and an elevated rail line to connect them. The Port Authority will need to install tracks, signals, and systems for power and communications. It will also need to purchase AirTrain vehicles and then construct a maintenance facility at or near the airport to maintain them. Although MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast doesn't like to second guess the governor in public, he did tell state legislators that the project would probably cost more than the governor's estimate.

The benefits of the project are questionable. For most travelers, taking the AirTrain will not be faster than the buses, shuttles, and taxis that currently serve LaGuardia. Travelers heading to Manhattan on the 7 train will have to first stop in Queens at 111 Street, 103 Street, Junction Boulevard, 90 Street, 82 Street, 74 Street, 69 Street, 61 Street, 52 Street, 46 Street, 40 Street, 33 Street, Queensboro Plaza, Court Square, Hunters Point, and Vernon Boulevard.

The express train on the 7 line, which runs during non-peak periods, isn't much faster. It stops at six stops before reaching Manhattan. Another weakness with the project is that once air travelers do reach Manhattan, many of them will have to transfer for another train at Grand Central or Times Square to reach their final destinations.

While a taxi ride from LaGuardia to midtown Manhattan typically takes 20 to 35 minutes, a train will take much longer. Just the portion of the trip on the 7 line will take 25 to 30 minutes. It is possible, though, that during especially bad traffic, people with final destinations in Times Square or the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center would find the AirTrain to be faster.

Although the 7 travels through some wonderful neighborhoods, most air travelers are not likely to find the trip very pleasant. The 7 is one of the nation's most crowded subway lines and when travelers do get off the subway in Manhattan, they will have to navigate stations with multiple levels that were not designed for people carrying luggage.

The other option for LaGuardia's AirTrain passengers will be the Long Island Rail Road at Willets Point. But, that may not offer a faster trip than the subway. Although the railroad trip is less than 20 minutes to Penn Station, service on the LIRR branch that serves Willets Points runs only every half-hour during off-peak periods. That is much less frequent than the service the railroad provides for JFK AirTrain customers at Jamaica Station, a location where multiple LIRR lines meet.

When travelers choose whether or not they will use the AirTrain (if it is actually built), they will consider travel costs as well as time and comfort. Assuming that the fares are similar to those for other airport customers in the New York area, the LaGuardia AirTrain connection using the railroad will cost between $11 and $13.25 in today's dollars. That is similar to the $13 cost of a shuttle bus, but more than the $2.75 it now costs travelers who access the airport via a subway and an MTA bus.

If the AirTrain does not offer a savings in time, comfort or cost, it is unlikely to attract a large number of airport customers. LaGuardia's proximity to Manhattan -- it is only 4 miles away -- tends to attract business travelers who will prefer paying for a $31 taxi ride that gets them to their destinations faster and less frazzled.

Someone Has to Pay for It
The money to build and operate a new AirTrain has to come from somewhere. The transportation agencies do not have enough resources to pay for the projects already in their pipelines, let alone a new one. That means they have two choices. Either postpone another project or find additional revenues such as by raising tolls, airline fees, or increasing the subway and PATH fares.

The Port Authority could postpone its fledgling plans to fix another critical entry to the city – the 42 Street Bus Terminal – which serves about three times as many daily passengers as LaGuardia. Elected officials will need to consider which is a higher priority: providing a new rail service that would be used by several thousand daily air travelers or improving the bus terminal which is used by over 230,000 weekday passengers.

Setbacks for Previous Plans
Cuomo's plan for an AirTrain is not the first plan for a rail connection to LaGuardia and may not be the last. In 1994, the director of the Port Authority airport access program said about a rail connection to LaGuardia, "The AirTrain is going to get built." He explained "No one thinks you can build anything like this in New York anymore. But they're wrong."

In 1994, the AirTrain was planned to extend from LaGuardia to the Queensboro Bridge where it would cross the East River on the 59 Street Bridge. That idea died because former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was suspicious of any Port Authority idea and because he didn't think it made sense to take a lane away from cars and trucks on the bridge.

Instead, Giuliani preferred extending the subway line (what is now the N train) to LaGuardia Airport. He wanted travelers to be able to take a train directly from the airport to Midtown and Lower Manhattan destinations without having to transfer trains. Transportation planners refer to this as a "one-seat ride."

But Giuliani's idea died because residents in Astoria, where the subway line currently terminates, came out in force against it. The speaker of the New York City Council at the time, Peter Vallone Sr., just so happened to come from that neighborhood.

Before the governor and the transportation agencies make any decisions about LaGuardia, we hope they provide the public with detailed cost estimates, anticipated ridership numbers, expected travel times, and a financial plan. Right now, we can't tell you whether or not it makes sense for the Port Authority and the MTA to build it, but we can tell you that we're hoping to learn more - much more - about it.

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by Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom

Plotch is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Masters in Public Administration program at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City. He is the former director of World Trade Center Redevelopment and Special Projects for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the former manager of planning for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is the author of Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject.

Bloom is associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology where he is also Chair of Urban Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies. He has written many books including The Metropolitan Airport: JFK International and Modern New York and the forthcoming edited collection from Princeton University Press, Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

A Fall Agenda for the City Council Veterans Committee


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CM Ulrich presents veteran Robinson Arana with a proclamation (photo: @eric_ulrich) 


 

A year ago I wrote a column on issues the New York City Council Veterans Committee should consider holding hearings to address. It was an ambitious agenda, and many in the veterans community were still in a honeymoon phase with the newly structured committee and weren’t sure what to fully expect.

However, under the leadership of the chair, Council Member Eric Ulrich, the committee continued its serious and straightforward approach toward issues of importance to the city’s military veterans. This resulted in not only renewed optimism and increased participation from the community, it led to a number of bills signed into law and saw a city budget for the new 2016 fiscal year that contains an additional $2.9 million toward veteran services.

As we rapidly approach the Council committee’s first fall hearing this week, it’s time again to set a fall agenda. Suggestions, in no particular order:

Veterans Legal Task Force: With the creation of Veterans Courts across the country over the past decade, one of the major problems in the city has been the disparity of how veterans are treated in the criminal justice system depending on what borough they live in or where they happen to be arrested.  This is a major issue, especially in Manhattan – the only borough that currently doesn’t have a Veterans Court.

Last February, the Veterans Committee, along with the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, held an oversight hearing on Veterans Treatment Courts. As a result, Council Members Ulrich and Rory Lancman proposed legislation calling for the creation of a Veterans Legal Task Force to study veterans’ access to legal services and resources within the city’s criminal justice system. That bill (Intro. 793) is scheduled to be the focus of the committee’s first hearing on Friday and is an excellent topic to start the new legislative session.

Mental Health: In May and June the committee held hearings that touched upon mental health issues.  In both instances, Commissioner Loree Sutton, head of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, highlighted MOVA’s partnership with New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, who over the past several months has been meeting with city service providers, non-profit organizations, and advocates in preparation to unveil her “mental health roadmap” sometime this fall.  

As part of those meetings, the First Lady visited local VA hospitals, met with veteran advocates in the arts space, and sat down with the wives of senior military officials during Fleet Week. The administration has not been forthcoming on what the roadmap may look like for veterans and the community awaits its release this fall. When the report is unveiled, the Council committee should consider holding a hearing with city agencies, non-profits, veteran service organizations, and mental health advocates to discuss how feasible the plan is and if there are any areas for veterans that can be improved upon.

[Related: McCray Set to Unveil 'Mental Health Roadmap,' Signature De Blasio Plan]

Veteran Homelessness: During his January State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio promised to end veteran homelessness in New York City by the end of the year. This was an ambitious goal, but as of July the City appeared to be on track to reach it.

Unfortunately, a recent New York Daily News report states that it is now unlikely veteran homelessness in the city will be ended this year - but it should be acknowledged that huge gains have been made toward reaching “functional zero.” In 2013, there were 3,000 veterans in shelters and over 300 on the streets. Today, there are roughly 950 veterans in shelters and fewer than 20 on the streets. That is a precipitous drop by any measure.

The committee has not had a hearing on homeless veterans since November of 2011 and this would be an opportune time to hear from the administration regarding what steps it’s taking to get to functional zero; how it's working with the VA; and to solicit thoughts and ideas from non-profits, advocates, and the public.

Veteran Vendors: It’s been thirty-four years since the city capped the number of street-vending permits, creating a black market that allows permit holders, some whom don’t even reside in the city, to renew them every two years at regulated prices and then rent them out for much higher prices to vendors who then masquerade as independent contractors.

Recently, the City reduced the amounts on some fines, however, disputes between street vendors, BIDs, and brick-and-mortar businesses has made vending inefficient and sometimes dangerous. After years of complaining from all sides, Crain's New York Business reported that there is a move in the City Council to create legislation that will address these issues.

When this legislation is finally introduced (presumably this fall), military veterans who are vendors will also need to have their voices heard regarding how the legislation will affect them. Therefore, the committee should consider holding a joint hearing with the Consumer Affairs Committee to solicit input and feedback from veterans on this legislation.

Intro. 314: Last September Council Member Ulrich held a hearing on Intro. 314 - a bill that would change the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) into a separate department, outside of the mayor’s office but still under the mayor’s purview. This bill would expand the office's capabilities while also making it easier for Council members to obtain funding for local veteran providers in the boroughs directly through MOVA, instead of through other city agencies that are unfamiliar with these groups.

Currently, the legislation has enough votes to make it out of committee and then, in all likelihood, the full Council. However, there must first be compromise between the de Blasio administration and the Council as this bill would require many changes regarding oversight, budgeting, mission, and even place in the City Charter. Nevertheless, this is an important piece of legislation for the veterans community and a follow-up hearing and vote to finally move it out of committee should be held.

Lastly, the committee should consider follow-up hearings with the city Department of Small Business Services on its report recommendations and progress on a pilot program regarding city contracts for veteran-owned businesses; as well as a hearing on veterans and legal issues such as Family and Housing Courts.

Like last year, I am recommending a fairly hefty agenda and it won’t all happen this month. However, if Council Member Ulrich and committee members continue to approach veterans issues with the due diligence they’ve shown over the past year; the coming months will be as successful as the past year. I look forward to following and participating in the committee’s work.

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Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veteran’s advocate in New York City for two decades. He is a member of the City’s Veterans Advisory Board and the founder of NY MetroVets.

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In New York, Workers Have Earned a Better Life


workers rally outside walmart


Labor Day was created to pay tribute to America's hard-working men and women, but for many working and middle class families in New York City and elsewhere, taking time off during the holiday is not an option. For too many Americans, Labor Day is just another work day as they face their realities and see their challenges only grow.

Across our state, countless hard-working New Yorkers, who help to feed, serve, clothe, and build this country still struggle like never before in low-paying full- or part-time jobs. Nationally, wages have not kept up with inflation. In New York the minimum wage is just $8.75 an hour.

Erratic work schedules are becoming the norm, especially for workers in the service sector, like those at Walmart and McDonald's. This kind of scheduling makes it all but impossible for workers to control their lives, let alone go to school or take care of a child or a loved one.

Even worse, as Bloomberg News just reported, irresponsible companies like Walmart promise to raise wages, and then turn around and cut hours—so workers actually earn less. And, to add insult to injury, trade deals supported by Democrats and Republicans offer false promises of better jobs, but we continue to see good New York jobs shipped overseas.

As a result, income inequality has risen to levels not seen since the 1920s and the divide between the rich and poor continues to grow. According to the new book "$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America," the number of U.S. residents struggling in poverty and trying to get by on only $2.00 a day has more than doubled since 1996.
This Labor Day, every New Yorker must ask themselves: how long can this nation endure when so few have so much, and so many have so little?

For the sake of all of our families, this must change. And that change must begin now.

From Montauk, Long Island to Buffalo, our strong union family is more determined than ever to fight for a better life for 75,000 all hard-working UFCW members. Our message to every worker is a simple one: you've earned a better life.

Every day, not just on Labor Day, unions work hard to provide the better wages, benefits, and protections that working men and women truly need. The results and benefits of joining a union are quite clear. On average, nationally speaking, union workers earn 27 percent more than non-union workers, and are more likely to have paid sick leave and a pension plan.

More importantly, it is clearer every day that our nation's broken political system is unlikely to address income inequality, and poor wages and benefits will not be addressed by irresponsible companies more interested in PR stunts.

Real change will come from hard-working people joining together to fight for it.

That's what Labor Day must be about.

Labor Day should be a day where hard-working people join together to demand a better life. It must be a day where workers, whether working at Wegmans or Walmart, say enough is enough and call for better wages, better benefits, and a better life they deserve.

But above all, Labor Day must also be when New Yorkers realize that there is no corporate hero coming to the rescue. Instead, hard-working men and women must seize the opportunity to define their own destiny.

Doing so begins with every worker knowing that they have power, with our help, to negotiate a better life for themselves and their family. When all is said and done, no one in New York should have to fight for a better life alone.

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Ed Lynch is the Special Assistant to the Region 1 Director, UFCW International Union in New York City.

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In Defense of Plazas, from Times Square to Brownsville


Diversity Plaza

Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens (@NPPNYC)


Police Commissioner Bratton's suggestion to remove the Times Square plazas in order to rid them of desnudas is not just about the future of one of the world's best public spaces. This regressive response could undermine a policy that has transformed New York's public realm.

Pedestrian plazas are an inexpensive, effective way to advance Mayor de Blasio's agenda for a more equitable city, addressing the essential tenets of his admirable OneNYC Plan. They improve public safety, promote health and wellness, cultivate arts and culture, create new open space (30 acres so far), and generate economic activity. Miles away from the crowds on 42nd Street, dozens of New York City neighborhoods have embraced their plazas and the civic benefits they deliver.

For every aggressive Elmo at Times Square there are a dozen children playing hide-and-seek among plaza planters in Corona; yoga classes in Brownsville; families reading together in Ozone Park; thousands of immigrants celebrating holidays in Jackson Heights; and the regulars playing chess in Clinton Hill.

More than 70 neighborhood plazas give people much-needed places to relax, meet with friends, eat lunch, or simply find a seat. Nearly half of those plazas are located in the city's densest neighborhoods, where parks and spaces for community events are scarce.

These plazas, including those at Times Square, are inherently different from both the pedestrian malls of the 1970s and the "privately owned public spaces" made possible by a 1961 zoning amendment and which proliferated in Manhattan in the 1980s and '90s.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) Plaza Program is consciously designed to address the challenges posed by those earlier models, by giving local organizations management responsibility. These new plazas reclaim streets for and with community input. Local non-profits take on the responsibility of managing the plazas, from programming to keep the space active to full-on maintenance. This gives them a decidedly community character, reflected in each plaza's daily rhythms and formal events.

New York's neighborhood plazas are the 21st century expression of Jane Jacobs' "sidewalk ballet," now playing out in streets reclaimed by citizen activists.

It is telling to remember that in 2009 when the DOT took the radical step of closing swaths of Broadway to vehicles, there was much hue and cry about the ruin of Times Square. That spring the streets were painted closed, and as a stop-gap measure while furniture was on order, the Times Square Alliance bought 600 lawn chairs and put them on the street. Two things happened right away: droves of people sat in them; and the lawn chair became a new symbol of Times Squares - loved and hated in equal measure.

There was pent-up demand for this kind of space, and the public conversation went straight to what kind of chairs the plaza should have, drowning out the debate over whether or not the street should be closed to cars. Now, seven years later, this backlash against the mayor's considered solution to the desnudas is clear: New Yorkers and tourists alike love their plazas.

Neighborhood plazas, especially those in high-need areas, are facing their own quality of life challenges, as well as significant financial stress in managing their upkeep. The Times Square controversy has ignited a long-overdue public conversation about our collective vision for public space and the equity issues it raises.

These problems are solvable. They simply require some new thinking about how to manage a new asset. We owe it to every neighborhood, and to the millions of New Yorkers enjoying this network of urban commons, to address these issues without undermining one of the city's most progressive amenities.

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by City Council Members Daniel Dromm and Brad Lander, and Laura Hansen, Managing Director, Neighborhood Plaza Partnership/The Horticultural Society of New York

Dromm is the New York City Council Member, District 25, home to Diversity Plaza
Lander is the New York City Council Member, District 39, home to Kensington Plaza
Laura Hansen is Managing Director, Neighborhood Plaza Partnership/The Horticultural Society of New York

Hudson River Rail Tunnel Discussions Recall Checkered History of Federal Aid to New York


Cuomo Biden New York

Gov. Cuomo & VP Biden (photo via the governor's office on flickr)


New Jersey officials met with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx on August 18 to discuss strategies for building new rail tunnels under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York. The existing tunnels, over a century old, were damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and recently experienced electrical failures and train delays.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been pressuring the federal government to pay what he refers to as "the lion's share" of the costs for the new tunnels. It isn't clear whether Cuomo wasn't invited or chose not to attend the August 18 meeting. He had told reporters a week earlier that any meeting would be premature until Washington committed to a sizeable investment in the project. "There's no reason to meet now," he said snappishly. "They need to put their money where their mouth is."

After the meeting, the heated rhetoric cooled a bit. In a statement on August 19, Cuomo hailed the meeting as a step in the right direction but reiterated "I strongly support the construction of the new Hudson River tunnel – and a federal grant package that makes the project viable is an essential first step." A spokesman for Secretary Foxx responded that "As the governor knows, the federal government doesn't just issue grants without a fully defined scope, project, and applicant and at the present time there isn't a fully defined project or applicant we can even grant money to."

We can hope that the tone of the dialogue will continue to get more positive and New York, New Jersey, and federal officials will get down to concrete negotiations. The need is critical and, as Cuomo has pointed out, there have been many inconclusive meetings over the years to address it.
But looking back through history, federal aid to big New York projects has been an inconsistent story.

In the early 19th century, New York sought federal aid to build a cross-state canal. A delegation of New Yorkers lobbying Congress in 1812 found little support and noted resentment that "the envied state of New York" was "a supplicant for the favor and a dependent on the generosity of" the federal government rather than using its own resources. Five years later, partial funding was included in a bill that passed Congress, only to be vetoed by President James Madison. He found no authorization in the Constitution for federal support for "watercourses," the president said. Canal advocate DeWitt Clinton, the Mayor of New York City, described the veto message as "a miserable sophism...reprehensible conduct" motivated by sectional rivalry and "jealousy of the growing prosperity of New York."

A resentful New York stopped asking for U.S. assistance. Clinton was elected governor in 1817, and the state built the Erie Canal with its own resources.

In 1975, New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy due to overspending, financial mismanagement, and banks' unwillingness to provide additional loans to the city. Gov. Hugh Carey established the Municipal Assistance Corporation and an Emergency Financial Control Board to oversee the city's budget and provide investors with assurance that funds lent to the city would be repaid.

To obtain additional needed funding, the city sought a federal guarantee of its securities. President Gerald Ford, who was critical of the city's profligate spending, refused to consider what he termed a "bailout." That led to a now-famous New York Daily News headline on Oct. 30, 1975: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."

Ford did not actually utter those words but he believed his stern position would help force New York City to mend its fiscal management. An indignant Carey complained in a speech a few days later that "it isn't fair when the President of the United States hauls off and kicks the people of the City of New York in the groin." But the next year, as state oversight and city budget reductions began to improve the situation, Ford declared that New York had "bailed out itself." He agreed to federal loans to the city.

Carey learned from the process. In 1979, when the state was desperately seeking resources to aid in the cleanup of the Love Canal area in Niagara Falls, the governor persuaded president Carter to declare the area a federal disaster area, which freed up modest federal resources. The next year, a confidential study of the toxic site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency was leaked to the New York Times. It reported alarming evidence of cancer and chromosome damage. Hooker Chemical, which had dumped toxic chemicals in the abandoned canal, covered them over, and then sold the land to unsuspecting purchasers, was the main culprit. At about the same time as the EPA study, though, reports surfaced that the Army had dumped chemicals at the site during World War II. The Defense department denied it, but it provided just a whiff of federal culpability.

Carey saw an opportunity: use the report to renew pressure on the federal government to pay for relocation of residents who were panicked by the EPA report's alarmist message. "Permanent relocation away from the contaminated area is the only reasonable way to deal with the trauma being experienced by area residents," he told the press. It was a neat political pivot, directing attention away from the state's response to the crisis and toward President Jimmy Carter.
Politics played in New York's favor. Carter, running for reelection in 1980 and trailing challenger Ronald Reagan, needed the Empire State's votes. In October of that year, he flew to Niagara Falls to sign legislation authorizing massive federal aid to supplement state resources to relocate residents and contain the toxic chemicals. (Carter carried Niagara County in the election but lost New York and the election to Reagan.)

The projected price tag for the Hudson tunnel work -- $14 billion -- is itself evidence of the need for federal help. New York officials are on something of a roll, having secured federal aid for the cleanup after Sandy and assistance in the construction of the new Tappan Zee bridge. This time, New Jersey will be an ally and a partner, and it can be argued that the tunnels are critical corridors in the nation's transportation infrastructure.

History suggests, however, that politics and perception are always factors when it comes to federal assistance to New York. Arguably the nation's historically most significant state, and given to assertive self-confidence, New York is often regarded by outsiders as being able to take care of itself. Usually, it can. But other times -- and the Hudson River tunnel is a good example -- we can legitimately ask for federal assistance.

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is the author of the book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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Put Queens Residents First in Willets Point Development


FC Queens discussion

FC Queens community meeting


For decades, the Willets Point area in Queens has loomed large in the daydreams of real estate developers and city planners. Redevelopment plans for this neighborhood of mechanic shops and other small businesses have been floated for decades, but none have come to fruition.

Now that the city has all but abandoned a fatally flawed Bloomberg-era plan for the area, a new plan for cleaning up Willets Point is still needed, but it must better address the needs of the low-income and working-class Queens community in which it's located. There are several specific ways in which this goal must be realized.

Several years ago, the Bloomberg administration made a deal with Related Companies and Sterling Equities to redevelop Willets Point to yield the developers enormous profits, but with little commitment to build affordable housing. But a court ruled against the development, because it would have unlawfully allowed a shopping mall to be built upon part of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Mayor de Blasio's administration recently decided not to join the developer in appealing a judge's decision to ban the mall's construction without real concessions from the developer toward meeting the community's needs through affordable housing development.

As the Fairness Coalition of Queens (FC Queens) has been arguing for years now, the last thing that Queens needs is another mall. What the Queens residents in the area do need, and deserve, is the following.

First and foremost, Willets Point needs to be cleaned up. The site has been highly contaminated for more than a century. Now that the city has spent millions displacing dozens of vibrant small businesses from the area, it's at least time to remove the toxins from our communities' backyard.

Second, as affordable housing becomes ever more scarce in Queens, it's vital that Willets Point be used to build truly affordable housing—with a substantial proportion of units that are affordable to the many local residents earning 20 to 30 percent of Area Median Income.

Third, with jobs so hard to come by for local Queens residents, the Willets Point development must ensure that local residents are granted hiring preferences, with strong training and apprenticeship programs to provide career pathways for local workers.

Fourth, whoever ultimately develops Willets Point should be required to contribute significantly to the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy and be partners in improving the park to better serve Queens residents.

Finally, the community must be deeply involved throughout the planning process. FC Queens, an umbrella group of dozens of faith, immigrant, housing, and youth-serving agencies, has been at the forefront of preserving open space and expanding affordable housing. The administration and its chosen developers need to engage our stakeholders in this process to ensure that the next plan for Willets Point is one that actually works for Queens residents.

We all want a bright, new future for Willets Point, but it must be a plan that puts the needs of Queens residents first. Otherwise, the history of failed development plans for this prized Queens site will continue to repeat itself.

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Javier H. Valdés is the Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community, and a member of the Fairness Coalition of Queens. On Twitter: @maketheroadny.

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