Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ten Key Takeaways from Governor Cuomo's Executive Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New York Must Strengthen Sex Trafficking Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shelly Silver’s Arrest: 5 Immediate Impacts on Albany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spike in Concerns About Race Provides Opportunity

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Mayor de Blasio speaking at BAM on MLK Day (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

It's hard to imagine a single Martin Luther King Day event in New York City this week which did not include urgent expressions of concern about race in our hometown—both from the podium and in the crowd.

After a torrid summer and fall of protests following the tragic deaths of two unarmed black men – Eric Garner and Akai Gurley – at the hands of police, we are now suffering through a winter of cold war between police unions and City Hall after the assassination of two officers, appallingly gunned down amid the strife.

Recent polling reflects the mood of a troubled public stuck in the middle of all this, supporting police but clearly hearing protesters. New Yorkers are also fearing what the ongoing conflict means for race relations. Just two years ago, more than half of New Yorkers thought race relations were excellent or good. Now less than a third do, according to a Siena College survey released Monday.

Those numbers have undoubtedly dropped because of the disturbing string of events having to do with the police, including the standoff between the police unions and Mayor de Blasio—a fight which is rooted in a basic disagreement over how to even talk about race.

But New Yorkers' race-related anxieties were already piquing during the 2013 mayoral campaign. Though it's reasonable to argue the recent policing issues rapidly escalated concern, our mayor's victory a little more than a year ago was due in no small part to his ardent criticism of the overuse of Stop-and-Frisk in communities of color.

And New Yorkers are not just concerned about race in policing, but also about race's role in general inequality. For instance, more than half of New Yorkers now think the entire criminal justice system treats people of color unfairly. Politicians from every corner of the city talk about a yawning income gap between the haves (mostly white) and the have-nots (mostly black and Latino).

To many in New York, it's as if racial inequality 2.0 is just now being uncovered. Actually though, it's a deep-seated problem that never went away, and has seen little improvement in decades. Yet a large group of people is suddenly realizing how serious a problem it is. Those people, by the way, are mainly white.

When more than half of all New Yorkers thought race relations were excellent or good two years ago, black New Yorkers disagreed. More than half of them thought they were only fair or poor. Since then, there has been a huge increase in the percentage of white New Yorkers who are concerned - just 8 percent thought race relations were poor in 2013. Now that number has tripled to more than a quarter who think so.

It's easy to be pessimistic about progress from here. But, believe it or not, this level of distress is exactly what had to happen for things to get better.

With attention focused on the different experiences whites and blacks have in this city and state, there is an historic opportunity to make real, lasting changes. NYPD Commissioner Bratton, Governor Cuomo and other lawmakers have already put forward policies which could reduce inequality in our criminal justice system. But next we have to recognize other systemic causes of racial inequality, and seek to fix them as well.

Schools that are predominantly black are far more likely to be underfunded and underperforming. Unemployment remains devastatingly high in neighborhoods with large black populations. Even basic things like renovated subway stops and cleaner sidewalks are harder to find in majority-minority areas.

This month, the governor and mayor are setting their agendas for 2015, and our State Legislature and City Council will soon go about the annual task of doling out government funds through their budget processes. This is when we prioritize what's most important to us. This is when we have a chance to reduce the inequality that has created a far less perfect city than we are capable of and deserve.

This may be the most pivotal Martin Luther King Week we New Yorkers have had in a very long time. The current controversy over policing is important and must lead to reform. But it is also necessary to admit there is a broader problem, be determined to fix it, and to act, not just worry. We must do it now, while so many New Yorkers are finally paying attention.

Evan Thies is the president of Brooklyn Strategies, a public affairs and strategic planning firm that offers political advice.

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Three Keys to Positive Criminal Justice Reform in New York

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Gov. Cuomo speaks to ABNY (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

It has been encouraging to hear Governor Andrew Cuomo call for a resolution of the unfortunate conflict that has broken out between Mayor de Blasio and the leaders of the NYPD unions. A number of our elected leaders are proposing responses to this affair and to the larger issue of the execrable state of police/community relations that has erupted across the nation over the past year catalyzed by the Ferguson and Staten Island deaths of young men of color at the hands of police officers.

Based on my experience as a lawyer and legal reform consultant, including several years as criminal justice advisor to the administration of Governor Mario Cuomo, I have three recommendations to make regarding criminal justice reform in the State of New York.

First, over the past two decades, a once vibrant movement toward community policing -- police service founded on true partnership with community stakeholders -- has been all but totally eclipsed by the kind of data-driven policing that Bill Bratton debuted in New York City in 1994. I am a witness to the fact that this style of numbers-driven policing was aggressively promoted throughout the nation and has been hugely influential. It has fundamentally changed the relationship between municipal police agencies and the public they serve and not for the better.

While many credit CompStat and other policing tactics that are descended from it for the historic reductions in crime nationwide, this style of policing has driven a wedge between police and communities of color. Crime may be going down, but public dissatisfaction has been skyrocketing. That is what protesters across the nation are saying. That is what New York City voters were saying when they elected Bill de Blasio last year. Their complaint is both legitimate and urgent. Whomever is tasked with the Cuomo Administration response to this phenomenon should be given a clear mandate to reignite the community policing movement.

Second, former Governor Mario Cuomo, may he rest in peace, signed into law Chapter 55 of the Laws of 1983, the Neighborhood Preservation Crime Prevention Act (NPCPA). This DCJS-administered program was intended to foster the creation of an infrastructure of community-based nonprofit organizations that could access new resources and collaborate with police and other municipal agencies to improve quality of life in neighborhoods that otherwise would slide into decay and criminality. This inspired piece of legislation would have empowered neighborhoods and their residents to have a major impact on the quality of life in their communities. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, NPCPA was never funded, staffed, implemented.

The kind of community-based infrastructure it would have created would have helped neighborhoods and police agencies work together in productive partnership. This law is still on the books. As the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo moves forward in developing its response to the police/community relations crisis, I would strongly suggest taking up this piece of Mario Cuomo's legacy and fulfilling its promise at last.

Third, for over half a century, the decision of the US Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright has guaranteed that poor persons who get swept up in the machinery of the criminal justice system should have effective legal representation. As all know, this promise has not been kept. Certainly, were we to address this decisively and dramatically, we would be leveling the playing field between the poor accused and the police and prosecutors who arrest them in their tens of thousands and force them into plea bargains that ruin their lives.

Any thoughtful person who contemplates the many decades over which this issue has been left on the backmost burner can only condemn the total lack of engagement by the Executive, the Legislature, and the Bar in doing what is so obviously the right thing. The shameful fact is that there has been no meaningful judicial reform in New York since the administration of Nelson A. Rockefeller and he accomplished what he did because he made it a top personal goal of his own. I ask Governor Cuomo to accept the challenge of Gideon right now when doing so would do the most good.

Terry O'Neill is Director of the Constantine Institute in Albany, an organization that promotes constitutional, legal and ethical standards in law enforcement and advises state and local governments on police issues. He is a lawyer and served as a criminal justice advisor to the administration of Governor Mario Cuomo from 1988 to 1994.

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Moving Forward with Support for Veteran-Owned Businesses

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photo via @USNavy

In July of 2013 when Bill de Blasio was running for Mayor, a briefing paper was created to help bridge the cultural divide and educate all mayoral candidates on what the next administration could do to create policies helpful to military veterans in New York City.

One of the recommendations was that the next administration take the lead regarding veteran-owned small businesses and "support the development of a Veterans Business Enterprise program (VEB) through executive fiat (as a pilot program) or by working with the City Council to create legislation for the program."

The thought at that time was that especially as veterans are returning from two major wars, New York City should lead the way in creating local procurement opportunities for veteran entrepreneurs, and that by the City taking the lead, the State would more than likely follow as it did when then-Mayor Dinkins set up the city's first Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE) programming over twenty years ago.

With the help of veteran business owners and advocates, who were talking to elected officials about the lack of procurement options with the City, the City Council passed Local Law 144 at the end of 2013, which required the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) to conduct a study to "analyze veteran owned business enterprises and opportunities for such business enterprises in city procurement." A lack of data on the subject and general lack of understanding of veterans' issues made this study necessary and reasonable.

In early 2014, the city partnered with PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct the study. After almost a year, the results were finally released last month in a report from the administration. One key question the study aimed to answer was whether the City should set goals for awarding contracts to veteran-owned businesses. Overall, the study concluded, "Given the limited pool of veteran owned companies able to do business with the City and the availability of other City certification programs like M/WBE and EBE, a goals program for veterans is not recommended at this time."

The recommendation against creating a procurement goal is disappointing as many veterans believed we had an administration which better understood our needs. At the time of the report's release, a Gotham Gazette article included some discussion of the problems with the data used.

However, the problems can be fixed. There appears to have been good intentions in putting the report together and there is a major bright spot in the list of seven recommendations for increasing outreach to veterans, better training veteran business owners (VBOs) on how to do business with the city, and creating a designation for VBOs who wish to be potential vendors with the City. These recommendations make for a very good start and where SBS and the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA) can now come together and proceed, beginning with this week's City Council hearing.

A short list of recommendations - gleaned from speaking with people far more knowledgable than myself on the subject at hand - to Commissioners Maria Torres-Springer of SBS and Loree Sutton of MOVA:

-Group dynamics: It appears that SBS is taking the lead on the public forums around the report and veteran-owned businesses. Anything related to contract procurement goals will go through SBS, it seems, which makes sense. But, MOVA must also be involved. It was clear at the first feedback session on the report that SBS is less than familiar with the veteran community, which is understandable, but shows the need for Commissioner Sutton and MOVA to be integrally involved. Commissioner Sutton has a better handle, of course, on the players in the community as well as the issues veterans face, which gives her the ability (by working with Commissioner Torres-Springer) to better alleviate concerns and avoid miscommunication.

-Open and honest communication: City Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the veterans committee, is holding a Wednesday hearing on the report. It is essential that the commissioners and agency representatives are forthcoming and forthright. One of the most frustrating things for veterans is when we hear city officials duck questions or give non-answers. If a mistake was made, admit it and explain how we are moving on. Discuss the report's recommendations and how this report should viewed as the beginning of a road map to get to an end goal. We want to hear concrete steps.

-Planning and outreach: Be clear and communicative about what events are happening and when. Make sure that as many veterans and veteran organizations as possible know about opportunities to give feedback or attend helpful events. But also be clear about what each event is about - whether it's an event about feedback on the new report or more general support sessions for VBOs (or whatever else), it is key that flyers and other messaging are clear.

-Policy: Eventually City Hall - really Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Sutton - will decide what the end game on contract procurement goals will be. Even though this report recommends against setting a goal, that does not mean it can't or won't happen. Once again, the administration should get input from stakeholders (which it is doing) and again consider following the election year briefing paper and conducting a pilot program, which should include getting VBOs certified and then collecting further data and evaluating to see if there should be a permanent contract set-aside for veteran businesses.

Yes, there is disappointment with the report, but still room for improvement and reason for hope. By working with the recommendations made, obtaining more input from stakeholders, and furthering communication between the agencies and with veterans, we can still make New York City a far better place for veterans to not only open and expand businesses, but do much more work with and for the City.

Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for almost two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.

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.

Why I am Visiting Israel

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BP Ruben Diaz Jr. at One World Trade Center (photo: @rubendiazjr)

The people of the United States have stood strong with the people of Israel from the day that country was founded in 1947. As the only democracy in the Middle East, and as our key ally in the fight against terrorism, Israel holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans. This is especially true in New York City, which has shared a unique and significant relationship with the Jewish people and the state of Israel for decades.

On Saturday, January 17, I will travel to Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, leading a delegation of our city's growing Latino population. This group, which includes business, civic and non-profit leaders, will spend a week discovering what Israel has to offer, learning about why Israel's continued strength is so important, and exploring the growing relationship between the people of the Promised Land and Latinos across the world.

This is of critical importance, given not only the continued vitality of the Jewish population at home, but the longstanding history of Jewish acceptance in countries like the Dominican Republic and growing Jewish population in places like Argentina, Brazil and Panama, as well. On this trip, I will lead a discussion about the future of Jewish/Latino relations, both here and abroad, and take the first steps toward cementing a lifetime bond between these two communities.

I have been to Israel before. I have seen, firsthand, the attacks the Israeli people face every single day. But the people of Israel persevere. Now, more than ever, their example deserves our praise and our support.

The horror of the attacks on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket—and the subsequent exodus of Jews from Paris—show us just how critical our support of Israel is right now. As Martin Niemöller wrote, reflecting on the Nazi atrocities of World War II, "First they came for the Jews..."

Following these acts of terror, the Paris Grand Synagogue closed for the first time on Shabbos since World War II. The meaning behind such imagery cannot be understated. Israel is one of our strongest allies. Israelis and all Jews must know that our Latino community, and in fact the American people, are on their side during these troublesome times. As we saw world leaders standing arm-in-arm in solidarity following these attacks, we too stand arm-in-arm with Israel and the world's Jewish population.

Does a borough president have an interest in promoting Israel? Of course. At one point more Jews lived in The Bronx than in Israel, and our Jewish community remains vibrant and strong. Across the entire city, Jews and Latinos are already working hand-in-hand on the issues that unite us, be it economic development, housing, education and more.

Israel has produced and continues to work on some of the most amazing technological and scientific advancements the world has ever seen. Israel is a partner in our security, and what keeps their country secure helps keep our borough and our city secure. Israel is worthy of not only our respect, but our support.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. next week, we must also remember his message that we are all God's children, including the people of Israel. "Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity," said Dr. King. "Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality."

Both the nation of Israel and Jews everywhere around the world are under perpetual attack. Their peace today, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, requires our commitment to their continued security. I will work to join the Latino and Jewish communities together in new bonds of strength, and I will help create new friendships during difficult times.

Israelis do not let terrorism and hate keep them down. Neither do Americans, and neither do I.

Ruben Diaz Jr. is Bronx Borough President. His office is on Twitter @rubendiazjr

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.

Pursuing ID in NYC

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City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito applied Thursday for her IDNYC (photo: William Alatriste)

I moved to New York in August 2013 from India to pursue a master's in journalism at NYU, which I earned just last month. I am on an F-1 visa and my only forms of identification were my Indian driver's license and my passport. The license is valid here, I was even allowed to drive in the State of New York, but there was some understandable confusion whenever I produced it as proof of my age. In India, like many other countries, we use the day-before-month format. I've often faced a confused bartender wondering how I could have been born in the 22nd month of the year.

While most places accept my license, with some explanation required, others outright refuse to acknowledge its authenticity. I've been told several times that people are unable to accept anything but a State-approved DMV ID. That or my passport, which I don't regularly carry around in my back pocket for obvious reasons.

Frustrated by being turned away too often, I made a trip to that much dreaded institution of urban existence, the DMV (though I did find the branch at Atlantic Center in Brooklyn quite efficient). I had to brave long lines and produce nearly six different proofs of identity, including health insurance, debit card, and utility bill, before the application was valid. Two weeks later I received a New York non-driver's ID in the mail.

So, I have plenty of valid photo identification for my time in New York, which I'm hoping will extend. But that didn't stop me from immediately wanting one of the new New York City municipal identification cards, for which open enrollment began this week. And I tried to get one, to no avail thus far.

To me, it's about the perks. Like many New Yorkers, I haven't been so good about taking advantage of the cultural mecca that is New York. I've never seen the animals at the Bronx Zoo or enjoyed a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for example. So, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in September that the city's new municipal ID program, IDNYC, would come with free one-year membership to 33 leading cultural institutions, I was sold.

On Monday, I watched the mayor's press conference officially launching the program, then spoke with City Hall sources and wrote a story about the budget for the IDNYC program and the details of the marketing campaign it will fund.

I didn't need to hear a radio ad or see a PSA in the back of a cab, though - I was already convinced to get my own IDNYC. So on Tuesday, day two of the rollout, I set out to get one.

Like many New Yorkers, my efforts to apply for the ID on Tuesday were met with disappointment. Sadly, at two separate Brooklyn locations I was unable to have my application materials processed. But, it wasn't that the program launch didn't work. It worked a little too well. On each of its first two days, IDNYC enrollment centers saw overwhelming demand from New Yorkers, forcing many centers to cut off their lines when they'd reached capacity for what they'd be able to process for the rest of the day. They simply couldn't handle the numbers.

I first went to Joralemon Street, where the Department of Finance's Brooklyn Business Center was hosting enrollment. It was only 2 p.m. and there were thirty-five or so people in line before me for the ID. Some had been waiting for hours. The standing racks holding application forms in numerous languages were half empty. All the forms in English were nearly gone. After I had waited a painful 90 minutes, the center announced it was at maximum capacity. In the time left (the center closes at 4:30 pm) they would only be able to process a certain small number of applications - not including mine. But, a helpful employee directed me to the Brooklyn Public Library, which would be open till 9 pm. Plenty of time to go get signed up, I thought.

I thought wrong.

At the Library, a police officer corralled the crowd to keep the entrance clear. At least a dozen people milled about, some in curious wonder and others in fuming anger because of the ID enrollment. A line snaked out from a nearby door with a large IDNYC logo above it.

Unfortunately, the line had closed long before I got there. By mid-afternoon, the amassed applicants had surpassed the center's ability to sign them up. The line of people, which had apparently stretched out the door as early as 6 a.m., was now at a manageable size. But it would be the last batch of the day. Stragglers were being told they could set up an appointment through 311, the city's helpline.

The mayor's team seemed prepared for this contingency. They confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that the City would switch to an appointment-based system - much to my relief since I'd already exhausted enough time - and extra volunteers would be brought on to assist with enrollment. Both 311 and an online portal would allow for appointments, it was said.

But, as I and others attempted to go that route, we were met with reminders of the initial launch by the federal government, where a good idea got bogged down by bad execution. This is on a much smaller scale and of far less importance, of course.

The website did get going and though there are long wait times through 311, appointments can now be made - but they are being given for weeks into the future, leaving me less enthused and less determined to get my IDNYC. I didn't book one...yet.

by Samar Khurshid

Learning to See Each Other

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Council Member Mark Levine, the author (photo: @MarkLevineNYC)

Mayors and police unions have clashed for generations in New York City, conflicts which have often erupted in the form of work slowdowns by the cops in the trenches. But the scale and intensity of the current job action by rank-and-file officers is unprecedented. We're seeing dramatic drops not just in low-level ticketing but in nearly every category of arrest--including armed robbery and drunk driving.

It will require unprecedented action to pull our city back from this perilous precipice.

The level of vitriol in the public dialogue reached red hot levels in New York City following a grand jury's decision not to indict in the Eric Garner case and the heinous assassination of Detectives Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. We can't heal the profound divisions in our city until we begin to heed the call, made by Commissioner Bill Bratton in his eulogy to Detective Ramos, to "learn to see each other."

That means reform activists must cease referring to police in dehumanizing terms. This includes demonizing all cops as racists or making the absurd accusation that the NYPD is equivalent to the KKK. It shouldn't take the murder of two police officers to remind New Yorkers of the difficult, stressful, and dangerous conditions that cops labor under day in and day out.

By the same token, critics of the reformers must stop saying that anyone calling for change in the NYPD is anti-police. Or that fighting against unequal treatment of people of color is slandering all cops. New Yorkers certainly have a right to expect that those charged with protecting us must not kill unarmed civilians, and to have a right to speak out when such tragedies occur.

The fact is that the vast majority of people on both sides of this divide want exactly the same thing. We want cops to be safe. We want crime to continue to go down. And we want everyone treated fairly regardless of their skin color. And yes--we want the police to be active and engaged, and we understand that proactive, community-centric policing requires more cops not fewer (which is why my colleagues and I in the City Council proposed the addition of 1,000 new officers last year).

All of which make the current enforcement slowdown perplexing and alarming. Policing, much like teaching, is a job requiring judgment. Even a 200,000 page manual would not be sufficient to stipulate how each aspect of the the work should be carried out. Policing works in New York City because nearly all cops care deeply about their mission of keeping the public safe and don't hesitate to go above and beyond their contractual obligation. Officers Andrew Dossi and Aliro Pellerano exemplify this spirit--having been shot last week in the Bronx responding to a robbery, even though they had just come off duty.

The current work slowdown runs counter to that heroic ethic. And it endangers millions of New Yorkers, robs the city of desperately needed funds, and undermines civilian control of the force.

It also diverts us from critical policy work aimed at making the NYPD the best it can be--reforms that will benefit not only the general public but cops as well. When we deploy body cameras it will enhance accountability on both sides of the shield. As we roll back the over-criminalization of marijuana possession it will free up critical police resources so they can be deployed to fight more serious crime. As we train cops on how to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations it will make everyone safer.

It is imperative that all of us--cops, activists, regular New Yorkers--start to truly see each other, and to understand that only by building on our common goals and aspirations can we live together as one city.

Mark Levine is the New York City Council Member for the 7th District, representing parts of the West Side of Upper Manhattan.

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.

Cell Phones Help Us Grow

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Mayor de Blasio announcing the cell phone policy shift (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

Those who favor a ban on cell phones in schools, including many educators, cite legitimate concerns: distraction, cheating, theft. Yet those who favor lifting the New York City ban, which Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced their plan to do on Wednesday, make an overwhelming point: parents and their children must be able to communicate.

This is not nearly the only reason it makes sense to lift the ban.

De Blasio, Fariña, and others (including many educators), also acknowledge that not only was the ban not really being enforced at many schools, but that cell phones can actually be helpful in the learning process. Forward-looking educators are excited today that many more students will soon have internet access, calculators, and cameras in their pockets. There are a whole host of ways that cell phones can be used positively in the classroom, including for language translation, vocabulary look-up, topic research, and taking photos (of science experiments, for example). Not to mention many more sophisticated learning apps.

Yet, other than the must of parent-child communication, I argue that the most important aspect of allowing students their cell phones gets at the larger purpose of school: growing up.

In six years teaching high school history in a school district that does not ban cell phones, I faced all sorts of related challenges, especially that of distraction. Keeping students from using their phones in class when they weren't supposed to be (which was almost all of the time) was a daily struggle. But, it certainly did not dominate every day or even most class periods - as with everything, students respond to consistent expectations, and consequences.

The distraction problem is not exclusive to children, of course. As the years went on and I found myself both more attached to my phone and more distracted by it, I faced the need to self-regulate. So I did, though it wasn't always easy. Especially on Fridays.

Walk into just about any school in this city or elsewhere, and you'll find teachers on their phones when they shouldn't be. It's 2015. This is life. Ask any student you know if they have a teacher that's on their cell phone more than others, they'll spit out a name almost as quickly as they'd text it to you. In my experience, students, like the rest of us, come to resent what they see as a double standard. In the best learning or working environments, everyone's in it together.

It will be essential that students, educators, and parents are all on the same page as the new policy takes hold. It was also my experience that many parents texted their children during the school day more often than absolutely necessary. It can be challenging as a teacher to respond in the middle of class to a student with phone in hand saying, "What, it's my mom."

As the mayor and the chancellor explained on Wednesday, each school will be responsible for creating its own cell phone policy. This decision is with an eye toward allowing schools to best meet the needs of their communities and including parental input in the policy-making process.

Above all else, school is about growing up, about learning, about becoming a young adult ready to be independent in the world. School should be an authentic place, not one where we institute rules of convenience. We have to help students struggle through the growing pains, including learning how to self-regulate - we do this all the time already.

We don't really focus quite enough on authentic experience and executive functioning. We're often too distracted by mundane exercises of a bygone era, in many ways mandated, sadly, by our education standards and infrastructure - even in the Common Core Era. Still, working with students on being responsible, focused, curious learners who happen to have cell phones in their pockets could easily be the norm. Two of the most important skills any of us can learn are assessing the resources at our disposal and choosing when best to use them.

Unfortunately, in the first phases of the new city paradigm, which allows for school-by-school policy-making, it's likely that many will choose to make students turn their phones in at the beginning of the day and pick them up at the end. So be it, progress is usually incremental.

And I can't blame some principals and teachers for wanting it that way, considering that they are under such pressure to begin with that any significant shift can feel like too much to handle (see again core, common).

Ideally, teachers would have plenty of time to work with students on using their phones appropriately and helpfully, but that flexibility simply doesn't exist in the vast majority of cases. Teachers are already tasked with too much material to cover in too short a time with too many students. So, in many cases, at first at least, cell phones in New York City schools will likely have a very basic existence and be the source of lots of "put it away"s and confiscations.

But, the shift is certainly a step in the right direction as we help our young people stay safe and grow up.

by Ben Max, executive editor, Gotham Gazette

From 2006-2012, Ben taught high school history in Malden, MA while and after earning a master's degree in teaching from Tufts University. Growing up, Ben went to New York City public schools in Queens.