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Progressive Challenger Launches City Council Campaign to Unseat Conservative Democrat in Queens


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Juan Ardila (photo: campaign website)


First-term City Council Member Bob Holden, a conservative Democrat from Queens known for controversial statements and criticism of the de Blasio administration, is facing a 2021 challenge from Juan Ardila, a first-generation immigrant and Maspeth native who says Holden is failing the 30th Council District.

Ardila, the son of a Honduran-Cuban mother and Colombian father, says he is running to fight for working class families in a district plagued by rising costs of living, lack of mass transit, limited employment opportunities, and overcrowded schools.

Holden is expected to run for reelection, aiming to continue representing a district that includes Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Woodhaven, and Woodside. Though he is a registered Democrat, he narrowly won the 2017 general election on the Republican line after losing the Democratic primary to then-incumbent Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. Holden also appeared on the Reform and Conservative Party lines as well as a ballot line he created called “Dump de Blasio." Holden won that election attacking Crowley over her support for closing the jails on Rikers Island and for not taking a hard enough line against homeless shelters in the district.

Holden has consistently been among the more moderate or conservative members of his party in the 51-seat Council, regularly voting with a handful of other conservative Democrats and the three Republicans in the body. He’s a staunch supporter of law enforcement, decrying the city’s recent police reforms and opposing local limits on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  

Holden did not respond to a request for comment for this article. He has yet to create a reelection campaign committee and has not raised any funds for the race. Ardila has raised about $20,500 and spent $7,500 so far.  

Ardila said in an interview that his path to public service began when his mother was almost deported when he was 17. He abandoned plans to become a forensic scientist and instead decided he wanted to study immigration law and public policy.

“I really focused essentially my entire adult life on public service,” Ardila said in a phone interview. He had a two-year stint as office manager for Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander. He then worked as a consultant for the New York City Department of Education, helping with the expansion of universal pre-kindergarten and the 3-K for All program. He followed that with work at the International Rescue Committee, the humanitarian nonprofit organization, where he mentored and tutored refugee and asylee children, he said, and helped them with college and residency applications and employment authorizations. 

Ardila is now at the Legal Aid Society where he helps New Yorkers get access to public benefits and legal representation. Just two months ago, he graduated from NYU with a Master’s in Public Administration, with a focus on public policy analysis. 

Ardila says that Holden has been a lackluster Council member, sponsoring few pieces of legislation while also failing to bring the resources needed back to the district. Unlike his predecessor, Holden did not opt in to the City Council’s participatory budgeting program, which would have allowed residents to vote on roughly $1 million in infrastructure improvement projects for the 30th District.

“We used to have it and Holden forced us to opt out of the program,” Ardila said of participatory budgeting. “Ultimately what it's done is just eliminated the opportunity for any form of decision-making and civic engagement from the people on how these public dollars are spent. That's a big problem.”

There are programs that Ardila said would be invaluable in the district but haven’t been implemented such as the city’s FRESH Program, which provides fresh food options to grocery stores. He is also pushing to partner with Meals on Wheels so homebound seniors don’t have to risk their health during this pandemic to buy groceries. And he faults Holden for not ensuring that residents have access to those services. “The leadership is just not there and it's just not going to be there, unfortunately,” Ardila said. 

For Ardila, most of the district’s needs revolve around its lack of access to mass transportation. Much of District 30 is a transit desert with no access to the subway system and with few bus lines running through it. That makes it harder for residents to find affordable housing that is easily connected to the rest of the city, and thus jobs, and prioritizes vehicles at the cost of pedestrian safety and public health, he said. 

Ardila is calling for a major expansion of bus routes and bus lanes, increasing bus speeds, expanding the Fair Fares discount Metrocard program for low-income New Yorkers, improving the Access-A-Ride paratransit system, and making more MTA subway stops accessible to those with disabilities.

District 30 is home to a large middle-class population of New Yorkers. Just over half its residents are white, and about 40% of the population is foreign-born. The largely residential district contains mostly one- and two-family homes besides large green spaces. 

In 2017, Republican mayoral nominee Nicole Malliotakis handily won the district over Mayor Bill de Blasio, though there are more Democratic registered voters than Republicans in the district. As of February 21 of this year, there were 86,774 registered voters in the 30th Council District, including 45,321 Democrats, 16,010 Republicans, and 21,561 party-unaffiliated voters (often called independents).

The race could be a test for where and how much progressive groups and leaders, including elected officials, want to expend their resources in the 2021 election cycle, where all of city government will be on the ballot, including the citywide and borough-wide positions, and all of the 51 City Council seats, including roughly three dozen "open" Council seats where no incumbent will be running due to term limits. Holden's stances on a variety of issues don't match with some of the progressive currents sweeping through New York politics, nor even some of the more moderate Democratic views, as evidenced by often Holden votes in the minority in the Council. But, Holden's grasp on his district is another story, and he is sure to have a base of support heading into his expected reelection bid.

Though it is home to many home-owners, the district is not immune to the citywide unaffordability crisis, Ardila said. “A lot of renters are getting displaced throughout the district as a whole,” he said. 

On the issue of homeless shelter siting, one of Holden’s main focuses, Ardila finds himself on the same side as the incumbent, though for different reasons. Holden won his election after helping to ignite a firestorm of controversy around a hotel used as a homeless shelter in Maspeth, as he criticized the de Blasio administration’s homelessness policies at large. The Council member, known for his many “not in my backyard” stances as president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, made largely unfounded claims that the shelter was a severe public safety hazard, raising the spectre of crime and drug use by the homeless men housed there. He has similarly been an ardent opponent of another shelter that opened in Glendale in February, repeatedly calling for it to be shut down.  

Ardila said homeless shelters are a “bandaid” to the larger crisis and he also believes the Glendale shelter should be closed, but he said it’s because the district lacks the resources and interconnectivity that would give the shelter residents the services they need to get back on their feet. “Glendale is located smack in the middle of a transit desert. There’s only one train station and very intermittent bus service,” he said. “The challenge with that is when you're a homeless person in a location that is a transit desert, with expensive fares, in an area where there’s essentially no employment opportunities and lack of social services that they need, you’re not really supporting them. They’re isolated. They’re on the outskirts.”

Though he would have little power over broader housing policies as a City Council member, Ardila said the solution is to build more affordable housing density around transit hubs and to fund it with taxes on the wealthy and by eliminating tax incentives for real estate developers, both of which are the purview of the state Legislature.

“Homelessness is intertwined with other factors leading to poverty,” he said. “We're pushing for housing for all. We view housing as a human right and unfortunately the real estate culture in New York City views housing as a speculative investment.” He said the city should follow the “Housing First” model that Columbus, Ohio put in place 20 years ago when it started building permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

The other major issue in the district, Ardila said, is overcrowding in schools. “Students do better with more individualized attention and we need bigger classrooms. We need to support teachers, we need to support counselors,” he said. Ahead of the passage of this year’s city budget, he criticized the mayor for proposing cuts to the Department of Education and for not reallocating funds from the “bloated NYPD budget” that could go to school resources.

Ardila is confident that he can win over a diversifying electorate. He believes the district is more “purple” than red or blue, and that residents care more for local issues than citywide ones. “We want to focus on the in-district issues,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Shaun Donovan Explores a Run for Mayor


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Shaun Donovan at the podium (photo: Spencer T Tucker)


August 5, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Shaun Donovan Explores a Run for Mayor

Shaun Donovan, a former top aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, joined the show to discuss his likely candidacy for Mayor of New York City in the 2021 election.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Intake Pause, City's Supervised Release Program Set for Large Expansion


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Four New York City District Attorneys (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


After a four-month hiatus as the courts struggled to go virtual amid the coronavirus outbreak, New York City's supervised pretrial release program is taking new clients again in all five boroughs.

Supervised release, established as a middle-ground alternative between bail and release on recognizance, allows defendants to return to their communities before trial, under the watch of a case manager who checks in regularly, and also links the client to social services. The program has been lauded by some elected officials and prosecutors as an effective tool to ensure defendants make required court appearances and has been a growing part of the city's decarceration effort over the past decade, particularly in recent years.

But when the pandemic forced court proceedings to go online in March, supervised release intake grinded to a halt. Still, funding for the program almost tripled in the recently-passed fiscal year 2021 city budget and now judges in all five boroughs are again taking up the option at arraignments. Throughout it all, the 3,000 existing participants continued in the program using remote check-ins instead of on-site ones, while the city jail population has dropped to approximately 3,900 as of July 3, down from a daily average of over 8,300 in 2018 and about 11,700 in 2013.

"Supervised release is a crucial part of this administration’s ongoing efforts to reduce the city’s jail population," wrote Miriam Popper, who oversees the initiative as the executive director of Pretrial Justice Initiatives at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), in an email. "It is important that attorneys, judges, and defendants have this option, particularly during this public health crisis, when we are trying to decrease the number of pretrial people in city custody."

In the scheme of New York State's pretrial statuses, supervised release falls somewhere in the middle in terms of how restrictive it is for the defendant -- remand to jail without the option of bail being the most restrictive and release on recognizance being the least. It still places some obligations on the defendant, like checking-in with case managers and creating an independent living plan, but provides greater freedom than in bail cases, where returning to court is conditioned, in part, on a desire to become financially whole.

Supporters of the program say it’s a constructive tool, relying on relationship- and community-building to not only encourage court appearances but to help foster better outcomes for clients after trial.

"The whole idea is to take people who are most often disconnected from the services they need to rebuild or reimagine their lives and, through supervised release, get them connected to those services," said Stanley Richards, executive vice president of The Fortune Society, which provides housing and a wide variety of other supports to individuals in the program.

"Supervised release is sort of the safety net that continues on with people throughout the adjudication of their cases to get them the services," he said.

First piloted in Queens in 2009, then in Manhattan in 2013, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the initiative would expand citywide in 2015, with a $13.8 million investment from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance's asset forfeiture coffers.

“There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial,” de Blasio said in a 2015 statement. “Money bail is a problem because – as the system currently operates in New York – some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose. This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay.”

As part of the same announcement, then-Police Commissioner Bill Bratton praised the initiative as a public safety tool. “This program moves the city towards a more fair and equitable criminal justice system by decreasing unnecessary detention for those individuals awaiting trial, while more accurately assessing public safety risk and the supervision necessary to prevent people from reentering the criminal justice system,” he said in a statement.

Court appearance rates for supervised release participants are similar to cases where bail is set and where defendants are released on recognizance. Between March 2016 and March 2019, the court appearance rate for the 12,262 participants was 88 percent citywide, the same as releases without supervision, and just below the 91 percent appearance rate for bail cases. (The boroughs with the highest court appearance rates for supervised release were Manhattan and Queens, with 92 percent each, where the program has been running for longer.)

Last year, in anticipation of changes to the bail law, Vance invested another $100 million to be spent over two years -- coupled with additional city funding -- to drastically scale up the program.

In the city's current Fiscal Year 2021 budget, passed July 1, $117.5 million has been allocated to supervised release, including $50 million from Vance, a 270 percent increase over the fiscal year 2020 budget, according to a New York City Council spokesperson (a spokesperson for MOCJ said contracts are still being finalized and the final budget may be slightly smaller than the Council's figure). The city expects to triple or quadruple participation under the expansion, according to a City Hall press release announcing the new funding last year.

And it appears to be on track. In all of 2019, 641 defendants in Manhattan were released pretrial under supervision, compared with 1,162 in the first six months of 2020, according to Vance's office, even with the pandemic slowing the program.

"In a way, COVID kind of buried the lead," said Aubrey Fox, executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, which contracts with city government and first piloted the program in Queens. "This is like the quickest scaling-up process that I've experienced in my career."

"The increase in the city budget was in response to the new needs created by the State's bail reform law," Popper wrote in the email to Gotham Gazette. "Supervised Release has now expanded its eligibility to anyone pretrial, making an important set of resources available to a sizable new pre-trial population."

"The expanded Supervised Release will continue to utilize community-based resources, rather than law enforcement, to help get our clients back to court," she said.

MOCJ contracts with New York City Criminal Justice Agency and two other nonprofits to administer the program: Center for Court Innovation; and Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services. The organizations use a risk assessment tool to determine each defendant's likelihood of returning to court and make a recommendation to a judge.

In supervised release cases, defendants are connected with a case manager from one of the three contracted organizations. The organizations in turn work with other providers, like Fortune Society, to connect them with a range of social services. Typical supportive work includes connecting participants to public assistance, helping them enroll in substance abuse treatment programs, or helping them find housing, employment, and schooling.

While checking in with a case manager and the frequency of the check-ins is mandated, other aspects of the program are voluntary.

"It's not meant to be a law enforcement-heavy approach to supervision," Fox said. "There are requirements, but the idea is to create this relationship between the individual who has been assigned to the program and their case manager."

When the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, court administrators struggled with the technical element of ensuring that confidential conversations between defendants and MOCJ's court representatives could continue to take place at arraignment, once those proceedings had moved to a digital format.

From March 17 to mid-July, the New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA), in consultation with MOCJ, suspended new client intake, while supervised release providers continued to serve roughly 3,000 current defendants through remote contact.

Around the same period, gun violence in the city skyrocketed. And more recently, between July 5 and August 2 shootings increased 165 percent compared to the same 28-day period last year, according to the NYPD.

De Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea have maintained the increase in shootings and murders is in part the result of suspended court operations. Court administrators, district attorneys, and public defenders have all refuted the claim, which is based on the idea that with court capacity limited, violent and crime-prone individuals are returning to the streets without the full accountability of the criminal legal system. Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for OCA, called the claims "at best totally factually incorrect and at worst an attempt to shift the blame for an increase in street violence," and prosecutors have insisted that arraignments have continued.

In the first quarter of 2019, the last period data is available, 8 percent of supervised release participants were rearrested for a felony -- which would include gun charges -- while awaiting trial. MOCJ did not provide comparative rearrest data for bail and release on recognizance cases and OCA directed arrest inquiries to the police department, which did not respond to requests for comment.

"Anyone who might have been released on SR [supervised release] instead of having bail set was not eligible for that avenue of release," wrote Alice Fontier, managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in an email to Gotham Gazette, in reference to the possibility of release on one’s own recognizance (ROR). "It is rare that people charged with gun cases are released ROR."

"Accordingly, I don't think supervised release has any relevance to gun cases," she added.

With new entrants into supervised release suspended during the pandemic, more defendants in cases of criminal possession of a weapon were released on recognizance than on bail. From March 16 to July 26, 422 people facing weapons possession charges were released on recognizance, compared with 388 for whom bail was set, according to data provided by OCA.

"I think in general there may have been some people who would have really benefited from supervised release services but it was not so much that as a result they were detained," said Fox of the Criminal Justice Agency, indicating that some released on recognizance could have been in the supervised release program had it been taking new entrants.

While supervised release stopped taking new participants between mid-March and mid-July, providers were tapped to provide a similar service to a new clientele: individuals released from city jails because of COVID-19 health concerns.

Between March 16 and July 5, the city released roughly 1,500 jail detainees to mitigate the risk of COVID-19. At least 313 of them -- those who had completed trial, were serving city jail terms, and were let out under an early release program known as "6A" -- were put under the purview of the three supervised-release providers. While the form of the supervision was similar to the pretrial program, the conditions of their 6A releases meant checking in with a case manager daily, a much stricter requirement than the weekly or monthly check-ins of pretrial releases.

Providers, who normally have a representative in the courtroom at arraignment, were put in the position of having to reach and orient new participants outside of the typical framework. 

"Now suddenly people were being released in the middle of the night from Rikers," Fox said. "How do we connect them to supervised release?"

"I have to say this period of pause was a period of intense work and creativity for all the supervised release providers," he added.

"Anytime we release someone, we have to make sure we work to keep everyone as safe as possible, but we had a real imperative about saving lives, that came first," de Blasio told reporters at a press conference in April, in response to questions about how supervision of the early COVID releases was working.

"The fact is, we're going to keep doing whatever it takes to monitor these individuals," he said. "And then, as soon as the crisis is over, the way the releases occurred, if anyone needs to be brought back to jail, they will be.

MOCJ said the three providers are still supervising roughly 70 people who were released under 6A. Of the original 313 early releases, 39 were rearrested by April 30, including one on a gun charge, according to data posted by MOCJ's official Twitter account.

Of the 3,000 participants in supervised release during the height of the pandemic, Fox said engagement remained high. "The programs have all worked really assiduously to keep engaging people," he said. "It's gone surprisingly well."

"We pivoted from being a court-date reminder service to being a wellness initiative where we were texting everyone daily wellness texts that offered links to services," in addition to personalized calls, Fox said. He said several hundred referrals to social services were made during the state of emergency.

"That offering is definitely not as intense as [pre-pandemic] supervised release," Fox noted, "but we did find it was quite effective in terms of at least giving people a sense that somebody cares about them."

One of the main challenges case managers have faced is reestablishing lines of communication remotely, especially with clients who have unstable housing and limited access to a phone or computer.

"This was an immediate challenge of working with homeless individuals without phones," said Mike Rempel, director of jail reform at Center for Court Innovation, which runs supervised release in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. "We had to be able to communicate with them remotely."

Rempel, Fox, and Richards all said their organizations purchased phones and devised ways to distribute them safely without risking exposure to the virus, either through drop-offs or contacts in the community.

Many of the service providers Gotham Gazette spoke with believe the coronavirus crisis may have helped secure the supervised release initiative, as officials seek alternatives to crowded jails and as well-established channels of communication become essential.

"As the courts start to reenvision how they will be operating in this new normal, supervised release is going to play a pivotal role in working with community-based organizations to make sure that we don't incarcerate people who don't need to be detained," Richards said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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