Election happenings (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
The Republican conference of the New York City Council quietly confirmed all five GOP commissioners to the New York City Board of Elections on November 17 in a hearing with little public notice or scrutiny.
In a six-minute hearing just six weeks before the end of this Council term, the body's three-member minority conference voted to officially install the slate of Republican commissioners for the remainder of a four-year term ending in 2024.
The ten-commissioner New York City Board of Elections has long been criticized for political patronage and nepotism that has led to inefficiency, poor accountability, and a series of election blunders. Republican leadership said the appointments, including two new commissioners and three incumbents, signaled a necessary "slight" shift in the way New York City elections are run.
"We are happy with the work that many of the commissioners had done over the past few years," City Council Member Joseph Borelli, selected at the same meeting to be the new Council Minority Leader, told Gotham Gazette. "We knew there was a need for a slight direction change at the Board and that's what we're doing at this point."
Borelli didn't say exactly what that shift was, but the comment comes after administrative mishaps each election cycle and renewed attention on reforming the Board of Elections, as well as amid a major shakeup in city government after this year’s elections.
Three of the commissioners -- Simon Shamoun, Fred Umane, and Gino Marmorato -- were reappointed, having already been serving on the city's elections board. Two others -- Michael Coppotelli of Staten Island, and Keith Sullivan of Queens -- are new members, replacing John Zaccone and Michael Michel, who had each been "serving as a holdover," according to Council Member Steven Matteo, the outgoing minority leader.
Matteo had just stepped down from the leadership post ahead of his November 26 resignation to take a job as CEO of United Activities Unlimited, Inc., a social service agency where Coppotelli serves on the board of directors.
Coppotelli is a longtime campaign consultant and currently serves as the Senior Associate Superintendent of Schools at the Archdiocese of New York, according to his LinkedIn page. From 2007 to 2012 he was the chief of staff of former Assemblymember Lou Tobacco, a Staten Island Republican.
Sullivan is a personal injury lawyer from the Rockaways and partner at Sullivan & Galleshaw LLP. He was reported to be considering a run for Queens District Attorney in 2019 but never entered the race.
Each commissioner was approved unanimously by the conference, with the exception of Coppotelli, from whose vote Matteo abstained.
"On a personal level I feel very comfortable that BOE issues will not be hanging over our head for the next couple of years and the minority conference can focus on being a moderate voice in the City Council," added Borelli.
The City Board of Elections is comprised of ten commissioners, five Democrats and five Republicans, typically nominated by the party chairs of each county (borough) and confirmed by the City Council. The November confirmations were unusual in that the commissioners were selected directly by the Republican Council members, not the party chairs, because the party committees from all five boroughs each failed to file the necessary paperwork to submit a nominee by the statutory deadline.
Under a provision in the state election law, the missing party recommendations meant the appointments did not have to be approved by the full 51-member City Council, allowing them to sail through the hearing in a matter of minutes. It's unclear how much coordination between the county parties and the Republican Council members occurred, but Borelli said the five commissioners, three of whom had already served, were logical choices from within the GOP orbit.
The BOE confirmation process has long been criticized by good-government advocates as a rubber-stamping of party boss picks on both sides of the aisle by the City Council. Transparency groups have argued for city lawmakers to thoroughly vet nominees at public hearings before appointing them to ensure they have the relevant expertise to administer elections without conflicts of interest.
No appointees testified at the Republican conference hearing in November and their credentials were not discussed.
"The problem here is the state law. That's the nominating process that it prescribes," said Council Member and Comptroller-elect Brad Lander, a Democrat and former chair of the Council rules committee, which in the past has overseen election commissioner confirmations. "Anyone would know that was preposterous," he said of the opaque party boss or party conference appointment process. "That's true on the Democratic side as well as on the Republican side."
“Speaker Johnson continues to call on the state legislature to make significant changes to the Board of Elections," wrote a spokesperson for Council Member Corey Johnson in an email. The spokesperson did not comment on the new commissioner choices.
Ben Weinberg, public policy director of the good government group Citizens Union, called the appointment process "hasty" and "secretive."
"It’s outrageous that half of the NYC Board of Elections can be appointed or reappointed in a six-minute meeting, without a notice or public hearing, or even a discussion," he told Gotham Gazette. "There’s no greater proof for the lack of accountability that permeates our current election administration system."
The spokesperson for Johnson noted that notice of the hearing was posted to the Council's website more than 24 hours in advance.
Citizens Union and good government groups Common Cause New York, NYPIRG, and Reinvent Albany criticized Democrats in September for ramming through the confirmation of Democratic District Leader Jenny Low as the Manhattan Democratic BOE commissioner with little public vetting.
City election administrators have been accused of negligence and incompetence following perennial elections errors that have disenfranchised voters and dashed their confidence in electoral process. Most recently, the Board issued an incorrect tally of preliminary results in the ranked-choice Democratic mayoral primary earlier this year. Last year, the board sent incorrect absentee ballots to tens of thousands of voters after failing to vet the printing company responsible for the mailings.
To be eligible for appointment under state law, the elections commissioners simply had to be Republicans registered in the county they would represent. Commissioners select BOE executive management and rule on matters related to each election. They can receive a maximum of $30,000 annually in per diem expenses for attending BOE meetings.
"We thank Commissioners John Zaccone and Michael Michel for their years of dedicated service to the Board and the voters of the City of New York," said BOE spokesperson Valerie Diaz in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "The Board welcomes Commissioners Michael Coppotelli and Keith Sullivan and look forward to working with them."
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette