CITY Sat, 21 Sep 2019 21:58:11 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) What's The [DATA] Point? 90%, The City's Initial Progress on 'NYCHA 2.0' whats the data point

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 80 -- 90%, The City's Initial Progress on 'NYCHA 2.0' - with Sean Campion of CBC [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

sean campion wtdpMayor de Blasio launched a new "NYCHA 2.0" plan in December 2018, with initiatives to help the struggling public housing authority bring in roughly $25 billion over the next 10 years to address its $30-plus billion worth of physical needs. How is NYCHA 2.0 progressing so far? Citizens Budget Commission's Sean Campion has written a new report and joined the podcast to discuss it.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Ben Max) City Sat, 21 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Push Launched to Get Voters to Choose Ranked-Choice Voting yesone1 commoncause

(photo: @commoncauseny)

A coalition of elected officials, business and labor leaders, and reform groups gathered Thursday in Lower Manhattan to launch a campaign to convince New York City voters to change the way they elect their representatives in city government.

Voters in New York City this fall will have the opportunity to approve ballot referenda on a number of reforms to the City Charter, including a new election system known as “ranked-choice voting.” The new system would allow voters in primary and special elections -- but not general elections -- to rank up to five candidates on the ballot rather than choosing just one, which advocates say will force candidates to reach a larger base, eliminate so-called “spoiler” candidates, ensure winners have a broad mandate, and save the city millions in costly runoff elections.

The coalition, Rank the Vote, which formed to promote the new voting method, held a press conference on the steps of Federal Hall Thursday morning, just over six weeks from this year’s Election Day, which is Tuesday, November 5. Speakers discussed the possibility of overhauling city elections and what they believe is the importance of voting yes on the ranked-choice voting ballot referendum, which will be the first of the five charter revision questions on the ballot.

“Ranked-choice voting is a system that will help voters choose the candidate who has the broadest base of support, because all too frequently what we find is that the winner in these crowded fields is chosen with much less than a 50 percent majority,” said Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York, as she kicked off the press conference. “It’s not as healthy for our democracy as it needs to be.”

Ranked-choice voting is in effect in a few cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Santa Fe, and Maine is projected to use the method in the upcoming presidential elections. Under a ranked-choice voting system, voters choose candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority of votes on the first count, the candidate with the least support is eliminated and ballots for them are redistributed to their voters’ second choices. That process is continued until a candidate crosses the threshold need to win the seat.

The proposal before New Yorkers this year allows voters to rank up to five candidates in primary and special elections, and requires the winner to receive more than 50 percent of votes. Democratic primaries in New York City can be especially crowded, with citywide elections prone to possible run-offs between the top two candidates if neither reaches 40 percent initially, and down-ballot races won by candidates with relatively small pluralities.

The referendum is one of 19 placed on the ballot in five yes or no questions by the city’s 2019 Charter Revision Commission. The body -- with representatives appointed by the mayor, City Council, public advocate, city comptroller, and five borough presidents -- was responsible for examining the entire City Charter and putting amendments on the ballot to be voted on by the electorate.

Speaking Thursday morning were players from across the city’s political spectrum, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, and Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, which represents the city’s business community. Also speaking were Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Bertha Lewis of the Black Institute, and Maya Wiley, Senior Vice President for Social Justice at the New School.

Assembly Member Ron Kim and Council Member Brad Lander made remarks, as did representatives from New Kings Democrats, Amplify Her, and New York Communities for Change. Labor unions like RWDSU and CWA, and good government groups like Citizens Union and Lerner’s Common Cause NY are also members of the coalition.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as “instant-runoff voting,” would replace the current voting system in city primary and special elections, which for citywide elections requires candidates to win 40 percent of the vote; if no candidate reaches the 40 percent threshold a runoff election is triggered -- a separate election in which only the highest two vote-earning candidates face off again.

“As someone who ran for Citywide office and participated in a runoff election, I know from personal experience that Ranked Choice Voting is necessary for New York,” said Betsy Gotbaum, the former public advocate and currently executive director of Citizens Union, in a statement. “Ranked Choice Voting will foster more positive, issue-focused campaigns, give voters more choice, ensure that elected officials are accountable to a broader spectrum of their constituents and avoid costly, time consuming and unnecessary runoff elections.”

The advocates say ranked-choice voting strengthens the concept of majority rule by ensuring the winner is receives more than 50 percent of the vote and requiring candidates to seek support beyond their base.

Brewer said it is important in a city as diverse as New York for voters to be able to express a range of choices in multifaceted campaigns. “If you’re running city-wide, you don’t just go to ten got to go to all the districts, you have to talk to everyone, you got to have a conversation,” she said.

“I am tired of people winning with 28 percent of the vote,” said Lewis, likely referencing borough president and City Council races, where there are no runoffs and candidates often win all-important Democratic primaries with low percentages in crowded races.

Supporters also say ranked-choice voting encourages turnout and can help "minority candidates" win. Alice Nascimento spoke for New York Communities for Change, which organizes low- and moderate-income families for political action. “When we talk to them about voting a number of times they say my vote doesn’t matter, there are too many candidates,” she said, referring to the constituents she works with.

The city Campaign Finance Board anticipates an astounding 500 candidates to be running for city office in 2021, when most City Council seats, four of five borough president positions, and two of three citywide positions, including mayor, will be wide open due to term limits. Because many of those races are likely to have several candidates, it’s likely that no candidate will receive more than 40 percent of vote in many races.

“Nobody’s going to know all of those candidates, and we really have to put the burden on candidates to get out beyond their core, base group and get to know what the issues are for the broader constituency,” said Wylde of the Partnership for New York City.

“And business issues aren’t frankly being very well represented these days, and we think this is a shot at getting them better represented in the public dialogue,” she added.

New York has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country and that is likely to be worse in the “off-year” elections of 2019, when only two major races are taking place (a public advocate special election and the Queens district attorney election). This means few New Yorkers are likely to turn out to decide the charter revision proposals.

Asked whether fundamental voting methods should be decided by a small fraction of eligible voters, Council Member Lander acknowledged the scenario was not ideal, but that passing ranked-choice voting by referendum in 2019 is the best option the city has.

“I’m confident this would win in a high turnout election. Charter revision commissions are timed when they are timed, so we have to move forward now,” Lander told Gotham Gazette after the press conference.

“And the charter revision process was very inclusive of a lot of people. Lots of communities, I think, were consulted in it and really had an active voice,” added Cynthia Richie Terrell, executive director of Represent Women.

Questions remain about how the public will be informed about the changes to city elections, should ranked-choice voting be approved this fall. “There’s going to be a learning curve...It’s very difficult. We have to find more creative ways, obviously, to get the information out. Those creative ways also cost money,” Public Advocate Williams told Gotham Gazette.

The city Board of Elections has been criticized for the low level of voter education and public engagement it has undertaken in the past. “Hopefully when people get to Election Day they’ll be given better instructions than they’ve been given in the past about what’s going on. But I think we’ll learn together and with any new system, the more we use it the more people are going to get used to it,” Williams said.

Lerner, speaking on behalf of Rank the Vote, which has a 501(c)4 registered with the Board of Elections for political activity, told Gotham Gazette, “There is confidence in a broad coalition of New Yorkers -- civic organizations, labor unions, engaged citizens -- who are going to take the message out.”

“If the voters adopt this we will absolutely be working with the city, with the board, but we are not going to rely just on the Board of Elections,” she added.

Ranked-choice voting will be part of the first question on the ballot this fall. Voters will be able to weigh-in during the nine-day early voting period from October 26 to November 3, or on Election Day, November 5.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]> (Ethan Geringer-Sameth) City Fri, 20 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
2019 Mayor’s Management Report Gives Snapshot of Government Services, City Trends update emergency management

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio released the latest Mayor’s Management Report, an exhaustive document  of data behind city government -- the metrics the city uses, at least in theory, to determine whether government services are being delivered effectively and that the public can use to hold city government accountable. The report is broken down by agency, with each listing a set of broad goals, the progress toward which is illustrated by indicators.

The dense report covers data for fiscal year (FY) 2019, which began July 1, 2018 and ended June 30, 2019, and includes comparative data from fiscal years going back to FY15, the first full fiscal year of de Blasio’s mayoralty. Forty-five municipal agencies contribute to the report, which is aggregated under the Mayor’s Office of Operations.

Captured in its numbers are the contours of various aspects of life in the biggest city in the United States. Gotham Gazette went through many of the indicators -- ranging from the headline-grabbing to the obscure -- that illustrate, in part, how city government is doing.

Outlined below are metrics in key categories like education, children’s services, housing and homelessness, policing, jails, transportation, and sanitation. (There are dozens more areas of the report that are not included here -- to learn more about the city’s performance according to the mayor’s office, find the report here or visit specific sections using this navigation page.)

In FY19, approximately 1,126,500 students were enrolled in the public school system from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade (not including charter school students). This is roughly 4,000 more students than in FY15, but about 9,000 fewer than in the previous fiscal year.

Average class sizes for kindergarten through eighth grade have stayed roughly the same over the last five years.

Based on state test scores, students in grades three through eight are doing far better in math and English language arts than they were in FY15. Last year, 45.6 percent of students met or exceeded math standards, up roughly 10 percent; for English language standards, that number was 47.4 percent -- up 17 points since FY15. But, the tests have changed significantly over the last few years, making FY19 to FY15 comparisons limited in value.

Teachers on average are slightly less experienced than they were five years ago. In FY19, 67.3 percent of teachers had five or more years of teaching experience, compared with 71.2 percent of teachers in FY15. But principals are becoming more experienced: 68.8 percent had four or more years of experience as principals in FY19, while five years ago 60 percent did.

The Mayor’s Management Report does not include metrics on school diversity or racial, ethnic, or economic segregation in city schools.

Child Welfare
The Administration for Children’s Services reports families entering child welfare prevention services has decreased over the last five years from roughly 11,000 to 9,960. Children entering foster care has also fallen, from 4,233 in FY15 to 3,729 in FY19.

Of those entering foster care 28.9% are placed in homes in their community, down from 36-37 percent the previous four years; 93.8 percent are placed in the same home as siblings when applicable, up from 88.9 percent in FY15. The greater increase is the number of children entering foster care who are placed with relatives, which went from 29.5 percent in FY15 to 40.4 percent in FY19.

Housing and Homelessness
Of the roughly 60,000 people in homeless shelters across the city, the average number of single adults in shelters daily has risen every year over the last five years, from roughly 11,000 in FY15 to 16,000 in FY19. The daily average in the most recent year of reporting is more than 1,000 greater than it was the year before. The average number of families without children living in shelters every day has also risen year after year -- from 2,110 to 2,510. The averages for families with children is far greater -- 12,415 in FY19 -- but has stayed relatively constant over the last five years.

Under the mayor’s Housing New York plan to create or preserve 300,000 affordable housing units over 12 years, the process to construct new or preserve existing “affordable” (meaning rent-regulated in some way) apartments began on just over 25,000 units, meeting the administration’s stated goal for FY19. Another 18,200 units were completed under Housing New York and another initiative started under Bloomberg called the New Housing Marketplace Plan.

Under Housing NY in FY19, the city began financing 2,682 affordable units geared specifically toward homeless individuals and families. Another 1,968 will serve senior households.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), reports 173,000 apartments in public housing developments, down 3,000 from FY18 and 5,000 from FY15. The occupancy rate for NYCHA housing is 98.9 percent. About 2,450 homeless individuals who applied for public housing either in NYCHA or through Section 8 vouchers were placed. That number has fallen every year since FY16 from a high of 2,868.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) reported a roughly 10 percent decrease in major felony crimes over the four years: 93,631 in FY19, down from 103,872 in FY15. Major felony crimes include murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, and grand larceny. Notably, despite this overall drop, reports of forcible rape have increased relatively steadily (with a small drop between FY16 and FY17); 304 more cases were reported in FY19 than in FY15, an increase of about 29 percent.

Narcotics arrests have dropped precipitously. In fiscal year 2015, the first full fiscal year de Blasio held office, 61,007 narcotics arrests were made. In FY19, only 25,098 narcotics arrests were made, indicative of the city’s changing marijuana enforcement. Last year marked the most significant year-to-year drop, about 42 percent down from 43,574 arrests in FY18.

The number of non-violent “quality-of-life” summonses has also fallen to less than half of what it was in FY15. According to the report, the summonses are issued for “offenses that have a negative impact on City residents, including unreasonable noise, aggressive panhandling, window washing, and urinating in public.” The greatest drop -- almost 40 percent -- took place between FY17 to FY18. They were down another 24 percent in FY19, to 128,265 summonses. This trend was in large part spurred by the Criminal Justice Reform Act.

The report does not reveal much about “customer service” for people interacting with police. The police department reported 275,981 completed requests for interpretation, roughly the same as in FY15 (but a five percent drop from FY18). Yet, the report does not indicate how many interpretation requests were made, so it is difficult to assess the department’s overall performance. For the first time since FY10, the police department also did not report a CORE (Customers Observing and Reporting Experiences) facility ratings, which measures physical conditions and the quality of service in walk-in facilities.

There were 844 more complaints against uniformed police officers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight body tasked with investigating and prosecuting certain types of officer misconduct, in FY19 than the previous fiscal year -- a nearly 20 percent increase. FY15 had over a thousand fewer complaints than in FY19, a change of almost 26 percent over five years.

The time it takes the CCRB to complete a full investigation also increased, which the report says is consistent with the heightened number of complaints and the increased use of body-worn camera footage in investigations. “The amount of time it takes to obtain footage has also significantly contributed to the increase, as does instances where false negatives or false positives necessitate multiple follow-up requests,” the report also notes.

The police department reports paying $178 million in settlements or verdicts in state and federal court in FY19. The reported payout in FY15 was higher: $202,600,000.

The number of people in Department of Correction custody has declined steadily during de Blasio’s mayoralty, from average daily populations of 10,240 in FY15 to 7,938 in FY19. While the jail population has decreased, violent incidents among detainees and guards as a proportion of the total detainee population have risen dramatically. In FY19, there were about 70 violent detainee-to-detainee incidents per 1,000 people in custody, compared with just 38 in FY15 and 56 in FY18. Assaults on staff increased from roughly 9 to 13 per 1,000 detainees over the same five-year period.

Department of Correction staff is far more regularly using force against people in their custody than they were in FY15. In FY19, there were 6,670 incidents of force by custodial staff, an increase of 51 percent over de Blasio’s mayoralty. Use of force against adolescents has risen too: of the 6,670 incident of force, 571 were against adolescents, compared with 378 in FY15.

The number of people in custody with mental health diagnoses has risen from 41 percent to 45 percent over five years. The number of inmates with “serious mental health diagnosis” has gone up from 11.1 percent in FY15 to 16.8 percent in FY19.

There were nine more traffic fatalities in FY19 than the year before, but 31 fewer than in FY15. There were over 223,000 crashes in FY19 (422 involved Department of Transportation vehicles).

Fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians between FY15 and 19 have dropped overall from 159 to 137, but between FY18 and 19 they rose by nine. The city installed 67.5 miles of bike lane in FY19. That is significant growth from FY15 when roughly 51 miles were installed, but a drop from FY17 when nearly 83 miles were built.

Annual CitiBike memberships have more than doubled over five years to a high of 154,830 in FY19. And while bike ridership overall has picked up over five years, the number of adults who ride regularly fell by about 6,000 between FY18 and FY19.

The number of accessible medallion taxis has nearly quintupled in the last five years, coming to over 2,700 accessible cabs in FY19. There are only 579 accessible for-hire vehicles, such as through Uber or Lyft app-based services, and this is the first year the data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission has been included it in the Mayor’s Management Report.

Yellow and green cab safety and emissions inspections have dropped, with only about 32,000 taking place in FY19, compared to 48,000 the year before and 52,000 in FY15. The percentage of inspections completed on schedule also dropped dramatically to 55 percent in FY19 from the mid-nineties in all other years. At the same time the failure rate rose almost seven percentage points last year to 33.6 percent, while the re-inspection rate dropped a point to 6.1 percent.

It seems much of that effort has been transferred to safety and emissions inspections for the app-based for-hire vehicles. In FY19, 84,000 FHVs were inspected, compared to 47,000 in FY15, of which 96.8 percent were completed on schedule. About 29 percent fail the initial inspection, and only 8.4 percent are re-inspected.

The average time it takes the Department of Transportation to fix a pothole was 3.2 days in FY19, down from 5.6 in FY15. The average time it takes DOT to respond to “high priority” traffic signal defects that have made the roads unsafe is 21 minutes faster than the previous fiscal year.

The Department of Sanitation reportedly disposes of 3,248,100 tons of refuse annually, a two percent increase from FY15. The department handled 868,000 tons of recycling in FY19 at a rate of 2,783 tons per day.

The Mayor’s Management Report did not provide data on the costs per ton for refuse and recycling collection and disposal, though those prices in almost every case have risen every fiscal year for at least the last five. Collecting recycling alone costs $706 per ton, up from $645 in FY15. (The city does, however, earn $12 per ton in revenue for paper recycling.)

The report does not include data on street and sidewalk cleanliness for the first time in at least the last five fiscal years, while quality-of-life issues are a stated priority of de Blasio’s Deputy Mayor of Operations, Laura Anglin.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Ethan Geringer-Sameth) City Fri, 20 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Fight Against Homelessness bellevue intake wbai600

Steve Banks, right, with the Mayor and First Lady (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

September 18, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Fight Against Homelessness

dss commissioner banks wbai 150Steve Banks, Commissioner of the Department of Social Services and Mayor de Blasio's homelessness czar, joined the show to discuss the city's fight against homelessness, the progress he believes the city has made over the past five-plus years since de Blasio took office and named him to head the Human Resources Administration (HRA), and more.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Ben Max) City Thu, 19 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
7 Years After Sandy - Part III: Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? hurricane sandyp3

(photo: NYC Gov)

This is part three of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one here: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed and part two here: The City's Limited Resiliency Efforts Since the StormThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.


That’s how many people in New York City were killed from the immediate effects of Hurricane Sandy, nearly seven years ago. Most were due to drowning, while a smaller number of those who died from the October 2012 storm were attributed to downed power lines. A CDC report from May 2013 found that 45% of drowning deaths occurred in Evacuation Zone A, which was not fully evacuated despite orders from city officials. The same report concluded that such drowning deaths are “preventable with advance warning systems and evacuation plans.”

The New York City Office of Emergency Management, responsible for communication, evacuation, and coordination during storms, shouldered much of the blame for Sandy’s disastrous impact. It was especially blamed for its procedures for lower-mobility residents, like seniors and disabled people, who often had difficulty evacuating. 

In November 2013, a federal judge ruled “that the City has violated the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the NYCHRL by failing to provide people with disabilities meaningful access to its emergency preparedness program in several ways.”

“There were a lot of things that didn’t go well” in the city’s response to Sandy, according to Thad Pawloski, Director at Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “Nursing homes and hospitals in the flood zones should have been better equipped to deal with downed utilities,” Pawlowski said, as an example, though he did commend the city for having an overall effective disaster response.

Seven years later -- and as the city continues to deal with storms, blackouts, heat waves, terror attacks, and more -- one key question for New Yorkers is whether the city’s emergency management has improved so that when emergencies hit loss of life can be avoided, communication and medical care happen as efficiently and effectively as possible, and further negative ramifications are limited. Those in charge of the city’s emergency responsiveness say that it is much improved, pointing to new and updated systems in place, some based on lessons from Sandy and its aftermath.

Now called New York City Emergency Management, NYCEM’s leadership has acknowledged mistakes from Sandy. In a 2017 interview with NY1, then-commissioner of NYCEM Joe Esposito (who was not the EM commissioner during Sandy, but was a top NYPD official) admitted, “We had the evacuation — I think maybe we could have pushed that harder.” However, Esposito was adamant that “the vast majority of those people would not have died if they would have listened to the evacuation orders.”

Now, with another Sandy anniversary approaching, NYCEM is displaying its many new and updated programs as evidence that it has become smarter and more effective since the storm.

“After any emergency, we take a hard look at what went well, and areas where we need some improvement,” said Megan Pribram, NYCEM’s assistant commissioner for planning and preparedness, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “I think that we’ve gotten a lot stronger since Sandy. We learned from that incident, and we continue to improve our plans and enhance, and I think we’re a much stronger and more resilient city as a result.”

One of the programs that NYCEM has significantly expanded since 2012 is its Advance Warning System, which provides special alerts for organizations serving people with disabilities or other functional needs. Organizations that sign up for the program, launched ten years ago, receive public preparedness emails or text messages in the event of an emergency. The program has recently grown to cover 1,900 service providers, which Pribram called a “huge increase” over pre-Sandy numbers.

Another program that has seen a major boost in reach since Sandy is Notify NYC, a public communications service that texts subscribers emergency alerts specific to their zip code. A spokesperson for the city said that Notify NYC has grown from around 140,000 subscribers before 2012 to over 765,000 as of August 6. 

Several other programs have been launched since 2012 as part of NYCEM’s larger effort to reduce complacency, including:

-Know Your Zone, an awareness campaign to make sure residents know when and where to evacuate, started in 2014. The campaign has released videos, infographics, maps of evacuation zones, a hashtag (#knowyourzone), and a virtual badge displaying hurricane zone numbers.

-The Share Your Space Survey, which aims to identify community spaces that could be used to support emergency operations, started in 2016. Through the survey, NYCEM has built a database of spaces that are available for use during emergencies, as well as for training classes and exercises.

-The Community Emergency Planning Toolkit, a customized guideline to help communities handle storm preparation, started in 2017. The toolkit is downloadable online, and a boot camp for local organizations is also available.

-The High Water Mark Initiative, a series of signs showing what level Sandy’s storm surge reached to increase awareness in vulnerable areas, also started in 2017.

-Prep Talk, a podcast covering emergency management-related topics, has had 36 episodes air since launching in 2018 (episodes average around 500 listens on Soundcloud).

“When we’re asking people to evacuate, the sun is shining, and it’s very hard to convince someone that a hurricane is on the way when they’re looking at 85 degrees on a beautiful day,” then-First Deputy Commissioner for NYCEM Calvin Drayton said at an October 2018 City Council hearing on his agency’s strategic plan. “We have to do a much better job in getting the public to adhere to the word when the mayor says to evacuate.”

NYCEM’s strategic plan itself, however, is largely focused on issues other than emergency notices and civilian preparedness. Among the goals laid out by the 2017-2021 plan are increasing coordination with community organizations and other city agencies, making the agency more responsive and flexible during crises, and “advanc[ing] the Profession of Emergency Management” in New York and nationwide.

One of the changes that Pribram of NYCEM cited in accordance with these goals is a revision of the city’s hurricane evacuation zones from three zones to six. Pribram said the change “provides us with more flexibility to evacuate for different storm types,” as it allows for more gradations in the scale of evacuation.

Pribram also noted several internal-facing improvements that NYCEM has made post-Sandy, which may make future emergencies more manageable, such as updating its debris management plan and establishing connections with more agencies and organizations to help mitigate future storm effects. After an emergency like Sandy, “we add new partners,” Pribram said, “that we realized have key roles sometimes. So we have enhanced how we actually do the coordination during emergencies as well.”

NYCEM also runs training exercises for its own staff and the staff of other agencies that play roles in emergency situations. Pribram said in August that the agency had recently held a tabletop exercise with its emergency partners as hurricane season approaches.

September is National Preparedness Month, NYCEM recently publicized, saying that it wants “New Yorkers to take the opportunity to plan for emergencies.” NYCEM held a fair “to help inform New Yorkers about the importance of being prepared” and introduced a new multilingual PSA in English and Spanish, called “Communicate When It Counts,” that “encourages New Yorkers to talk with their families to develop an emergency plan before disasters such as flooding, power outages and hurricanes strike.”

NYCEM wants New York City residents to “learn the steps to make a plan, gather supplies, and stay informed.”

One idea that has also been floated to further bolster the city’s emergency response is to institute a 211 system, which would direct 211 calls to a specialized line that includes information on the city’s many non-profit service-providers. Pribram said, however, that such a system would likely not fall under NYCEM’s jurisdiction.

The preliminary Mayor’s Management Report released in February 2019 -- which includes data for fiscal years 2016, 2017, and 2018 -- presents some interesting data on several NYCEM programs, with mixed results.

There was a sharp decline in visits to the Ready New York webpage, which serves as a landing page for many NYCEM programs. The site had 24,561 visits in FY2018, down from 81,570 in FY2016. The average time between an incident and a Notify NYC message going out has also moved in the wrong direction: seven minutes and 50 seconds in FY2018, up from six minutes in FY2016.

Other indicators, such as the number of tabletop exercises and participants at emergency training sessions, have remained relatively the same over time, although the agency’s goal is to eventually increase the number of exercises performed. The office’s expenditures have increased dramatically, from $35.7 million in FY2016 to $58.9 million in FY2018.

With no truly devastating storms hitting the city since Sandy, it is difficult to gauge whether NYCEM improvements and new programs have been enough, but a somewhat recent incident showed potential shortcomings.

An unexpected snowstorm in November 2018 left the city’s transportation network crippled, a crisis many blamed on poor coordination and responses from city agencies. NYCEM Commissioner Esposito was soon messily fired by Mayor Bill de Blasio, although de Blasio insisted that the move was unrelated to Esposito’s storm response; Deanne Criswell took over at the agency in mid-July of this year.

Many blamed the city’s poor response on faulty weather predictions, rather than on municipal agencies; de Blasio said in a press conference that “I don’t think it’s fair to say that the city agencies could have stopped all of this.” But the storm nevertheless displayed the city’s weaknesses when caught off-guard -- school buses, for example, were stuck for hours on city roadways that ground to a snow- and traffic-filled halt, and parents often had no way of knowing where their young children were.

For Eric Goldstein, NYC Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, the city still has not done enough to prepare for emergencies.

“There certainly is more that needs to be done, particularly in low-income areas and communities of color,” Goldstein said in a phone interview. “If you were to survey NYCHA properties, for example, you would find that there are still some very significant challenges that remain, in terms of preparedness and ensuring that handicapped people on higher floors can get the assistance they need and get the information they need. Some steps have been taken, but a bunch more needs to be done.”

Pawloski of Columbia, on the other hand, argued that the city often doesn’t get enough credit for the relative strength of its systems. “New York’s [plan] is pretty strong for an American city,” said Pawloski, who has worked with NYCEM in the past. “The coastal storm plan addressed debris management, utility restoration, mass evacuation of coastal areas and sheltering,” unlike many out-of-date federal maps and plans.

As another Sandy anniversary arrives, much of the city’s attention is focused on building out or rebuilding the city’s coastlines to better withstand the effects of major storms, through the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and partners. The City Council recently formed a new Committee on Waterfronts and Resiliency, chaired by Council Member Justin Brannan of Southern Brooklyn, who has been surveying coastal areas across the city and plans to hold a major oversight hearing this fall, in conjunction with the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, chaired by Council Member Costa Constantinides.

Brannan recently said on the Max & Murphy podcast that they are looking at resiliency planning, preparedness for the next big storm, but also emergency management more broadly, which can range from a localized blackout in relatively unthreatening weather to much more severe instances where lives are immediately at risk across a larger swathe of the sprawling city.

On NYCEM, Brannan was supportive of the awareness work the agency does, but thinks it could do more to prevent future disasters. “I give OEM a lot of credit,” Brannan said of how the agency responds to a given emergency situation, but added he wants to have a more proactive conversation about “what they’re doing to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer, who in May put out his own coastal resiliency plan for the city while showing that the mayoral administration is not spending billions of dollars in allocated resiliency funding quickly enough, is also asking questions about emergency management plans to ensure best possible responses to crisis situations.

Some of the answers Stringer is seeking, as outlined in a September 6 letter to Mayor de Blasio, were provided to Gotham Gazette in August for this article, but the comptroller has asked for a good deal more, including related to NYCHA and emergency contracting to get needed supplies and services on a greatly expedited timeline.

“I am writing to request updates on the City’s emergency preparedness plans and the degree to which lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy have been built into the way our agencies plan, procure and prepare for the next great storm,” Stringer wrote. “As climate change escalates and sea levels continue to rise, New York City must be prepared to contend with the ever greater risk posed by hurricanes and floodwaters. Already, scientists estimate that storms on the scale of Sandy could be one-in-25-year events, rather than one-in-500-year anomalies.”

Stringer went on to request a variety of information on the city’s resiliency and emergency planning, which he sought by September 15. According to Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Stringer, the comptroller’s office has “not yet received a formal response to our letter. We look forward to reviewing the City’s emergency preparedness plans and continuing to push for robust resiliency measures to protect vulnerable communities.”

This is part three of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one here: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed and part two here: The City's Limited Resiliency Efforts Since the StormThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

]]> (Joey Fox) City Thu, 19 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since coneyisland wetlands rendering

Rendering of Coney Island wetlands project (photo: mayor's office, Oct. 2013)

This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy killed 43 people and caused nearly $20 billion in damages and lost productivity in New York City. While the city has not seen a storm of that scale in the nearly seven years since, climate change, sea level rise, and the dangers posed by major weather events have continued to accelerate. In the aftermath of Sandy, the city began to implement a number of programs to make the city more resilient, or prepared for another Sandy-caliber disaster.

But elected officials, advocacy groups, and other experts say a Sandy-caliber storm would be nearly if not just as devastating today as it was in 2012. The city and its partners at other levels of government have been far too slow to act, and have not moved with requisite boldness in considering how to truly prepare the five boroughs, with their 520 miles of coastline, for the present and the future, they say. Projects are behind schedule or on too-long timelines, federal money isn’t being spent quickly enough by the city, there’s no real plan guiding it all.

In other words, New York City is nowhere near as resilient as it needs to be, and it’s not clear when the city might meet even a low bar for preparedness.

As the seventh anniversary of Sandy’s landfall in New York City nears, another round of evaluations, oversight hearings, and other discussions is kicking off. To many, what’s been accomplished in terms of resiliency efforts is astonishingly limited given that it’s been seven years and the lessons that were supposed to have been learned in the storm’s aftermath. Some are calling on the city to drastically speed up its implementation of resiliency projects to protect the city’s residents and their property, while a new proposal would mandate the city produce a five-borough resiliency plan.

Beyond the emergency response, the biggest questions from seven years ago remain the same today: what is actually being done to prepare New York City for the next big storm and the climate future, and what else should be done as quickly as possible?

Where Things Stand
In June 2013, the year after the storm hit, the city introduced the New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), a $19.5 billion program to reinforce disaster protocols and prevent damage from future climate events. The initiative sought to “ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change,” according to Jainey Bavishi, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January 2014.

The city is especially concerned with climate change, including sea-level rise, hurricanes, extreme precipitation, heat waves, and rising temperatures, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

“Global warming is an emergency, and adapting quickly is an existential necessity,” Bavishi said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re investing $20 billion across all five boroughs to help ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change.”

Many of the city’s goals are included in the OneNYC plan, a comprehensive compilation of initiatives that include strategies to improve resiliency and address climate change. By the 2050s, OneNYC estimates that the nearly 1 million residents who will live in the expanded coastal floodplain will be particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding, with sea levels expected to rise by up to 30 inches, not including the effects of major weather events. High tides will cause flooding twice a day in some areas, and permanent inundation in others, according to those projections.

Despite agreement on the urgency of the threat, the city has not executed as much as talked about its plans for resiliency, said Eric Goldstein, New York Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The SIRR, first released post-Sandy by the Bloomberg administration in its final year, and subsequently backed by the de Blasio administration, includes more than 250 separate projects and major coastal flood protection initiatives. Its focus is five especially vulnerable areas: the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the east and south shores of Staten Island, South Queens, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.

A good deal of work is in motion, with dozens of projects completed and others moving ahead, but at an overall pace that is surprisingly slow to many. The city has spent less than 54 percent of the $15 billion that has been funded from the city’s $20 billion SIRR, according to a May report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“If another Sandy-caliber storm struck today, all roads lead to New York being completely shut down,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Justin Brannan, chair of the new Council Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, at City & State NY’s “Protecting New York Summit” on July 31. “My fear is that if Sandy were to happen tomorrow we’d see the same effect we saw almost seven years ago. That’s what a lot of my constituents feel as well.”

Brannan has been surveying coastal areas of the city, including those in his southern Brooklyn district, and plans to hold multiple oversight hearings this fall, he told the Max & Murphy podcast earlier in July. Brannan also discussed the fact that he and City Council Member Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, recently introduced a bill to mandate the mayoral administration create a five-borough resiliency plan, with certain specific guidelines.

“You’d think that, after the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Southern Brooklyn went under water in Sandy, we’d be in better shape,” Brannan and Constantinids wrote in a recent joint op-ed discussing their bill and plans to assess post-Sandy efforts. “The 500,000 New Yorkers who live along our shores have little more than some sandbags despite scientific models showing that sea levels will rise a foot over the next 30 years.”

The city’s current efforts to become more resilient -- often called too piecemeal by Brannan, Constantinides, and others -- can be broken down into improved infrastructure, coastal defenses, and community preparedness.

On the coasts, the city has reconstructed boardwalks, built dunes across beaches on Staten Island and the Rockaways, and coordinated to place 4.2 million cubic yards of new sand on city beaches, according to a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. The city has intermittently installed flood protection measures at 40 sites, including those most impacted by Sandy, according to the spokesperson. However, these efforts are largely temporary -- they are designed to mitigate flooding until permanent measures are designed and implemented.

In lower Manhattan, the city has advanced the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, an approximately $500 million investment in flood-risk-reduction projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood, The Battery, and Battery Park City. The plan is expected to cover 70 percent of the lower Manhattan shoreline, according to the city’s OneNYC Plan.

For the remaining 30 percent of lower Manhattan’s shoreline, which includes the seaport and the financial district, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency told Gotham Gazette that a two-year master planning process is expected to be completed in 2021.

In terms of creating more resilient infrastructure, the city has focused efforts on upgrading building and zoning codes and investing $1 billion to improve the steam, electric, and natural gas distribution infrastructure of Con Edison facilities. In the aftermath of Sandy, Con Ed agreed to compile a report assessing the effect of the city’s changing climate on its electrical grid. The first chapter of the report (on heat and humidity) was due in 2014. Five years later, the chapter has not yet been delivered, with a new deadline set for the end of this year. And at a hearing last week discussing Con Ed’s response to summer electrical blackouts, Speaker of the City Council called Con Ed’s public response “inadequate and laughable.”

The city has also been working with federal partners, specifically emergency management (FEMA), to create a future flood risk map that can be to be incorporated into building and zoning codes. 

The city has also discussed plans to extend the shoreline of the Financial District and South Street Seaport somewhere between 50 and 500 feet into the East River. Due to the current proximity of businesses to the shore, implementing land-based adaptation measures would be difficult, Bavishi said at the Protecting New York Summit, on a panel alongside Brannan.

“Any land-based protection feature would have to go deep into the neighborhood,” Bavishi said. Instead, the city is planning to build into the water. 

The city will not be able to complete all of its projects without funding and relies on the federal system to receive support for many of its projects, Bavishi said at the summit.

“Funding is a challenge. We have a federal system that funds these kinds of projects in a very reactive way when we inherently want to take proactive action to address these challenges we know are coming,” Bavishi said.

“Our actions will protect Lower Manhattan into the next century. We need the federal government to stand behind cities like New York to meet this crisis head on,” de Blasio said in a March press release.

However, as the city moves ahead with efforts to fortify parts of Manhattan, many have been critical of its work to prevent flooding in the other boroughs, arguing that their risk remains as high as when Sandy hit in 2012.

“My goal with the new [resiliency and waterfronts] committee is to work with the city to make sure folks in the outer boroughs see what the city is working on in their area,” Brannan said at the City & State event. “That the city is focused on them as well, not just lower Manhattan.”

“New Yorkers deserve a mapped-out resiliency plan that protects every community — instead of a single neighborhood,” Constantinides said in a June press release announcing the five-borough resiliency plan legislation he and Brannan were introducing and referencing what some see as the over-focus on lower Manhattan.

However, city administration officials maintain that they are working equally hard to bring resiliency to the other boroughs in addition to Manhattan. Officials point to efforts to bring dunes to the Rockaways and the importation of sand to the city’s beaches. But Brannan and others pan the sand measures as something that might have made sense in 2013 or 2014, but not seven years after Sandy, when stronger and more permanent resiliency measures should either be in place or close to it.

For many of its resiliency projects, the city is working in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To date, the partnership has resulted in the construction of around five miles of new dunes across the Rockaway Peninsula.

What More Can Be Done
The city is currently working with the Army Corps of Engineers on $1 billion worth of resiliency projects, including the beginning of the construction of the Staten Island Levee in 2020, a measure expected to mitigate flood risks along 5.3 miles of Staten Island’s east shore.

In Southeast Queens, the city and the Corps are working on a plan to create a tapered groin field and “reinforced dune on Rockaway Beach combined with a system of berms, floodwalls, and nature-based features to increase resiliency for bayside communities,” according to the OneNYC Plan. The city also says it will soon begin building the Red Hook Integrated Flood Protection System, which is expected to reduce flooding in the area by installing “tiger dams” along the shoreline -- a system of plastic balloons that inflate with water and fill up to create a flood barrier as water moves inland.

In their 2013 “Sandy Success Stories” report, the Environmental Defense Fund found that wetland restoration was key in preventing serious flood damage during Superstorm Sandy. It appeared to work well in Marine Park and Dreier Offerman Park in Brooklyn, for example. However, few if any of the city’s plans include wetland restoration, and the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency did not include it alongside a litany of other projects they would be undertaking.

Among the wetland restoration recommendations in the Sandy Success Stories study are systems to choose plans for their tolerance to flooding and salt inundation, in conjunction with a slope of 1:3. 

“A moderately steep slope seems to provide the most benefits in terms of supporting plant life and habitat, preventing erosion, attenuating wave action, and ensuring survival in the face of sea level rise. At the same time, this slope is shallow enough to minimize the reflection of wave energy that erodes the wetland area,” the recommendation reads.

Council Members Brannan and Constantinides are trying to look at both immediate needs and long-term planning.

“In the short term, we have to promote more green infrastructure,” the two Council members wrote in their recent op-ed. “Bioswales, which are sidewalk gardens, absorb up to 75 percent of stormwater. The Climate Mobilization Act paved the way for green roofs atop newly constructed buildings, which can retain 95 percent of rainwater dropped in summer months. And we have to make serious investments in infrastructure that might not always seem exciting, such as sewers.”

The two plan to hold a joint October City Council oversight hearing on issues faced by coastal areas of the city, post-Sandy recovery, resiliency measures, and the resiliency plan bill they are cosponsoring.

“That is a big part of this committee I’m chairing, the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, where we’re going to take a really close look into what has been done and what has not been done to help make the city of New York more resilient,” Brannan said on Max & Murphy. “When we’re dealing with this thing that is literally a race against the clock, we can’t tie our own hands and sort of hold ourselves hostage to this bureaucracy of how things were done in the past.”

In his May report, Comptroller Stringer called for the city to “develop a citywide comprehensive coastal resiliency plan” while also accelerating the pace of investments into resiliency projects, and expanding a homeowner buyout program in targeted vulnerable neighborhoods, among other measures to protect the city, especially its coastal communities, from the effects of major weather events and climate change.

The citywide plan, Stringer says, “should blend data about sea level rise and other vulnerabilities from the latest science, information about the state of good repair of waterfront assets, and a deep level of community engagement and dialogue” and should be developed by the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and other agencies, including the proposed Mayor’s Office of the Waterfront. In June of last year, Council Member Deborah Rose of Staten Island introduced a bill to create such an office, with Rose calling the waterfront “in many ways our sixth borough.”

That proposal could come up again as the Council examines post-Sandy efforts next month.

“[Constantinides] and I are looking at doing an oversight hearing in October,” Brannan said, “to really dig into the seventh anniversary of superstorm Sandy and where we’re at, what we’ve done and what we haven’t done.”

This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

]]> (Noah Berman) City Wed, 18 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing corey johnson delivers

Speaker Johnson at food policy speech (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council is set to consider a number of bills related to food policy at a hearing Wednesday, including a proposal to codify an Office of Food Policy, a month after Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled an expansive food equity plan with the creation of the office at its center.

The Council’s Committees on General Welfare, Economic Development, and Education will meet at City Hall Wednesday afternoon to examine a package of 14 bills and two resolutions dealing with nutritional access and public education, urban agriculture, and food waste.

Together the bills touch on many of the planks in Johnson’s nascent food platform, which includes expanding existing food programs and tying economic opportunity to farming and nutrition, all under a comprehensive citywide plan coordinated by a newly empowered Office of Food Policy.

Representatives of the Speaker say Johnson will not be attending the hearing, which is expected to be led by Council Members Stephen Levin, Paul Vallone, and Mark Treyger, who chair the three committees. Other members who are either lead sponsors of the legislation at hand or are members of the committees or otherwise interested will also participate.

A number of prominent stakeholders, like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Andrea Strong of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, plan to testify. A representative of the office of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services is also expected to speak.

“Food is a human right. Yet in our city — one of the richest in the world — more than 1 million New Yorkers are food insecure and there is inequitable access to fresh and healthy food in many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Council is working to address these gaps with new legislation and budget proposals.”

On August 1, Johnson released a report entitled “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” which outlined the Council’s agenda to combat inequities in accessing nutritional food and ensure the city has a comprehensive food policy responsive to the needs of different demographics like students, seniors, low-income residents, and non-white New Yorkers. Wednesday’s joint hearing will be the first time the bills are discussed in a formal legislative setting.

Johnson is the co-sponsor of two of the bills being considered, including the proposal to establish an Office of Food Policy and one to increase reporting on the city’s food system, whose main sponsors are Ben Kallos and Paul Vallone, respectively. Council Members Kallos, representing the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Diana Ayala, representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, are co-sponsors of every piece of legislation under review by the committees.

“A lot of these bills are bills on issues we have been working on for quite some time,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “In terms of the overall package, it’s amazing to work with a Speaker who is really empowering so many members -- taking such a large package that is going to do so very much, and sharing it with many members and bringing them into the fight against food insecurity and hunger.”

Under the legislation, the Office of Food Policy would be responsible for developing and coordinating initiatives in four categories: 1. promoting access to healthy food for all city residents; 2. developing support programs to make nutritional food more affordable; 3. expanding reporting in the annual Food System Metrics Report published by the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; and 4. collaborating with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to update food standards for meals purchased, prepared, or served by city agencies. The director of the office would be appointed by the mayor or the head of a mayoral agency.

There is currently an Office of the Director of Food Policy under the mayor, but the position is vacant. It was previously held by Barbara Turk, who has been serving in another role -- senior advisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services -- since April, according to her LinkedIn account.

“We’re hoping to have a director, make sure that that director position is filled, and ensure that they have a directive that spans multiple agencies and that they can hold the agencies accountable,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette.

“We believe that the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy should continue to remain an important asset in the City’s food policy efforts and look forward to discussing these proposals with the Council,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Avery Cohen, wrote in an email. The mayor’s office did not respond to emails asking when the next director of food policy would be appointed or for information about the hiring process.

The bills being heard Wednesday include measures that would fall under the food policy director’s purview, whether that office is codified into law or not.

One bill, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the office to consult with city agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders in the food system to develop a ten-year plan focused on food equity and insecurity. The plan would set goals to increase access to nutritional foods through existing and newly-developed programs, reduce food waste, and develop the economic conditions surrounding urban agriculture. The Office of Food Policy would be required to report on the progress made toward those goals.

Other bills in the package would establish new governmental bodies to deal with other elements of Johnson’s food platform. One measure sponsored by Bronx Council Member Andrew Cohen would create an advisory board to assess and make recommendations regarding the city’s food procurement policy and to evaluate contract bids. Another, sponsored by Council Member Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, would create an Office of Urban Agriculture and an accompanying advisory board to develop and report on a plan to protect and expand urban agriculture.

Under the package, community gardens would be partially protected from opposing land-use interests. The city’s reporting and assessment of the community garden system would be centralized and farmer’s markets would be allowed to operate on their premises, making them more economically viable and increasing access to community-produced healthy food.

The package also includes a focus on improving public engagement with the city’s existing food access programs like Health Bucks -- coupons for low-income New Yorkers to use at farmer’s markets -- farm-to-city projects, nutrition programs in schools, and summer meals.

Another theme is reducing food waste in New York. Johnson’s report cites a National Resources Defense Council analysis claiming the average New York City household wastes 8.7 pounds of food per week, of which six pounds are edible at the time of disposal.

One bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan would require any city agency with food procurement contracts to come up with a plan to limit the amount of food that doesn’t make it to the plate. Under the bill, each agency would be responsible for designating a coordinator to report on its food waste reduction plan and its implementation.

As a whole, the new food plan would require coordination among a myriad of city agencies, like the Human Resources Administration, Department of City Planning, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, among others. Many of the bills in the package are intended to facilitate or mandate that coordination. Two resolutions call on the state to expand supplemental nutrition assistance benefits, one of which will require action by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“A lot of our food programs are spread across multiple agencies and we need somebody focused on them, all working together comprehensively to ensure folks don’t have to deal with hunger or food insecurity,” said Kallos.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Ethan Geringer-Sameth) City Wed, 18 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
7 Years After Sandy - Part I: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed aerial view bridge

Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo: mayor's office)

This is part one of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Part two -- on the city’s stalled and advancing resiliency measures -- can be found hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

When Hurricane Sandy hit in October of 2012, the city was hardly prepared for the disaster. Dozens of lives were lost, thousands of homes destroyed. It’s been well-documented and widely-acknowledged that the rebuilding process has been rife with mismanagement, and new resiliency measures have been slow to materialize as New York anticipates the next big storm.

Yet certain aspects of infrastructure in place when Sandy hit worked well -- and even helped mitigate some of the superstorm’s effects. 

In the days prior to the storm surge, short-range weather forecasts saw it coming, allowing the city to make some adjustments and preparations. Schools closed, shelters opened, and the city’s residents had some limited time to prepare themselves as best possible for the incoming barrage. Those emergency preparations, occurring from roughly 48 hours before the storm hit, “went as good as can be expected considering the region was not at all prepared for a storm surge of this magnitude,” said Eric Goldstein, the New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview with Gotham Gazette just ahead of the seventh anniversary of Sandy.

One complicating factor was that too many residents in vulnerable areas did not heed the city's evacuation order, seemingly jaded by warnings of severe storms that did not materialize.

But even after the storm hit, some frontline areas – those especially vulnerable to residual flooding – mitigated disaster through a variety of protocols, according to “Sandy Success Stories,” a 2013 study by the Environmental Defense Fund that includes key lessons from 2012 and for the future.

Those measures included creation of buffers designed for durability and flood endurance, targeted placement of landscaping and structures, incorporation of durable building materials and waterproof finish, and elevation of sites and equipment. Elevated mechanical and electrical equipment (above a building’s bottom floors) protected it from flood and salt damage, allowing certain important operations to resume more quickly after the storm.

For example: At 200 Water Street in lower Manhattan and the Solar One building on East 23rd Street, elevation of mechanical and electrical equipment ensured it was protected from damages. At beaches where a landscaped dune system existed, including the Beachfront Bungalow Neighborhood in the Far Rockaways, the storm was less devastating.

The study also showed that waterfront parks with plans in place to control flooding and attenuate waves were more resilient when the storm hit. At both Bronx River Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Park, both waterfront, topographic design that took into account flood-protection helped contain flooding. At Bronx River Park, a space was created that could detain water without damage, and at Brooklyn Bridge Park, multiple berms protected the park from flooding. 

Additionally, adherence or adjustment to building codes often proved a recipe for safety during Sandy, according to Thaddeus Pawlowski, director of Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“With two houses right next to each other, the house where you step in right off the street would have gotten knocked off its foundation, and the house next door that’s elevated would have been totally fine,” Pawloski said.

Since Sandy, these building codes have been strengthened with an eye toward future storms and floods, with new waterfront buildings held to higher standards amid a changing climate and its realized and expected impacts. The capability of waterfront infrastructure to withstand flooding will be important regardless of massive storms like Sandy, Goldstein said. With sea levels rising due to climate change, shoreline areas are at risk of flooding following routine rain storms and high tide, he said.

While those waterfront areas that escaped flooding during Sandy were for the most part designed to do so, it was not really with disaster preparation at the forefront, according to Sandy Success Stories. Rather, efforts toward sustainability proved to serve a dual purpose, functioning as emblems of resiliency.

“Many of these actions grew out of the pursuit of social, economic and environmental sustainability – rather than from fear of storm surge – suggesting a strong tie between the current sustainability agenda and physical resiliency,” the study reads.

While many resiliency projects are neighborhood specific, the study showed citywide wetland restoration to have the potential to mitigate flooding. In parks and beaches along the coastline, plants that have a high tolerance for flooding and salt inundation can serve to absorb flood water at a significantly higher pace than freshwater plants, thus serving as an additional mitigating factor to decrease flooding. On beaches especially, dunes proved to be effective flood barriers. While the city has embraced dune construction as a mode of its resiliency projects, it has not shown as much interest in wetland restoration, a major flaw in its post-Sandy response.

Though many of the city’s resiliency projects are neighborhood or borough specific, some citywide initiatives -- like dune construction -- can be undertaken to improve resiliency, while others have been aimed at fixing the devastation Sandy left behind. [Part two of this series will look at the city's limited resiliency efforts since Sandy hit seven years ago.]

Build It Back
In the aftermath of Sandy, the city sought to help rebuild homes of residents that were destroyed in the storm; thus began the Build It Back program, designed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reconstruct or fix damaged homes or reimburse residents for their worth, primarily through federal funding. However, it wasn’t until nearly two years after Sandy hit that the program began to reimburse for destroyed homes, and an additional year until homes began to be rebuilt.

“While we still have a lot of work to do, we are seeing real progress under Build It Back, and more families hurt by Sandy are moving home every week,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a 2017 press release, though he has regularly acknowledged that the program has had significant flaws, and has said that the city would do things totally differently if presented with a similar situation in the future. De Blasio inherited the program from the Bloomberg administration when he took office in January 2014, a little more than a year after Sandy hit. Neither administration managed it well.

According to the city, the Build It Back program has now served 100 percent of applicants, and 99 percent of homes in general, with construction, reimbursement checks, property acquisition or completed construction, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. But while the city claims to have served 100 percent of applicants, many residents who would have qualified for the program left the area to avoid long wait times to rebuild their homes, Goldstein said. Others simply didn’t stick with the program.

One year after the storm hit, 20,275 households had registered for Build it Back, according to a joint study by the city and the Center for Urban Research at the City of New York Graduate Center. Of those registered, 26 percent hadn’t submitted an application for Build It Back, and an additional 26 percent completed an application but did not pick a program option, effectively withdrawing them from Build It Back. Four years after the storm hit, only 8,040 applicants - less than 40 percent of those initially registered - remained in the Build it Back program. 

“7 years later the fog of war clears a little,” Goldstein said. “But for many if not most of the residents they encountered interminable delays and bureaucracy. People who all of a sudden had no place to live and possessions waterlogged were faced with a lot of uncertainty that lasted months or even years.”

The Build It Back program also faced criticism from those who questioned whether homes destroyed by flooding should be rebuilt if they were to remain deep in flood zones, Goldstein said.

“You have to ask what is the strategy for long-term planning for houses that are located in areas subject to repeated flooding?” Goldstein said. “Dealing with the short-term need of property owners to get back into their homes to some extent sidestepped these longer-term questions of where it makes sense for New Yorkers to live in an era of rising seas and climate change.”

Though the city has developed some plans to curtail the effects of climate change on its many miles of coastlines -- including to extend lower Manhattan into the East River and to construct a 5.3 mile levee on Staten Island, from Fort Wadsworth to the East Shore -- there is no comprehensive citywide plan for dealing with the long-term impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable communities along the city’s coasts, Goldstein said.

Seven years after Sandy hit, two City Council Members recently introduced legislation that would force the city to create a five-borough resiliency plan.

“This is a long-term existential threat to the city and the nation and the planet. And unfortunately, in politics, oftentimes short-term issues take precedence over long-term matters even when those long-term matters are greatly important to the very future of the city,” Goldstein said. 

This is part one of a three-part series on 7 Years After Sandy. Read part two -- on the city’s stalled and advancing resiliency measures -- here.

This series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Noah Berman) City Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
One Promising Reform with Rare Support from Both the City and Board of Elections, But Little Movement mayor bdb public

(photo: Edward Reed/Mayor's office)

While city officials and elections administrators clash over what changes the Board of Elections should make to improve operations and the voting experience, one widely-supported option the city could pursue sits on the back-burner.

A municipal poll workers program would allow the Board of Elections to hire Election Day poll workers from a pool of city employees, significantly reducing the hiring and training burdens for administrators and helping to ensure poll sites are more effectively staffed.

The proposal is an unusual point of agreement among the city Board of Elections, the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and good government advocates, who have all indicated varying levels of support for it, and it is one voting policy the city can enact without action in Albany. It would still require compromises, not only between the de Blasio administration and the BOE, but with the city’s politically active municipal labor unions as well.

The mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who have been highly critical of the BOE’s performance, have both said that poll worker hiring and training is among the top priorities they would like to see the board take up. Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director, has repeatedly highlighted a municipal poll workers program as a powerful tool the BOE would like to have at its disposal to better run elections.

“I would like to take this opportunity to renew the Board’s request to enter into a partnership with New York City to develop a robust municipal-workers-as-poll-workers program,” Ryan told Johnson and other Council members at an oversight hearing following the general election last November. Johnson said he was “open to that” but emphasized alternatives he would like to see the board pursue to address training and staffing shortages.

Election Day is perennially plagued by mishaps like jammed ballot scanners and long lines of voters, created or compounded by overworked poll site staff who are not necessarily experienced in liaising with constituents or quickly moving voters through the process, or equipped to handle some of the more technical problems that can arise. Currently, the BOE struggles to recruit the roughly 36,000 temporary poll workers needed to staff a general election day. In part to help fill those positions, the board requires applicants to have few professional qualifications beyond a mandatory four-hour training.

The board currently finds candidates through referrals from local political party organizations, subway ads, a CUNY initiative to recruit students who typically have the day off, and other such avenues. Despite these sources, turnover is high.

Since 2016, the mayor and City Council have offered the BOE $20 million to improve its operations, including $10 million to expand poll worker training, recruitment strategies, and salaries, which the board has repeatedly turned down. Faced with resistance from Ryan, de Blasio has expressed some interest in working with the BOE on a municipal poll workers program, but is also frustrated with the lack of cooperation on his preferred approach.

When asked about the program at a press conference in April, the mayor told reporters, “Look, we’re happy to work with them on any approach that will improve things, but that’s exactly why we offered them the $20 million.”

Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson, affirmed that sentiment in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re committed to having fully staffed polling locations, which is why we’ve offered the BOE $20 million for necessary reforms, including increased staffing. In the meantime, we are exploring whether there is a path forward for a municipal poll workers program in New York City,” he wrote in an email.

Johnson took a tone similar to de Blasio’s when Ryan raised the issue at the November oversight hearing -- frustrated by the BOE’s rejection of city funding, but willing to discuss alternatives. More recently a spokesperson for the Speaker expressed explicit support for a municipal poll workers program to Gotham Gazette, but is not aware of any specific proposals being discussed by the administration. The spokesperson added that it is clear to Johnson that the city needs a robust plan to ensure proper election administration, including staffing at poll sites.

Ryan was hired by the board’s commissioners who are chosen by county party officials and enjoys a high degree of insulation from the mayor’s or Council’s influence. Because they are limited in their ability to compel the board, which is an entity of state law, to take action, de Blasio and Johnson have sought to use the city budget to incentivize reforms. But they have clashed with Ryan over how to spend the money and the best approach to staffing poll sites.

Hovering in the background of this dispute is the possibility of finding common ground on a municipal poll workers program. That would require coordination among city agencies and negotiations with municipal unions, which have never been pursued under de Blasio, according to Bayona.

Under the supervision of poll site coordinators, poll workers are responsible for looking up names and addresses in the voter rolls, distributing ballots, and directing voters to ballot reading machines. They work long hours -- over 16 hours, from 5 a.m. to after 9 p.m. -- and are paid $250 for the day, plus $100 to attend the required four-hour training, according to a BOE spokesperson.

The long hours and low pay make it difficult for the board to recruit and retain poll workers in the leadup to an election. According to a New York Times report, 70 percent of potential poll workers recruited by the board drop out before Election Day. A municipal poll workers program would allow the BOE to supplement its hiring with vetted city employees who have experience providing government services.

"They’re dealing with the challenges of hiring 35,000 poll workers, which is essentially a temporary job that is a couple of days per year. So you’re not going to get the best and the brightest,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy analyst for the good government group Reinvent Albany. “If you tap the city’s’re going to get a much more qualified workforce that at least in theory is used to dealing with people, because they do so at their agencies every day.”

“A lot of the problems would be solved by having city employees work as poll workers, or at least some poll workers,” he added.

Because it is illegal for municipal employees to be paid twice for one day of work -- like being paid by the BOE at the same time that they are on the clock at their primary city job -- the path forward would require a change in the law or a provision in municipal employee contracts.

“So then the question is how to handle it. Is it appropriate to give an additional vacation or personal comp time day in order to balance that out,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the government watchdog Common Cause New York, in an interview.

“That’s a collective bargaining question, which so far it is my understanding the city has not taken up with the unions,” she added.

There are roughly 332,000 full-time city employees, according to Citizens Budget Commission, most of which are represented by unions, such as District Council 37, United Federation of Teachers, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association.

The BOE has also been reticent to allow part-time poll workers to handle problems with ballot scanners -- which are prone to jamming and a major contributor to poll site chaos -- because of the technical expertise required to deal with the machines. Ryan says having an additional team of municipal employees dedicated specifically to clearing simple jams would go far. He has sought a model similar to Los Angeles County’s.

“One of the direct fixes that we can do is have steady staff at the poll sites who are there simply to clear what I am going to refer to as the ‘top-side’ ballot jams,” he told Johnson at the November hearing. “So if a ballot does jam it can be cleared quickly, as opposed to relying on a team of field technicians to have to be dispatched from one location to another.”

If the mayoral administration was interested in pursuing a municipal poll workers program through municipal employee contract negotiations, nothing in the law would prevent it from doing so.

“As a general matter, at present public servants are permitted to work as election day poll workers and translators; they do not require waivers of Chapter 68, the City’s conflicts of interest law, to do so,” wrote Chad Gholizadeh, assistant counsel at the Conflicts of Interest Board. COIB does not have any specific guidance related to poll workers in the rules it has promulgated.

One obstacle the city may face in creating a municipal employee poll worker program is the level of political activity by labor unions in New York. Unions often back candidates and encourage their members to participate in get-out-the-vote campaigns in the leadup to and on Election Day. Having city employees working for the BOE at the polls means they would not be available to do the type of electioneering their unions may endorse.

"We’d have any conversation with [the BOE] but again I find it a little contradictory that we had an approach that would start to address that issue while still allowing city workers to do the work that they are doing – there wasn’t even interest in engaging that seriously," de Blasio said at the April press conference.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who has sponsored legislation on BOE hiring practices, does not believe union political activity has been a consideration for DC37, the city’s largest municipal employee union. “They and their members are just so about the public service and I have never heard a concern that they would prefer to have their members out in the field. For them it’s just about what else can we do to help our city,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Kallos says for DC37 “the only question they had was a logistics question,” like whether the compensation is appropriate and how it would affect time off.

DC37 did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Three other unions representing city employees contacted by Gotham Gazette would not weigh in on a municipal poll workers program.

“We have not seen any details and have taken no position,” wrote Dick Riley, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, in an email, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association declined to comment.

Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents employees of NYCHA, CUNY, and some city agencies, told Gotham Gazette the union would not take a position on a municipal poll workers program without seeing specific proposal details.

He did, however, offer the city some advice: “They need to find qualified people wherever they can.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Ethan Geringer-Sameth) City Mon, 16 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
State Senator Brian Benjamin Explores Run for City Comptroller senator state a

State Senator Brian Benjamin, left, with Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo: @NYSenBenjamin)

The 2021 primary for New York City Comptroller may be 21 months away, but there are already three declared Democratic candidates in the race, and another has now indicated he’s exploring a run. State Senator Brian Benjamin, who represents Upper Manhattan, announced on Thursday that he is testing the waters for a potential bid for comptroller and said he would explore over the next year, including a 2020 Senate reelection campaign, to see if his candidacy is viable.

“I believe that the decisions I have made over my life have really set me up to be uniquely qualified to serve in this role,” Benjamin said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette, citing his work as an affordable housing developer, an investment advisor, and Harvard Business School graduate.

Should he choose to run, Benjamin would likely face New York City Council Members Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal and Assemblymember David Weprin, as well as others who may enter the field ahead of the June 2021 primary, which is likely to be decisive in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. Incumbent Comptroller Scott Stringer will be term-limited out of office in 2021 and is running for mayor.

Benjamin, whose district includes Harlem, the Upper West Side, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights and Morningside Heights, said he will begin to raise funds and drum up support, setting a deadline of November 2020, after he likely earns another two-year legislative term and the presidential election has wrapped up, to make his ultimate decision. “I think a year is enough time to see how it's going,” he said. “Have I raised sufficient resources? Am I getting support of people thinking that I would be a good candidate in that role?”

The comptroller serves as the city’s top fiscal officer, overseeing how city agencies expend resources and auditing their performance, reviewing and approving city contracts, monitoring the city budget, and enforcing the living wage and prevailing wage laws. The comptroller also acts as the fiduciary to the city’s pension funds, worth more than $200 billion. That’s a role that Benjamin says he takes very seriously, particularly as the son of two union workers.

“I've actually done this in the private sector before being a senator,” he said of his investment management experience on Wall Street. He said he could use the pension funds to finance the creation of affordable housing and stem the city’s homelessness crisis. And he proposed creating a public bank to provide loans to affordable housing developers. “A public pension fund has to be mindful of the needs of its constituency,” he said.

He also emphasized that his finance background positions him well to oversee city spending. “It's not my decision as the comptroller to determine where the resources go,” he said. “That’s the mayor's job, the City Council's job. I do believe there's a role for someone to be the chief financial officer to say, ‘Okay, wait a second. Let's evaluate the decisions that have been made, and provide some analysis around whether or not it has accomplished the things that you expected to accomplish when you made the investment.’”

“There is a real role for someone to not be the decider, but to be an analyzer, to be an accountability person,” he added.

Benjamin did praise Stringer’s work in the office and said he would build on it. Two entities he said he would focus on closely are the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the Department of Education.

Along with the other candidates, Benjamin said he would also participate in the city’s public matching funds program, which matches qualifying small dollar donations at an 8-to-1 or 6-to-1 ratio, depending on which of two programs candidates choose for the 2021 cycle. Benjamin said he would aim for the higher match, which comes with lower contribution limits, and also said he would refuse all contributions from individuals who have business with the city.

“I believe very strongly that anybody running should be able to convince ordinary everyday citizens that they are the right person for the job,” he said. Benjamin has over $280,000 in his state campaign account, though it’s unlikely he’d be able to transfer all of it to a city account.

Lander leads the early race in fundraising by a wide margin and has been the most active in working to secure allies and endorsements. He has about $204,000 in his campaign coffers; Rosenthal has about $67,000; Weprin has just under $50,000 but also owes the Campaign Finance Board nearly $320,000 in public funds repayments from his race for comptroller in 2009. 

Next year, Benjamin will be up for reelection to his Senate seat but he doesn’t believe his eye on the comptroller’s race will distract him from his work. Even if it prompts primary challenges, he welcomes them. “Anyone who believes they will be a better senator than me, they should put themselves forward,” he said. “I'm not one of those people who believe in being fearful of whether someone runs against you or not.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Samar Khurshid) City Thu, 12 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: NYPD Counterterrorism Chief John Miller on the Anniversary of 9/11 police wbai b600

NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller (photo: @NYPDnews)

September 11, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: NYPD Counterterrorism Chief John Miller on the Anniversary of 9/11

miller johnNYPD Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller joined the show to discuss the NYPD's counter-terrorism efforts since the attacks of September 11, 2001, how threats to New York City have changed, balancing privacy and security, and other related issues.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Ben Max) City Thu, 12 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part II: Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes mayor bdb voting

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one: New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum: ‘Bad Choices at Every Step'

New York City’s Board of Elections, the maligned ten-member commission responsible for overseeing the administration of voting in the five boroughs, has been the subject of criticism for decades owing to inefficiency and ineffectiveness that often characterize its operations. At the root of the many problems the Board of Elections has in managing voter rolls, poll sites, and other aspects of its domain, are partisanship, patronage, and, as some put it, collusion between the two major parties in order to protect the politically powerful at the expense of regular voters.

The commissioners of the board are appointed by the City Council, but only from selections made by Democratic and Republican party leaders in each borough, giving the major parties ultimate control over election administration and limiting public accountability.

Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director since 2013, receives the harshest censure from elected officials and voters who are frustrated by recurring election failures, but he is accountable almost exclusively to the commissioners who hired and alone can fire him. Nevertheless, he answers questions before the City Council and State Legislature in oversight hearings following each election cycle, where he alternately apologizes for unforeseen circumstances or asserts the limits of his authority to address them.

Reform advocates say the board’s accountability problems stem from its bipartisan structure and a lack of professionalized staff and management. State law requires an even number of commissioners from each of the two parties earning the most votes serve on the board, each checking the actions of the other. In New York City, the board is balanced with a Democrat and Republican from each borough.

While the bipartisanship was intended as a reform to keep election administration fair over a century ago, many say it has led to the entrenchment of political parties and allows the board to operate as a patronage mill, awarding party loyalty over competence, with little concern for achieving the most inclusive and effective democracy possible. The results are administrative blunders -- failing ballot scanners, purged voter rolls, a lack of interpreters and signage at poll sites -- that can deter and even disenfranchise voters.

When Ryan attends oversight hearings at City Hall and in state hearing rooms he has the opportunity to explain these failures but is not otherwise compelled to fix them.

Partisan, or Non-Partisan, Election Administration
The idea of partisan representation in voting administration as a safeguard to the democratic process is highly disputed. One of the biggest criticisms is that power is concentrated in the hands of too few, and leaves unaffiliated voters, so-called third parties, and even rank-and-file major-party voters without a voice in election administration.

Over one million registered voters in New York City -- about one in five -- are not affiliated with either the Republican or Democratic parties. Statewide, nearly 3.5 million registered voters, roughly a third of the total, are not affiliated with either major party.

“If you’re going to have partisans run elections, then you should account for the actual partisanship of the electorate, which is not limited to the two major parties,” Benjamin noted, adding that he is opposed partisan election administration.

Jessica Thurston, communications director of New Kings Democrats, a reform-focused Democratic club in Brooklyn, believes the problem has less to do with partisanship and more to do with county party leaders controlling appointments. The process, she told Gotham Gazette, should be more inclusive of rank-and-file members with the goal of being “representative of the [Democratic] electorate, in as great a proxy as we can summon.”

There are alternative forms of election administration, but they carry their own risks. Thirty-four states have a single administrator -- often called the secretary of state -- who is either elected, appointed by the governor, or selected by the legislature to run elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

“I have never been persuaded that there’s an easy solution to this because...there have been multiple instances of politicized secretary of states’ offices around election administration,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at the good government group Reinvent Albany.

“In 2000, during the controversial Bush v. Gore election, Katherine Harris was the secretary of state in Florida and her name became infamous with politicization of the recount process,” he added. More recently, then-secretary of state for Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp, was accused of suppressing minority voters leading up to his 2018 election as governor over Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has still refused to formally concede the race.

The city Board of Elections is one of a few places where “old style political party control of appointments and resources” -- the type used by party machines to influence voting in the era of Tammany Hall -- still thrives in New York, according to Ester Fuchs of Columbia University, a former Bloomberg administration official. “It’s sort of ironic that it’s concentrated in the Board of Elections, where you want ‘nonpartisanship’ and ‘professionalism’ to be the bywords, not ‘party control.’”

‘Professionalism’ is a common refrain for modern reformers who are wary of a patronage system that rewards party loyalty and connections over qualifications.

“Why is it because you’re a political leader that you can’t pick somebody very competent,” asked Frank Seddio, the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. “Who would decide who those nonpartisan people should be that get hired?”

“What method would he choose?,” he asked of a hypothetical nonpartisan appointment authority.

One solution reformers have proposed is for commissioners and the staff they hire to be professional civil servants like at other city agencies -- subject to competitive hiring and screening by the city -- with the hiring entity also held responsible by other parts of government and the public.

“A lot of times the county election commissioners are the county party chairs, or their wives, or their cousins. So it turns out it’s used as a way for giving financial support to a person who spends most of their time on partisan activities,” according to Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz.

Some feel the bigger problem is the patronage concentrated in the lower ranks of the elections bureaucracy, like the coordinators and part-time employees needed to certify the voter rolls and manage polling locations in the lead-up to and on election days.

“It’s a patronage mill particularly for the people at the bottom who are probably getting minimum wage or very slightly above,” said Esmeralda Simmons, a veteran election lawyer and founder of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

State law gives Ryan the discretion to hire the staff of the city Board of Elections under the supervision of the commissioners, with deference to the two-party split, which the board interprets as extending throughout the agency’s ranks. The lack of accountability “arises out of a particular portion of the law that gives the board absolute, unreviewable discretion regarding who to hire,” according to Lerner. “Now that’s clearly designed to protect patronage.”

Ryan told Gotham Gazette in 2017 that the BOE, according to state law, cannot question the credentials of workers forwarded by district leaders. “It’s up to the local party’s discretion who they want to designate and it’s not for us to question,” he said.

The hiring procedures based on party affiliation and the low pay means the board is often hiring under-qualified candidates who have limited employment options. “They only got the job because a district leader or the county leader asked for them to be hired, otherwise they never would be there,” according to Simmons.

“It has nothing to do with intelligence, but it does have a lot to do with where you can get a job,” she added.

Experts say the patronage leads to inefficiencies and limits the capacity of the city Board of Elections. “These are not professional civil servants that can be easily removed…[nor is there] any kind of broad based accountability to somebody who is elected, like a mayor or even a member of the City Council,” said Fuchs.

The outcome is a system that is antiquated and resistant to change, she said, and inefficiencies contribute to mishaps in election processes, especially at the polls.

At the city Board of Elections operations are largely paper-based, a surprise to many observers who have seen government agencies across the board embrace digital technologies. While acknowledging the importance of paper ballots to protect the integrity of elections against cybersecurity threats, reform advocates have pushed for a process of fully online voter registration.

The State Legislature passed a law earlier this year to allow the use of electronic poll books, rather than cumbersome and limited paper books, which many view as essential to implementing the new early voting process that was also approved.

Another commonly cited problem is that poll workers are overworked and under-trained leading to disorganization and misinformation on election days. Poll workers navigating large poll books by hand is often cited as a contributor to long lines and confusion at poll sites. But there are new concerns about whether poll workers will be trained well enough in the use of electronic books for the new technology to be as effective as intended.

Ryan has asked for, and Council Speaker Johnson and Mayor de Blasio have expressed openness toward, a municipal poll worker program to help recruit the tens of thousands of vetted employees needed to staff poll sites on election days. The program would require a partnership with city agencies and raises collective bargaining questions, which it appears the city has not tackled.

Since the State Legislature passed a series of voting reforms this year, like early voting and voter registration transfers, reformers and administrators alike have been concerned about the board’s capacity to roll these out effectively.

“I don’t think [the Board of Elections is] really trying to adversely impact elections,” said Fuchs. “They can’t roll out the whole thing more efficiently than they are proposing because they don’t have the capacity and they don’t want to let go of control,” she said referring to the BOE’s plan to open just 38 early voting sites despite the city’s offer to fund 100 locations.

For Simmons, it comes down to a “basic question: If the operations don’t work, how are the elections working? They are not...Let’s see how they do with all of these great good government improvements still within the same system.”

There is a feeling among reformers that, if the board is not required to act by law, it will not implement changes to improve the voter experience. Attempts have been made to encourage the city Board of Elections to improve poll worker staffing, increase accessibility, and conduct more comprehensive voter outreach. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have offered the board significant additional city funding to implement some of these, which it has turned down.

A major issue for advocates is language access. Simmons’ center, along with other groups, has been pushing the Board of Elections to provide non-English materials at poll sites. “The only time the Board of Elections would translate materials is when the Justice Department required them to do it -- this is real, this is still happening -- even if they knew there was a large population that did not speak English,” she said, referring to events within the last decade.

An Agency of the City?
What makes failed attempts for accountability and improvement so frustrating to reformers is that the city Board of Elections appears to be a city agency in many senses, yet it operates largely beyond the influence of the mayor and City Council.

The city funds the board’s budget almost entirely, according to Bernard O’Brien, a senior budget analyst at the Independent Budget Office; and the City Council technically appoints its commissioners (though it doesn’t ‘select’ them). An informal opinion issued by the state attorney general in 1989 determined “the Board is a local agency.”

But boards of elections are ultimately given their authority by state law. “Any powers the city enjoys are really delegated powers,” said Joseph Viteritti, chair of the Urban Policy and Planning Department at Hunter College.

While state law outlines its general format and obligations, it gives considerable authority to localities. The election law is structured so that local laws still apply unless they are explicitly prohibited by the state. There are also provisions of the municipal home rule law that give the city authority to deal with aspects of voting and elections.

For example, lower and appellate courts have upheld the city’s campaign finance law as a valid exercise of the city’s home rule powers, according to Rick Schaffer, chair of the city Campaign Finance Board, which is nonpartisan. (The city campaign finance system is more robust and extensive than the state’s regulations, which were established in the same provision that created the State Board of Elections as an oversight body in 1974.)

The same process that established the city’s campaign finance system -- a charter revision commission -- will place a new voting system known as ranked-choice voting on the ballot this November. If voters approve it, the city charter will be amended and the Board of Elections will have to implement the changes.

Yet, despite the city’s enormous political and fiduciary interest in election administration, many argue city elected officials have limited tools with which to compel action. Short of offering funding in exchange for certain obligations, deputizing the (new) chief democracy officer to work with the board, or empanelling a charter revision commission, the city has few options. “This mayor and this Council I think have done a lot, particularly the mayor, to try to encourage the board [of elections] to perform better,” Camarda of Reinvent Albany told Gotham Gazette.

Not everyone agrees. Some advocates feel that one of those tools -- the city’s budget authority, and the use of binding terms and conditions -- is not being employed effectively to direct the actions of the board. “Other counties use the budget to rein in or prohibit the board from doing unacceptable things. Our city does not,” according to Lerner. “And I think again it’s because of the political nature of the body.”

Ryan’s arrival in City Hall after the general election provided reformers a tiny foothold on which to seek accountability, even from the Council. “If there is a problem, if the Council has passed a law that the Board of Elections is not following, and the Board of Elections refuses to follow it after negotiations and various requests, frankly, the city is going to have to sue because otherwise the law is useless,” Lerner told the Council members assembled.

"What we have is a showgame,” she said in an interview with Gotham Gazette, “where elected officials are more than happy to criticize the board publicly, but are not doing anything effective to rein it in."

[This is part two of a two-part series. Revisit part one here.]

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Ethan Geringer-Sameth) City Wed, 11 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part I: 'Bad Choices at Every Step' joint comm hearing regarding issues

NYC BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

After each election cycle, New York elected officials, government insiders, and interested members of the press and public gather at City Hall and in other hearing rooms for a bit of political theater. The protagonist is the electorate, or the democratic process, itself; the one cast as villain is Michael Ryan, the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, who is there to respond to questions about how voting went that year.

“Mr. Ryan, do you apologize to the public for what happened on Election Day?” asked City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in the opening question of an oversight hearing following the calamitous midterm elections this past November.

Ryan has been responsible for election administration in the city since August 2013, when he was selected to replace former executive director George Gonzalez. Gonzalez had been fired three years earlier after a botched general election in 2010 and the position had been left vacant. In the six years since Ryan’s appointment, elections have been plagued by poorly trained staff and failing machinery. Confusing ballot design and limited translation services have added to the frustration many voters experience trying to access the polls.

Responding to Johnson, Ryan went along with the apology, a tack he often takes when he’s not defending his agency’s work. "Yes we do,” he said. “We want what you all want and what the voters want: an ease of experience."

While he occasionally testifies at the City Council or the State Legislature, mostly acting as a punching bag for venting politicos, Ryan gets his authority through an irregular -- explicitly partisan -- process in New York State, which allows his agency to avoid a high degree of public accountability. The structure has been criticized for creating a system of election administration that is resistant to modernization and favors the type of political patronage characteristic of machine party politics. Experts say the patronage causes extensive inefficiency throughout what should be a coherent 21st century election system.

“The problem is operational. The BOE’s technical capacity and its inefficiency does have consequences for the integrity, fairness, and the equity of the election process,” said Ester Fuchs, director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia University, in an interview.

As executive director, Ryan really only answers to the ten commissioners of the New York City Board of Elections. They hired him, and only they can fire him. Amid the 2018 Election Day snafus, Johnson called for Ryan’s resignation, but he still has the job.

A Creature of State Law
The New York City Board of Elections is governed by state law, which gives power to the City Council to appoint commissioners, but the Council must make the appointments from lists selected by political party leaders at the county level. A balance of five Democratic and five Republican commissioners is supposed to add checks within the system, but critics say it serves more to protect incumbents from challengers.

Ryan and the agency he manages are still the subject of scrutiny by the City Council at oversight hearings, but are ultimately controlled by the Democratic and Republican party organizations in each county (borough). Though the city BOE receives most of its funding from city government, its policies are largely based on state law, state Board of Elections guidance, and its own commissioners’ decisions. It generally has not responded to the law-making power of the City Council, nor the directives of the Mayor.

The State Board of Elections, which also has a bipartisan structure, functions as an elections and campaign finance oversight body, unlike the city board. The state BOE sets certain rules and regulations that local boards, including New York City’s, must follow.

Good government advocates say the structures of the city and state boards of election make major-party collusion possible, transparency elusive, and efficiency second to party loyalty.

“Every step along the way the board makes bad choices and they are never held accountable for it,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of good government group Common Cause New York, in testimony at the City Council oversight hearing on last year’s elections. She was talking about the board’s decisions around ballot design and staff training, which advocates have sought to influence and improve upon for years without success.

Running Elections, Poorly
The city Board of Elections is responsible for carrying out all the administrative functions of running elections across the five boroughs. In reality, it is a decentralized operation in which the executives of the city board oversee five borough boards with few direct management controls.

“Each one of the borough boards operates a little fiefdom and they do what they do,” Lerner said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Local patronage dictates hiring practices all the way down to the part-time poll workers, often chosen by party district leaders, who do not have to pass a civil service exam like other professionals in city government.

The board is responsible for arranging the sites where elections are held, ensuring proper equipment and staffing are present, registering voters, certifying the contents of the ballot, and securing, validating, and counting them after an election. This requires an immense amount of recruitment and training, machine testing, and government contracting, much of which must be done according to guidelines outlined in state law and regulations.

Voters in the November elections -- which included congressional, state legislative, and statewide races -- turned out in modern record numbers across the five boroughs, overwhelming poll sites and ballot scanners, and causing lines out into the rain. Ryan admitted at the hearing that the board was unprepared for the number of voters, despite the high turnout in the primaries that preceded the general election and the overall atmosphere of heightened political engagement in the Trump era.

Turnout in 2018 was still lower than in a presidential year. There were similar problems in 2016 and many are worried about the upcoming 2020 elections, for which turnout is expected to be enormous. New reforms like early voting and electronic poll books offer the potential to ease the burden on the board and those administering elections, but could also lead to new hurdles.

Other problems, like the way the 2018 ballots were designed and how well each poll site was staffed, also contributed to the debacle.

The unusual two-page, perforated ballot used to accommodate three additional ballot questions where confusing to voters and jammed scanners frequently, especially after getting damp from the rain. The average time a scanner broke down was roughly 53 minutes while poll site coordinators waited for a limited number of available technicians per borough. At some poll sites, all scanners were down at once.

Critics including Johnson, Lerner, and others at the Council hearing, wondered why the BOE had not taken greater steps to test scanners and train staff in handling the new ballot format, and why they would not allow translators of certain languages at the polls.

Reformers in and out of city government have for decades been pushing for changes to address election administration failures, which make voting difficult, discourage turnout, and can even disenfranchise voters.

Election after election, they seek improvements like more interpreters at poll sites, better voter outreach, professional staffing, and a less paper-based system while maintaining security. But advocates often face resistance or inaction and have virtually no recourse to the commissioners or the party leaders who pick them. The line of accountability is blurred, with only a distant state law to ultimately point to.

“Mr. Speaker, we have to work to re-earn your trust and I appreciate that,” Ryan said, addressing Johnson at the oversight hearing in November. As is typical at these hearings, no elections commissioners spoke that day. Ryan took the punches, even as he discussed what was beyond his authority.

The Two-Party Split
Many of the board’s problems can be traced to its bipartisan structure -- the two-party split that is built into its operations. The partisan balance is the result of reforms made over a century ago to create a system of checks and balances within the election process, but experts say it no longer works.

“This is a vestige of the most well-regarded thinking about preventing fraud in the late 19th century. There was no such thing as a nonpartisan approach back then,” Lerner told Gotham Gazette.

Controlling election administration had a great deal to do with controlling the outcomes. Following intense public debate around the turn of the last century, the state passed reforms based on the idea that the two major parties “would watch each other and make the election system honest,” according to Gerald Benjamin, director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

Each county has a bipartisan board of elections with commissioners representing the two major political parties, as mandated in the state constitution. According to state election law, each county board must have an equal number of commissioners -- one, or in some cases two -- from each of the two parties earning the highest votes; New York City’s five counties fall into one citywide board with 10 commissioners -- one Republican and one Democrat chosen from the party leaders in each of the five boroughs.

“The partisan dimension is what keeps it equal,” Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Frank Seddio said in an interview. “For every Democratic worker in the Board of Elections there is a Republican worker in the Board of Elections, which balances the actions of the board, so to speak.”

It has also had the effect of entrenching the established party organizations, and creates the prospect of them “collaborating to the disadvantage of insurgencies in either of the parties,” according to Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz.

Changing the bipartisan structure in the state constitution is an arduous process that would require the Legislature to pass an amendment in two consecutive sessions and for voters to approve it. Many legislators also hold leadership positions in the county party organizations that select elections commissioners under the current system.

“Corruption is a lesser problem than collusion. The majority of the Board of Elections is needed to act. Since there are two commissioners, that means they both have to agree,” Benjamin said, referring to a typical county board, which has two commissioners (as is the case for each borough in New York City). Benjamin was an elected member of the Ulster County Legislature during the 1980s and early ‘90s, and said he received selections from county party leaders from which to appoint elections commissioners.

“Any one commissioner can block an action. If somebody complains about something or there’s an appeal to the board, they can get together and say, ‘You back me on this one, I’ll back you on that one.’ That kind of thing happens all the time,” he said.

"The idea that the Democrat and the Republican would collude against the voter has never occurred to anybody," Lerner said, "but that’s what we’re seeing."

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two -- Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes -- will be published soon.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

]]> (Ethan Geringer-Sameth) City Tue, 10 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000