Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Stated Meeting: Scratching Out Etching Acid

Photo (cc) David Boyle


Carving out another obstacle for graffiti "vandals," the City Council approved legislation Wednesday that requires merchants who sell etching acid to keep purchasers' personal information for a year.

Its effects apparent on storefront windows and bus station vestibules, etching acid has become the "most destructive" of graffiti tools, said the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. Approved by a vote of 49 to 2, the legislation will fine store owners who fail to take down a buyer's name, address, type of identification, amount of acid bought and the date of purchases.

Also Wednesday, the City Council unanimously approved a bill to survey the city's wetlands and then create a preservation and development plan for them.

Another Graffiti Regulation

A common tool in art and construction, etching acid is a corrosive material used to carve out designs on glass or finish concrete surfaces. In New York City, an individual must be 21 years old to purchase etching acid, which can be found at art and hardware stores.

More recently, said the bill's supporters, it also has been used to deface public property. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority spends $11 million annually to replace windows scarred by etching acid, according to the City Council.

Officials estimate it can cost a storeowner $1,000 to replace a storefront window that has been etched and become a victim of "scratchiti."

"It destroys everything it touches, burns right down to the bone," said Vallone. His bill, he said, "will make vandals think twice."

To curb some of the vandalism, the legislation (Intro 380-A) would require personal identification be checked by the retailer and kept on file for a year. After a year, the information would be shredded, said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Keeping the personal information on file will act as a deterrent, said Quinn, but it also serves as a tool for law enforcement if they see scratchiti incidents skyrocket in certain areas. Police can then go to neighborhood retailers and determine who has been purchasing the product.

Retailers and buyers will be fined between $100 and $250 for violating the legislation.

The mayor is expected to sign the bill. Councilmembers Melissa Mark Viverito and Charles Barron voted against the measure. Barron, who called the bill "an intrusion into the lives of artists," said the city should consider more creative proposals, like community murals, to stop graffiti.

"We cannot turn this into a police state to stop graffiti," said Barron.

The New York Civil Liberties Union agrees. Robert Perry, the group's legislative director, said local retailers cannot be charged with safeguarding the personal information of consumers. That, he said, is not how to stop vandalism.

"If you want to prevent subway graffiti, prosecute the offenders," said Perry. "This is not a government agency like the DMV. You're talking about a retailer who is going to be collecting this information."

When asked if the civil liberties union would take the legislation to court, a spokesperson said the group would explore all of its options and monitor the law's enforcement.

The regulation of etching acid is the latest in a long history of anti-graffiti measures at the City Council, some of which have caught the attention of civil rights advocates and courts. Vallone, a notorious graffiti opponent, had tried to require permits for etching acid in the original version of the bill.

In the past, he also has attempted to ban the possession of wide-tipped markers and etching acid by those under 21. A federal court struck down the ban, and the legislation was later retooled to provide exemptions for artists and students.

Wetlands Protection

To protect the city's dwindling wetlands, the council also approved a bill (Intro 506-A) requiring the city survey all of the five boroughs' remaining wetlands in order to develop a plan for protection and development.

At one point, the city had more than 224,000 acres of freshwater wetland. But now, said the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Jim Gennaro, it has just 2,000. Salt-water wetlands have also seen their numbers dwindle thanks to erosion, dredging, construction and filling. About 75 percent of the 100,000 acres have been eradicated.

Currently, state law protects wetlands larger than 12.4 acres and smaller wetlands that have “unusual local importance."

This bill would require the Department of Environmental Protection identify all of the remaining wetlands by the end of July, and then draft a wetlands protection policy aimed at restoring the wetlands themselves and certain wild populations, from oysters to eelgrass.

Role Reversal: Contributions from Candidates

Just two candidates currently running for public advocate or city comptroller contributed to the Working Families Party last year, according to the Campaign Finance Board. Coincidentally, they were the same two candidates who received the party's endorsement.

Council members John Liu, a comptroller candidate, and Bill de Blasio, who is running for public advocate, each doled out $10,000 to the third party last October, both saying it to went to fight against the extension of term limits.

About six months later, though, their contributions may have been rewarded with an influential endorsement from the group, opponents allege. A Working Families Party spokesman said the donations did not curry any favor at the endorsement table. The group based its decision on merit, said spokesperson Dan Levitan, calling Liu and de Blasio brave for standing up against the term limit extension.

When the candidates made the donations, representatives say, they were running for different offices -- Liu for public advocate and de Blasio for Brooklyn borough president.

But like it or not, this is not the first (nor will it be the last) time political contributions from city candidates can be connected with the endorsements they receive months or years down the road. A long established practice, city candidates dole out funding from their campaign accounts to political groups and other New York politicians. Whether it's taking out an ad in a Working Families Party brochure, giving $500 to the re-election campaign of an influential assemblymember, donating $100 to the Stonewall Democrats or paying $135 to attend a luncheon held by the 504 Democrats, candidates for citywide office are making their rounds across the city via checkbook, and some expect payback.

No one may be looking for a reimbursement more than Liu, who in this election cycle has given 77 contributions, or $62,400, to political groups or candidates -- the most of any city candidate. During the 2005 cycle, when he was running for re-election to the City Council, Liu gave just five of these types of contributions, according to the Campaign Finance Board.

A Small Amount, But Large Paybacks

So far this election cycle, $346,440 has been spent by candidates on contributions to city organizations or other campaigns -- about 2 percent of the $14.5 million candidates have spent for the 2009 race so far.

Following Liu in handing out political contributions is Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz with $42,700, councilmember and comptroller candidate David Weprin with $22,110, de Blasio with $14,750, and comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr. with $12,965.

These officials have bestowed their campaign dollars on fellow candidates. For instance, comptroller candidate and Councilmember Melinda Katz contributed $300 to Councilmember Dan Garodnick, who is running for re-election.

Or they gave to local organizations, like the $1,000 Weprin gave to Young Israel of Holliswood this cycle.

And sometimes it seems to pay off.

In addition to the Working Families Party endorsement, Liu has seen a couple of other nods from groups that he has contributed to. Last December, the council member gave $1,000 to the Transit Workers Union Local 100 for an ad and tickets to a fundraiser. Little more than three months later, Liu received the local's endorsement -- the first of his campaign.

Liu also gave a $250 donation last year to the McManus Democratic Association in Midtown , and he won their support. (In 2006, Weprin also gave to the group.)

The Liu campaign contends he is trying to connect with constituents. Liu's campaign spokesperson Juanita Scarlett said, "John Liu has supported organizations that share his views and priorities on issues critical to middle class families in New York -- issues such as health care, education, jobs and economical development." Giving to Democratic clubs, she added, "allow[s} him the opportunity to connect with voters who are knowledgeable on priority issues."

But his competitors allege the contributions are not so clean.

"I think it's ironic that someone running for comptroller -- who we are supposed to evaluate on financial uprightness -- paid for an endorsement," said Katz campaign spokesperson Ben Branham.

Liu is not the only candidate who has received endorsements from groups or other officials they contributed to.

Public advocate candidate and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel was the only candidate in that race to give any money to the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats last year, and he gave just $60. This year, he got their endorsement.

Regulated Enough?

By the looks of it, candidates will continue the practice until this November and beyond. In 2005, candidates shelled out $708,895 as contributions to colleagues and political clubs across the city.

According to Eric Friedman of the Campaign Finance Board, candidates cannot use public funding to contribute to another candidate or a political organization. "CFB rules protect taxpayer funds from being funneled through one campaign to another," Friedman said. "Political contributions are not an acceptable use of public matching funds. But the law does allow candidates to use privately raised funds to make contributions to other candidates or political committees."

While good government groups are critical of the practice, they are not looking to ban it or regulate it further. Calling the donations "ethically dubious," Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, the sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher, said candidates will give to groups or other candidates in hopes of gaining support.

"It's a practice that can't and shouldn't be banned, but it's questionable and arguably distasteful," Dadey said. "The contributors give to candidates with the knowledge that candidates will do what is necessary to win elections."

Logically, any citywide candidate is going to spend millions of dollars in hopes of getting elected. So, according to Gene Russianoff at the New York Public Interest Research Group , candidates who send their checks to groups or candidates across the city in hopes of getting support see that as an effective political strategy.

"They are spending on this instead of direct mail," said Russianoff. "They are making a political judgment."

If they want to spend their campaign contributions on donations to other groups, the law won't be there to stop them.

City Gears Up for Green Buildings

Photo (cc) broddi

This story originally incorrectly said there were 90,000 buildings in the city. It has been corrected to state that there are 975,000 buildings and properties, according to the city's Buildings Department.

Perfectly timed for Earth Day, the Bloomberg administration and the City Council introduced a package of legislation yesterday that seeks to improve energy efficiency in large commercial buildings and could require about 20,000 buildings to improve their use of electricity.

The plan hopes to reduce the city's carbon footprint by 5 percent -- roughly comparable to the carbon emissions generated by Oakland, Calif.

A combination of updating the energy code and creating efficiency and lighting standards, the energy plan already has racked up criticism from a wide array of interest groups, including the real estate industry and tenants rights advocates. Many are concerned over the financial impact of the legislation.

In addition to the energy efficiency legislation, the council also approved bills to create the city's own brownfield remediation program, warn parents of hot playground equipment and to require that the city report incidents in juvenile facilities.

Energy Introductions

At least 85 percent of the buildings that exist today still will be here in another 20 years, said city officials. So the best way for the city to decrease its carbon footprint is to focus on the built environment we already have.

"This is really the first time the city's iconic skyline will be moved into the 21st century to make sure that it isn't just great, but that it's actually green," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

The package -- a combination of four bills, two of which had been introduced before -- includes legislation that would require buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to audit their energy usage and make efficiency upgrades once every decade. Robert Newman, the council's legislative director, said the legislation would start by selecting 2,200 large buildings at random and audit their usage.

Those property owners could then be forced to retrofit their buildings, but only if the upgrade would pay for itself after five years, said city officials. For instance, if an audit found that the building needed better insulation, the owner would most likely have to better seal the building because the payback for that type of efficiency would occur after two and half years.

Many upgrades, from trading in current light fixtures for compact florescent bulbs to using efficient showerheads, pay for themselves after a period of nine months to two and a half years, according to city officials.

The package includes $16 million in stimulus funding to help property owners afford the building improvements. Even with that fund, though, the real estate industry is expected to balk at the legislation because the payback is not immediate.

"It's going to be really, really hard," said Newman of convincing some building owners to sign on.

If the package is enacted, building owners could save $750 million, said Newman.

The package would not require that buildings reduce their energy consumption by a certain percentage, but instead ensure that buildings abide by certain energy standards, such as using efficient Energy Star equipment.

Some of these improvements, advocates warn, could end up becoming permanent improvements to rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments, which landlords could then use to increase rents. Advocates say these improvement could amount to $275 per apartment annually.

"The whole premise of the green building's legislation is that efficient improvements will only be mandated if they will be paid back to the owner through energy savings, rent increases based on these steps should be prohibited. How can you have a landlord benefit twice -- once through savings on their energy bills and again through higher rents from tenants," said Judith Goldiner of the Legal Aid Society.

Quinn said that this would not be the intention of the legislation, and officials would work to prevent increases.

The legislative package also would require commercial buildings of more than 50,000 square feet to improve their lighting systems to meet the New York City Energy Conservation Code, which mandates a certain level of efficiency. That bill would not apply to residential spaces.

The city also proposed to close a loophole in that code that exempts renovations which account for less than 50 percent of a property from complying with the efficiency standards. If approved, any renovation would have to be in line with the code.

The legislation covers about 22,000 of the city's 975,000 buildings and properties, but, said city officials, about half of the city's total square footage. City buildings are also included, officials said.


The City Council unanimously approved legislation ( Intro 21a) that would establish an Office of Environmental Remediation, which would be charged with cleaning up the city's brownfields.

Currently, said the bill's sponsor Councilmember James Gennaro, the state denies aid to clean up much of the city's contaminated land, or brownfields, because they are "historic fill," meaning it would not pose an immediate hazard to groundwater. It is, therefore, too contaminated for many uses but not contaminated enough for state cleanup.

Under this bill, Gennaro said that land would be targeted by the city for cleanup and reuse.

"Most of the 7,000 to 8,000 acres of brownfields that we have would not qualify for the state program," said Gennaro. "So it's important we do what we do best: Do it ourselves."

Hot Turf

The council approved legislation requiring playgrounds to post warning signs that equipment, from slides to surfaces, could be hot. The move comes after several children received second-degree burns last year.

The bill (Intro 896a) was approved by a vote of 46 to 2 with council members Melissa Mark Viverito and Rosie Mendez dissenting. Both voted against the bill because the warning language was "significantly weakened" during the legislative process.

The bill requires signs that read: "Warning: Some surfaces may be hot. Please take precautions with exposed skin." The legislation will take effect in 45 days, so signs should be on city playgrounds by the height of summer.

Reporting on Juveniles

Last year, Christopher Robinson, a Rikers Island inmate, was beaten to death while incarcerated for a parole violation. That incident sparked the City Council to unanimously approve legislation (Intro 937), which requires the Department of Correction report incidents that occur in juvenile facilities.

City officials hope that by tracking these incidents they can spot trends and prevent similar incidents in the future, said the bill's sponsor, Councilmember Letitia James.

The department will be required to report statistics on stabbings, hospital admissions that occur from assaults on staff, fights resulting in serious injury, attempted suicides and sexual assaults. Though the department reports some statistics from Rikers already, they do not break information down to this level, said James.

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