Gotham Gazette

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Williams Remains Public Advocate; Katz Next Queens DA; Ranked-Choice Voting on Its Way; & More: Election Results 2019

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(photo: Gotham Gazette)

After about 60,000 New York City voters took advantage of the first early voting period in city history, albeit during an especially quiet electoral year, more than 650,000 others went to the polls on Election Day 2019, providing mostly expected results and approving multiple controversial ballot proposals to change city elections and governance. This year provided a helpful initial test run for early voting and all that goes with it, such as electronic poll books and a lot of poll-worker training, before what is expected to be an incredibly tense and busy 2020 election year, with especially high turnout for the presidential election, as well as those for Congress and the State Legislature.

After winning a special election earlier this year, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, was reelected Tuesday to serve the rest of the term through the end of 2021. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, also a Democrat, was elected Tuesday to become the next Queens District Attorney, a four-year term beginning at the start of 2020. Council Member Farah Louis, who replaced Williams in the City Council after winning her own prior special election, also retained her seat and can serve through at least 2021.

And the relatively small number of New York City voters who turned out this fall (about 15% of the city's 4.8 million active registered voters) -- from the inaugural early voting period and on Election Day -- also approved 19 specific changes to city elections and governance with overall “yes” votes on five ballot proposals. Those changes include instituting ranked-choice voting for party primary and special elections; bolstering the agency that investigates and prosecutes certain allegations of police officer misconduct; and making several tweaks to ethics, budgeting, and land use laws.

Along with those candidate races, there were a variety of judicial elections around the city, and some candidates with regularly-scheduled elections -- namely Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark and Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon -- ran unopposed. It was a slightly more exciting election year than expected given the special elections for Public Advocate and City Council, and the Queens District Attorney Democratic primary that ended with Katz winning in a recount.

Adding to the intrigue was the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, which put the 19 proposals in five questions on the ballot. With all the questions approved by voters, the following changes are among those that will be instituted (some of the language is directly from the charter commission’s materials):

-Ranked-choice voting for party primary and special elections for the offices of Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, and City Council Member. This will begin on or after January 1, 2021.

-The time to hold a special election after a city office is left vacant is extended to 80 days.

-Alters the structure of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) by adding two members, one from the Public Advocate and a joint appointment by the Mayor and the City Council, who would also serve as chair.

-Provides that the Council directly appoints its members to the CCRB.

-Requires the Police Commissioner provides a detailed explanation to the CCRB when deciding to impose discipline on an officer that differs from the level of discipline recommended by either the CCRB or the NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials.

-Allows the CCRB Board to delegate its subpoena power to its Executive Director.

-Allows the CCRB to investigate potentially false official statements made by an officer it is investigating and to recommend discipline, if appropriate.

-Provides a minimum budget to the CCRB sufficient to fund CCRB staff equal to 0.65% of the number of uniformed police officers, unless the Mayor determines that fiscal necessity requires a lower budget.

-Extends the post-employment appearance ban for elected officials and certain senior appointed officials from one year to two years for employees/officials who leave city service on or after January 1, 2022.

-Amends the structure of the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) by replacing two members now appointed by the Mayor with one member appointed by the Comptroller and one appointed by the Public Advocate.

-Limits the political activity of COIB Board members by prohibiting participation in campaigns for local elected offices, and reducing the maximum amount of money that they can contribute to the amounts that candidates can receive from those doing business with the city ($400 or less, depending on the office).

-Requires that the Citywide M/WBE Director report directly to the Mayor and be supported by a mayoral office of M/WBEs.

-Requires advice and consent by the City Council for the Mayor’s appointment of the Corporation Counsel.

-Allows the city to use a “rainy day fund” to save money for use in future years, such as for addressing unexpected financial hardships. (Changes to state law will also be needed for this rainy day fund to be usable.)

-Sets guaranteed minimum budgets for the Public Advocate and Borough Presidents at or above their respective Fiscal Year 2020 budgets, adjusted in future fiscal years by the lower of inflation or the percentage change in the city’s total expense budget (excluding certain components), unless the Mayor determines that fiscal necessity requires a lower budget.

-Requires the Mayor to submit the revenue estimate to the City Council by April 26 (instead of June 5).

-Requires the Mayor to submit budget modifications to the Council within 30 days after the submission of any periodic update the city’s financial plan during the year.

-Provides a ULURP Pre-Certification Notice Period by requiring the Department of City Planning to transmit a detailed project summary of ULURP applications to the affected Community Board, Borough President, and Borough Board at least 30 days before the application is certified for public review, and to post that summary on its website.

-Provides Community Boards with additional time to review ULURP applications certified for public review by the Department of City Planning between June 1 and July 15, from the current 60-day review period to 90 days for applications certified in June, and to 75 days for applications certified between July 1 and July 15.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Securing Two More Years as Public Advocate, Williams to Keep Pushing De Blasio on Housing, Policing


Jumaane Williams (photo: @nycpa)

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, easily won his reelection bid on Tuesday, beating Republican Joseph Borelli, a City Council member from Staten Island, and Libertarian Party nominee Devin Balkind. With about 723,000 votes counted and 90% of election precincts reporting at midnight, Williams had received 78% of the vote (563,000 votes) to Borelli's 20% (144,400) and Balkind's 2% (14,500).

Williams previously represented Brooklyn in the New York City Council and was first elected to the public advocate’s office in a crowded February special election, replacing now-Attorney General Letitia James. Election law required him to defend his seat in the November election, and after emerging victorious, he will now serve out the remainder of the term which runs through 2021.

Though the public advocate’s office, with its annual budget of just under $4 million, has limited power, it is one of three citywide elected positions and gives its holder a bully pulpit to raise issues and to hold the mayoral administration to account. It is meant to act as an ombudsperson for the public, hearing and investigating complaints and advocating on New Yorkers’ behalf.

The public advocate can also introduce legislation in the City Council but cannot cast a vote on any bills. The office is also considered a launching pad to higher office. Before James was elected in 2013, the seat was held by de Blasio for one term. Williams, however, has repeatedly pledged that he will not run for mayor in 2021. If he chooses to, and barring any electoral setbacks, he could serve as public advocate for two full four-year terms through 2029.

As a community organizer before he joined the City Council, Williams touts his activist credentials and has been a frequent critic, as well as an ally at times, of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration. Williams has been particularly critical of de Blasio on the issues of housing affordability and police accountability.

"I know sometimes it feels like pushing the boulder up the hill. That the challenge is too great, the goals too difficult. At times like that, we need to think about the victories, and that's what we're recognizing here today," Williams said in his victory speech Tuesday night. "I've had the honor of serving as your Public Advocate for the last eight months, and as the people's advocate in City Government for the last ten years. In that time we've fought to end the abuses of stop question and frisk. We've passed affordable housing laws and tenant protections. We've put in place protections against discrimination based on military service and reproductive rights. We've given formerly incarcerated people a fair chance and many people a first chance. We've done all that because of the combined power of people inside and outside of government, demanding transformational change."

Considering Williams’ broad name recognition – he came close to winning the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor last year – and the overwhelming enrollment advantage that Democrats enjoy in the city, he had small odds of being deposed by Borelli or Balkind, both of whom readily acknowledged that fact.

Borelli’s rationale for the public advocate’s office was simple: either bolster its authority significantly or eliminate it entirely. He also cited the importance of having a public advocate from the opposite political party from the mayor, and said the city needed someone to pull de Blasio back toward the center. Balkind, a civic technologist who runs a nonprofit, ran on a five-point platform of technocratic solutions to improve city governance, provide better social services, and increase civic engagement.

Williams’ predecessor, James, was an experienced litigator and used the public advocate’s office to regularly take legal action – to varying degrees of success – against the de Blasio administration. But Williams has taken a different tact and is seeking to pull the mayor to the left on various issues where he believes the city has failed. Shortly after being elected in February, he restructured the office and appointed five new deputy public advocates with specific portfolios that cover housing, criminal justice, health, public safety, education, civic engagement, and more.

Over the last few months, he has increased his criticism of the city’s protocols for handling people with severe mental illnesses, several of whom have been killed in interactions with police officers. Williams has instead called for a comprehensive approach that eschews police involvement and emphasizes treatment and services.

Williams was one of the few City Council Members who opposed the de Blasio administration’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy, approved by the Council in 2016. MIH is meant to mandate that private developers build affordable housing in new developments that receive rezonings to allow more density. But it has proved controversial and critics say it does not go far enough to build housing for the lowest income New Yorkers who need it most.

Williams has called for a moratorium on all proposed neighborhood rezonings, and has also sponsored legislation that would mandate a racial impact study of rezonings prior to approval.

[WATCH: Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on his vision for the office and city.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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NYPD Publishes Long-Sought Body Camera Footage Policy

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Mayor de Blasio with an NYPD body camera (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The New York Police Department quietly issued its long-sought policy on the public release of body-worn camera footage earlier this month, detailing how the department must respond to requests for footage from the public and the various exemptions that determine its release.

The policy was published to the NYPD website on October 18, one day after Gotham Gazette reported on the long delay in formulating the policy and seven months after the department finished its yearslong rollout of body-worn cameras to all uniformed patrol officers on the force. No public notice appears to have gone out from the NYPD, but a link to the policy was provided to Gotham Gazette upon follow-up inquiry on Thursday -- an NYPD spokesperson had previously said the policy would be out by the end of the month.

The policy and release of video are meant to create transparency into police interactions with members of the public, including but not limited to high-profile and controversial events – including fatal shootings – which the department refers to as “critical incidents.” It outlines how the department will provide access to members of the public, news media, and investigating authorities.

While there have been calls for a public policy for years, the issuance of one by the department will not fully quell concerns from reformers, including those who believe the NYPD should not be in charge of the footage in the first place. Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly called the institution of body cameras a major step forward in NYPD transparency and accountability and argued it is leading to better policing and police-community relationships.

“The Department’s policy regarding the public release of Body-Worn Camera (BWC) footage of a critical incident enhances Departmental transparency, while balancing privacy concerns and the need to comply with federal, state and local public disclosure laws,” the two-page "operations order" policy reads.

The policy details the NYPD’s obligations for turning over footage to federal and state prosecutors investigating incidents of use of force. Within 24 hours of being informed that an investigation is underway, the department must turn over footage, it has decided. For release to the public, the policy states that the department “will decide” within 30 days, “provided that the force investigation review is completed.”

It does allow prosecutors to request, in writing, an additional 30-day delay in releasing footage to the public, which would be decided by the police commissioner. The department will also release samples of the incident and relevant footage of events that lead up to an incident, it states, likely leading to further questions about selected samples and how they may or may not provide an accurate or full picture of an incident.

Before releasing any footage, the department will take into account several factors, the policy says. For instance, whether the footage captured the inside of a home where individuals can expect privacy, any intimate images, images of injuries or dead bodies, location of a domestic violence program, or images that show an individual or officer receiving medical attention.

Bearing in mind privacy concerns, the policy states that individuals’ faces will be blurred and release may be delayed or portions of the footage may be edited or withheld to comply with state, federal, or city laws, to protect witnesses and informants, to protect a person’s right to a fair trial, to protect the identity of sex crime victims, domestic violence survivors and juveniles, to protect the privacy, life or safety of a person or to avoid undue trauma from explicit or graphic content.

The policy does note that unredacted footage may be shared for full transparency to the news media after taking those factors into consideration.

It defines a “critical incident” as one that involves use of force by officers that results in death or serious physical injury to another person or an incident where the police commissioner decides that releasing the footage will “address vast public attention, or concern, or will help enforce the law, preserve peace, and/or maintain public order.”

Recent incidents of alleged police misconduct and fatal shootings by officers have reignited concerns about how the NYPD handles and releases body-worn camera footage. Just this past weekend, two separate incidents involving policing the subway system were caught on cellphone cameras by bystanders and raised questions about when the public might see officers’ body camera footage.

In one, officers aggressively arrested a young man they believed possessed a gun. Though the man was not resisting and was seated in a subway car with his hands up, multiple officers rushed in and forcefully pulled him to the ground before arresting him. The second incident involved what officers said they stepped in to separate two groups of teenagers fighting on a subway platform. In video of that case, one officer can be seen punching teenagers unprovoked. He has been placed on modified duty pending an investigation of the incident, according to city officials.

Elected officials and police reform advocates have been in an uproar and have called for the speedy release of any footage that the officers involved may have captured on their body-worn cameras.

Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently ordered the addition of 500 new MTA police officers to reduce fare evasion, crack down on homelessness in the subways, and protect transit officers, but those officers are not required to be fitted with body-worn cameras, unlike their counterparts in the NYPD. As some have questioned the need for the officers, State Senator Jessica Ramos announced plans to introduce legislation to require MTA officers to wear body cameras.

Kesi Foster, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups, said the new NYPD footage release policy is “a sham, designed to protect abusive officers and the reputation of the NYPD instead of the public.”

“The purpose of the policy is to be able to control the narrative related to interactions between residents and officers, not to deter or prevent abusive policing,” he said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “While other municipalities release body camera footage within days of an incident, the NYPD plans to drag out the timeline and continue to cement police secrecy and impunity as NYC's defacto policy. The new policy makes clear that the NYPD will continue to unilaterally decide what selective footage will be released, how it will be edited and when it will be released.”

Foster cited the “selectively edited photos and footage” released by the NYPD after officers shot and killed Brooklyn resident Saheed Vassell last year. The footage, from security cameras, shows Vassell, who suffered from mental illness, holding a metal pipe and pointing it at people on the street. But it does not clearly show the officers shooting Vassell, which they did within seconds of arriving at the scene. None of those officers were equipped with body cameras, according to the NYPD. Foster said that case “is a perfect preview of how the department will use release of edited footage and photos to justify unjustifiable police action and criminalize those killed and brutalized by police.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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