Gotham Gazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 14

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has reason to smile as this week begins. Through negotiations with the City Council and outside critics, de Blasio appears to have gotten just about everyone on board with his citywide zoning changes and they are all-but-certain to be passed through the City Council over the next two weeks - first through committee this week, then the full Council on March 22. The City Planning Commission has to sign off on the tweaks in between. And there are tweaks, but the plans - Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) - will pass in forms close to what the city originally proposed. The two zoning amendments are major pieces of de Blasio's housing plan, which aims for 200,000 units of affordable housing to be built or preserved over ten years.

De Blasio spent part of Sunday speaking at South Bronx and Harlem churches to sell his housing plans. The most significant concerns about the mayor's zoning proposals have come from communities of color worried that the affordability levels of MIH are not deep enough. It appears that some of the tweaks being made to the plan will address these concerns. The de Blasio administration also continues to point to other elements of its housing plan aimed at creating affordable housing for the city's lowest income earners.

The mayor will celebrate movement on his housing plans this week and he'll also hold a town hall on the subject in Brooklyn Monday night, hosted by City Council Member Mathieu Eugene. De Blasio will also travel to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, responding to proposed federal cuts to anti-terrorism efforts - see below for details. And on Wednesday, de Blasio will speak at the New York City premiere of a new film promoting gun control - details also below.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito also spent part of Sunday at two churches, both in Brooklyn, where she discussed her criminal justice reform efforts.
[Read: City Council Bail Fund Moves Through State Process]

Meanwhile, budget business continues this week, with the fiscal year 2017 state budget due by the end of the month. The Assembly and Senate are moving toward passage of their one-house budgets, which will lead to intensified negotiations among Gov. Cuomo and the two majority leaders - Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate President John Flanagan, a Republican. There are a variety of discrepancies around funding levels and policy priorities. It's unclear if anything will be done in the budget on government ethics reform. Not a necessity to passing a spending plan and with significant pushback from Republicans to what Cuomo and Heastie have proposed, ethics could easily be bumped to further negotiations in the legislative session to follow the budget.

City Council preliminary budget hearings on the mayor's $82 billion plan also continue this week. Catch up on our coverage of budget hearings thus far:
-At First City Council Budget Hearing, Concerns About City Savings and State Cuts
-Government Investigator Explains 43% Budget Bump
-Underfunded Conflicts of Interest Board Struggles to Meet Mandates

Before Gov. Cuomo gets back to budget business in Albany this week, on Sunday Cuomo made his first visit to Hoosick Falls since the town's water contamination crisis broke. Cuomo insisted that the state was not slow to act, pointed the finger at federal regulators and the media, and assured all that the state response is on the right track.

And this week: "Comptroller Stringer will be in Israel along with a delegation of Latino leaders from New York City for a trip organized in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. He will arrive in Israel on Sunday evening and will depart on Thursday evening, arriving back in New York City on Friday, March 18."

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

At 7:15 a.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio will appear on CNN to discuss the presidential race. At 1:30 p.m. Monday, de Blasio will be in upper Manhattan to "host a press conference to discuss the preservation of affordable housing." At 4 p.m. de Blasio will hold a bill-signing ceremony at City Hall. At 7 p.m., de Blasio and City Council Member Mathieu Eugene "will host a town hall meeting with Brooklyn residents to discuss affordable housing" at P.S. 6.

At the City Council on Monday: At 10 a.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will hold its preliminary budget hearing.

At 10 a.m. Monday at Newtown High School in Queens, “New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Department of Education, Congresswoman Grace Meng and Education Chair Daniel Dromm announce groundbreaking pilot program that will position New York City at the forefront of a national dialogue on access to feminine hygiene products by providing free pads and tampons in select Queens and Bronx public schools restrooms, supporting better educational outcomes and bringing dignity to girls.” Feminine hygiene product dispensers will be placed in 25 public middle schools and high schools.
[Read more: City Council Members Move to Improve Tampon Access]

At noon on Monday in Albany, “as budget bills advance in both the Senate and Assembly during Sunshine Week, good government and reform groups react to proposed ethics legislation.” Participating groups include Brennan Center, Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, League of Women Voters of NYS, NY Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany.
[Read: Heastie Outlines Assembly Ethics Reform Plan]

At 5:30 p.m. Monday, The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) will deliver a presentation to the Queens Borough Board, chaired by Borough President Melinda Katz, on two of its new economic growth initiatives: NYC Industrial Developer Fund and Futureworks NYC Growth Initiative. The initiatives aim to provide project financing for industrial real estate development projects in New York City and support the growth of promising companies by providing six early stage companies with $30,000 each over a two-year period, respectively.

On Monday evening in Brooklyn, City Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Jumaane Williams will host their annual "Shirley Chisolm Women of Distinction Celebration." Public Advocate Letitia James will deliver keynote remarks. 

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan, who represents Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, will chair a hearing on President Barack Obama’s proposed cuts to anti-terrorism funding. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has strongly criticized the cuts, is expected to testify.

At noon Tuesday, Greater New York City for Change and allies will rally in Albany to raise the minimum wage to $15.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet to discuss granting special permits in regard to the enlargement of an existing property in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. The committee will also discuss amendments “concerning the use, bulk, and parking regulations in Brooklyn.”
  • At 9:30 a.m., the Committee on General Welfare will meet for its preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to discuss previous amendments to property tax laws and a current urban development project in Manhattan.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Juvenile Justice the Committee on Women’s Issues will meet for their joint preliminary budget hearing.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Daniel Dromm will host a Celebration of Irish Heritage and Culture in Council Chambers at City Hall.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, New York Law School will host a breakfast panel covering the future of New York City real estate. The panel will feature experts from Blackstone, Cushman and Wakefield, Related Companies, and Downtown Alliance, and will be moderated by Gerald Korngold, New York Law School Professor and The Center for Real Estate Studies Program Chair.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the Council transportation committee, will lead the launch of  “Car Free NYC” at New York University’s Kimmel Center, which will lead to a “car-free” Earth Day in April.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, the South Bronx Leadership Forum will hold a discussion with Vicki Been, Commissioner of New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committees on Small Business and Economic Development will meet for a joint preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Education will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, The Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) will host a public forum addressing how police reforms “preserve the racist status quo.”

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Carmen Fariña, New York City Schools Chancellor, “will discuss the changing state of public education” with Pace University President Stephen J. Friedman at the University’s Lower Manhattan campus.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, "Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom, the co-authors of Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies that Transformed a City host a free, public panel discussion on the future of a livable New York City for the other 99%."

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA,” from Brave New Films, will premiere in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio will deliver introductory remarks before the premiere.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Thursday in Albany.

At 1 p.m. Thursday, The Rockefeller Institute of Government will host “Facing the Global Immigration and Refugee Crisis” in Albany. The forum will reflect on past conflict and violence that has led to mass immigration and feature Maher Nasser, director of the Outreach Division for the United Nations’ Department of Public Information; Jill Peckenpaugh, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; and Sana Mustafa, Bard College Student and Syrian Refugee.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet on results of subcommittee meetings held recently and conduct other general business.
  • At noon, the Committees on Land Use and Technology will meet for a joint preliminary budget hearing.

Friday is the second annual Student Voter Registration Day in New York City, which aims to get newly eligible voters registered in time to vote in April’s New York State presidential primary.

At 8:15 a.m. Friday, Chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Shola Olatoye will be speaking at a CityLaw Breakfast at New York Law School.

At noon Friday, state Senator Jesse Hamilton, colleagues, and partners will hold a press conference at the Howard Houses Community Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn to announce the “first technology and wellness center at a public housing site in the United States.” The “CAMPUS” will serve as a resource center for technology, health, and career development. Hamilton will be joined by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Assembly Members Latrice Walk and Nick Perry, and other officials, residents, partners, and organizations.

At the City Council on Friday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Youth Services will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Health will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Leanna Carroll and Ben Max

City Council ‘Deletes’ One Committee, But No Further Reforms Planned

council hearing

A scene at the City Council (photo: William Alatriste)

At one of the shortest City Council hearings ever held, Council members from the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved on Wednesday morning a resolution to “delete” the Committee on Community Development.

The decision to eliminate one committee relates to questions regarding the number of Council committees, how many committees each member sits on, and member attendance at committee hearings. Regularly, by the time members of the public testify at City Council hearings, the chair of the committee holding the hearing is the only Council member remaining to listen. At many hearings, committee members leave after testimony from the first panel, usually made up of representatives from the mayor’s administration, sometimes to attend a hearing for another committee scheduled at the same time.

The elimination of the community development committee was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee. Arroyo resigned in December and has since been replaced by Rafael Salamanca, Jr., who was sworn in on Wednesday.

Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by the other committees that’s really important there?’”

Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly given the fact, Lander said, that it did not have direct oversight over any specific city agency. Now that it’s gone, 36 standing committees and six subcommittees remain, with the 51 City Council Members sitting on an average of six committees. Critics have said that the Council has too many committees, a byproduct of the fact that chairing a committee has long come with an additional stipend, a practice the Council voted to end last month.

Speaking with Gotham Gazette on Wednesday, Council Member Lander said he doesn’t intend to do any further examination of the number of Council committees and said that he thinks the large number actually does a service to New Yorkers whereby the Council takes on a wider variety of important issues.

Part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, reduced the number of times committees are required to meet per year from ten to five. Still, Council members are often unable to fully attend one committee hearing because another is scheduled at the same time.  

“Council Member Treyger has to vote for land use, we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a Feb. 29 hearing held by the Committee on Government Operations.

Dick Dadey, executive director of the government reform group Citizens Union, believes there was a correlation between the number of Council committees and lulus, which were awarded to Council members for chairing committees until Feb 19., when Mayor de Blasio signed a package of bills reforming the City Council and raising the salaries of all New York City’s elected officials.

“Committees are created not because of a need, but for maybe the need to give someone a lulu and increase their compensation,” Dadey said at a Nov. 23, 2015 public hearing held by the quadrennial advisory commission on elected official compensation. “I mean, take a look at that list, and some of those can be consolidated.”

To Lander, however, having a large number of committees is important, because it allows Council members to hold a more focused hearing and “drill down” into the details of an issue.

“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” Lander said on Wednesday.

Fritz Schwarz, chief counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and chair of the 2015 quadrennial advisory commission tasked with reviewing the compensation levels of elected officials, seemed to indicate that he agreed with Dadey’s point that eliminating lulus may have an effect on the number of committees.

When asked by Gotham Gazette why he choose not to address the number of committees in the commission’s report, Schwarz said, “Essentially, I didn’t think we knew enough to jump on that. And it wasn’t necessary to deal with, because we want to get rid of the lulus, and what consequence that would have beyond getting rid of them wasn’t necessary to address.”

Even without lulus, Lander says he doesn’t “really see the harm” in having a large number of committees. Combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, would shrink the amount of attention stakeholders get, Lander says. Lander also rejected the idea of combining the Committee on Economic Development and the Committee on Small Businesses, citing the work that Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. has done as small business chair - work that may not be done if small business was subsumed by economic development, he said.

Though he conceded that Council members’ attendance at hearings “is a tension,” Lander believes “it’s outweighed” by being able to “bring more attention to the issues New Yorkers care about.”

“It’s a challenge,” Lander added, “one challenge is that each of those committees needs to have enough members on it. And then every member is on a lot of committees and it is a challenge to go to beginning to end for all of them and still do all the other things in the job.”

Lander said that each committee chair is able to become an expert on their issue and that there are Council aides who also attend hearings on behalf of Council members. Attendance at committee hearings could be better, Lander acknowledged, if there were fewer committees, but he said that it wasn’t a trade-off he thought would benefit New Yorkers.

Former City Council Member and current Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer believes it would be wise to examine the number of committees Council members sit on, and their ability to attend the hearings held by those committees.

“I think we should look to see how many committees a person is on, and they should show up at them. And there's always an issue of signing in for five minutes, getting counted, and leaving,” Brewer said during a Nov. 24, 2015 public hearing held by the quadrennial advisory commission. “I think that would be something to look at more carefully. This has never been monitored.”

Yet, as Lander said, the decision to delete the community development committee is simply a response to Arroyo’s resignation, and “there is not a more comprehensive look underway.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Underfunded Conflicts of Interest Board Struggles to Meet Mandates

Maisel COIB hearing

City Council Member Alan Maisel at Tuesday's hearing (photo: William Alatriste)

The New York City Conflicts of Interest Board is struggling to retain staff due to the the agency’s inability to adequately compensate employees, according to Alex Kipp, director of the training and education unit. Kipp and other representatives of the COIB testified Tuesday at a City Council budget hearing, explaining their budget constraints as they work to ensure that a growing city workforce acts ethically.

Mayor de Blasio’s $82 billion preliminary budget allocates $2.29 million to COIB, a 3.1 percent increase from last year’s adopted budget. The modest increase is primarily due to collective bargaining increases that were included from the city’s November financial plan, said City Council Member Alan Maisel, chair of the Committee on Standards and Ethics, which has oversight of COIB.

The COIB budget remains essentially unchanged, despite the fact that the agency workload has significantly increased in recent years.

“One difficulty that we’ve continued to encounter, and we’ve felt this especially this year, is retention,” Kipp said. “The salaries are quite low for training staff, and we’ve tried various ways to ameliorate that situation unsuccessfully.”  

In 2015, COIB made three separate requests for more funding to raise the salaries of agency employees, all of which were rejected by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

“When I was hired as a trainer in 2001,” Kipp said, “I was happy to get the job at the rate of $38,500. Ten years later, when we wanted to hire two trainer positions, the senior management staff took a 2 percent pay cut in order to fund those positions, so that the salary for those two trainer positions could be $39,000.”

COIB initially made a proposal to raise salaries across the board. After it was rejected, agency leaders came back with another proposal to raise the salaries of specific individuals, including trainers, which was also rejected. Then, COIB asked for additional funds just for the three trainers and one other position in the agency which are “acutely underfunded,” only to have that proposal rejected as well.

As a result, COIB, one of the smaller city agencies with just 22 full-time employees, lost at least two employees in 2015, one of whom left for a similar position with another city agency offering more money.

“In December,” Kipp said, “my senior trainer was offered a position with the Housing and Preservation Department” to improve their inspector training program. “They offered him a $10,000 raise to do so. We asked for $10,000 to match that offer, and it was rejected. And so, we lost him.”

Maisel asked why all of COIB’s requests had been rejected, since “the city is obviously paying people more in other agencies and departments.”

Kipp said they did not have information as to why their proposals were rejected. The entire proposal to raise the salaries of COIB employees across the board was “less than $200,000,” Kipp said. “By the time we were looking at just these targeted proposals, we were looking at less than $75,000 in personnel costs. I don’t know why they rejected it.”

In defense of OMB, Wayne Hawley, deputy executive director of COIB, added that the two agencies’ relationship on budget matters typically “range from reasonably good to quite good…but this is one particular area where we feel like we could really use some help.”

In 2010, ethics training became a requirement for all New York City employees after voters approved a change to the City Charter, which made it so that all city employees must receive ethics training every two years. There are currently 319,057 New York City employees, according to the latest headcount by the Citizens Budget Commission.

Yet, COIB has only four employees on staff who carry out such training, meaning, as Kipp said at the hearing, “while we had a record-breaking year last year with about 35,000 people trained, we’re never going to be able to hit 150,000-175,000 people a year with live training classes.”

COIB was “hoping to start development of [an online training] system in late 2015, but, because of staffing setbacks,” had to postpone the project. Beginning a pilot program to conduct conflicts of interest training electronically is something COIB hopes to achieve this year.

In 2015, COIB taught 855 ethics classes, a 42 percent increase from the previous year, according to COIB’s annual report. COIB’s Enforcement Unit, which also consists of just four attorneys, opened 544 new cases in 2015, another record high for the board, 484 of which were closed by the year’s end.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Council members asked COIB to come back to them with something in writing that details exactly what COIB needs in order to function as effectively as possible, so that Council members can include it in their preliminary budget response.

Council members seemed receptive to spending more to meet COIB needs.

“It would be wise of us to spend more on prevention. We are increasing the budget of the Department of Investigation,” Council Member Brad Lander said, referring to the other city agency tasked with preventing and rooting out unethical behavior, “but if we could spend a bit more on things that keep people out of trouble, obviously, that would be wise to do.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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