Gotham Gazette

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Bill Mandates Board of Elections Emergency Plan

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City Council Member Mark Treyger, left (photo: William Alatriste) 

New York City is no stranger to calamity, be it natural or man-made, and many city agencies have emergency response plans for varying levels of crisis. On Wednesday, City Council Member Mark Treyger will introduce a bill to ensure that the Board of Elections, which administers voting in the city, joins these agencies in formulating its own disaster-preparedness procedures for conducting the polls.

"We have to make sure that democracy perseveres through a crisis," Treyger told Gotham Gazette. The Council member represents parts of southern Brooklyn that were hit hard by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, just a week before election day. Treyger's experience with the storm and his role as chair of the Council's Committee on Recovery and Resiliency give him a unique perspective on the issue.

"Every agency, NYCHA or DOE, are all in the process of updating their emergency response plans," Treyger said. "I'm curious to know what the BOE has done to better respond to emergencies post-Superstorm Sandy and what level of coordination exists between the City and the State."

Treyger's bill would mandate that the BOE be prepared for extreme situations by working with the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management to create a reasonable plan to conduct an election amid a crisis. In the interview, Treyger emphasized that he is sensitive about the primary goal during an emergency of protecting life, but wants to make sure that the democratic process isn't lost in the fray "once emergency relief efforts are concluded and all lives are accounted for." It would require, he said, coordination between multiple agencies, and between city and state authorities.

"Quite frankly, one crisis should not be an excuse for another crisis," Treyger said, citing New York's low voter turnout in past elections and how this record is worse in years when catastrophe strikes.

Superstorm Sandy had the Board of Elections scrambling to ensure that people could vote. Many polling stations were damaged by the floods and had to be moved with little public notice, which Treyger said affected at least 250,000 people. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a day before the election, issued an executive order that allowed affected residents to vote with an affidavit ballot at any polling site. Treyger said these affidavit ballots started to run out at many sites. He insisted that these issues could have been averted if there had been a contingency plan and poll workers were trained on how to conduct an election during an emergency.

Of course, Sandy wasn't the first disaster to hit around election time. In 2001, the primary elections were scheduled for September 11, and were postponed by two weeks in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.

"There is no cost too high," Treyger said, "to make sure that democracy is administered in a fair and just way for all New Yorkers." When Gotham Gazette asked about the financial implications of the bill, he said that could be worked out once the proposal is considered and that this is the right time to do so. "It is budget season," Treyger said. 

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Bill Requires More Vision Zero Data

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Council Member Van Bramer at a Vision Zero event (DOT)

A bill set to be introduced before the City Council on Wednesday seeks to codify the Department of Transportation’s data tracking under Vision Zero, the city’s program aimed at eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries.

Two City Council members who have been integrally involved in the city’s rollout of Vision Zero, Jimmy Van Bramer and Ydanis Rodriguez, will introduce legislation to mandate DOT’s Vision Zero View portal, an online interactive map that displays data under the program. The Council members seek to ensure an expansion of public data on street safety and that it remains available well beyond the current administration.

One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top priorities, Vision Zero legislation was signed into law beginning in June 2014 and has been successful in reducing traffic crashes across the city through increased investment in infrastructure, changes to and stricter enforcement of traffic laws, and outreach and education. With traffic fatalities down by 22 percent since before the plan’s implementation, city officials declared 2015 the safest traffic year in the city’s history. 2014 and 2015 marked the first time that traffic fatalities declined for two consecutive years. In January, the Mayor released the Vision Zero Year Two report and announced a $115 million in capital investment to boost the program.

“We are serious about saving lives,” the mayor said at the announcement. “Vision Zero is working. Today there are children and grandparents who we might have lost, but who are instead coming home, safe and sound, because of these efforts. This progress is just the beginning, and Vision Zero is going to move ahead with even more intensity in the coming year.”

While the DOT already tracks detailed data, including fatalities and crashes over time and by district, information on street design, and locations of outreach efforts, displaying this data through the online portal is voluntary. “If times change, and administrations change, something that is created willfully can just as easily be taken away,” said Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat and longtime Vision Zero advocate who has stood with Mayor de Blasio at the bill signing two years ago and other related announcements. Rodriguez has also been an active proponent of Vision Zero. He chairs the transportation committee of the Council, which will hear the bill.

Vision Zero View

This new bill is an effort, Van Bramer said, to “speed Vision Zero along to achieve it even faster.” The idea is that with more data, especially publicly available and mapped, policy-makers and others can continue to target problems and further reduce crashes, fatalities, and injuries.

Not only would the proposed legislation mandate that data be published each month, it also expands the types of data made available. This would include the date, time, and location of accidents; the age and category (motorist, passenger, pedestrian) of the persons involved in each incident; the type(s) of vehicles and the type of collision (rear-end, front-end, etc.); the contributing factors leading to the crash (drugs, alcohol, bad weather, distracted driver; right of way); speed limits of all streets; and expanded reports on outreach efforts.

Most of this additional data is collected by the NYPD as well as DOT. “Our bill requires it to be reported publicly,” said Van Bramer. “People armed with that information,” he added, “can make changes that can keep their communities safe.”

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said the current Vision Zero View portal is “completely inadequate.” Without sufficient details, he said, it “doesn’t perform its purported objective.” White hopes that Van Bramer and Rodriguez’s bill will start a trend followed by future mayors, City Councils, and commissioners.

“I hope it’s a first step in enshrining Vision Zero as a bedrock policy to guide the design, management and enforcement of New York City streets,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Government Investigator Explains 43% Budget Bump

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DOI Commissioner Mark Peters (photo: @DOInews)

The New York City Department of Investigation has become a more proactive body focusing on systemic problems at city agencies, said Commissioner Mark Peters at a City Council budget hearing on Monday afternoon. Peters explained his office's increased productivity and impact in attempting to justify a nearly 43 percent increase in the department's budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1.

The City Council's evaluation of Mayor Bill de Blasio's $82 billion preliminary budget is now in its second week and administration officials continue to testify before committees on their agency expenses and programs. On Monday, the Committee on Investigations, chaired by City Council Member Vincent Gentile, heard testimony from Peters on how DOI has changed its procedures and added responsibility, and why it requires a significant increase in funding.

De Blasio's preliminary budget allocates $44.2 million to DOI, a $13.2 million, or 42.7 percent, increase over last year's adopted budget. The increase is largely due to a major agency expansion, adding 59 new staff members, for $4.5 million, bringing the total staffing to 361. Much of the workforce addition, at least 25 employees, will go to the Inspector General unit for the Department of Buildings. (DOI also oversees another 261 employees in oversight roles at city agencies, but those are not budgeted under DOI).

Of the 59 new personnel, 38 positions were baselined in the November financial plan for a total of $1.5 million, which will grow to $2.9 million in fiscal 2017.

"DOI, in the last two years, instead of being a reactive agency, which tended to react to complaints and react to tips coming in, has now become a proactive agency," Peters said in response to Council Member Gentile inquiries about the increased budget and shift in approach. Concerns were raised in prior hearings that DOI was not arresting as many city employees as the agency had under prior commissioners.

Peters reiterated that he had moved the department to focus more on macro issues to prevent the type of misconduct that can often result in an arrest, but he also pointed out that DOI has been making more arrests. In the 2015 calendar year, DOI made 569 arrests, an 83 percent increase from 2014, based on more than 1500 investigations, and received over 700 criminal prosecution referrals, nearly double from the prior year. Peters did again caution against using arrests as an efficient metric, a point he repeated when questioned by Council Member Rory Lancman later in the hearing, saying that his office has become fairly prolific in writing insightful investigative reports.

Peters and the Council members seemed to agree that there is a good balance for DOI to strike in making arrests for theft and graft and issuing more sweeping reports. Council members indicated that with DOI's increase in arrests, it appeared to be finding the sweet spot of rooting out corruption and, through its reports, influencing preventative change.

Reports that Peters cited include a comprehensive examination of the Department of Homeless Services, which necessitated an overhaul of the city's homeless shelter policies; a report on the failure of the NYPD and NYCHA to share information about the arrest and removal of criminal offenders from NYCHA housing, which resulted in changes in both departments; and an analysis of the use of force by NYPD officers, which led the department to announce that it would track all uses of force.

"In total we have issued 25 reports of this type," Peters said, "that collectively mean that children will not live in homeless shelters with decaying rats on the floor, that we are less likely to have bricks fall off buildings and kill two-year-olds, that police are less likely to use improper force." In comparison, DOI only issued 10 reports in the four years before Peters' leadership, he said.

DOI's jurisdiction has also expanded in recent years. In 2013, the NYPD came under its ambit and in December 2015, NYC Health + Hospitals was also included.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of agency savings, which has underscored the entire budget process, came up when Gentile noted that the preliminary budget didn't mention any savings for DOI. Peters responded with a proposal, which he said he had presented to the city's Office of Management and Budget as well. Accordingly, overtime for DOI employees is paid through federal forfeiture funds and if the city were to formally transfer the payroll of 261 investigators in other city agencies to DOI, it would keep the city from spending some of its own money, replaced by federal funds.

"We run a remarkably lean shop," added Peters.

Peters did note in his opening testimony that DOI had indefinitely lost an important stream of funding. In accordance with a recent change in federal law, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in December 2015 that equitable sharing payments that are made to state and local law enforcement from federal asset forfeiture programs will come to an end. These payments, separate from overtime payments, facilitated funding for equipment, renovations, vehicles, and training, to name a few. In fiscal 2015, DOI received about $27 million in these funds. Peters estimated the fiscal 2016 amount at $12,000. (DOI has roughly three years to spend this money). But he also reassured Council Member Helen Rosenthal that this would not affect the current budget under consideration.

Council Member Lancman and Commissioner Peters did "quibble" back and forth, albeit congenially, about DOI's lack of focus on the "nuts and bolts" that led to lower arrests two years ago and then a substantial increase in arrests last year. Peters said many cases only "paid dividends" in 2015 after being carried over from the previous year.

"Let me quibble with your quibble, a little bit," Lancman said in response to Peters at one point. His concerns were that run-of-the-mill corruption cases may be getting overlooked compared to larger investigations that the department was conducting. "Something must be different at the department if the only reason that you're back to a pre-de Blasio era arrest level is significant investigations that you've started that have reached fruition," Lancman said, asking Peters if DOI recognized this issue.

Peters, cognizant of the issue, called it a "philosophical question" about the best use of finite resources. He stressed that he had heeded the Council's feedback from last year and tried to stick to a "middle course" of ensuring that systemic investigations as well as low-level corruption were handled adequately and that the agency portrayed a message of zero tolerance.

"That is a valid, legitimate conversation," Peters said, "and it's one I have with myself and with my staff almost daily."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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