Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Stated Meeting: Council Approves Firearm Reporting

If police officers pull their triggers the City Council will now be put on notice under legislation passed unanimously by the council on Wednesday.

The New York City Police Department will be required to submit annual reports to the council detailing incidents of gunfire by police officers. The department will have to include the race, gender and age of those involved in the incident.

The bill, (Intro 516-A) sponsored by Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., has the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to a mayoral spokesman.

Keeping Tabs on Triggers

Lauded as an effort to keep the police department accountable, the proposal is not an indication of any problems there, city officials cautioned. But, instead, it hopes to identify trends and give the council greater oversight of data, which has been difficult to receive at times. Before this proposal, the department was not required to provide gunfire statistics to the council, and only did so sporadically and voluntarily.

"We haven't determined there is any problem in this area," said Vallone. "But we don't know this information unless we get it, and there is no requirement we receive this information now."

In the past, the department did not include the race, gender or age of individuals involved in shooting incidents with police officers. On the other hand, said Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the department did provide the breed and the sex of a dog if a police officer had shot it. The speaker called the difference "absurd."

Though the administration has expressed support for the bill, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association opposes the proposal. Association President Patrick J. Lynch said in a written statement, "The NYPD is the country's most restrained police departments in the use of deadly physical force. Requiring a report for every firearms discharge is unjustified and will not benefit anyone but the paper suppliers. It's a solution in search of a problem."

Other police officials have complained complying with the legislation would be costly and labor intensive. Council officials disputed that argument, saying it would only require officials collect more specific demographic information than they already do.

Primarily, the bill will give city officials a snapshot of the types of incidents that lead to pulling triggers by police officers. In recent years, said Vallone, police shootings have decreased significantly. In 1997, a weapon was discharged 253 times. In 2007, a gun was fired by police officers 111 times, and approximately 30 to 40 of those incidents involved animals, he added.

The new data will be provided borough by borough and precinct by precinct. Quinn said the council has not determined whether the annual reports will be made available on its Web site.

Members of the council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus applauded the proposal, saying it would help determine whether certain races are targeted.

"In communities of color it is extremely important we have that information," said Councilmember Robert Jackson, the co-chair of the caucus. "It seems as though these people that are shot are people of color."

The 2009 Race: How Term Limits Changed the Political Landscape

Yetta KurlandPhotos by Courtney Gross

Yetta Kurland navigates a recent Democratic holiday party with ease, floating from circle to circle, distributing hugs as if they were campaign literature to attendees she has known for years.

The 40-year-old civil rights attorney is a fresh face in New York politics (some quip that she doesn't look a day over 12). To strangers, she casually introduces herself as a political newcomer, slipping in the conversation that she is a City Council candidate. Veterans of New York's political establishment, like the legendary former Assemblymember Ed Sullivan, call her a "natural." If the City Council had not extended term limits, giving two-thirds of its members a chance at another four years, she could have been a frontrunner to replace Council Speaker Christine Quinn as a representative from the third district.

Now, though, she faces seemingly insurmountable odds.

Kurland, like more than 160 other City Council candidates, said she started out her 2009 campaign thinking the incumbent would be term limited, clearing the way for a new class of legislators at City Hall. One October vote extending term limits from two to three changed all that, and now candidates across the city are scrambling to compete in far more grueling races.

To the surprise of some observers, many of the candidates have not given up. A survey by Gotham Gazette of all of the candidates who planned to run before October found at least 50 percent are sticking to their commitments and continuing their campaigns (Kurland included). Granted, some are from districts where the sitting council member is seeking higher office, but nearly half of the challengers who told Gotham Gazette they were still running will face an incumbent in September's primary.

For survey results, check out our updated version of Who's Running for What

Gotham Gazette's survey suggests the 2009 contests will be competitive, pitting old against new, setting off a familiar skirmish between experience and change.

Challengers Rise to the Challenge

Lynn Nunes, left, tries to establish some name recognition in the neighborhood.

Far from the speaker's district in Manhattan, insurgent, 23-year-old candidate Lynn Nunes descends 13 flights of stairs in the nation's second largest cooperative housing complex. Rochdale in Jamaica is not only where Nunes has spent a lot of time campaigning, it's also where incumbent Councilmember Thomas White lives.

At each door, on each floor, Nunes leaves a flyer -- his name and photo are on the top, and the city's most important telephone numbers, from police to nearby hospitals, are on the bottom.

At this early stage in the campaign, Nunes says he's taking a common sense approach, trying to establish some name recognition by getting his face on residents' refrigerators. When not handing out flyers, he's calling all of the district's registered Democrats on their birthdays. He will make 9,000 calls.

His likely competition, White, is completing his third term on the council, having served a full decade before being term limited out in 2001. White rejoined the council in 2006 and says he will decide this month whether to run for re-election.

Nunes plans to continue his run, regardless of White's plans.

"He represents the system, and the system is broken," said Nunes as he maneuvered through the discount-flooded shopping mall adjacent to the gargantuan housing complex. Nunes continued to hand out flyers and chat with residents, the majority of whom did not comment favorably on the incumbent.

"I think he's had his time," said Nunes.

Like other challengers in the 2009 race, Nunes plans to run on the mantra of change, calling for replacing the old guard with the new. If Jamaica is any indication, many incumbents may have it tougher than they once expected.

As of last month, 32 seats at the City Council were expected to be competitive in the 2009 races. That includes the standard opposition -- candidates who have run seven times in a row, for instance -- and races that will be neck and neck. Three of those races will be decided in a special election next month to fill the vacancies of former council members Hiram Monserrate, Michael McMahon and Joseph Addabbo, who all have been elected to higher office.

In September, the city will see dozens more contests. For example, five candidates have emerged to take on Councilmember Larry Seabrook for his Bronx seat, another three are hoping to unseat Manhattan member Miguel Martinez and two more hope to beat Brooklyn mainstay Lewis Fidler. That trend runs through much of the five boroughs.

"We need a change," said Algernon Quattlebaum, who is running for Seabrook's Bronx seat. "Our district is falling apart. I can help to bring common sense to City Hall." Quattlebaum then chuckled. "Much needed common sense."

If the council had not approved a term-limit extension, 35 members would have had to vacate their seats, leading to competitive races. In a post-term limits scenario, 14 of the 51 City Council members have currently declared for or are considering seeking higher office, leaving open seats in their districts.

Very few members, like Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. who had his eye on the Queens borough president contest, have backed out of a race for higher office because of the term-limit extension.

In 2005, the last citywide race, only 24 races were competitive. While incumbents hold significant advantage (every incumbent who ran in 2005 in the city won except one) that apparently has not deterred scores of challengers.

The Domino Effect

The mayor, comptroller, public advocate and four out of five borough presidents were all set to leave office at the end of 2009 because of term limits. That was until Mayor Michael Bloomberg shepherded through the extension.

Now the borough presidents, with the exception of the Bronx (most likely) will try for another term. Both the comptroller and public advocate have said they will not seek re-election.

As the clear frontrunner for mayor, Bloomberg has hired a pit bull campaign steward and is planning to set a new record for campaign spending -- perhaps going as high as $100 million.

Comptroller Thompson is staying in the run for mayor.

Following his change of heart on term limits, the mayor's approval rating has dipped a bit (it's still in the high 50s). But that could open a window for the candidates who still say they will run against him, Comptroller William Thompson Jr. and Rep. Anthony Weiner, who are both trying to establish themselves as the clear Democratic challenger. (Bloomberg, a Democrat turned Republican turned independent, has been cagey about any party affiliation for his re-election run.)

After much fanfare and speculation, Thompson came out last month with a new campaign site splashing "Bill Thompson for Mayor" across its home page. The move was an attempt to silence the rumors that he would back out of the race.

Thompson has held a chat with bloggers and is stepping up his criticism of the administration.

While stuffed grape leaves and steak skewers were passed around tables at a luncheon in Astoria last month, members of a local Cretan society sat down to ask Thompson questions regarding his role as comptroller. The conversation, inevitably, turned to 2009.

"It's not getting better," said Perry Mihileas, who usually goes by "Tiny." "It's getting worse -- and we need a new mayor, like Mr. Thompson." A round of applause and a smile from the comptroller met the comment.

When one attendee wondered whether Bloomberg was beatable, Thompson replied: "This really is more of a comptroller discussion. I can't do that discussion today." He paused, then said, "But yes."

Whatever he decides, Thompson's role in the 2009 campaign has the potential to create tidal waves. Many political observers believe it's too late for him to back out of the mayoral race, but if he did, it could certainly have a domino effect.

If Thompson reversed his position and decided to seek re-election, the council members vying for that post -- Melinda Katz, David Yassky and David Weprin -- might run again for their City Council seats. That move could spur the 13 candidates running for those three seats (some of the most competitive elections for a City Council seat so far) to drop out for fear of facing an incumbent.

That scenario is unlikely. Many political observers, including the candidates for Thompson's seat, believe the dust has settled on the 2009 political landscape, but, of course, anything is possible.

Campaign and City Finance

Of the remaining candidates in the city's 09 comptroller race (discounting Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, who has raised nearly $2.3 million, but is unofficially heading to Washington to serve in the Obama administration) Councilmember Melinda Katz of Queens has raised the most money.

According to the Campaign Finance Board, Katz has received more than $2.1 million and spent more then $775,000. For Katz, backing away from the comptroller race, which has higher contribution limits and a much higher spending limit than a City Council bid, is a nonstarter. She has already spent nearly seven times the amount a candidate could to join the public financing system for a City Council race.

That fundraising occurred, she said, when it was "difficult" with Thompson uncommitted.

Melinda Katz attending a holiday party in Brooklyn.

Bouncing from holiday event to holiday event last month, Katz explained what she thinks makes her the frontrunner for city comptroller. As her sports utility vehicle careened down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, she highlighted her experience in the state Assembly and in the City Council as land use chair, and her tenure as a mergers and acquisitions attorney. She says confidently that she can handle the city's finances.

"Whoever is the comptroller needs to figure out how it affects everyday life," Katz said on her way to a Democratic club event on Manhattan's West Side. "We're in very hard times. We need to make sure people are working."

The decision to extend term limits had the potential to upset the city's public financing system because so many candidates seeking higher office, like Katz, were getting contributions above the council limit. Already, the entire election has seen $37.7 million raised, according to the Campaign Finance Board.

Following the term-limits extension, the board put out an advisory opinion directing 2009 candidates on how to handle the extension of term limits or a subsequent change to their campaign plans. Because most are sticking with their long-held agendas, that opinion may not have much of an impact.

"In the end, I think things are looking a lot more like the situation before term limits than anyone anticipated," said Eric Friedman of the Campaign Finance Board.

Time for a Change?

The two dozen candidates who confirmed to Gotham Gazette that they would not seek a council seat in 2009 after all, for the most part, say they are doing so out of respect and admiration for the incumbent.

Helen Rosenthal, who planned to run for Manhattan's sixth district, called the current councilmember, Gale Brewer, a "terrific person" and said she wouldn't challenge her.

"I planned to run and what I would run for is an open seat," said Rosenthal, who chairs the area's community board. "I would not run against the incumbent. That’s not what I signed up for."

Will we see Rosenthal in another four years?

"It will happen," she answered.

David Greenfield, who had eyed Councilmember Simcha Felder's seat in Brooklyn, is taking an identical position. "Simcha is a friend and a mentor, and I'm not going to run against anyone that is a friend and a mentor," he explained.

Other candidates say they are not backing down and preparing to run a far tougher and more competitive race, even though they recognize this wasn't what they had in mind.

As holiday music blared from a nearby DJ stand in the West Village, council candidate Kurland said, "My focus is to bring the voice of the community to City Hall. I think there needs to be a clear separation between the executive and legislative branches," she added.

Coincidentally, the speaker of the council -- who was circulating the same crowd at the same event -- walked right by her challenger as she explained her campaign platform. Kurland lowered her voice and said, "I have a lot of respect for Chris... I am not going to say anything bad about Chris Quinn."

The Term-Limits Landscape

The incumbents' votes on term limits could be a wild card in the upcoming campaigns. Those members who voted in favor of the extension -- in effect giving themselves a chance to hang on to their jobs -- could see their votes come back to haunt them.

Though there is not necessarily a connection between competitive races and the way a council member voted on term limits, challengers from the Bronx to Brooklyn continue to use the debate as fuel for their insurgent candidacies.

Take Alfonso Quiroz. A media manager for Con Edison, Quiroz hopes to unseat Helen Sears in Queens. Sears voted for extending term limits. "It’s a factor, obviously, because I'm going to be bringing up the extension in my race," said Quiroz. "I think it was a slap in the face to democracy."

In Brooklyn, Robert Cornegy, who plans on challenging Al Vann for his seat, said he would also use the term-limit debate to his advantage come September.

Calling the extension of term limits the "incumbent employment act," Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio said it was not surprising that many of these candidates would use term limits as a platform in their candidacies.

"If I invested that much of my physical and physic energy and put together a campaign and fundraising, if I were doing it, I wouldn’t throw in the towel either," he retorted.

That's exactly what a lot of candidates are doing. Term limits may not have truncated the 09 race, but provided ammunition for it.

When first published, this story said every incumbent in New York City won in 2005. In fact, Allan Jennings of Queens lost to Thomas White.

Term Limits Extension Gets Final Signature

Scores of New York City residents filed into the mayor's side of City Hall -- a rare space for such a public spectacle -- for the city's final hearing on term limits Monday morning.

Despite the relentless opposition and at times piercing criticism, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as expected, signed a term-limits extension into law just before 2 p.m., effectively allowing dozens of term-limited officials, including himself, to seek another four years in office.

"I feel like this time the public should have a choice," the mayor said, arguing that allowing officials to seek another term would boost democracy and broaden ballot choices. "I am going to sign the bill and the public will have a choice."

Monday's bill signing finalizes the 29 to 22 vote by the City Council last month approving the term-limits extension.

The legislation, which takes effect immediately, turns next year's citywide election on its head, sparking an immediate revision of the city's campaign finance regulations. Dozens of candidates, many of whom thought they would have competitive races for open seats, must now weigh whether they want to challenge eight-year incumbents.

Contribution limits are set depending upon the office being sought. Because, potentially, dozens of candidates could decide to seek re-election instead of higher office, the city's Campaign Finance Board issued an advisory opinion Monday on how to address the different types of expenditures and contributions without harshly penalizing one candidate or another.

The advisory opinion would allow candidates to freeze their current accounts if they had been seeking higher office, saving the "war chest" for another race. Or, the board's chairman the Rev. Joseph P. Parkes said, if he or she wants to continue using the funds, he or she could return contributions that exceed the spending limits.

"In the final analysis, what we have attempted to do is to provide guidance to affected candidates in a timely way, based on these objectives: to make it practical for candidates to join the campaign finance program, to treat both incumbents and potential challengers fairly, and to encourage competitive races for all offices covered by the program," said the chairman in a prepared statement.

What's Next

The term limits battle is far from over, though. Immediately after the mayor signed the bill, council members Letitia James and Bill de Blasio, along with mayoral candidates Rep. Anthony Weiner and Comptroller William Thompson Jr., vowed to fight the action in court. Several lawsuits have already been filed.

"If democracy was on life support after the City Council hearing, it was killed today," said Thompson.

Monday's public hearing was a condensed rerun of about 20 hours of testimony in front of the City Council last month. Some of the same characters appeared and testimony was still divided -- about half of the 137 speakers supported the mayor's bill, an administration spokesman said.

Members of the public entered the Blue Room -- the mayor's press briefing area -- and spilled over into the building's vast rotunda starting around 9 a.m. One at a time, they stood in front of a gargantuan portrait of Alexander Hamilton, chiming in about democracy and oligarchy, tyranny and justice.

Groups were led into the small and packed room five at a time. Because of the tight quarters (the Blue Room is traditionally where bill signings are held), speakers could not stay inside to hear other testimony. That was also a point of criticism.

"This is the least public public hearing I've ever been to," said Henry Stern, a former parks commissioner.

Sitting behind a freshly polished wooden table, the mayor, accompanied by a half dozen of his male City Council colleagues, listened to four and half hours of testimony on term limits. Rarely did Bloomberg crack a smile, but instead appeared stone-faced and impenetrable.

That did not discourage some speakers from emotional outbursts. One called the mayor "public enemy number one" and others said the legislation was merely a power grab.

"You've behaved in ways that would make Boss Tweed blush with embarrassment," sad Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Many of the opponents said extending term limits legislatively undermines the will of the people who twice voted in the 1990s to keep term limits at two. They called for a public referendum.

A statement released by the administration after the hearing argued there would be no time for a special election, because it would need to be certified by the U.S. Department of Justice. They also said it would be tied up in court as candidates were seeking petitions to run for office in 2009, creating uncertainty and confusion.

Members of police, fire and public employees unions came out in force to support the mayor, arguing his expertise is needed during the city's uncertain fiscal future.

"I don't see this as a self-serving bill," said Gary La Barbera, president of the New York City Central Labor Council. "I believe we are in unprecedented economic times."

While this is far from the end of the term limits debate, Monday's hearing came with a sense of finality for the bill's supporters, maybe even for the mayor.

"Everyone, thank you for your patience," the mayor said after signing the bill and while exiting the room. "And make sure you vote tomorrow."

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