Gotham Gazette

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Council Sets Stage for Snow(ball) Fight

2010 blizzard
Photo (cc) Young Yun

The storm will come down again on the Bloomberg administration this morning as the City Council kicks off the first of seven hearings on its response to the Boxing Day blizzard.

At least five members of the administration will testify at the Emigrant Savings Bank today, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg's second in command, Deputy Mayor of Operations Stephen Goldsmith. Goldsmith's whereabouts during the blizzard and whether or not he was at the reins controlling the city's response has been the subject of controversy since the 20-inch snowfall. The deputy mayor only joined the administration in April after serving as mayor of Indianapolis.

With the hope of digging out what went wrong during the December storm, which left trains at a standstill overnight and streets unplowed for days, council officials will likely throw icy snowballs at administration officials, who are still trudging to catch up with city services.

For instance, recycling pickup resumed only this weekend and delays in all sanitation pickups continue to plague certain neighborhoods.

"There are big questions," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn Friday on the John Gambling Show. "I think New Yorkers are angry, but they are also scratching their heads a bit. Usually we handle snow well. To see it go so off course you can't really understand what happened."

What They Hope to Find Out

It will be tough to shovel out of this one.

Administration officials can prepare to be hit from all sides by City Council members, who have called the city's response unacceptable.

Quinn said last week she hoped to get answers on the city's emergency management plan, what responses the plan should trigger from the administration and when the city diverged from those actions.

A spokesperson from the Office of Emergency Management would not provide Gotham Gazette with a copy of the city's snow plan, saying it was not policy to release the document publicly.

For a snowfall the size of the Boxing Day blizzard, the Office of Emergency Management starts preparations the day before the storm by holding a conference call with stakeholder agencies and departments, the spokesperson said. The call gives agencies an opportunity to request any assistance to prepare.

Before the blizzard, not a single agency requested help, according to the Office of Emergency Management.

The day of the storm, representatives from stakeholders meet at the city's emergency command center to coordinate the response efforts.

According to the spokesperson, ambulances stuck in unplowed, snow-inundated streets created the largest problem in the command center on Boxing Day. That issue has been thrust to the center of the blizzard debate. [See our accompanying story.]

"[The mayor] thinks the response was inadequate, and I think we feel that way as well," said Chris Gilbride, a spokesperson at the Office of Emergency Management.

Council members don't hesitate to agree.

Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., the chair of the council's Public Safety Committee, hopes to find out why the city failed to call a snow emergency, which would force drivers to move their cars from certain narrow streets. He also plans on hammering the administration on the large backup of calls to the 911 system. On Dec. 27, the day after the storm started, the city had 49,478 calls to 911.

Other officials are taking a broader tact.

"What information did the mayor have when decisions were made and who provided it to him?" asked Councilmember Jumaane Williams, the chair of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, last week. "What was the communication between agencies and inside agencies, and did they have a plan before the storm, and was that plan adjusted?"

The council's review of the city's response is just one of four separate investigations into the blizzard. Both the city Department of Investigation and the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney's Office are examining whether workers at the Department of Sanitation intentionally slowed down plows and shovels to protest recent demotions and budget cuts. The administration also is conducting its own internal review, led by Elizabeth Weinstein, the head of the Mayor's Office of Operations.

In addition to Goldsmith, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno, Fire Department Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano and a high-ranking official from the New York Police Department are all expected to attend today's hearing, according to the council.

On to the Next Storm

On Friday, as a fresh blanket of snow covered the city, plows were out as the first flakes fell. Bloomberg deployed the city's SCOUT teams to monitor the cleanup's progress and 50 sanitation trucks were equipped with GPS.

About two inches fell in the five boroughs, but the administration wasn't taking any chances. (The day before the latest snowfall the mayor's approval rating dipped to an all time low of 37 percent.)

The actions on Friday have not stopped council members from proposing other solutions to snowfall.

Williams plans to introduce six bills in response to the storm, including a measure that would waive all parking tickets from Dec. 27 through Jan. 3. In the future, Williams wants to suspend alternate side parking after a certain amount of snowfall. His legislative package would also waive any tickets given to senior citizens who didn’t shovel their snow and require the Office of Emergency Management to provide City Council members with an action plan 24 hours before a major storm.

Vallone is exploring a bill to force the mayor to file a certificate with the City Clerk if he leaves town for more than 48 hours. To this day, Bloomberg refuses to say where he was in the lead up to the storm. The bill, Vallone said, would also require the mayor to say who is in charge.

Councilmember Letitia James, who will chair today's hearing, said her office is considering legislation to prevent a similar snowstorm response in the future. But she declined to provide specifics until after the administration's statements today.

Today's hearing starts at 11 a.m. The council will hold a second hearing on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's response to the storm on Friday.

The council will not take public testimony today, but it will hold five separate public hearings in each borough next week.

Stated Meeting: Council Approves Agency Merger

Photo (cc)

In a move hailed by advocates, the City Council approved the official merger of the Administration for Children's Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice Wednesday in the hopes of keeping children out of jail and promoting alternative incarceration programs.

The merger will also allow for the closing of a controversial juvenile facility in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx -- known as Bridges Juvenile Center or formerly Spofford. A department spokesperson said the center would close late this year or early next year.

The merger of the two departments was first announced in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's state of the city speech in January. It will not only save money, officials said, but it will hopefully save lives.

“The city has made great strides in recent years in our efforts to reduce crime and recidivism while also improving outcomes for youth, their families and our communities,” said Bloomberg in a prepared statement. “By merging the city’s juvenile detention and child welfare programs, we will strengthen our ability to improve long-term outcomes for youth involved with the juvenile justice system -- many of whom have also been in the child welfare system.”

The merger (Intro 195) was approved by a vote of 46 to 1, with Councilmember Oliver Koppell abstaining. Councilmember Charles Barron voted against the consolidation.

Two Becomes One

Supporters of the merger, who include many of the city's large juvenile justice advocacy groups, say it's a logical next step toward keeping kids out of jail.

"The merger of Administration for Children's Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice emphasizes that the young people that are involved with the Department of Juvenile Justice are children so [they] should be treated as children and receive the services that they need," said Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and public affairs at the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York.

According to the Administration for Children's Services, more than 60 percent of juveniles in detention have had previous contact with the child welfare agency. By consolidating the agencies, the city can streamline the permanent placement of foster children in detention and better work with families whose children are involved with both agencies, Commissioner John Mattingly said in testimony to the council last week. As part of the merger, officials said the city plans to put more children, if eligible, in alternative programs, allowing them to stay in the community and with family.

Perhaps the most significant part of the merger would be the closure of the 150-bed Bridges juvenile facility in the Bronx. By siphoning off more juveniles to community-based alternatives, the city can reduce the number of kids sent to one of its three facilities and ultimately close Bridges, officials said.

Between fiscal year 2006 and fiscal year 2010, the average daily population in juvenile facilities in the city has dropped from 449 to 388, according to the mayor's office. At the same time, the cost per youth per day has increased from $476 to $651.

The merger is expected to save the city $2.4 million, according to the council.

While the agencies have been operating under the same commissioner since January and they consolidated administrative functions over the summer, the legislation approved Wednesday officially allows the two departments to become one.

Even though the majority of the response to the consolidation has been supportive, there are still skeptics.

"The administration has said all the right things," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler of Brooklyn, who reluctantly voted for the proposal. "I am going to take them at their word. In the past, mergers and acquisitions have been code word for service cuts."

Some advocates have raised similar concerns and have urged the mayor and the council to be mindful with their budget ax.

Trees and Webstreaming

The council also approved legislation (Intro 311) Wednesday to require the Department of Parks and Recreation to notify school and hospital officials 30 days before it plants trees near entrances.

Councilmember James Oddo, the sponsor of the bill, said the proposal emerged after the parks department planted trees in an area designated for student drop off at a Staten Island school.

It was approved unanimously.

Wednesday also marked the first day of the council's new web streaming service. The council will stream its twice-monthly stated meetings live on its Web site.

As Country Goes Red, New York Stays Blue

Photo by David King
Andrew Cuomo in Albany on Monday

For more election returns, see our voting results page.

Andrew Cuomo, who spent years in Albany working for his father and then tried unsuccessfully to become governor in 2002, was resoundingly elected to the state's highest office Tuesday.

Eric Schneiderman will replace Cuomo as attorney general. In the race for the third statewide office -- comptroller -- incumbent Thomas DiNapoli appears to have won election to the seat he was appointed to almost four years ago. A victory for the three Democrats -- all with long careers in Albany -- comes after four years where the state's government -- and Democrats in particular -- have been beset by scandal and charges of incompetence.

On a night when Democrats suffered many defeats around the country -- including the loss of the House of Representatives -- New York's two incumbent Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, scored convincing victories over two little known, poorly funded opponents. One member of Congress from the city, Michael McMahon, fell victim to the national Republican wave.

While almost all New York City incumbent members of Congress and the State Legislature won their races -- many without braking a sweat - the question of who would control the State Senate in January remained in doubt. One city election could prove crucial: District 11 in eastern Queens where Democrat and former City Councilmember Tony Avella defeated veteran State Sen. Frank Padavan.

Cuomo's Victory

Cuomo, along with his running mate, Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy won support from all parts of the state and most demographic groups.

Aside from a brief uptick in one poll following his primary victory, Buffalo Businessman Carl Paladino lagged in the polls and fundraising and never seemed able to shake the image of "crazy Carl," as the Daily News always called him. Paladino was his own worst enemy. What he described as his refusal to be politically correct, led him to talk repeatedly about his opponent's sex life, send out obscene emails and rant against gays.

In his victory speech, Cuomo said he understood that New Yorkers were angry and frustrated about the dysfunction in Albany, but the opposition misjudged New Yorkers when they "tried to exploit the anger and the fear and divide us."

"People of this state listened to their better angels," the governor-elect said. "We are one, were are united, we believe in community … and we are not going to let you divide us."

In terms of what he would do as governor, Cuomo said he had a mandate "to clean up Albany and have elected officials represent the people of this state -- not special interests and lobbyists." Echoing the fiscal conservatism that characterized his campaign, he said New Yorkers wanted the state to balance its budget and its government "to realize there is no economic future for New York if we are the highest tax state in the nation."

Whether he can do that, of course, will be a key question of the next four years. No one thinks, however, that it will be easy.

For his part, Paladino's concession speechseemed unlikely to disappoint those who appreciate his combative style. "We’ve got their attention,” Paladino said in downtown Buffalo, “and it is our duty to keep our voices raised, keep our pitchforks at the ready and never surrender.”

Straight Ticket

Polls had seen the contest between Schneiderman, a liberal state senator from Manhattan, and his GOP opponent, Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, tightening to a virtual tie in the last few days. Donovan had support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who appeared with former Mayor Ed Koch in an ad for him. Several of the mayor's friends made large donations to the Staten Islander in the closing days of the campaign. Despite that, Schneiderman outspent Donovan by more than two-to-one.

As a member of the senate, Schneiderman was seen as having been tarnished by charges that members of the body's leadership were involved in a rigged bidding process for a casino at the Aqueduct racetrack -- although Schneiderman himself was not mentioned.

Schneiderman had pledged to continue to police Wall Street, while Donovan rejected the idea, which sent some large donations his way.

In the end, Schneiderman pulled out a convincing victory, defeating Donovan by a margin of about 12 percentage points. Some commentators attributed this to union enthusiasm for Schneiderman.

Wall Street played an even more central role in the race for comptroller. Harry Wilson, a former Wall Street executive who served on President Barack Obama's car panel, presented himself as someone with financial expertise who could use the office to put New York's messy finances in order and reduce spending. Wilson won the endorsement of all three city daily newspapers, Bloomberg and others, and used $4 million of his own money Wilson spent almost twice as much as DiNapoli.

For his part DiNapoli, who was appointed comptroller after Alan Hevesi was forced to step down, tried to turn Wilson's Wall Street background against him and pointed to improvements he said he had made since taking over the office.

The contest between the two men remained neck and neck, although at around 1:40 a.m., NY1 declared DiNapoli the projected winner. Wilson did not concede, saying it was too close to call and he remained "hopeful that I will prevail in my campaign to bring fiscal accountability to Albany and professionalism" to the comptroller's office.

DiNapoli, though, having won without the endorsement of the man at the top of his ticket -- Cuomo -- was happy to celebrate. His "victory shows it’s not about the polls, nor the pundits, nor the papers," he said in a statement. "It’s about the people."

Keeping the Rascals

Despite the problems in Albany and the urging of the Daily News and others to vote against incumbents, most members of the state legislature from New York City won re-election easily. Padavan, who narrowly escaped being run out of office in 2006, may prove to be the only exception.

In 2006, Padavan, who has served 36 years in the legislature, attributed his near defeat to the large vote for Obama in his district. This time, though, Padavan has the dubious distinction of being the rare incumbent Republican defeated in a banner year for the GOP -- at least outside of New York.

Also defeated was incumbent Assemblymember Janelle Hyer-Spencer whose 60th district included parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island. She lost to Nicole Malliotakis by a margin of about 10 percentage points. Although her father is Greek, Malliotakis' mother is from Cuba, making her the first person of Hispanic descent to be elected on Staten Island.

Al the city's members of Congress -- all of them Democrats -- also kept their jobs except for McMahon. The former City Council member won the seat, which had been Republican for decades, in 2008 after Councilmember Vito Fossella decided not to seek re-election.

Running without the support of many in the Staten Island GOP establishment, Michael Grimm, a former Marine who had worked for the FBI, defeated McMahon by almost 4 percentage points.

City Council

In one of two City Council races on the ballot this year, Ruben Wills appears to have defeated Nicole Bell, the widow of Sean Bell who died in a barrage of police gunfire on the early morning of his wedding day in 2006. Five other candidates, including former City Councilmember Allan Jennings, lagged behind the two leaders, in a spirited contest to replace Thomas White, who died earlier this year.

City Councilmember David Greenfield also appeared on the ballot for his Brooklyn council seat, but was unopposed.

Ballot Questions

City voters overwhelmingly approved the two ballot questions crafted by the city Charter Revision Commission. The measure on term limits -- restoring the two-term limit but not for any city official now in office -- received a yes from 74 percent of voters who turned over their ballot.

The other question -- which included financial disclosure, mapping of city facilities and so on -- passed by an even larger margin.

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