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De Blasio Dodges Questions About His Stance on Ballot Proposals

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Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray vote (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio is dodging questions about his position on a series of ballot referenda that propose changes to city elections and governance. In two interviews Friday and Monday, the mayor avoided giving any specifics when asked repeatedly to discuss the proposed amendments to the city charter, all of which impact city services and administration, and he refused to say how he voted on them.

The ballot this year has five “yes” or “no” questions containing 19 distinct changes to the city’s core body of laws, which voters have the opportunity to approve or reject in the final stage of a unique amendment process in New York City. The proposals were placed on the ballot by a commission created by City Council legislation and appointed by a spread of city elected officials, including the mayor. The goal was to identify areas of reform in the charter that could not be easily addressed through the typical legislative process, and put them directly to voters.

De Blasio cast his ballot in Brooklyn on Saturday, the first day of the new nine-day period of early voting. (Registered voters have until November 3 to vote early; Election Day is on November 5.) Along with just a few candidate races, the ballot contains significant potential reforms, including to how some elections are run, how police oversight is carried out, how budgeting is done, and more.

“On the 19 separate questions, I’m not going to get into parsing what I feel on each one. I can give you a broad answer which is my team, my administration fully participated in this commission,” de Blasio said during his usual Friday morning interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, inaccurately describing the ballot proposals, which come in five questions.

The 15-member charter revision commission was designed to give no one entity a majority of appointments. Council Speaker Corey Johnson and de Blasio each selected four commissioners, with one appointee made by each of the comptroller, public advocate, and five borough presidents (Johnson selected the chair from his appointees).

When pressed by Lehrer to give more details on how he feels about -- and would vote on -- the potentially impactful provisions, de Blasio repeated his stance about the charter revision process while evading questions about how he intended to vote.

“I am comfortable with the overall result of this commission and my main point to people is I think they did good work and I think everyone should vote,” he said.

He maintained his posture about the charter revision process and questions when asked again by Errol Louis on NY1’s Inside City Hall Monday evening. Having voted over the weekend, he wanted to keep his ballot secret. “I have a blanket rule, I mean obviously everyone’s vote is personal, and I respect that in everyone else,” de Blasio said.

The five ballot questions cover general categories, each outlining more granular measures. Voters can weigh-in on charter changes to the city’s elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board, ethics and governance, budget, and land use.

De Blasio was asked directly about his positions on Questions 1 and 2, which have received the vast majority of public attention on the ballot proposals.

Question 1 on the ballot asks voters if they support for primary and special elections a system of ranked-choice voting, a balloting method that lets voters list candidates by preference rather selecting one in an all-or-nothing fashion. It would eliminate costly party primary run-off elections and help show broader support for the winner of crowded primaries and special elections. That proposed change has the backing of a coalition of election reform advocates and elected officials who have been promoting a “yes” vote on the question since September. There is no evident organized opposition to the proposal.

When asked directly by Louis, de Blasio expressed interest in ranked-choice voting but raised questions about what impact it would have on political participation and representation.

“We do know an advantage is it doesn’t require a runoff and therefore saves money and saves time and energy, and it’s true that a lot of those runoffs have been lower turnout,” the mayor said Monday. (De Blasio, himself, won a runoff for the Democratic nomination for public advocate in 2009.)

“I don’t think it’s 100 percent clear what it will yield but I’m certainly hopeful about it,” he added, giving an inkling of support.

Question 2, related to strengthening the police oversight function of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, has emerged as the most controversial piece of the proposed charter revisions. Among other things, the amendment would allow the CCRB to examine officers suspected of giving false testimony while under investigation for misconduct. If those suspicions are substantiated the agency could then bring charges in an administrative trial setting.

The CCRB recently led the high-profile prosecution of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who placed Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold on Staten Island in 2014. The prosecution and conviction in an NYPD administrative trial led Police Commissioner James O’Neill to dismiss Pantaleo from the force in August.

CCRB officials say Question 2, if passed by voters, would also streamline the civilian agency’s operations by giving the executive director subpoena power and providing a baseline for its annual budget. Other provisions in Question 2 would codify existing practices, expand the number of appointments to the board and slightly alter who makes them (currently all the Board members go through the mayor).

The proposal has raised the ire of the Police Benevolent Association, the city’s largest law enforcement union, which last week launched a campaign urging its members and allies to vote “no.” The PBA on its website and in posts to social media has described Question 2 as a “power grab” by an agency with a “rampant anti-police bias.” In response, the CCRB released a “fact sheet” aimed at debunking what it describes as “myth” propagated by the police officers union.

Both Lehrer and Louis directly asked the mayor about his position on Question 2. In both instances he refused to discuss any particulars on the proposal and responded generally about the charter revision process.

“Because it’s 19 different subset questions I’m going to stay broad but say, yeah, we participated. In the end, again, I think the broad product of that charter commission was good. I think a lot of good work went into it. But again I’m not going to get into parsing on each of the questions,” he told Louis Monday.

Despite the mayor taking no public position, Gotham Gazette reported in June that administration representatives sought to secretly influence the charter revision commissioners in an attempt to kill the controversial proposal to allow the CCRB to pursue officers found to be lying to misconduct investigators.

De Blasio was not specifically asked about Questions 3, 4, and 5, which include an extended moratorium on former elected officials lobbying city government; a provision allowing the city to create a “rainy day” savings fund; and changes to the land use review process.

On October 17, nine days before the start of early voting, administration spokesperson Will Baskin-Gerwitz told Gotham Gazette, “Mayor de Blasio continues to review the Charter revision questions that will be on the ballot.”

Other top elected officials who appointed members of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission have taken positions on the proposals, mostly in response to Gotham Gazette inquiries: Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer both said they support all five ballot questions. Johnson and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams support Question 1 (ranked-choice voting) but have not expressed opinions on the others. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams also said he supports all five questions, though he did not make an appointment to the commission (that was his predecessor, Letitia James).

Meanwhile, James, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo did not respond to Gotham Gazette inquiries about their positions on the proposals. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz declined to comment.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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'It's Critical We Get the Planning Right': Council Examines City's Initial Preparations for 2020 Census Count

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(photo: John McCarten/City Council)

With the launch of the 2020 Census barely five months away, the New York City Council on Tuesday summoned officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for a progress report on the city’s preparations for the decennial population count. It is a count that has a great deal riding on it, from billions of dollars in federal funding to representation in Congress, and more.

Convening a joint hearing of the Committees on Governmental Operations, Immigration, and State and Federal Legislation, City Council members sought answers from the administration on how it is spending $40 million allocated together by the mayor and the Council to ensure a complete count of the city’s residents and how city agencies are dealing with the various challenges presented by this particular census.

New York City houses various hard-to-count populations – for whom the rate of self-response to the Census is 73% or below – which include children under the age of 5, seniors, immigrants, non-English speakers, homeless people, public housing residents, and predominantly black communities. That’s why in 2010, the city’s self-response rate was only 62%, about 14 points below the national average.

“It is critical that we get the planning right so that come spring 2020, our networks are activated to respond to the [Census] questionnaire,” said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, who chairs the Council’s immigration committee and is also co-chair of the Council’s 2020 Census Task Force along with Council Member Carlina Rivera.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of countless state and city programs, political representation, and even our democracy rely on a complete and accurate census count,” Rivera said in her opening remarks.

The census count indeed has broad reaching ramifications for the people of New York. It is used to determine the state’s congressional representation (New York could lose two seats in an undercount) and is used to draw electoral lines for local and state elections. It also affects the distributions of roughly $650 billion in federal funds to states and localities, and determines everything from where businesses invest their money and the level and funding of services for the most vulnerable residents of the city, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

This time around, city officials are hoping to boost the city’s self-response rate even as they face several new challenges. The U.S. Census Bureau has been underfunded at the federal level, which means there will be fewer enumerators that can count residents who do not respond to the Census on their own. The Bureau is also focusing primarily on digital methodology, urging people to fill out the census online through their phones and computers, which has raised concerns about data privacy and security as well as the lack of digital literacy among certain sections of the population.
But for New York City, a particularly pressing issue is the heightened sense of apprehension and mistrust among immigrant communities about the federal government, which has been exacerbated for years by the Trump administration’s unsuccessful effort to place a citizenship question on the census questionnaire.

At the hearing, NYC Census Director Julie Menin reassured the Council members that the city’s endeavors are well underway and are split up into four pillars – a $19-million Complete Count Fund to give grants to community-based organizations; a field program involving Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees that will include 2,500 volunteers in 245 neighborhoods; partnerships with city agencies and businesses; and a multilingual mass media campaign with messages tailored to specific communities.

“Given that there is significant overlap between those populations that have been historically undercounted and populations that have been forced to live on the political or socioeconomic margins of society, achieving a complete and accurate count in every census is critical to ensure that every person in the United States has full access to the representation that they deserve,” Menin said in her opening statement.

She said the administration has already received more than 500 applications for grants from the Complete Count Fund and that those would be awarded by December. More than 500 people have also volunteered for the NOCCs and the city has been conducting trainings so that they can recruit more volunteers at the local level.

Menin’s office is also coordinating with more than 50 city agencies, particularly public facing ones such as the library system, to expand outreach. The mass media campaign, she said, will be focused on ethnic and community media and will be announced in the coming weeks, though advertisements will appear by the start of 2020.

The question of state funding loomed large over the hearing, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to release $20 million allocated for census outreach in the state budget earlier this year. A state commission that was supposed to recommend an implementation plan for those funds issued its report on October 8, recognizing many of the issues that were already apparent to city Census officials. But it punted the funding decision back to the governor’s administration.

“The Complete Count Commission released its report just a few weeks ago that was based on several months of research and public hearings,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “We are using it as a basis to develop a plan for how the State can best work with local governments and our partners to properly distribute resources so that every New Yorker is counted in the 2020 Census.”

[Read: State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration]

City officials had no clue at Tuesday’s hearing as to how those funds would be distributed, however. “I don’t know,” said Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, when Council Member Andrew Cohen asked about the proportion of state funds that would be directed to the city. She did say she was aware that state agencies were “activated” and in various stages of planning as they await funds from the governor’s team.

Mostofi, Menin, and other officials did outline for the Council members how the administration is tackling the other challenging aspects of the census.

To count New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, the Department of Social Services is coordinating with the U.S. Census Bureau, which also does its own “group quarter” operation to find and count unhoused individuals. DSS will also spend three days counting the street homeless population in the spring, Menin said.

Kathleen Daniel, field director for NYC Census, said CUNY would recruit and pay 200 students to assist in the census campaign as leaders of NOCCs, campaign organizers, and to work with the office’s data operation. Amit Bagga, NYC Census’ deputy director, said the office is in talks with agencies that can make computers available to New Yorkers and is negotiating software contracts to provide digital training materials to CBOs.

The city’s 219 libraries will also be pressed into service, with more than 1,000 employees trained to assist New Yorkers in filling out the census online. There will also be hundreds of pop-up centers across the city, in places such as houses of worship, community centers, and elected officials’ offices, where residents can access computers to fill out the questionnaire.

Peter Lobo, director of the population division at the Department of City Planning, said the city has been working since 2016 to update the Census Bureau’s Master Address File (MAF), which includes addresses for every resident of the city. “If a person’s address is not on the MAF, that person cannot be counted in the census,” he said. Last year, he said DCP submitted 123,000 addresses, 59,000 corrections, and 3,200 deletions to the Census Bureau. Only six of the new addresses were rejected and 1,602 of the deletions were accepted. Lobo said the department will also send a list of more than 100,000 newly-constructed housing units to the Bureau on October 30.

Bagga and Menin also noted that the city is helping the Census Bureau recruit enumerators and employees, particularly after the Bureau obtained a waiver to hire noncitizens, who are seen as important in helping achieve a complete count among certain communities.

A major concern for many of the Council members, however, was how the city could overcome the wariness among immigrant communities and urge them to respond to the federal government. Mostofi emphasized that the divide would be best bridged by enlisting the various community groups that are trusted voices in their neighborhoods. “We recognize that the federal government’s efforts to sow fear and confusion must be countered with easy-to-understand information and outreach, including language access for our immigrant population,” she said earlier.

Menin said combating “misinformation and disinformation” is one of the biggest challenges for the city. Menin and Bagga emphasized that the mass media campaign would also account for different communities through culturally competent messages and translations. “We know that slightly different messages are going to resonate slightly differently in different places. So we need to be prepared for that,” Bagga said.

Menin pointed out that in 2010, the federal government was largely in charge of the broad media outreach and the message was uniform. “The messaging being, ‘Fill out the census, it's your civic duty.’...It wasn't micro-targeted. We're completely flipping that model. We want to micro-target our messaging to various communities so that people really understand what's at stake.”

Several data experts, civil rights groups, immigrant rights organizations, business groups, and government reform advocates also testified at Tuesday’s hearing. They included the New York Immigration Coalition, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Taiwanese American Association of New York, the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Association for a Better New York, the Digital Equity Laboratory at The New School, Citizens Union, the Arab-American Family Support Center, the Asian American Federation, Community Resource Exchange, and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Staten Island Borough President James Oddo

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Staten Island BP James Oddo (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)

October 28, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Staten Island Borough President James Oddo

james oddo podOutspoken Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, a Republican, joined the podcast to discuss a wide range of topics, from the status of his constituents seven years after Superstorm Sandy to how well his borough is prepared for the next big storm, from housing and development on the island to what he thinks is needed to make New York City government run better, from Mayor de Blasio's record to what the next mayoral race will about, and much more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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