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Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting


council holds oversight

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council regularly passes bills mandating that city agencies create reports on their work, ostensibly as part of the Council’s oversight responsibilities. From city jail populations to hate crimes statistics to use of force by police officers, the Council has passed bills requiring a report be delivered to it.

The Council passes so many reporting bills that last year, it passed legislation that would help it track the number of total reports required under local law, the City Charter, or mayoral order. The bill compelled the city’s Department of Records and Information Services to create a central list of every single report required from every city agency, board, or office.

The result: a 57-page document that lists a whopping 842 required reports of various types due at a variety of time intervals. Of those, 490 are listed as not received by DORIS, despite some being producing by agencies on a regular basis, raising questions for Council members about whether agencies are refusing to comply with the law or are overwhelmed with burdensome reporting mandates.

The Council often requests information from city agencies to gauge the effectiveness of city services and programs and to decide on annual budget allocations. City agencies, however, can sometimes be less than forthcoming, necessitating that the Council put the force of law behind their inquiries.

But agencies just as often fall out of compliance with their reporting requirements, which even City Council Members admit can be onerous and time- and resource-intensive. Council Members themselves can forget about their requests once they’ve been legislated. Some have questioned whether passing a “reporting bill” is good for a press release or constituent newsletter but leads to little follow up from the Council members who insist on their importance.

The initial posting of the list, which was due July 1, shows that the mayoral administration, city agencies and boards, and the Council have a long way to go to prove that the reporting bills so frequently passed are actually essential to effective and efficient city government, and getting completed and used.

“Transparency is essential for responsive and effective government. We need accurate and up-to-date information to be easily available to the public,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who sponsored the bill as chair of the governmental operations committee, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Cabrera inherited the bill from former Council Member James Vacca, who introduced it last session as chair of the technology committee but was term-limited out of office before it passed.

Cabrera said the bill was a response to a review that showed reports from several years either missing from agency websites or unavailable on the DORIS website. His legislation now requires a full list of all such agency reports, the frequency with which they are due, the law mandating them, and the date they were last published.

For example: The Department of Homeless Services’ shelter repair scorecard, due every quarter and last delivered to DORIS on July 15. The Department of Buildings report on injuries and fatalities at construction sites, produced monthly and submitted to DORIS but marked as not received on the list. The Department of Corrections’ latest report on punitive segregation in the third quarter of 2019, available on the DOC website but listed as last received by DORIS in July 2014.

Starting in January 2020, the report will also have to include links to the reports online, and DORIS will be required to request each report from a specific agency if it is not delivered within ten days of its due date.

“People have a right to easily access the information that the law requires be made public. This is about accountability,” Cabrera said.

For some agencies, such as the Department of Education, the Council also has a limited ability to pass new laws dictating policy or procedure, and has to instead rely on requiring greater transparency that can lead to better oversight. “There's nothing more meta than a report on reports,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, a member and former chair of the governmental operations committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, in a phone interview.

“As a legislator, I try to avoid legislation that requires a report, a task force or a study, because they always seem like a waste of time,” Kallos added. “I prefer to focus on legislation that just does things. That being said, with certain non-city agencies, we're left with no other choice.”

The current report includes dozens of city agencies and the information they are meant to publish everywhere from just once to monthly, quarterly, annually, or every two, five or ten years. The Department of Environmental Protection tops the list in number of required reports, with a total of 48; the Department of Transportation is second with 41; the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is meant to produce 35 reports; and the NYPD is mandated to provide 34.

A glimpse at the report of reports might give the impression that agencies are being negligent with their reporting responsibilities, given that 490 of the 842 are listed as not received. But the list is far from perfect. Those reports that are listed as having not been received include many that have been created and are regularly maintained by city agencies on their websites, which is part of the problem that Cabrera pointed to in his statement.

Ironically, the report even notes that DORIS itself has not submitted an annual report “on powers and duties, cost of savings,” as required by the City Charter. 

Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the discrepancies stem from processing the hundreds of required reports which, for a small agency like DORIS, is an intensive task. “It takes time,” he said. Reports may have been sent but not included in the list or have not been sent and DORIS has pushed agencies to provide them, he added.

“DORIS continues to expand content on the government publications portal by working with agencies to submit all of their reports, as required by the City Charter,” Bayona said in an email. The publications portal is meant to contain digital copies of every report produced so far by city agencies, commissions, and boards. “The number of reports available on the portal has increased from 4,180 in [Fiscal Year 2015] to 23,089 today.”

On DORIS’ annual report, Bayona explained, “DORIS submits data about its powers, duties and costs in the [Mayor’s Management Report] and considers that to be an annual report. Nevertheless, the Librarians listed the charter requirement for an annual report as a separate document because one of the Council’s requirements is that the Library list all required reports.”

For Council members seeking greater transparency from the administration, the report is illuminating, even with its deficiencies. “I can’t say I’m not disappointed,” Kallos said, pointing to the picture of “rampant non-compliance” that emerges from the report. He said agencies often withhold reports from the City Council that they are required to provide.

“It's no surprise that if they didn't send reports to the City Council, that they didn't follow their charter requirement to submit them to the Department of Records and Information Services. After all, very few people even know that DORIS exists.” He did concede that perhaps agencies themselves are unaware of their responsibility to send reports to DORIS, an issue that this new report might rectify.

Kallos said he often requests reports from agencies which they will send to the Council but not to him, leaving him to track them down. Then, agency officials will embarrass him at City Council hearings. “It's a game of cat and mouse in the very worst way of Tom and Jerry where the mouse actually clobbers the cat,” he said, noting that the DORIS report would help him in those efforts. “If there's a report I can't get my hands on and [DORIS] can't either, then it seems like maybe the agency didn't do their job.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and he said the report of reports is a valuable tool for the Council’s scrutiny of the administration but might also prompt a more “holistic” review of how the Council requests information.

“Reporting bills can be a powerful advocacy tool for shining a spotlight on a matter of public concern,” he said in a phone interview. “But here's the problem. Even if a reporting requirement has merit, the accumulation of the requirements over time becomes a real imposition on a city agency. The notion that a reporting bill has no fiscal impact is something of a myth.”

Similarly, as the city’s new reporting on reports law went into effect July 1, state legislators in Albany are looking into whether they are imposing burdensome “study bills” on state agencies. Polltico New York reported earlier this month that State Senator James Skoufis and Assemblymember Brain Barnwell plan to introduce a bill requiring an examination of state study bills. “We do need to, as silly as it sounds, study all of these study bills,” Skoufis told Politico.  “Perhaps if nothing else, it will shine a light on this issue and make us think twice about just doing study bills to make a political statement.”

Torres said the Council should refocus on a more demand-based approach to obtaining the reports they need, to ensure that the information being produced is not obsolete.

“Rather than have ongoing reporting requirements that persist in perpetuity, why not make the reporting requirements dependent upon written request from the City Council, from the Speaker or relevant committee chair?,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: How the CCRB Prosecuted the Eric Garner Case


NYPD officer

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


August 28, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: How the CCRB Prosecuted the Eric Garner Case

exe dir jon darche 150  
eugene odonnell 150  

Jonathan Darche, the executive director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), and then Eugene O'Donnell, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and former NYPD officer, joined the show to discuss the CCRB prosecution of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo and NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill's decision to fire Pantaleo, policing more generally, police reform and accountability under Mayor de Blasio, and 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," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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The City’s Pouring Money Into Trash Basket Pickup, and Complaints of Overflowing Bins are Dropping


single wire litter basket

(photos: Department of Sanitation)


In the public conversation surrounding quality of life in New York City, litter baskets -- the mostly green, metal-wire trash cans standing guard on street corners throughout the five boroughs -- have taken on a unique focus. They seem to exist at the nexus between public and private life, providing relief for the refuse-laden pedestrian, and serving as a symbol of the urban order embodied in mundane municipal service delivery.

Where baskets are placed, how often they are serviced, and how the city enforces the laws around their use all impact the cleanliness of streets and the perception that city government can, or can’t, handle the demands of the people it serves. In today's world, when litter baskets overflow and the dirty laundry is aired on social media, a sense of disorder and uncleanliness can spread, a feeling that local government is not effectively serving the density of residents, commuters, and tourists that fuel the city.

Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia famously said that trash collection is not a partisan issue; it’s a measure of basic government service that simply must be done, a reason to have city government and pay taxes. Like plowing snow, New Yorkers expect trash collection to be done effectively and failures have become the subject of renewed focus by the de Blasio administration and its critics.

In New York City, there are roughly 8.4 million residents, tens of thousands of street corners, and approximately 23,000 public litter baskets, according to DSNY. In 2018, 65 million tourists also visited the city.

“We take quality of life very seriously, particularly around cleaning issues, and we consistently put more resources into additional services, whether that is for highway sweeping or for additional litter basket collection,” the city’s Sanitation Commissioner, Katheryn Garcia, told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview.

“But it is always a partnership that we need to have with the public. We need to make sure people are following the rules. Otherwise, it becomes an insurmountable amount of trash and litter,” she added, referring to rules around corner litter baskets and issues with illegal dumping and other violations.

Street corner litter baskets are intended to be used by pedestrians for garbage on their person, like empty food wrappers or a crumpled newspaper, but they are frequently the sites of overflowing refuse that render them useless. In part, officials blame the improper dumping of bulk commercial or household waste, and say the persistent misuse puts a strain on the city’s sanitation infrastructure, leading bins to fill up and spill out into the streets.

In the last two years, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which oversees litter basket services, has undertaken a range of initiatives to help improve litter basket conditions in partnership with the City Council. The measures include increasing funding for basket services, enhanced enforcement tools, and establishing partnerships with other agencies and the private sector.

By at least one measure, these efforts appear to be working.

In 2015, complaints of overflowing litter baskets to the city’s non-emergency helpline, 311, reached their highest point in five years -- DSNY opened 1,563 such cases that year, according to data available on the city’s Open Data Portal.

Since then, litter basket complaints to 311 have declined each year, falling to 946 in 2018. In the first eight months of 2019, only 461 complaints have been made.

In Fiscal Year 2019, which ended June 30 of this year, the city allocated $3.5 million for supplemental basket services, according to DSNY, on top of its roughly $1.7 billion expense budget for the agency, which includes funding for a variety of services from trash to snow removal. The money was for additional pick-ups to try to combat the scourge of full and unusable street corner bins, according to City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.

This year, the City Council secured an additional $5.1 million, bringing the total allocations for supplemental basket services in the new Fiscal 2020 budget that took effect July 1 to $8.6 million, according to DSNY. The department received the new allocations on August 12 and is currently devising a plan for how it will be spent -- whether it will fund more staffing or trucks, or better pick-up route design.

“We are currently evaluating our operation plan on supplemental litter basket service that will be provided by this new funding. We plan to unveil plan details soon,” DSNY spokesperson Dina Montes told Gotham Gazette in an email.

“By early fall,” she clarified in an interview, indicating that this is an estimate.

The extra pick-ups in 2018 and 2019 have been well-received by a number of Council members Gotham Gazette spoke to. “For the most part, I’ve seen an improvement with the extra pick-ups,” said Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents central Staten Island and has been a vocal advocate for better litter services to improve street cleanliness.

“There is nothing worse than seeing a garbage can that is overflowing, that has bags around it. It just brings more litter, so the extra pick-up has been great,” he added in an interview. Since the additional funding allocations in 2018, basket pick-ups increased from two to four times per week in Staten Island Community Board 1, and in Community Boards 2 and 3, weekly pick-ups increased to three, Matteo said.

DSNY says it has adopted similar increases throughout the city, especially in high traffic areas.

According to a May press release from the City Council citing DSNY budget testimony, street cleanliness increased from 95 to 96 percent in Fiscal Year 2019 based on measurements of street trash by field agents of the mayor’s office. Other studies are less favorable, like the Citizens Budget Commission's Resident Feedback Survey, which showed only 47.3 percent of respondents rated their neighborhood cleanliness as either “excellent” or “good.”

“You don’t need a litter basket collection multiple times a day if you’re out on Staten Island. Are you going to need it in the middle of Midtown? Yeah,” Garcia said.

“I’m very glad that the Department of Sanitation was able to receive additional funding from this year’s budget,” said Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents parts of Lower Manhattan, in a statement. “I hope to see more of these services targeted to underserved, high-need neighborhoods like SoHo, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where illegal dumping and commercial trash -- especially with the unprecedented rise of Amazon deliveries -- continue to be issues that small businesses and residents struggle with."

Despite the positive reception, many feel there is still work to be done.

“I am glad the Department of Sanitation is exploring new tactics to make our streets cleaner – residents have even noticed a difference on 86th Street. Despite these efforts, however, I continue to hear from constituents across my district, particularly on the Upper East Side, regarding issues with trash,” said Council Member Keith Powers, representing a large swath of the east side of Manhattan, in a statement.

The drop in 311 complaints has also accompanied an effort by DSNY and the City Council to crack down on illegal dumping and drop-offs. Illegal dumping is when commercial or household waste is left by a vehicle, and drop-offs refer to bulk debris disposal that exceed the basket’s capacity for personal trash.

In 2018, Matteo was the main sponsor of a number of bills in a package that became law and allowed DSNY enforcement officials to use identifying information found in unlawfully dumped piles, such as an envelope or magazine with a name or address, to pursue offenders. Previously, DSNY agents had to witness an illegal dumping take place in order to issue a violation.

“We could tell that, obviously, a vehicle was used because there was a huge amount of garbage and there was no way somebody could carry it. We are talking about construction debris, sometimes it’s appliances, and then there is also bags of trash,” said Montes of DSNY.

Prior to the new legislation, which went into effect in the fall of 2018, “we couldn’t actually use any material that was found in the trash to actually investigate,” she said.

The city has also begun using surveillance cameras to monitor sites with frequent dumping and clamp down on the illegal activity. Earlier this year, DSNY partnered with Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, the Parks Department, and a local business improvement district (BID) to investigate chronic illegal dumpers. (Business improvement districts are areas where local industry contribute to the management and funding of public space maintenance.)

“Our collective efforts to combat illegal dumping continue to yield positive results in holding bad actors accountable and improving quality of life on Staten Island,” McMahon said in a July press release. According to Montes, DSNY has issued five summonses to illegal dumpers that were caught on camera since 2018.

In 2018, the City Council also increased the penalties for dumping and littering in an effort to discourage the behavior, which are relatively lax compared to nearby jurisdictions, officials say. “You live in Suffolk County, the fines are like 10 times what the fines are in New York City,” Garcia told Gotham Gazette.

Last summer, new legislation imposed higher fines for littering small amounts of trash from vehicles -- going from $100 to $200 -- and for illegal dumping of garbage and debris from $1,500 to $4,000 (a 167 percent increase), according to Montes.

Since the new penalties went into effect last November, DSNY has issued 111 summonses for littering from a motor vehicle.

Despite the increased penalties and enforcement tools, DSNY still faces an uphill battle, especially in transportation hubs, locations with high food tourism and nightlife, and areas surrounding construction sites.

“In terms of general trash and litter problems, the downtown area is always one of the worst and requires the most oversight,” said Scott Sieber, a spokesperson for Queens Council Member Peter Koo, referring to the high-activity area of Downtown Flushing.

Because litter baskets are for pedestrian use in high-traffic, often commercial, corridors, DSNY usually does not place them in areas that are primarily residential, Montes told Gotham Gazette. This has placed a strain on gentrifying neighborhoods that have seen a shift from residential to multi-purpose use.

“In my district in Bushwick, we were having severe litter problems, mostly because nightlife was picking-up in and around the neighborhood, and we haven’t necessarily built out the infrastructure for trash collection that was matching that,” Reynoso said.

One of the obstacles to litter basket collection is knowing where the litter baskets are. Litter baskets can be placed by the city, by BIDs, and by nonprofit and private entities after receiving permission from DSNY. Baskets are frequently moved due to damage or vandalism, nearby construction, or regular illegal use. DSNY uses field staff to track basket placement and gauge their effectiveness. “Our cleaning office will also add baskets to areas that have become more commercial,” said Montes.

DSNY has also identified the design of litter baskets, which haven’t changed since the 1930s, as a contributor to trash spilling into the streets. In August 2018, the de Blasio administration launched a competition to redesign street corner bins, soliciting participants from the private sector, with the goal of creating bins that are more accessible, easy-to-service, and better equipped to handle spillage. The city is testing prototypes from two finalists with plans to announce a winner in the fall.

trash baskets

As city neighborhoods continue to shift, packaging from online commerce proliferates, and concern for the environment becomes more urgent, elected officials are looking for ways to reduce -- not just collect -- the amount of trash the city produces.

“Although we have seen improvements in [litter basket pick-up], my ultimate goal is to continue to work on legislation that will ultimately reduce the city’s waste as a whole,” wrote Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“What we’re hoping is to start lowering the amount of trash the city of New York is sending to landfills and we need to start moving away from needing litter baskets at every single corner,” Reynoso told Gotham Gazette. (Reynoso was a vocal proponent of the increased funding for litter baskets this year, and helped put pressure on de Blasio to include it in the enacted budget.)

“While we were putting out the litter baskets because we want to keep the streets clean, we as a city do need to start working on reduction and reuse,” he said. “More litter baskets reinforces the idea that you can continue to have contents on your person and get rid of them, eventually, in a corner.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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