Gotham Gazette

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Council Member Rosenthal Pursues Legislation to Create City Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention

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Council Member Rosenthal, center (photo: William Alatriste\New York City Council)

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Committee on Women and Gender Equity, plans to introduce legislation to create an Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention within the mayor’s office, she told Gotham Gazette on Monday night.

Rosenthal, who recently spearheaded passage of sweeping anti-harassment legislation, made a request to draft Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention bill following a recent Gotham Gazette report about a 1993 executive order signed by former Mayor David Dinkins that would’ve created such an office, but was never put into effect.

“I think it’s an exciting idea,” Rosenthal said. “Let’s see where it would fit in to start and then what is its mission, what it would have authority over. There are a lot of important questions that have to be answered.” Those answers would come in both the bill-drafting and legislative hearing and negotiation phases.

[READ: A Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention? It Almost Happened 25 Years Ago]

In 1993, Dinkins signed an executive order to create the Citywide Office of Sexual Harassment Prevention on a pilot basis for two years. The order was a response to a sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation of a top Dinkins aide, and followed a larger push by then-Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman to reform anti-sexual harassment policies at city agencies.

But the order was signed two weeks before Dinkins’ term ended, giving him insufficient time to implement it. His successor, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, did not put it into effect and the order lapsed.

Last year, amid the #MeToo movement, New York City officials woke to the issue of sexual harassment, and the City Council passed a slew of new bills aimed at improving how city agencies and the private sector deal with workplace harassment. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the bills into law.

De Blasio’s administration then released data on instances of sexual harassment at agencies, and admitted to flaws in the standards for reporting and assessing harassment. The latest data released by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services showed that 472 complaints of sexual harassment were filed in the 2018 fiscal year, and 243 of those were resolved (569 complaints were resolved overall in that period).

Rosenthal has asked the Council’s bill drafting unit to begin creating the legislative framework for a mayoral office that would be dedicated to handling those complaints. Currently, sexual harassment falls under the purview of several agencies and commissions -- the Commission on Human Rights, the Commission on Gender Equity, the Equal Employment Practices Commission. But the CHR and the EEPC existed when Dinkins signed his executive order as well, and sexual harassment has far from ceased to be an issue despite their existence, which is why Rosenthal said a new agency or office would not be duplicative.

Rosenthal’s committee is set to hold a hearing to assess how, or whether, the administration has indeed stepped up enforcement against sexual harassment. (A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, May 22, but has since been deferred. It’s unclear when it will be rescheduled.)

“I would guess the administration would say they’re [enforcing] it now and then in our hearing we’re gonna see whether or not they can demonstrate that,” Rosenthal said. 

To emphasize the need for a standalone office, she pointed to the Department of Education. Of the 472 sexual harassment complaints filed in the 2018 fiscal year, 186 complaints were at the DOE (which can in part be explained by the fact that the DOE has the largest number of city employees of any agency or department).

But, Rosenthal noted, DOE still has only one federal Title IX coordinator whose task it is to monitor complaints of discrimination based on sex, compared with a Title IX office of 20 people in Chicago, a much smaller city with a school system barely one-third the size of New York City’s. “If we had an office that was only looking at sexual harassment, and had we had that for the past 25 years, we’d be in a different spot,” she said.

There’s a long road ahead for any legislation, Rosenthal conceded, but she’s hoping she can introduce it before her committee holds its next hearing. Besides the usual delays in drafting most legislation, there’s likely to be thorny issues in the possibility of creating an entirely new office with a mission that overlaps with other agencies. But Rosenthal says her effort is not merely symbolic. “I wouldn’t want it to be,” she said. “If all it’s going to be is a symbolic gesture, then that’s not meaningful.”

Asked about Rosenthal's pursuit of the legislation, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Marcy Miranda, said by email: “Sexual harassment has no place in the City of New York. The de Blasio Administration is committed to preventing sexual harassment – and all other forms of discrimination – inside and outside of the workplace. We look forward to reviewing the bill.”

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson did not provide comment for this article.

[READ: A Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention? It Almost Happened 25 Years Ago]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Johnson Unveils Criminal Justice Agenda with Focus on Reducing Jail Population

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Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced on Thursday a package of proposals aimed at reforming New York City’s criminal justice system to be more fair and equitable, building on changes championed by progressive politicians and advocates in New York and Albany over the last several years.

Johnson presented a vision of criminal justice in New York based on refocusing the system away from incarceration and expanding the tools available to pursue his version of justice and public safety.

Speaking at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, Johnson told the audience, “Going forward, our default response to most arrests should be diversion, treatment, and rehabilitation – not incarceration.”

His package of reforms includes proposals to deal with matters of economic justice, sex work and gender discrimination, and mental health, as well as technical aspects of criminal justice policy. Some of the changes must be approved by state government, some through city government, where Johnson has significant sway as the leader of the legislature, and some he can move based on the power and funds at his disposal, he said.

“These critical reforms and investments in alternatives to incarceration at every stage of the justice system are essential to creating a more efficient and effective justice system,” said former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who now chairs the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which was empaneled under Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who had a significant criminal justice focus and pushed for the closure of the jails on Rikers Island, eventually winning over Mayor Bill de Blasio.

As both crime and the city’s jail population have fallen to record lows, Johnson’s proposals are meant to accelerate those trends, which is essential for restorative justice, he said, as well as closing the Rikers jails. In 2017, the mayor and Mark-Viverito announced a plan to close the Rikers jails in ten years, contingent on siting four borough-based jails and reducing the jail population to 5,000.

That projection was recently modified to 4,000 detainees in nine years, thanks largely to bail reform in Albany, which passed the Democratic-controlled state Legislature earlier this year and will go into effect in 2020. The changes to the law eliminate the use of cash bail in most misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases, the use of which has contributed to the disproportionate incarceration of poor, black, and Latino people.

Johnson’s proposed and planned efforts build on initiatives and proposals from the Council over the past few years, which included policies to reduce criminal penalties and stem the flow of New Yorkers into the jail system. Whereas Johnson’s main area of focus in a little over a year as speaker has been mass transit, his pivot toward criminal justice reform echoes Mark-Viverito, who made it a central part of her platform -- passing the Criminal Justice Reform Act to divert cases from the criminal justice system to the civil system, and creating the commission to explore shuttering Rikers that eventually forced de Blasio’s hand.

Johnson’s policy speech addressed some of the same issues by focusing on individuals prior to incarceration and eliminating charges, fines, and technical violations that trap people inside the cycle of incarceration and recidivism. The individual reforms he announced point to systemic problems that net communities along broad lines of race, class, and gender, which he named and took aim at during his speech.

Police Accountability
The speaker began his speech addressing accountability for individual police officers, who are often the first point of contact between New Yorkers and the criminal justice system. “We need to repeal 50-a, the state law that allows the NYPD to shield police officers from public scrutiny,” he said.

The state’s Civil Rights Law, section 50-a, was until recently an obscure, decades-old statute that has newly been interpreted to prevent the public disclosure of police and correction department personnel records, including disciplinary records.

It is a factor in the high-profile NYPD administrative trial of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer accused of choking Eric Garner to death in 2014, because, while the trial is open to the public, the final decision to discipline him may be shielded by the police department. A resolution in the City Council, introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, calls on the state Legislature to repeal 50-a, though only 13 Council members have signed on and the speaker is not one of them.

Both Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have expressed support for major changes to 50-a, but it has not been an apparent point of conversation in Albany.

For many incarcerated people, jail is the result of technicalities that fall outside the criminal acts that originally brought them to the criminal justice system. Johnson is proposing reforms to parole, which he says would address the roughly 600 people (8 percent of the jail population) who are behind bars because they failed to meet some requirement of their parole, like missing an appointment with a parole officer or not passing a drug test.

His plan includes a program to identify people arrested for parole violations as soon as they are jailed and “fast track” them to release. A second program would “work directly with parole judges to identify individuals they don’t think should be sent back to prison,” and put them “in a community-based program that will provide important services like transitional housing and drug treatment.”

For Johnson, driving offenses are another piece of the mass incarceration calculus that hinges on a technicality. “The fourth most charged crime in our city is driving with a suspended license,” he told the crowd. “Over 15,000 people every year are fingerprinted, booked, and charged with this quote-unquote crime.” According to Johnson 87 percent of people arrested for driving with a suspended license are not white, while 76 percent of all city drivers are white.

Mental Health
A number of the reforms the speaker put forward focus on addressing root causes of mass incarceration.

Several center mental health needs of people in jail and finding alternative methods for addressing those needs, a shift away from the practice of treating the city’s jails as repositories for the hardest to treat. “The health care system has turned away the chronically ill, and left jails as the public caretaker of last resort,” Johnson said.

To ameliorate this, Johnson’s fixes include a pilot program for “men who need transitional housing and not jail,” investing in residential mental health programs for incarcerated people, and funding a program to facilitate engagement between defense lawyers and social workers to identify alternatives to jail early on.

“We also need to address the continued incarceration of individuals whose conditions improve after being in custody,” Johnson said. “People get better, but they don’t get out.” To do this, Johnson has a bill that would require correctional health services to pass on vital information about a detainee’s mental health to their lawyer.

Johnson said he would also seek funding to expand diversion programs, like the Center for Court Innovation’s Project Reset, which provides community-based alternatives to incarceration for misdemeanors, and to pilot an “alternatives to incarceration” courtroom in Brooklyn.

Economic Injustice and Gender Inequity
Theme of Johnson’s proposals are making criminal justice economically just and challenging the standards by which New York assesses criminality. Johnson is seeking to tie civil fines to the value of a person’s daily income, rather than to a fixed rate, which has placed a disproportionate burden on the lowest-income New Yorkers. He would also like the state to do away with mandatory court surcharges.

Johnson wants to decriminalize parts of the sex trade that result in “needless prosecution” including the state law that penalizes loitering for alleged prostitution, which he called “archaic and wrongheaded.”

“Arrests for this offense disproportionately target transgender women and women of color. The number of these arrests more than doubled between 2017 and 2018,” he told the audience. “This is blatant misogyny.”

The speaker went on to identify “survival sex” -- what survivors of sex trafficking are often forced to engage in -- as distinct from sex work in general, and that this should not be a prosecuted offense. “This doesn’t mean I support legalizing the sex trade. But persons involved in the sex trade should be given the services they say they need,” he said.

Many of the proposals will require Johnson to work with other government entities in the city and state to pass laws, secure funding, and establish partnerships essential to his reform package.

A final plank in his plan is to reassess the way city policy in other areas treat people with criminal convictions, speaking to the collateral consequences of incarceration that follow people out of the criminal justice system and into everyday life, including eligibility for crucial city services.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, wrote, “It’s imperative that we continue to address racial disparities and to make smart investments in people and communities who have been impacted by historic injustices. We look forward to reviewing the Speaker’s proposal.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

Diaz Jr. Submits Charter Revision Testimony Focused on Land Use and Police Accountability

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(photo: office of Ruben Diaz Jr.)

One week after the 2019 Charter Revision Commission held its final hearing in the Bronx and one day after its last borough hearing, but before the commission decides what proposals it will put before voters this fall, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. released his testimony to the commission on Wednesday.

While the 15-member charter commission, on which Diaz Jr. has one appointee, is considering a wide range of possible changes to city governance and elections, Diaz Jr. focused his written testimony on two crucial measures: land use and planning, and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which performs police oversight. He also touched on budgeting for the borough president offices. His testimony is in large part a reaction to the charter commission’s preliminary staff report, which helped narrow the commission’s likely focus areas as it headed into the now-completed final round of borough hearings and more deliberations.

Diaz Jr. is calling for more community input in land use matters, but not sweeping reforms to the process, and for more power for the CCRB, though he did not come out in favor of a popularly-elected CCRB (its members are currently appointed by several public officials). The CCRB was the focus of significant attention during the Bronx hearing of the charter commission held May 7, at which Diaz Jr. did not appear. And Diaz Jr. wants the charter to codify protections for budget allocations to the borough president offices.

While Diaz Jr. agrees with parts of the commission’s preliminary report on land use, he called the city’s current Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process “insufficient.” He called for more comprehensive reviews of potential displacement from a proposed change in land use rules or a development project. Currently, the CEQR rules do not trigger a socioeconomic impact review until 500 residents or 100 jobs are at likely risk of displacement. Diaz Jr. called for a “lower threshold of estimated residential or commercial displacements,” but did not specify a number.

Diaz Jr. also recommended that the Charter Revision Commission “explore” a requirement for the chair of the City Planning Commission to need a two-thirds approval from the rest of the planning commission in order to be elected -- the chair is currently appointed by the mayor, while members of the commission are appointed by the mayor, public advocate, and borough presidents, and approved by the City Council. “This would give the borough presidents and public advocate a greater voice in the ULURP process, and give the chair greater accountability to all members of the City Planning Commission,” Diaz Jr.’s testimony reads.

He also suggested that the City Planning Commission either vote on certifying ULURP applications “out of the commission,” or that the relevant City Planning Commission Borough Commissioner should reserve the right to place a 30-day hold on certification in cases where they feel “additional consultation” with borough-level officials are needed.

Harkening to the contention over the proposal for a new jail in each of the four boroughs other than Staten Island that will in part make shuttering the Rikers Island jails possible, Diaz Jr. further suggested that when there’s a multi-site proposal like the jail plan, the charter “dictate unequivocally that each borough’s site must undergo a separate ULURP process, to avoid issues such as minimization of community input that is occurring in the jail siting process currently underway.”

Diaz Jr. has repeatedly slammed the process for grouping all four jail openings together, rather than allowing each borough separate input through the ULURP process, where the borough presidents and community boards have advisory input. Diaz Jr.’s charter commission appointee, former City Council Member Jimmy Vacca, advocated for the same idea in last week’s Bronx charter hearing.

Notably, Diaz Jr. did not call for major changes to the land use process, such as giving the borough president the power to effectively veto or restart negotiations on a development proposal. Though there appears to be a lot of discontent across the city about how land use decisions are made and a top-down approach from mayoral administrations, there has not been an apparent appetite among elected officials for sweeping alterations to ULURP.

Like land use, police accountability is a perpetually controversial topic in New York City, brought into particularly sharp relief this month given the NYPD administrative trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s 2014 death.

In his charter testimony, Diaz Jr. also wrote in support of the CCRB provisions included in the commission’s preliminary staff report, which advocate for increased transparency in the process, particularly in terms of the NYPD commissioner being required to explain when he or she differs with a CCRB recommendation in holding an officer accountable.

Diaz Jr.’s testimony expresses his support for guaranteed funding for the CCRB, at 1% of the annual NYPD budget, and creating a “non-binding disciplinary matrix to make discipline for violations clearer and more consistent.”

“This transparency will help restore faith in the good women and men of the NYPD who work so hard to keep us safe,” he wrote. Diaz Jr., who is overtly readying his run for mayor in the 2021 election, is among those attempting to toe the line between community activists and police reformers on one hand and a working relationship with the NYPD and its members’ labor unions on the other. It’s a balancing act that has at times confounded Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others.

Calling borough presidents' offices "conveners, constituent services providers, policy hubs, planning departments, and watchdog agencies" Diaz Jr. also called on the charter commission to protect the budgets of those offices. "Borough presidents’ budgets ought to be set with the current total allocation as a floor that shall not be decreased either in total for all borough presidents’ offices or for any individual borough president’s office. Increases should factor in any increases to the Department of City Planning’s Budget," he wrote in his testimony. Diaz Jr. said the "only exception" to that requirement would be in years when the city's financial picture includes a reduction in the expense budget.

This testimony is the first that Diaz Jr. has submitted to the charter revision commission. When asked on the Max & Murphy podcast in late March if he would submit testimony, he said, “Absolutely. I’m not here for window dressing.”

According to a Gotham Gazette review of Diaz Jr.'s recent schedules, he held an April 1 meeting with Vacca, his commission appointee.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo both released testimony during early stages of the charter revision commission process, in September of 2018. Brewer also testified at the Manhattan borough hearing last week. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz have not submitted testimony to the commission.

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