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Department of Investigation to Publicly Track City Agency Compliance with Recommended Reforms


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DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The Department of Investigation, a watchdog agency tasked with rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in city government, issues hundreds of recommendations each year, urging other city agencies to reform their procedures and enhance the services they provide. It’s not always apparent to the general public, or even elected officials, whether agencies comply with those suggestions, which are typically based on extensive investigations.

But the department has now promised a new database next year that will provide a window into the agencies that are willing and able to improve and those that are resistant or incapable to do so. At the same time, the City Council may codify that database into law.    

Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, is pursuing legislation that would mandate that DOI create an online, public-facing database to track the various Policy and Procedure Recommendations (PPRs) that it makes every year and how agencies are or aren’t implementing them. The legislation has three other sponsors and was the subject of a Council committee hearing on Wednesday chaired by Torres. 

DOI’s recommendations are just that, recommendations, and agencies are not beholden to them. An agency can choose to “accept” or “reject” recommendations and, even when they are accepted, there is no guarantee they will be implemented.

“Without systematic tracking by DOI, agencies have no incentive to implement reforms, and the public has no means of knowing whether agencies are implementing reforms as promised,” Torres said in his opening remarks at the hearing. “An investigation is only as good as the real-world result it produces. It is only as good as the follow-up and the follow-through. As a city, we cannot afford a hit-and-run approach to investigations. We cannot content ourselves to issue reports and then move on to the next order of business.”

Torres has a willing partner in DOI. At the hearing, Commissioner Margaret Garnett said the department has been working for the last year to create a database along the lines of Torres’ bill. It will report on recommendations made, those that are accepted, rejected, and implemented (all of which is required by the bill) and would record agency explanations on implementation, if provided. 

“The idea is significant,” she said, “providing a window for the public into DOI’s compelling work in a way that goes beyond our press releases on arrests or our public reports, and reflects the wide-reaching impact our investigations have on the city.” 

Garnett noted that DOI already publishes some information about PPRs in the annual Mayor’s Management Report. Between the 2015 and 2019 fiscal years, the department issued a total of 4,669 recommendations to agencies. Currently, DOI only reports on the percentage of recommendations accepted by agencies in sum, and that does not get at how many have been implemented. For instance, in fiscal year 2018, DOI issued 2,538 recommendations, 56% of which were accepted. In previous years, there were far fewer recommendations but they were accepted at a much higher rate. (The report does not show how many of the 549 recommendations from fiscal year 2019 were accepted.)

Garnett said DOI will provide that new information, about the percentage of reforms accepted and implemented, in the MMR for the 2020 Fiscal Year. The larger database will be made public by the summer of 2020 or potentially earlier, she said. 

Garnett acknowledged that DOI has not had an effective centralized method so far to track how its recommendations have been implemented. “In the past, that had been a process that had been located more with individual [Inspectors General] for the agencies, and different inspectors general at DOI had different methods for keeping track and for following up with agencies,” she said. The new database will provide both the public and the department internally with a tool that “would show all of the PPRs and an accurate and up-to-date assessment of where the agencies are in both agreement and implementation,” she added.

Garnett did caution the committee against mandating a ranking of the reform recommendations in any public database or using it to grade individual agencies for compliance. “All PPRs are not created alike,” she said in her opening statement. “Some address relatively minor issues while some address significant systemic changes. Some are more costly or difficult to implement while others may require the approval or cooperation of other entities.”

As Garnett pointed out, PPRs span across city agencies. For instance, a 2015 report on the NYPD’s use-of-force policies included 15 recommendations on policy, training, discipline and documentation procedures. A 2016 investigation of the Administration for Children’s Services yielded five recommendations on case management and employee discipline. A 2017 report on the New York City Housing Authority’s failure to conduct mandatory lead paint safety inspections made five broad recommendations on compliance and reporting. 

One notable exception from the database will be the Department of Education, which falls under the purview of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District. Garnett’s predecessor, Mark Peters, infamously tried to wrest control of SCI and was fired by the mayor for overstepping his authority (though Peters and others have also claimed that de Blasio was unhappy with how aggressively Peters had approached his work holding city agencies accountable, and a possible investigation into the mayor’s office over a stalled DOE examination of yeshiva education that some believe de Blasio himself has slow-walked). SCI is independent of DOI but must report certain information to it. 

“A dashboard that fails to include one-third of city government is deeply deficient,” Torres said, referring to the massive DOE. “And that might be a major point of disagreement between DOI and the Council. And this is a point on which I'm going to push very hard. But it feels like it would be odd not to include the largest city agency, or city entity, in the dashboard.”

Garnett was open to the idea. “I think that's certainly something that we can explore,” she said.

Garnett did reject an idea put forward by Torres that the online dashboard allow comments from the public. 

“Is there going to be some mechanism by which the opinions of external stakeholders are going to be included in the dashboard as DOI envisions it?,” Torres asked. “Is that something you're open to?”

“That, for a variety of reasons, is a challenge that I think is beyond our ability to implement,” Garnett responded. “The information that is currently going to be in this PPR tracking database is all information that is sort of in the possession and control of DOI.” She noted that simply making the information available to the public would allow individuals, elected officials, community groups and advocates to hold agencies to account. 

“Personally, I don't know how much time you spend on the internet, Chairman Torres, but I'm not sure that a publicly open comment field is useful,” she joked.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Christine Quinn on Homelessness, Making Government Work, & Her Future


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(photo: @WINNYC_ORG)


November 13, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Christine Quinn on Homelessness, Making Government Work, & Her Future

christine quinn 150pxFormer City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, now the CEO of Win, one of the city's largest homeless shelter providers, joined the show to discuss the city's homelessness crisis, Win's work, broader government issues, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's likely entrance into the presidential race, and her own political future.

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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After Ballot Proposal Spending, Council Member Eyes Expansion of Independent Expenditure Disclosure


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One PBA IE on 2019 ballot question 2 (photo via Campaign Finance Board filing)


Just after an election where the issue became especially apparent, a New York City lawmaker is planning to introduce legislation to close a loophole that has allowed independent expenditure committees to shield donors when they spend money to sway voters on ballot proposals. The potential change in city law would bring certain donor disclosure rules in line with state regulations and extend other city regulations to what is already required for political spending on candidates by groups outside the candidate campaign.

The move by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander comes five years after the city enacted disclosure regulations on independent expenditures for candidates and following two consecutive general elections where city charter revision referenda went before voters.

In the most recent election, just completed, three groups -- each with its own independent expenditure committee registered with the state -- spent over $1 million either in support of or in opposition to ballot proposals. None of those entities had to disclose their contributors to the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB), forcing members of the public to navigate a labyrinth of city and state databases in order to get the most complete picture of the influence of large political spenders. Nor did the independent expenditure committees have to follow a city law mandating such groups disclose their top three donors on communications with voters, a regulation in place for promoting or disparaging candidates.

“In 2014, we created a great law to provide disclosure for independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, and there is already evidence that it is working,” Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette. “This year, the first significant expenditure on behalf of a ballot measure revealed to us the need to expand our disclosure rules, already among the strongest in the nation for candidates, to cover spending for ballot measures as well.”

“I am working on introducing legislation to do just that, to ensure that the same level of transparency applies across the ballot,” he said. Lander was the lead sponsor on the 2014 legislation that created the new independent expenditure transparency requirements. It came just after the city’s raucous 2013 election cycle when IEs played a significant role in the first mayoral race following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, among other local elections where such spenders sought influence.

Lander’s stated plan comes days after the CFB issued a recommendation to the City Council suggesting lawmakers close gaps in the city’s campaign finance laws. Those gaps became more evident as spending around the ballot questions picked up in the days leading up to the general election this fall. Following the CFB recommendation, the Daily News Editorial Board endorsed the idea of closing the loophole.

In a press release issued Thursday, the CFB asked the Council to consider legislation that would amend the campaign finance laws in the City Charter to require independent expenditure committees to disclose their contributors to the CFB via its online portal; and publish “paid-for-by” notices on electioneering materials -- both of which are already required for spending on behalf of candidates under the 2014 law.

The City Charter also requires organizations making contributions of $50,000 or more to independent spenders on behalf of candidates to disclose all donors who gave more than $25,000 in the preceding 12 months.

Under the CFB recommendation, the paid-for-by notices would include a list of the independent spender’s top three donors as well as a weblink to the agency’s online portal, where the public can view detailed information on political spending. The aptly-titled “Follow the Money” portal presently contains details on how much was spent on political campaigns by independent expenditure committees, including what the spending went to and when it was spent, with images and videos of each ad posted or aired.

But that is the extent to which the public can follow the money through the CFB’s relatively user-friendly online resource. To find out who is bankrolling the independent expenditure committees, interested parties must visit the State Board of Elections’ cumbersome financial disclosure webpage where the information is largely decentralized.

“New York City has the country’s strongest disclosure requirements and resources for independent expenditures. Unfortunately, when it comes to ballot proposals, our law has a blind spot,” said CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest in the Thursday press release.

“Bringing the disclosure for ballot proposals in line with the requirements for independent expenditures about candidates will provide voters with important information that will help them cast informed votes, and we urge the Council to take action,” the statement reads.

For the past two general elections, New York City voters have had the opportunity to approve or reject City Charter amendments proposed by successive Charter Revision Commissions. Charter commissions can be empanelled by the mayor or through City Council legislation to examine the city’s central body of laws, take public testimony, and make recommendations for reform.

This year, the Charter Revision Commission was created by the City Council in conjunction with then-Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. The commission put five questions on the ballot, together containing 19 distinct amendments, dealing with a range of city election and governance issues.

In the weeks leading up to the start of the nine-day early voting period in late October, and Election Day on November 5, three independent expenditure committees together spent roughly $1.15 million urging voters to cast ballots either for or against one or more of the proposals. All five questions were overwhelmingly approved by voters citywide.

The vast majority of independent spending was around Question 1, which contained an amendment that would bring ranked-choice voting to certain New York City elections. The voting method, which allows voters to list candidates in order of preference rather than making a single all-or-nothing choice, was backed by a coalition of good government reformers and elected officials under an independent expenditure committee called “Committee for Ranked Choice Voting NYC.” The committee spent a total of $986,017 on digital, TV, and direct mail advertising between mid-September and Election Day, according to the CFB portal.

But, while the principals of the committee are required to be reported to the CFB, the committee’s funders are not. According to the Daily News editorial, which analyzed data from the State Board of Elections, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting had received a total of $1,996,948.33, of which 90 percent is from just four large contributors.

Ballot Question 2, which dealt with police oversight, also saw significant spending, but to vote down the proposal. That campaign was waged by the city’s largest police officer union.

While there were independent expenditures made for and against ballot proposals in the 2018 general election, the total independent spending on those campaigns was a much smaller $125,659, according to the CFB portal.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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