Gotham Gazette Mon, 06 Jul 2020 09:57:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Adams, Kallos Introduce Bill to Mandate Nutrition Standards for Food Provided by the City pantry si project

Food being prepared during the coronavirus crisis (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and New York City Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan, both Democrats, announced new legislation last week that would mandate nutrition standards for the “grab & go” and home delivered meals provided by the city, which have become essential sources of food for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers during the coronavirus crisis.

As unemployment in the city has skyrocketed from 4% to past 14%, children are not attending schools where they often get free meals, and older New Yorkers are not going to senior centers where they get fed, the city has provided tens of millions of free meals over the course of the more than two-month near-shutdown of the city. But as the city has ramped up its food operation, there have been some issues and questions, including over the healthfulness of the meals.

The announcement by Adams and Kallos, who have both taken an interest in food and wellness since well before the pandemic, comes “as several New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs have expressed concern about the quality and nutritional standards of the food distributed through the GetFoodNYC initiative, launched in response to the growing number of New Yorkers who have lost jobs or income due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” their announcement of the bill said.

The bill would set nutritional standards for snacks and meals funded directly or indirectly by city government, as assigned by the city’s health department or another agency chosen by the mayor. Some exceptions would apply, such as when the meals are regulated by federal or state entities. The legislation would require the city to review menus and food distribution on occasion for compliance and to provide support so that regulated providers meet the nutritional standards, and the agency in charge would have to garner feedback at least once a year from food recipients.

As the crisis took hold of the city, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio established the GetFoodNYC hub, where New Yorkers can access various resources and information, including access to SNAP (food stamps) benefits from the Human Resources Association (HRA), a map of hundreds of food pantries and meal pick-up sites in the city, and food delivery assistance. The “grab & go” meal system now provides 500,000 meals per day to anyone who needs food, no questions asked, between 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 435 sites across the five boroughs.

Halal meals are available at all sites, and Kosher meals are available at 18 sites. Food delivery is ramping up to reach 1 million meals per day by this week, de Blasio recently announced.

“We have sick care in our city, our state and our country,” Adams said at a press conference, explaining the rationale behind the bill. “Wait until people get sick and we treat them instead of the underlying cause. The real irony is that our city, literally and figuratively, feeds the health-care crisis through the non-nutritional, sometimes unhealthy food programs. Our tax dollars are being used to make us sick, and that needs to be emphasized. Our tax dollars are used to make us sick.”

During the press conference, doctors spoke about the value of nutrition and how it can be preventative and help New Yorkers have better health outcomes, which is increasingly important during a pandemic. Yami Cazola-Lancaster, a health-care professional who spoke during the press conference, suggested that certain plant-based foods, such as lentils or canned beans, are nutritious, would not be more expensive for the city to provide, and would help produce better health outcomes.

“I think that the most important thing that government can do is to lead and protect its people,” said Cazola-Lancaster. “Now, it's a sensitive issue because right now we want to address hunger, we want to address true scarcity. However, we have evidence based information about the power of food, the power that food has to both prevent and potentially reverse disease. So this is really important all the time for our citizens, but it's especially important right now because we're dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and New York has been hit so hard. So right now as the government provides food to people who need food, it's in the best interest of everybody to provide more whole plant foods and it doesn't have to be more expensive than what we're already able to do.”

On May 21 de Blasio was asked specifically about seniors, many of whom are getting home-delivered meals during the pandemic, and issues with the food that some have reported. The mayor said the food seniors are getting is held to a “high standard.”

“While this is emergency food to ensure no New Yorker goes hungry, the city also ensures meals meet nutrition requirements. For the senior meals program, for example, meals have sodium limits and required servings of protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains,” de Blasio said. “Due to scale, some vendors are providing shelf-stable boxes, while others are providing fresh food or frozen food as well. If food quality does not meet the program’s standards, the city addresses it directly with the food providers, and has ended contracts with providers who were not living up to their commitment.”

“It is important that we utilize everything in our power to ensure we do not feed the health-care crisis,” Adams said. “The legislation that Councilman Kallos is introducing today, would use smart, innovative ways of looking at the foods that we eat everyday. New York is on our dime to make sure that food is healthy and nutritious, to not to react to chronic disease but to start the process of giving people a healthy diet so that they can live a healthy lifestyle.”

“But what happens for those who don't have a choice, those relying on our ‘grab & go’ meals or home delivered meals from our city and when they don't even have a choice,” Kallos said. “Candy and potato chips and Bugles and things like that. That is a sometimes treat. That is not something that is part of a core diet and we need to make sure that for those who don't have a choice in the matter or literally relying on the city for their food, that we are providing them with healthy options so that if they eat that diet, they will not only be healthy but lose weight.”

Even before the pandemic and its fallout, the city was home to more than 1 million food insecure individuals, while hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have lost their jobs since mid-March, drastically increasing the need for emergency food. New York City is home to over 1.1 million seniors, according to a 2017 report by the City Comptroller, many more of whom are homebound due to social distancing restrictions and senior center closures, increasing the need for meal delivery and other food programs. As more New Yorkers rely on meals provided by the city, nutrition becomes more important.

“We are dealing with low-income communities that are already facing this epidemic where we are seeing higher numbers,” Kallos said. “We're seeing an increase of diabetes amongst our black and brown population, particularly New Yorkers who are black are seeing more diabetes than most other populations. And when we're literally handing them candy, that's not something that's going to help. Additionally, I'm a person of the Jewish faith and we're seeing seniors, Holocaust survivors, who are trying to get access to healthy food and they're being provided non-Kosher meals that they literally have to choose between their religion, where they were able to keep Kosher during World War II and the Holocaust, and trying to survive this pandemic. And that's just not a choice anyone should have to make.”

Adams said he was set to meet with de Blasio’s emergency food team on Friday to discuss nutrition, which is largely absent from the Feeding New York plan that the city released. There are no specifics about nutrition in the plan beyond saying the city will “provid[e] meals that not only are nutritious, but are also culturally and ethnically appropriate.” Kallos said that nutrition is on the radar of de Blasio’s “food czar,” Kathryn Garcia, but said he and Adams are pushing the new legislation because no action has been taken so far to remedy the problem.

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Adams, Kallos Introduce Bill to Mandate Nutrition Standards for Food Provided by the City Tue, 26 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Next Steps to Ensure Voter Access Amid Coronavirus mbdb flcm co

Major questions about voting during coronavirus hang in the balance (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As the American people hunker down under a patchwork of evolving emergency orders and health directives, our communities are grappling with extraordinary circumstances disrupting and reorienting our lives and the economy. To flatten the curve of community spread during the increasingly deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Cuomo has placed New York on PAUSE; Health officials have issued stay-at-home and social distancing directives; schools, playgrounds, and non-essential facilities are closed. Further restrictions may be imposed. The duration uncertain.

But when it comes to the fate of civil rights during states of emergency, historically the paradigm is less uncertain—there is an irresistible tendency across the globe for authorities to suspend the normal order in the name of imminent, amorphous threats of unknown duration, leading to the incremental curtailment of freedoms that we take for granted (like unfettered travel, transportation, assembly, and enterprise to name a few). The new normal makes prioritization of due process seem quaint, but it is even more critical when the exigencies of the moment impose security measures that inadvertently raise old voter-access hurdles to new, perhaps insurmountable heights.

In this case we can dispense with skepticism over the emergency itself. The pandemic is most certainly real. But already, COVID-19 has scrambled our democratic process. The Democratic National Committee has postponed its convention as 15 states are postponing 2020 primaries and some are adjusting voting policies so residents aren’t forced to choose between safety and casting a ballot. That’s the goal.  

Now that Governor Cuomo has postponed New York’s April presidential primary and several special elections until June, and gone even further to implement universal absentee ballot access by executive order due to the coronavirus concerns, there is a timely opportunity to rebalance and calibrate reasonable access to civil rights for the moment we are in—a perpetual state of emergency during pivotal 2020 elections. To do so, policymakers in Albany and administrators at the State Board of Elections and our 58 county boards are grappling with at least three significant voter access questions.

First, what changes will need to be made to the traditional election day footprint, from polling place siting and layouts to staffing, to comply with public health directives that will continue to evolve? Second, is there a feasible, fair, and secure way to expand and scale New York’s traditionally limited vote-by-mail program as an alternative to voting in person? And third, what role should New York’s new nine-day early voting period play in calibrating this balance between public safety and voter access?

As counties prepare for consolidated June primaries and the 2020 general election, they do so amid much uncertainty about the trajectory and time-horizon of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will this all be a distant memory by late June? Will the pandemic be with us in November, depressing turnout and spreading even further, as occurred in the 1918 midterms?

Without the benefit of hindsight, policy-makers must plan for a circumstance where it may be impossible to staff or unwise to deploy the traditional sprawling election day footprint, with voters assigned to one of thousands of polling places across the state, many of which are sited in facilities deemed too dangerous or vulnerable to be open to the public today, and based on siting schematics and occupancy assumptions unworkable under the public health directives currently in place.

While we are eager to embrace modern, tech-based approaches to our antiquated voting laws that would obviate much of this conversation, mobile voting is in its infancy and comes with documented and unresolved security pitfalls while perpetuating the digital divide in our communities. Moreover, without any infrastructure in place, it could be folly to roll out an entirely new and untested system now. So what tools are actually available during the present emergency?

To prepare, the State Board of Elections should develop and issue a continuity guidance, to be implemented as needed, that outlines and directs the tools counties should use to maintain access, protect public health, and responsibly reduce the election day footprint. 

First and foremost, local administrators must embrace early voting and the vote-by-mail alternatives available as the principle means for shifting turnout density away from Election Day.

However, New York has a longstanding culture of Election Day voting and is not equipped to entirely jettison that model now. Given that reality, county boards will need to reassess siting plans and have the flexibility to consolidate and reallocate election districts, polling places, and resources, with timely notice of the changes provided to impacted voters. In some cases, alternative sites will be needed so counties can relocate polling places away from the most vulnerable facilities. Boards should adjust traditional staffing plans to account for less poll worker recruitment and apply any resources saved to boosting absentee and early voting processing capacity. 

As sites are evaluated through this lens, resident voters of impacted facilities must be proactively offered viable alternatives to vote. Cleaning and preventive measures should comport with the CDC Guidance on preventing transmission at polling places, including the spacing and cleaning of equipment and high-touch areas, the use of protective gear by poll workers and provision of hand sanitizer and single-use instruments to voters. The U.S. Election Advisory Commission has also issued cleaning guidance for election equipment. 

With regard to expanding and scaling vote-by-mail, the governor's new executive order is a great start, but the state Legislature should return to Albany this spring and codify a public health exception. In March the governor had signaled his approval for such an expansion in his Executive Order 202.2 as a result of COVID-19 concerns. The order permitted any voter to vote by mail “due to the prevalence and community spread of COVID-19” such that “temporary illness...shall include the potential for contraction of the COVID-19 virus” and made accommodations to streamline the application process slightly by allowing voters to apply by email or fax.

In anticipation of conducting 2020 elections in this manner, the bipartisan leadership of the Erie County Board of Elections modified its absentee ballot request form, but uniformity here is highly preferable. Beyond merely extending and expanding this order, policymakers and boards need to use this time well to responsibly address several voting rights concerns and administrative feasibility issues.

To expand vote-by-mail opportunities effectively and fairly, the State should cover the costs of return postage for applications and ballots so voters are not forced to buy stamps. Because New Yorkers have not traditionally voted by mail, they should be invited and encouraged to do so for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. From there, things get more complicated.

Policymakers in New York have been exploring the feasibility and legality of providing every voter with an absentee ballot without the need for a request, as five states do. But those systems were built and scaled up over time, require significant state resources and advanced planning, and are not a panacea embraced by all communities. Indeed, the Brennan Center for Justice argues that “in-person voting options consistent with public health must also be maintained.”

At a minimum, the county boards should be directed to include notice about a vote-by-mail alternative ahead of each election event. Administrators should streamline ballot requests, a multistep process that often involves two or more snail-mail exchanges. To do so, boards should mail registered voters a postage-prepaid application form with a notice about the upcoming election as well as a link or QR code to permit submission of requests online as an alternative. These methods may permit boards to extend the deadline to request a ballot, and all completed ballots should be counted so long as they substantially comply with formalities and are postmarked by election day, dropped off at polling places, or curbside at the BOE and other convenient locations. Envelopes should be self-adhesive or voters could be instructed not to lick them.

Under such an approach, inactive and recently-purged voters should be sent the mailer as well, along with an affidavit (provisional) ballot if they do apply. Careful, health-based accommodations will be needed for ballot delivery to facilities housing vulnerable residents. 

Other traditional voter protection considerations, like safeguards for persons with disabilities and language assistance for New York’s diverse communities take on new dimensions as more New Yorkers vote by mail, as does the absence of a tracking system for mail ballots and ballot requests. These are not new or hypothetical concerns; boards need to work hand-in-hand with the Post Office to address them. 

For many reasons, expanding vote-by-mail represents part of the 2020 equation for shifting turnout density away from Election Day, along with early voting. Fortunately, New York’s early voting law took effect in 2019 and will be available to all voters across the state for nine days this June and this fall, for at least 60 hours. Most counties allow voters to cast a ballot at any site. Localities can always provide more early voting locations and hours than the law requires, and in 2019 eighteen localities large and small, urban and rural, red, blue, and purple did so for the convenience of more than a quarter-million New Yorkers who voted early. Let’s build on that success.

Long before there was COVID-19, it was obvious to most New Yorkers that directing millions of us to an assigned poll site on the single Election Day was poor policy that placed undue stress on administrators while creating hardship and disincentive for voters. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy provided another reason to avoid placing all our democratic eggs in one basket.

Enter COVID-19, and the withering arguments against early voting—against de-densifying crowded Election Day poll sites by spreading voter turnout across time and space seem ridiculous. And yet there is concern that some administrators who were lukewarm about early voting to begin with may refuse to lean into these programs now, and instead attempt to contract them. 

As daunting as some of these challenges may seem, few of them are actually new. What is new is the public health emergency, the directives to social distance, and the widespread consensus in favor of remedial actions like those discussed here. Moving in this direction would increase access, fairness, uniformity, and predictability for voters, administrators, campaigns, and officials. 

Doing so now, well in advance of upcoming contests, will provide administrators with as much lead time as possible to plan and scale up capacity for increased vote-by-mail processing; will provide campaigns with clear rules before they finalize voter mobilization and turnout strategies; and will allow community-based organizations to educate the public about the changes. Together we can protect public health and exercise our rights, but the time for the State to act is now.

City Council Member Ben Kallos represents parts of Manhattan. Jarret Berg is the co-founder of Vote Early NY. On Twitter @BenKallos & @JarretBerg.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Next Steps to Ensure Voter Access Amid Coronavirus Wed, 08 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly bill online voter

State Senator Myrie, middle, is pushing his online voter registration bill (photo: @SenatorMyrie)

Last year, the New York City Board of Elections hobbled a City Council effort to create an online voter registration portal for city residents, claiming it conflicted with state law. But the state Legislature may take steps to correct that situation this year by clarifying the law and allowing an online portal that would act as a test case for a statewide system slated to launch next year.

The New York City Council passed a bill, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, in late 2017 that mandated that the Campaign Finance Board build an online portal to expand access to voter registration. Currently, the state only allows online registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles website and requires an official DMV driver’s license, permit, or non-driver ID. This effectively shuts out many New York City residents who rely on mass transit and do not have a DMV-issued document.

The CFB created the portal and was ready to launch it in June of last year. It would have allowed residents to fill out the form online, with an electronic signature, and the CFB would then transmit the information to the City Board of Elections for processing. But a week before the site was to go live, the BOE added an additional hurdle that essentially negated the purpose of the portal – commissioners voted that, after receiving a form from the CFB, the BOE would mail the form to the potential voter, who would then have to return it with their physical signature. The process would have been slower than mailing in a registration form.

At the time, the State Board of Elections’ Democratic and Republican commissioners had contradictory positions on whether signatures collected electronically would be acceptable under state law, even though a legal opinion from the state attorney general’s office had already put that question to bed in 2016. This year, legislation sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Senate’s elections committee, and Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake seeks to clarify state law and give the city the necessary authorization to begin collecting registration forms electronically.

The law would go into effect immediately and would be repealed 90 days after a statewide registration system becomes operational. The registration deadline for this year’s April 28 presidential primary is April 3. The deadline to register for the June 23 state and congressional primary is May 29, and the deadline to register for the November 3 general election is October 9.

“An online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access is long overdue,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, in a statement. “This legislation will make it easier for millions of city voters to register and vote in this critical election year.”

Though the bill has not moved in the Assembly, it was passed by Myrie’s Senate committee last month and he is hoping to see it approved by the full Senate and Assembly as soon as possible. “Time is of the essence,” he said in a phone interview, stressing the importance of launching the portal in a presidential election year when turnout is massive, with this year’s expected to be even moreso. “It allows for the state to see how this system rolls out.”

Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s nor Assemblymember Blake’s office provided comment on the status of the bill in their chamber.

A trial of online voter registration by New York City would help inform the state’s effort, Myrie noted. Last year’s state budget included legislation that ordered the state BOE to create an online voter registration system for the entire state by January 2021. Once that system takes effect, it will supersede the city’s.

“As we have seen the national discussion hit a fever pitch, there will be many folks interested in registering and getting engaged in their democracy and we want to make that as easy for them as possible,” Myrie said.

He pointed out that it will require few resources and would barely be a burden for the Board of Elections. “This is not a labor-intensive endeavor,” Myrie said. “This is a system that has already been built, that has already been designed. Let's give the city the authorization to have it up and running. And then we can see whether or not the state should adopt it as a model statewide.”

Myrie seems to have the support of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "We are committed to making it easier for eligible New Yorkers to vote, that is why this session we built upon the historic voting reforms of last year by making improvements to early voting and passing automatic voting registration. We look forward to reviewing this bill as a Conference to ensure it works as intended,” said Senate Majority spokesperson Mike Murphy, in a statement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is also a supporter of the online voter registration effort and was critical last year of how the BOE meddled in it. “The City Board of Elections should allow the CFB’s online voter registration system to roll out immediately, so thousands of New York voters can register this year for the critically important 2020 elections,” said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, the office the mayor launched to improve voter participation in the city, among other things. “The Administration appreciates that the Legislature is taking a close look at this issue.”

BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez said in a text message, “No comment on pending legislation.”

“New York City’s online voter registration system is ready to go for all the people who are inspired to vote in the presidential election and the coming primaries,” said Council Member Kallos, in a brief phone interview. “Thank you to State Senator Zellnor Myrie for getting this done in the Senate and we’re looking to the Assembly to get it done and the governor to sign it in time to enfranchise a whole generation of voters in time for the presidential election.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly Wed, 12 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City to Codify Office of Food Policy and Require 10-Year Food Plan corey jphnson participate

Council Speaker Johnson at a food pantry (photo: John McCarten/CityCouncil)

The City Council is expected to pass a package of food policy legislation on Tuesday, central components of an agenda laid out by Speaker Corey Johnson last August to strengthen relevant governance and food policy planning, while combating inequality and waste in the food supply chain.

One bill, sponsored by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy to develop a ten-year plan to address food access and build a sustainable and economically viable agricultural landscape serving New York City. The second bill, carried by Council Member Ben Kallos and co-sponsored by Johnson, would codify the Office of Food Policy in the City Charter as a permanent office responsible for coordinating food-related initiatives across multiple city agencies, with an emphasis on promoting nutrition in communities with limited access to healthy food because of “economic, racial, or environmental factors.”

Both bills passed out of the Committee on Economic Development on Monday and will be up for a vote by the full City Council on Tuesday, where they are expected to pass.

“Food is a human right, and in one of the richest cities in the world, it is completely unacceptable that one million New Yorkers are food insecure and that many communities have inequitable access to healthy food,” a Council spokesperson for Johnson said in a statement. “The Council’s food equity legislative package is part of Speaker Johnson’s vision to promote food justice in this City, and we are thankful to all the Council Members and staff for working hard on these bills as we move closer to ending the food equity gap.”

Johnson’s platform, first proposed in a report entitled, “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” takes aim at rampant food insecurity, including in low-income communities and communities of color, and the structural inequities that contribute to that problem and others, including inconsistencies in access to healthy food. It comprises a number of provisions, many of which were contained in a package of fourteen bills and two resolutions heard in Council committees last September, including several being voted on Tuesday (several other pieces of the package were passed through the Council’s general welfare committee on Monday).

In addition to the food policy office and ten-year plan bills, Johnson’s full agenda includes legislation to enhance food metric reporting, expand public assistance like food pantries and SNAP benefits, targeted support for seniors and students, farm-to-city programs, and food procurement reforms.

The number of New Yorkers living with food insecurity -- defined as lacking adequate access to affordable and nutritious food -- between 2015 and 2017 was 1.09 million, according to a report by Hunger Free America and cited in the Council’s report. While constituting a 22 percent drop in food insecurity from the 2012-2014 period, the figure also represents a 22 percent rise since the pre-recession period from 2005 to 2007, according to the Hunger Free America report. The number of children who experienced food insecurity between 2015 and 2017, 324,432, improved at a slower rate (16 percent) than the overall population from the previous three-year period.

A particular emphasis is on food justice and ameliorating the disparate access to healthy foods in predominantly low-income neighborhoods. The expected passage of the bills comes shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as constitutional the Trump administration’s public charge rule, making it harder for immigrants to obtain a green card when they receive public benefits like food stamps.

“The City of New York is responsible for feeding a large portion of our population, whether it’s 1.1 million public school students who are entitled to free breakfast and free lunch, or it’s people in our senior centers...or people in our shelter system who we’re feeding, or just the countless New Yorkers who rely on food assistance in the form of SNAP,” Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, told Gotham Gazette.

The city has a tremendous amount of sway over food policy and can have meaningful impact by utilizing it, according to Nevin Cohen, research director at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. “Agencies procure food for various purposes, they control land that food can be grown on, they provide resources for business like food manufacturing business. So food spans the gamut of city agencies and having an office that can coordinate food related policies is really essential,” Cohen said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The two bills passed by the economic development committee are a package that work in tandem, one establishing the food policy office in the City Charter and one requiring it to develop a ten-year plan. The bills are written to go into effect simultaneously.

Under Gibson’s bill, the Office of Food Policy would be required to draft a comprehensive ten-year plan -- coordinating among myriad agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders -- that would bring the city’s approaches to governing food production, sale, and supplemental assistance under one umbrella. The plan would be required to make recommendations on “reducing hunger, improving nutrition, increasing access to healthy food, reducing food waste, developing and improving food and farm economies, and increasing urban agriculture and sustainability.”

“There has been no shortage of food policy ideas and strategic documents and recommendations from different parts of city government, but there hasn’t yet been a cohesive food plan for the city of New York,” Cohen said. “That’s been a major gap that this bill will fill.”

The ten-year plan would include strategies for successful implementation with benchmarks and the Office of Food Policy would be required to give progress reports to the mayor and Council speaker.

“I believe this legislation will have a tremendous impact on thousands of families that deserve access to healthier high quality food options. However, we must continue to work together as legislators with community advocates and stakeholders to ensure we establish concrete goals to reduce hunger,” wrote Gibson, a Bronx Democrat, in an email. The Hunger Free America report called the Bronx the “hungriest borough,” with one in four residents experiencing food insecurity.

Kallos’ bill, in codifying the Office of Food Policy, outlines the powers and duties of the director in the City Charter. Currently, the role of Director of Food Policy is housed within the mayor’s office and exists at the mayor’s discretion. After former Director of Food Policy Barbara Turk stepped down in March 2019, the position went vacant for six months until a new director, Kate MacKenzie, was appointed by Mayor de Blasio this past October. Under the legislation, the office could be established either directly within the mayor’s office or in another mayoral department, with the director appointed either by the mayor or the department head.

Supporters say codifying the office will bring a degree of accountability over the city’s food policy efforts, which are currently controlled largely through executive action. The bill establishes four official responsibilities of the office: make recommendations to the mayor; coordinate interagency initiatives; conduct outreach to key stakeholders; and promote efforts designed to increase equitable access to nutritious food.

“I think the fact that [the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy] was vacant for so long explains why it needs to be codified in the law: so that it is something that we can hold accountable. I am very glad Mayor de Blasio appointed a director, one who has been empowered to do so much, but the mayor could have just as easily eliminated the position,” Kallos said.

The mayor’s office says it supports the bills.

“The Administration strongly supports these bills and the broader food equity vision outlined by the Speaker. I look forward to working with the Council and advocates in creating and formalizing a robust food policy plan for the City of New York,” MacKenzie wrote in an email.

Kallos believes codifying the office’s general responsibilities will also give it leverage in negotiating among city agencies, which often operate as independent fiefdoms.

“When I was chair of Governmental Operations I had oversight over half a dozen agencies and it is incredibly difficult to force agencies to work together. By giving the food policy director this power in the Charter, it means there is something they can point to when they are trying to force people to the table who otherwise might not want to work together,” he said.

To some extent, codifying the office is a statement about how much city resources should be expended on comprehensive food policy.

“I think a really important need is for the city to adequately fund the Office of Food Policy. Since its inception the office has really had only one or two staff people, and for a city the size of New York that’s just not enough,” Cohen said.

Kallos’ bill does not appropriate city funds for the office or say how many staff members it must have, but Cohen believes the legislation can still be a boon.

“Local laws generally don’t have specific appropriations of funding attached to them, but my feeling is that by putting the office in the City Charter it adds significant importance to the office and it will enable advocates both inside and outside of city government to advocate for sufficient funding,” he said.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City to Codify Office of Food Policy and Require 10-Year Food Plan Mon, 10 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City's $20 Billion in Contracting Takes Another Step into Modernity comptroller dinapoli event

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York City government spends roughly $20 billion per year on goods and services through contracts with non-governmental vendors, including thousands of opportunities for companies of all types and sizes to work with the city. But the contracting process has long been arduous for vendors to navigate and difficult for watchdogs to closely monitor. Officials say that is now changing as a multi-step effort has unfolded over the past few years to modernize the technical infrastructure and databases that support city contracting.

And on Wednesday, the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services (MOCS) in partnership with City Council Member Ben Kallos announced the launch of updated in-person and online terminals where key information about city contracts and vendors is now accessible. The announcement is part of an ongoing effort that began in 2016 to implement a new electronic system -- the Procurement and Sourcing Solutions Portal, or PASSPort -- that will serve as a one-stop-shop for agencies, vendors, oversight entities, and the public involved or interested in government procurement.

The latest update corrects some of the growing pains that emerged while moving to the more modern, “end-to-end” platform intended to expand accessibility and transparency to city contracting and streamline the process for vendors and agency staff.

“Whether it’s vendors who are competing with one another, reporters, or just members of the public who want to know where their tax dollars are going, it’s important that folks can find it,” Kallos said about the newly accessible databases.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony at MOCS headquarters in Lower Manhattan, Kallos, an Upper East Side Democrat who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Contracts, and MOCS Director and Chief Contracting Officer Dan Symon reported that a rebooted “public inspection terminal” had both now been synchronized with the new wrap-around system, PASSPort. Accompanying the new in-person terminal, which they hope current and potential contractors will use, is a new online portal, which is also now using most of the same data sets. Those data sets now include information on vendors, their principals, and affiliated entities.

“PASSPort will be a complete, end-to-end online procurement platform that the city and vendors and other stakeholders and oversights will use together to do their work. That never existed before. This is one output of that huge effort,” Symon said, referring to the PASSPort overhaul.

MOCS is the city agency responsible for facilitating and providing one degree of oversight of the city’s procurement of goods and services. It coordinates among city agencies, potential vendors, and other oversight bodies, like the city comptroller’s office, to make the process efficient and compliant with procurement rules.

As part of the transition to PASSPort, MOCS had previously digitized the vendor disclosure process, making it possible for vendors to update their information online and significantly cutting the time it takes to update the database. It is the type of digital efficiency that is seen as essential for many firms doing business with the city, especially smaller ones and those operating at slimmer margins that may not be able to hire sufficient compliance staff.

The second phase allowed city agencies to shop and purchase contracts online. When fully implemented vendors will be able to submit bids and proposals online, agencies will be able to evaluate vendors and make awards, and vendors will be able to track the entire process. Phase three is planned to begin this spring and Symon expects the entire system to be in place by this time next year. The project has been criticized for cost overruns: what had been a $30.5 million contract with French firm Ivalua in 2016, ballooned to roughly $47 million in 2018. Symon has said the additional spending came after MOCS decided to expand the scope of the project due to demand and early successes.

The “public inspection terminal” is a computer database used for in-person access to MOCS contract and vendor information, which is available for any member of the public to use without special authorization. It is located on the 9th Floor of 253 Broadway (a photo ID may be required to enter the building, which houses a number of city government offices). Upon arrival, members of the public must sign-in and be logged into the database by MOCS staff. Information found on the portal can be emailed or printed onsite free of charge.

The in-person terminal has been in use since the late 1980s, and for most of the last 30 years has operated a system called VENDEX, which offered computerized data-tracking but lacked the integrated features of a one-stop shop for government procurement. When Kallos became chair of the Council contracts committee last year, he said his office found that in a number of areas the terminal was using legacy data from VENDEX rather than the more complete and up-to-date information contained in PASSPort. The same was true for the online portal, which was established under a 2017 law sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander and launched as part of the second phase of the PASSPort rollout, which formally began in April 2019.

“Almost everything now is going to be in PASSPort,” Kallos said. “So we found a little bit of a conflict. What previously might have happened is that you would have read it in the newspaper but we have a really great working we’ve been working with [MOCS] trying to get this done.”

Now available through PASSPort are a broad range of reporting from basic identifying information about vendors and their principals to performance evaluations on vendors that do business with the city. Of particular interest to reporters and ethics watchdogs, according to Kallos, is the Current Related Entities Report, which shows entities that control or are affiliated with a vendor, an important tool for tracking potential conflicts of interest.

Moving the system online has “made doing business with the city a lot easier,” said Jennifer Geiling, MOCS’ press secretary.

Previously, a vendor would have to fill out a paper questionnaire and deliver it to the MOCS offices where a staff member would have to key their information into the database. “Here we made the terminal for vendors to interact with completely online, they are submitting their disclosures online in their own locations, so it’s an online platform,” Symon explained.

“It used to take somewhere around 30 days median time for an average size organization to go through the VENDEX process, but today it takes less than a day, because it’s now gone online, it’s digital, it’s available at all times for vendors to update,” noted Geiling.

Kallos and Symon believe moving to a more modern system will have a big impact on vendors competing for city contracts, especially smaller businesses that may have fewer resources to facilitate navigating the procurement process.

“The people who do business are keenly aware because they have something at stake. We have 18,000 vendors who are going to be taking advantage of this. Those 18,000 vendors have tens if not hundreds of thousands, or millions of employees, altogether. So I think they will be paying attention,” said Kallos.

“One of the goals that we have with PASSPort generally is greater transparency, which allows greater accessibility,” Geiling added.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City's $20 Billion in Contracting Takes Another Step into Modernity Fri, 07 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers New Office to Aid Non-Profits cm farah louis

Council Member Farah Louis (photo: New York City Council)

The New York City Council is considering legislation that would create a new office to assist non-profit organizations in navigating regulations and applying for city contracts and funding.

Council Member Farah Louis, a recently elected Brooklyn Democrat, has proposed legislation that would mandate that the mayor institute an Office of Not-For-Profit Services. The bill is set to be examined by the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations at a hearing on Tuesday.

The legislation, which is thus far co-sponsored by Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Ben Kallos, and Justin Brannan, intends to create a resource center that can help nonprofits tackle the bureaucratic challenges presented by city government. Nonprofit human service providers are a crucial resource for the city, with more than 200,000 employees contracted out to deliver a range of services including housing, mental health care, job training, and care for the elderly, children, people living in poverty, and those experiencing homelessness.

“Across New York City, nonprofits are on the ground, doing vitally important work in schools, senior centers, libraries, and other public spaces, and providing services that our constituents rely on every day,” Louis said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

But the city’s nonprofit sector has long been in crisis and is headed towards a fiscal cliff. Across the city, nonprofits suffer from perennial delays in the payment of contracts by the city and nonprofit leaders say Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been slow to respond to their calls for more funding to cover the costs of and related to their services.

A January report from Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office noted that 89% of human services contracts in the 2018 fiscal year were sent to the comptroller for certification after the contract start date. “This is a higher retroactivity rate than the city-wide average, suggesting that non-profit organizations wait longer for their contracts to be submitted for registration than vendors that do business with the City overall,” a summary of the report stated.

A separate study published in April by Seachange Capital Partners, a nonprofit merchant bank, found that contract delays in the 2018 fiscal year became “slightly worse” than the previous year. It found that social service contracts were registered an average of 221 days after their start date, up from 210 days in the 2017 fiscal year; only 11% were on time, slightly better than the 9% in 2017; and 20% continued to be unregistered after one year, marginally worse than the 19% in 2017. The report estimated that the fiscal burden on nonprofits from registration delays was as much as $744 million, up from $675 million in 2017.

“A nonprofit delivering services under an unregistered contract faces a growing cash flow burden associated with the unreimbursed expenses. It must also pay interest and fees on the debt it uses to finance this cash flow need – if it can be financed at all,” the study reads.

Council Members Rosenthal and Kallos cited that study in a July joint op-ed, criticizing the city’s “broken procurement system” and how delays affect nonprofits. “New Yorkers deserve the best services, and the CBOs providing those services deserve to be paid fairly and on time by a city government they can hold accountable. Overhauling the procurement system may be bureaucratic and slow in nature, but it is necessary if we are to properly serve the New Yorkers who are most in need,” they wrote, citing separate legislation they introduced to achieve that goal.

Though leaders in the nonprofit sector credit the mayor for creating the Nonprofit Resiliency Committee in 2016, they say more must be done to ensure the survival of essential partners in city services. Earlier this year, when the City Council and mayor came to an agreement over the $92.8 billion budget for the 2020 fiscal year, they did not include a $106-million funding request from nonprofit service providers.  

Louis’ bill seems intended to address some of the needs of nonprofits, while creating a general structure to ensure more city accountability for support of the sector. She said it would “provide guaranteed resources to anyone seeking to incorporate and successfully maintain a non-profit.”

The proposed Office of Not-For-Profit Services, which per the bill the mayor could choose to house under the executive office or as a separate office, would be charged with analyzing the problems plaguing the nonprofit sector and proposing solutions to them. It would act as a one-stop-shop to conduct outreach and give nonprofits advice and assistance, while also coordinating with other city agencies to refer organizations to services related to obtaining exemptions, waivers, permits, registrations, or approvals. It’s aim would be to simplify application processes and regulatory mechanisms.

“This office will function as a liaison between nonprofits and any city agencies, work to devise solutions to any problems that organizations might have with incorporation, financing, or administration, and keep the Council updated on issues affecting local non-profits,” Louis said.

But the bill does not solve the core issues facing the sector, said Allison Sesso, executive director of the Human Services Council of New York, which represents 170 nonprofits that provide 90% of human services in the city.

“The main issue facing New York City's human services nonprofit sector is not a lack of understanding of the City's policies and contracting processes, it's chronic underfunding,” Sesso said in an email. “While providing nonprofits with educational resources and assistance is a positive goal, it falls flat in a system that is setting those same organizations up for failure. One out of five providers in New York City are technically insolvent and organizations across the City are being forced to scale back services or consolidate just to survive. We need fundamental change to address the underfunded contacts and unfunded mandates that impact services across the City and stifle the wages of the human services workforce.”

Three other bills related to services for nonprofit providers are also being discussed at Tuesday’s hearing. Council Member Antonio Reynoso has proposed creating a nonprofit ombudsperson within the Department of Finance (DOF), and exempting in certain cases the lien sale of property owned by a nonprofit organization.

A bill from Council Member Diana Ayala would require the DOF and Department of Environmental Protection to create a single application form for the nonprofit real property tax exemption and exemptions from water and sewer charges. The third, introduced by Council Member Carlina Rivera, would require DOF to create an informational guide on relevant taxes and exemptions for nonprofits.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Considers New Office to Aid Non-Profits Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
After Rally with De Blasio, City Council Hears Bills on Private Sector Retirement Security sep mon rotunda

De Blasio, Council members, AARP members & others rally (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Just days after he ended his presidential campaign that was focused on issues affecting working people, Mayor Bill de Blasio rallied with AARP volunteers and City Council Members at City Hall on Monday to push for a proposal that could help millions of New York workers save for their futures.

The Retirement Security for All proposal, which de Blasio first raised three years ago and then again in his State of the City speech this year, would establish a retirement savings program for private-sector employees whose employers do not currently provide those options, and a city government board to oversee its implementation.

There are two bills in the legislative package that would create the system and the board and sponsored by Council Members I. Daneek Miller and Ben Kallos, who led a hearing on the proposal shortly after the Monday morning rally.

“You should not have to work until you die,” de Blasio said at the rally. “You should be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. You should be able to have some time in your life when you retire with dignity.”

The mayor said that 40% of New Yorkers aged 50-64 have less than $10,000 saved for when they retire.

At the hearing of the Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Miller, there was broad support for the legislation as well as opposition from some who raised concerns about the administrative burdens the program could place on employers and small businesses.

Kallos’ bill would mandate that businesses with ten or more employees automatically enroll their workers in individual retirement accounts, while giving them the option to opt out. The retirement plans would be funded only through employee payroll deductions, at a default rate of 3% of income, though employees would be allowed to choose a higher or lower rate.

Miller’s bill creates a board of mayoral appointees to oversee the implementation of the program, which would likely hire an outside firm to manage the retirement plans and charge low fees to make the programs affordable and attractive to employees.

The bills are a solution to a stark problem. Testifying on behalf of the de Blasio administration was John Adler, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Pensions and Investments, who reiterated the data point that 40% of New Yorkers aged 50-64 have less than $10,000 saved for when they retire. Out of the roughly 3.5 million private sector employees in the city, only about 41% have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, down from 49% ten years ago, Adler said, citing a report from The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

“This program has the potential to significantly reduce future poverty among retirees in New York City,” Adler said in his opening remarks at the Council hearing, “and take an important step towards helping over a million New Yorkers maintain or improve their standard of living when they stop working.”

The proposal is also similar to programs that have already launched in California, Illinois, and Oregon, and following their lead would allow New York City to avoid any hiccups in implementation, he said. De Blasio estimated earlier that the city’s management of the programs would cost between $1.5 to $3 million each year for the first three years, and that the program would eventually be self-funded through fees on the investments made by the retirement plans.

Though New York State passed a measure last year to allow employers to create voluntary retirement savings plan, there has been little movement on that front. Adler said that program, which is an opt-in rather than an opt-out plan, would likely fail to expand access like the city’s proposal.

“We don’t think that we should be waiting for the whims of Albany to possibly change or strengthen their plan,” he said. “We have a crisis now in New York City...and frankly every month that we wait is an opportunity that’s lost for workers to begin saving for their own retirement.”

Adler also recommended that Kallos’ bill be amended to establish a 5% default contribution rate, insisting that it does not discourage participation as is evident from other jurisdictions with similar programs.

The mayor’s push for the retirement security proposal in 2016 died soon after because of the Republican-led Congress, which struck down an Obama-era rule by the Department of Labor that explicitly allowed municipalities to create private sector retirement programs. But that Republican measure did not change the underlying federal retirement law, which Adler said still allows the city to move forward. That’s why other states have been able to legally create their own retirement savings programs, he said.

The two bills have limited support so far from other Council members, at least as far as co-sponsorship goes. Kallos’ bill has five other sponsors besides him and Miller, while Miller’s bill has four other co-sponsors. But Kallos seems confident that the bills will advance quickly, particularly with the mayor’s backing. At Monday’s hearing, Council Member Andy King also said he would sign on to the legislative package. The bills have no timeline for passage but the mayor’s office, in a release sent out Monday afternoon, estimated that the program would be launched by the end of 2021, when de Blasio and most of the City Council will be leaving their current posts due to term limits.

Experts and researchers who testified at Monday’s hearing recommended several measures to ensure that the city’s program is a success. Caroline Crawford, assistant director of state and local research at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, said “three criteria are essential to success” of the program – a mandate to ensure employer participation, minimizing opt-out behavior and an adequate default contribution rate.

Representatives of the Communication Workers of America and AFL-CIO also supported the bills at Monday’s hearing.

A crucial mover behind the proposal has been the AARP, which first rallied with the mayor for Retirement Security for All in 2016. Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York, noted that employees were 15 times more likely to start saving money if offered a retirement program by their employer. Finkel also urged the Council members to strengthen the proposal, by expanding the mandate to employers with five or more employees and to establish a 5% default  contribution rate.

“New York City is the greatest city in the world but it is also an expensive city and we know Social Security alone is not enough to retire on alone,” she said.

There was some pushback against the bills. Aliya Robinson, senior vice president of Retirement & Compensation Policy at the ERISA Industry Committee, brought up concerns about how the legislation may affect existing retirement programs. Robinson urged changes to Kallos’ bill, including completely excluding all employers that provide a retirement plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, setting restrictions on eligibility based on age and number of hours worked as established by the ERISA law, and exemptions without reporting requirements for employers similar to programs in Oregon and Illinois.

Alison Wielobob, general counsel of the American Retirement Association, similarly echoed Robinson’s testimony. She said the bills would “would place undue complexity and burdens on employers by imposing a set of rules that parallel the extensive and effective set of federal rules that already apply to workplace retirement plans.”

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, also warned that the bill could violate the ERISA law, despite other jurisdictions having faced no legal challenges yet, and cited anecdotal comments from the restaurant industry to insist that tipped workers with small paychecks will be hesitant to participate. He also raised the spectre of complications for businesses that employ undocumented workers.

But there was ample testimony that indicated those concerns were largely unfounded or insufficient to not act.

Rick McGahey, senior fellow at The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, said a failure to act could mean that by 2026, about 825,000 middle class workers in the state could face poverty at retirement – half of those workers live in the city.

Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, spoke of the racial wealth gap that persists into retirement, and the need to address it through any means necessary, including a retirement security program.

And Angela Antonelli, research professor and executive director of the Center for Retirement Initiatives at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, laid out multiple benefits of New York City creating an automatic enrollment retirement savings program – it would help millions of workers save money and be more mobile, make small businesses more competitive, help gig economy workers, benefit underserved populations, reduce burdens on state and federal budgets, and create a model for other states, among other positive impacts.

Michael Parker, executive director at the Oregon Savings Network, which was the first-of-its-kind plan when it launched two years ago, touted the success of the state’s program in testimony via video conference. He said about 50,000 new retirement accounts had been established, worth about $30 million saved, with the rollout continuing. The program’s participation rate is holding steady at about 72%, he said, meeting projections. “By not having compliance at the beginning, we sort of set up a culture of noncompliance instead of the other way around,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

After Rally with De Blasio, City Council Hears Bills on Private Sector Retirement Security Mon, 23 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing corey johnson delivers

Speaker Johnson at food policy speech (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council is set to consider a number of bills related to food policy at a hearing Wednesday, including a proposal to codify an Office of Food Policy, a month after Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled an expansive food equity plan with the creation of the office at its center.

The Council’s Committees on General Welfare, Economic Development, and Education will meet at City Hall Wednesday afternoon to examine a package of 14 bills and two resolutions dealing with nutritional access and public education, urban agriculture, and food waste.

Together the bills touch on many of the planks in Johnson’s nascent food platform, which includes expanding existing food programs and tying economic opportunity to farming and nutrition, all under a comprehensive citywide plan coordinated by a newly empowered Office of Food Policy.

Representatives of the Speaker say Johnson will not be attending the hearing, which is expected to be led by Council Members Stephen Levin, Paul Vallone, and Mark Treyger, who chair the three committees. Other members who are either lead sponsors of the legislation at hand or are members of the committees or otherwise interested will also participate.

A number of prominent stakeholders, like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Andrea Strong of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, plan to testify. A representative of the office of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services is also expected to speak.

“Food is a human right. Yet in our city — one of the richest in the world — more than 1 million New Yorkers are food insecure and there is inequitable access to fresh and healthy food in many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Council is working to address these gaps with new legislation and budget proposals.”

On August 1, Johnson released a report entitled “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” which outlined the Council’s agenda to combat inequities in accessing nutritional food and ensure the city has a comprehensive food policy responsive to the needs of different demographics like students, seniors, low-income residents, and non-white New Yorkers. Wednesday’s joint hearing will be the first time the bills are discussed in a formal legislative setting.

Johnson is the co-sponsor of two of the bills being considered, including the proposal to establish an Office of Food Policy and one to increase reporting on the city’s food system, whose main sponsors are Ben Kallos and Paul Vallone, respectively. Council Members Kallos, representing the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Diana Ayala, representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, are co-sponsors of every piece of legislation under review by the committees.

“A lot of these bills are bills on issues we have been working on for quite some time,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “In terms of the overall package, it’s amazing to work with a Speaker who is really empowering so many members -- taking such a large package that is going to do so very much, and sharing it with many members and bringing them into the fight against food insecurity and hunger.”

Under the legislation, the Office of Food Policy would be responsible for developing and coordinating initiatives in four categories: 1. promoting access to healthy food for all city residents; 2. developing support programs to make nutritional food more affordable; 3. expanding reporting in the annual Food System Metrics Report published by the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; and 4. collaborating with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to update food standards for meals purchased, prepared, or served by city agencies. The director of the office would be appointed by the mayor or the head of a mayoral agency.

There is currently an Office of the Director of Food Policy under the mayor, but the position is vacant. It was previously held by Barbara Turk, who has been serving in another role -- senior advisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services -- since April, according to her LinkedIn account.

“We’re hoping to have a director, make sure that that director position is filled, and ensure that they have a directive that spans multiple agencies and that they can hold the agencies accountable,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette.

“We believe that the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy should continue to remain an important asset in the City’s food policy efforts and look forward to discussing these proposals with the Council,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Avery Cohen, wrote in an email. The mayor’s office did not respond to emails asking when the next director of food policy would be appointed or for information about the hiring process.

The bills being heard Wednesday include measures that would fall under the food policy director’s purview, whether that office is codified into law or not.

One bill, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the office to consult with city agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders in the food system to develop a ten-year plan focused on food equity and insecurity. The plan would set goals to increase access to nutritional foods through existing and newly-developed programs, reduce food waste, and develop the economic conditions surrounding urban agriculture. The Office of Food Policy would be required to report on the progress made toward those goals.

Other bills in the package would establish new governmental bodies to deal with other elements of Johnson’s food platform. One measure sponsored by Bronx Council Member Andrew Cohen would create an advisory board to assess and make recommendations regarding the city’s food procurement policy and to evaluate contract bids. Another, sponsored by Council Member Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, would create an Office of Urban Agriculture and an accompanying advisory board to develop and report on a plan to protect and expand urban agriculture.

Under the package, community gardens would be partially protected from opposing land-use interests. The city’s reporting and assessment of the community garden system would be centralized and farmer’s markets would be allowed to operate on their premises, making them more economically viable and increasing access to community-produced healthy food.

The package also includes a focus on improving public engagement with the city’s existing food access programs like Health Bucks -- coupons for low-income New Yorkers to use at farmer’s markets -- farm-to-city projects, nutrition programs in schools, and summer meals.

Another theme is reducing food waste in New York. Johnson’s report cites a National Resources Defense Council analysis claiming the average New York City household wastes 8.7 pounds of food per week, of which six pounds are edible at the time of disposal.

One bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan would require any city agency with food procurement contracts to come up with a plan to limit the amount of food that doesn’t make it to the plate. Under the bill, each agency would be responsible for designating a coordinator to report on its food waste reduction plan and its implementation.

As a whole, the new food plan would require coordination among a myriad of city agencies, like the Human Resources Administration, Department of City Planning, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, among others. Many of the bills in the package are intended to facilitate or mandate that coordination. Two resolutions call on the state to expand supplemental nutrition assistance benefits, one of which will require action by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“A lot of our food programs are spread across multiple agencies and we need somebody focused on them, all working together comprehensively to ensure folks don’t have to deal with hunger or food insecurity,” said Kallos.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program retirement saving event

Feb. 2016 (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

In his State of the City speech in January, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised that the city would create a system of retirement security for millions of New Yorkers who work in the private sector and may not have access to employer-provided savings plans. It was a revival of an effort the mayor had first pushed in 2016 but that bumped up against the change in presidential administrations and federal approvals apparently needed. But eight months after de Blasio’s speech at the start of this year, the New York City Council is ready to look at the idea through two bills that will be examined at a hearing later this month.   

“We'll create a universal retirement system in our city, because if you've worked for decades, then you've earned the right to retire in peace,” the mayor declared in January. There has been little public movement since, but as the mayor continues his presidential campaign, an initial Council hearing provides new promise.

De Blasio first put forward a “Retirement Security for All” proposal in 2016, but the legislative effort to achieve it was cut short in 2017 when President Donald Trump approved new federal regulations passed by a Republican-led Congress that undid an Obama era rule and limited municipalities from creating private-sector retirement programs. City officials believe they can still move ahead, however.

In May 2018, City Council Members Ben Kallos and I. Daneek Miller sponsored the pair of bills that would establish such retirement savings programs for roughly 2 million private sector employees working in New York City.

Kallos’ bill would create individual retirement accounts (IRAs) for workers at New York City businesses that employ 10 or more people and do not currently offer such programs. Employees would be automatically enrolled unless they choose to opt out and the IRAs would be funded through payroll deductions at a default rate. Though they would have to help administer the paperwork, employers would not have to contribute to the savings, nor would any public funds be directed to the individual accounts. The bill also sets up a complaint mechanism for employees in case businesses do not comply and creates varying civil penalties for violations of the law.

Miller’s bill creates an unpaid three-member retirement savings board appointed by the mayor to oversee the private IRAs. The board would be responsible for investing IRA funds and contracting with financial institutions to manage them; it would also be charged with ensuring that fees for the programs remain low and for informing employers and employees of their rights and responsibilities under the law.

“All New Yorkers deserve the opportunity to plan for the future and save for their retirement,” said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, in a statement. “The Mayor called for retirement security for all New Yorkers in his State of the City earlier this year, and we look forward to working with the City Council to make retirement security a reality for millions of New Yorkers.”

Despite what seem to be hurdles at the federal level, both bills will be considered on September 23 at a joint hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor, which Miller chairs, and Committee on Contracts.

Miller said the city’s involvement in the program, through the board his bill would create, will mitigate some of the administrative burdens that small businesses would otherwise face. “We want to try to fill a gap here,” he said in a phone interview. “I think there's a real opportunity for a win-win for everybody involved to provide sensible retirement opportunities.”

Miller said the need to pass retirement security legislation was much like the issue of climate change, something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” he added, referring to the stark data around the many thousands of New Yorkers who have little to no retirement savings.

Kallos said in an interview that he is confident the proposals will pass and stand up to scrutiny under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, citing other jurisdictions that have advanced similar programs, including New York State.

“What has changed is that several jurisdictions have moved forward with the program with thousands of Americans gaining access to retirement accounts for the first time ever, and we're not seeing those plans being challenged,” he said. “And that seems to be putting forward a pathway for us.” 

At least ten states including New York have enacted legislation to allow private sector retirement programs. In last year’s state budget, the Legislature approved the creation of the New York State Secure Choice Savings Program, which, unlike the Council proposal, is a voluntary opt-in plan for private sector employers rather than an opt-out one. It is meant to be formulated over two years. 

“I think there's a national energy around this,” Kallos said. “The mayor, he's bringing universal pre-K around the country. And I think that in a nation that is growing more and more concerned about how and when they will be able to retire and whether social security will even be there for them, having ‘Retirement Security for All’ is something important for the mayor to interject into a national conversation.” 

Kallos expects an aggressive timeline, saying that the bills could pass as soon as October and be signed into law by the mayor by November. If so, and even as they simply get new consideration and attention, they could provide a headline issue that the mayor can tout if he continues to seek the Democratic nomination for president.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio has focused on issues he believes are of paramount importance to “working people,” including his signature universal pre-kindergarten program. That includes his boasts of a proposal to give paid personal leave to private sector employees, something the mayor has repeatedly said will happen this year even though the City Council does not appear close to approving it. 

“When the mayor’s chosen to champion issues, he’s made it happen,” Kallos said. 

Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York, praised the Council’s and mayor’s efforts. “We're very interested in anything that helps people to be more prepared financially for their retirement,” she said, noting that individuals are 15 times more likely to save for retirement if they have access to a savings program that automatically makes payroll deductions. “That's our mission, that people can age with dignity and be prepared for their retirement. And you can't wake up when you're older and say, okay, now's the time. So having something like this in place where people can save throughout their career, that's exactly the type of policy that AARP is very, very supportive of.”

AARP members, Miller, and Kallos were among those who celebrated at the February 2016 City Hall rally de Blasio held to advance the retirement savings plan, which has stalled in the three-plus years since.

Both Kallos and Miller expect little opposition at the local level, but there is a possibility that the bills may come under fire from private groups such as the ERISA Industry Committee, which lobbies on behalf of the country’s largest private employers with regards to employee benefits policies, or companies that sell retirement investment products.

“Retirement Security for All is tantamount to what would be the equivalent of a public option for insurance companies,” Kallos said. “And ultimately, companies that sell 401(k), 403(b) and other investment products have traditionally opposed this because they would rather see people not saving for retirement than see competition. And I think the real competition is having the fees that they can charge undermined.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program Wed, 04 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting Thu, 29 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000