Gotham Gazette Wed, 03 Mar 2021 04:47:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) De Blasio Promised Another Charter Revision Commission; Electeds and Advocates are Ready with Suggestions comm estab seven pieces legis

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

When Mayor Bill de Blasio said in late April that he was creating a task force to lead a “fair recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic, nestled in his announcement was a brief statement that he also intends to call another Charter Revision Commission. But the mayor hasn’t yet convened that commission, which would be the third to be created while he has been mayor, the second by him alone, and hasn’t explained his rationale for it. 

There have already been two commissions created in the last few years to examine and propose amendments to the City Charter, the document that establishes the central functions of city government and its officials. Amendments considered and proposed by such commissions are placed on the ballot for city voters to approve or reject. 

A spokesperson for the mayor said there is no set date for when the mayor will create his new commission. The timing will depend on the city’s recovery planning process, the spokesperson said, and on whether the commission can help overcome any roadblocks to that “fair recovery.” The mayor’s announcement also stated that his Fair Recovery Task Force will consider questions that could be taken up by the commission. De Blasio said he expected a “preliminary recovery road map” by June 1, though his spokesperson did not say whether that plan had been created or if it would be made public.

De Blasio previously created a charter commission in 2018, convened, he said at the time, to improve voter participation and limit the influence of money in elections. That commission placed three questions on the November 2018 ballot, all of which passed with overwhelming support, that significantly reduced individual campaign contribution limits, established term limits for community board members, and created a new Civic Engagement Commission.

Another commission was created that year through legislation passed by the City Council, with commissioners appointed by various officials including the mayor, based on a push by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and then-Public Advocate Letitia James, which was embraced by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. It was said at the time to be tasked with a more sweeping review, and potential overhaul, of the city’s key government functions and processes.

In the end, it also produced mostly modest reforms, put forth as five ballot questions in the 2019 general election, all of which also easily passed. The questions covered 19 specific proposals in all, including the implementation of ranked-choice voting in special and party primary municipal elections, expanded powers for the Civilian Complaint Review Board (a police oversight agency), independent budgets for the public advocate and borough presidents, among other technical changes to land use policy and the city’s budgeting process.  

It’s unclear what solutions to the city’s current crises might require or inspire a change to the city charter. “[W]e're going to build something new and we're going to build something better and not just better because it's more modern,” de Blasio said in his April 26 announcement of the Fair Recovery Task Force. “We're going to build something more fair. We're going to build something for everyone. This recovery has to have that spirit, that New York spirit, that everyone matters.”

He explained that a Charter Revision Commission would be part of that recovery “because if ever there was a moment, a breakpoint moment in the city's history, this is it. And it's time to look anew at everything we do and see what works, what doesn't work, what about our city government structure might be outdated or less effective, what do we need to build a fair recovery.”

More than two months later, the City Council is “not aware of any formal efforts by the administration to create another Charter revision commission," according to Jacob Tugendrajch, a spokesperson for Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

At this point, it appears all but certain that any charter revision commission assembled by de Blasio would do its work to put proposals to voters on the 2021 general election ballot, rather than this fall.

For some who participated in the previous charter amendment processes, a new commission offers an opportunity to revive proposals that weren’t taken up by the previous commissions as well as push for new needs that have become apparent in recent months.

Comptroller Scott Stringer pushed the previous commission to consider an amendment mandating the appointment of a chief diversity officer at City Hall and at every city agency, as he has done in his own office. Though Stringer insists the mayor could create that position administratively, it’s possible he may push a new commission to take up the proposition.

“A CDO for New York City would function as city government’s executive level diversity and inclusion strategist, driving the representation of people of color and women across government, tracking and overseeing the city’s M/WBE programs, and determining whether agencies’ daily practices are equitable,” he wrote in a July 8 op-ed at Gotham Gazette. “A citywide CDO could begin to tackle long-standing disparities that are now coming into stark relief -- from analyzing how taxpayer dollars are spent through an intersectional lens to removing barriers to doing business with the city to making sure public service is a viable option for people from diverse backgrounds and experiences.”

A spokesperson for Stringer did not provide comment for this article when asked for which proposals the comptroller may put forward for a new charter commission. When he testified before the 2019 commission, Stringer presented a 102-page booklet of 65 ideas and proposals, including the chief diversity officer concept, which was his number one focus. 

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said he wants to see his office strengthened under the charter and would push for additional changes to the city’s budget process, where the mayor currently holds far more authority than the City Council. He also expressed support for a proposal to give the City Council advice and consent power over the appointment of the NYPD commissioner, an idea that was pushed by police reform advocates to the 2019 commission but not taken up and that could gather momentum following the recently renewed movement against police brutality that has subsumed New York City and the country at large. 

On that note, Williams said a commission could provide a valuable opportunity to reimagine the institutions of public safety in the city, beyond just the NYPD. “If all we do is look at the police, we’re going to miss the mark,” he said.

City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat who is running for city Comptroller in 2021 and pushed for a comprehensive city planning process to be taken up by the prior charter commission, has recently suggested that New York follow Minneapolis’ lead on police and public safety reform.

“If another Charter Revision Commission is truly on the table again, then New York City should consider following the lead of Minneapolis, where they are proposing a charter amendment to dismantle their police department and create a department of community safety and violence prevention that leads with a public health and restorative justice approach,” Lander said in a statement. “That would be a good use of a commission, to transform our city's approach to public safety.”

The previous commissions both considered issues of police reform but sweeping proposals were either rejected or watered down. The 2019 commission did lead to the adoption of certain transparency and accountability measures. The CCRB’s composition was expanded, giving the public advocate an appointment while another appointee chosen jointly by the mayor and Council will serve as chair. The Council also no longer needs approval from the mayor to appoint members to the board. The agency’s executive director also received the authority to issue subpoenas and the CCRB can now also prosecute police officers who make false official statements during an investigation of which they are the subject.

Carolyn Martinez-Class, a spokesperson for the Communities United for Police Reform coalition, hopes that the next commission will go further. But she has doubts since it will be appointed by the mayor, whose office attempted to sabotage some of the 2019 commission’s CCRB reform proposals and who has favored incremental changes to the police department through his own initiatives. 

“Mayor de Blasio has consistently undermined efforts to reform the police in New York City including the last charter revision process,” Martinez-Class said in a phone interview, noting how the mayor’s appointees on the Council-created commission voted against the CCRB proposals. “There's little faith that if the mayor’s the person who is going to control the process in its entirety, that substantive reforms can come out of this process,” she said. 

Among the reforms CPR would like to see included in the charter are increased accountability for police misconduct, greater transparency, particularly with regards to the NYPD’s notoriously opaque budget, and greater oversight of police surveillance technology. “The last few months have only reiterated how critical all three of these pieces are,” she said.

At least part of those demands have already been met with the Council’s recent passage of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which will require the NYPD to disclose the types of surveillance mechanisms it uses. De Blasio has said he will sign the bill into law despite his initial reluctance to support the legislation. He has also promised changes to NYPD disciplinary practices, though administrative measures do not carry the same force as a charter provision.    

The police budget’s size and lack of transparency have been particularly pertinent considering the fraught passage of the recent $88.2 billion city budget for the 2021 fiscal year, where the central sticking point was a proposed $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s roughly $5.5 billion operating budget. The mayor and Council agreed upon a combination of cuts and cost shifts that amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars, though there has been debate over how significant changes really are, with many advocates and some elected officials disappointed.

Martinez-Class said the charter should be modified to require reporting on line-item spending, disclosure of funds raised by the department from private sources, as well as giving the Council and public the ability to weigh in on, and veto, the purchase and renewal of surveillance technology.

CPR does not have a position on a controversial proposal to create an elected CCRB that was advanced last year by some advocates but failed to be taken up by the charter commission. The group also has not weighed in on the police commissioner advise-and-consent proposal that Williams supports and was also pushed by a number of individuals who testified before the charter commission at its public hearings. 

The charter currently gives the mayor the upper hand in crafting the city’s budget, but the City Council and Comptroller Stringer have both previously proposed amendments that could redistribute some budget-making power while also bringing city spending in line with actual performance measures. Both the Council’s and comptroller’s reports before the 2019 commission advanced similar ideas including greater reporting on individual capital projects, allowing the Council to jointly decide on “units of appropriation” with the mayor, and creating strict deadlines for the mayor to seek the Council’s approval for mid-year changes to the city’s financial plan.

Both the 2018 and 2019 commissions barely touched on land use policy and comprehensive planning, which the Thriving Communities Coalition (TCC) of urban policy and housing nonprofits has repeatedly championed. 

“Our focus was in particular how to really change the way that the city does both land use but also planning more broadly so that includes budgeting, infrastructure investment, as well as land use,” said Emily Goldstein, director of organizing and advocacy at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a member of TCC. 

The coalition proposed a slew of ideas before the previous commission, including enshrining a “right to housing” in law, limiting the disposal of public land, equitable budgeting, and more. “Unfortunately, what we saw was that almost no changes were made. Only very, very minor modifications,” she said.

Goldstein also worried that the mayor’s commission will largely follow whatever direction he intends for it, rather than a broader mandate. “Charter commissions are not the most democratic process,” she said. “There's tons of space for input but in the end, it’s just whatever the appointed commissioners decide to do.”

If another commission is convened, Goldstein said the TCC will definitely push for the passage of comprehensive planning, something that Lander and Council Member Antonio Reynoso have been vocally supportive of and have said they are drafting legislation to pursue a version short of what a charter amendment could require.

“When we talk about comprehensive planning what we mean is actually looking honestly through data at the needs of the entire city,” Goldstein said. “Looking at existing needs, not just projected growth. Looking at, regardless of wealth or race, where and how can communities’ needs be met. Looking at historic disinvestment and patterns that sort of need to be made up for, looking backwards...and putting in place a planning process that grapples with those challenges and that equalizes the power balance.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Promised Another Charter Revision Commission; Electeds and Advocates are Ready with Suggestions Thu, 16 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
First Citywide Participatory Budgeting Program on Chopping Block Because of Coronavirus council cojo

Participatory budgeting was due for a big increase (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

A new citywide participatory budgeting program, whereby New Yorkers directly decide how to spend city budget money, was meant to be in place by July 1 but may end up being severely limited as the city suffers from the coronavirus pandemic and its multifaceted fallout. 

Creating the participatory budgeting program was one of the core duties for the New York City Civic Engagement Commission, which was established in the city Charter through a ballot referendum in 2018 that was overwhelmingly supported by voters.

The new program would be based on the New York City Council’s annual participatory budgeting cycle, wherein participating Council members voluntarily decide to allocate at least $1 million in capital funding to a process allowing their constituents to suggest and vote on projects to receive that funding. Capital funds are used for public infrastructure projects like improvements to parks, libraries, and schools. Out of 51 Council Members, 32 of them implemented the program in their districts last year. 

The Civic Engagement Commission was meant to take participatory budgeting citywide. It created an advisory committee, which, along with several advocacy groups, called on the mayor in February to set aside a $500 million budget for the new program. His preliminary budget released in January contained no funds for it, and neither did his executive budget proposal that came out last month. In between, of course, the city became home to the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

It’s unlikely that the new participatory budgeting program will receive anything close to what advocates had wanted. The coronavirus has decimated the economy and the city faces a $7.4 billion tax revenue loss by the end of the 2021 fiscal year. To balance the budget, the mayor already decreased planned spending by $6 billion and pulled $4 billion out of reserves in crafting his $89 billion executive budget, which is now the subject of City Council hearings as the mayor and Council head toward the July 1 deadline for a new city budget.

In an April 7 meeting of the Civic Engagement Commission, even before the executive budget was released, commission chair and executive director Dr. Sarah Sayeed conceded that the participatory budgeting program’s budget may be meager. 

“As everyone probably will understand, the city is really prioritizing needs that relate directly to the public health emergency right now,” she said. “Particularly for the executive budget. I think given all the uncertainty it's going to be tough to really make a solid decision on participatory budgeting until this health crisis stabilizes.” 

There’s no telling, however, whether the pandemic will abate before the end of June. Nonetheless, the Civic Engagement Commission has continued to meet with the participatory budgeting advisory committee and is in talks with the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, Sayeed said. “We're going to keep pressing on that front. However we're recommending, given all the uncertainty, we're looking to do a scaled-back pilot program in the first year and we are working with the advisory committee on program design,” she said. 

Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat who first proposed the idea of a civic engagement commission in legislation before de Blasio created a charter revision commission that put it on the ballot, proposed an alternative program that can employ expense and operational funds, at relatively low cost, instead of capital funds. “What I would love to see is a COVID response and recovery-focused pilot,” Lander said in a phone interview. 

In his district, he has overseen a participatory program that distributes between $1-1.5 million in capital funds and a smaller pot of $50,000 in expense funds that has yielded “extraordinarily creative ideas,” he said, such as funding a sewing circle for domestic violence survivors, a study of the effects of climate change on bats in Prospect Park, and a menstrual equity and outreach program proposed by a middle school student. 

“What it seems to me would make great sense is, alongside the Council's capital [participatory budgeting] program...let’s do a program that gives New Yorkers an opportunity to participate in the COVID recovery by coming up with some creative community-sourced ideas, developing them, and then getting to vote on some of them,” Lander said. 

It would also give some degree of control back to New Yorkers at a time when so much of their lives, including their ability to vote in upcoming elections, has been disrupted by the pandemic. “I think amongst many other problems that we have right now, disengagement from democratic decision-making is definitely one of them,” Lander said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

First Citywide Participatory Budgeting Program on Chopping Block Because of Coronavirus Tue, 12 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City’s Civic Engagement Commission Creates 11-Language Poll-Site Interpretation Plan for Fall Election voting gen elect

Voters will have greater access to interpreters at the polls this fall (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The still-new New York City Civic Engagement Commission is set to launch a poll-site language assistance program for the fall general election, expanding on the limited interpretation services that are currently provided by the Board of Elections. 

As required by the Voting Rights Act, the Board of Elections only provides interpreters to assist at poll sites in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Bengali. But New York City residents speak more than 200 languages. About 3.1 million residents, 37% of the population, are immigrants, and about half of them have limited English proficiency, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs annual report.

Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s DemocracyNYC program attempted to fill the gap in language services by placing interpreters at specific polling sites who could provide assistance in Russian, Haitian Creole, Yiddish, and Polish. The Board of Elections, a state entity largely funded by the city, even tried to block the administration in court but was unsuccessful.

The interpretation program acted as a precursor to a broader one that is now being developed by the Civic Engagement Commission, which was created through an amendment to the city Charter approved by voters in 2018. The creation of the commission was put on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission created by Mayor de Blasio in the first year of his second and final term. The poll-site interpretation program was one of a small number of set responsibilities for the engagement commission, which is made up of 15 members, appointed by various city officials, including a plurality by the mayor.

At a meeting on April 7, held virtually at least in part due to the coronavirus shutdown, the Civic Engagement Commission voted to approve the final methodology for the new program, which will provide interpretation in Russian, Hatian Creole, Arabic, Polish, Urdu, Yiddish, French, Bengali, Korean, Chinese, and Italian. The methodology will be updated in 2022. 

The program will not provide services that overlap with the Board of Elections’ mandated interpretation services under the law. For instance, the commission’s program will not provide Bengali or Korean services since the BOE already provides it. 

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Commission will determine the number of polling sites that require services in a particular language based on the number of people who are U.S. Citizens of voting age and who are limited English proficient. 

The Civic Engagement Commission decided it will provide interpretation on Election Day as well as the two full weekend days during early voting, beginning with this year’s general election and for every primary, general, and special election thereafter.

That means interpretation this year on October 31 and November 1 during early voting (which will be October 24-November 1), and November 3, Election Day.

The implementation of the program assumes that in-person voting will still take place this fall. If fully put into effect at 100 polling sites, the program could serve as many as 69,940 voters, according to the commission’s estimates. But the uncertainty imposed by the coronavirus means that even members of the Civic Engagement Commission were considering other means of providing interpretation services, particularly if they lack the necessary resources.

“I think it's important to caveat that we've started to discuss with our agency partners what might happen or what could be possible in the event that in-person voting is not possible,” said Dr. Sarah Sayeed, chair and executive director of the CEC, at the April 7 meeting. “We're not sure what that would look like. But we're starting to have that conversation.”

A notable exception from the methodology is that it does not count 16- and 17-year-olds when considering immigrant populations with limited English proficiency, said Murad Awawdeh, a commission member and executive vice president of advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition. “Even the Census Bureau acknowledges the undercount of immigrant communities and immigrant populations,” he said, concerned that those young people will be of voting age before the methodology is updated. “So by using that alone, it further perpetuates the gaps and leaves communities further undercounted and out of this methodology. I think that is a sleight and potentially big oversight in moving a program like this forward.” He noted that 80,000 people become voters each year and more than 100,000 become new Americans annually.

“I don't think we're necessarily leaving them out,” Sayeed responded. “The question is whether we have a good estimate of where the poll site should be. And we think using the citizenship measure combined with LEP gives us a good sense of the poll sites with the highest concentration of eligible voters.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City’s Civic Engagement Commission Creates 11-Language Poll-Site Interpretation Plan for Fall Election Mon, 11 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Key Details Emerge for How Ranked-Choice Voting Will Work in New York City primary voting chi bdb

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Though a new system for holding many city elections was overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall, new details about how ranked-choice voting will actually work continue to emerge.

Ranked-choice voting, which will apply to only special and primary elections for New York City government positions, allows voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. If no candidate hits a majority of votes, a system of vote redistribution based on second and possibly subsequent choices is executed, with ballots initially cast for the last-place candidate assigned to each of those voters’ second choices, and so on until a winner is crowned.

While several potential benefits, including the end to costly, low turnout run-off elections, helped lead to the passage of ranked-choice voting, concerns have been raised about educating voters on the new, complex system before its 2021 implementation.

Under ranked-choice voting, how the results are tabulated, when vote tallies are reported, and when unofficial winners are declared have implications for the way New Yorkers understand election results.

Newly evident details about the methodology for tabulating and reporting ranked-choice voting results in New York City are now surfacing, including areas in which the New York City Board of Elections has discretion. They come amid concerns over the recent debacle at the Iowa Democratic presidential primary caucuses and a nationwide call to remove chaos and misinformation from elections -- while New York City contests have seen their share of controversy and uncertainty.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it will encourage more civility in campaigning and require candidates to reach a larger base of support, with candidates hoping to be named either first or second choice on as many ballots as possible, while also eliminating the need for party primary run-offs. The 2019 Charter Revision Commission, created through City Council legislation, proposed amending the City Charter to establish ranked-choice voting (among over a dozen other proposals). Voters approved the amendment including ranked-choice voting with 73.6 percent support, while all the other proposals on a wide variety of topics also passed with similar degrees of support.

Jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting allow voters to rank candidates as ‘first choice,’ ‘second choice,’ ‘third choice,’ and sometimes more (the city will allow up to five, though voters can still just select their top choice for a position and leave it at that). If no candidate wins a majority of first choice votes upon the initial counting, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and their votes are reassigned to the second choice candidate listed on each of those ballots. That process is then repeated as needed until a winner is declared.

Gotham Gazette has learned that, if no candidate hits a majority of votes and candidate elimination is triggered, under the law a winner will not be announced until all but two candidates have been eliminated and all ballots with other candidates listed first are redistributed among those top two finishers.

This differs from the way most jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting in the United States tabulate votes. According to the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, of the 15 jurisdictions that use ranked-choice voting to elect a single winner, all but two stop the counting and declare a victor as soon as any candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the vote.

“A close reading of the Charter shows that the 2019 Charter Revision Commission selected a far less common version of Ranked Choice Voting for New York City, and very few New Yorkers, including many legislators and advocates, realize that,” wrote Rachel Bloom, policy director at Citizens Union, a good government group, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

While falling into the minority of ranked-choice voting methods, experts say the city’s so-called “down to two” approach provides a fuller picture of the electorate’s position. They say it adds to the value of ranked-choice voting by showing a wider breadth of support for the winner in a crowded special or primary election.

“Running the count down to the final two gives you a better sense of a candidate's mandate and what coalitions they may have formed or have available to them as electeds,” wrote Christopher Hughes, the policy director and general counsel at the Resource Center, who has worked with governments and advocates throughout the country on adopting and implementing ranked-choice voting, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

A City Council source said that running the tabulation down to two is a transparency measure and will not affect which candidate ultimately wins.

But making vote tabulation more complicated, in any sense, could also have negative side effects in terms of informing voters.

At a press conference last week in Lower Manhattan and again Tuesday on WNYC radio, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat and likely 2021 mayoral contender, claimed election results will not be reported after polls close on the night of an election using ranked-choice voting. In almost all recent elections in New York City, unofficial results have been known and publicized the night of the election. Instead they may not be announced for days or may trickle-in in pieces, with the first round of counting published days before the final outcome is known -- or both.

“We are definitely not going to know on primary night in June of 2021 who the winner is. It’s going to take potentially days...You’re hearing it here, now, 17 months before the election,” Johnson said on WNYC.

He cited the length of time it will take to count votes, eliminate candidates if none reach a majority of highest rank votes on the initial count, and redistribute the votes as needed. 

But the true calculus is not as cut and dry and when results are announced depends on the discretion of election administrators, who have yet to publicly discuss how ranked-choice voting will be executed. Under New York State election law, the New York City Board of Elections, which administers elections in the five boroughs, must report unofficial election results on the final night of an election after polls close. But the City Charter amendment creating ranked-choice voting gives the city BOE discretion to decide whether to, on the night of a special or primary election, report just the first round of tabulation or the results of all rounds.

According to the City Council source, the BOE will ultimately have to make a rule about its approach to reporting. The board must issue a report in June on its plan for implementing RCV in 2021, but is not explicitly required to include a determination on the reporting method then.

A spokesperson for the city BOE said it was too early to say which approach the board would take and that staff would be meeting with voting technology vendors in March to discuss the options.

In a phone interview, Michael Ryan, the New York City Board of Elections executive director, said the nuances of ranked-choice voting mean a candidate elimination might not be triggered until after absentee and affidavit ballots are counted.

“The Speaker’s statement is correct. There are going to be contests, maybe not all of them, but there are going to be contests where the outcome will be an open question for a much longer period of time than we have become used to in the city of New York,” Ryan said.

“The Speaker’s prediction is based on the findings by the Charter Revision Commission,” wrote a Council spokesperson in an email. 

Unofficial election night results differ from the certified election results, which can come days or weeks after an election. In New York, election administrators have 13 days to declare official winners. To reach the official results, all votes including absentee and affidavit ballots have to be tabulated.

“In most RCV jurisdictions the election administrators have communicated to press/candidates/voters how and when results of the RCV count will be released,” Hughes wrote by email. “Most places tend to get unofficial round-by-round results out in the 24 hours after an election, but first-time implementations may take a bit longer as people work out the kinks in the process.”

The kinks, according to Hughes, are not necessarily a matter of technology. “The additional rounds of counting, if needed to determine who the final two candidates are [and] their vote shares, don't take much additional time because the software used to run the count is fairly efficient at this point,” he pointed out.

With the potential that first round tabulations can yield different vote leaders than the final “down to two” count, partial or piece-meal reporting could confuse voters and diminish confidence in the final results. “We definitely won’t know that night, we may not know the next day, and people should understand that that night candidates are going to...stand at a lectern and say, ‘ra! ra!’ but not be able to say who actually won or not,” Johnson said Tuesday of election results and the nights of special or primary elections (which now come after a period of early voting in New York for each election).

The 2021 election cycle, which will be the city’s first using ranked-choice voting, will be incredibly busy, especially for the June Democratic primaries, with hundreds of candidates expected across races for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, the five borough presidents, and all 51 City Council seats. Many of those contests will be for “open seats” with no incumbent running, traditionally leading to more candidates in the running and increasing the likelihood that ranked-choice voting will involve more triggered candidate elimination, vote redistribution processes.

Along with clarity and planning from the city Board of Elections, elected officials and advocates are calling for an education campaign so that voters know how ranked-choice voting works, both from voting and vote-counting standpoints. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, also a Democrat and likely mayoral candidate, has already pledged to start holding educational workshops.

“Clarity is needed so we can begin a comprehensive voter education program in advance of the 2021 primary where RCV will go into effect.  RCV education is not only about how to vote but also how results are calculated. The last thing we want is voters not understanding why a certain candidate won,” Bloom wrote.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Key Details Emerge for How Ranked-Choice Voting Will Work in New York City Thu, 20 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Pursues Comprehensive Planning Legislation city planning

(rendering via the Mayor's Office)

The New York City Council is crafting legislation to mandate the creation of a comprehensive plan for the city that would guide long-term decisions on land use, zoning, and investments in infrastructure. The effort is being led by Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso.

Last year, the City Council urged the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to propose to voters an amendment to the city’s governing document to require a comprehensive plan every ten years. A comprehensive plan would serve as “a citywide strategic framework and vision for growth and development,” the Council wrote in its recommendations to the charter commission, which included representatives from various top city elected officials, including Johnson, who appointed its chair.

“The lack of a citywide plan contributes to the overall housing shortage and exacerbates conflicts for space between different uses,” the Council report reads. “The ad hoc selection of particular neighborhoods for growth-oriented rezoning plans has proved to be an inefficient and acrimonious process and is not delivering enough opportunities for development as the city needs.”

Even the charter commission’s staff agreed with the need for a comprehensive plan, recommending to the commissioners that it consider taking up the issue. The commission’s preliminary staff report issued in April noted that there are currently 12 different charter-required documents that determine city planning. “But the Charter does not always make clear how (and whether) these plans are intended to fit together, what they must address, how they relate to one another, how progress (or lack thereof) toward their goals is measured and assessed, and how the public can affect the content of these plans (if at all),” the staff report reads.

But the commission demurred, and among nearly 20 changes proposed to voters, all of which passed in November, only put forward tweaks to the city’s current land use processes. Commission Chair Gail Benjamin, appointed by Johnson, and Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, the former head of City Planning who was appointed to the commission by Mayor Bill de Blasio, both seemed opposed to the proposal, as did members of the de Blasio administration.

But where the charter commission passed, the City Council appears ready to move ahead. “Comprehensive Planning was a Council and personal priority in our testimony to the Charter Revision Commission and we continue to explore options to achieve those goals legislatively,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. A spokesperson for the speaker did not provide any additional detail about what the legislation would contain or the timeline for its introduction.

At the end of last year, Johnson passed and de Blasio signed a "streets master plan" law that includes mandates around bike and bus lanes and pedestrian space across the city. This past week, Johnson unveiled a "holistic, long-term" approach to combating homelessness in the city and said that a corresponding affordable housing plan is in the works. In a brief interview at City Hall after he released the homelessness plan, Johnson told Gotham Gazette that the larger planning legislation will incorporate those pieces and more.

Lander and Reynoso, who helped lead the push for comprehensive planning during the charter commission’s work and quickly rued the fact that the commission passed on the idea, indicated that there will be a package of several bills to accomplish comprehensive planning and related goals.

“Let's be perfectly honest, the only way we would have done it in a real comprehensive way, would have been through the charter,” Reynoso said in a brief interview outside City Hall. “So what we're doing now is taking the most aggressive legislative action we could take to try to mimic what should have been done through the charter.”

Lander stressed that the need to take “a more collaborative, more comprehensive, more proactive, more values-attuned approach, it just gets more and more urgent.”

“If we want to have a city that matches our values and carries them into planning for our future, the processes we currently have are broken and we have to have new ones,” he said during a phone interview.

Lander echoed Reynoso in pointing out that any bill passed by the Council will be more limited than what the charter commission could have accomplished. “By Council legislation, you can require a comprehensive planning process every so often, but you can’t change the [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process to favor projects that would be aligned with that plan or make it more difficult to have projects that don't,” he said.

The push for comprehensive planning also has the support of the Thriving Communities coalition, made up of advocates, nonprofits, and grassroots organizers who sought to convince the charter commission to pursue their goals. The coalition criticized the commission’s refusal to take up the issue. “While the status quo might work for developers and the powerful few, it does not work for most New Yorkers, and without meaningful changes, the processes we have now will only exacerbate inequality, segregation, and displacement,” it wrote in a statement after the commission issued its final ballot proposals. Spokespeople for the coalition -- which included organizations like Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, Community Action for Safe Apartments, New York Appleseed, Regional Plan Association, and Pratt Center for Community Development, among others -- did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Any comprehensive planning legislation is likely to face push back from the de Blasio administration.

Vicki Been was formerly commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and testified before the charter commission as an outside expert at a March 21 hearing. She later rejoined the de Blasio administration when the mayor appointed her Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development in April.

In her testimony, Been raised the issue of the city’s Fair Share criteria, which determine how the city sites municipal facilities according to neighborhoods bearing their fair share of the burden. Over the years, the fair share policy has been criticized for largely failing to accomplish its intended objective as facilities such as homeless shelters and waste management plants began to be concentrated in certain communities, often low-income communities of color.

“Much of the criticism of the fair share criteria is that they are like an environmental impact review, all you have to do is show that you considered the fairness of the distribution. You don't have to meet any numerical or other target because one wasn't set because it's too difficult of a question,” Been said at the hearing. “And so there's no reason to believe that moving the question into what we call a comprehensive planning system would accomplish anything other than what is accomplished in the conversation about fair share.”

Anita Larement, executive director of the Department of City Planning, similarly raised red flags about comprehensive planning at that hearing. “On the one hand, people are looking for more community control over decision-making, which actually we know will lead to more problems in regards to siting things that people don't want in their neighborhoods. And this notion that somehow on the other hand if we can do comprehensive planning that we will solve these problems? What I would really submit is that, that is not correct,” she said.

After the 2019 Charter Revision Commission declined to move comprehensive planning forward toward a ballot proposal, Lander and Reynoso wrote a joint op-ed lamenting the missed opportunity but stressing the importance of moving ahead with better city planning, especially regarding infrastructure, climate resiliency, housing affordability, transit, school seats and more, with a holistic vision for development, services, and community benefits and burdens.

"Comprehensive planning is not a panacea, but evidence from other cities suggests that it is an essential component of fair and rational progress," they wrote. Concluding that if New York City is "going to meet the collective challenges of rising temperatures and sea levels, growing population, aging infrastructure, keeping people in their homes, and addressing deeply-rooted inequality, we’re going to have to start doing it."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

City Council Pursues Comprehensive Planning Legislation Sun, 02 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Turnout, Ballot Questions, & Dropoff: How New York City Voted in 2019 voting new york city

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

A year after the 2018 election cycle, when insurgent candidates and heightened political participation helped drive a wave of New Yorkers to the polls, voter turnout in the city this fall continued the trend. While still low as a percentage of registered voters, the 15 percent turnout was far higher than previous off-year elections.

While many attribute the recent increases in voter participation to a Trump effect, the particulars of this year’s city ballot, including key items not present in the corresponding cycle four years ago, may also have had an effect: a citywide Public Advocate election and five ballot questions offering New Yorkers the chance to approve or reject changes to city elections and governance.

Yet while the series of proposed city charter amendments may have motivated some voters to the polls, new analysis shows the questions did not generate as much interest as the public advocate candidates at the top (and front) of the ballot.

New maps created by Steven Romalewski, director of the Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center, using voter turnout data from the New York City Board of Elections show that, while turnout was relatively high across the board, there was significant drop-off from the top and front of the ballot -- where candidate races are listed -- to the ballot proposals on the back.

Romalewski’s analysis also shows the places where turnout was highest (Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope) and lowest (parts of the southern Bronx and southern Brooklyn) and illustrates where voters seemed especially motivated to vote on the charter changes.

Of the nearly 4.8 million active registered voters in New York City, 15 percent went to the polls over the two weeks they were open this fall, according to still-unofficial city turnout data and the most recent state voter registration numbers released at the beginning of November. By comparison, in the 2015 general election turnout was just 6 percent, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, though there was no citywide race or charter amendments on the ballot that year.

The increased turnout follows an election last year where turnout was uncommonly high at 39.1 percent, according to the Campaign Finance Board. It also coincides with a number of long-sought voting reforms passed by the State Legislature after Democrats took control of both chambers following the so-called “blue wave” elections of 2018. Among them was early voting, a change advocates argued would improve access to the ballot box, which went into effect this fall. For the first time, city voters had the opportunity to vote early at 61 assigned poll sites over the course of nine days leading up to Election Day, November 5, when thousands of traditional poll sites opened citywide.

The highest profile race this fall was for public advocate, the only citywide elected office on the ballot, where Democratic incumbent Jumaane Williams beat Republican City Council Member Joe Borelli and Libertarian nominee Devin Balkind to keep the seat he had won earlier this year in a nonpartisan special election.

Williams won handily with nearly 78 percent of the vote in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans close to seven to one. In addition to Williams’ race, as well as a City Council contest to fill the seat he vacated and a handful of judicial races, the ballot contained the five referenda encompassing 19 charter amendments put forward by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission.

Voters overwhelmingly approved all five questions, with the 19 proposals dealing with elections and governance, by between 71 and 77 percent.

In five maps provided to Gotham Gazette, Romalewski breaks down turnout data and ballot referenda voting by Assembly district using unofficial election night results in which roughly nine out of ten ballot scanners were counted. Official results are expected to be certified soon.

In the areas with the highest turnout, like the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope, nearly 24 percent of registered voters cast ballots for public advocate, according to the analysis. The neighborhoods with the lowest turnout, like the West Bronx, Mott Haven, Parkchester, and Bensonhurst saw just 10 percent or less of registered voters go to the polls (see map below).

pubadv roma map

The Upper West Side and Brooklyn Heights saw close to the same high turnout on proposal 5 as they did for public advocate -- 22.4 percent (see map below). But much larger regions had turnout rates of 10 percent or less: all but three Bronx Assembly districts fall into this category, as well as Corona, East Elmhurst, and Flushing, Queens.

prop5 roma map

A vast majority of Assembly districts saw drop-off of between 1,000 and 2,889 votes from the top of the ballot to the back of it. The districts that saw the smallest drop-off -- under 1,000 votes -- were in parts of Lower Manhattan, the Upper East Side, Williamsburg and parts of the borough’s southern tier. The worst drop-off was in Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx, Eastern Queens, and parts of Central Brooklyn.

patoprop5 roma map

Despite what then-Public Advocate Letitia James described in July 2018 as “a rare opportunity to fundamentally change the future of our City” when the charter commission was empanelled through her legislation with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a number of factors may have contributed to the drop-off on ballot proposals by the time the votes were cast.

Among them are the miniscule, 7.5-point font the ballot questions were printed in and the large amount of detail contained in each one. Another might be the limited public education conducted by government agencies in the run-up to the early voting period, or the fact that many of the city’s most prominent officials did not express positions on the proposals. There’s also the fact that the commission did not propose particularly sweeping changes to how city government functions, though ranked-choice voting, part of the first ballot question, is a major change.

All but one Assembly district in Queens, where there was a notable district attorney race, saw drop-off of more than 1,500 votes between the public advocate race and the fifth ballot proposal -- meaning many Queens voters were not taking stock of their entire ballot.

One district -- Assembly District 59 in Brooklyn -- had a drop-off of roughly a thousand more voters than any other district in Romalewski’s maps. That drop-off could actually be smaller because data for that district was available from only 78 percent of ballot scanners, compared to between 85 and 99 percent of scanners in most of the other districts, he explained in an email. When they are all counted the gap may shrink.

Another, and perhaps more notable, outlier is Assembly District 48 -- spanning Borough Park and Midwood, Brooklyn -- where there was actually a greater number of ballots marked for or against Question 1 than public advocate by 76 votes, according to one map (see below). Given its inclusion of ranked-choice voting, Question 1 was perhaps the most consequential and controversial of the ballot measures, especially among certain officials and groups. According to the unofficial election night results, voters in District 48 rejected Proposal 1 by a margin of 4,058 to 1,545, and the other four proposals by similar margins.

patoprop1 roma map

Ranked-choice voting, which for party primary and special elections will let voters list up to five candidates by preference rather than selecting a single top choice, received significant attention in the weeks leading up to Election Day, with groups campaigning for and against the proposal. The biggest proponents of the new method were a coalition of good government groups, voting rights advocates, and elected officials, which spent close to $1 million on advertising for it.

But five days ahead of Election Day, a group of city and state elected officials representing Orthodox Jewish communities in the Midwood area of Brooklyn began appearing in digital, print, and radio ads urging voters to reject all five ballot proposals, according to data from the Campaign Finance Board. The images of Assembly Member Simcha Eichenstein, who represents District 48, along with State Senator Simcha Felder and City Council Members Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch graced the English- and Hebrew-language ads, often accompanied by text reading: “If approved, these proposals will waste money, make our streets more dangerous and give our community less say in our city government. Help protect our voice.”

A total of $22,150 was spent on the ads over five days, according to campaign finance filings. They were paid for by the Police Benevolent Association Independent Expenditure Committee, which was also pouring money into a parallel campaign to defeat a proposal, in Question 2, that would enhance civilian oversight of the NYPD. The PBA spent a total of $139,626 on its “Vote No on Question 2” campaign, which includes the $22,150 geared toward Orthodox Jewish voters.

Two days before Election Day, the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus also spent $5,000 on leaflets opposing ranked-choice voting, even though some of its members were proponents of a yes vote on Question 1.

One map shows that not only was there relatively high turnout for public advocate -- between 15,000 and 24,200 votes -- in the western half of lower Manhattan, as many as 99 percent of those voters also voted for or against proposal 5 on the back. The same map shows a number of districts where turnout was as low as 4,145 and down-ballot drop-off was between 25 and 33 percent. Those districts fall mostly in northeast Queens and the South Bronx (see map below).

prop5percentpubadv roma map

But in Assembly District 48, the opposite was true: voters there cast ballots for public advocate in relatively small numbers (between 4,145 and 7,500) but those that did were highly motivated to vote on the ballot proposals as well. As many as 99 percent of them voted on proposal 5 at the end of the ballot, Romalewski pointed out in an email.

While all five ballot questions passed citywide and in almost every borough, Staten Island voters rejected three of them, including the ranked-choice voting and police oversight proposals (Questions 1 and 2, respectively), as well as one related to the city budget (Question 4). The widest vote margin of the rejected proposals on Staten Island, where voters tend to be more conservative than the rest of the city and where many police officers live, was on the police-related reforms.

There, in addition to the PBA campaign against the police oversight amendments, several local elected officials joined PBA President Pat Lynch and other law enforcement union leaders days before Election Day to rally in opposition to the proposal. Borelli, who received nearly twice as many votes on Staten Island as Williams in the public advocate race, was among them.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated.

Turnout, Ballot Questions, & Dropoff: How New York City Voted in 2019 Thu, 21 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
After Ballot Proposal Spending, Council Member Eyes Expansion of Independent Expenditure Disclosure 107 123 c3560 1

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.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

After Ballot Proposal Spending, Council Member Eyes Expansion of Independent Expenditure Disclosure Tue, 12 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Missing from the 2019 Ballot, We Can't Wait to Take on Better City Planning hallets point dev

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

New Yorkers heading to the polls this fall have the opportunity to vote on amendments to New York City’s Charter – our city’s foundational governing document – that include changes to how we vote, police accountability, and budgeting. But one big topic will be missing: truly addressing our city’s broken land use system.

This didn’t have to be the case. When the City Council, then-Public Advocate Letitia James, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer came together to create this Charter Revision Commission in spring of 2018 there were high hopes for what it might accomplish. Unlike previous commissions charged with a narrow focus, Commission Chair Gail Benjamin announced, “This is a commission that received a broad mandate to overhaul the charter, which has not been done since 1989.” Instead of looking small, this commission would be going big. 

Given the land use expertise of many of the appointed commissioners, including Chair Benjamin - and the expressed hopes of the elected officials who helped create the commission - advocates, New York City residents, and our elected representatives believed this broad mandate included the way our land use planning is done. During public hearings in all five boroughs, the commission heard more complaints about our broken land use process than any other issue.

The Thriving Communities Coalition formed in response to what we believed was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul our land use process, provide more access and accountability to average New Yorkers and address the needs of low-income communities and communities of color by working to end, rather than perpetuate, the legacy of historically racist planning.

As a coalition of grassroots organizing, advocacy, policy, and technical-assistance groups working across issue areas and neighborhoods, we knew first-hand the ways in which the planning process isn’t working: from the affordable housing and homelessness crisis - fueled in part by the rampant gentrification and displacement of formerly affordable communities - to the income and race inequalities that make us one of the most segregated and unequal cities in the country.

Throughout the charter reform process, the Thriving Communities Coalition fought for the commission to take up a comprehensive planning process that accounts for historical divestments from communities of color and a budget that equitably distributes resources - sharing our perspectives on the urgent need for real reform to empower disenfranchised communities and fight deeply entrenched racial and socio-economic inequality.   

And yet in the end, the commission chose not to advance any meaningful land use reforms. Faced with the opportunity to make historic changes after hearing from a groundswell of folks about the urgent need, and after acknowledging in its preliminary report the “level of public disillusionment” with regards to land use and planning processes, the commission chose to settle, offering “tweaks” to the charter and rejecting calls for more transformational change.

Instead of comprehensive planning and the equitable distribution of resources, we have been offered an extended review period for Community Boards over the summer, and development plans being made public 30 days before the official public review starts. Instead of looking big, this commission went small.        

We cannot wait another 30 years for a Charter Revision Commission that embraces its broad mandate to come along. Continuing the current land use process is unacceptable and unsustainable. While the status quo might work for developers and the powerful few, it does not work for most New Yorkers. Without meaningful changes, the processes we have now will only exacerbate inequality, segregation, and displacement. We will need more vision from our elected officials and leaders if we are to become a city where everyone has a chance to grow and thrive.

Chris Walters is the Rezoning Technical Assistance Coordinator at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development and a member of the Thriving Communities Coalition – a coalition of community-based and policy-oriented nonprofits focused on equitable land use and planning processes. On Twitter @ANHDNYC.

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

Missing from the 2019 Ballot, We Can't Wait to Take on Better City Planning Sun, 03 Nov 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Dodges Questions About His Stance on Ballot Proposals first day voting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Dodges Questions About His Stance on Ballot Proposals Tue, 29 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Civilian Complaint Review Board Refutes Police Union's 'Myths' About Ballot Proposals and Its NYPD Oversight Work mayor pd comm

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

The Civilian Complaint Review Board has responded to the Police Benevolent Association’s efforts to kill a ballot referendum that would enhance the agency’s powers. The CCRB began promoting a fact sheet on its website and social media Friday aimed at “correcting misinformation” days after the launch of the PBA’s campaign, calling the union’s communications “myth” as it seeks a “no” vote on ballot question two.

Last week, the PBA began urging its members and allies to vote “no” on the ballot proposal before voters this fall and has a statement of opposition to the measure in the city’s official voter guide, Gotham Gazette first reported. The set of proposals -- question two of five -- would amend the city charter to expand the CCRB’s operational capacity and jurisdiction, while also tweaking how appointments to the board are made and requiring more transparency and communication from the police commissioner.

All five ballot questions contain proposed changes to the charter developed by a multilateral commission tasked with examining the city’s central governing document. Voters can approve or disapprove of each during the October 26-November 3 early voting period or on Election Day, November 5.

Question 2 on the ballot includes four changes that CCRB officials say would improve the administration of its mandate and a fifth that would expand its jurisdiction to allow it to look into allegations of officers suspected of lying while under investigation for misconduct.

The administrative changes would allow the Board to delegate subpoena power to the executive director and guarantee its budget based on a formula tied to the NYPD’s officer headcount. The proposals would also increase the size and appointments to the Board and require the police commissioner to explain to the CCRB when deviating from the agency’s disciplinary recommendations.

Police reform advocates and the CCRB chair, Fred Davie, believe the changes to the city charter amount to a small shift in the powers and performance of the agency but will add layers of accountability to the police department. The CCRB is a civilian agency separate from the NYPD and tasked with investigating civilian-reported complaints of police officer misconduct in a limited set of circumstances: when excessive force or offensive language may have been used, or when police officers are said to have abused their authority or acted discourteously.

In opposing the proposed reforms in Question 2, the PBA, the city’s largest law enforcement union, posted to its website and social media claims that the measure constituted a large-scale “power grab” by a police oversight agency with a history of “anti-police bias.”

Debate over the ballot measure comes just months after the CCRB prosecuted Officer Daniel Pantaleo for misconduct in the arrest that led to Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island in 2014. That departmental trial led to Pantaleo’s dismissal by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill despite the PBA’s assertion that Pantaleo did nothing wrong.

The CCRB fact sheet attempts to illuminate seven of what the page refers to as “myths” promulgated by the PBA as part of its campaign against the ballot measure.

Citing a statement of opposition submitted by the PBA and published in the city’s voter guide, the CCRB takes issue with the police union’s description of Question 2 as giving the CCRB “sweeping new powers.” The fact sheet emphasizes that only one of the charter changes -- the one dealing with suspected police lying -- would constitute a wholly new power. It notes, “The Board already has the authority to subpoena evidence,” and allowing it to delegate that power to the executive director simply makes the process “more efficient.”

The PBA statement in the voter guide, which is published by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Board, also says Question 2 would “drastically” increase the CCRB’s budget. If approved, Question 2 would guarantee the budget large enough to support a CCRB staff size equal to .65 percent of the police department’s headcount of uniformed officers. The fact sheet points out that the current budget ratio this year was only slightly lower, at .59 percent, than what would be guaranteed under the proposed amendment.

“Under this new requirement, we would continue to work closely with the Office of Management and Budget to determine the amount of funding necessary to maintain this level of staffing,” wrote CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche in an email to Gotham Gazette.

In its voter guide statement, the PBA asserts the ballot measure would “reduce the authority of the Police Commissioner.”

The CCRB fact sheet refutes that, stating: “The Police Commissioner would maintain the same level of authority over discipline, but the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau would no longer be solely responsible for investigating false official statements made by officers during a CCRB investigation.”

The fact sheet does not mention the proposed change that would require by law the police commissioner to explain in writing any decision to impose a lesser form of discipline than the one recommended by the CCRB. That requirement already exists under a 2012 memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and CCRB, and would be codified in the city charter if Question 2 is passed by voters.

The CCRB also points to posts from the PBA’s Twitter account that accuse the CCRB of harboring “rampant anti-police bias” and calling it “an outrageously dysfunctional agency.” In response the CCRB cites its mandate to conduct “fact-based investigations of police misconduct” and points out that, according to its rules, one of each three-member panel, which make decisions on CCRB cases, must be a Board member designated by the Police Commissioner. On the matter of alleged agency dysfunction, the fact sheet points to upward trends over the last five years in number of cases closed and mediated.

In another tweet, the PBA stated: “By encouraging their clients to file false & frivolous CCRB complaints, [“criminal advocates”] can sidetrack court cases and get guilty gang members, drug dealers & thieves out of jail.” In response to this, the CCRB cites data on the number of unsubstantiated misconduct allegations it has processed.

“Of the allegations closed in 2018, 463, or 8% of total allegations, were unfounded,” the fact sheet states. It adds: “In the past decade, only 52 complainants have ever been found by the Agency to have made repeated unfounded complaints against officers.”

One of the PBA claims appears to refer directly to the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, the body that devised the proposed amendments, rather than to the CCRB. In a tweet kicking-off its vote “no” campaign last Monday, the PBA wrote, “Political extremists and cop-haters have been attacking NYC police officers in the streets for years. Now, they're doing it at the ballot box.”

In its fact sheet, the CCRB responds: “The Charter Commission, which ultimately decided what would and wouldn’t be on the ballot this year, was comprised of 15 members of varying backgrounds and degrees of support for police oversight. The Charter Commission Members were appointed by elected officials including the Mayor, Borough Presidents, and City Council Speaker.” City Comptroller Scott Stringer and then-Public Advocate Letitia James also appointed members.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Civilian Complaint Review Board Refutes Police Union's 'Myths' About Ballot Proposals and Its NYPD Oversight Work Mon, 28 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000