Gotham Gazette Sun, 11 Apr 2021 16:21:32 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Not Just Albany: New York City Lacks Independent Harassment Investigation Process, Too erica vlad brad lander courageous

City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo)

The courageous women who stepped forward to share their stories of alleged sexual misconduct by Governor Andrew Cuomo pointed to one of the worst-kept secrets of New York government: a toxic work environment is more of a status-quo than an exception to the rule. 

Their telling of their experiences has also revealed systemic flaws in the reporting and investigation process against elected and appointed officials. Initially, the governor twice tried to appoint his own investigators instead of allowing the Attorney General to conduct her own investigation — which she needed to obtain a referral letter from the governor’s office itself to begin in the first place. Even though Attorney General Letitia James finally received the referral, and the investigation is underway, the governor’s office is now conducting its own separate investigation, and trying to send its own lawyers into interviews with staff. 

New York State needs a new, independent, victim-centered process for addressing harassment claims against elected officials, as the Sexual Harassment Working Group has long demanded. 

But harassment, toxic workplace culture, opaque reporting systems, and compromised investigations aren’t unique to New York state government. New York City’s system is also set up to protect abusers. 

The City’s Human Rights Law provides strong protections against discrimination based on gender, including sexual harassment. But City Council members, like former Council member and repeat abuser Andy King, are supposed to be held accountable by their colleagues. 

Complaints from City Council staff or constituents are referred to the Council’s own Standard and Ethics Committee, made up of five Council members appointed by the Speaker. They decide if there will be an investigation, who will conduct the investigation, and on what timeline,  and what sanctions to recommend to the full Council. That’s no one’s definition of independent. It’s even less clear what would happen with allegations against the Mayor or any mayoral appointees, the Comptroller, the Public Advocate, or the Borough Presidents.

We need a complete overhaul of our current investigation and accountability process; it shouldn’t have taken us this long, but with a major transition about to take place in our city’s elected representation, now is a critical time to do so.

First, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson must release the $200,000 internal report he commissioned through Redwood Enterprise. Redwood conducted interviews with members and staff funded by taxpayer dollars, but Speaker Johnson has refused to release the Redwood report despite repeated requests, including a letter this week organized by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer.

Second, as called for by the Sexual Harassment Working Group in the wake of the repeated abuses by Andy King, the City Council should hold public hearings on workplace protections and collaborative solutions to safeguard Council workers from retaliation and harassment from elected officials.

Back in 2017, the Council held hearings on sexual harassment, but did not focus solely on harassment within city government itself. We know how impactful these hearings can be; the Working Group’s testimony at the state’s public hearing in February 2019 led to some of the most significant reforms in a generation.

A public hearing will help inform the creation of a new, transparent, independent process for investigating and recommending sanctions for harassment by elected and appointed New York City government officials. 

One idea would be to amend the authority of the Commissioner of the Department of Investigations to appoint a Special Inspector General, who would have full subpoena power outside the line-of-authority to the mayor, to conduct these investigations of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. In the case of an elected official, the Special Inspector General would make a public recommendation -- up to and including expulsion -- to the City Council, which would be required to vote up or down on the recommendation. In the case of an appointed official, such as a commissioner, the Special Inspector General would make a public recommendation to the mayor. Alternatively, the City’s Commission on Human Rights has a division that investigates sexual harassment complaints, but would need expanded authority to handle complaints against elected officials and their staff members and appointees.

What’s critical is that new systems be developed in close consultation with those who were directly harmed, as well as the unions who represent them -- including the new staff union organizing in the City Council. 

Every office that represents some or all of New York City has a role to play in protection staff. That’s why, if elected as the next New York City Comptroller, Brad commits to working with advocates and experts to create and disseminate an anonymous climate survey within the comptroller’s office within his first 100 days in office, the results of which would be made public and used to inform any changes that are implemented. The comptroller’s office would then make gender equity audits a regular practice across all other city agencies as well.  

Sexual harassment is an abuse of power; any accountability system must be designed to provide trust, confidence, and integrity for staff who have felt the power of government officials weaponized against them. 

Unfortunately, the protection and safety of staff members has taken a backseat for far too long. We cannot wait until the next time the system fails one of them to bring about meaningful reform.

Brad Lander is a Brooklyn City Council member and candidate for New York City Comptroller. Erica Vladimer is a gender justice and workplace protections advocate, and former government staffer. On Twitter @BradLander & @EricaForNY.

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Not Just Albany: New York City Lacks Independent Harassment Investigation Process, Too Wed, 31 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Legislation Aims to Improve Efficiency and Access at Election Poll Sites early pres ele

Voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The 2020 general election saw an unprecedented number of New Yorkers cast their ballots, including through early voting, which was in place for the first time for a presidential election, and expanded absentee voting. As turnout jumped despite the coronavirus pandemic, there were again numerous instances of long lines at the polls, especially during the first several days of early voting when demand appeared to significantly outrun the number of available poll sites. Election administration in the city, run by the New York City Board of Elections, which is essentially a creature of the state, has been notoriously shoddy in recent election cycles and voters often wait hours to cast a vote and experience other snafus at poll sites.

A bill set to be introduced before the City Council on Thursday aims to solve these problems.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, is introducing legislation to create a temporary poll-site task force that would examine measures to improve access to poll sites and to make them more efficient. The task force would be charged with studying the functioning of poll sites in the 2020 elections, the cost of running them, and the possible effects on the health of voters, and would recommend locations and the number of sites for future elections. 

“I hate task force bills and I think that they're mostly useless, but this is the one time I think it's the only path forward,” Kallos said in a phone interview, reluctantly acknowledging that the Board of Elections is not really under the jurisdiction of city law despite the fact that it is funded in large part through the city budget.

Kallos recounted the experience of voters in the last election in his district on the Upper East Side, where the early voting site at Robert F. Wagner Middle School was assigned more than 118,000 voters, the most out of 88 early voting sites across the city, according to an analysis by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. More than 118,000 voters were assigned to that site, with many waiting for nearly six hours to cast their ballots. That prompted Kallos to work with Borough President Gale Brewer to launch their own Manhattan-focused task force. 

The citywide task force proposed in Kallos’ bill would be required to meet at least once a month and solicit testimony from experts and community members about future poll sites. It would have to submit a report to the mayor and City Council within nine months of the bill being passed into law. The report would be made public on the Board of Elections website ten days after submission.

Among the requirements for the report would be a list of poll sites from the 2020 general election where voters waited more than 30 minutes to cast their ballots, the reasons for waiting, and the cost of making sites temporarily or permanently compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

It would also be required to include a list of poll sites that were considered for use in 2020 and which ones were accepted or rejected by the Board of Elections. The list would determine which buildings made their facilities available for use by the Board and which did not, and whether the city took any steps to revoke tax benefits awarded to those buildings, which Kallos noted is allowed by state election law.

That last measure is Kallos’ effort to pressure major cultural institutions to offer up their space to facilitate voting. “Every community board has nonprofit institutions, whether they're colleges, private schools, cultural institutions, or community centers that don't pay taxes to have their space, that may have million-dollar endowments, that aren't doing their fair share to facilitate democracy,” Kallos said. “We may be able to convince them to make their spaces available for 20 days a year for the sake of democracy.”

The task force would be comprised of roughly 12 members: the president of the city Board of Elections or a designated representative, who would serve as chair; a Board of Elections commissioner from each borough or their representative, appointed by the mayor; the city schools chancellor or their representative; the commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction or their representative; two other members appointed by the mayor; and two members appointed by the City Council speaker. The mayor would also have to invite the president of the School Construction Authority to participate in the task force and would be allowed to invite other representatives from local, state, and federal agencies as well. The task force members would not be paid for their work.

Under the bill, the task force would be dissolved six months after it submits its report. 

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Legislation Aims to Improve Efficiency and Access at Election Poll Sites Tue, 16 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
'Wholly Unacceptable': City Council 'Deeply Concerned and Frustrated' with De Blasio Delay on Cuomo-Ordered Police Reform Plan 2 2years

Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Shea (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Update, March 5, 2021: Shortly after the publication of this story and after having declined to comment for the story over multiple days, the de Blasio administration on Friday released the first of a three-part draft plan with 36 proposals. "The plan will now move through a public comment period where it will undergo further revision based on the feedback of the public and through a process with the council," according to the official press release. The 36 proposals are broken down into five categories: "Transparency and Accountability to the People of New York City;" "Community Representation and Partnership;" "Recognition and Continual Examination of Historical and Modern-Day Racialized Policing in New York City;" "The Decriminalization of Poverty;" and "A Diverse, Resilient, and Supportive NYPD." They include efforts already underway, like improving accountability in police discipline and partnering with gun-violence interrupter groups, and new proposals like consolidating NYPD oversight under an expanded Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Update, March 8, 2021: In a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette Monday, Speaker Corey Johnson said the City Council would continue to push its police reform proposals as lawmakers review the de Blasio administration's draft plan. "The Council will continue to work on passing our package of bills that will move our city forward as we reimagine public safety. We will review the administration's draft plan, but we hope and expect the administration to work with us as we finalize our legislation," Johnson wrote.

Facing a looming state deadline, Mayor Bill de Blasio is under pressure from both Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York City Council to pass a broad public safety reform package or jeopardize the NYPD's bottom line.

With less than a month left, the de Blasio administration has yet to produce a full-fledged police reform agenda in line with a gubernatorial order, leaving a narrowing window to secure state funding, which the city is at risk of losing if it doesn't pass a package that satisfies the state's requirements by April 1. The order, dubbed the "New York State Reform and Reinvention Collaborative," requires the city to issue a prospective reform plan, solicit extensive feedback during a public comment period, and get City Council approval by the April start of the state fiscal year.

The city had already missed a January start for public comment suggested in state guidance. The mayor has repeatedly stressed past and ongoing police reform efforts, like a recently-adopted "disciplinary matrix," and reassured reporters multiple times that the city would meet the state deadline.

In January, de Blasio administration officials said a final report would be issued in February and would be ready for Council approval "on or before April 1." The Mayor's Office has disclosed little about the timeline in over a month since. De Blasio is now facing renewed pressure from the governor, who made veiled references to the city's position in recent remarks where he again raised the specter of funding cuts, calling public safety "a foundation" to reopening the economy.

"Cities are doing fantastic work and creative work, but not all of them are doing it. If they don't do it and we get to the budget then there are going to be significant sanctions on the city," Cuomo said during a press briefing at the State Capitol Wednesday.

"Please, you have 29 days, I know it's a hard topic, I know people would rather stay away from it, but public safety is one of the top priorities for any mayor," he said. In fiscal year 2020, the state contributed $82 million to the NYPD's $6 billion budget. Cuomo has not said exactly how much is on the line.

The Mayor's Office did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the collaborative on Wednesday and Thursday.

As the city fails to produce a report, leaders in the City Council are positioning the body to usurp the mayor's roll by passing its own policing and criminal justice package, leveraging the additional pressure from Cuomo's executive order.

"The Council has introduced and heard a package of bills that would reimagine public safety in New York City, as mandated by the Governor," said Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement to Gotham Gazette Thursday. "We urge the de Blasio administration to work with us on passing these important bills into law by the April 1 deadline."

The Council's package, introduced at the end of January, includes 11 bills and 1 resolution ranging from changing the NYPD's role in schools, mental health, and traffic calls, to making the police commissioner a Council-confirmed position and ending qualified immunity for police officers. The resolution calls on the State Legislature and governor to give the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) final say in disciplinary matters it adjudicates, which would establish a disciplinary authority independent of the NYPD.

"New Yorkers continue to see examples of substantiated misconduct that ultimately resulted in little to no penalty from the NYPD," said CCRB chair Frederick Davie in testimony before the City Council in February. The CCRB supported the resolution as "a concrete step in increasing accountability and public trust," Davie said.

De Blasio's reform collaborative is being led by First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan with input from the Law Department, NYPD, and Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. Last fall during a series of NYPD "listening sessions" with the public, Jennifer Jones Austin of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Wes Moore of Robin Hood, and Arva Rice of the New York Urban League, joined the collaborative as civil society partners. It is not clear if anything was produced from the 9 listening sessions or any other meetings that were held.

In October, the Mayor's Office said the city would be starting its next phase of "intensive community engagement" to develop new reforms on top of several enacted by the city since the George Floyd protests last summer, when Cuomo's executive order went into effect.

“We have come so far to fundamentally reform policing in our city,” de Blasio said in an October 29 press release announcing the launch of the collaborative's next phase. “Still, there is clearly more work to be done to strengthen bonds between officers and the communities they serve. Together, we will rebuild a fairer city that addresses injustice and disparity in a lasting and meaningful way.”

According to Johnson, the Council has been kept in the dark about City Hall's progress on the reform collaborative.

"We have no idea when the administration's criminal justice reform plan is coming out and the Council is deeply concerned and frustrated with the lack of progress from the Administration on this issue," Johnson said in his statement to Thursday. "The Council is obligated to hold a hearing and vote on a plan that incorporates feedback from the public. The Administration’s delay here is wholly unacceptable."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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'Wholly Unacceptable': City Council 'Deeply Concerned and Frustrated' with De Blasio Delay on Cuomo-Ordered Police Reform Plan Thu, 04 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Amid Great Uncertainty, City Council Begins Examining De Blasio's $92.3 Billion Preliminary Budget hearing gov joint

Budget Director Jacques Jiha (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The New York City Council on Tuesday began its examination of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $92.3 billion preliminary budget for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The hearing was the first of many that will take place over the next few weeks as the Council digs into the mayor’s final budget plan of his eight-year tenure and as key questions remain about the city’s fiscal future. 

The coronavirus pandemic stripped the city of billions in tax revenue, creating significant budget gaps for the next several fiscal years. The city’s fiscal picture has been fluid and uncertain, with billions of dollars of federal aid already flowing to the city and more expected, and a mix of lower-than-expected property tax revenue but higher-than-expected personal income tax revenue. Given the excellent overall economic pre-covid picture, the city had increased spending dramatically but did also have billions in reserves, however inefficient for the scale of the crisis that has unfolded.

The pandemic’s impact and the change of federal leadership in January forced the mayor to craft a cautious, worst-case scenario budget that didn’t take into account any additional federal stimulus funds that the city might receive under President Biden and a Democratic Congress, even though that is all but assured. De Blasio’s preliminary budget, released in January, predicts a big drop in tax revenues in the next fiscal year, draws deeply from the city’s reserves, relies on $1 billion in unspecified labor savings, and foresees recurring budget gaps of more than $4 billion in each of the next three fiscal years.

There also remains the risk of $2.4 billion in cuts and costs shifts across the current and next fiscal year potentially imposed by the state, which were not included in the mayor’s budget proposal but are among the points of contention as the state crafts its own crisis budget ahead of its April 1 deadline. As part of that picture, the mayor and others in the city are concerned that Governor Andrew Cuomo may further “supplant” federal funds meant for the city, meaning the state holds back hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the city based on federal funds of the same amount flowing to the five boroughs -- this already occurred to the tune of $700 million, de Blasio said during his testimony at the state Legislature last month, and the governor is threatening another $800 million. 

But, there has been some cause for optimism. The city expects to receive as much as $5.6 billion in federal aid through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act currently being negotiated in Congress. “This budget isn’t nearly as grim as I thought it would be,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in his opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing. With Democratic control over the federal government, “It looks like we’ll be getting the help we need,” he said. 

Yet Johnson worried that the city is going to “just do the bare minimum” with federal funds, stressing the need to protect the social safety net and critical services for youth, seniors, and families. “I don’t want us to go back to normal. I want us to work toward a new, more equitable future,” he said. 

As Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the Council’s finance committee, noted in his remarks at Tuesday’s hearing, the mayor’s budget also does not include about $730.5 million for City Council discretionary funding and to restore one-time cuts and fund programs added last year at the Council’s behest. It also underfunds items like expected NYPD overtime, special education, and student transportation, he said. 

In his testimony, Jacques Jiha, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, outlined the preliminary budget, which includes $885 million in new spending between the current and next fiscal year, $2 billion in savings across both years, and an increase in the ten-year capital strategy -- a separate budget plan that relies on bonding, though the debt service is paid for in the annual operating budget.

Jiha sounded a warning about the state cuts, which include $500 million slashed from the Health+Hospitals System across both fiscal years. “I want to emphasize that the state wants to cut resources in the midst of the pandemic from a hospital system that has led the fight to save lives and protect New Yorkers from COVID-19 since last Spring,” he said. 

But he too was positive that federal funds will bolster the city and that an aggressive vaccination program will help boost the economy and, in turn, city revenue. “[W]e firmly believe New York City will recover faster than many people expect as social distancing requirements ease, the stimulus impacts are felt, and consumers unleash pent up  demand,” he said. “As this happens, workers will return to their offices, Broadway shows will sell out again, tourism will flourish, and hotels will fill with guests. This is a resilient city, and we will be  back better and stronger than before.” 

Under questioning, Jiha could not provide specificity to the Council on several aspects of the preliminary budget proposal. For instance, since it did not weigh the amount of federal aid, he could not say where the city planned to spend potential dollars. “If there is no aid coming from the federal government, we'll continue to do what we've been doing, which is continual aggressive, savings programs,” he told Speaker Johnson. If aid does come through, which is more than likely, he said the administration would work with the Council on resource allocation. “At this point in time, we have not made any decision one way or another,” he said. 

Johnson said the budget proposal seems “short-sighted” as he noted that it pulls $1.15 billion from city reserves, relies on labor savings that have yet to be outlined, and expects large budget gaps while the future of the economy seems uncertain. It does not identify enough efficiencies or long-term costs savings, he said, though the mayor has promised more agency belt-tightening. “I don't want us to be in a situation in a year or two where social safety net programs and essential services like trash pickup are on the chopping block again,” he said. 

Jiha insisted that the administration is continually looking for savings but did not say how the labor savings would be achieved. Any savings program, he said, “should be implemented gradually. Otherwise, it could prove counterproductive.” He also said that if the city should have enough resources, after receiving federal aid, the administration would work to rebuild the depleted reserves. 

As part of the mayor’s budget savings plan, the administration has instituted a headcount reduction program that mandates three employees must leave through attrition before one hire is made, with exceptions for positions related to safety, public health, uniformed workers, teachers, and revenue-generating jobs. After growing the city workforce by more than 30,000 workers until last year, de Blasio has reduced headcount by about 7,000 since January 2020.

But when pressed by Dromm, Jiha could not provide a breakdown of how the administration would achieve the nearly 5,000 employee reduction under that plan. “[W]e want to have as much flexibility as possible when we are dealing with agencies,” Jiha said. “We are still in the midst of a pandemic so we must be very nimble if we have to give some agency some leeway in case there is an emergency.”

Throughout the rest of the hearing, Council members sought answers on a broad array of issues. Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the subcommittee on the capital budget, called for more transparency on which capital projects would resume this month, as announced by the mayor on Monday – Jiha promised to provide a list to the Council. Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the contracts committee, pushed back against cuts to an indirect cost initiative for nonprofit human service providers and critiqued the use of outside consultants. Jiha said the administration would work to restore funds for those indirect costs if the city’s budget picture improves. He also said the administration is reviewing different agencies to assess where consultants are necessary, conceding that they can at times cost the city more money than a full-time employee.  

Dromm pushed for a more realistic estimation of special education funding. Council Member Diana Ayala questioned the status of a pilot program to fund mental health crisis response teams. Council Member Margaret Chin called for more senior center funding. Council Members Peter Koo and Vanessa Gibson advocated for restoring previous cuts made to the Departments of Parks and Recreation and Sanitation. Council Member Darma Diaz sought more details on funds allocated to domestic violence services. Council Member Keith Powers asked for financial assistance for cultural institutions. Jiha agreed with the members’ concerns, saying the administration would provide answers or funding where possible depending on how the city’s budget prospects evolve.

Cautious optimism was the refrain of the day. Comptroller Scott Stringer, in his own testimony, said, “2021 began on a much more hopeful note than how we ended 2020, with a new president taking office, and vaccines for COVID-19 finally available. But the challenges of the past year aren’t behind us. Not by a long shot.” 

He pointed to the $2.5 billion expected drop in property tax revenue next fiscal year, the mass closure of small businesses, high unemployment, and the city’s rocky vaccine rollout. “Just because we’ve closed the FY22 gap doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do to get our own fiscal house in order for the future,” he said, citing what he considers wasteful spending on homelessness, incarceration, and mental health programs without positive outcomes.  

He urged the administration to use federal funds wisely. “Stimulus money is temporary. It will give us some help this year and next, maybe even a little the year after that. But after that, it is gone,” he said. “We need to strategically use these federal funds to relieve the suffering of New Yorkers, to jump-start our economic recovery and to lay the groundwork for a new, fairer economy.”

As is the case each year, the administration tends to be more conservative in its revenue forecasts. Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city agency that is not under the mayor’s control, estimated to the Council that the city will end the current fiscal year with a $3.6 billion surplus, $258 million more than the administration’s expectations.

Lowenstein pointed to the positive developments at the federal level, including the next stimulus package and additional FEMA reimbursements announced by the Biden administration. But she also raised concerns about the unspecified labor savings, the status of federal funding for the MTA, cuts from Albany and the progression of the pandemic. “With these and a number of other critical variables, the city’s economic and fiscal future remains precarious,” she said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Amid Great Uncertainty, City Council Begins Examining De Blasio's $92.3 Billion Preliminary Budget Tue, 02 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
The First Step to Fixing Our Disregard for Women of Color in the Workplace Vanessa gib participates food

Council Member Vanessa Gibson, left, is a coauthor (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

The pandemic is setting women back and eroding years of progress, particularly for women of color in New York City. The pressure is coming from two places: women of color are more likely to work in sectors that have been hit hardest by layoffs, and women of color are more likely to have had to leave work or reduce hours to care for children during school closures.

This spring saw the highest unemployment rate for women on record, with Black and Latina women faring worst, and the damage is ongoing. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 100% of the jobs lost in December belonged to women.

This is a significant issue, and it highlights the need to ensure that our city is dedicating resources to a recovery that is equitable and centered on women of color. One simple way to start is with the wages we set for human services workers.

The nonprofit human services sector delivers programs on behalf of the city through government contracts, from youth services to senior services and everything in between. These organizations get as much as 90% of their budget from government contracts, which set the wages of their employees. That means the city is responsible for determining the wages of these workers, 82% of whom are women and 80% of whom are people of color. Despite the clear impact of their work, women of color are some of the lowest-paid workers in the economy. The average human services worker lives at or below the poverty line.

Let’s say that again: the city has determined that women of color who are the care-takers of our society deserve poverty-level wages. This was always insulting, but after the pandemic it is infuriating and wholly unacceptable.

Women of color showed up, risked their lives, and in some cases lost their lives during our darkest hour. They worked to ensure that seniors received meals when they couldn’t go outside, that children who lost loved ones received support, that survivors of domestic violence were able to find safety, and that those whose lives had been ripped apart received mental health care. They continue to shoulder our burdens today, and they will continue to be a critical part of our recovery.

As members of the Women’s Caucus of the New York City Council, we must demand that these organizations and their workers are protected from additional budget cuts. We are aware of the city’s dire financial situation, but we cannot close the gap on the backs of those who are already at their breaking point.

Years of chronic underfunding have left a brittle sector that can no longer make up for holes in government funding. A survey of 125 nonprofit human services organizations by the Human Services Council and the New York City Employment & Training Coalition showed that nearly two-thirds (64%) of organizations predicted program reductions and permanent shutdowns, and even more (70%) predicted staff layoffs, which would compound the city’s unemployment crisis.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to protecting several labor unions from budget cuts, protecting their jobs through June. Black and brown women in the human services sector deserve the same protection. And as soon as it’s possible, these women should be first in line for a raise.

Human services workers have always been essential to the stability of our neighborhoods, and now the strength of our recovery will depend on this workforce. We will need programs to help students get back on track, job training for unemployed workers, and eviction prevention services.

The mayor has said for months that equity must be at the center of our COVID-19 response and recovery. We could not agree more. By supporting human services workers and the communities they serve, we can make that commitment a reality.

City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Farah Louis represent parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively, and co-chair the City Council's Women's Caucus. On Twitter @vanessalgibson, @CMFarahLouis, and @WomensCaucusNYC.

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The First Step to Fixing Our Disregard for Women of Color in the Workplace Wed, 24 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
City Council, De Blasio Administration Clash Over Comprehensive Planning Legislation daily life short

New York City (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

City Council members and officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration clashed at a Tuesday hearing over proposed legislation to overhaul, consolidate, and in some ways expand the city’s planning processes into a singular ten-year procedure that would align budget, policy, and land use decisions.  

The proposal was released by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in December and seeks to replace what he calls redundant, antiquated, inequitable, and ineffective existing planning procedures by taking a more holistic approach to planning. It would create a centralized process for examining and budgeting for the city’s long-term infrastructure and community needs, with an eye towards correcting long-standing racial and socio-economic disparities while also equitably meeting the city’s transit, housing, open space, school seats, shelters, and other needs.

The Council’s Committees on Governmental Operations and Land Use and Subcommittee on Capital Budget convened on Tuesday to hear from the de Blasio administration about its concerns and objections to the idea, while also pressing mayoral officials to answer for the many failures of the current siloed planning processes that are spread across various city agencies.

[City Council Speaker Unveils Comprehensive Planning Legislation]

“For decades, the city has relied on a piecemeal and ad hoc approach, muddling through its planning exercises one neighborhood, topic, and project at a time,” said Johnson, a Democrat, in his opening remarks. “That planning has largely neglected people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and low-income New Yorkers. That has also led to serious inefficiencies. Our budget documents often simply don't relate to our city's policy and land use priorities. And as we enter a period of fiscal stress, we have no rational system for prioritizing our community's most urgent budget needs to reduce disparities and combat climate change.”

Early on, Johnson sought to dispel “misinformation” about the bill, noting that it would not amend the city’s zoning laws, mandate any zoning requirements or specific zoning actions, or change the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Rather, he emphasized that it “requires the city to provide community boards and the public with new resources, new data and new analyses to support proactive community-based plans.” It would encourage proactive rather than reactive approaches to development and encourage the city to pursue new growth away from neighborhoods at risk of sea-level rise and other forces of displacement including gentrification and real estate speculation. 

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx Democrat who chairs governmental operations, pointed out that the current planning process is enshrined in more than a dozen Charter-mandated documents that do not currently involve sufficient coordination between and among city agencies. “There's a fundamental disconnect here that cannot be overstated,” he said. “How can we as a city plan for our future when we only have fragments of the full picture of the city's current needs and assets?”

Testifying on behalf of the administration, City Planning Commissioner Marisa Lago sought to dissuade the Council from advancing the bill, opposing it because of concerns about “its feasibility, its costs, and its ultimate impact.”

She estimated that the bill’s requirement of a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for each community district would cost about $500 million over ten years. “We're concerned that the ultimate impact of that time and money would be counter to our shared goals,” she said. “That it would make it more difficult, not easier, to build affordable housing or to site essential city facilities.” 

Johnson had already countered that argument in his own statement. “That cost estimate is both inaccurate and absurd. It indicates that this administration is not engaging in this conversation with us seriously. There is nothing about this bill that will amount to that price tag,” he said, arguing that it could actually end up saving money for the city and for developers pursuing land use applications. 

Lago and Johnson had a fundamental disagreement about the language of the bill. Lago said it would create a “heavily top-down” planning process and give City Council members even greater influence in changing land use applications near the conclusion of ULURP. Instead of streamlining planning, she said it would add an additional layer of bureaucracy to an already lengthy land use procedure.

“The bill also underestimates the importance of focused topic-specific planning efforts,” Lago said, “such as those for the waterfront, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, environmental justice, food policy or resiliency.” She pointed to the city’s OneNYC strategic plan created every four years as a “better model” than the Council’s proposal and said the city’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances is necessary for long-term planning. She cited the city’s ten-year food plan released on Monday, a pending coastal resiliency zoning plan, and the proposed SoHo-NoHo rezoning as examples of how the current processes are working towards goals of equitable growth. 

In particular, she said the comprehensive planning bill would increase rather than limit the ability of affluent communities to forestall projects that are in the city’s interest, which has been a wrench in some of Mayor de Blasio’s agenda, though he has often done little to counteract those forces.

Later during the hearing, Johnson took exception to Lago’s interpretation of the bill. “It's not top-down. We're empowering local communities to actually engage in planning, instead of being reactive to [City Planning Commission’s] certifying of private applications and public applications,” he said. He said he was ”flabbergasted” at Lago’s “complete and total misrepresentation” of the bill. 

Lago also worried that a new planning process could place a “chill on development.” “That would be so unfortunate, at a time where the pandemic has made crystal clear the need to provide more housing and, in particular, affordable housing, the need to kickstart the economic recovery,” she said. 

Council Member Brad Lander showed frustration with the administration for critiquing the Council’s proposal without offering any solutions of its own to fix the city’s broken land use process. “We are the frog in the proverbial pot. We are watching the water boil, the temperatures are rising and the seas are rising, our affordable housing crisis is growing, our infrastructure is aging,” he said. “And it is clear that our land use process has become toxic and broken and unable to deliver thoughtful conversation about the very future of our city.”

If Lago was going to oppose the Council bill, what is the de Blasio administration’s plan to improve how the city does planning and growth, he asked. 

Lago struggled to give a straight answer, and instead pointed to what she sees as another deficiency with the bill. “The speaker himself noted that this proposal would not require any rezonings,” she said. “And there may be many communities who would anticipate having no growth and this bill does nothing to change that.”

Lander responded with frustration. Later on, Council Member Keith Powers asked Lago to name areas of the city with good transit options that could be home to significant housing growth. Lago only pointed to the Soho-Noho and Gowanus rezonings, which are currently in process, and declined to name any other neighborhoods. This, despite the fact that the de Blasio administration has not achieved rezonings in the neighborhoods it targeted early in the mayor’s first term, thus far only rezoning a series of lower-income communities of color. Lago instead again said that the city looks to work with Council members who want to work with the city. The exchange was one of several where the two sides appeared to point to each other as broken or talk in circles.

Lago repeatedly noted the Council’s informal policy of member deference, which allows Council members to veto land use projects that need Council approval and rezonings in their district. Because of that, she said, often the only projects that succeed are those that have active support and participation from local members. 

“So member deference is the problem?” Council Member Antonio Reynoso asked her. 

“I think that that is a challenge,” she said. She added, “I think, were the Council to adopt a citywide lens rather than looking exclusively to Council member deference that that could be tremendously helpful in achieving our shared goal of more equitable land use,” she said. 

“That's exactly what this legislation is trying to do,” Reynoso responded.

Several advocates and experts also testified in support of the bill, though some suggested that it could be improved. They included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Barika Williams, executive director of Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which is part of the Thriving Communities coalition; Maulin Mehta, senior associate at Regional Plan Association; Spencer Williams, director of advocacy at the Municipal Arts Society; Adam Friedman, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, among others.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog group, raised some concern about the legislation though it has long supported overhauling the city’s capital planning process. In testimony submitted to the Council, CBC Senior Research Associate Sean Campion said tying capital plan reforms to land use reforms is not necessary, that changing the structure and timing of regularly issued capital budget reports would make them less useful, and that capital budgeting power should remain in the hands of the mayor. “[A] strategic plan is only as good as its implementation design,” his testimony reads. “Extreme care should be taken when adding new processes, requirements and organizations since they could slow or thwart progress towards those outcomes or unnecessarily increase costs.”

Similarly, testimony from the Municipal Arts Society noted that the current proposal leaves land use decisions under the purview of the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, which would be in charge of the ten-year comprehensive planning process. “MAS counters that a successful comprehensive plan for New York City must balance bottom-up and top-down planning through meaningful, ongoing community engagement strengthened by effective coordination and commitment from involved City agencies,” the testimony reads. “As written, Intro 2186 would reinforce the current structural imbalance in the City’s planning process.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council, De Blasio Administration Clash Over Comprehensive Planning Legislation Tue, 23 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
City Releases First 10-Year Food Plan Under New Law de Blasio food plan

Mayor de Blasio at a food pantry, pre-pandemic (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Mayor’s Office of Food Policy is announcing the city’s first-ever 10-year food plan, called Food Forward NYC, to better address food insecurity, improve a number of food- and nutrition-related processes, and meet the requirements of legislation passed by the City Council early last year.

The policy, previewed by Gotham Gazette before its public release on Monday, is intended to tackle hunger, food waste, malnutrition-related ailments, and food industry instability through five core goals, which all have underlying plans that require the cooperation of multiple city agencies and other entities. For example, the plan includes developing a “Food Community Hiring Initiative” to easily identify entry-level jobs in the food industry and creating a commercial kitchen for providers of the city’s Department for the Aging by partnering the program with Citymeals on Wheels.

“It should go without saying that in a truly great city, no one should ever go hungry,” writes Mayor Bill de Blasio, in part, in an opening letter of the Food Forward report. “But beyond tackling hunger, we are also committed to ensuring that all New Yorkers have the information, tools, and access to eat healthy food and learn about nutrition; to lift up food workers and reduce food waste; and to back local businesses and urban farming, among a host of other responsibilities.”

The five overarching goals of the plan are: “All New Yorkers have multiple ways to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food; New York City’s food economy drives economic opportunity and provides good jobs; The supply chains that feed New York City are modern, efficient, and resilient; New York City’s food is produced, distributed, and disposed of sustainably; Support the systems and knowledge to implement the 10-year food policy plan.”

According to the plan, 1.6 million New York City residents are food insecure — meaning that they do not have stable access to quality, nutritious food.

This number has only increased during the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen widespread loss of jobs and work, but there was a severe crisis even before the outbreak. Previously, 1.2 million New Yorkers were food insecure, according to data from Feeding America.

Malnutrition from a lack of nutritious food, which can be a result of food insecurity, leads to health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, and therefore other challenges, shorter life expectancy, and more vulnerability to diseases like COVID-19.

“Communities of color in all five boroughs have less access to affordable, healthy food than white communities and they are disproportionately impacted by diet-related health diseases,” the food plan reads, in part. “While many food businesses are owned by people of color and workers in the sector are substantially people of color, low business margins and low wages often result in limited economic mobility. Furthermore, many distribution hubs and waste facilities are located in communities of color, therefore placing additional disproportionate environmental and health burdens on them. At the same time, many of the biggest innovations in food policy in New York City, from local farms to cooperative ownership models, have emerged from communities of color. NYC’s food policy can support these successes and turn the food system into a source of health, wealth, and sustainability.”

According to the plan, two out of every three food businesses in the city have fewer than ten workers and almost half of New York City’s food originates from locations outside the city before ending up in the boroughs’ grocery stores, restaurants and schools.

The food industry is a key part of the city’s economy and one whose workers have been hurt by the pandemic. Even before covid, restaurant and grocery store workers were already making yearly salaries far below the average New York yearly income, according to the new food plan, and while many food workers have been classified as “essential” during the pandemic, helping some to keep their jobs, they have been unable to work from home and therefore at significantly higher risk of covid. At the same time, many food businesses, like restaurants, have closed during the pandemic, costing many jobs.

“At this moment in 2021, the city is in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in extraordinary levels of food insecurity,” Director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Planning Kate Mackenzie writes, in part, in her opening letter of the new policy. “Yet, through these harrowing months, we have deepened our understanding of how essential our food workers are to our food system. From the farm workers who grow our food, to the drivers and store clerks who ensure our grocery stores and bodegas remain stocked, the delivery workers who bring food to our homes, the cafeteria workers who keep our students fed, the volunteers distributing food at pantries – we see you and we thank you.”

For goal one of Food Forward NYC, the plan is to “expand food benefits to reach more New Yorkers in more places,” “distribute food more equitably,” and “reconfigure how the city sources food,” each of which come with their own sub-initiatives.

The city plans to expand to more low-income neighborhoods the “Get the Good Stuff” program, which allows Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to earn an extra dollar in reward points for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables at participating grocery stores.

Food Forward NYC also plans to allow adult members of children’s families to permanently get free grab-and-go meals at public schools, during summer months even after the pandemic ends. Before COVID-19, only children were eligible for this program, and parents weren’t allowed to take food even when they came with their children. The program was expanded to adults accompanying children and then all New Yorkers at the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

Other strategies to achieve the first goal are to work with the state and federal governments to get “Medicare/Medicaid coverage for medically tailored meals.” to make the city’s outdoor dining program permanent, and to improve access to cold storage in underserved areas, among other things.

“For all New Yorkers to get the food they need and want, they need multiple ways to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food that meets them where they are,” the plan explains. “The plan embraces that food intersects with New Yorkers’ health and the broader economy in multiple ways, and not simply with regard to hunger; that food is important as an expression of cultural identity and as a way to connect with family and friends; and that food can bring tremendous joy.”

The second Food Forward NYC goal focuses more on how the food industry relates to the economy.

Initiatives within it include enforcing already created fair-scheduling laws in the fast-food industry to make sure that workers have some control over their work schedules and get paid overtime when necessary, expanding and creating new childcare centers that have weekend and overnight hours to accommodate food service workers, pushing the state for a NYC Small Business Recovery Tax Credit for small businesses and restaurants, and developing customized workforce training programs in manufacturing and industry technologies. The city proposal for a tax credit would apply to “businesses with gross revenue below $1 million,” which would “be eligible for a tax credit equal to 6% of their calendar year 2021 rent, up to maximum credit of $10,000.”

The city will also “create financing and technical assistance plans to support worker-owned cooperatives,” by adjusting current programs to better suit the needs of food businesses and by working with community organizations and business improvement districts.

“The restaurant industry is also vital to the city as a major draw for residents, workers, and visitors, underpinning many other industries such as office employment in the central business districts and serving as a draw for tourists,” the plan says. “Indeed, the restaurant industry is key to making New York City the compelling place that it is. Its economic contribution is also large. In 2019, the industry made nearly $27 billion in taxable sales.”

Food Forward’s third main goal focuses on the way that food comes into New York City and where it originates — which more often than not is far from the five boroughs.

Initiatives in this category include modernizing the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center by implementing resiliency measures to protect the building from rising sea levels and flooding, increasing the amount of food the city buys from the New York region instead of outside sources, and removing barriers to urban farming that currently exist in the forms of laws and regulations, such as “reviewing regulations related to land use and exploring different nonprofit and for-profit operating models and mechanisms to distribute micro-grants more efficiently.”

Under the fourth goal of the plan, the emphasis is on making sure that food is distributed fairly throughout the city and that food waste is handled sustainably and resourcefully.

The city is aiming to collect 90% of organic waste by 2030 and to “mandate the source separation and recycling of organic waste within all city institutions and schools by the year 2025 and in all residential buildings by 2029”; to figure out how to make cold storage more efficient and sustainable at a lower cost; and to include local seafood and seaweed in the New York State Grown & Certified program, which “is a program that makes it easy for consumers to identify local, safely-handled, and environmentally responsible agricultural products.”

The final component of Food Forward NYC is about ensuring different stakeholders in the food and public policy worlds will work together effectively to make the ambitious new plan a reality.

“New York City’s food system is highly distributed and fragmented, made up of many small parts that interact with each other in complicated ways,” the plan reads. “In fact, the system is so complex that even people who  have spent years working in one sector of the food system often have little to no knowledge of how the rest of it works. It is not surprising that it can be extremely hard for anyone who plays a role, from policymakers to food workers to advocates to food consumers, to understand what levers to push for systemic change. This complexity also makes meaningful community engagement and decision making around food very challenging.”

Strategies to meet the goal of “strengthening community engagement and cross-sector coordination around the development and implementation of food policy” include partnering with the non-governmental sector to increase community participation in food policy decision-making, working with the private and civic sectors on food education campaigns about sustainability and nutrition, and establishing a Public Housing Food Leadership Innovation Lab to work on projects regarding food access, food production, food waste management, and community building in NYCHA. The plan indicates intention to finally begin recycling at public housing developments.

City Releases First 10-Year Food Plan Under New Law Sun, 21 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
City Construction Department Touts Productivity When Freed from 'Typical Constrained Regime' by Emergency Declaration construction city projects

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

Officials at the city’s Department of Design and Construction, the agency responsible for designing, procuring, and constructing public buildings and infrastructure, told the City Council on Wednesday that the coronavirus pandemic has shown how its work can be made more efficient.

That includes the city using its new design-build authority -- which the state approved an expansion of before the pandemic -- wherein both design and construction of a project is performed by one contractor, as well as streamlining the many layers of oversight that normally define the procurement process but were suspended last year at the outset of the pandemic.

“The fact that we were able to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars of construction from start to finish in mere months shows what the agency is capable of when working outside the typical constrained procurement, administrative, and oversight regime,” said Jamie Torres-Springer, First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), at the hearing.

The comments came at a hearing of the City Council’s Subcommittee on the Capital Budget, the first with new Chair Helen Rosenthal, who took over the post amid several moves triggered by Ritchie Torres’ departure from the Council for Congress. Rosenthal noted the issues that the city will have getting its capital plan back on track after months of pandemic-related delays.

“The challenge is how to restart a stalled capital process and address the accumulated backlog of projects that were put on pause or never commenced,” said the Manhattan Democrat.

The city’s capital program ground to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, with all projects put on “pause” with the exception of certain infrastructure initiatives related to roads, water, and sewage (most of which could be done outdoors), along with others like the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project to raise Manhattan’s East River waterfront by 10 feet, and projects backed with federal or state funding tied to deadlines, Torres-Springer said. Projects that were already under construction before the March pause began to restart when restrictions were first lifted in June.

Mayor Bill de Blasio in March suspended the standard procurement rules that govern the city’s ability to enter contracts, part of a wave of executive orders at the beginning of the pandemic as the mayor took on emergency powers, in order to more efficiently dole out city contracts for covid-related undertakings, like field hospitals and ventilators, without having to go through a sometimes slow notice and review process, including oversight by the City Comptroller’s office; Comptroller Scott Stringer, a Democratic candidate for mayor this year, has called for his office to have its procurement oversight powers restored.

Torres-Springer, however, said those rule relaxations allowed DDC to quickly build field hospitals while the city’s existing facilities filled to capacity. That was followed by testing sites, mobile testing sites, and upgrades for labs producing test results. He said that the agency is now working on building out vaccine sites, such as the one at Yankee Stadium.

“We built the facilities the city has relied on to manage the pandemic,” he said.

He also noted that, with procurement rules relaxed and design-build authority enabled by the state for some agencies, the city has been able to complete projects more quickly, citing in particular the rebuild of a section of Atlantic Avenue in East New York as part of the city’s “Great Streets” program, which was completed in June six months ahead of schedule.

“Projects that would have taken four or five years, we got them built,” Torres-Springer said. “$120 million worth of capital work, we got them built in less than nine months.”

While Torres-Springer did not outline specific recommendations for changes once the covid emergency is over that would allow for the faster design and construction pace to continue, his comments left a clear nudge toward reforms.

The mayor’s preliminary budget outlines $50 billion in planned capital spending over the next four years, including $11.7 billion in Fiscal Year 2022, which begins July 1 of this year, though the city’s progress on the plan is contingent on its cash flow, which remains unpredictable in the midst of the pandemic and resultant fiscal crisis.

Major capital projects put on the indefinite backburner at the start of the pandemic include the city’s plan to replace Rikers Island jails with four new borough-based jails, one in each borough except Staten Island. In 2019, the projected completion of the entire project was pegged to 2026, and the City Council in approving that plan banned any jails from operating on Rikers Island after December 31 of that year.

With work having stalled on the plan over the past year, the city now estimates that the plan won’t be completed until 2027. Torres-Springer told the Council that DDC expects to “register significant work” on the project “before the end of this year.” The city’s capital commitment for corrections fell between Fiscal Years 2019 and 2020, from $58 million to $42 million, but is back up this fiscal year to $405 million and continues to grow until reaching $2.4 billion in 2024.

Other major projects were not mentioned at all at the hearing, such as the mayor’s affordable housing plan. The city drastically cut its capital spending on affordable housing last year due to the fiscal crisis. The city’s affordable housing commitment is back up to $1.4 billion in this fiscal year, 2021, but is projected to trend downwards over the next five years.

The overall pause has hampered work on projects that were in the pipeline but had not actually begun construction. Adam Roberts, director of policy at the American Institute of Architects of New York, a trade association representing architects, noted that the pause could hurt the city’s ability to comply with its own landmark climate legislation requiring large buildings to be retrofitted for energy efficiency. Buildings, including those owned by the city, are required to be compliant or face fines by 2024.

“The design work stoppage at DDC and other agencies has been devastating to our city,” Roberts said. “Without design, construction cannot move forward.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Construction Department Touts Productivity When Freed from 'Typical Constrained Regime' by Emergency Declaration Wed, 17 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Jumps Into Police Reform Action Amid De Blasio Delay in Meeting Cuomo Mandate de Blasio NYPD officials briefing dais

Mayor de Blasio & NYPD officials (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order in June mandating that localities set blueprints for broad police reform or risk losing state funding, he tasked mayors and other municipal leaders to engage the public and local legislatures in a collaborative reform process. Now, in response to delays and limited communication from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, the New York City Council has signaled that it will move ahead with its own police reform agenda to meet Cuomo’s April 1 deadline.

After seven months, eight public "listening sessions" held in October by the NYPD, and countless criticisms of how the mayor has led the police department, de Blasio has announced several notable policing-related changes but has not yet presented the full "police reform and reinvention" plan in line with the governor's order, blowing past the suggested timing in state guidelines, and raising questions about the mayor's ability to get the required City Council approval by April.

As the City Council is asserting itself with a newly-announced legislative package, representatives of the mayor say the administration will produce a plan in February, garner public feedback, and present a final version to the Council "on or before April 1," leaving little room for lawmakers to consider any proposal before approving it.

The reform plans are intended to "help rebuild that confidence and restore trust between police and the communities they serve" through a process "based on fact-finding and meaningful community input," Cuomo said when he signed the order on June 12, two weeks into nationwide demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The order requires localities to convene police leadership and other stakeholders to develop a plan to reform policing writ large -- vaguely enumerating everything from use of force and deployment policy to "restorative justice practices," with few specific requirements.

Once approved by local legislatures, the state Director of the Budget, Robert Mujica, will have the authority to confirm whether the adopted plans comply with the governor's order. If he deems they don't, Mujica can withhold state and federal funding to local police forces.

In New York City, where "defund the police" became a rallying call amongst demonstrators last spring and summer, that jeopardizes some or all of the $30.9 million in state funding for the NYPD in this year's preliminary city budget on top of federal money, according to the city's Independent Budget Office (IBO). It's unclear how much of that can legally be withheld, according to an IBO analyst, or how much of the $168.6 million in federal funds budgeted for the NYPD comes through the state and how much goes directly to New York City.

As the de Blasio administration has yet to present a full police reform plan, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other Council members are accusing the mayor of blowing off the state's timetable and faltering on commitments made last summer to enact change within the ranks of the NYPD. 

"The Council will not pass anything that does not offer a concrete plan for reform that comes from a truly collaborative process," said Jennifer Fermino, communications director for Johnson, in a January 22 email to Gotham Gazette.

A week later, the Council moved ahead without de Blasio. On Friday, Johnson announced the planned introduction of 11 pieces of legislation for changes mayors have long resisted. The push includes removing NYPD school safety agents from schools by June 2022 and making the police commissioner a Council-confirmed position. It also has a resolution that calls on the state to change the law so that the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), not the police commissioner, will have final say on many officer disciplinary matters.

“This legislative package will be just one of the steps the City Council is taking toward reforming policing,” Johnson said in a statement Friday. “It is critical that we redefine public safety and reduce the NYPD’s footprint." Hearings on the legislation will occur in February, the announcement said.

The pressure from the Council and Cuomo's executive order, which requires the city to solicit public feedback on any proposed plan before submitting it for ratification, is adding to an already sizable list of promised police and racial justice reforms de Blasio has committed himself to in his final year in office. The mayor has repeatedly said many of those reforms are works-in-progress the city has been shaping for months or years.

"We're making systemic changes as we have throughout," de Blasio said last month on WNYC radio of the NYPD and his seven-year tenure. The statement came shortly after announcing the adoption of new police disciplinary standards, a policy induced by City Council legislation last year.

The mayor has said he and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea support recommendations made by the city Department of Investigation and Law Department following two separate City Hall-initiated investigations into the NYPD's handling of demonstrators last summer. A new lawsuit from Attorney General Letitia James against de Blasio and the NYPD is adding to the demands to change police-protester relations. In response, de Blasio frequently cites previous moves, like reducing the reliance on stop-and-frisk policing and expansion of neighborhood policing, as examples in an ongoing effort to improve police-community relations.

"To me, this has just been a continuum and it has to deepen. I expect a number of reforms this year in New York City," de Blasio said in an appearance on NY1 Monday evening.

But the delays and lack of transparency from de Blasio around meeting the state order did not bode well for reform directed from within his administration, according to representatives of the City Council.

"The NYPD is in charge of this reform effort,” said Fermino, Johnson's spokesperson, in the January 22 email. “But we’ve seen no real desire from department leadership to change. This is not a good sign."

"To say we're disappointed is an understatement," Fermino said, in a response that followed a January oversight hearing on the de Blasio administration effort to meet Cuomo’s order. "It's been seven months, and still we've seen nothing. We don't even know what issue areas they're focusing on. At the hearing, we heard again that the City has made no real attempt to collaborate with advocates and community groups."

Lagging Behind State's Timeline
After the NYPD listening sessions in October, de Blasio announced the second phase of community engagement under a team overseen by First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan, which would ultimately be responsible for coming up with the final plan. The team included senior officials from the NYPD and City Council, along with Jennifer Jones Austin of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Wes Moore of Robin Hood, and Arva Rice of the New York Urban League, who had joined the process two weeks earlier.

As part of his State of the City agenda released on Thursday, de Blasio said local police precinct councils would be able to give formal feedback to the police commissioner before the selection of precinct commanders -- a proposal that appears to have been inspired in part by the team's work last fall and a push by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain and de Blasio ally currently running for mayor.

The State of the City agenda for the months ahead also includes measures to strengthen the CCRB by giving the oversight body the authority to initiate investigations at its own discretion, as opposed to relying on a formal complaint, and consolidating other oversight entities, like Commission to Combat Police Corruption and the NYPD Office of the Inspector General, under the CCRB umbrella.

The city held over 45 meetings with a litany of community leaders, clergy, advocates, and police officers between November and January, according to Fuleihan's office. State guidance says that engagement work should have been completed by November. It is unclear what, if any, work on the executive order was done between its June signing and the October listening sessions.

Like de Blasio's own sweeping announcements for potentially transformational initiatives, Cuomo's deadline set a relatively narrow window to achieve such a lofty task. But the lack of progress and transparency offered by the Mayor's Office has rankled City Council leadership.

“The administration’s lag in deliverables to date demonstrates the fact that there are problems in meeting the Executive Order," said Queens City Council Member Adrienne Adams, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Safety, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

"The only way to view the lack of information received thus far is that this mandate has not been taken seriously enough,” she wrote.

At the oversight hearing held January 11 by the public safety committee, representatives of the First Deputy Mayor's Office, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, the Law Department, and the NYPD struggled under withering questioning to provide specifics about what would be in the final proposal.

"We believe that the collaborative so far, the plan we have in place for engagement, for engaging as many stakeholders as possible, accepting all recommendations, and publishing a plan in the coming weeks for public comment before bringing it to Council for ratification on or before April 1, reflects what we've read in the executive order and the guidance," said Chelsea Davis, chief strategy officer in the office of First Deputy Mayor.

A spokesperson for de Blasio confirmed to Gotham Gazette that a draft is due in February for public comment and would be ready on or before the April 1 deadline, which is also the date a new state budget is due.

But state guidance issued August 17 says the police reform plans should be drafted in November and December and released for public comment from January to March. The guidance calls for public education around the proposals and that "the public comment is addressed in a meaningful way in your final plan."

Pursuant to Cuomo's executive order, New York City must submit the final plan after City Council ratification to the state Division of the Budget by April 1, or jeopardize future state and federal funds at the discretion of State Budget Director Mujica, meaning the governor.

"Build in sufficient notice and time for this to occur before the April 1, 2021 deadline," the August guidance says.

Tall Order
It's unclear how well any plan developed in a half-year's time -- and near the end of a two-term mayoral tenure of regularly unfulfilled police reform promises -- will be able to meet the transformative demands of Black Lives Matter demonstrators, whose cause Cuomo, now in his third term, sought to further through his executive order.

The Cuomo order says the collaborative "shall consider evidence-based policing strategies, including but not limited to, use of force policies, procedural justice; any studies addressing systemic racial bias or racial justice in policing; implicit bias awareness training; de-escalation training and practices; law enforcement assisted diversion programs; restorative justice practices; community-based outreach and conflict resolution; problem-oriented policing; hot spots policing; focused deterrence; crime prevention through environmental design; violence prevention and reduction interventions..." It suggests modelling existing policies and standards created by the New York State Municipal Police Training Council and the state Law Enforcement Accreditation Program, both under the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Cuomo was clear he was pushing localities to bring stakeholders together to make their own plans collaboratively and that there was no one-size-fits-all plan for the entire state.

"The relationship is frayed," he said on August 17 when he released the guidance for municipalities, referring to police and community. "The relationship is based on trust and respect and the relationship is ruptured. But divorce is not an option here."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Jumps Into Police Reform Action Amid De Blasio Delay in Meeting Cuomo Mandate Mon, 01 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Candidate Debate in Queens City Council District 24 Special Election screenshot 2021 01 27 at 12.18.53 pm

(l-r) top: Samar Khurshid, David Brand, Soma Syed; middle: Dilip Nath, James Gennaro, Deepti Sharma; bottom: Neeta Jain, Moumita Ahmed

Six candidates running in the special election for City Council District 24 in eastern Queens met for a debate on January 26 hosted by Gotham Gazette, Queens Eagle, and Citizens Union Foundation. The special election to replace Rory Lancman, who stepped down to take a position in the Cuomo administration, is ongoing, with early voting January 23-31 and election day on February 2.

Participating candidates were Soma Syed; Dilip Nath; James Gennaro; Deepti Sharma; Neeta Jain; and Moumita Ahmed. Samar Khurshid of Gotham Gazette and David Brand of the Queens Eagle moderated.

Watch the debate:


by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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WATCH: Candidate Debate in Queens City Council District 24 Special Election Wed, 27 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000