Gotham Gazette Sat, 04 Apr 2020 09:48:30 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) It’s More Important Than Ever for the City to Take Care of Those Who Care for the Most Vulnerable New Yorkers cm helen rosenthal local girl

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, the author (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

To address the coronavirus crisis and save lives, New York City government and New Yorkers are mobilizing in ways never seen before. The City swiftly sent an unprecedented message to our human services sector -- the 250,000-plus employees who provide housing access, child and elder care, shelters, emergency food relief, mental health counseling, and disaster response. These workers -- traditionally undervalued, underpaid, and unappreciated -- were told that they are on the front-line of the COVID-19 crisis, and they will be appropriately supported for their dedication. 

The City made it clear that all programs will be paid in-full, even if services have to be adjusted. Human services providers will be reimbursed for additional COVID-19 costs, such as safety supplies and staff shortage or personnel changes. And the City is streamlining its administrative practices to further assist providers. These are all profoundly helpful measures. 

To its great credit, the City took these measures within the first days of the crisis, during a period of great uncertainty. At the same time, both the de Blasio administration and the city Comptroller’s office have worked to expedite payments to human services providers as soon as invoices come in. 

But there is more to be done. Here are the next steps.

Front-line human services workers should be paid overtime for their hours spent working directly with the public. Why? Because they are risking their lives for those most in need: case workers and janitors who work at shelters; street homeless outreach workers; and staff at senior centers. As the City negotiates “incentive pay” for its own front-line staff, the non-profit agencies that provide city services should be given the same consideration.

For those who need it, front-line human service workers should be given child care vouchers to pay family members or trusted neighbors to watch their children.

Lastly, to put everyone’s mind at ease, human services providers should be given reassurance now that their contracts will be renewed in the next fiscal year, which starts this July 1. Now is the time to allow these mission-driven nonprofits to focus on the needs at hand. Just a few weeks into this crisis, we are already seeing a surge in unemployed New Yorkers who will need food pantry and other social safety net assistance and a lack of sufficient support for already vulnerable residents, such as seniors and people with disabilities. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed what many working class people have always known: the heroes in our society are very often the ones with traditionally undervalued roles. Now more than ever, we must see the value in the workers who care for our elders and young children; the staff who support our homeless shelters; the employees who keep our food pantries open; the counselors who staff our emergency hotlines; and many, many others. 

We can’t get through this crisis without them. As quickly as possible, let’s move forward and fully support the human services sector’s critical work by providing childcare, financial security, and ongoing resources in the city budget.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal is a Democrat representing parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @HelenRosenthal.

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It’s More Important Than Ever for the City to Take Care of Those Who Care for the Most Vulnerable New Yorkers Tue, 31 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
After Years of Community Organizing, Nonprofits Now Get Much-Needed Relief from Dangerous Tax Lien Sale 596 acres empty lot

Nonprofits have a lot less to fear now as a new law takes effect (photo: @596Acres)

Our interconnectedness has rarely been more pronounced than it is in this moment. The fact that we can take so many of our life-sustaining connections into the digital sphere is an unprecedented miracle. But if you’re missing New York’s places of physical gathering, where many of those connections were first forged, you’re not alone.

At its core, New York is a city of communities precisely because of its bounty of gathering places. As we reflect on the ones we miss, that we hope to return to as soon as possible, we can celebrate a new law that goes into effect today - Friday, March 27 - that will protect some of them.

In 2014, attorney Paula Segal, founder and then director of 596 Acres, the community land access advocacy nonprofit, got a call from community gardeners in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They were distressed. They had continuously grown food and flowers and found solace on a patch of earth in their neighborhood since 1979. Now the land was in peril.

Unpaid tax debt on the nonprofit garden would soon be sold as a lien to a private investor-backed trust via the city’s tax lien sale. If left unpaid, the debt could lead to the trust initiating foreclosure. Gardeners were planning their first-ever bake sale to pay off the taxes, and they weren’t sure if it would be enough to keep the garden from disappearing.

Taking on the case as an attorney, Paula helped this Crown Heights garden get out of the tax lien sale and into the hands of Brooklyn Queens Land Trust (BQLT), a network of community gardens that, together, have bigger administrative capacity. BQLT raised money, paid the bills, and ensured that the garden would get the nonprofit tax exemptions entitled to it going forward. But the problem wasn’t over.

Soon after, Paula got a call from elders at a second garden having the same problem. Then a mosque, a community center, a synagogue, a theater, a choir hall, a church, and it went on. Each nonprofit-owned place was enduring a nightmarish situation of its own due to the same government practice: the New York City Department of Finance tax lien sale. Paula turned to the public data to understand the scope of the problem.

It is well known that nonprofits are exempt from paying property taxes in New York State. Less well known is the tax lien sale process. The tax lien sale in New York City started in 1996. Through it, each year the Department of Finance (DOF) bundles all the outstanding bills --unpaid taxes, water and sewer bills -- and sells the whole bunch to a private investment fund as liens, which is the right to enforce debt through collection and foreclosure. Wealthy individuals and corporations alone can buy into the fund to grow their wealth.

Through the sale, the city government gets paid 72 cents for every dollar of debt and private investors get triple-A investments plus the right to charge interest, collect debt, and initiate foreclosure leading to sale of these properties at auction to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, this sale routinely and mistakenly included nonprofits entitled to tax exemptions. At auction, these nonprofit-owned properties could be sold to anyone.

We know 300 nonprofits had debt sold by the city to the investment trust because advocates painstakingly went through the public data. Every year since Paula first got that call from the Crown Heights garden, it was like a bell would ring 90 days ahead of the sale, and staff from advocacy organizations, with help from volunteers, would begin to dig through the DOF’s spreadsheets, separating out the charities, hunting down their contact information, and reaching out by any and all means. Dreaded phone calls went something like: ‘Um, hi, you don’t know me, but your lovely theater might be at risk of foreclosure? Here’s who to call and what to do to get off the list.’

At first, advocates would whittle DOF’s lists (both sold and to-be-sold lists) down to all properties not classified as residential or utilities, then compare what remained to property ownership records to find which were charities and to locate contact information. In 2017, in response to advocates' requests, the City Council mandated that DOF publish a list specifically of the charities headed to each year’s lien sale. But these lists left out the owners’ names, so advocates still had to hunt those down in order to get in touch.

At the same time, 596 Acres set other strategies into motion: publicizing maps of all the nonprofits at risk in past and current years, meeting with City Council members, hosting events that brought together DOF staff with the leaders of at-risk nonprofits, creating guides for nonprofits to navigate the process, working with the DOF’s newly-minted taxpayer advocate so they would be prepared to assist nonprofits, and coordinating press pieces.

TakeRoot Justice and 596 Acres organized the impacted nonprofits and their supporters into the Protect Our Places Coalition, which had meetings and rallies on the steps of City Hall each year. At these rallies, leaders of impacted organizations would speak, often in conjunction with opportunities to testify before the City Council on the new bill, known as Intro. 245, that the coalition was working on to stop the problem. Paula had joined TakeRoot Justice as a staff attorney in early 2017.

After roughly six years of work and legislative wrangling, Intro. 245 was finally passed on February 27, 2020, and thankfully goes into effect today. The Protect Our Places Coalition had a final gathering on the steps of City Hall that February day, celebrating with speeches and music, and expressing gratitude for all who came together to correct this injustice, including the elected officials who truly can be the people’s lawmaking champions.

Organizations contributed to this winning campaign from far reaches of New York City: from Brooklyn, 1100 Bergen Street Community Garden in Crown Heights, Masjid Al Aman in East New York, and Devoe Baptist Church in Williamsburg; from Queens’ Merrick Marsden Community Garden in Jamaica, Haven Ministries in Far Rockaway and Al Muneer Foundation in Hollis; from the Bronx, Mary Mitchell Center in Crotona; from Manhattan, Hebrew Actors’ Foundation in the Lower East Side; and many others. These groups advocated tirelessly for the survival of their own spaces. Doing so together, they connected the dots between their individual nightmares to push for system-level change.

Aligned technical assistance and umbrella organizations contributed by supporting at-risk organizations in their networks, connecting organizations to city officials, and helping draft legislation. Elected advocates helped individual nonprofits in their districts while championing the new law, led by City Council Member Antonio Reynoso and members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus.

Today’s victory is a chance to reflect on how individual struggles against bureaucratic practices can be scaled up to make legislative change, with the help of many advocates. It’s a moment to gain inspiration from a winning campaign that moved from case-by-case problem solving to big-picture change by considering the elements that led to its success, including persisting on the path year after year.

It is also a moment to appreciate the belief at the heart of the work: small charity organizations across our city provide neighbors with invaluable services in decentralized, locally-relevant ways. The city should support their capacity to own, develop, and operate property that provides for their neighbors and that becomes the setting where we form strong connections to one another. Our connections are essential for our resilience. Even as we continue this work from home, our networks have never been more important than they are today.

Mara Kravitz was an organizer with the Protect Our Places Coalition between 2016 and 2020, working for 596 Acres and TakeRoot Justice.

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After Years of Community Organizing, Nonprofits Now Get Much-Needed Relief from Dangerous Tax Lien Sale Thu, 26 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Developing Public Health Response to Coronavirus mark levine district

Council Member Levine gets a flu shot (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

March 25, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Developing Public Health Response to Coronavirus

mark levinewbai150City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council's health committee, joined the show to discuss the city's developing response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Developing Public Health Response to Coronavirus Wed, 25 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Must Act Immediately to Strengthen Our Nonprofit Social Safety Net social services food pantries

Amid coronavirus outbreak, the social safety net must hold (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Daily home-delivered meals for home-bound seniors. Case-management to help make sure people have medicine and essential supplies, and reduce the harm of social isolation. Emergency food for people who are unemployed or homeless. Child care for those who still have to go to work.

All services we utterly need right now. And all provided by New York City’s remarkable network of not-for-profit human service providers.

These providers are essential to our city, as Mayor de Blasio recognized Tuesday when he declared about 40,000 nonprofit human services workers as "essential city employees," so they can receive child care as part of the emergency system the Department of Education and other city agencies are setting up to start next week.

Unfortunately, the City is not yet enabling these human service not-for-profits to step up to meet current crisis-time needs. With rapid action by City Hall, these safety net organizations can become an essential and creative part of our emergency response to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Without rapid action, they will become part of the crisis, as their employees swell the ranks of the unemployed.

Here’s what the City needs to do right away:

Don’t let the safety net fail
Commit to continue to pay the existing contracts of not-for-profit social service agencies through the end of the fiscal year (June 30), whether or not every service continues during the crisis, and stop recouping cash advances that were provided.

Advance bridge loans to cover cash flow. The City’s Department of Small Business Services deserves credit for rapidly establishing an emergency loan fund for small businesses, but it does not include these larger not-for-profit human service organizations.

This will allow the not-for-profits to continue what work they can, like meal delivery, grab-and-go soup kitchens and food pantries, and case management by phone. And it will also prevent thousands of social service workers from losing their income, even if the after-school youth program or senior center they usually work at is closed.

We’ve already allocated the funds for this work, so there’s no need for the workers who provide it to apply for already-strapped unemployment benefits. We’re going to need many of these people for other tasks. And even for those who stay home, whether because of their own or others’ health, this is a low-income workforce. Losing weeks of pay means they can’t pay for rent, food, and medicine.

Clarify what’s essential
The City needs to provide guidance on the essential services these organizations should provide. Existing programs to deliver meals to seniors are a no-brainer. These services should be expanded to include seniors who usually go to a senior center, and to other low-income households that can’t get food right now.

Not-for-profit child care centers need guidance too. They should either be looped into the enrichment center network that the Department of Education is creating, with the guidance and materials needed to do it, or instructed to close.

We’re going to need to continue to provide food pantry and grab-and-go soup kitchens, since we still have thousands of homeless New Yorkers living on the streets. And sadly, the ranks of people without enough food is going to grow as workers are laid off or put on unpaid leave from hurting or closed businesses.

Encourage thoughtful creativity
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to need massive amounts of creativity to meet rapidly-evolving needs. As our hospitals become overwhelmed, we will need an expanded healthcare support workforce. As social isolation sets in, we’ll need a new system of support to help vulnerable seniors (and all of us).

Our human service not-for-profit organizations can act quickly to fill these gaps, as they did after Hurricane Sandy. My office is already working with Heights and Hills (an organization serving older adults in Brooklyn) to get volunteers calling hundreds of home-bound seniors on their lists to see how we can help them. This kind of work can be expanded to help fill in the gaps in our safety net, as best we can under these emergency circumstances.

Let’s empower and encourage New York City’s not-for-profit organizations to be creative and flexible in the anxious days ahead.

Finally, in addition to contract commitments, clear guidance, and flexibility, our not-for-profit organizations need a clear point-of-contact in the City administration, a “not-for-profit czar,” with access to senior leadership and the ability to make decisions. They should convene daily calls with human service leaders to help stand up the emergency networks we need. Crisis leadership that is clear, flexible, and inspiring can help unlock an enormous amount of good.

The COVID-19 crisis is exposing massive gaps in our social safety net. But we are blessed with a creative and resilient network of human service providers, in every neighborhood of the city, that can step up to the challenge at this urgent moment. Let’s not let it fail.

Brad Lander is a New York City Council Member from Brooklyn, and the former executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a not-for-profit affordable housing and community development not-for-profit organization. On Twitter @BradLander.

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New York City Must Act Immediately to Strengthen Our Nonprofit Social Safety Net Tue, 17 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As NYCHA Teeters, Calls for More Funding in City and State Budgets comm center marcy

NYCHA is on the brink (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Despite significant attention from Mayor Bill de Blasio and some from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York City Housing Authority, public housing home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, continues to crumble. While both the mayor and governor, as well as many others, point to federal disinvestment in NYCHA, dissatisfied elected officials say that initial drafts of next fiscal year’s state and city budgets aren’t sufficiently addressing the problem.

As they push for more funding to a public housing authority with well more than $30 billion in estimated physical needs to enter a state of good repair, some have even threatened to vote against any budget that does not include a massive infusion of funds for NYCHA.

A growing chorus calling for more state and city money for NYCHA has been somewhat muted, at least temporarily, by the coronavirus outbreak, which is sure to bedevil the ongoing budget discussions. A new state budget is due by April 1; a city budget by July 1.   

For decades, public housing has been underfunded by the federal government, leaving the state and city to pick up the slack. But successive administrations showed little indication of taking the issue seriously, which left a ticking time bomb that exploded on de Blasio’s watch. While public housing is largely governed by federal law, the mayor appoints the leadership of the authority and is responsible for its day-to-day operations and conditions.

The latest federal budget proposed by the Trump administration would also slash funding for public housing further, including completely eliminating capital funding (which is currently about $582 million), $5 billion in cuts to Section 8 rental vouchers (the city would lose about 6,300 vouchers), and a 10% cut to operating funds for public housing agencies across the country (which would equate to about $100 million for the city).

NYCHA has had a few victories and mostly setbacks under the de Blasio administration. The administration was able to bring NYCHA’s operating expenses under control and has also put into place NYCHA 2.0, a plan to raise $24 billion in capital funds for repairs and maintenance at housing developments. But those funds are not only a long way from being realized, they are also eclipsed by the agency’s $32 billion capital need, which could rise to as much as $68 billion by 2028, noted Council Member Vanessa Gibson, at a NYCHA budget hearing on Friday, March 13. (Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who chairs the public housing committee, was absent and Gibson, who chairs the capital budget subcommittee, chaired the hearing in her stead.)

Early in the hearing, Gibson raised the red flag about NYCHA’s worrying funding gaps for critical capital repair and maintenance. “While NYCHA 2.0 is a big and bold plan, it still leaves about $9 billion in unfunded capital needs across its portfolio and does not account for the fact that NYCHA’s capital need could as much as double by the end of the ten-year plan,” she said.

NYCHA is also currently under the purview of a federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, installed last year in agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, after the authority was found to have falsified lead abatement reports for years. Lead and mold at housing developments continue to plague the city, which is undertaking a concerted effort to remediate those conditions. Heat and hot water outages have become all too common in the winter, though emergency measures and a milder winter have meant fewer outages this year. Adding to the authority’s woes is the coronavirus outbreak, which has affected the operations of the entire city government.

NYCHA’s budget cycle begins in January, as opposed to the city’s, which begins in July. Its 2020 budget was adopted in December. The agency has a $3.75 billion annual operating budget, and was projecting a surplus of $91 million in revenues at the end of the year.

At the budget hearing, Greg Russ, chair and CEO of NYCHA, detailed the authority’s various efforts to meet its obligations under the federal agreement, including putting $2.2 billion in city funding towards capital repairs over the next ten years. “Mayor de Blasio has committed an unprecedented level of resources to the authority,” he stressed in his opening remarks, “a total of $6.4 billion, including $1.3 billion to repair nearly 1,000 roofs and $200 million to replace boilers and upgrade heating systems.”

He also previewed several other measures the agency is taking to improve operations and conditions at housing developments. An additional $100 million in state capital funds will go to fulfilling the federal agreement, after a spending plan for the allocated money was approved by the state. He promised that a new organizational plan for the authority will be released this summer.

NYCHA is also creating a small projects management team for capital projects as well as a new staff position to act as a liaison with the City Council to oversee current and future capital projects funded by the city. The agency’s lead action plan is being submitted to the federal monitor for his approval. 

Even as NYCHA contends with a capital needs gap, the proposed federal cuts “would completely spin us in the wrong direction in terms of the investment that we have to make,” Russ said. “These are significant cuts that the President and the administration have proposed and they're unconscionable.”

He did say he did not expect federal capital funding to be zeroed out, putting faith in the Congress to push back against the cuts. And he said the authority could continue to manage day-to-day operations even if operating funds were reduced.

Russ also testified about aspects of the NYCHA 2.0 plan that are underway to raise funds for the authority’s housing stock and renovate and repair 62,000 apartments by 2028. Those particularly involve utilizing the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program and federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. Under PACT, the housing authority partners with private entities to maintain and repair developments, with housing units transferred to the Section 8 housing program. Through the program, Russ said the city has so far addressed $1.1 billion in capital needs by converting almost 7,800 apartments in 30 housing developments to Section 8 funding. He said 21,000 apartments would be “in the conversion pipeline” by this spring. Just last month, the authority selected five development teams to convert 5,908 apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn to the program, agreements expected to cover $1.5 billion in critical capital needs.  

There was, however, little discussion of other parts of the plan, including the sale of air rights and allowing private developers to build mixed-income housing on NYCHA land, also known as infill development. Infill projects were aimed at raising as much as $2 billion for the agency over ten years but have failed to move forward so far. Some air rights sales have been completed, though. 

On March 19, the New York State Assembly's Manhattan delegation released a report that highlighted conditions at NYCHA developments and tenant needs. Among several recommendations, the delegation urged the state to find a dedicated funding stream for the ailing agency as well as to provide more transparency around existing funding and how it is utilized. "Written prior to the COVID-19 State of Emergency, the pandemic further highlights that, for over 400,000 NYCHA tenants in substandard housing, the public housing crisis is a public health crisis,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, dean and Chair of the delegation, in a statement. "New York State can act now with serious funding commitments and lead the way towards the restoration of NYCHA."

Though the City Council in its initial response to the mayor’s preliminary budget pledged to advocate for more funding for housing, there was no particular mention of NYCHA. It’s unclear what additional commitments the Council may request in its official response, which was due after budget hearings that have since been suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak.

But it’s clear that Council Speaker Corey Johnson is looking to Albany for additional funding from the state government. “The city can’t do it on our own,” Johnson said at a rally in early February outside City Hall, according to a New York Daily News report. He called for $2 billion more from the state. “We put up a lot of money — we should put up more money — but we need a state partner to put up money with us.”

Advocates and elected officials have also been critical of the state for its slow support for NYCHA. It was only in November that the state released $450 million in funds appropriated for NYCHA in 2017 and 2018. The funding was repeatedly put on hold as the city contended with the lead testing lawsuit and the subsequent negotiation over the federal agreement. Governor Cuomo eventually said he would not release the funds until an independent monitor was appointed to oversee its disbursement.

“For years the New York City Housing Authority was underfunded by the Federal government and its administrators, and to help, New York State stepped up and made an unprecedented commitment to NYCHA for reliable heat, safe elevators and a better quality of life,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of Budget. “In all,” he said,” the executive budget Cuomo released in January that forms the basis for budget negotiations with the Legislature, “includes $650 million in ongoing support for NYCHA projects so that their 400,000 residents will finally see results.”

“Is there always a need for more funding for public housing? Absolutely,” said Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, a legislator who has repeatedly called for more NYCHA funding, in a phone interview. He said the state’s first priority should be to release $100 million for NYCHA that was allocated by the state Legislature last year, atop the $450 million that had already been set aside for the agency. And he called for an urgent response to ensure public housing residents are protected during the coronavirus pandemic without having to forego day-to-day maintenance.

“We have to make sure that we don't have a scenario where the funding that we're going for that is needed for the everyday repairs comes at the risk of the present emergency upon us,” he said. “While, yes, coronavirus is an emergency, so is a lead paint crisis.”

Other elected officials at the state and city level have already declared that they wouldn’t support any spending plans that don’t substantially increase NYCHA funding, though it is worth noting those promises came before coronavirus seemingly changed everything.

“I repeat. I will not vote for a budget without funding for our public housing,” tweeted Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou.

Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein echoed the sentiment. “I am with you @yuhline I will NOT vote for a budget without a substantial investment in public housing!” he tweeted.

New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan wants to see the city cough up more funding. “The City and State must step up this year and contribute billions more dollars in their own budgets, and we will be calling on our colleagues in the Council and State Legislature to fight for this as well,” Rivera wrote in a joint op-ed with congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez in Gotham Gazette.

The Legal Aid Society, a member of the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance which is behind the Housing Justice for All campaign, released data last week showing that between October 1 and December 31, 2019, there were 1,246 heat and hot water outages at NYCHA complexes, affecting about 178,267 apartments that are home to 391,661 residents.

“NYCHA is clearly still unable to ensure that utility systems seamlessly provide for residents, and these numbers confirm what we hear from our clients on a regular basis,” said Lucy Newman, Staff Attorney with the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “These outages could be meaningfully addressed with the right resources. As Albany continues to negotiate the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, we demand that lawmakers allocate $2 billion to NYCHA to help the Housing Authority address these and other outstanding issues that still plague tenants.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a reference to a new report released by the New York State Assembly's Manhattan delegation. 

As NYCHA Teeters, Calls for More Funding in City and State Budgets Mon, 16 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'Open' Government Amid an Outbreak 4 mbdb holds

Wrestling with government during a pandemic (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended aspects of the state's Open Meetings Law with an executive order Friday, as officials grapple with how to keep government running during a pandemic without jeopardizing public health or sacrificing accountability.

As state and city officials continue to prepare for the long haul of coronavirus (COVID-19) management, and as most public events are postponed to limit the virus’ reach, one emerging question is how government agencies will continue to hold meetings in full public view, as is required by the Open Meetings Law, while maintaining recommended social distancing.

Cuomo’s executive order, one of several he’s issued in recent days, permits government bodies to move in-person meetings to a remote form of conferencing, "provided that the public has the ability to view or listen to such proceeding and that such meetings are recorded and later transcribed." Transparency watchdogs say the move goes much further than provisions in his March 7 emergency declaration, when he authorized just two public health bodies to meet and take action without quorum or in-person public access, as long as the meetings were webcast and provided a "means for effective public comment."

"The Executive Order signed by Governor Cuomo today is less in the spirit of the Open Meetings Law than the order from last week," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group with a focus on transparency, on Friday.

New York State law requires most meetings in which government officials convene to "conduct public business" or "[perform] a governmental function" to be open to the public, meaning they are held in accessible locations, broadcast whenever possible, and occur with advanced notice to the news media and public bulletins. According to the Open Meetings Law, which outlines these requirements, doing so "is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society" and "is the only climate under which the commonweal will prosper and enable the governmental process to operate for the benefit of those who created it."

Under normal circumstances, this means most government hearings and meetings, and many instances of official decision-making, are held in public locations where people can attend in person, often with an opportunity to testify before officials. But as the coronavirus outbreak shuts down many aspects of typical daily life, essential government actions that cannot be postponed are being moved out of the settings where they are generally known and away from public view.

"There are concerns," said Kristin O'Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government, a state agency responsible for interpreting and providing advisory opinions on the Open Meetings Law, during an interview with Gotham Gazette. "We have received inquiries from municipalities about having open meetings and having large gatherings of individuals in a confined space."

Some public meetings have been cancelled or postponed, and others moved online. The news has been trickling in piecemeal, leaving a dearth of information about where New Yorkers should be going to remain enfranchised and civically engaged, and how government will remain transparent and accountable to the public.

Cuomo's Friday executive order came just after Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, proposed a similar legislative solution to in-person meetings, which has more safeguards from abuse but lacks a companion bill in the Assembly and could take time to pass.

Like the executive order, the proposal would allow public meetings to be held remotely during a state of emergency. But it would require the public to be notified about the alternative platform for viewing or participating in it, and would require the body, like a commission or council, to justify why the emergency precautions must be taken. The bill is more in line with what transparency watchdogs, like Reinvent Albany, wish to see.

State and city officials have been moving to curtail “community spread” of coronavirus by reducing the density of people in public spaces. On Thursday, Cuomo announced regulations on large crowds, banning gatherings of over 500 people and requiring any smaller ones to cut their capacities by half (that closed Broadway theaters, but left exceptions for public places like schools, hospitals, grocery stores, and mass transit, though all will likely see changes in operation because of the outbreak).

Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency in New York City on Thursday, further encouraging businesses to institute work-from-home policies, and setting his own example with 10 percent of the city workforce set to be given work-from-home orders in the coming days. On Sunday, de Blasio announced the closure of city schools through at least April 20.

But some public meetings simply cannot be cancelled if the city and state are to maintain a functioning government. In New York City, community boards are raising alarms about how they will hold their City Charter-mandated monthly meetings, while avoiding undue risk to their attendees, who skew older and are thus more susceptible to coronavirus.

The New York City Council continued to hold budget oversight hearings at City Hall, which draw crowds like the one Friday on the city's parks department budget that prompted one Council member to call for the Open Meetings Law to be suspended.

“The Council has an obligation under the charter to hold public budget hearings,” said a Council spokesperson in response to a Gotham Gazette inquiry. “Under State law, the mayor may proclaim an emergency and suspend local laws such as this requirement. Guidelines on all public events are evolving rapidly but we will alert the public to any changes on hearings as soon as possible. We are taking measures to allow social distancing and we encourage the public to watch online and submit written testimony when possible.”

"We are looking into this and will have more to say soon," a spokesperson for the mayor wrote in response to a Gotham Gazette inquiry.

And it appears that what's more is that the mayor will on Monday sign an executive order "temporarily suspending the deadlines for council budget hearings, ULURP related votes and the requirement for the Council to hold two stated meetings each month. Therefore hearings and the Stated Meeting next week will not be held," according to a letter from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to Council colleages that was shared with Gotham Gazette on Saturday night (just after the Daily News first reported the Council decision).

"The City Council’s offices at 250 Broadway and in City Hall are also closing," the letter continues. "Council Staff are not to report to 250 Broadway and City Hall unless asked to as part of our effort to move Council staff to a work-from-home posture. The aforementioned offices will be otherwise closed until further notice."

News also broke on Saturday night that two members of the New York State Assembly, Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron, both Brooklyn Democrats, have tested positive for COVID-19. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Governor Cuomo announced the cases and said the state Capitol and legislative office building will undergo a major cleaning and the Capitol will be closed to visitors immediately.

"We are working hand in glove to contain and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in New York but we will continue to act aggressively to protect the public health," the governor and speaker concluded. State legislators are due back in the capital this week for legislative session days, with a new state budget due by April 1.

The State Legislature's 'interest and intent' in a state of emergency
"The question is, can open meeting laws be applied during a period when public meetings processes are being suspended because of public health concerns. The answer is no," said Kaehny.

Both Cuomo's executive order and Hoylman's bill get at the ability to flex the existing rules to more easily facilitate remote access to public meetings. But unlike the executive order, which effectively suspercedes aspects of the Open Meetings Law, Hoylman's bill works within its framework. It sets up more protocols for and restrictions on its usage and maintains the existing law's enforcement mechanism, which subjects abuse to challenge in the courts.

Hoylman's bill was drafted in consultation with the executive director of the Committee on Open Government, Shoshanah Bewlay, according to a press release issued by Holman’s office.

"One of the reasons we support it is because it provides a sensible framework instead of just leaving a vacuum where local officials and state officials have to try to make do in impossible circumstances," Kaehny said of Hoylman’s bill.

Kaehny believes it is important for the state Legislature to fully exercise its powers and duties, and passing Hoylman's legislation would help establish norms during an emergency. That concern is heightened, he said, because of the sweeping powers the Legislature recently granted Cuomo as part of an emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Along with an emergency $40 million appropriation, the Legislature expanded the governor's emergency powers to suspend laws in times of impending danger, not only after disaster strikes, as well as to require quarantines, and more. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized the move as a power grab but it still passed the two houses with wide margins.

"FOIL [the Freedom of Information Law] and open meeting laws are essentially legislative mandates on the executive branch and this re-enforces the Legislature's interest and intent here," he said, of a legislative solution to shortcomings in the Open Meetings Law. "If anything the Legislature should be more energetic and assertive during an emergency about clearly establishing norms so that they are not establishing a temporary dictatorship."

Those new powers, the governor "hasn't abused yet but the potential for abuse is huge and everyone should be keeping a careful eye on it," Kaehny told Gotham Gazette, shortly before Friday's executive order was made public.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with news of the City Council's temporarily suspension of business, with news of the positive COVID-19 tests of two state Assembly members from Brooklyn and related fallout, and news of the city's closure of public schools.

'Open' Government Amid an Outbreak Sat, 14 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Spread of Coronavirus Heightens Concerns About Especially Vulnerable Seniors aging execu budget

Department for the Aging Commissioner Cortés-Vázquez (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

“We’re going to protect our senior centers,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday during his latest briefing on the spread of the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, adding that city health department officials are visiting all of the city’s 600 such centers to ensure proper protocols amid the virus outbreak that has now led to 20 confirmed cases in the city, with more expected.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), older adults are at higher risk for contracting the new coronavirus that is spreading across the globe and here in New York City, and “early data suggest older people are twice as likely to have serious COVID-19 illness.”

During his Sunday briefing on the new coronavirus, Governor Andrew Cuomo also again stressed that seniors are among the most vulnerable populations to COVID-19. “Most people have mild symptoms, most people don't get hospitalized,” Cuomo said. “The dangerous aspect again is people in that vulnerable population -- senior citizens, the elderly, et cetera. So we are trying to contain it.”

Also on Sunday, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, pointed to the additionally dangerous combination of age and underlying conditions. “We want to make sure that elderly folks who have chronic underlying illnesses, we do everything that we can together as a community not to increase their risk,” Barbot said alongside the mayor. The underlying conditions that have been identified to exacerbate the risk of coronavirus are chronic lung disease, cancer, diabetes, immuno-compromised, heart disease.

“As our senior New Yorkers, as you've heard today, are especially vulnerable to the effects of this virus, we are also working very closely with the Department for the Aging and our other human service partners to ensure our senior centers, adult care centers, nursing homes, receive up to date guidance on how to limit the spread of the disease,” said Deanne Criswell, head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, also during Sunday’s press conference on how the city is trying to contain and combat the new coronavirus.

Amid rising worries about older New Yorkers and senior care facilities, on Friday the New York City Council’s Committee on Aging held a regularly-scheduled budget hearing with representatives of the city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) where coronavirus concerns were front and center in the discussion. It was one in an ongoing series of hearings on de Blasio’s $95.3 billion preliminary budget plan that the Council is holding over the course of weeks, with some taking on new importance relative to the spread of coronavirus and its impact, which could include undermining revenue sources for the city’s budget while creating new city government expenses.

City government is developing a plan to try and ensure New York City’s seniors stay healthy as the coronavirus concerns continue, although no additional funding has been requested by DFTA to provide further protections.

DFTA currently has a $434 million budget and oversees “230 neighborhood senior centers, 16 innovative senior centers, and 39 sites affiliated with senior centers” across the city and has 1,393 contracts with agency providers to deliver services, according to budget documents.

DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, along with the department’s chief financial officer, Jose Mercado, outlined the agency’s work and budget, and responded to questions from Council members, especially Margaret Chin, a Manhattan Democrat who is chair of the Council Committee on Aging and whose lower Manhattan district includes several senior centers.

Cortés-Vázquez was asked multiple times by Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr. if DFTA is asking for or plans to ask for any additional funding to address coronavirus.

“I have the utmost confidence that the mayor is going to do all he can and has made it very clear that this is a priority and that resources will be made available to combat this disease,” Cortés-Vázquez responded.

Pressed further by Diaz Sr. about limited testing for coronavirus and what DFTA is going to do if the virus begins to enter senior centers.

“Our Department of Health and our commissioner of health has been having tabletop meetings on a daily basis with the mayor around this same issue,” Cortés-Vázquez said. “We have the utmost confidence that this administration and this health commissioner made all the provisions necessary if it were to reach that level. It has not reached that level and we do not want to cause chaos or alarm in our senior centers or in the population as a whole.”

Council Member Chin brought the mayor's plan to have city workers visit senior centers to the attention of Cortés-Vázquez, who then provided further information on the plan.

“We have been given incredible amounts of guidance and information,” Cortés-Vázquez said. “The mayor wanted to ensure the information was being implemented, so we have an emergency plan that we have devised that involves DFTA staff as well as additional staff to visit the congregate sites throughout the city precisely to ensure they are posting the information, that the information is being distributed to the consumer population and the population staff is responsible for; to ensure that the professionals have the guidance to know what to do should any incident occur and also to inform the staff, the non-medical staff, know what the protocols are. It’s a widespread effort to ensure everyone is taking the proper precautions and using the guidance that has been distributed to them.”

Cortés-Vázquez said the effort will reach over 600 senior centers, including those not funded by DFTA.

“To ensure that older New Yorkers are staying informed about coronavirus, starting today, DFTA staff will be visiting over 600 congregate sites to check that Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) COVID-19 informational fliers are on display and share DOHMH resources,” said Suzanne Myklebust, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for DFTA, in a Friday email to Gotham Gazette just after the hearing, answering follow-up questions.

“DFTA is working closely with its partners to distribute information and guidance on coronavirus. As a preventative measure against the spread of COVID-19, we have asked providers to continue to follow standard cleaning protocols and be extra diligent in their disinfecting practices,” Myklebust said.

Council Member Mark Treyger, a Brooklyn Democrat, also inquired about DFTA’s preparedness for the spread of coronavirus, citing the example of the city Department of Education asking for additional funding to provide the resources to deep clean the city’s schools and to contract with more nurses so that every school building has at least one nurse.

“My concern is that if we don’t have a health care professional at the front end and proactively helping the population, the worst thing that can happen is that seniors end up in emergency rooms and hospitals which are very dangerous because of the spread of other very serious diseases and can really compromise their health. I think it is wise for us to proactively provide health care professionals,” Treyger said.

Cortés-Vázquez responded that providers have enough resources and to the best of her knowledge no senior service providers have asked for additional funding. She also emphasized that this is an ongoing conversation in conjunction with the Department of Health and the Mayor’s Office, and that maintenance and sanitary conditions are always a priority given that senior centers provide meals, so it is not a new area of concern.

DFTA congregate sites also have a procedure if seniors begin to show symptoms or are found to have the virus.

“If a senior center member displays symptoms of sickness while at that center, senior center staff has been instructed to immediately restrict the movement of that person within the facility, by isolating the suspected case and minimizing interaction with staff and other members, and from leaving the facility,” Myklebust said by email. “The senior center staff should then call 311 to contact the nearest healthcare provider who can provide additional guidance. If an individual is found to be confirmed for COVID-19 infection, the individual should follow the recommendations of healthcare professionals and refrain from visiting any congregate sites altogether.”

Some emergency action was triggered when it was learned that a health care worker who has tested positive for coronavirus had been in contact with residents of a nursing home in southern Brooklyn.

Brooklyn City Council Member Justin Brannan tweeted on Sunday an update that the healthcare worker, who lives in New Jersey but works at King David Nursing Home, had come into contact with eight residents of the home, but that none of them were showing as symptomatic of COVID-19. Each family has also been notified, Brannan said.

At Mayor de Blasio’s press conference on Sunday, he was asked about the King David Nursing Home case, and Commissioner Barbot responded that each of the individuals who were exposed “are all in private rooms and being monitored daily. So they're in the appropriate level of isolation.” De Blasio also added that all were asymptomatic.

Also Discussed at the Hearing
Other topics that were brought up during the budget hearing with DFTA representatives included increased funding for the home delivered meals program, and what DFTA is going to do about the growing waitlist for homecare and case management.

The Council committee report in response to DFTA’s preliminary budget highlighted that there has been “persistent over-serving against the home-delivered meals target,” which presents higher demand than has been accounted for. Council members raised concerns about this in addition to rising food costs, advocating for higher funding for home delivered meals to preemptively address the concern so they can meet demand.

Cortés-Vázquez said of the home delivered meals that they will consider budgetary changes to address rising food prices, and said that saying there’s a waitlist for home delivered meals is misleading.

“We triage it and those with the greatest needs get priority. Everyone gets a phone assessment so we can assess. If someone needs a meal, that meal gets turned on immediately. So it is not a waitlist in a traditional way you think of a waitlist. Is it a problem, is the need growing? Absolutely. But it is not a problem that is not being managed,” Cortés-Vázquez said.  

Cortés-Vázquez emphasized multiple times during the hearing that combating social isolation and geriatric mental health, and confronting ageism as a whole are also priorities for DFTA.

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Spread of Coronavirus Heightens Concerns About Especially Vulnerable Seniors Mon, 09 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Containing Coronavirus; Council Speaker's State of the City; City Budget Hearings; Early Voting for Queens BP; & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 9 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week begins with continued focus on the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, in New York, with more cases confirmed in the city and state, and new guidance from government leaders as they try to contain the virus’ spread without taking drastic measures. On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, allowing the state to suspend certain rules around procurement, personnel, and facilities, while also unlocking new powers given to the governor by recent legislation whereby the Legislature also approved a $40 million emergency appropriation to fight the virus.

On Sunday afternoon, Cuomo announced 16 additional cases since his last update, bringing the statewide total to 105 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of those, 82 are in Westchester, 12 in New York City, and 6 on Long Island. Cuomo also called on the federal government to expedite “approval of private labs and automated and manual testing to expand New York State's testing capacity. He also encouraged New Yorkers to work from home, telecommute and avoid densely populated spaces whenever possible to help contain the spread of the virus.”

Cuomo was able to announce some results from his advocacy on Sunday evening: "After days of advocating the FDA and the federal government to expand testing capacity for the novel coronavirus in New York State and working with Northwell and Wadsworth to expedite the process, we just received word that Northwell Laboratories has been authorized to test under Wadsworth's emergency use authorization. Manual testing of 75 to 80 samples per day will begin at Northwell immediately, but we still need automated testing approved so we can perform thousands per day. While this approval is a good first step, the FDA must increase the testing capacity for the State and private labs, because the more tests we run, the more positive people we will find and the better we can control and contain the virus. It's one thing for the federal government not to have the testing capacity in place themselves - that was bad enough - but there's no excuse for them not to be authorizing existing labs to do the work."

Mayor de Blasio gave similar new guidance on Sunday, while announcing that the city’s total confirmed number of cases is now 13, though the city and state appear to be slightly different in their accounting of at least one patient who is from Westchester but being treated in the city.

“As we continue to see community transmission between people who have no direct connection to travel to one of the affected countries, we are asking New Yorkers to adjust their routines to stem the spread of the virus where they can," de Blasio said in a statement. “I cannot reiterate enough that if you feel sick, stay home; we need every New Yorker to do their part to keep their neighbors safe.”

Along with working from home/telecommuting and avoiding large gatherings when possible, de Blasio asked New Yorkers to stop shaking hands, try to avoid packed subway cars, use alternate modes of transportation, and alter their work schedules to reduce rush hour density.

“The City has ordered local government workers to cancel all non-essential international travel, effective immediately,” the administration announced, and for the most vulnerable people, said: “The City is advising those with chronic lung disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or a weakened immune system to avoid unnecessary events and gatherings. If you have family or friends who have one of these conditions, do not visit them if you feel sick.”

The city is adding nurses to school buildings and working to ensure every school has enough supplies for cleaning, proper personal hygiene, and other measures. And the city is starting to offer zero-interest loans to small businesses (under 100 employees) that have seen a 25% or more drop in revenue as the coronavirus has spread.

New Yorkers can call 311 for more information and/or text COVID to 692-692 for regular text message updates.

Meanwhile, the city and state are attempting to continue with most business as usual. A variety of government (and non-government) events appear to be continuing on as scheduled, including City Council hearings on de Blasio’s preliminary budget plan and two days of legislative session in Albany, where a state budget is due by April 1. And, the early voting period is set to begin this coming Saturday in the special election for Queens Borough President, which has an election day of March 24, while the 2020 Census officially begins on Thursday. Council Speaker Corey Johnson is set to give his 2020 State of the City address on Thursday at noon.

See our day-by-day rundown of events below. But, please watch for event cancellations given new COVID-19 guidances and any other precautions that institutions may take -- try to confirm any political events, including those listed below, before you head to them.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max:***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday March 9
On Monday Mayor de Blasio will appear on NY1’s Mornings on 1 at 7 a.m., then on CNN Newsroom at 9:45 a.m.. He'll hold a media availability on COVID-19 at 1:30 p.m. from the city's emergency management office in Brooklyn. And in the 7 and 11 p.m. hours, he'll appear on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis.

Governor Cuomo will make an announcement at 11 a.m. from Albany.

Preliminary budget hearings continue at the City Council Monday:
--At 10 a.m., the Committee on Transportation will hold a hearing, along with the Subcommittee on Capital Budget, hearing from representatives of the MTA and the city Department of Transportation.
--At 2 p.m., the Committee on Hospitals will hear from representatives of the city’s public hospital system, New York City Health + Hospitals.

At 2:30 p.m. Monday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will hold a “press conference with elected leaders and clergy members to coordinate borough-wide response to COVID-19,” at Brooklyn Borough Hall. At 5:30 p.m. Adams will appear on News12 BK’s “Ask the BP.”

At 4 p.m. Monday, the New York State Board of Regents, led by Regent Elizabeth S. Hakanson, will hold the latest in its series of public sessions to review New York State graduation requirements, at the Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES in New Hartford.

At 6:30 p.m., the Brooklyn Historical Society will hold a panel titled “When Pregnancy is a Death Sentence: Race and Reproductive Healthcare.” The panel will address the high maternal mortality rates among black women and racial inequality in maternal healthcare. Panelists include Ancient Song Doula Services founder Chanel Porchia-Albert, historian Deirdre Cooper Owens, and Assistant Commissioner of NYC’s Health Department Bureau of Maternal, Infant and Reproductive Health Deborah Kaplan. The panel will be moderated by Dana Davis, author of Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth.

Tuesday March 10
The State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, the Center for an Urban Future will hold a policy forum titled “Boosting Low Income Entrepreneurs in Manhattan.” The forum will “explore the opportunity to increase the number of low-income entrepreneurs and examine how to ensure that more of the New Yorkers from low-income backgrounds who do turn to entrepreneurship have the tools and resources to succeed.” Speakers include Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Ms. Mac’s West Indian Food founder Sarah Adams, Highlo Barber founder Angela Elizalde, and more.

At 8:45 a.m. Tuesday, the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center will hold a seminar titled “The Impact of Food on Academic Behavior, Attendance, Performance and Attrition” in the college’s auditorium. Speakers include Professor Cara Cuite of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University; Professor Andrea Deierlein of the School of Global Public Health at New York University; Professor Christina Fernandez of the Department of Pediatrics at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center; Principal Kevin Froner of Manhattan Hunter Science High School; and Dr. Amy Schwartz, a pediatric neuropsychologist. The seminar will be moderated by Dr. Charles Platkin.

Regent Judith Chin will hold two public sessions on the Board of Regents’ review of New York State graduation requirements in Queens on Tuesday. The first session is at 9 a.m. at the Helen Marshall Cultural Center in the Queens Borough Hall Atrium. The second session is at 5:30 p.m. at York College.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Corrections will hold its monthly public meeting.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Association for a Better New York will hold a policy brief on OMNY, the MTA's new fare payment system, with Sana Arshad, Program Manager, Cubic Transportation Systems, Inc. Ms. Arshad will “discuss the ins and outs of the system and the role of technology in NYC transit.”

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Queens, the New York City Economic Development Corporation will host another in a series of public workshops to discuss the progress of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar. The public workshops “provide an opportunity for attendees to learn about and discuss the BQX planning work that’s been done to date, and the process moving forward.”

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, City & State NY will hold the 2020 Law Power 100 Reception at the Ainsworth in Chelsea. City & State will “highlight New York’s 100 most influential lawyers with the Law Power 100 list, identifying and ranking New York’s legal leaders based on their achievements, track record and sway in political and policy matters.” Queens County District Attorney Melinda Katz and NYC Corporation Counsel James E. Johnson will serve as guest speakers.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and The School of Media Studies at The New School will co-facilitate a panel on “The Future of Local News.” Speakers include David Cruz, Editor-in-Chief, Norwood News; Alyssa Katz, Deputy Editor, The City; Steve Waldman, President & Co-Founder, Report for America; and Liena Zagare, Publisher & Editor, BKLYNER. NY1 Anchor Pat Kiernan will moderate.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Vera Institute of Justice will jointly hold a discussion titled “Girls Behind Bars: A Historic Wrong and the Fight to End It.” The discussion will address the intersections of racial and gender discrimination against young women in the juvenile court system. Speakers include Vera project director Lindsay Rosenthal; National Black Women’s Justice director Dr. Sydney McKinney; associate professor of applied psychology at New York University Dr. Shabnam Javdani; associate professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Delaware Dr. Cheryl D. Hicks; and social justice activist Cali JordanGotay. WNYC investigative reporter Cindy Rodriguez will moderate the discussion.

Wednesday March 11
The State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Regional Plan Association will facilitate a discussion titled “Remedies to Address Combined Sewer Overflows and Stormwater Pollution in NYC Waterways.” Speakers will “broadly discuss different parts of the city’s water system infrastructure, [with] particular emphasis on stormwater infrastructure and sustainable practices for water quality management, including efforts promoting the use of green infrastructure.” Speakers include Shino Tanikawa, New York City Soil and Water Conservation District; Julie Welch, SWIM Coalition NYC; and Mike Dulong, Riverkeeper.

On Wednesday on Staten Island, Regent Christine Cea will host two public sessions in the ongoing series by the Board of Regents on New York State high school graduation requirements. The first session will take place at 9 a.m. and the second session will take place at 5:30 p.m.

At the City Council Wednesday:
--At 10 a.m., the Committee on Economic Development will hold a preliminary budget hearing.
--At 10 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zonings and Franchises will meet.
--At 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Sitings and Dispositions will meet.

At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Queens Chamber of Commerce will hold its annual St. Patrick's Day Luncheon Celebration. Special Guests and honorees include NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and Dan "Dee" Tubridy of the Bungalow Bar.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, this week’s Max & Murphy show will air on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or, and feature a discussion of the Queens Borough President special election, just ahead of early voting set to begin on Saturday and the official election day of March 24.

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Rochester, Regent Wade Norwood will host a public review of New York State high school graduation requirements.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Waterfront Alliance, in partnership with the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), will hold an interactive public workshop on the future of the Brooklyn waterfront, hosted at Brooklyn Borough Hall. The meeting will be “the first in a series of borough-specific workshops, which are a key opportunity for the public to learn about and engage in key waterfront issues, promote equity and environmental justice, and to actively inform the next NYC Comprehensive Waterfront Plan.”

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Civil Complaint Review Board will hold a public meeting at the town hall of Bronx Community Board 12.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, New York State Attorney General Letitia James will hold a Community Conversation in Jamaica with Queens Council Members Adrienne E. Adams, I. Daneek Miller, and Donovan Richards. Participants will first hear “a discussion on local topics that matter most to [them], followed by a Q&A.”

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Transportation Alternatives, Riders Alliance, and the Queens transportation advocacy community will hold a Transit Forum for the Queens Borough President candidates. Candidates will have an opportunity to “share where they stand on a range of transportation issues important to you, including how to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, how their office will work to improve transit through the borough, and other hot transportation topics.” The event will be co-moderated by Christine Chung, Queens Reporter for The City; and Joby Jacob, Ph.D,  assistant professor at LaGuardia Community College.

Thursday March 12
At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, the Manhattan Institute will host “Public Safety in an Era of Criminal Justice Reform.” “Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jason Riley will join Harvard University’s Roland Fryer to discuss the diverse set of concerns driving America’s debate on criminal justice, followed by a discussion with police chiefs and leading academics on the front lines of these reforms.”

At noon Thursday, "New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will deliver his second annual State of the City address at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) in Lower Manhattan."

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer will hold a Women’s History Month Celebration at the American Museum of Natural History. The event will honor three women: Radical Health founder and CEO Ivelyse Andino; Alliance of Families for Justice director Soffiyah Elijah; and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, the Association for a Better New York will hold “Get Out the Count: A Benefit to Support ABNY's Census 2020 Initiatives” at Katz’s Delicatessen. ABNY will honor three individuals “for their work to ensure the most accurate count”: New York State Attorney General Letitia James, president and CEO of New York-Presbyterian Dr. Steve J. Corwin, and president of the United Federation of Teachers Michael Mulgrew. This event has been postponed.

Friday March 13 & the Weekend
Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC at 10 a.m. Friday.

At the City Council Friday:
--At 10 a.m., the Committee on Parks and Recreation will hold a preliminary budget hearing.
--At 10:30 a.m., the Committee on Immigration will hold a preliminary budget hearing.
--At 1:00 p.m., the Committee on Public Housing will hold a preliminary budget hearing.

At 12:30 p.m. Friday, the Museum of the City of New York will host “College Basketball and NYC: The Remarkable Journey.” The event will be “an afternoon of lively conversations moderated by sportscaster Dave Popkin about Madison Square Garden, aka “The Mecca” of college basketball; the BIG EAST Tournament as the nation’s longest-running postseason college basketball tournament at the same venue; and some of the many great players and coaches that have played at both the conference and at MSG.” This is the opening program for City/Game: Basketball in New York.

Beginning Saturday, March 14 (through Sunday, March 22) select sites in Queens will offer early voting for the Special Election for Borough President, which will also take place the election day of Tuesday, March 24.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Ben Max & Claire Del Sorbo

Containing Coronavirus; Council Speaker's State of the City; City Budget Hearings; Early Voting for Queens BP; & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 9 Sun, 08 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD Watchdog Set for Personnel Boost as Voter-Approved Mandate Begins grad cere msg

NYPD officers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The Civilian Complaint Review Board will be increasing its capacity to investigate police misconduct thanks to a City Charter amendment approved by voters last fall, agency officials explained on Wednesday.

At one in a series of City Council hearings on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $95.3 billion preliminary budget, CCRB Chair Fred Davie and Executive Director Jonathan Darche said the city plans to add 17 additional staff members to the currently 206-person agency to meet a new formulaic mandate now written into the city’s central governing document. The new positions, which are yet to be determined, will be essential for the agency as it tackles an increasing docket of cases -- a result, the officials said, of its outreach efforts, the agency's prosecution of Daniel Pantaleo, which boosted its public profile, and a growing backlog of body camera footage requests.

The additional staff in the upcoming city budget, which is due by the July 1 start of next fiscal year upon agreement by the Mayor and City Council, will be on top of 24 new personnel already secured by the CCRB during budget negotiations last year.

"I think [the increased headcount] has been letting us stay as effective as we have been," Darche said, answering questions from members of the Council's committee on public safety. "Body-worn camera footage has really almost swept through the agency in the investigative process, which has caused our dockets to increase and case investigation times to increase, and without those new staff we would have suffered even worse."

The charter amendment, which takes effect for the upcoming 2021 fiscal year, links the police watchdog's headcount to the number of uniform police officers at a ratio of .65 percent. The police department has 36,201 uniform members in the preliminary budget.

The amendment was part of a package of proposals placed on the ballot by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to reform a number of areas of city governance, including changes to the CCRB's jurisdiction and operations. CCRB officials have said the measure gives the agency a baseline in budget negotiations, which have historically been characterized by uncertainty.

"You have to negotiate the details of your budget every year, and those fluctuate up and down in some significant ways for the agency," Davie told Gotham Gazette in October, before the ballot proposals were approved by voters. "Knowing that [the headcount] is tied to a percentage of a portion of the NYPD’s budget means that you can sort of baseline what you’ll have and then you can negotiate around that baseline."

The CCRB is a police oversight agency tasked with investigating and, in serious cases, prosecuting certain kinds of alleged officer misconduct. The Charter gives it jurisdiction to pursue so-called "FADO" complaints: allegations of excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, or offensive language. Other types of misconduct get referred to the NYPD's internal affairs bureau.

In fiscal year 2020 (July 2019 through June 2020), the CCRB had a $19.6 million budget. The mayor's new preliminary budget, increases the agency's bottom line by $1.1 million, or 6 percent, to $20.4 million, including the 17 additional staff.

The CCRB can only open a case if it receives a complaint from the public. More than half of the agency's staff are in its investigations unit, which is responsible for receiving complaints, collecting evidence, and substantiating claims. It also liaises with the police department, an increasingly central task as the CCRB has come to rely on evidence from body camera footage, which is controlled by the NYPD.

In fiscal year 2019, there were 5,236 complaints made against uniform police officers, a 20 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, according to the Mayor's Management Report. The report shows the average length of time to complete an investigation rose from 190 days in fiscal year 2018 to 249 days in fiscal 2019.

With the proliferation of police body cameras and the resulting footage, the CCRB has been able to substantiate complaints at a significantly higher rate. But as the agency has come to rely more on body cameras, it has also faced increasing delays in receiving requested video from the NYPD. A new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the CCRB and NYPD is intended to speed up the evidence sharing process by giving CCRB staff more direct access to video early on and setting timetables for the NYPD.

At the same time that body cameras are transforming the CCRB's abilities, the voter-approved Charter amendments also expand its jurisdiction, which promises to further increase the caseload. The CCRB now has the authority to investigate and recommend discipline for false statements made by police officers during the course of its investigations (when they are the subject the investigation), a form of misconduct that previously would be referred to the police department to be handled internally.

Police unions and their allies strongly opposed the ballot measure containing the CCRB amendments, while police reform advocates supported it. It passed with roughly 75 percent of voters in favor in a low turnout, off-year election with few races on the ballot.

The new powers won't require additional staff training, according to Darche, but agency officials sought new personnel to handle the additional cases. "The CCRB has been studying false official statements and then referring them to the department for them to determine whether misconduct occurred for many years now, and our investigators are trained to make those determinations," he said.

Even with the Charter-mandated personnel ratio, the number of new staff is still up for negotiation as the city's budget season unfolds.

The 17 it looks like the CCRB is due for next fiscal year is based on a calculus by the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget, which includes consideration of the number of per diem employees that the agency doesn’t include in its official headcount.

"We're still in negotiation with them. I'm hopeful that maybe we can get one or two more bodies out of them," he said, on top of the projected 17.

The agency is still determining what the new positions will be. "Clearly we need more investigators to meet the increased demands of caseload on the staff that we have to investigate the cases we have," Darche said. As of February, the CCRB had 131 investigators, roughly two-thirds of its full-time staff.

"We've already taken steps with our training staff and with the investigations division to make sure that when those positions become available we're ready to bring them on board," Darche said.

"Do you still believe you need more staffing," asked Council Member Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat and chair of the committee on public safety.

"Always," Davie replied.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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NYPD Watchdog Set for Personnel Boost as Voter-Approved Mandate Begins Thu, 05 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Coronavirus in New York - Assessing the Threat & Response wbai city express

Health officials must manage the coronavirus in New York (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

March 4, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Coronavirus in New York - Threat, Preparation, & Response

levin gershonDr. Robyn Gershon of NYU School of Global Public Health and City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council's health committee, joined the show to discuss the new coronavirus (COVID-19) and how New York is responding to the virus, including questions around whether schools should be closed and much more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Coronavirus in New York - Assessing the Threat & Response Wed, 04 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000