Gotham Gazette Wed, 21 Apr 2021 01:32:26 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) De Blasio's First Chief Democracy Officer Quietly Resigned in January and Hasn't Been Replaced ear vot bot

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, New York City’s first Chief Democracy Officer, quietly resigned in January and Mayor Bill de Blasio has yet to name a replacement to the position, even amid an especially complicated and consequential election year.

The mayor created the office of DemocracyNYC to be led by the Chief Democracy Officer in 2018, announcing it in his State of the City speech that February. The office was part of a ten-point agenda aimed at improving voter access, promoting youth voter participation, curbing the influence of money in elections, expanding lobbying transparency and making it easier to run for office, among other goals.

“If we're going to fight for fairness and we're going to fight for equality, we better fight to save our democracy,” de Blasio said in his speech. He pointed to several threats including dark money flooding into elections after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, plummeting voter participation, President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine democratic institutions, and Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election. “We are so far from what the norm should be of an active and inclusive democracy,” he said.

In October that year, de Blasio appointed Fonseca-Sabune, a Harvard-educated attorney and civil rights advocate, to lead DemocracyNYC. But after just 14 months on the job,  Fonseca-Sabune stepped down from her position earlier this year – according to the City Record, her resignation was effective on January 1. She now runs her own anti-racism and anti-oppression coaching and organizational development service, according to her website.

Fonseca-Sabune did not respond to a request for comment. Her website features a photo of her with de Blasio at an announcement during her tenure as Chief Democracy Officer and says that in that role she “worked to amplify the voice of every New Yorker, including marginalized communities that have historically been disenfranchised. Her work has included developing robust voter-registration drives, expanding civics education across all ages for the 1.1 million children attending New York City schools, and partnering with community-based organizations, elected officials and agencies at all levels of government, and the philanthropic community to get more New Yorkers civically engaged.”

But since Fonseca-Sabune’s resignation, the mayor has not appointed a new city Chief Democracy Officer. Laura Wood, DemocracyNYC’s senior advisor and general counsel, has seemingly taken over her duties in that time. Wood appeared alongside the mayor at his news briefing on Tuesday to speak of efforts the city is taking to ensure that voting in this year’s general election, with early voting beginning Saturday, goes smoothly.

“As the start of early voting approaches, we want to emphasize that voters don't have to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Wood said. “And the DemocracyNYC team is working hard to make sure that New Yorkers know how to vote safely.” Wood was previously senior advisor and special counsel to the State Attorney General and prior to that, chief Counsel to the State Senate’s Democratic Conference.

When asked for comment, mayoral spokesperson Bill Neidhardt did not explain the reason that Fonseca-Sabune left the administration or why the mayor has not replaced her. He also did not say whether a search for a replacement was underway. “As we presented at today’s press conference, the Democracy NYC team, led by Laura Wood, is performing the critical task of protecting our democracy and the health of all voters and poll workers,” he said in an email on Tuesday.

In a statement on Wednesday, mayoral spokesperson Jose Bayona said, “After Rini’s departure in January, the work at Democracy NYC was kicking into high gear and Laura Wood stepped into the leadership role as the elections expert given the focus our team would be heading this and next year. At this critical time, and with an evolving fiscal crisis, we currently have a strong and committed team to build on the demanding task of protecting our democracy and the health of all voters and poll workers. We thank Rini for her work and wish her the best in her endeavors.”

Rachel Bloom, director of policy at Citizens Union, a government reform group, said the empty position should have been filled as soon as possible, particularly as the city heads into possibly the most consequential presidential election in decades, as well as a major citywide municipal election next year when all of city government will be on the ballot. “There are multiple agencies doing a lot of similar work, between the Civic Engagement Commission and the Campaign Finance Board and DemocracyNYC, and I think it is beneficial to have one person who is leading that as the Chief Democracy Officer,” Bloom said in a phone interview.

Bloom did note that despite the vacancy, DemocracyNYC work has been getting done. As Wood explained at the Tuesday news conference, the office is rolling out several initiatives including a public service announcement campaign with the relatively new city Civic Engagement Commission, created by 2018 ballot referenda, on how to vote early and by mail, a fact sheet developed with the Department of Health on how to vote safely, and a collaboration with Citi Bike for discounted rides on Election Day.

“There's a lot of collaboration happening right now,” Bloom said. “But I think if that position is going to exist, it should be filled and it should be filled now.”

One of the chief reasons the mayor created the DemocracyNYC office was to increase voter registration in the city. “Whoever will take this job will end up being responsible for registering 1.5 million New Yorkers in the next four years,” de Blasio said in that State of the City speech. At the time of Fonseca-Sabune’s appointment, there were 5.13 million registered voters in the city; as of February 21 this year, there were 5.32 million.

While de Blasio’s goal was always dubious, voter registrations efforts were hobbled this year because of the pandemic, Bloom pointed out, and the state still does not have a truly online system of voter registration (a city-led effort to create online voter registration has also stalled without state approval). “We usually see the largest numbers of new voter registrations in a presidential election year and because of the pandemic, that was completely upended this year,” Bloom said.

The city Board of Elections did recently report processing almost 169,000 new registrations between September 1 and the October 9 registration deadline to vote in this year’s election.

“If that was one of the primary goals of having a Chief Democracy Officer,” Bloom added, “it seems like a really odd moment in time to not have that role filled. And yes, their work continues to be done, but I don't know why the position hasn’t been filled for months and months and months.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
De Blasio's First Chief Democracy Officer Quietly Resigned in January and Hasn't Been Replaced Wed, 21 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
First Citywide Participatory Budgeting Program on Chopping Block Because of Coronavirus council cojo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City’s Civic Engagement Commission Creates 11-Language Poll-Site Interpretation Plan for Fall Election Mon, 11 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
First Major Task for City's New Civic Engagement Commission at Risk 2 cm lander

Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray participate in participatory budgeting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Civic Engagement Commission, established through a charter amendment approved by voters in 2018, is tasked with crafting a new citywide participatory budgeting program modeled after the City Council’s efforts to engage New Yorkers in funding local projects. A plan is required to be in place by July 1, the start of the next city fiscal year.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $95.3 billion preliminary budget proposal for next fiscal year, released mid-January, allocates no funding to the program and the commission’s members worry that it is already falling behind.

The City Council has for years put aside millions of dollars for participatory budgeting, allowing district residents to decide how and where to spend pots of funding for specific community improvements. Last year, the program was implemented by 32 of 51 Council members in their districts – this year, it is 33 – and each dedicated roughly $1 million (sometimes up to $2 million) for various capital projects. Ideas are solicited from the public and can cover everything from bike lanes to public restrooms to park renovations and school equipment.

A 2018 Charter Revision Commission created by de Blasio proposed that a citywide version of the program should be put into place and overseen by the newly created 15-member Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) – eight of its members are appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council speaker, and one each by the five borough presidents.

The CEC has held several public meetings since being named but it has made little progress on the citywide participatory budgeting program except for creating an advisory committee. Members of that committee joined with a coalition of advocacy groups on Tuesday, signing a policy memo to the mayor calling on him to set aside at least $500 million for a citywide participatory budgeting program.

Among the groups were BetaNYC, Civic Hall, Girls for Gender Equity, IntegrateNYC, New York Civic Engagement Table, and the Participatory Budgeting Project, as well as Council Member Brad Lander, who first proposed the idea of a civic engagement commission in a bill before the City Council.

The memo carries a sense of urgency, warning the mayor that the CEC’s charter mandate is “at risk of failure” if he does not allocate the requisite funds. The coalition noted that the mayor, in his aborted presidential campaign, proposed putting $1.65 billion towards a national participatory budgeting program. “Now is the time for an equally bold Mayoral commitment, to ensure that citywide PB is a successful legacy program, not an unfulfilled promise,” the memo reads.

The advocates also pointed to other cities that currently have PB programs with a far smaller population. Paris, for instance, with a population of about 2.1 million, allocates a little more than $111 million annually to citywide, district, and school level projects, similar to Madrid. And Mexico City’s Citizen Participation law, the memo says, mandates 3.25% of the total city budget for PB in 2020, about $76 million, increasing by 0.25% each year until it comprises 4% of the city’s budget in 2024. “To reach the same 4% as Mexico City, New York would be allocating billions of dollars!” the memo reads.

The CEC members themselves acknowledged at a public meeting on January 29 that the commission could miss the deadline for launching the new citywide participatory budgeting program. “We're going to implement a citywide program by July 1st, we're sort of already behind schedule,” said Commissioner Annetta Seecharran, who is the executive director of Chhaya CDC.

While the city charter revision requires the commission and several tasks by it, including the participatory budgeting program, it does not mandate any funding from the city.

The demand for money toward the program comes at a tricky time for the city as it contends with potential budget cuts to Medicaid funding from the state, among other possible challenges. Last month, the mayor proposed a relatively conservative preliminary budget with few new initiatives, taking a wait-and-see approach as the state budget is negotiated ahead of its April 1 deadline. De Blasio, working with the City Council and other stakeholders, is likely to increase spending in his executive budget plan and the adopted budget. The city’s Office of Management and Budget often projects a lower revenue forecast to give city officials more flexibility over the budget season.

The mayor’s office is reviewing the advocates’ request, according to a spokesperson.

“The Mayor has long-hailed participatory budgeting as an important avenue for civic engagement that enhances democracy in New York City,” said Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson. “This Administration is committed to extending access to participatory budgeting citywide through the work of the Civic Engagement Commission and in partnership with advocates, volunteers, elected officials and community members.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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First Major Task for City's New Civic Engagement Commission at Risk Tue, 04 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines Board of Elections' Readiness to Implement Early Voting, Poll-Site Interpretation voting gen elect

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The New York City Board of Elections, a state entity funded by the city, has a less-than-stellar reputation for running elections and has long been resistant to going beyond the letter of state law in improving voter access and participation. And this year, the city BOE must contend with a new state mandate to create an early voting program for potentially millions of voters, as well as a push by the city to provide broader poll site interpretation services in immigrant communities.

At a Tuesday hearing of the New York City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, officials from the BOE testified to the complexities of implementing the new early voting mandate by the November election.

The state Legislature recently approved the program, which requires nine consecutive days of early voting before Election Day and, according to the provisions of the law, a minimum of 34 poll sites across the city. The state also passed legislation to allow the use of electronic poll books at poll sites. The state BOE approved regulations for early voting on Monday and the city BOE faces a deadline to declare its chosen sites on Wednesday, May 1.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday called for the BOE to offer 100 early voting sites across the city, offering the board $75 million to do so, the BOE does not appear ready to meet the mayor’s request. Not long after BOE executives testified before the Council, the board's commissioners voted to approve 38 early voting polling sites for November, inviting criticism from the mayor and others.

There will be 10 sites in Brooklyn and seven each in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island. The board also determined early voting hours, which will vary based on date leading up to the November 5 Election Day. Voters will receive their early voting poll site assignment from the BOE. 

The City Council committee hearing also delved into a new bill proposed by Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger that would require the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, a nonpartisan entity housed under the New York City Campaign Finance Board, to provide interpretation services at poll sites in several languages beyond what is currently required by state and federal law.

The bill would help facilitate the work of the city’s newly created Civic Engagement Commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, that is charged with, among other things, developing a poll site interpretation services program. Still, the city BOE has repeatedly argued that it is not under the jurisdiction of city laws, but of state laws, complicating matters.

Early Voting Poses Challenges
New York has long been a laggard in voter turnout and election reform, and it became the 38th state to approve early voting this year. But the program is a monumental lift, particularly for the five boroughs of New York City, home to 8.5 million residents.

The recently approved legislation to create the program requires one early voting site for every 50,000 registered voters in a county and no more than seven sites, though local counties have the discretion to add more. The 2020 state budget includes $10 million in funding for early voting and $14.1 million for electronic poll books for the entire state, distributed according to a formula that the state BOE must create.  

On Monday, Mayor de Blasio offered the city BOE $75 million to establish 100 polling sites for early voting (he included an additional $21 million for the purchase of electronic poll books in his executive budget proposal last week).

“We have to get early voting right, and we're saying very clearly to the Board of Elections, we'll put our money where our mouth is,” de Blasio said.

At the Tuesday Council hearing, New York City’s new and first chief democracy officer, Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, emphasized the importance of instituting a robust early voting program. “If a significant percentage of New York City voters vote during the early voting period, we may be able to reduce some of the strain that we see on our Election Day systems that has led to breakdowns at polling places,” she said. “Lines will be shorter, poll sites will be less crowded.”

She noted that early voting also correlates with higher participation, and stressed that seven sites in each county are “not sufficient to accommodate the needs of voters in New York City.” She pointed out, for instance, that Brooklyn would essentially have the same number of sites as upstate counties one-fifth the registered voters.

BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan, a few hours before the board's commissioners make their early voting decisions, repeatedly emphasized that early voting is a complicated endeavor and that the city must take a cautious approach in order to establish a strong foundation for the program that will allow it to grow and improve over time.

When the program was approved, the city did not have the infrastructure in place to implement it, he said, and is in the process of creating it, including providing a system of ballots on demand to voters. Among the issues is that the board must approve a new vendor to provide electronic poll books, which will happen in June, and then has to train poll workers in the new systems.  

Ryan stressed that the board is willing to work with the de Blasio administration and the City Council to ensure they create an efficient program, but he insisted that in soliciting input from other jurisdictions that have long had early voting programs, the BOE has been warned of the many variables and challenges they face. “The worst thing that we could do is get overly ambitious and not have it work and undermine...voter confidence,” he said, emphasizing the need to phase in a program over time.

“There will be obstacles. Nothing will be perfect...There’s gonna be many lessons learned,” said Dawn Sandow, the BOE’s deputy executive director. As usual, none of the board’s commissioners, political appointees from the local Democratic and Republican parties who are confirmed through the Council, testified before the Council. Those commissioners make many essential decisions to BOE operations, which are carried out by Ryan, Sandow, and their employees.

Voting reform advocates celebrated the passage of early voting and praised the mayor for offering a massive boost in funding. But even they cautioned at the hearing that the BOE must be careful in implementing a new system that could cause confusion among both voters who must use it and the poll workers who must administer it. Some also raised concerns about cyber security and urged the BOE to ensure adequate firewalls and redundancies to protect election systems and the integrity of individual votes.

Interpreting State Law and City Mandates
As a creature of state law, the BOE has consistently opposed the mayoral administration and City Council’s efforts to impose new mandates on its operations. Since 2017, it has refused to abide by a local law requiring the postage of signs when a poll site is moved. More recently, the city again ran up against the BOE when it attempted to provide language interpretation services in poll site buildings.

By state and federal law, the BOE is only required to provide interpretation services in five languages -- Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Bangla -- which city officials and advocates say is insufficient for New York City’s population, which speaks hundreds of languages.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs had additionally sought to provide services in Russian, Haitian Creole, Yiddish, and Polish within poll site buildings during the February 26 special election for public advocate. But the BOE sued the city, arguing that since the interpreters were not hired and trained by the board, they would be engaging in a form of electioneering and therefore must remain at a distance of at least 100 feet from a polling site.

A state judge rejected the BOE’s argument and did not issue an injunction against the city, allowing interpreters into poll sites. But the BOE has appealed and that ongoing litigation could determine whether the city can continue to provide those services for future elections.

Both Tregyer’s bill and the new Civic Engagement Commission would create a much more expansive interpretation services program. “Language access is not electioneering,” Treyger said, accusing the BOE of essentially taking actions that are “nothing short of voter suppression.”

But the BOE’s Ryan said the city should rather await the legislative process playing out at the state level. At the hearing, he pointed to bills introduced in February in the state Senate and Assembly that would preempt the city’s efforts if they pass.

“There really is no daylight, Councilman Treyger, between your position and the board’s position,” Ryan said. He noted that if the BOE were to provide interpretation services for any  particular linguistic group without being legally required to do so, it could give other groups the potential to sue under the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. “What we’re simply asking for is a structure, a legal structure, some authority to tell us legally ‘This is what you need to do,’” he said.

The de Blasio administration seemed to hedge its bets on Treyger’s proposal. MOIA Commissioner Bitta Mostofi said the administration supports the intent of the bill but did not express direct support for it. She said the CEC, rather than the VAAC, should be tasked with implementing it and that the bill was just one of the elements of implementing a program. “There should other factors that are taken into consideration when establishing where the services should be and what those services should be,” she said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Examines Board of Elections' Readiness to Implement Early Voting, Poll-Site Interpretation Tue, 30 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New City Civic Engagement Commission Launched may b deblasio schools

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio named his eight appointees to a new charter-mandated Civic Engagement Commission on Tuesday, weeks past the April 1 deadline for creating the commission. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens borough presidents also announced their appointees while the other two borough presidents have yet to do so.

The 15-member commission was established in the charter through a ballot referendum approved by voters in November, one product of a charter revision commission set up by de Blasio last year. The commission is tasked broadly with increasing involvement in city civic life, and specifically with improving voter access by providing interpreters at polling sites and administering a citywide participatory budgeting program modeled on the system used by the New York City Council.

The commission is expected to hold its first public hearing within the next month and will also go on a listening tour across the city. The mayor allocated $300,000 for the commission for the current fiscal year which ends June 30, and $2.4 million for the next fiscal year, for a staff of seven people.

De Blasio’s slate of appointments, six of whom were chosen through an open application process, according to the mayor’s office, includes activists who advocate for immigrants, people with disabilities, and minorities, and represent a diverse range of nonprofit organizations.

The mayor’s pick for chair and executive director is Dr. Sarah Sayeed, a Bronx resident who has served as senior advisor in the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit for over three years, working with the Muslim community. The chair of the civic engagement commission is the only full-time, paid member.

“Our democracy begins in communities large and small, where people come together to tackle important issues in our city,” de Blasio said in a statement. “The Civic Engagement Commission will play a crucial role in strengthening this democracy, which is why our appointees have decades of experience elevating the voices of New Yorkers from all walks of life.”

The mayor’s other appointees are:
-Murad Awawdeh, vice president of advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition and political director for the New York State Immigrant Action Fund.
-Holly Bonner, founder of the parenting blog Blind Motherhood, focused on families with individuals suffering from vision loss
-Amy Breedlove, a business strategist at Urban Quotient and President of the Cobble Hill Association.
-Donna Veronica Gill, a higher education officer at Hunter Bellevue School of Nursing, and advisor to the New York State Youth Leadership Council.
-José Hernandez, president of United Spinal Association’s New York City chapter.
-Linda Lee, executive director of the Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York, Inc.
-Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya CDC, a nonprofit focused on housing stability for New York’s South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities.

City Council Speaker Johnson has two appointees on the commission: Anastasia Somoza, who is the Council’s first-ever liaison to the disability community, and Anthony Harmon, chief of staff for the United Federation of Teachers.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. appointed Lilliam Perez, vice president of government and community relations at Montefiore Health System.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams chose Eve Baron, chair of the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment in the School of Architecture at the Pratt Institute.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz's pick was Charles Apelian, vice chair and land use chair of Queens Community Board 7.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s spokesperson said they would inquire about the status of their appointment.

The commission members will initially serve staggered terms. Three of the mayor’s appointees -- Gill, Breedlove, and Lee -- will serve for two years while four others -- Awawdeh, Bonner, Hernandez, and Seecharran -- will serve for four years. Each of the borough presidents’ appointees will have three-year terms, and of the City Council’s two appointees one will serve a two-year term and the other a four-year term. Future appointees will serve for four years each.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been corrected to note that the Queens borough president has also made her appointment. 

Note - This article has been updated with budget numbers for the commission.

New City Civic Engagement Commission Launched Wed, 24 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Officials Late in Naming Members to New Civic Engagement Commission city council mdblasio

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Last November, more than 1 million New Yorkers voted “yes” on a ballot question to create a new New York City Civic Engagement Commission tasked with launching a citywide participatory budgeting program, providing interpreting services at poll sites, and more broadly working with community based organizations to get the city’s residents more involved in city civic life and government. Once approved by voters, the measure called for 15 commission members appointed by several top city elected officials, mostly by the mayor, who also gets to name the chair.

But those officials missed the April 1 deadline to create the commission. As of Sunday, April 14, a representative for Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated the commission would be named soon, while representatives for other appointing officials -- the City Council speaker and five borough presidents -- provided varying responses to Gotham Gazette inquiries.

The question on the November ballot was one of three proposed by a Charter Revision Commission de Blasio created last year. The other two, also overwhelmingly approved by voters, significantly enhanced the city’s campaign finance program and established term limits and other reforms for community boards.

The Civic Engagement Commission’s 15 members are to include eight appointees by the mayor (including the chair), two by the City Council speaker, and one each by the five borough presidents. According to the charter amendment, the appointing officials would have to consider candidates “who are representative of, or have experience working with, immigrants, individuals with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, students, youth, seniors, veterans, community groups, good government groups, civil rights advocates, and categories of residents that are historically underrepresented in or underserved by City government.”

The initial commission members will serve staggered terms of two or four years, except the chair, who will also serve as executive director. Only the chair will be a full-time appointee and will receive compensation for their work; the other members will be unpaid.

The mayor’s office did not say why the commission appointments were delayed but noted that they would be named shortly. “The Civic Engagement Commission will play a crucial role in encouraging more New Yorkers to participate in our democracy,” said Raul Contreras, a mayoral spokesperson. “We received over 340 applications from a talented and diverse pool of New York City residents. We are on the cusp of appointing our commission members and we’ll share more details once that decision is made, which will be soon.”

Other appointing officials also seem to be moving slowly to pick their members.

A City Council spokesperson acknowledged a request for comment but did not respond with comment.

“We’re in the process of finalizing our appointment,” said John DeSio, a spokesperson for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., in an email.

Stefan Ringel, a spokesperson for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, said, “Borough President Adams has sent formal correspondence to the individual he has decided to offer an appointment. He is currently awaiting confirmation of that offer.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s spokesperson, Jon Houston, said, “We’re working on it, but have no appointee yet.”

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz’s office acknowledged Gotham Gazette’s inquiry but did not provide comment.

There is time for the commission to carry out its mandates. Per the charter amendment, the participatory budgeting program -- currently used by many City Council members to democratically allocate funds to projects in their districts -- must be launched by July 1, 2020, and poll site interpreting services must be provided no later than the general election in November 2020.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article as been updated to reflect that the commission has not been named as of April 14.

City Officials Late in Naming Members to New Civic Engagement Commission Fri, 05 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Madrid Demonstrates Successful Civic Engagement. Let’s Pay Attention as We Launch New York City Commission decide madrid

(photo: @decidemadrid)

Madrid turns its residents’ collective passions and intelligence into tangible improvements to city life. New York should do the same.

New Yorkers had until February 22 to apply to join the Civic Engagement Commission (CEC), a new entity that city voters approved last election to manage civic engagement processes throughout the city. The commission, which will be officially named in April by a variety of elected officials including the Mayor, has a broad mission and three specific mandates: to improve language access at polling places, expand participatory budgeting citywide, and help nonprofits with civic engagement efforts.

Even though these three mandates might seem disjointed, the commission could still be a success. But what does successful civic engagement look like? It looks like Madrid.

History won’t explain why Madrid is so good at civic engagement, but Decide Madrid (, the city’s official participatory decision-making website, will. Decide is a custom-built, open-source website developed by Madrid’s city council to provide a single online location for the city’s public decision-making processes: participatory budgeting, resident petitions, legislation feedback, and more.

By placing all these civic processes into one software platform, Madrid reduces the costs of organizing for government, and streamlines participation for users. Over 400,000 of Madrid’s 3 million residents have accounts, making it the largest system of its kind in the world - and the most impactful.

proyecto xDecisions made on Decide are genuinely important. If a resident’s petition reaches a certain threshold, then the city government is required by law to come up with an implementation plan that will then go up for a city-wide referendum vote. The participatory budgeting projects are funded to the tune of $100 million a year, making it one of the world’s largest participatory budgeting processes. Every comment made on legislation posted to the platform gets a response from a city staffer. And Madrid is beginning to leverage the system for more complex tasks like decisions related to land-use and public-space renovations.

The recent multi-phase process for redevelopment of Plaza Espana, one of the city’s most important public spaces, was a major milestone. The process began with an 18 question survey filled out by over 20,000 people. The results were made public and then used to inform resident proposals, which anyone could post to the website. The public then gave feedback on each proposal via comments, and indicated opinions by clicking a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon. The most popular projects advanced to the next round where they were evaluated by a jury of experts who worked with the finalists to merge the most popular features into two final proposals, which went up for public referendum where residents picked the winning design.

in general terms

Whether you're looking at big processes like the Plaza Espana redevelopment, or the thousands of resident-generated participatory budgeting project proposals posted to the site for the 2018 funding cycle, one thing is abundantly clear: Madrid has found a way to turn its residents’ passions and intelligence into tangible improvements for the city. And the public loves it.

proyectos local geo

Polls for the upcoming mayoral election show Mayor Manuela Carmena, who made the development and use of Decide a central piece of her first campaign and mayoral administration, is ahead by a wide margin and has never been more popular. The conservatives, who ruled Madrid from 1991 to 2015, are in disarray and the traditional socialist party, which ran against her in the last election, has offered her leadership in their party. She has refused.

This leads to an obvious question: is the key to improving the quality of life in a city giving residents the power to make more direct decisions about their government’s actions? Fortunately, Madrid wants us all find out.

The software powering Madrid’s Decide website was built by Madrid’s Office of Civic Participation. It turned the code into an open source project called Consul that anyone can download for their own use. And that’s exactly what has happened: over a dozen cities in Spain and nearly 100 governments around the world, including large cities like Buenos Aires and Quito, are using Consul for participatory processes. Software developers in these cities are also contributing code back to the project, enabling Madrid to benefit from the global public’s collective intelligence.

And we in New York City can too - but only if we commit to using best practices and open source tools from around the world to do so. Madrid shows us how. We should leverage their success and follow in their footsteps. The soon-to-be-named Civic Engagement Commission that was popularly approved by voters last year is a perfect opportunity.

Devin Balkind is the president of Sahana Software Foundation, founder of, and a former candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He speaks regularly at conferences around the world about using technology to overcome environmental and political crisis. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Madrid Demonstrates Successful Civic Engagement. Let’s Pay Attention as We Launch New York City Commission Sun, 24 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications city council torres lander levine barron pub

Council Members Lander, Torres, Barron & others (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The Civic Engagement Commission that city voters approved in November is now accepting applications from New Yorkers interesting in serving on the panel that will help craft strategies for getting more residents of the five boroughs engaged in civic life. Though appointments to the commission will be made by top city elected officials, the open application process allows regular New Yorkers to throw their names and resumes into the pool of candidates for placement on the commission that will deal with things like citywide participatory budgeting and election poll-site translation services.

The commission, which is scheduled to be empaneled on April 1, will consist of 15 members: eight appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council speaker, and one by each of the borough presidents. The initial appointees will have either two- or four-year terms to stagger subsequent appointments; later members will serve four-year terms, with the exception of the chair, who would serve at the mayor’s discretion. The commission was created out of a proposal from a Charter Revision Commission empaneled last year by Mayor Bill de Blasio that put three questions on the November ballot, all of which were approved.

New Yorkers have until February 22 to apply through a fairly simple online form that asks several questions about the applicant’s interest in the commission and relevant experience, with a function for uploading a resume. Potential applicants are reminded that the purpose of the commission is “to enhance civic participation in order to enhance civic trust and strengthen democracy in New York City,” and that the commission will do its own work while also partnering with public and private entities to help foster civic engagement across the city.

Applicants are told to “please take note that an application submitted on this site may not be the only method by which candidates for appointment are identified by the appointing authorities, including the Mayor, and does not create a right to any further process or to appointment to the Commission or to any other City position.”

City Council Member Brad Lander, who had introduced legislation to create a similar entity, an office of civic engagement, and championed the Civic Engagement Commission put forward by the mayor's charter revision commission, sent out an e-mail blast to his constituents on Thursday celebrating the launch of the commission and application process, and encouraging people to apply.

"I’m pleased to report that it’s getting started in the right way, with openness and participation," Lander wrote, noting that "unlike any other citywide board or commission" the Civic Engagement Commission has an open application process. "The Civic Engagement Commission has the potential to breathe new life into our local democracy," Lander wrote. "If you know someone with great experience and relationships, who’d make a difference as a commissioner, please encourage them to apply. We are, of course, looking for a Commission that is as diverse as New York."

While many of the commission’s endeavors will be determined by its members, some are prescribed, chief among them a new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding a program that currently exists in 34 of 51 City Council districts at the discretion of local Council members.

Participatory budgeting, first used in New York City in 2011 when four Council members used some of their discretionary funds for the program, allows residents to propose and vote for specific projects in their district to be financed via capital funds allocated to Council members. At least $1 million per district is budgeted via direct democracy, and residents have funded projects ranging from fixing school bathrooms to mobile showers for use by homeless people, among many other projects.

The commission would be required to develop the program by the start of Fiscal Year 2021 on July 1, 2020, when the mayor would implement it.

The commission’s other initially-delegated tasks include improving language access for New Yorkers at poll sites and in other city programs, assisting and training newly term-limited community boards, and partnering with community organizations in their own efforts at enhanced civic engagement. The commission will also develop new civic engagement initiatives in the years to come.

There are few restrictions on who can apply or be appointed to the commission. An applicant must be a resident of the city and a U.S. citizen, and cannot be an “officer of a political party” or a candidate for various elected offices, from mayor to borough president to City Council. The commission seeks candidates “who are representative of, or have experience working with” immigrants and those with limited English proficiency.

With the exception of the city’s non-citizen population, the commission is essentially open to anyone. The report by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission last year said that, besides the immigrant and non-English-proficient communities, the panel would seek applicants representative of “people with disabilities, students, youth, seniors, veterans, community groups, good government groups, civil rights advocates, and categories of residents that are historically underrepresented in or underserved by City government.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications Thu, 07 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day schools chancellor reg

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Voters approved three ballot proposals on Election Day to amend the New York City charter, the city’s foundational governing document -- the local constitution. The proposals related to the city’s campaign finance system, civic engagement, and community boards. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empaneled a charter revision commission last year that put the proposals on the ballot, argued that the proposals would strengthen democracy in the city.

“The question in front of voters was simple: Are we going to be a city that works for everyone,” de Blasio tweeted after the measures passed. “New Yorkers answered with a resounding ‘YES, YES, YES!’”

Now that all three proposals are to be added to the charter, they will have to be implemented within the next few years. At the same time, another charter revision commission created through City Council legislation is also holding public hearings and is expected issue its own recommendations for the 2019 general election ballot.

Each of the three proposals approved this year included language around implementation, though some aspects will be left to certain individual and group decision-makers.

Proposal 1 - campaign finance reform
Proposal 1, which lowers campaign contribution limits in city elections and enhances the city’s public-matching campaign finance program, passed with 80.3 percent approval.

New York City’s voluntary public matching funds program, often seen as a model for the country, currently matches the first $175 of each campaign contribution at a ratio of 6-to-1. Proposal 1 raises the public match to 8-to-1 for the first $250 of a donation, thus increasing the impact of smaller donations, and will lower individual contribution limits to citywide candidates from $5,100 to $2,000, with lower offices like borough presidents and City Council members also seeing public match increases and lower contribution limits.

The goal is to empower small-dollar donors, giving their contributions a greater impact and disincentivizing candidates from depending on larger, wealthier donors and PACs. In theory, it allows first-time candidates not backed by deep-pocketed donors to run more competitive races.

The percentage of a candidate’s overall spending limit that can be received in public funds will be increased from 55 percent to 75 percent, and candidates will be allowed to receive public funds earlier in their races -- a change that could help insurgent candidates or candidates without deep-pocketed allies, but also could help incumbents rack up higher totals earlier.

Under the text of the amendment, the new campaign finance regulations will take effect on January 12, 2019. But, candidates who choose to participate in the public funds program and run for office in the 2021 primary elections can choose to opt out of the new rules, thus sticking with the current limits and system. Candidates must declare their intentions by July 15, 2019.

For non-participating candidates, meaning those who opt not to participate in the matching program, the limits and thresholds remain the same as they were before January 12.

All candidates participating in the public matching program will be brought under the new regulations starting in 2022.

The language of the amendment also includes a clawback provision should any of the changes to contribution limits and matching fund ratios be struck down in court. In such an instance, all the changes would be nullified except for the expansion of the public matching funds cap from 55 percent to 75 percent.

In all, the charter commission estimated that the new system would increase the amount of public funds disbursed to candidates by roughly 47 percent relative to the very busy 2013 city election cycle, which will in many ways be mirrored for 2021. In the 2013 cycle, the Campaign Finance Board doled out $38 million in public funds. Under the new rules, disbursements would have been an additional $18 million, for a total of $56 million, according to the charter commission’s staff research.

In last year’s elections, when there were fewer competitive races, the CFB gave out about $18 million in public funds, which would have seen an additional $8.5 million in public funds under the amended charter.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who unsuccessfully attempted to increase the public funds cap to 85 percent through legislation, was glad to see voters pass the improvements to the system. In a phone interview, he implied that concerns about the cost of the new system were overblown, and said that enhancing the system is key to eliminating real and perceived conflicts of interest.

“It’s far less than the city lost on Rivington, and whether it was a case of actual corruption or just appeared improper, it had significant cost to our city,” Kallos said, referring to the scandal around the city’s sale of Rivington House and related allegations of pay-to-play involving the mayor. “Just the defense of our city cost about $6 million,” he added in reference to the mayor’s legal bills accrued during law enforcement investigations of his fundraising that saw no charges filed. “So whether it is to save $100 million around Rivington or the $6 million in legal fees, it pays for itself.”

He continued, “When the next mayor’s going to have a budget in excess of $90 billion, [$18 million] to make sure that that elected official would only be accountable to the voters without the influence of big money is worth every penny.”

Gotham Gazette: Proposal 2 - civic engagement commission
Proposal 2, which creates a civic engagement commission tasked with implementing a citywide participatory budgeting program and other initiatives, passed with 65.5 percent approval.

The new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding efforts undertaken annually in City Council districts (currently in 31 of the 51 CDs), would have to be implemented by the commission by July 1, 2020. Participatory budgeting allows residents to vote on projects to spend a certain amount of funds in their Council districts.

The commission will also be tasked with improving translation services at voting sites and providing resources to community boards, as well as more generalized partnerships with community organizations to increase civic engagement.

The commission would remain a fixture after implementing its designated programs, and would be required to report annually on its programs, many of which can be by its own design.

The commission will consist of 15 members: 8 appointed by the Mayor, 2 by the City Council Speaker, and 1 by each Borough President. The mayor’s majority of board picks worried some that it would be a power-grab of sorts, given the wide latitude afforded to the commission with its mission of “enhancing civic engagement and strengthening democracy.” But in that respect, it is actually something of an improvement from the proposed Office of Civic Engagement, which would be completely under the mayor, per a bill introduced by City Council Member Brad Lander, who supported proposal 2 and celebrated its passage.

The commission will be empaneled on April 1, 2019.

Proposal 3 - community board reform
Proposal 3, which establishes term limits for community board members and institutes a set of new requirements around the community board application process and more, passed with 72.3 percent approval.

Community board members, who are appointed by Borough Presidents and currently allowed to serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, will now be allowed only to serve four consecutive two-year terms. At that point, members will be term-limited out, but they will be allowed to be reappointed after a two-year interregnum. Current community board members will be allowed to serve an additional four terms no matter how long they have served as of 2019. Thus, no current member will be term-limited off their board until 2027.

To prevent heavy turnover that year and the following year, appointees commencing their term in 2020 will be allowed to serve five terms.

Borough Presidents will also be required to seek out diverse candidates for community board appointments, ensuring that different geographic areas are adequately represented. The proposal mandates that borough president reach out to community organizations active in the district and also allows civic groups and neighborhood organization to submit nominees to the Borough President. Community boards as constituted today are often criticized for being older and whiter than the communities they serve. Younger and more diverse voices on community boards could lead to very different outcomes. Borough presidents will also be required to make applications for community board member positions available on their websites with detailed requests for information about members, including work and community experience, demographic information (which would be optional) and conflicts of interest disclosures, among other things.

While community boards do not have a binding vote on land use and development matters, local City Council members often strongly consider and align with their home community boards. Four of the city's five current Borough Presidents expressed strong opposition to proposals 2 and 3 (Brooklyn's Eric Adams was the lone exception) and worked unsuccessfully to defeat them.

The civic engagement commission approved in proposal 2 will also be required to provide additional resources to community boards, such as “urban planning professionals and language access resources.”

Though it received a higher vote share than proposal 2, proposal 3 was widely seen as the most controversial of the three during the election season. While proponents noted that community boards are often older and whiter than the communities they represent, opponents said the measure would lead to a brain drain to the benefit of real estate developers. The worry was that an influx of new members without land use knowledge would allow developers to run roughshod over community interests. In the end, voters took the side of the proponents.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Brachfeld contributed to this piece.

Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day Sun, 02 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000