Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/134 Mon, 28 Sep 2020 22:31:17 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Immense Change for City Agency Tasked with Bulk of Coronavirus Response Spending, Government Workforce Shift https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9412-immense-change-city-operations-spending-coronavirus-administration https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9412-immense-change-city-operations-spending-coronavirus-administration proj pantry si

Mayor de Blasio checking in on emergency efforts (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


More than two months after New York officials raised alarms that the state could run out of life-saving equipment, from ventilators to rubber gloves, New York City is one purchase order away from having a 90-day worst-case-scenario stockpile of medical equipment, officials said Wednesday.

New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) Commissioner Lisette Camilo told lawmakers the purchase order for ventilators was "in flight" at a City Council hearing on the agency's budget, held by videoconference Wednesday as part of the Council’s examination of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $89 billion executive budget plan for next fiscal year and changes to the current year’s spending.

The purchase comes as part of a $1.4 billion funding increase from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which more than doubled DCAS' current budget, and eclipses the $1.3 billion earmarked for DCAS in de Blasio’s executive budget for fiscal year 2021. De Blasio and the Council must come to a budget agreement by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

The agency's budget reflects the bulk of the city's coronavirus spending, accounting for almost two-thirds of what is already well over $1 billion, on everything from ventilators to electricity. DCAS is responsible for supporting the entire city government's administrative needs, from supplying PPE to the vehicle fleet to office space to personnel matters. While the agency has already committed hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-related expenses -- virtually all of which will likely be reimbursed by emergency federal aid -- the pandemic leaves several points of uncertainty for DCAS' budget, including future emergency spending, several ongoing projects, and the administrative infrastructure it maintains.

"In the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, our agency has played a critical role in supporting the continuity of government operations, as well as directly supporting the city’s COVID-19 response efforts," Camilo told the Council members who participated in the hearing, which was chaired by Queens Council Member Daniel Dromm, the finance chair, and Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the governmental operations committee.

"This crisis situation has affirmed the importance of our agency’s work because DCAS is here to support every other agency and the services each provides," she said.

As of April 27, DCAS had purchased $800 million worth of medical supplies including ventilators, PPE, and cleaning supplies for city agencies including the health department and the city's public hospitals, according to City Council budget documents. DCAS custodians have been sanitizing government buildings that have remained open. And as most of the city workforce has moved to remote work, DCAS has been responsible for handling personnel issues related to time off across city agencies.

The $1.3 billion for DCAS in de Blasio’s executive budget is a slight increase over its allocation in the FY2020 adopted budget, $1.28 billion, but dwarfed by the actual spending this fiscal year because of the pandemic, which more than doubled to $2.7 billion in a matter of months, according to a City Council analysis.

When asked by Dromm how much more the agency thinks it may need for COVID supplies in fiscal year 2021, Camilo said the administration is still undertaking that analysis: "We are working together in [the Office of Management and Budget] and our partners at other agencies to determine what longer-term needs will be. So that work is currently underway and we don't yet have an estimate."

"I think it depends on a number of different things," she added. "Certainly, any federal stimulus funds will have to be resettled. It depends on whether or not there is a resurgence [of COVID-19]. There are a lot of variables that come into play but we are certainly working together to try and develop estimates for the next fiscal year."

With the city facing upwards of an estimated $8.7 billion budget hole over the current and upcoming fiscal years, officials are looking for savings virtually across the board. DCAS, with its huge portfolio of contracted goods, services, and real estate, is appetizing territory to hunt for efficiencies.

The department's adjusted and proposed budgets for the current and next fiscal years include $23 million in savings, largely due to the pandemic, of which only $6.6 million occurs in the upcoming fiscal year, with the rest in the current fiscal year, according to the Council's analysis. The department believes it will save $6.8 million in the current fiscal year "primarily attributable to project delays due to facility access restrictions during COVID-19" and another $1.3 million next fiscal year from auctioning off part of the city's vehicle fleet, Camilo said. She said DCAS officials are still in the process of finding savings, especially related to the outbreak, for Fiscal Year 2021.

Many of the savings come from projects that have been put on hold because of the state's New York on PAUSE order, including several environmental initiatives like installing solar panels and retrofitting buildings to be greener.

"Generally through this pause I think we will see savings in a lot of categories," Camilo said. "Certainly the heat, light, and power budget, certainly possibly certain fleet exercises, certain commodities that probably went down because of the work from home orders. Since agencies have a lot of their workforce working from home you might have an impact on some of the procurement budgets. It's too soon to tell or quantify that number but we do expect some savings once the books get closed overall."

A number of the most drastic changes that could be made to government life in the wake of the pandemic, like the use of city vehicles, office equipment, and even the offices themselves, fall under DCAS' purview, the lawmakers pointed out.

The largest portion of DCAS spending is on heat, light, and power in government buildings, which accounts for $714 million in the mayor's proposed budget. Several lawmakers questioned whether DCAS has considered scaling back its use of buildings in the wake of the pandemic to save money.

Allowing more telecommuting going forward "would be a tool for social distancing to be able to have more space in our workplace," Camilo said. "I don't think that there is a cost savings with regard to working from home right now."

"But in the long run it would, right, because all those that do administrative work, they can do it from home," asked Cabrera, adding: "real estate is expensive out there."

"It is certainly a possibility but if you recall a lot of our workforce are on location doing things that can't be done from home," Camilo responded.

The DCAS budget actually includes $24.9 million more in lease payments over Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022 than in the adopted FY2020 budget, according to City Council documents. When asked whether DCAS was assessing the need for leased space for non-field administrative staff, and what the costs of breaking a lease might be, Camilo said the agency was having some high level internal conversations about leasing but that the agency was looking at more, smaller-scale changes.

"Part of our discussions is to identify many of options that we would need to explore further, and that is certainly on the extreme end that will have costs, that will have complications in planning and all the other cascading effects that we have to explore and study," she said.

"But it's something that I think has to be considered in addition to all the things that might not be as invasive," she added.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Immense Change for City Agency Tasked with Bulk of Coronavirus Response Spending, Government Workforce Shift Wed, 20 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8765-new-york-city-government-reporting-required-gaps-in-reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8765-new-york-city-government-reporting-required-gaps-in-reporting council holds oversight

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council regularly passes bills mandating that city agencies create reports on their work, ostensibly as part of the Council’s oversight responsibilities. From city jail populations to hate crimes statistics to use of force by police officers, the Council has passed bills requiring a report be delivered to it.

The Council passes so many reporting bills that last year, it passed legislation that would help it track the number of total reports required under local law, the City Charter, or mayoral order. The bill compelled the city’s Department of Records and Information Services to create a central list of every single report required from every city agency, board, or office.

The result: a 57-page document that lists a whopping 842 required reports of various types due at a variety of time intervals. Of those, 490 are listed as not received by DORIS, despite some being producing by agencies on a regular basis, raising questions for Council members about whether agencies are refusing to comply with the law or are overwhelmed with burdensome reporting mandates.

The Council often requests information from city agencies to gauge the effectiveness of city services and programs and to decide on annual budget allocations. City agencies, however, can sometimes be less than forthcoming, necessitating that the Council put the force of law behind their inquiries.

But agencies just as often fall out of compliance with their reporting requirements, which even City Council Members admit can be onerous and time- and resource-intensive. Council Members themselves can forget about their requests once they’ve been legislated. Some have questioned whether passing a “reporting bill” is good for a press release or constituent newsletter but leads to little follow up from the Council members who insist on their importance.

The initial posting of the list, which was due July 1, shows that the mayoral administration, city agencies and boards, and the Council have a long way to go to prove that the reporting bills so frequently passed are actually essential to effective and efficient city government, and getting completed and used.

“Transparency is essential for responsive and effective government. We need accurate and up-to-date information to be easily available to the public,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who sponsored the bill as chair of the governmental operations committee, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Cabrera inherited the bill from former Council Member James Vacca, who introduced it last session as chair of the technology committee but was term-limited out of office before it passed.

Cabrera said the bill was a response to a review that showed reports from several years either missing from agency websites or unavailable on the DORIS website. His legislation now requires a full list of all such agency reports, the frequency with which they are due, the law mandating them, and the date they were last published.

For example: The Department of Homeless Services’ shelter repair scorecard, due every quarter and last delivered to DORIS on July 15. The Department of Buildings report on injuries and fatalities at construction sites, produced monthly and submitted to DORIS but marked as not received on the list. The Department of Corrections’ latest report on punitive segregation in the third quarter of 2019, available on the DOC website but listed as last received by DORIS in July 2014.

Starting in January 2020, the report will also have to include links to the reports online, and DORIS will be required to request each report from a specific agency if it is not delivered within ten days of its due date.

“People have a right to easily access the information that the law requires be made public. This is about accountability,” Cabrera said.

For some agencies, such as the Department of Education, the Council also has a limited ability to pass new laws dictating policy or procedure, and has to instead rely on requiring greater transparency that can lead to better oversight. “There's nothing more meta than a report on reports,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, a member and former chair of the governmental operations committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, in a phone interview.

“As a legislator, I try to avoid legislation that requires a report, a task force or a study, because they always seem like a waste of time,” Kallos added. “I prefer to focus on legislation that just does things. That being said, with certain non-city agencies, we're left with no other choice.”

The current report includes dozens of city agencies and the information they are meant to publish everywhere from just once to monthly, quarterly, annually, or every two, five or ten years. The Department of Environmental Protection tops the list in number of required reports, with a total of 48; the Department of Transportation is second with 41; the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is meant to produce 35 reports; and the NYPD is mandated to provide 34.

A glimpse at the report of reports might give the impression that agencies are being negligent with their reporting responsibilities, given that 490 of the 842 are listed as not received. But the list is far from perfect. Those reports that are listed as having not been received include many that have been created and are regularly maintained by city agencies on their websites, which is part of the problem that Cabrera pointed to in his statement.

Ironically, the report even notes that DORIS itself has not submitted an annual report “on powers and duties, cost of savings,” as required by the City Charter. 

Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the discrepancies stem from processing the hundreds of required reports which, for a small agency like DORIS, is an intensive task. “It takes time,” he said. Reports may have been sent but not included in the list or have not been sent and DORIS has pushed agencies to provide them, he added.

“DORIS continues to expand content on the government publications portal by working with agencies to submit all of their reports, as required by the City Charter,” Bayona said in an email. The publications portal is meant to contain digital copies of every report produced so far by city agencies, commissions, and boards. “The number of reports available on the portal has increased from 4,180 in [Fiscal Year 2015] to 23,089 today.”

On DORIS’ annual report, Bayona explained, “DORIS submits data about its powers, duties and costs in the [Mayor’s Management Report] and considers that to be an annual report. Nevertheless, the Librarians listed the charter requirement for an annual report as a separate document because one of the Council’s requirements is that the Library list all required reports.”

For Council members seeking greater transparency from the administration, the report is illuminating, even with its deficiencies. “I can’t say I’m not disappointed,” Kallos said, pointing to the picture of “rampant non-compliance” that emerges from the report. He said agencies often withhold reports from the City Council that they are required to provide.

“It's no surprise that if they didn't send reports to the City Council, that they didn't follow their charter requirement to submit them to the Department of Records and Information Services. After all, very few people even know that DORIS exists.” He did concede that perhaps agencies themselves are unaware of their responsibility to send reports to DORIS, an issue that this new report might rectify.

Kallos said he often requests reports from agencies which they will send to the Council but not to him, leaving him to track them down. Then, agency officials will embarrass him at City Council hearings. “It's a game of cat and mouse in the very worst way of Tom and Jerry where the mouse actually clobbers the cat,” he said, noting that the DORIS report would help him in those efforts. “If there's a report I can't get my hands on and [DORIS] can't either, then it seems like maybe the agency didn't do their job.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and he said the report of reports is a valuable tool for the Council’s scrutiny of the administration but might also prompt a more “holistic” review of how the Council requests information.

“Reporting bills can be a powerful advocacy tool for shining a spotlight on a matter of public concern,” he said in a phone interview. “But here's the problem. Even if a reporting requirement has merit, the accumulation of the requirements over time becomes a real imposition on a city agency. The notion that a reporting bill has no fiscal impact is something of a myth.”

Similarly, as the city’s new reporting on reports law went into effect July 1, state legislators in Albany are looking into whether they are imposing burdensome “study bills” on state agencies. Polltico New York reported earlier this month that State Senator James Skoufis and Assemblymember Brain Barnwell plan to introduce a bill requiring an examination of state study bills. “We do need to, as silly as it sounds, study all of these study bills,” Skoufis told Politico.  “Perhaps if nothing else, it will shine a light on this issue and make us think twice about just doing study bills to make a political statement.”

Torres said the Council should refocus on a more demand-based approach to obtaining the reports they need, to ensure that the information being produced is not obsolete.

“Rather than have ongoing reporting requirements that persist in perpetuity, why not make the reporting requirements dependent upon written request from the City Council, from the Speaker or relevant committee chair?,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting Thu, 29 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In Second 311 Oversight Hearing, City Council Examines Agency Responsiveness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8271-in-second-311-oversight-hearing-council-examines-agency-responsiveness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8271-in-second-311-oversight-hearing-council-examines-agency-responsiveness Holden Yeger City Council

Council Members Holden, right, and Yeger (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The City Council recently held its second in a two-part oversight hearing on the city’s 311 system, the country’s largest non-emergency call center. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, the chair of the governmental operations committee, led both hearings. While the first hearing focused on system upgrades to 311 that are in process and language access, the second was organized around examining responsiveness by 311 to New Yorkers’ complaints and questions, often through how city agencies take up issues that come through the call center.

Cabrera stressed the importance of the second hearing, saying that “New Yorkers should be able to trust that a complaint filed with 311 will not languish in a void.” Joe Morrisroe, the executive director of 311, testified at the first hearing and returned for the second. He was joined at the second hearing by officials from seven city agencies.

Johnson’s primary concerns at the hearing were the quality of the data that 311 collects and transparency in regards to the status of complaints and service requests. “We see extensive data-quality issues,” he said, arguing that data errors prevent the public from following the progress of complaints, and ambiguous complaint resolution descriptions create confusion over agency responses. Johnson said poor data quality meant that the Council could not determine how or if many cases were resolved. He cited the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOMHM), Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), Department of Finance (DOF), and Department of Transportation (DOT) as city agencies with ambiguous resolution statuses.

The DOMHM and TLC each have 99% of their cases that are technically marked closed, but many also appear to be ongoing. Mark Lee, the TLC’s assistant commissioner for licensing and standards, said that he needed “to look into this data further” and that TLC is “proactively communicating to complainants, but we do need to get that reflected to the public.”

About 20% of rodent complaints to DOMHM were listed as resolved on a date before the complaint was filed, to which Johnson incredulously asked, “how is that possible?” Jeff Hunter, DOHMH assistant commissioner for environmental health and administration, said that this could be because multiple complaints were filed for the same location and the resolution date reflected the response to the first complaint.

The DOT and DOF had 46% and 74% of their respective complaint responses determined to be vague by the Council committee. Rebecca Zack, DOT’s assistant commissioner for intergovernmental and community affairs, said that the department’s vague responses directed customers to the DOT website for more information, instead of being resolved within the 311 system. Sheela Feinberg, DOF’s director of intergovernmental affairs, said that the vague responses were due to the sensitive nature of DOF service requests, which include personal information, and that DOF’s direct responses to complaints provide more information that what may be reflected in the Council’s data.

Johnson expressed frustration at how confusing the whole thing is, labeling the agencies’ differing response system to be “ad-hoc.” He suggested an inter-agency working group to work with the Council to improve the whole response system, and to “stop the insanity, there needs to be a better way.” He also expressed the importance of having the two hearings on 311, because “if people lose trust, they stop trying.”

Another major issue that came up frequently at the hearing was how agencies decide the order in which they respond to service requests. Most of the agencies outlined an internal system of prioritization based on a request’s impact on public safety. For example, Patrick Wehle, the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) deputy commissioner for external affairs, said that DOB typically responds to high-priority complaints within nine hours, the next level of priority can take up to 11 days, while lowest-priority complaints sometimes take up to three months. Most of the agencies present followed a similar prioritization hierarchy, representatives said. However, there were some exceptions, such as DOT, which schedules maintenance work, such as refilling potholes, for efficiency rather than by another priority, according to Zack. Council Member Cabrera asked if the volume of calls received about a particular issue affects an agency’s responsiveness. Zack said it depends on the issue, that DOT determines whether to adjust on a case-by-case basis.

The Committee on Governmental Operations also considered one bill proposal, sponsored by Council Member Robert Holden. Holden’s bill would require 311 to indicate if an agency is unable to respond to a service request or complaint. Morrisroe said that his agency “cannot support the bill’s intent in its current form.” He explained that the bill “would drastically change 311’s operations and would not allow it to fulfill its role of providing New Yorkers with the information they seek or help them submit and monitor their service request.” Morrisroe asserted that providing this information would go beyond 311’s “core competency” of making referrals to other city agencies. The bill was laid over by the committee, perhaps for tweaking or further consideration in the future.

Council Member Kalman Yeger voiced his frustration with the city agencies present, saying that 311 was not at fault, but the agencies are failing, calling it “a management problem at every agency.” He expressed particular frustration over the fix rate for rodent problem complaints, which is currently 30%. He said rodent complaints should have a “100% success rate and a picture of the dead rat in the response.” He ended his remarks (he didn’t ask any questions) by telling the officials present to “go back today to the office and say ‘that crazy guy from Brooklyn once again is letting loose with his microphone and maybe we could figure out a way that we don’t have this again.’”

Two agencies notably not represented at the hearing were the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Department of Sanitation, a fact noted by Holden. These two agencies interact most with the public, he said, so their responses to 311 complaints need to be reviewed. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Holden said in the hearing, about the absences of the NYPD and Sanitation.

During the hearing, Johnson did say that “despite these troubling issues, we do see some very positive things,” highlighting Sanitation for its clarity and responsiveness.

[Read: City’s 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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In Second 311 Oversight Hearing, City Council Examines Agency Responsiveness Sun, 10 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes Legislation Authorizing Electeds to Create Legal Defense Funds https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8224-city-council-set-to-pass-legislation-authorizing-legal-defense-funds https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8224-city-council-set-to-pass-legislation-authorizing-legal-defense-funds mayorcouncilfisacl

(Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


Update: This article was published on Wednesday and the City Council passed this legislation on Thursday afternoon with a 42-5 vote. Council Members Joe Borelli,  Chaim Deutsch, Steven Matteo, Carlos Menchaca and Eric ulrich voted against the bill. Council Member Jumaane Williams abstained from the vote. 

A bill that would allow elected officials to set up trusts to raise money from private sources to cover legal fees is set to be approved by the New York City Council on Thursday.

The legislation, sponsored by City Council Member Stephen Levin, would allow city officials to raise as much as $5,000 from individual donors through trusts, to pay for legal fees arising from criminal or civil investigations that are unrelated to their governmental duties, such as those involving campaign activity (legal fees related to government duties can be covered by public funds).

The trusts would have to file detailed quarterly reports on fundraising and spending with the city Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), and would be prohibited from taking donations from lobbyists, corporations, LLCs, and people doing business with the city. The reports will be posted publicly online.

Levin’s bill is meant to fill a gap in the city’s legal framework that allows elected officials to use taxpayer funds to cover their defense in investigations arising from their official duties, but not in the case of non-governmental activity. Mayor Bill de Blasio found that out the hard way after facing dual state and federal probes into his fundraising activities through outside nonprofit groups and, in one, related government actions, which eventually led to no charges being filed but left the mayor with hefty legal fees running into the hundreds of thousands, even after he reversed course to utilize public funds to cover the bulk of over $2 million in fees related to the federal inquiry of whether he directed government favors based on campaign donations.

The mayor initially sought to use a legal defense fund to cover the costs but the COIB issued an advisory opinion limiting any donations to a mere $50, viewing them as gifts to an elected official which are severely limited by law. The mayor then used public funds to pay for the costs related to his government duties -- about $2.6 million -- but said he could not cover a separate bill that related to his non-governmental activity. De Blasio is not the only elected official who has had significant legal bills to deal with related to their official or non-governmental activity, he and others have pointed out.

The legislation is scheduled for a vote at a hearing of the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee on Thursday morning, in what seems to be a rushed vote -- the bill was introduced on January 9 and the committee held an initial hearing on it last Monday, at which several questions were raised by COIB representatives and Council members. Spokespeople for Levin and for Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the bill is expected to pass through the committee and to be approved at a meeting of the full Council in the afternoon. It is very rare for any legislation at the City Council to move so quickly from introduction to passage.

The government reform community is split in its opinion on the legislation. Groups like Common Cause New York and Reinvent Albany have supported the effort to create a framework around legal defense funds, while another reform group, Citizens Union, disagrees with the very concept. In a letter of opposition sent to the Council on Wednesday, Citizens Union argued that the bill “creates the risk or appearance of corruption and undue influence, and will necessitate a complex regulatory scheme to mitigate.” The group urged the Council to, at minimum, tweak the legislation to bring donation limits in line with the lower limits that apply to campaign contributions.

The Campaign Finance Board, which monitors campaign fundraising and expenditure in municipal elections, also raised concerns about the bill. Executive Director Amy Loprest noted in her testimony before the governmental operations committee on January 14 that the legislation seems to allow officials to use trusts to pay for fines incurred from campaign finance violations. Officials can already cover those costs from their campaign accounts, which are subject to stricter fundraising limits.

“By providing certain candidates, i.e. those who are elected officials or public servants, with an additional vehicle to raise funds, Int. No. 1325 creates a path for those candidates to solicit and accept contributions from individuals that aggregate well over the existing contribution limits,” Loprest said in her testimony, urging that the bill be amended. “A clear majority of voters in last November’s Charter referendum voted to reduce these limits by more than half, with reducing the risk of corruption as the main rationale.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Passes Legislation Authorizing Electeds to Create Legal Defense Funds Wed, 23 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7547-city-council-hears-bill-on-charter-revision-commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7547-city-council-hears-bill-on-charter-revision-commission Fernando Cabrera

Council Member Fernando Cabrera (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


A day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced initial appointments to a Charter Revision Commission that he is convening to examine the city’s campaign finance laws, Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified before the City Council on their own alternative proposal to create a Commission to examine the structure of city government.

The Charter is the city’s seminal governing document, laying out the powers and functions of every level of city government. It is also a living document, and state law allows the mayor to create a 15-member Charter Revision Commission under his executive authority and also gives the City Council power to create one through legislation. Past mayors have availed of this power, some more than once. In February, de Blasio announced at his State of the City address that he intended to call a commission that could put proposals on the ballot for the November general election.

On Friday, speaking before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, James and Brewer advanced their proposal, which they had put before the Council in December and which City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently signed on to as a lead co-sponsor. (The hearing had been on the schedule all week, perhaps explaining the timing of the mayor’s Thursday announcement.)

As opposed to the mayor’s commission, where he appoints all 15 members, the James-Brewer bill would allow other elected officials a say in the process. The mayor would get four appointments, as would the City Council speaker. The five borough presidents, the public advocate, and the comptroller would each get to choose one member. An updated version of the bill grants the Council speaker the power to appoint the commission’s chair, a change that coincided with Johnson signing on as a co-sponsor and the Council pushing ahead with Friday’s hearing.

James, in her opening statement, lauded the mayor’s intent in creating a commission but said it suffers from the same problems as previous commissions: “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.” During his State of the City and since, de Blasio has indicated he wants his commission to focus on campaign finance and electoral reform, though he has acknowledged that by law the commission can look at the entirety of the charter.

“The bill you will consider today...is a vehicle for a truly democratic and holistic process,” James said. Although both James and Brewer spoke of changes to the charter that they would be glad to see -- for instance, a stronger role for the Council in city budgeting, a greater voice for communities in land use decisions, enhanced oversight of city agencies -- they emphasized that those were not mandates that their proposed commission would be charged with. (Perhaps the only issue that James said she would not want on the table is changes to term limits for elected officials.) Rather, they would empower a commission to deliberate on the entire charter with ample time to consider the ramifications of any changes -- their commission would make proposals to go on the ballot in 2019.

“Those discussions will not be had if the mayor simply appoints a slate of proxies and tells them what conclusions to reach,” said James, a Democrat like de Blasio, Brewer, and Johnson who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021.

James and Brewer also sought to dispel the notion that the commission they are proposing would competing with the mayor’s, pointing to the 2019 timeline and noting that they invited the mayor to join their effort. “This does not need to be a zero-sum game, or even a competition,” James said.

Brewer, in particular, emphasized that past commissions had been formed by mayors to fulfil particular agendas and that appointees of the mayor were unlikely to consider proposals that could curb, in any way, the power of the mayor’s office. “I think all of our ideas would benefit from the give and take and compromise that would be necessary in a commission not controlled by any one elected official,” she said.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the committee, praised the bill and said he supported it because it was a “far better approach” than the mayor’s. “It will be a charter revision for everyone,” said the Bronx Democrat.   

But, Council Member Kalman Yeger, who was just elected to the Council in November, wasn’t sure about the proposal. “My perspective is that I have some discomfort with outsourcing my work, if you will, to an unelected body of 15 people,” he said, noting that though the speaker may get appointments on a commission, the other 50 Council members would not. He also raised concerns about proposing ballot referenda in 2019, an off-year in the election cycle when voter turnout is expected to be extremely low.

James pushed back against those concerns. “I believe we should democratize this process,” she said, acknowledging that all the stakeholders in the commission would have to work hard to engage voters and generate interest in the revision process.

Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, also pointed out what is most ironic about the two commissions: that they are being proposed by Democrats who ardently opposed holding a Constitutional Convention to examine the state constitution, which was a question on the ballot last November. Both Brewer and James conceded that though they opposed the ConCon, as it was colloquially called, the charter revision process has sufficient checks and balances, particularly with diverse appointees on a commission.

James also noted that one of the big fears about the ConCon was about the individuals behind the curtain who would control it, which isn’t the case with their proposed commission. “There is no Wizard of Oz in this particular process,” she said. “It’s the Manhattan borough president and Letitia James, who you both know and work with.”

Representatives for the four other borough presidents also testified in support of the bill, as did a number of government reform groups and advocates.

Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager at Citizen Action of New York, encouraged the Council to set aside funds for a public education campaign to engage voters in the charter revision process. The bill currently calls for the Commission to hold at least one hearing in each of the five boroughs and to conduct extensive outreach to civic and community leaders.

Fritz also advocated for amending the bill’s prohibition on appointing lobbyists to the commission, insisting that it should ensure that only lobbyists employed by for-profit entities should be barred, and that those who advocate for non-profits should be allowed to serve. Otherwise, “it would exclude virtually the entire New York City good-government community, including the sorts of advocates who are testifying before you today,” he said.

Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs, has also testified before an expert panel of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On Friday, he emphasized that any new commission should “articulate clear and compelling goals” related to broad subject areas such as governmental structure and land use, without which it would be directionless. He also said the commission should look at the unfinished business of past commissions, and “beware the unintended consequences,” though he didn’t offer specifics.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the bill was “skeletal” and should add language to ensure that staff of those elected officials making appointments should be excluded from working for the commission. She also questioned why Speaker Johnson would be allowed to appoint the chair of the proposed commission, as opposed to the commission members choosing their own leader.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, had a few prescriptions for a potential commission. He said the speaker and mayor should jointly appoint the chair of the commission;  and stressed that the commission should abide by the state’s Freedom of information and Open Meetings laws, and should require public posting of events, materials, reports and archives.

He also suggested that the bill include language requiring commission members and staff to solely use government emails to carry out their work and that any lobbying directed at the commission should be publicly reported.  

Camarda also encouraged the Council and mayor to work together on one commission, warning that two commissions could result in “conflicting policy, public confusion, excessive politicization, inefficiency, and litigation.”

“There is no doubt two commissions convened in the same year would be unprecedented in recent memory and create a high degree of uncertainty,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission Fri, 16 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Favorable to The Bronx, Council Committee Shuffle Also Seen as Retribution https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7452-favorable-to-the-bronx-council-committee-shuffle-also-seen-as-retribution https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7452-favorable-to-the-bronx-council-committee-shuffle-also-seen-as-retribution Kallos Salamanca City Council

Council Members Ben Kallos, left, and Rafael Salamanca (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


When new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson reshuffled committee portfolios earlier this month, Council Member Ben Kallos lost his position as chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations. Sources say the move was punishment for Kallos’ approach to Board of Elections commissioner nominations and because of his support for one of Johnson’s opponents in the speaker race.

By virtually all accounts, Kallos had done an exceptional job chairing the governmental operations committee during last legislative session, from 2014 through 2017. He led the way on a slew of reforms to campaign financing, government transparency and accountability, and was viewed by good government advocates as a valuable partner on the Council. He was praised by many, and snickered at by some, for his independence.

But, with the election of Johnson as speaker, committee portfolios would be changed, with significant influence from the Queens and Bronx Democratic county organizations, which gave Johnson the backing he needed to ascend to what is arguably the second-most powerful position in city government behind the mayor.

Kallos, who multiple sources say wanted to keep chairing the committee, was among a small number of members left out in the cold. His committee chair position went to another member, Council Member Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx, and Kallos was instead assigned to lead the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions, which falls under the land use committee. He was named as a member of the governmental operations committee, among others.

Kallos declined multiple requests to comment for this article.

The Committee on Governmental Operations has a broad purview, overseeing several city agencies including the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the Campaign Finance Board, the city Board of Elections, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, and the Law Department, among others. The committee also has oversight of the city’s 59 community boards.

Government reform groups generally praise Kallos’ leadership of the committee. “He raised a lot of good government issues that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day, and he raised them on the merits,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, in a phone interview. “Maybe that miffed people at times but they were important issues to be raised and I don’t think that warrants removal from the chairmanship.”

As chair, one of Kallos’ priorities was to reduce patronage hires at city agencies, particularly the Board of Elections, a bipartisan body where positions are filled by the county organizations for both parties. Patronage, Kallos said, invariably leads to conflicts of interests and the appointment of subpar employees. The BOE’s ten commissioners -- one from each party in each borough -- are nominated by the county committees and confirmed by the Council. The commissioners play a crucial role in deciding who gets to be on the ballot in elections and in interpreting state election law.

In 2016, Kallos was among those members who rankled the Bronx Democratic County Committee, led by Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, by insisting that a nominee for Democratic commissioner from the Bronx be required to give up her registration as a lobbyist in order to be confirmed as an elections commissioner. The nominee, Rosanna Vargas, initially refused but later relented. Vargas is now the president of the Board of Elections.

“The Queens and Bronx county committees felt that Council Member Kallos wasn’t a team player with regards to BOE appointments,” said one source with knowledge of internal county party dynamics, when asked about Kallos losing his committee chairmanship, and speaking only on the condition of anonymity.

Council Member Cabrera told Gotham Gazette that while he did not push to chair the governmental operations committee, he was “excited” to be offered it. “There were different options that were being put forth, but as soon as it was presented to me, I said that I was very eager to do so,” he said at City Hall recently. Cabrera did not serve on the committee in the last term but was co-sponsor of a few bills under its purview.

Cabrera said he would pursue legislation to improve the city’s campaign finance system, which is centered around public matching of low-dollar contributions and is held up as a national model, and would look to expand voter engagement in a city known for low turnout in the last few elections. “I’m a team player,” he said, insisting he will approach legislation and oversight collaboratively with his colleagues, “and so this is not a solo dance that we’re going to be doing here. Working with the administration as well, we want collaboration.”

He said he sees “eye-to-eye” with Kallos. Asked if Kallos was punished for opposing the Bronx County’s BOE pick in 2016, Cabrera pleaded ignorance. “To be honest with you, I have no knowledge, I don’t even know what you’re really referring to, honestly,” he said.

“I do know he did well,” Cabrera added. “I have to tell you he got, and I spoke to him, he got a very good committee. It’s a committee you can do a whole lot with. Anything related to finance. It’s one that has influence and can bring systemic change.”

The subcommittee Kallos now chairs feeds the land use committee now being chaired by Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx, an appointment by Johnson perhaps most indicative of the rewards provided to the county for its support of his speaker bid.

Kallos was a known supporter of Council Member Mark Levine’s bid for the speakership of the Council. Levine was among the frontrunners for the post, but was unsuccessful after the Bronx and Queens County Democrats coalesced around Johnson, who gained the backing of those vote-rich counties in part because he had also secured individual support from about ten other Council members, according to Johnson.

“A land use subcommittee is as important or more important than a lot of full committees, honestly,” Levine told Gotham Gazette at City Hall earlier this month. He refused to speculate on why Kallos lost his chair position but said that Kallos was “amazing” as chair of the committee. “I think reshuffling of committees is a standard practice in any new term. Very few people continued in the same committee...the movement is natural.” he said. “I’ll tell you this about Ben Kallos, he’s going to be a leader in this body, no matter what portfolio he’s handed. He’s one of the smartest and most effective legislators I know. So he’s going to be impactful without a doubt in the next four years.”

Asked about the decision to give the chair position to Cabrera, Council communications director Robin Levine referred Gotham Gazette to Johnson’s remarks at a January 11 news conference immediately after the new committee chairs were voted on by the full Council. She did not address a question about whether Crespo wanted Kallos removed from the position.

At the news conference, in response to a question from Gotham Gazette, Johnson emphasized that the committee appointments were a complicated task. “Every decision that was made...when you moved one piece around, it affected the rest of the matrix,” he said. “So that’s why we spent the whole weekend here. That’s why I met with every individual member. That’s why we were in conversations, of course, with the county leaders.”

“The process was a consultative process that, number one, involved the members,” he continued. “Number two, involved of course having conversations with the county leaders, with the mayor -- he wanted to understand who would be chairing certain committees -- with certain labor unions who played a role in this process, with members of Congress, with members of the Assembly, with members of the state Senate. There were over a hundred people who were calling every day for a week wanting to try and ensure that certain people got certain things.”

“I was really trying to make everyone as happy as I could, by being as flexible as I could, by being as creative as I could and to try and give different people avenues for leadership and avenues to work on issues that matter to them,” Johnson said.

In a statement through a spokesperson, Crespo did not directly respond to a question on whether he pushed for Kallos’ ouster. “As it has been in the past, City Council committee chairs frequently change at the start of new legislative terms,” Crespo said. “Our focus is to always advocate for our members in the Bronx delegation of the City Council and in doing so, providing the city and our constituents sound and steady leadership. The primary focus should be on the fact that an important committee now continues to have strong leadership with Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera as chair.”

One Council member, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the committee appointments, said Kallos was a victim of a combination of factors. “I think it was an accumulation of the running into the counties on BOE, running up against Corey in the speaker’s race, and he’s also got some very complicated land use stuff in his district as well. Probably didn’t help this matter either, he’s seen as very anti-development,” the Council member said.

But, the Council member added, “He could have fared worse.” Indeed, some other Council members who opposed Johnson’s bid or supported his opponents appeared to come away with less. Among those were Council Members Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams, neither of whom was given a committee chair position after having led the rules committee and the housing and buildings committee, respectively, in the last term. Lander did retain his position as Deputy Leader for Policy.

“Is everyone 100 percent happy? No. Are some people happier than others? Yes,” Johnson said at the January 11 hearing where the new committee chairs were confirmed. “I did my best...There was no level of vindictiveness towards any member of this body from me, there was no level of vindictiveness, there was no score-settling, there was no keeping track of what happened during the Speaker’s race.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Favorable to The Bronx, Council Committee Shuffle Also Seen as Retribution Mon, 29 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes 'Open Budget' Bill Mayor Has Yet to Support https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7287-new-york-city-council-passes-open-budget-legislation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7287-new-york-city-council-passes-open-budget-legislation 15610942274 2c68194eaf z

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)


The New York City Council passed legislation on Tuesday mandating that the government agency that oversees the city’s $85.2 billion annual budget provide all budget documents to the public in an easily accessible and machine-readable format.

The legislation, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, requires the Office of Management and Budget to post documents released in the annual budget process to the city’s open data portal within 10 days of posting them on their website. OMB produces multiple iterations of the city’s budget each year as the annual expenditure plan is negotiated between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council. These include the preliminary budget proposal, the executive budget proposal and the final adopted budget, each of which contain hundreds of pages with detailed breakdowns of agency spending and city revenues. The agency also issues a budget modification document in November.

“I want to know where every single penny in the budget is,” said Kallos. “We’ve already got a lot of this implemented, but the parts of the budget that matter are still hidden behind thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of pdfs that can’t be searched, let alone analyzed.”

Kallos’ bill would make reams of expenditure and revenue reports searchable online and downloadable in bulk, providing an added level of transparency to city budgeting, he says. “With this legislation, whether it’s a member of the City Council, City Council staff or any resident will be able to actually see where the dollars are being spent and really hold the administration accountable.”

An ardent advocate of government reform and a software developer himself, Kallos has consistently pushed the de Blasio’s administration to increase the amount of data available on the open data portal. The administration, for its part, has made significant progress since the city’s open data initiative was first launched in 2012 by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Kallos believes this latest bill will build on that effort. “We spent years working with the administration, working with the existing financial management system to ensure that it could be done,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of the budget up.”

It’s unclear whether the mayor will sign the bill into law, although he has yet to veto a single bill passed by the City Council. “We look forward to reviewing the legislation,” said Freddi Goldstein, a mayoral spokesperson on budget matters, in an email.  

The bill would go into effect immediately if the mayor signs it, but it would only cover future budget documents and would not apply retroactively. Under de Blasio, the city’s budget has increased by 17.2 percent, from $72.7 billion in the last modification under Bloomberg to $85.2 billion for fiscal year 2018.

Kallos held out hope that past budgets would eventually be included on the open data website. “I would love to be able to compare our city’s budget going back as far as we have records for,” Kallos said.

[Related: City Releases Latest Progress on Open Data Plan]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Passes 'Open Budget' Bill Mayor Has Yet to Support Tue, 31 Oct 2017 21:05:18 +0000
A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7127-a-rarity-city-council-candidate-releases-detailed-reform-agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7127-a-rarity-city-council-candidate-releases-detailed-reform-agenda powers petitioning stuytown keithpowersnyc

City Council candidate Keith Powers (photo: @KeithPowersNYC)


Candidates across the city this year are running for City Council on all sorts of issues, but only one has released a detailed list of government, campaign finance, and voting reform proposals. That agenda, called “Sunlight in the City,” has been put forward by Keith Powers, a Democrat competing in the crowded field to replace term-limited City Council Member Dan Garodnick on Manhattan’s East Side.

At a time of widespread distrust in government, continued problems with public corruption and unethical conduct, and low voter turnout, especially here in New York, Powers’ agenda is especially noteworthy. The 22-point platform on government and electoral reform in New York City is something of an amalgamation of longtime goals for voting reform advocates and good government groups. Some of the measures have actually already been passed or implemented; some have to be approved at the state level.

Powers’ reform agenda also comes as he is has been attacked by opponents for his work as a lobbyist -- he was until May a vice president at the firm Constantinople and Vallone. Sunlight in the City includes several planks directly related to lobbying, including more disclosure of lobbying meetings held by City Council members and more detailed lobbyist reporting to indicate, among other things, “who got lobbied, who did the lobbying, and the specific bill or subject matter.”

Some of the mainstay priorities of electoral and government reform advocates that appear in Powers’ platform include a move to instant runoff voting for all city elections and lowering the number of City Council issue committees to diminish patronage and redundancy in the legislative body. These planks have been proposed in the Council and, in the case of instant runoff voting, at the state level, but have gone nowhere.

Powers also calls for lowering the individual contribution limit to Council candidates campaigns from $2,750 to $1,225, “to make small donors and large donors equal in their donation capacity.” Ideally, his agenda says, he wants to see 100% publicly financed elections in the city to replace the city’s current matching funds mechanism, starting with a pilot program for special elections. Kallos introduced a bill to increase the matching funds payout for Council races “to a full match with the expenditure limit,” which is currently in committee.

A few planks in the platform are already in place, such as the closure of the “doing business loophole” that allows those doing business with the city to circumvent donation limits by giving to political nonprofits. The loophole was closed in a bill passed by the Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016, after the mayor himself was investigated for issues related to his own political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, which was shuttered amid controversy.

“I think it’s important we’re always sort of constantly evaluating our process by which we do government or help get people elected or otherwise,” Powers said in an interview, “we can always do better.” He indicated he believes the City Council is, in most cases, a model for transparent government, but that there’s still more that can be done.

In part because of his reform agenda, Powers has received the endorsement of City Council Member Ben Kallos, himself an advocate of open and ethical government and the representative of a neighboring Council district to the one Powers hopes to represent. Kallos also chairs the Council’s government operations committee, which often hears bills related to government and campaign finance reform.

“In terms of his Sunlight in the City report, it is a list of the 22 items that the City Council is currently working on or should be working on to really clean up government,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Kallos said that he hasn’t seen anything like it from anyone running this year.

While few City Council candidates are talking about government and campaign finance reform, Democratic mayoral hopeful Sal Albanese has made the topic central to his attempt to unseat de Blasio. Albanese has proposed a significant campaign finance reform to completely eliminate private money from the system, something de Blasio has said he favors in theory, but has not advanced legislation on.

Powers acknowledges the difficulties in getting some things on his list passed, but said that shouldn’t be a reason to not try.

“I think the City Council reform, I think that is the one where I look at as there being a lot of really achievable ideas in there,” said Powers, citing the creation of an independent bill drafting unit as something that many legislators are clamoring for, despite the existence of such a unit. The unit was part of a package of Council reforms passed in 2014, but Powers believes that these reforms can go further; regarding the drafting unit, Powers believes the current iteration is an improvement, but that it should be even more autonomous in instances such as the number of bills that can be introduced at a given time.

Another Council reform Powers sees as achievable deals with bill aging. Currently, a bill ages seven days after introduction for public input, but Powers claims that it just sits in City Hall and is essentially unavailable to the public. He believes it should publicly age online.

Powers said that the challenge of moving some of the reforms through the state government shouldn’t be a deterrent, that the city shouldn’t be “abdicating our authority to Albany.” Kallos said that the voting reform planks, other than ending patronage at the Board of Elections, don’t have to go through the state Legislature. Many of the other planks need city passage, some can be done through City Council rules.

On closing doing business loophole, which already became law, Powers conceded to have not known the full extent of the legislative package that was passed. He also was largely nonspecific on his proposed additions to the 2014 member item reform, stating that there’s a lot to look at where the Council can “do better.”

The Powers agenda received an enthusiastic response from democratic reform group Citizens Union, which interviews candidates and releases preferences in some city elections based on good government bona fides.

“Keith Powers has put forward an ambitious and wide-ranging plan to increase transparency and accountability, and bring some needed sunlight to the New York City Council. While we do not support all of his proposed reforms, Citizens Union has long been advocating for several of them and will continue to do so in the upcoming session,” said Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s Public Policy director.

For example, Citizens Union is not in support of the full public financing of city elections plank of Powers’ platform -- the organization “feel[s] that candidates should have to raise money in the districts they seek to represent,” Bloom said. However, it is supportive of Powers’ proposed pilot program in special elections. The organization has not yet made its preference in the Council District 4 race or any other.

In the Democratic primary to be voted on September 12, Powers is competing against Marti Speranza, Jeff Mailman, Bessie Schachter, Maria Castro, Vanessa Aronson, Barry Shapiro, Rachel Honig, and Alec Hartman, none of whom have released government reform platforms, though Shapiro called for transparency in lobbying in a campaign video.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

 

The Citizens Union candidate interview and preference process is wholly separate from Gotham Gazette operations. Gotham Gazette does not endorse or support candidates for office.

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A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda Mon, 14 Aug 2017 20:28:30 +0000
Bill Seeks Fix to Conflicts Disclosure Deadline for Candidates https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7011-bill-seeks-to-fix-conflicts-disclosure-deadline-for-new-york-city-candidates https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7011-bill-seeks-to-fix-conflicts-disclosure-deadline-for-new-york-city-candidates 26412389754 0977bb6ae3 z

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council Committee on Governmental Operations met on Monday to discuss a bill to relax the deadline for candidates seeking public office to submit disclosure reports to the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB).

COIB is a city agency tasked with enforcing conflicts of interest laws for public officials and preempting potential conflicts for those seeking elected office. Candidates for public office are required to submit financial disclosures to the agency detailing, among other information, their sources of income, assets, liabilities, and positions held in any organization. These disclosures are then made available to the public, with the goal of ensuring that elected officials do not take office with financial ties to outside interests that may impact their decisions as public servants.

The proposed bill, Intro. 1517, would allow candidates an additional 30 days after the deadline for submitting ballot petitions to disclose their financial information. The petition submission deadline, which is July 10 this year, is the date by which candidates seeking public office must obtain a set number of signatures, depending on the office he or she is seeking, to gain ballot access. Currently, all candidates must file a disclosure report to COIB “on or before the last day of filing his or her designating petitions pursuant to the election law,” as outlined in the City Charter.

This current framework, according to Julia Lee, director of annual disclosure and special counsel at COIB, produces a “Catch-22 situation.” Since the COIB is not aware of who delivered petitions until after the petition deadline, the Board is “unable to notify candidates of their obligation to file an annual disclosure report after they are already out of compliance,” she said. The penalty for such a violation ranges from a $250 to $10,000 fine.

The bill, she said, “would remedy this problem” by giving the COIB sufficient time to notify candidates and to provide reports to the public before an election.

Extending the deadline would also level the playing field between first-time candidates and seasoned politicians, argued Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the committee and prime sponsor of the legislation. “Experienced candidates, or candidates retaining lawyers or compliance professions, may be knowledgable about the financial disclosure deadlines,” Kallos said. “New candidates, however, may lack such experience or the funds for experienced campaign staff.”

Kallos recalled that he failed to meet the disclosure deadline himself when he ran for City Council in 2013, noting that campaign novices are often not aware of the disclosure requirements until it is too late. “There is a potential for such candidates to be disproportionately impacted and found out of compliance before they are ever notified of the requirement,” he said.

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Bill Seeks Fix to Conflicts Disclosure Deadline for Candidates Mon, 19 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Members Question Campaign Finance Board Audit Process https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6934-city-council-members-question-campaign-finance-board-audit-process https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6934-city-council-members-question-campaign-finance-board-audit-process greenfield nyccouncil

City Council Member David Greenfield (photo: @NYCCouncil)


At a City Council hearing on Friday, representatives of the city’s Campaign Finance Board expected to answer questions about their proposed budget for the next fiscal year but instead found themselves defending their processes for post-election auditing of campaigns.

One of the Campaign Finance Board’s prime functions is to perform detailed examinations of how candidate campaigns utilize funds and whether they adhere to the strict requirements of campaign finance law. These post-election audits sometimes take years to complete and can involve hefty fines, in the range of thousands of dollars, for campaigns that are found to have committed campaign violations. They can also involve repayment obligations for candidates who receive public matching funds from the CFB.

Of the 234 campaigns from 2013, the last city election cycle year, the CFB has completed audits on 214, with a few more slated for completion next month, according to testimony at the hearing from CFB executive director Amy Loprest. Some of those 214, including that of Mayor Bill de Blasio, were completed earlier this year. Audits of two campaigns from the 2009 election cycle also remain incomplete, Loprest said, owing to a long-running investigation in one campaign and a legal challenge by another.

For City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, and City Council Member David Greenfield, a committee member, those delays in audits are just one reason that they believe the CFB’s system is flawed and in need of change. In December, Kallos, Greenfield, and other Council members ushered through nearly two dozen campaign finance related bills, some of them tweaks to how the Campaign Finance Board operates. Several of the measures were based on recommendations from the CFB, others were seen as addressing problems with the CFB identified by Council members and their consultants.

The Friday hearing did touch on the CFB’s budget needs for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1 and in which there will be a citywide election with a primary in September and a general election in November. These city elections account for a massive increase to $56.7 million for the 2018 fiscal year from last year’s CFB budget of $16.17 million.

About half of the proposed budget, $29 million, is allocated to the public matching funds program, which provides participating campaigns with 6-to-1 matches of small contributions up to $175. Another $11 million will go to printing and distributing a voter guide for the upcoming election.

But Kallos seemed more concerned that the board was spending more money, and time, on auditing campaigns than the money they received from resolutions of those audits. When Loprest told the committee that the CFB’s candidate services unit has seven full-time employees and the audit unit has 26, Kallos insisted that the CFB should dedicate more resources to candidate services and campaign liaisons, so campaigns can preemptively steer clear of missteps in navigating a complex campaign finance system, and avoid fines and penalties down the line.

“We’re trying to balance the needs of the work and be fiscally responsible,” Loprest said, welcoming the idea of more personnel funding for candidate services.

“I guess I have an overarching concern here,” Kallos responded, “just that you’re spending four times more on auditing and penalizing candidates than you are on supporting them and your candidate-to-liaison ratio far exceeds what would be allowed in a public school at this point [for student-to-teacher].” He said the candidate services unit should at least be on par with the audit unit, to provide more personal attention to campaigns, and later floated the idea of legislation to mandate it. “I feel a bill coming up,” he said.

Kallo also questioned the CFB’s spending on lobbying the state Legislature to push election and voting reforms, arguing that perhaps it needs to focus its attention closer to home in the city. The CFB’s mandated voter outreach arm, NYC Votes, engages in efforts around voter awareness, voter registration, and election law lobbying.

Greenfield was more vociferous in his rebuke of the system, repeatedly interrupting and talking over Loprest as she sought to defend the necessity of the in-depth auditing process.

Loprest told Greenfield that more than half of the 214 campaigns from 2013 that had been audited received some or the other penalty or a repayment obligation, which is not always considered a violation since it can involve leftover funds in a campaign’s account. Greenfield wasn’t pleased with the answer, seeing it as an indication that the program is faulty. “Either there’s a program that is designed for people to fail...or you’re not spending enough time and resources helping people through the program,” he said.

He added, “To me that’s a very serious concern about how the system works. If we have a system where most people who are part of the system end up failing the system, then the reflection is not on the people, rather it’s a reflection on the system.”

Greenfield said the system was unfair, painting candidates as having committed wrongdoings, as opposed to minor accounting mistakes. “Every time one of these things happens, our very capable reporters...they blow it up,” he said, pointing to the press section in the City Council chambers to illustrate his point (Greenfield repeatedly gestured toward the press section and referred to stories that look like more than they really are).

Loprest refuted his contention about CFB violations. “Many of these things are more akin to parking violations,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s fair, it’s very high stakes,” Greenfield said, interrupting Loprest and insisting that CFB violations are not as “benign” as parking tickets. “To compare it to parking tickets, I don’t think that’s really fair because you’re a government agency and the implication is that these people are engaged in some sort of wrongdoing and it gets blown out of proportion.” He pressed the point that the CFB’s audit process is in fact discouraging electoral participation, particularly for first-time candidates, and needs to be simplified.

Although Loprest pushed back, she did concede near the end of the hearing that the process could be better and that the CFB was already taking steps to that end. “One of the things we’re engaged in right now is a review of our audit processes in order to to make the audit process simpler and more streamlined,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Members Question Campaign Finance Board Audit Process Mon, 15 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000