Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/163 Mon, 24 Jun 2019 21:50:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) NAACP, Anti-Smoking Groups Press City Council Speaker on Bills Banning Flavored Cigarettes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8614-naacp-anti-smoking-groups-press-city-council-speaker-to-back-bills-banning-flavored-cigarettes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8614-naacp-anti-smoking-groups-press-city-council-speaker-to-back-bills-banning-flavored-cigarettes press conf flavored

Council Members Levine, center, & Cabrera, behind him (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York chapter of the NAACP and four of the nation’s largest anti-smoking groups are urging City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to support two bills that would effectively ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in New York City. The groups recently sent a letter urging Speaker Johnson to bring the two proposals up for a vote in the City Council.

The first bill, Intro. 1345, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera, would end an exemption in a previous city law that banned the sale of flavored cigarettes to allow for the continued sale of menthol, mint, and wintergreen flavors.

The second bill, Intro. 1362, sponsored by Manhattan Council Member Mark Levine, who chairs the Council’s Health Committee, would ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.

The American Heart Association, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Lung Association, and American Cancer Society joined the NAACP’s New York State Conference in calling for flavored tobacco products to be banned in New York City. They say the tobacco industry uses flavored products to specifically target young people and communities of color.

“We strongly urge you to enact two proposals pending before the Council – both cracking down on flavored tobacco products that lure and addict our children,” reads the letter.

The letter states that 85% of African-American smokers use flavored productions (compared to 29% of white smokers). These organizations believe this is a leading reason why “African Americans suffer the greatest burden of tobacco-related mortality of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.”

Last year, youth e-cigarette use, which increased 80% in 2018, was declared an “epidemic” by the U.S. Surgeon General. The advocacy groups’ letter points to a survey that found that “81.5% of youth e-cigarette users and 73.8 percent of youth cigar users saying they used the product ‘because they come in flavors I like.’”

The letter calls these trends “simply unacceptable” and implores Speaker Johnson to act on the issue. Both bills were first introduced in January and hearings were held in that same month, but there has been no change in the legislation’s status for five months, save additional sponsors signing on.

In May, all five borough presidents signed on to a letter drafted by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams supporting the two bills. Both Adams, who has made public health a signature issue, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. are considering runs for mayor, as is Johnson, who has also had a focus on health and chaired the Council’s health committee last term.

Johnson has been waging a public battle to quit smoking cigarettes, recently tweeting that he had hit 40 days without one (he told Gothamist he bought a juul, but did not indicate if it is flavored).

“The Council is always working to improve the public health outcomes of all New Yorkers, and we are continuing to review these proposals as they go through the legislative process,” according to a spokesperson for Johnson, who did not indicate where the speaker himself falls on the bills.

Neither bill has a majority of sponsors in the Council.

Eighteen of 51 Council members have sponsored Cabrera’s bill. “Flavored tobacco leads to the preventable deaths of thousands of New Yorkers each year and it is people of color and our children who are most at risk of getting hooked,” Cabrera said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We must move quickly to significantly restrict menthol cigarettes and flavored cigarettes in our city.”

Fourteen Council members have sponsored Levine’s bill. Twelve of the 14 also sponsor Cabrera’s bill. “To protect kids and our communities, we have to end the sale of flavored tobacco products in New York,” Levine said in a statement, adding that he is “working hard in the City Council to pass legislation to ban these products and ensure they can no longer be used to addict the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

Some anti-tobacco advocates have posited that the bills haven’t moved because the National Action Network, a civil rights organization led by Rev. Al Sharpton, has come out against Cabrera’s proposal.

During the Council health committee hearing on the bills in January, Kyra Stephenson-Valley, NAN’s cessation coordinator, said “it is proven that increased regulation does not necessarily stop users, but rather criminalizes addicts without resource,” pointing out that there have been “disparate impacts.”

She went further, declaring that “bans and prohibitions can lead to an increase in negative interactions between law enforcement and African-Americans.” She also alluded to Eric Garner’s death, saying “history has shown us here in New York City that can take your life over a loose cigarette.”

In addition to City Council testimony, according to Politico, NAN “has held town halls at prominent black churches throughout the United States to talk about how menthol bans criminalize the black community.” According to a spokesperson for Council Speaker Johnson, Sharpton has mentioned the issue to him in passing, but has not directly lobbied Johnson or the Council.

City Council Member Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat who supports Levine’s bill but not Cabrera’s, said in a statement, “I have been an ardent supporter of stricter laws on smoking but want to ensure that no community feels targeted.” He did not respond when asked whether any individual or group personally lobbied him against Intro. 1345.

According to FairWarning, NAN receives funding from R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco company in America. The company produces Newports, which are the nation’s best-selling menthol cigarette brand. According to FairWarning, R.J. Reynolds’ donations to NAN are part of a broader corporate strategy of “seizing on the hot button issue of police harassment of blacks to counter efforts by public health advocates to restrict menthol sales,” with the help of prominent African-Americna leaders and advocacy groups.

The tobacco industry has a long history of employing similar tactics. According to the CDC, tobacco companies have historically attempted “to maintain a positive image among African Americans have included such efforts as supporting cultural events and making contributions to minority higher education institutions, elected officials, civic and community organizations, and scholarship programs.”

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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NAACP, Anti-Smoking Groups Press City Council Speaker on Bills Banning Flavored Cigarettes Tue, 18 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8601-council-passes-campaign-finance-bill-roiling-early-mayoral-race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8601-council-passes-campaign-finance-bill-roiling-early-mayoral-race Johnson Kallos City Council

Council Members Kallos, left, & Rodriguez, right, with Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council passed a much-anticipated, controversial campaign finance bill Thursday, raising the cap on how much public funding a campaign can receive and altering other dynamics of the city’s matching system. The bill -- the source of significant consternation over the past several days, particularly among likely 2021 mayoral candidates - passed by a vote of 41-6, with one abstention, and three absences.

The legislation, which Mayor de Blasio has indicated support for, increases the public matching funds ceiling so that campaigns are able to raise only smaller donations and still have enough money to hit their spending limit. It also has a retroactivity component, a bill change within just the past 10 days, that caused a stir and appears likely to impact several upcoming races, including the Democratic primary for mayor.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a likely 2021 mayoral candidate, and City Council Member Ben Kallos, the lead sponsor of the bill, defended the legislation, including retroactivity that will make candidates return money raised in 2018 above new lower donation limits if they choose to opt into the newer of two programs that has more public matching.

That portion of the bill stands to benefit Johnson and hurt competitors like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“We are literally doing something that is entirely consistent with what we did three months ago and now all of a sudden we are being criticized for it,” Johnson said at the press conference, referring to actions the Council took to make new campaign finance rules approved by voters last year apply to the special election for Public Advocate.

Johnson, who pledged in January not to take any donations larger than $250 as he explores a mayoral run, said he has long supported the legislation and it has nothing to do with the race. He and Kallos also pointed out that the retroactivity component was discussed during an April hearing on the bill and recommended by the Campaign Finance Board so that an entire four-year election cycle would be run by the same rules, for whichever of the two programs candidates choose.

Still, neither Kallos nor Johnson had a clear answer for why the amendment to the bill had come so close to the Council’s votes on the matter.

Johnson noted the difficulty in creating legislation that affects lawmakers themselves.

“It’s hard to vote on these things because every time you do you’re potentially affecting yourself and your colleagues in what you do. It’s one of the challenging things you deal with as a current elected official when you start to look at the system that exists and you seek to improve it or change it,” Johnson said.

“For the current election cycle, just like we did for public advocate, when no one criticized it, you need to pick option A or option B,” Johnson said at the press conference. “No one is being forced to opt into the 8-to-1 [matching] system. We are just saying if you are going to opt into one system, be consistent throughout the entire cycle,” Johnson said.

If Stringer or others opt into the new system, they would receive its 8-to-1 match on all qualifying donations $250 or under, but under maximum individual donations of $2,000 (down from $5,100 for citywide candidates), and they would, based on the new Council bill, have to return the difference on any donations above the new maximum. That last aspect is what has driven Stringer and others to call Johnson out.

Others have criticized the bill for using more taxpayer money.

“I’m not sure how we look a homeless person in the eye and tell them we can’t find them an affordable place to live but don’t worry we have money for our next campaign mailing,” Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, said on the Council floor before the vote. He voted no, as he had done in committee on Tuesday.

Supporters of the bill pointed out it’s potential to decrease the power of special interests and large donors in politics.

“I can’t believe we’re standing here having an argument over how much big money people should get to take after the voters said they want politicians to get less big money,” Kallos said at the press conference.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say to me ‘I don’t want my dollars matched.’ The public match is increasing participation and the taxpayers, the residents actually like it. They like having their voices amplified and direct access to elected officials that they otherwise wouldn’t,” Kallos added.

“There’s a lot of cynicism in government because people feel like big donors have too much access in government, and here’s a way to take big money out and have it be publicly financed,” Johnson said at the press conference.

Representatives for Stringer, who would likely have to return the most money under the new system, if he sticks with the program of lower donation limits and higher matching, called Johnson amending the legislation and pushing it through a “brazen power grab” and using his government position to advantage his campaign.

“Johnson is rushing through a law that explicitly benefits him,” wrote Stringer spokesperson Tyrone Stevens on Twitter. “It’s deeply unethical and it’s not good government. Shame on him.”

"I’m a firm believer you don’t change the game in the middle of the game,” Adams told the Max & Murphy podcast on Wednesday, “...any major changes in the system should not be beneficial to any party involved. And I think that’s part of what Scott Stringer was saying." Adams said he wasn’t yet sure which of the two campaign finance programs he’ll choose.

A spokesperson for Diaz Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.

At the Council on Thursday, among those voting no was Yeger, who sits on the Committee on Governmental Operations, which first heard and passed the bill, sending it to the full Council. Joining Yeger in opposition were Council Members Mark Gjonaj and Ruben Diaz, Sr., both Bronx Democrats, and the Council’s three Republicans: Council Members Eric Ulrich, Steven Matteo, and Joseph Borelli.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller was the sole abstention. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who was absent for the committee vote on Tuesday, was also absent for the vote by the Council, despite having been present during the press conference preceding the full Council meeting.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race Thu, 13 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8593-amid-controversy-council-moves-ahead-with-campaign-finance-bill-extending-public-match https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8593-amid-controversy-council-moves-ahead-with-campaign-finance-bill-extending-public-match committee gov op

Council Members Yeger, left, and Cabrera, right (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Significantly more public funding of political campaigns appears on the way given legislation that the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations passed on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, aims to prevent corruption and increase engagement with local communities by adjusting the public matching funds system to allow candidates to raise only relatively small donations and receive enough public money to reach the spending limit in their race.

Though the bill has over 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council and passed the committee 4-1 on Tuesday, a last-minute amendment to the legislation caused a significant stir, including accusations of impropriety by Comptroller Scott Stringer against City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both likely mayoral candidates in the next election.

Expected to be passed by the full Council on Thursday, the bill lifts the cap on how much public funding – or taxpayer money – a participating campaign can receive from Campaign Finance Board. The cap, currently set at 75 percent of the spending limit for participating candidates, would rise to 89.9%, effectively making it a full match relative to the spending limit when the private funds involved are also taken into consideration.

The city’s campaign finance system currently has two tracks, “Option A” and “Option B,” that only apply to the 2021 election cycle, before the newer of the two programs takes full hold. That program, “Option A,” includes lower individual donation thresholds and matches the first $250 of individual contributions at an 8-to-1 ratio for a maximum disbursement of $2,000 in public funds per contribution.

These rules are the result of a November 2018 referendum that both raised the disbursement cap and increased the public matching ratio. But it also left in place the old system, which has much higher contribution limits and matches the first $175 of donations at 6-to-1.

Different offices, from citywide posts like mayor and comptroller to borough presidencies to City Council seats, have different donation and spending limits.

The change to individual contribution limits in Option A dropped the maximum donation limit from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates who opt into that program.

Related to that new donation cap, an amendment to the legislation being passed this week has caused a rift among mayoral candidates and raised eyebrows around city government.

The amendment requires candidates who opt into the new system to return contributions from 2018 that go over the new maximums, which could mean a $3,100 return on each maximum donation for participants.

The November referendum allowed candidates participating in the system to choose between the new rules – with the higher public match but lower contribution limits – and the old rules until 2022, when candidates will have to conform entirely to the new rules to receive public funds. The 2021 city elections are expected to be highly competitive, crowded affairs, with almost all city seats open due to term limits.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of several likely mayoral candidates in the upcoming election, would be particularly impacted by the amendment. He’d have to return many thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the past year if he wanted to opt into the new matching system. As first reported by the Daily News, Stringer viewed this amendment as a “brazen power grab” by fellow mayoral candidate and Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“The voters passed a groundbreaking campaign finance system to clean up government, not corrupt it,” a Stringer spokesperson said. “Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself. The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

A spokesperson for Johnson reiterated that it’s optional for candidates to return their contributions and said that the amendment was created at the recommendation of the CFB.

“The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency,” Jennifer Femino, a spokesperson for Johnson, said. “That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

Council Member Kallos stressed to Gotham Gazette that not only did the CFB recommend retroactivity because it would then make administration of the program easier, but that Kallos led an extended conversation on changing the bill to include retroactivity during the initial April hearing on the legislation. The amendment wasn’t made until just days before the committee vote, however.

On Tuesday, governmental operations committee member, Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, referenced the Stringer-Johnson rift during the hearing, though he didn’t name either of them. He said he was “certainly sensitive to the concerns that have been raised amongst those who are current candidates that feel this bill has a negative impact on them,” but remained supportive of the bill and voted yes.

There was opposition to the bill at the hearing, from City Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat. He said it disregards what the voters decided with the 2018 referendum and amounts to little besides another big dip into taxpayers’ pockets.

“It doesn’t seem to me that when the voters voted in November, they put an asterisk next to their vote and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re voting for, but just in case you get a chance, take some more money out of our pockets and do this a little better,’” Yeger said. “I don’t think we got that message. I didn’t get that message, that’s not what I heard. What I heard was, there was a yes/no question, and the yes won.”

Yeger was the sole no in the 4-1 vote, with Council Members Kallos, Powers, Alan Maisel, and committee chair Fernando Cabrera voting to approve. Two committee members were absent from the vote: Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and Bill Perkins.

The bill now goes to the full Council for a vote on Thursday. If it passes there, it will go to Mayor Bill de Blasio for likely approval.

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by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

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Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Speaker’s Bill Requiring ‘Master Plan for City Streets’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8590-city-council-to-hear-speaker-s-bill-requiring-master-plan-for-city-streets https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8590-city-council-to-hear-speaker-s-bill-requiring-master-plan-for-city-streets corey jo public

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


[Note: this hearing was indeed held on Wednesday June 12; this article is a preview of the hearing]

On Wednesday, the New York City Council transportation committee will hold a hearing on a bill sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson that would mandate the creation of a five-year “master plan” for city streets with a variety of specifications aimed at making the city more friendly to bikers and pedestrians, and less deferential to cars. If passed and implemented, the legislation would have a major impact on the physical landscape of the city and how New Yorkers, as well as visitors to the city, get around and utilize public space.

The plan, which Johnson first announced during his State of the City speech earlier this year, in which he called for municipal control of subways and buses and for ‘breaking the car culture’ in New York, is widely seen as a response, and complement of sorts, to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero street safety program. It calls for substantial increases in the number of new bike and bus lanes created each year, as well as additional pedestrian plazas, and more.

De Blasio launched Vision Zeroed in his first year as mayor, 2014, with the goal of bringing the number of traffic-related fatalities to zero by 2024. While it has been successful, some, including Johnson, believe de Blasio is not moving quickly enough to make city streets safer and more welcoming to those who get around by bus, bike, and foot.

While the city has seen a significant reduction in traffic-related fatalities since the inception of Vision Zero, there’s been a spike in fatalities so far this year compared to the same period last year. The uptick has prompted intensifying calls for de Blasio to do more for the initiative.

Johnson will preside over Wednesday’s hearing on his bill along with City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the transportation committee. The committee will also hear a bill from Council Member Carlos Menchaca that would allow bicyclists to obey traffic signs and signals as if they were pedestrians instead of cars.

The speaker’s master plan legislation would require the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue and implement a master plan for the use of streets, sidewalks, and pedestrian spaces every five years.

“The way we plan our streets now makes no sense and New Yorkers pay the price every day, stuck on slow buses or risking their own safety cycling without protected bike lanes,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “That’s why I said in my State of the City speech that I want to completely revolutionize how we share our street space, and that’s what this bill does. This is a roadmap to breaking the car culture in a thoughtful, comprehensive way.”

Representatives from the DOT are expected to testify at the hearing, along with others from transit advocacy groups and members of the public.

“This last few months have been really tough and we – it’s painful because we have had five years of steady decreases in traffic fatalities,” de Blasio said during a May 10 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. In 2013, the year before de Blasio took office, there were 297 traffic fatalities (among those in cars, on bikes, and on foot) in New York City. That number has fallen virtually each year since to 202 in 2018.

Under de Blasio’s approach to Vision Zero, “projects are too often planned on a one-off basis, leaving the fate of their actual implementation up to the inscrutable push and pull of local politics,” Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen said in a Transportation Alternatives press release about Vision Zero. “In each case, the final outcome is too often determined by who yells the loudest, and not by what will save the most lives.”

Families for Safe Streets is an advocacy group of victims of traffic violence and families whose loved ones have been killed or severely injured by aggressive or reckless driving.

“We need to think seriously about how we share space on our streets,” Johnson, who does not own a car himself, said in March. “Cars cannot continue to rule the road.”

Ten cyclists have been killed in crashes so far in 2019, matching the total number for all of 2018. Johnson’s legislation champions cyclist and pedestrian safety, prioritizing their safety over the convenience of cars. It includes provisions to improve public transportation, especially buses, to incentivize its use.

“Giving our streets back to people is good for business, good for the environment, and good for all New Yorkers,” Johnson said in March, referencing his call for more pedestrian plazas, which often shut off some ground previously open to cars.

Over the course of de Blasio’s five-plus years in office, Vision Zero has continued to evolve, including several announcements this year. De Blasio and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced a new “Vision Zero action plan” in February to “target the next wave of streets and intersections the City will make safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers,” using crash data to target some of the most dangerous streets and intersections for alterations, including different signal timing to give pedestrians a head start before cars are able to move.

“Over the last four years, DOT’s groundbreaking Borough Pedestrian Safety Plans have enabled us to target our resources where they will save the most lives,” Trottenberg said in the February press release. “In these updated plans, we have used the freshest data to identify new crash-prone corridors and intersections most in need of our full menu of safety interventions.”

More recently, thanks in part to new legislation in Albany, the city announced its plans to add hundreds more speed cameras near schools across the five boroughs. And on Monday, de Blasio and Trottenberg announced the formation of the “Better Buses Advisory Group,” which will help the administration plan and execute the “Better Buses Action Plan” “to increase bus speeds by 25% across the five boroughs by the end of 2020.” The action plan includes 300 more “Transit Signal Priority” intersections, automated camera and NYPD enforcement of bus lanes, improvement of five miles of existing bus lanes per year, installation of 10 to 15 miles of new bus lanes per year, piloting “up to two miles of physically separated bus lanes in 2019,” and working with the MTA on bus network redesigns that are underway.

The Johnson bill would require DOT, which oversees Vision Zero, to achieve specific benchmarks for street redesigns, protected bus lanes, protected bicycle lanes, bicycle parking, pedestrian spaces, commercial loading zones, truck routes, and parking. DOT would be held accountable for the status of the implementation of each benchmark on an annual basis.

“Smart street design saves lives. We need to make our streets safer. We need to break the car culture. When we make our streets safer, we make our streets better. We know this, but we’re moving way too slowly,” Johnson said in March.

Breaking “car culture” does not mean completely stopping people from driving, said Marco Conner, interim executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group in support of the bill. However, “the extent to which our streets are saturated with cars and trucks is not something that we need,” Conner said during an appearance last week on the Max & Murphy podcast. “And so the ideal New York City that I imagine is one where everyone in New York can get around without a car if they have to.”

Mayor de Blasio has not yet expressed approval of Johnson’s plan, instead expressing concerns about some of the bill’s “specifics.” He declined to mention what specifics he found concerning.

“Now we have aggressive plans in our budget to keep changing street designs to make them safer. So I think there’s a lot of agreement on the basics, some of the specifics we have to work through,” de Blasio said on May 10’s Brian Lehrer Show.

“We have a plan out already to aggressively continue to build out bikes lanes, and it’s a very costly plan, but it’s the right thing to do,” de Blasio said during a question and answer session following a press conference on crime statistics. “It also takes time to do these things. So, I think the plan we have now is the right plan.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation declined to provide insights into how the DOT will testify at the hearing, saying the tesimony was still in process.

City Council Member Menchaca’s legislation will also be heard at the hearing. His bill would establish that “bicyclists crossing a roadway at an intersection must follow pedestrian control signals when local law, rule or regulation provides that those signals supersede traffic control signals.” The hearing follows a pilot run by DOT that showed significant reductions in fatalities on some of the city’s most historically dangerous streets.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Hears Speaker’s Bill Requiring ‘Master Plan for City Streets’ Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Effort Launched to Elect LGBTQ Members to City Council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8543-effort-launched-to-elect-lgbt-members-to-the-city-council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8543-effort-launched-to-elect-lgbt-members-to-the-city-council  

ritchietorres ch230

 (photo: @RitchieTorres)


On the steps of City Hall Wednesday afternoon, a coalition of LGBTQ rights advocates and current and former City Council members announced the launch of an initiative to elect queer candidates to the Council in 2021, when 35 seats will be open because of term limits.

There are currently five members of the 51-member City Council who identify as LGBT, all of whom are a part of the body’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus, and all of whom are not elligible for reelection to the Council: Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Danny Dromm, Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Carlos Menchaca.

The effort launched Wednesday, dubbed “LGBTQ in 2021,” is intended to ensure that the outgoing cohort of Council members from the queer community is replaced by another, larger, and more diverse group of LGBTQ electeds.

“We want to make sure that we elect lesbians to the City Council, we want to ensure that we elect transgender women to the City Council, we want to ensure we elect LGBT people of color to the City Council,” Speaker Johnson, who is openly gay and HIV positive, said to cheers from the audience assembled.

A number of other Council members were also present at the press conference, including Dromm and Torres of the LGBT Caucus, as well as former Council Members Tom Duane, who was the first openly gay person elected to the City Council, and Elizabeth Crowley, who has helped spearhead the “21 in ‘21” initiative to elect more women to the City Council, which was the inspiration for the project announced Monday. The City Council currently has 12 women out of its 51 members.

In the next City Council election in 2021, at least 35 of the body’s 51 seats will be open, meaning no incumbent will be running.

Whereas incumbents enjoy incredibly high reelection rates, races for open seats tend to be vastly more competitive, often comprising more candidates and resulting in narrower margins of victory. Initiatives like LGBTQ in 2021 and 21 in ‘21 are harnessing the opportunities of open seats at the same time that they are meant to combat any loss in representation that may result.

Coming out is “the deepest political thing anyone can do. And that goes for people who are out in legislative bodies. There is no substitute for a seat at the table,” Duane said at the press conference. “We have elected people here in New York City, but we have many more people that we need to get elected to the City Council.”

The coalition, which also includes LGBTQ Democratic political clubs like the Stonewall Demorats and advocacy groups like New York Transgender Advocacy Group and Queer-Amisú, plans to recruit and support queer candidates to run for City Council through training, mentorship, and networking resources. At the moment, LGBTQ in 2021 has a social media presence but an informal operational structure as its members determine its direction. It is currently focused on City Council elections, but may expand its mission in the future.

“It’s only been ten years since Queens has had openly gay elected officials,” Dromm reminded the crowd, after acknowledging Duane and other predecessors as rolemodels for him. “And of course we began to see the Council expand in terms of the numbers of openly LGBT people who were in it.”

“Invisibility is our biggest enemy,” Dromm added. “We had no role models in those days.”

Members of the coalition have drawn lessons from their personal experiences and those of activists in a number of overlapping and intersecting causes -- namely the struggle for LGBTQ rights in New York and nationally, but also the Civil Rights Movement and movements for gender equity.

Melissa Sklarz, a transgender activist, 2018 Assembly candidate from Queens, and former president of the Stonewall Democrats, spoke after Dromm. “I don’t think invisibility is a problem. It’s fear! ‘I can’t run for office, Melissa, I don’t know what to do.’ We’ve got a solution for that. We know what to do. We’ve been involved, we have passion, and vision, and experience, and intelligence. We will help you.”

Torres, a Bronx Democrat planning to run for Congress in the 2020 election, emphasized the active nature of this type of recruitment and mentorship operation. “Progress doesn’t happen by accident. We have to organize for it, we have to fight for it, we have to recruit candidates, raise funds, knock on doors, and win elections,” Torres said. (Sklarz later told reporters that LGBTQ in 2021 does not have plans to raise money for candidates, but intends to educate them on how to create a campaign, and can assist with staffing and grassroots efforts in their neighborhoods.)

Along with the aforementioned groups, the coalition includes Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Lesbian Gay Democratic Club of Queens, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, NYC Pride and Power, and LGBT Democrats of Color.

“One of the epiphanies of the Civil Rights Movement is the realization that progress is not inevitable even when it has the aura of inevitability,” Torres observed. “We had more LGBT members of the City Council two years ago than we do today. Or when it comes to gender inequality...we had more women in the City Council in the 1990s than we do today.”

Despite overall progress made in LGBTQ representation in New York City elected office, members of the coalition pointed to significant shortcomings in the political landscape and barriers that still need to be overcome.

Ivy Frias of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group wondered why “only one letter of the LGBT community is represented here in the City Council,” referring to the fact that the City Council’s current queer membership are all gay men. “I think it’s time, as a queer, nonbinary, Dominican person, to tell you guys that it’s time to be here,” Frias said, adding later, “the LGBT community is beautifully diverse and intersectional.”

Sklarz also identified barriers. When asked whether she intends to run for City Council after her unsuccessful bid for the Assembly last year, she told Gotham Gazette, “Where I live is a difficult Council race. Neighborhood is everything. So however big my visage may be in the LGBT community, it’s very difficult in my neighborhood to run for City Council.” The 22nd Council District in Queens, where Sklarz lives, has been represented by Costa Constantinides since 2014 and has never had an openly queer Council member. Constantinides is term-limited and likely to run for Queens Borough President.

Those dynamics at the neighborhood level can play out in the Council itself. “There continues to be places in New York City where even vicious homophobes can be and have been elected to the City Council,” Torres told the crowd. “The homophobic antics of [City Council Member] Ruben Diaz Sr. is a cautionary tale of what happens when we, as a community, take for granted the inevitability of progress.” (Diaz Sr., who was recently punished by the Council for his latest homophobic remarks, is seeking the same congressional seat as Torres.)

“If you think someone’s going to come and save the day for you, then you’re naive. We’re not going take that chance,” Sklarz said to applause. “LGBT people are going to come together, we are going to create a moment, we are going to take care of our own, and make sure something happens.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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Effort Launched to Elect LGBTQ Members to City Council Wed, 22 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'Blow Up the MTA'? Not Yet https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8532-blow-up-the-mta-not-yet https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8532-blow-up-the-mta-not-yet state otc ad spk co jo del

Council Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


With subway and bus riders so frustrated with poor service, it is understandable that city leaders are talking about changing the governance of the MTA and its New York City Transit (NYCT) division as a solution.

Most notably, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has come up with a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided plan to break NYCT off from the MTA and vest full responsibility for its funding and operation in a mayor-controlled structure he’s named Big Apple Transit, or BAT. BAT would run the city transit used by millions of New Yorkers every day.

The speaker and I, along with MTA Board member Veronica Vanterpool and moderator Charles Komanoff, appeared Wednesday evening on a panel to discuss his plan, part of the Theodore Kheel Fellowship Program at Roosevelt House at Hunter College.

The appeal of the speaker’s plan has been enhanced by Governor Cuomo’s pre-election (and continuing, although to a lesser extent) protestations that neither he nor anyone, really, controls the MTA and is responsible for improving how it operates.

But shifting from MTA to city government control would only substitute New York City-centric political challenges for regional ones, and could well make some of the system’s problems worse. Attention and effort would more usefully be focused on reminding the current MTA Board of its fiduciary responsibility to the agency, not to the Governor, demanding more transparency and requiring serious oversight by the State Legislature.

It is far easier to argue for city control of subways and buses than to get into the weeds of how to reform MTA procurement, why and how to install a new signal system, or the need for work rule changes in union contracts. But these are the dynamics that need change the most.

There are several reasons why a shift in control of subways and buses from a regional to a city authority would be problematic.

First, the separation of city buses and subways from the rest of the MTA’s assets runs counter to the long-term goal of creating a more integrated regional transit system. More than 1.1 million people commute into New York City to work. They swipe their metrocards half-a-million times a day. We need these workers to contribute to the city’s economy, shop, and pay sales taxes in addition to bridge tolls and fares that help support the buses and subways. We need to be thinking about how to better connect Westchester and Long Island transit systems (and yes, New Jersey and Connecticut as well) to the city’s, not allow them to exist in siloes.

Second, even if it were desirable, a new Big Apple Transit would not be financially viable. We have a Metropolitan Transit Authority because it serves, and derives revenue from, seven suburban counties in addition to the five boroughs of New York City.

The Payroll Mobility Tax and the dedicated regional sales tax are levied on businesses and activities in the region with suburban counties as well as residents and businesses paying a significant share. In particular, the PMT generates more than $1 billion per year for NYCT. This tax was vehemently opposed by suburban legislators when it was adopted in 2009 and it has repeatedly been subjected to various exceptions. The state Legislature agreed to make up some of the lost revenue from the exemptions.

Can there be any doubt that if NYCT were separated from the regional MTA the state Legislature would quickly and gleefully cease providing the lost revenue from the exemption from the PMT and might well suspend or redirect other regional taxes designated for the MTA exclusively to the LIRR and Metro North?

This could mean that city residents and businesses would be required to make up the loss of some of the $2 billion in annual revenue from sales taxes, ride-hail surcharges, mortgage transfer fees, etc. now devoted to the NYCT. Even if replacement of these revenues with local taxes were acceptable to the public(!), there is no guarantee that the state Legislature would grant New Yor City authority to impose them.

And the subsidy from general state revenue would be at risk as well. The governor has made his view on this clear: “If New York City took [transit] over, they take it over. They don’t get the state funding.”

Speaker Johnson’s proposal assumes that all regional and state subsidies to NYCT would remain in place and even then, he projects the city would need to come up with an additional $1-1.5 billion in revenue a year. The loss of any or all state and regional support, totaling almost $3 billion a year, could make the shortfall overwhelming and would require significant increases in fares and other taxes. And the shortfall would be even worse if there is a recession.Will city taxpayers and riders put up with absorbing all of that?

It is of course undeniable that the MTA Board structure obscures accountability. But it is necessary and appropriate for a regional transit system to have representation of all the impacted counties on its board.

Nonetheless, the Mayor has more appointees than anyone besides the Governor, who also appoints the CEO/Chair. After all the drama of the last year over service disruptions, the declaration of a state of emergency to expedite repair work, the announcement of the Fast Forward Plan, and the governor’s last-minute intervention and rejection of the planned shutdown of the L line for a modified plan, it is now abundantly clear that the buck stops with the Governor.

Yes, the Board needs to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities, be more transparent and exercise better oversight, but merely switching ultimate responsibility from one elected official to another will not change the fact that, so long as public transit is a public responsibility, it will have political leadership that shies away from making tough decisions.

To properly maintain and improve 24-hour bus and subway service, fares need to be regularly and steadily raised. Service needs to be suspended on some lines for periods of time so they can be properly maintained and repaired. A Board appointed by the Mayor will not find these decisions any easier than one controlled by the Governor, especially if it has to generate even more revenue because of the absence of state and regional tax support.

It is clear that one of the main drivers of NYCT cost growth is personnel. Why will the Mayor be any more likely than the Governor to resist the power of the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) and other labor unions? Notwithstanding Governor Cuomo’s intervention in 2014 to forge a contract settlement with transit unions – with no productivity initiatives or fringe benefit savings to offset wage increases – TWU head John Samuelson is already threatening a strike in response to recent exposés on overtime abuses and related criticism. A Mayor would be even more susceptible to these kinds of threats.

Disjointed regional transit planning and administration, possible loss of substantial state and regional funding, a fraught environment in which to implement fare increases, raise taxes, and negotiate labor contracts – these are the likely results of “blowing up the MTA.” Better to focus on practical, feasible steps to make the MTA work better right now. Reinvent Albany recently published a report with 50 Actions New York Can Take To Renew Public Trust in the Metropolitan  Transportation Authority that contains many worthwhile proposals. Among the most significant:

-The MTA Board should vote on policy decisions, not adopt them de facto though contract approvals.

-The Senate and Assembly should create committees dedicated specifically to oversight of the MTA, not treat it as part of the general Transportation or Authorities Committee jurisdiction where the MTA region are not well-enough represented.

-MTA Board members should be subject to a real, thorough vetting and confirmation process.

-There should be much more open data on contracts, project progress, budget and capital planning.

-The MTA fiscal year should be moved to begin in July instead of January, so state budget actions can be taken into account in financial planning.

-Procurement should be streamlined so there are fewer incentives for change orders and cost overruns.

Instead of devoting time and attention to the idea of putting different people in the seats on the deck of the Titanic, let’s work on getting the ship into stable waters and smooth sailing by insisting on competence and accountability from the crew we have.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

 

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

 

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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'Blow Up the MTA'? Not Yet Thu, 16 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Johnson Unveils Criminal Justice Agenda with Focus on Reducing Jail Population https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8533-johnson-unveils-criminal-justice-agenda-with-focus-on-reducing-jail-population https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8533-johnson-unveils-criminal-justice-agenda-with-focus-on-reducing-jail-population Corey Johnson criminal justice speech

Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced on Thursday a package of proposals aimed at reforming New York City’s criminal justice system to be more fair and equitable, building on changes championed by progressive politicians and advocates in New York and Albany over the last several years.

Johnson presented a vision of criminal justice in New York based on refocusing the system away from incarceration and expanding the tools available to pursue his version of justice and public safety.

Speaking at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, Johnson told the audience, “Going forward, our default response to most arrests should be diversion, treatment, and rehabilitation – not incarceration.”

His package of reforms includes proposals to deal with matters of economic justice, sex work and gender discrimination, and mental health, as well as technical aspects of criminal justice policy. Some of the changes must be approved by state government, some through city government, where Johnson has significant sway as the leader of the legislature, and some he can move based on the power and funds at his disposal, he said.

“These critical reforms and investments in alternatives to incarceration at every stage of the justice system are essential to creating a more efficient and effective justice system,” said former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who now chairs the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which was empaneled under Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who had a significant criminal justice focus and pushed for the closure of the jails on Rikers Island, eventually winning over Mayor Bill de Blasio.

As both crime and the city’s jail population have fallen to record lows, Johnson’s proposals are meant to accelerate those trends, which is essential for restorative justice, he said, as well as closing the Rikers jails. In 2017, the mayor and Mark-Viverito announced a plan to close the Rikers jails in ten years, contingent on siting four borough-based jails and reducing the jail population to 5,000.

That projection was recently modified to 4,000 detainees in nine years, thanks largely to bail reform in Albany, which passed the Democratic-controlled state Legislature earlier this year and will go into effect in 2020. The changes to the law eliminate the use of cash bail in most misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases, the use of which has contributed to the disproportionate incarceration of poor, black, and Latino people.

Johnson’s proposed and planned efforts build on initiatives and proposals from the Council over the past few years, which included policies to reduce criminal penalties and stem the flow of New Yorkers into the jail system. Whereas Johnson’s main area of focus in a little over a year as speaker has been mass transit, his pivot toward criminal justice reform echoes Mark-Viverito, who made it a central part of her platform -- passing the Criminal Justice Reform Act to divert cases from the criminal justice system to the civil system, and creating the commission to explore shuttering Rikers that eventually forced de Blasio’s hand.

Johnson’s policy speech addressed some of the same issues by focusing on individuals prior to incarceration and eliminating charges, fines, and technical violations that trap people inside the cycle of incarceration and recidivism. The individual reforms he announced point to systemic problems that net communities along broad lines of race, class, and gender, which he named and took aim at during his speech.

Police Accountability
The speaker began his speech addressing accountability for individual police officers, who are often the first point of contact between New Yorkers and the criminal justice system. “We need to repeal 50-a, the state law that allows the NYPD to shield police officers from public scrutiny,” he said.

The state’s Civil Rights Law, section 50-a, was until recently an obscure, decades-old statute that has newly been interpreted to prevent the public disclosure of police and correction department personnel records, including disciplinary records.

It is a factor in the high-profile NYPD administrative trial of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer accused of choking Eric Garner to death in 2014, because, while the trial is open to the public, the final decision to discipline him may be shielded by the police department. A resolution in the City Council, introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, calls on the state Legislature to repeal 50-a, though only 13 Council members have signed on and the speaker is not one of them.

Both Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have expressed support for major changes to 50-a, but it has not been an apparent point of conversation in Albany.

Technicalities
For many incarcerated people, jail is the result of technicalities that fall outside the criminal acts that originally brought them to the criminal justice system. Johnson is proposing reforms to parole, which he says would address the roughly 600 people (8 percent of the jail population) who are behind bars because they failed to meet some requirement of their parole, like missing an appointment with a parole officer or not passing a drug test.

His plan includes a program to identify people arrested for parole violations as soon as they are jailed and “fast track” them to release. A second program would “work directly with parole judges to identify individuals they don’t think should be sent back to prison,” and put them “in a community-based program that will provide important services like transitional housing and drug treatment.”

For Johnson, driving offenses are another piece of the mass incarceration calculus that hinges on a technicality. “The fourth most charged crime in our city is driving with a suspended license,” he told the crowd. “Over 15,000 people every year are fingerprinted, booked, and charged with this quote-unquote crime.” According to Johnson 87 percent of people arrested for driving with a suspended license are not white, while 76 percent of all city drivers are white.

Mental Health
A number of the reforms the speaker put forward focus on addressing root causes of mass incarceration.

Several center mental health needs of people in jail and finding alternative methods for addressing those needs, a shift away from the practice of treating the city’s jails as repositories for the hardest to treat. “The health care system has turned away the chronically ill, and left jails as the public caretaker of last resort,” Johnson said.

To ameliorate this, Johnson’s fixes include a pilot program for “men who need transitional housing and not jail,” investing in residential mental health programs for incarcerated people, and funding a program to facilitate engagement between defense lawyers and social workers to identify alternatives to jail early on.

“We also need to address the continued incarceration of individuals whose conditions improve after being in custody,” Johnson said. “People get better, but they don’t get out.” To do this, Johnson has a bill that would require correctional health services to pass on vital information about a detainee’s mental health to their lawyer.

Johnson said he would also seek funding to expand diversion programs, like the Center for Court Innovation’s Project Reset, which provides community-based alternatives to incarceration for misdemeanors, and to pilot an “alternatives to incarceration” courtroom in Brooklyn.

Economic Injustice and Gender Inequity
Theme of Johnson’s proposals are making criminal justice economically just and challenging the standards by which New York assesses criminality. Johnson is seeking to tie civil fines to the value of a person’s daily income, rather than to a fixed rate, which has placed a disproportionate burden on the lowest-income New Yorkers. He would also like the state to do away with mandatory court surcharges.

Johnson wants to decriminalize parts of the sex trade that result in “needless prosecution” including the state law that penalizes loitering for alleged prostitution, which he called “archaic and wrongheaded.”

“Arrests for this offense disproportionately target transgender women and women of color. The number of these arrests more than doubled between 2017 and 2018,” he told the audience. “This is blatant misogyny.”

The speaker went on to identify “survival sex” -- what survivors of sex trafficking are often forced to engage in -- as distinct from sex work in general, and that this should not be a prosecuted offense. “This doesn’t mean I support legalizing the sex trade. But persons involved in the sex trade should be given the services they say they need,” he said.

Many of the proposals will require Johnson to work with other government entities in the city and state to pass laws, secure funding, and establish partnerships essential to his reform package.

A final plank in his plan is to reassess the way city policy in other areas treat people with criminal convictions, speaking to the collateral consequences of incarceration that follow people out of the criminal justice system and into everyday life, including eligibility for crucial city services.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, wrote, “It’s imperative that we continue to address racial disparities and to make smart investments in people and communities who have been impacted by historic injustices. We look forward to reviewing the Speaker’s proposal.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

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Johnson Unveils Criminal Justice Agenda with Focus on Reducing Jail Population Thu, 16 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Pushes Its Priorities at First Hearing on De Blasio's Executive Budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8504-city-council-pushes-its-priorities-at-first-hearing-on-de-blasio-s-executive-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8504-city-council-pushes-its-priorities-at-first-hearing-on-de-blasio-s-executive-budget spk co jo exec bud

Council Member Dromm and Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York City Council and budget officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration engaged in a familiar push-and-pull on Monday, at the first hearing on the $92.5 billion executive budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The Council, disappointed that many of its priorities were not included in the latest spending plan presented by the mayor, pushed for more funding and pointed to hundreds of millions in revenue available to the city, but officials from the Office of Management and Budget urged restraint as they emphasized the dangers of a slowing economy and insisted the Council’s revenue estimate was far rosier than their own.

De Blasio presented his executive budget last month with $300 million more in proposed spending than his preliminary plan released in February. The $92.5 billion proposal would mark yet another record high in city spending, up nearly $3.4 billion from the current fiscal year and about $20 billion from the budget that de Blasio inherited from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The budget included, for the first time under de Blasio, a PEG (Program to Eliminate the Gap) that identified $629 million in savings in agency spending.

But the executive budget excludes funding for most of the items that the City Council had listed in its response, issued last month, to de Blasio’s preliminary budget plan, and Council members made their frustration clear at Monday’s hearing.

The Council found the executive budget “incredibly insulting,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in his opening remarks. The Council had called for pay parity and wage equity for several categories of city-funded workers (including nonprofit human service providers, assistant district attorneys, indigent defense attorneys, and daycare workers), investments in a variety of social service and local programs, $250 million more in reserves, more transparency across the budget, and 100 percent “Fair Student Funding” to aid local schools.

Johnson noted that though most of the Council’s priorities were ignored, “The Administration saw fit to implement our ideas from the response for how to save money, and then took those savings to fund even more of the mayor’s priorities.”

Even requests that would have cost nothing -- for instance, more transparency for multi-agency programs such as ThriveNYC, and spending on the new ferry system -- were rejected, Johnson said.

He did, however, point to a bright spot in the negotiations with the administration. The Council had called for continuing $155 million in “one-shot” funding that is in the current fiscal year budget for various purposes -- adult literacy programs, summer youth employment, post-arrest diversion programs, social workers for homeless students, and more. After the Council’s push, the city added $77 million to restore some of those programs, but Johnson indicated that negotiations would be tough regardless.

“Typically, we try to get this budget adopted by the first week of June. I doubt that’s possible and I’m willing to wait until just before July 1,” Johnson said, referring to the start of the next fiscal year and the deadline for approving the budget. “This needs to be done the right way,” he added. Over the next few weeks, the Council will continue to examine the budget at agency-specific hearings where administration officials will testify, while public rallies are held and op-eds are written advocating for certain expenditures and private negotiations continue among stakeholders.

A central dispute of the hearing was over the amount of revenue available to the city from personal income tax collections, which came in higher than earlier projections. Through April, the city received $474 million more than initially estimated, which the Council repeatedly said should be put to use to fund their demands. But OMB Director Melanie Hartzog repeatedly pointed out that other tax revenue came in lower, and that actual revenues only increased by about $200 million.

“We continue to face uncertainty related to economic conditions at home and abroad,” Hartzog said in her opening remarks, pointing to a weak housing market and slowing consumption. She emphasized that much of the new spending in the budget was required because of $300 million in unfunded mandates and cost shifts from the state, and about $150 million in additional needs that were not factored in to the preliminary budget.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee, didn’t hold back in criticizing the executive budget’s approach towards the Council, pointing out that the Council had urged the administration for years to rein in costs, increase reserves, and find agency efficiencies. He noted that the PEG made cuts in areas where the Council wanted more spending, including cultural institutions, youth services, and senior centers.

“The PEG was couched in the context of a potentially worsening economic position for the city and the need for us all to tighten our belts in anticipation,” he added. “So what is truly baffling is that in light of this sentiment, the administration has chosen not to add even a single dollar towards our reserves.” That increases the likelihood, he said, that the administration will have to slash services when an economic downturn hits in earnest.

“It was a challenging budget,” Hartzog said, a position she had to repeatedly rely on as Council members pressed her on a slew of specific priorities, whether funding for social workers and guidance counsellors in schools, or support services for youth in the foster care system. She did however promise to work with the Council in finding more savings and to address their individual issues.

And the issues were many. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the cultural affairs committee, said $6 million in proposed cuts to cultural institutions were “disrespectful to this body.” Hartzog said they were “relatively modest,” noting that the overall budget for those institutions is about $139 million and that the administration wanted to avoid cuts in library service. 

Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the education committee, lambasted the lack of funding for pay parity for universal pre-kindergarten teachers, Title IX coordinators, for busing for foster care students, for new school counsellors, to baseline Teacher’s Choice funding, and more education-related programs. “How can you say this is a schools-not-jails budget?,” he wondered, with apparent reference to the fact that the mayor’s updated capital budget plan, $117 billion over 10 years, includes billions in funding for jail construction as the city moves off of Rikers Island.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal noted that nonprofit service providers need at least $250 million more from the city or they risk fiscal insolvency. Hartzog, in response, noted that the de Blasio administration previously gave nonprofit providers cost-of-living-raises for the first time in years and that the administration is negotiating issues with the nonprofit sector. 

Council Member Barry Grodenchik, chair of the parks committee, said the parks and recreation budget “continues to go sideways,” and called for modest and targeted investments in parks infrastructure.

Council Members Carlina Rivera and Carlos Menchaca, co-chairs of the Council’s census task force, called for more funding for 2020 Census outreach, insisting that the $26 million over two years that the administration is funding is inadequate compared to the Council’s $40 million request. Hartzog said the amount was sufficient -- $8 million will go to community-based organizations, $10 million to a media outreach campaign and the rest to staffing needs -- particularly in tandem with $20 million in overall state funding, but said the administration was open to adding more funding if needed down the line.

Hartzog told Council Member Mark Levine that funding for so-called safe injection sites wasn’t included because the city was waiting for approval from the state health department.

The OMB director did agree to providing a measure of more transparency in the budget, and said her office had identified 34 new units of appropriation at the Council’s urging.

Hartzog similarly said the administration had made new “Capital Detail Data Reports” available online, in response to a request from Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the subcommittee on the capital budget. Gibson and others have critiqued the city’s ten-year capital planning process, insisting that it frontloads investments in early years and underfunds them in the second half of the plan. The ten-year capital plan reached $116.9 billion in the executive budget, of which 78% is planned for the first five years, Gibson noted.

But Hartzog said the city was working to distribute capital spending more evenly, with $3.9 billion redistributed from fiscal years 2019-2021 into later years. The administration has also proposed rescinding $2.3 billion pledged in previous capital budgets, she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Pushes Its Priorities at First Hearing on De Blasio's Executive Budget Mon, 06 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Where Top City and State Officials Stand on Raising the Charter School Cap https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8481-where-top-city-and-state-officials-stand-on-raising-the-charter-school-cap https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8481-where-top-city-and-state-officials-stand-on-raising-the-charter-school-cap govcuomo capi rally

Gov. Cuomo at a charter school rally (photo: governor's office)


After several new charter schools were approved last month, the cap on such schools allowed in New York City was reached. New York State has a cap on the number of issuable charters, which allow a group to start a new charter school, the controversial, privately-run, publicly-funded schools that mostly proliferate in the five boroughs and educate roughly 10% of the city's 1 million students. Within the larger cap, there is a sub-cap for charters that can be issued for schools in New York City.

In the past few months, 18 applicants for charters in New York City made it through the initial application process and a meeting of the SUNY Board’s charter schools committee, one of the two authorizers, but there were only seven charters left to be issued under the sub-cap.

New York City Charter School Center, among others, raised concerns about this earlier this year. James Merriman, the center's CEO, called the situation “the definition of a crisis” at the time. Charter school advocates had hoped that the sub-cap would be addressed in the state budget process, but there was little talk of an extension in Albany during budget negotiations.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat and longtime charter school supporter, favors lifting the cap. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a second-term Democrat and longtime charter opponent, is against lifting the cap; as is City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. It’s not clear how much say de Blasio, Johnson, and Williams will have, though, as the decision will be made by Cuomo and the state Legislature, where the Assembly appears cold to the idea of lifting the sub-cap while the Senate appears open to it.

While it was clear the New York City sub-cap on charter schools would be hit this year, Cuomo did not include raising the cap in his State of the State policy book or his executive budget. After the Cuomo administration declined to comment for a Gotham Gazette story in February, when the cap was about to be hit, a budget deal was reached with no mention of the cap.

“We support raising this artificial cap, but the legislature needs to agree as well,” said Cuomo senior advisor Rich Azzopardi, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, echoing a comment he made mid-April to the New York Post.

This public support heightens the potential that there could be a change to the charter school cap before the end of the legislative session in June. Cuomo has long been a strong supporter of charter schools and his advisor’s comments mirror Merriman’s statement that the cap is “arbitrary.”

A spokesperson for Senate Democrats told Gotham Gazette, “We will discuss as a conference” while a spokesperson for Assembly Democrats said “It is not something we are considering.”

State Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat and the chair of the Senate’s subcommittee on New York City Schools, said “The charter cap should be increased only when charter schools are held to the same accountability standards as public schools. For every family waiting for a spot in a charter school, there are more families waiting for a spot in a preferred public school.”

Before Democrats took a majority in the State Senate last year, Senate Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference would work with Cuomo to advance charter school priorities as part of the budget process or the regular negotiations over extending mayoral control of New York City public schools.

With the new budget, state lawmakers agreed to extend mayoral control for three years, until June 2022, after Mayor Bill de Blasio will leave office, but the charter cap was left out of the deal, perhaps indicative of the new Democratic reality in Albany.

This last happened in 2017 when a deal was struck for a two-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools. The deal also allowed 22 revoked or surrendered charters to be reissued.

It’s unclear how hard Cuomo will push for the cap to be raised, and how receptive Senate Democrats might be. As often happens in Albany, a deal may be reached where Assembly Democrats get movement on a priority in exchange for agreeing to the cap being lifted.

Senate Democrats could also help mitigate potential opposition in key swing districts in next year’s legislative elections, when they will be trying to defend their new majority for the first time. Charter school interests are often major campaign donors -- including to Cuomo, the former IDC, and Senate Republicans -- and spenders on independent expenditure campaigns meant to influence elections.

Those charter interests have also spent heavily against de Blasio in the past. Asked for the mayor’s position on the charter school cap, a spokesperson pointed to a statement by the mayor from September and said “our position hasn’t changed.”

“I believe that the charter cap is perfectly sufficient the way it is,” de Blasio said at a press conference then, “and that our focus should not be on the expansion of charters. Our focus should be on doing the hard work of making our traditional public schools better.”

Other New York City elected officials are also against an expansion of charter schools in the city. “I have long had concerns about charter schools, which is why I do not support raising the cap. Chief among those concerns is the fact that charter schools do not have the same level of transparency that’s required of public schools, which is inherently unfair. Our focus should be on strengthening all of our schools and ensuring every student gets the opportunity to succeed,” said City Council Speaker Johnson in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

"The answer to the real issues in the NYC public school system is not to create further imbalance," Public Advocate Williams said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "I do not support the the current push to raise the charter school cap. In fact, what the Governor should do is pay the public schools of the city the money they’ve been owed for decades. I also urge the Administration to launch a full investigation into the controversial disciplinary practices seen in some charter schools to combat wrongdoings that continue to occur.”

A spokesperson for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a Democrat, said she is “opposed to raising the cap, period.” In previous testimony, Brewer has said that charter schools “are unsustainable education practices that serve the few at the expense of many.”

Spokespeople for other top city officials -- Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. -- did not provide comment for this story on where those officials stand on the charter school cap, despite multiple requests to each office.

Adam and Diaz Jr. have both been supportive of charter schools, while Stringer has been more cool to the privately-run, publicly-funded schools that now educate roughly 10% of the city’s students.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Where Top City and State Officials Stand on Raising the Charter School Cap Sun, 28 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
We Must Seize Today’s Path to Actually Closing Rikers; It May Not Be Here Tomorrow https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8465-seizing-path-to-actually-closing-rikers-jails-corey-johnson-lippman https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8465-seizing-path-to-actually-closing-rikers-jails-corey-johnson-lippman city council speaker

Speaker Corey Johnson, one of the authors, with Mayor de Blasio (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Three years ago, the idea of closing the nine jails on Rikers Island was widely considered impossible. But in April 2017, after an intense campaign by advocates and the findings of an independent commission convened by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and chaired by Judge Jonathan Lippman, Mayor de Blasio committed to the goal.

Today, we are within hailing distance.

The starting point for closing the Rikers jails is dramatically cutting the number of people who are incarcerated, and we have made real strides towards this goal. Thanks to reforms to policing and prosecution, investments in alternatives to incarceration, and continuing pressure from advocates, there are 1,800 fewer people in city jails than there were two years ago—all while the city remains safer than ever.

The total number of people in jails is now under 8,000, the lowest it has been in many decades and representative of a lower incarceration rate than any other major United States city. Reforms recently enacted in Albany to bail, discovery, and speedy trial laws will reduce that number further and bring us much closer to the goal of 5,000 or fewer people incarcerated that would eventually permit the end of Rikers jails.

But to actually shutter the Rikers jails, and not just talk about it, it is imperative for the city to build a smaller system of facilities located in the boroughs to hold those who remain. Today there are three operating non-Rikers jails, including a 1950s-era tower in downtown Brooklyn and a 30-year-old barge docked in the Bronx that would be closed along with Rikers. None are examples of humane design, and together they have space for fewer than 2,400 people. 

New York City has launched the land use process that will determine whether Rikers jails can be shut down. If successful, it will lead to the authorization of four redesigned facilities to hold 5,000 people or fewer in total. Three of the planned facilities—in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan—are on the site of existing jails, next to borough courthouses. The fourth, in the Bronx, is on an NYPD tow pound lot in Mott Haven. The Bronx site is farther from the courthouse than the others, but still exponentially closer and more accessible than Rikers.

Of course, a plan of this scale and impact has critics.

Some say that closing Rikers is impossible. These are the same voices that said, two years ago, that everyone in city jails deserved to be there. They are the same voices that said, five years ago, that ending the policy of widespread stop-and-frisk that was devastating communities of color would lead to an outbreak of crime. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

Then there are those who oppose borough facilities for the exact opposite reason. They argue that borough jails would “normalize” incarceration. Nothing could do more to normalize incarceration and to perpetuate a toxic culture of violence and mass incarceration than continuing to warehouse New Yorkers on a hidden penal colony.

Others have said that we must pause this process. But every day that we wait is an extra day that the Rikers jails will remain open, harming the people who work and are incarcerated there. And many who call for delay understand that it would squander the once-in-a-generation opportunity the city has to move towards closing Rikers now, ultimately derailing the project. 

Finally, some people who live near the proposed facilities are concerned about the impact on their neighborhoods. These concerns, which include traffic, safety, and size, are understandable and must be thoroughly assessed, and that is what is happening in the land use process now underway. Yet we must remember: there are jails currently operating in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn without any negative impact to property values or crime.

The plan that the mayor has put forward is an essential step in the path to close the Rikers jail complex. Conversations with communities have already led to initial reductions in the height and density of the planned facilities and more thoughtful plans regarding the treatment of incarcerated women. Moving forward, we expect to see more work from the administration to improve the plan—such as finding non-jail, hospital-based alternatives for people with serious mental health diagnoses—and to address neighborhood concerns.

Equally important, the administration must invest in the socio-economic needs of the communities that historically have been hit hard by the inequities of the criminal justice system. And to demonstrate his seriousness about changing the justice system, Mayor de Blasio should raze the jail on Rikers that he closed last summer.

The land use process that began is necessary to put an end to Rikers, but it is not the end of the road. We will still need to determine crucial issues like how the facilities will be operated and what services and programs they will provide. Finishing the job will require the same focus and advocacy that got us to this point.

The misery of Rikers has been well-known, and well-documented, for decades. The reason those jails continue to exist today is that closing them was always considered too difficult. But to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we are not doing this because it is easy; we are doing it because it is hard—and absolutely necessary for a justice system that is worthy of our city.

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Corey Johnson is the Speaker of the New York City Council. Jonathan Lippman is a former chief judge of New York State, of counsel at Latham & Watkins LLP, and chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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We Must Seize Today’s Path to Actually Closing Rikers; It May Not Be Here Tomorrow Mon, 22 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000