Gotham Gazette Thu, 02 Jul 2020 16:07:25 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) De Blasio Administration Opposes Council Bill to Create 'City Restart Officer' de Blasio city hall reopening govt

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

Brooklyn City Council Member Laurie Cumbo, a Democrat and the Council’s Majority Leader, wants to establish a new position in city government to oversee the reopening of city government after the coronavirus shutdown. Her bill (Intro. 1950) would create and require the position of “City Restart Officer” to coordinate safety measures taken by city agencies and require them to submit their policies and plans to the restart officer for review.

“Many New Yorkers are excited yet apprehensive about reopening and rightly so,” Cumbo said at a virtual hearing on the bill on Tuesday held by the Council Committee on Governmental Operations. “We want to make sure that we are putting forth the best practices to make sure that New York City opens safely.” Cumbo’s bill currently has 16 sponsors in the 51-seat City Council.

New York City is just over a week into phase 1 of its economic “reopening” that began when the COVID-19 public health crisis subsided to a significant degree, with the city hitting state-set metrics and some of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own thresholds for allowing more travel and economic activity. The city could enter phase 2 of reopening on Monday, June 15, at the earliest, though de Blasio has said he believes it will be later than that.

The Tuesday hearing, led by Cuombo and Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who chairs the government operations committee, included an opportunity for the members to question de Blasio administration officials on the bill and the city’s reopening plans.

At the hearing, Lisette Camilo, the Commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), said that city government -- which employs hundreds of thousands of workers -- has taken the appropriate precautions to protect its workforce while maintaining necessary functions.

She estimated that two-thirds of the city’s workforce was able to transition to work from home, with only a fraction of those workers now returning to in-person work since phase 1 started. Most of the returning workers thus far have corresponded with industries that were allowed to restart in phase 1, such as Department of Buildings inspectors going to job sites again now that private construction is no longer largely halted.

Camilo also mentioned the “Core Four” precautions that all city workers should abide by, including staying home when sick, wearing face coverings, practicing good hygiene, and maintaining a social distance of six feet. She said the city is working towards making daily screenings available for workers.

At a Tuesday press conference, de Blasio said that the city now sponsors about 20,000 tests daily, with another 30,000 coming from other providers. The city’s tracing program is currently tracking 4,300 cases and the mayor said the program will have the capacity to trace 250,000 sometime this summer.

“That is the level we're going to reach, a quarter million people who will need help and support to help them through this disease, to keep all the rest of us safe as well,” de Blasio said.

Camilo says the city has divided its preparations for more workers returning to in-person work into four categories: preparing buildings, workspaces, workforce, and communication. The city is modifying its buildings and workspaces to allow workers to maintain social distance, training its workers to follow new protocols, and communicating these changes and resources to the public, according to Camilo.

Camilo and other agency leaders at the Council hearing did not voice support for Cumbo’s bill. The administration prefers an inter-agency approach instead, Camilo said. “We have been working across the agencies that have the expertise to inform the guidance,” she said, adding that agencies “are the best experts” at addressing their internal needs and that “it can’t be a cookie-cutter approach.”

When asked about planning for phase 2 by Cabrera, Camilo said “we don’t have finalized plans,” despite phase 2 potentially being days away. De Blasio said similarly at his Tuesday morning briefing.

According to Camilo, the Mayor’s Office has not yet received plans from all city agencies about their individual reopenings, adding, “I’d rather be conservative in the approach,” given this process has never been done before.

Camilo said that the city “do[es] not have an enforcement part of our guidance,” but that “I don’t think anyone will want to take a gamble on the health and safety of their workforce.” Cabrera and Cumbo both voiced concerns about agencies having enough lead time to comply with city protocols ahead of the next phases of reopenings.

During the public comment portion of the hearing, an employee with the Parks & Recreation Department expressed his concern about the city’s plans for reopening. When asked by Cumbo, he said that he wasn’t aware of any channel for reporting coronavirus-related safety concerns.

During the hearing, Cabrera mentioned several times that New York City could potentially move to phase 2 of reopening on Monday, June 22, which would mark two weeks after the city entered phase 1. However, there have been no official announcements regarding that as of now.

At his Tuesday press conference, de Blasio talked about trying to “keep expectations low” and that the city and state “may want and need a few more days to get more data beyond June 21 before moving to the next phase of reopening. The mayor also promised more city guidance would be publicized “over the next few days” and the city “will be ready for next week, if the indicators and the discussions with the state tell us that we’re ready to go next week.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Administration Opposes Council Bill to Create 'City Restart Officer' Tue, 16 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Immense Change for City Agency Tasked with Bulk of Coronavirus Response Spending, Government Workforce Shift 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.

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
First City Agency Workplace-Climate Survey Under New Law Raises Questions, Concerns cm francisco moya

(photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

Last year, amid a national awakening about sexual harassment spurred by the #MeToo movement, the New York City Council passed a package of legislation. Among other things, it required the city to disclose more data about harassment claims and to undertake workplace climate surveys about harassment, discrimination, and other issues in order to create action plans and make improvements.

But the first climate survey results were recently delivered to the City Council and do not contain enough information to illuminate how different agencies handle the problem of harassment, said City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity. Rosenthal, who helped lead the charge on the Stop Sexual Harassment Act bill package, told Gotham Gazette the initial climate survey results have prompted her to prepare legislation requiring agency-specific climate survey data.

The climate survey of city agencies was conducted by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), which provided its report to the mayor’s office and the City Council. Gotham Gazette obtained the five-page report through a Freedom of Information Law request.

The survey, which was voluntary for respondents and anonymized, looked at how familiar agency employees were with the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity policies and complaint process, whether they experienced or witnessed workplace discrimination, and also how aware supervisors and managers were of EEO processes.

Of the respondents, 32.4% were supervisors and managers; 59.5% identified as female; 85.5% said they were heterosexual. (The survey broke down the respondents by age, racial background, gender and sexual identity).

Overall, a majority of respondents (the report does not say how many were polled, the law only requires the survey to be offered to all employees) said they were familiar with EEO policies and had received training within the last year, that they had not personally experienced or witnessed discrimination of any type, and that their workplace was safe from EEO violations.

“I commend them for taking the first step,” Rosenthal said, “But..I’m disappointed that their takeaway thoughts are pretty light. It’s thin, it’s just thin.”

Pointing to the report’s general conclusions, she said, “The majority of respondents know the policies, did not personally experience [discrimination], and they indicate their work is safe. Well how do we even know what standard DCAS is comparing this to?”

Data released by the city earlier this year showed that the Department of Education accounted for a majority of sexual harassment complaints -- 186 out of 472 complaints filed in the 2018 fiscal year. What may be true of one agency, DCAS for instance, where there were only eight complaints filed, may not be true of the Department of Education. “So that’s just an out of context assertion that I dont think is valid,” Rosenthal said of the notion that the majority of respondents find their workplaces safe. “I’d like to see a little more rigor there.”

The Manhattan Democrat emphasized that the results are too general and occlude the differences between agencies. For instance, while only 9.6% of respondents said they had personally experienced sexual harassment at work, 14.2% said they had witnessed instances of sexual harassment.

“That could’ve been an interesting finding that they culled out, and say well what does that mean? What does that tell us? Does that mean that people are not reporting? That could be the takeaway. And that’s concerning.” Rosenthal said.

Responses about agency procedures and environments were also of concern to Rosenthal. Asked if their workplace was “safe and free of violations of the EEO policy,” 61.5% said they strongly agree or agree; 18.9% said they strongly disagree or disagree; and 19.7% were neutral on the question. “The truth of the matter is, that’s not a slam dunk for them,” Rosenthal said.

“I suppose if you had the information by agency, then you would see which agencies need a serious action plan,” she added.

Spokespersons for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson did not provide comment on the results of the survey or whether they would support Rosenthal’s proposal to disaggregate data by agency. A spokesperson for de Blasio said “Sexual harassment has no place in the City of New York. The de Blasio Administration is committed to preventing sexual harassment – and all other forms of discrimination – inside and outside of the workplace. We look forward to reviewing the bill.”

About 92.4% of respondents said they were familiar with the city’s EEO policy and 84% said they knew how to file a formal complaint about an EEO violation. But only 57.4% said they knew how EEO complaints were processed after being filed. The report did acknowledge this last statistic, and concluded that more training and communication would be required to make employees more aware of the process after a complaint is submitted. Under the law, DCAS will be required to create an action plan to implement this change by the end of the year, with a report due on actions taken by March 31 of next year. Another survey will also be carried out in July 2020.

Besides sexual harassment, the survey also examined discrimination based on age, gender, racial and ethnic background, religious background, disability status, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, military status, partnership status, a category called “Predisposing Genetic Characteristics/Genetic Information,” prior record of arrest or conviction, and for victims of domestic violence.

Agencies generally performed well, save for a few major categories: about 16.8% of respondents said they had experienced racial or ethnic discrimination, while 20.8% said they had witnessed it; 11% said they experienced gender discrimination, and 13.2% said they had witnessed it; 10.5% said they experienced age discrimination, and 14.5% said they had witnessed it.

Here are a few of the other highlights of the survey:
-70.6% strongly agreed or agreed that their “rights are protected to pursue [their] duties in a respectful workplace”; 14.3% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 15.1% were neutral on the question.

-67.3% strongly agreed or agreed that they felt protected from workplace harassment; 16.2% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 16.6% were neutral on the question.

-61.1% strongly agreed or agreed that they are treated equally and fairly; 20.6% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 18.3% were neutral on the question.

-63.7% strongly agreed or agreed that steps are taken to prevent violations of the EEO policy; 13.8% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 22.5% were neutral on the question.

-59.7% strongly agreed or agreed that violations of EEO policy are taken seriously and investigated; 12.9% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 27.4% were neutral on the question.

-51.2% strongly agreed or agreed that adequate response is provided to those employees who have experienced and submitted claims of violations of EEO policy; 12% said they strongly disagree or disagree; 36.9% were neutral on the question.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note - This article has been corrected to note that the Department of Education had the highest number of harassment complaints filed in 2018, not the Department of Investigation.

First City Agency Workplace-Climate Survey Under New Law Raises Questions, Concerns Tue, 21 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Government Operations Budget Hearing Leaves Several Questions Unanswered DCAS testimony May 13

DCAS testimony (photo: William Alatriste)

With four agencies testifying over the course of several hours, a Friday executive budget hearing held by the City Council’s governmental operations committee, along with the finance committee, had a lot of ground to cover on important issues like election administration and law department function. Two of the agencies testifying have even been sources of controversy in recent months and the hearing was an opportunity for Council members to air their concerns and get some answers. At many points during the hearing, however, agency officials had little to offer and major questions were left unanswered.

The hearing included testimony from the city Board of Elections, the Campaign Finance Board, the Law Department, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, in that order. Leading the hearing from the Council side were City Council Members Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee, and Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee.

Perhaps most crucial were BOE and DCAS, two agencies which have dominated headlines in recent months -- the BOE for its shoddy handling of the April 19 presidential primary election and massive, inappropriate voter purges in Brooklyn; DCAS for lifting a land-use restriction that allowed a nursing home owner to sell property to a luxury real estate developer. Both those incidents are being investigated and the City Council will soon hold dedicated oversight hearings. Friday’s budget hearing still provided Council members, and others, the opportunity to ask important questions, even if answers were not always provided.

Board of Elections
Following the April primary, the BOE has been the target of much criticism. Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to use his budgetary power to bring about change and followed through with an offer of $20 million in additional funding on the condition that the BOE agrees to a structured plan of reform by June 1. Of this, $1.5 million was included in the mayor’s executive budget with $18.5 to follow if BOE signs the deal. A budget deal between the Mayor and the Council is due before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

At Friday’s hearing, BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan couldn’t say where BOE commissioners stood on the proposal since they had yet to analyze it in detail. “Once the details of the proposals have been fleshed out, they will be shared with the commissioners and, ultimately in a quasi-legislative process, the commissioners will have to pass on that either in totality or in part,” he said.

Ryan also couldn’t say whether the BOE would consider replacing patronage positions with professional employees selected through an open-hiring process, a top priority for Council Member Kallos and several of his colleagues (it is also something de Blasio has called for). This authority, Ryan insisted, lies with the BOE commissioners, who are borough-based. The structure of the BOE is also dictated by state law, which de Blasio and others say they want to see changed.

Kallos was less than satisfied with Ryan’s testimony overall. “I got the answers I have learned to expect, but not the answers that I wanted or needed,” he told Gotham Gazette during a break in the hearing.

Law Department
The Council’s three major issues with the Law Department budget are the projected cost savings in the judgement and claims budget; the financial implications of a recently settled lawsuit against the city; and the department’s contracting with two outside law firms to represent the city in two investigations into Mayor de Blasio.

Law Department officials couldn’t explain how their judgements and claims budget included $430 million in reductions over the next five years. In the preliminary budget, it was projected to increase from $746 million in Fiscal 2017 to $855 million by Fiscal 2020. They also couldn’t say if a recent $140 million judgement against the city in a case concluded in February 2016 was included in this year’s budget.

When Council Member Ferreras-Copeland asked about the calculations that went into these figures, managing attorney Muriel Goode-Trufant said, “We do not know.” She said these decisions were made by the Office of Management and Budget after considering input from the Law Department. “You do not know? That’s awesome,” Ferreras-Copeland responded sarcastically, promising to follow up with OMB director Dean Fuleihan.

Kallos was also interested in knowing how much it would cost the city to contract with the two law firms to defend the mayor and the city. Again, agency officials were scant on details, insisting that the process was ongoing and they had yet to assess the final costs.

“The taxpayers could be on the hook for millions?” Kallos asked.

“We, at this point, don’t know,” said Georgia Pestana, first assistant corporation counsel.

Department of Citywide Administrative Services
DCAS is a little-known city agency that manages the city workforce, property and buildings, and fleet of vehicles. Last year, the agency lifted a deed restriction on Rivington House, a nursing home in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which allowed its new owner to make millions in a sale to a real estate developer. Essentially, the property was flipped and in the process, what had been a nursing home was to become luxury housing. As expected, many questions from Council members to DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo revolved around the way DCAS handles deed restrictions.

Camillo would not address the Rivington deal directly, since it is under investigation (several entities at various levels of government are investigating the deal). “In order to protect the integrity of the investigation, I’m not going to be able to answer questions specific to that,” Camillo said. But she did explain how deed restriction payments are evaluated and where DCAS revenue is reflected in the budget.

Naturally, a similar deed restriction sale in Harlem, reported by the New York Times on Friday morning before the hearing, raised more questions about how many deed restrictions the city is considering and how many it had lifted in the last few years. Camillo told Council members that current requests for changes in deed restriction had been put on hold, about 14 in all, and the process was being reviewed.

The Campaign Finance Board testimony was quick and included the least drama, though there are reforms to the city’s system being considered - the bills were the focus of a recent Council hearing - read about those here.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Government Operations Budget Hearing Leaves Several Questions Unanswered Mon, 16 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000