Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/249 Tue, 07 Jul 2020 04:11:50 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio Administration Opposes Council Bill to Create 'City Restart Officer' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9504-de-blasio-administration-opposes-city-council-bill-city-restart-officer https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9504-de-blasio-administration-opposes-city-council-bill-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.”

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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 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9412-immense-change-city-operations-spending-coronavirus-administration https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9412-immense-change-city-operations-spending-coronavirus-administration proj pantry si

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting Thu, 29 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Hears 3 Campaign Finance Bills to Enhance Low-Dollar Impact, Limit Criminals, Curb Conflicts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8624-city-council-campaign-finance-reform-enhance-low-dollar-impact-curb-conflicts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8624-city-council-campaign-finance-reform-enhance-low-dollar-impact-curb-conflicts council comm hearing

Council Member Keith Powers (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations held a hearing Wednesday to discuss three bills related to campaign finance reform. Two of the bills would prohibit candidates convicted of felony corruption or misuse of public funds from receiving public matching funds and reduce the matching funds contribution minimum from $10 to $5. They are sponsored by Council Members Fernando Cabrera and Keith Powers, respectively. Cabrera is the chair of the governmental operations committee.

The third bill, also sponsored by Powers, would amend the definition of “business dealing with the city” to include an earlier trigger in the land use review process. That bill would make those entities with uncertified applications under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and zoning text amendments part of the “doing business” database that severely limits what they can give to political candidates, with the goal of decreasing the influence of large real estate contributions in elections and the opportunity for pay-to-play politics.

The hearing included testimony from representatives of the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB), which runs the city’s public matching system and trains, monitors, and audits campaigns; and Reinvent Albany, a good government advocacy group. Each of the bills is based upon recommendations filed by the CFB in its 2017 post-election report.

Prohibition of Funds for Felons
Currently, the campaign finance act prohibits candidates from receiving public funds if they have been convicted of felony fraud in the course of program participation. It does not prevent candidates convicted of fraud or corruption more broadly from receiving public funds.

In 2017, a candidate participating in the city’s matching system, Hiram Monserrate, who received public funds had previously served 21 months in prison for using government funds to pay campaign staff.

“Ensuring individuals with a track record of fraud do not receive public funds is not only good public policy but is fundamental to the integrity of the matching funds program,” CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest said at the hearing.

While supportive of the bill, Loprest suggested that the Council could do more to ensure that public funds are not given to those who have a track record of misusing them. She encouraged the Council members to extend the bill to cover misdemeanors related to corruption, and to specify the language of the bill to explicitly tie previous crimes to an individual’s actions as a candidate or office-holder.

Loprest also suggested that the committee implement sunset clauses of five years for misdemeanors and 10 years for felonies, after which a candidate would again be able to receive matching funds.

Lowering of Matching Funds Contribution form $10 to $5
To qualify for the city’s public financing program, candidates must meet a two-part fundraising threshold. Depending on the office sought, candidates must receive a certain number of contributions of at least $10. This bill would lower the requirement to qualify for the threshold from $10 to $5.

Currently, all contributions are eligible for public matching, but contributions under $10 do not count towards meeting the threshold to receive public funds. Critics of the current system argue that a minimum contribution of $10 can impose too significant a burden on New Yorkers from economically-disadvantaged areas of the city. For candidates seeking to represent these areas in local elections, achieving the minimum number of contributions to reach the threshold can be a challenge exacerbated by the high minimum.

The campaign finance board discussed lowering the minimum to $1, but determined that $5 was “a balance between showing serious support and the financial burden from people from certain districts,” Loprest said at the hearing. The city typically encounters few $1 contributions, she said.

During the 2017 election cycle, just 186 contributions to Council candidates, or 0.72 percent, were under $10, and 30 contributions, or 0.12 percent, were under $5, according to a review by Reinvent Albany.

“Lowering the amount to $5 would allow more residents to participate in helping their favored candidates qualify for matching funds, and more candidates would be able to meet the threshold sooner in the election year,” Loprest said at the hearing.

“For large-scale elections in the city it would be an easier way to encourage people to get into the matching funds program,” Council Member Powers said of his bill.

Amending the Definition of “Business Dealings”
The third bill discussed would place limits on contributions to candidates running for office from persons with “business dealings” with the city.

Included in “business dealings” is applications for approval under ULURP and applications for zoning text amendments, but currently only after the City Planning Commission has certified an application as complete. Often, these applications are filed months or years before they are certified by the City Planning Commission. Those who file applications can thus make maximum contributions after filing their application for land use changes but before it is certified, providing more opportunity for a pay-to-play culture and undue influence, or at least the appearance of it.

Persons seeking land use approvals made up less than 1% of individuals doing business with the city during 2017 election cycle, but they were significantly more likely to make campaign contributions. Nearly 20% of those seeking land use contributions made contributions to candidates during the cycle, according to the CFB. Currently, there are 87 ULURP and land use applications in the city that remain uncertified, according to the CFB.

Amending the definition of “business dealings” will allow the city to include those who have filed an application but have not yet been certified by the City Planning Commission to hold them to the same standard as those who have already been certified. Maximum contributions to candidates vary based on the office sought, as do the much lower doing business limits. For example, the maximum donation someone on the doing business list can give to a candidate for mayor is $400.

Including applications that are not yet certified in “business dealings” is “an effective way to ensure that the matching funds program is doing everything it can to curb both corruption and the appearance of corruption,” Loprest said at the hearing.

In all other “business dealings,” with the city, people are compiled into and remain in the city’s doing business database for one year after the end of the transaction. This management system allows the campaign finance board to determine if a contribution is within the applicable limit. Loprest testified that land use application under the ULURP coverage period should also remain in the database for one year.

“If we’re going to have a system where we limit contributions for those doing business we should limit contributions when those business discussions begin,” Powers said at the hearing.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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Council Hears 3 Campaign Finance Bills to Enhance Low-Dollar Impact, Limit Criminals, Curb Conflicts Thu, 20 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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
   

Read more by this writer.

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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
Opposing Responses to Cashless Retail on Docket for City Council Hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8277-opposing-responses-to-cashless-retail-on-docket-for-city-council-hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8277-opposing-responses-to-cashless-retail-on-docket-for-city-council-hearing cm rtorres funding

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The polarizing issue of local retailers going cashless has gotten the attention of New York City Council members, and on Thursday a Council committee will hear testimony on the topic and consider competing legislative proposals.

The Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, chaired by Council Member Rafael Espinal, a Brooklyn Democrat, will hear the bills for the first time. One, sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, would outright ban retailers from not accepting cash. The other, sponsored by Council Member Fernando Cabrera, would require cashless retail establishments to display conspicuous signage to alert consumers that they are card-only before they get to the register. Both Torres and Cabrera are Bronx Democrats.

After Torres introduced his bill last fall, it generated widespread media coverage and ignited a debate on the convenience of credit and debit cards versus how refusing cash excludes individuals without plastic. Notably, as of Tuesday afternoon, Torres’ bill has 18 co-sponsors in the 51-seat Council, including committee chair Espinal. Cabrera, along with Council Member Andrew Cohen, also a Bronx Democrat, are the lone sponsors of his bill.

Cashless retail establishments are seen as problematic for the “unbanked” or “underbanked,” those without bank accounts and those without easy access to banks, respectively. In 2015, an Urban Institute study surveying New Yorkers found that nearly 12 percent, or 360,000 households, did not have bank accounts. The finding is higher than the approximately 8 percent of Americans nationwide who are unbanked. An additional 25 percent, or 780,000 New York households are underbanked, the study found, compared to the 20 percent of underbanked Americans across the country.

Shoppers in the U.S. are expected to generate 190 billion cashless transactions this year, including e-commerce, according to Kristen Regine, a professor of marketing at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. She cites millennials as leading the way on the consumer side, but the move is likewise a matter of convenience for retailers.

“A lot of people think money is dirty and they don’t want to touch and deal with it. For retailers, it’s more labor intensive to deal with, to reconcile the days’ end transactions. And for the retailer thinking about line queue, it’s swipe and go and quicker to get through the line. In some places you’re not even signing your name anymore,” said Regine. “In areas where there’s a lot of traffic and robberies, it’s safer for the person working behind the counter not to have cash.”

The growing trend of exclusively requiring plastic or mobile pay, like Apple Pay, for purchases is here locally, with fast casual chains such as Sweetgreen and Dig Inn, or higher-end restaurants such as Danny Meyer’s epicurean empire adopting the policy.

Cabrera also sees this as part of the trend Regine described. “This is not new, this is not someday, this is the now. And if that’s their business model, and they have taken into consideration the potential they could lose a few customers, you know, that’s their business model. My bill basically gives them the freedom to use their business model, but at the same time, gives strong consideration to the customers to be able to know right off the bat that business will accept cash or not,” said Cabrera.

Torres, seeking to ban establishments from going cashless, is more concerned with inequality baked into cashless policies. “If you have the money you should be able to use it. Cash is the great equalizer and the universal mode of currency. Not everyone accesses credit or debit, but everyone uses cash at some time in their life,” said Torres. “In New York City, we have a historic opportunity to set a national precedent for rest of country to follow.”

As for the country, according to Regine, over 40 percent of U.S. adults don’t carry cash. “It’s just kind of our way of life,” she said.

Yet, both Cabrera and Torres want to account for that other 60 percent, which may be higher in New York City given the unbanked population. Thursday’s hearing will provide insights into where their legislation may be headed. But, there won’t be any votes on Thursday. The Council committee will hear the bills and testimony from whomever has been invited or signs up to discuss the legislation, such as business owners and consumers. Then the bills will be laid over in committee, at which point they can be tweaked within the Council, or not, and picked back up for a vote by the committee. If successful in committee, a bill heads to the full Council for a vote.

Both Council members are cautiously confident their bills will move forward for a vote. “I believe we’re going to get this through. It’s a common-sense bill,“ said Cabrera.

Torres slightly hedged his bet. “There’s no telling what will happen in a City Council meeting,” he said, adding, “I see a clear path of passage for the bill.”

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Opposing Responses to Cashless Retail on Docket for City Council Hearing Tue, 12 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
In Second 311 Oversight Hearing, City Council Examines Agency Responsiveness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8271-in-second-311-oversight-hearing-council-examines-agency-responsiveness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8271-in-second-311-oversight-hearing-council-examines-agency-responsiveness Holden Yeger City Council

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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In Second 311 Oversight Hearing, City Council Examines Agency Responsiveness Sun, 10 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City's 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8225-city-s-311-upgrade-set-for-mid-year-launch https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8225-city-s-311-upgrade-set-for-mid-year-launch maybloocustomer

former Mayor Bloomberg at 311 (photo: Edward Reed)


The city’s 311 non-emergency call center for information about city services and to lodge complaints is nearing a mid-year re-launch, its first major overhaul since being introduced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2003. The revamped system, estimated to debut in July, will modernize 311’s currently outdated system that limits its capability to assist New Yorkers. The next iteration of the system will eventually allow for increased language access, user accounts to track inquiries and complaints, and a better app experience.

The City Council’s Committees on Government Operations and Technology held a joint oversight hearing on 311 last week, the first of two such hearings that will be held over the course of several months. The January 17 hearing was focused on the functions and management of 311, and also dealt with two Council bills related to the call center, while the second hearing will focus on city agencies’ responses to 311 complaints and service requests.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson led the hearing, alongside Government Operations Committee Chair Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx Democrat, and Technology Committee Chair Peter Koo, a Queens Democrat. Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, began the hearing by saying that “the solutions and technology of 2003 are serving New Yorkers in 2019 and that I believe is unacceptable” and that “other cities are moving past us.”

The implementation of 311’s new “customer relationship management” (CRM) platform was a focus of the hearing. The new system 311 is transitioning to is back-end first, so callers will not immediately notice a difference from the old platform. The update is meant to provide a foundation so that 311 will then be able to offer new features to the public, including better language access, a second major focus of the recent hearing.

According to 311 Executive Director Joe Morrisroe, 311 fields over 120,000 calls per day and 42 million contacts per year. This is more than all other municipal 311 systems combined. Morrisroe said “the 311 team is focused on meeting the customers where they are.” He said that 311 conducts two customer surveys per year. One of the surveys, conducted once a year by the CFI Group, a consultancy, showed that “311 ranked equal to or better” than private sector contact centers. 311 also conducts quarterly in-house surveys.

However, as Koo noted, the surveys are only conducted in English. This may skew the results because of the disparity of service between English-speaking callers and non-English-speaking callers, a key theme of the oversight hearing, which included discussion of a bill related to 311 and foreign language access.

The language barrier faced by many New Yorkers when contacting 311 was the most frequent issue brought up at the hearing. Under the current system, callers are asked through an automated message to select their language, but all callers, even those who select one of the six non-English options provided, are then directed to an English-speaking 311 operator, who has not been informed of their language selection. Callers must then communicate their language preference to the operator, who can then connect them to a translator in one of 182 languages.

As several Council members noted, this requires the caller to know some English to then be able access 311 in their preferred language, a protocol that may lead many callers to give up and not access the information they are seeking when they first dial -- an issue that a Council bill is seeking to explore through new reporting requirements. Johnson called the language barrier “unacceptable.” The speaker said that he had an Armenian staff member attempt to call 311 and it took 17 minutes for the staff member to be connected with the proper translator.

To address the issue, Council Member Carlos Menchaca, a Brooklyn Democrat, has sponsored a bill, Intro. 1328, which would have 311 develop a new protocol for the languages spoken by callers and would require 311 to track and report calls dropped seemingly because of insufficient language assistance. Menchaca said the bill is important because “everyone has a dignity to be heard and every day we’re trying to figure out how that can happen in their preferred language.”

“I can empathize,” Morrisroe of 311 said, adding that “311 wholeheartedly agrees with the spirit of the legislation.” However, Morrisroe gave two reasons for opposing the bill. He said that 311 already has a protocol in place to identify languages and the technology to support the bill’s requirements is not currently available. He called operators not knowing about a caller’s language selection a “limitation” of the current system and said that 311 would make solving the issue a “priority” going forward.

Menchaca was not satisfied with that answer, stating that the City Council creates policy and city agencies are meant to implement that policy. He then said “the fact that this does not exist out there right now has nothing to do with the fact that we can pass this bill and really force you all in a room to figure this out with the [telecommunications] industry.”

Another language-related issue brought up at the hearing was that currently the automated message that begins every 311 call includes options for six languages. This offering is below the ten-language requirement from a previous city law. Morrisroe said that the languages were chosen and sequenced based on the volume of calls received and that current technology limited the number of languages that can be included.

During the discussion of the transition to the new customer relationship management (CRM) platform, Samir Saini, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Information, Technology, and Telecommunications (DoITT), said the new platform will be ready to be rolled out by “the middle of the year.” Saini said that the platform upgrade will focus on the back-end of 311’s system, which will modernize a system that hasn’t been updated since it was first installed in 2003 and allow the agency to offer new features later. These features, like potentially 10 language options instead of the current six, will not be available right away when the new platform debuts later this year, but will gradually be added to the new system.

DoITT currently has a 12-month, $24 million contract with IBM to transition from the old system, dating back to 2003 when 311 was created, to a new modern system for receiving and tracking service requests and complaints. After the roll-out, DoITT will be able to manage the system on its own without IBM’s assistance.

The platform upgrade will allow customers to create online accounts to track the progress of their complaints and service requests, which Johnson had brought up as an example of 311’s current system being outdated. The upgrade will also allow 311’s mobile app to be offered in languages other than English, along with needed flexibility for new features on the app. Currently, the options to make complaints on the app are limited (Johnson pointed out that New Yorkers are unable to report mold through the app). Saini said that there was a “queue of enhancements” already planned to be made, but did not elaborate further.

Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, said that homelessness was the top 311 complaint for his Upper East Side district. He pointed out that the current mobile app does not allow for a specific location for a seemingly homeless person on the street, and instead locates them by the nearest address. Saini said that changing this will be a top priority for the new mobile app.

The second bill discussed at the hearing was Intro. 0188, which is intended to stop harassment of property owners through 311. The bill would have 311 stop referring anonymous calls about a property that has been harassed with repeated complaints “that cannot be substantiated or that are substantiated but not illegal.” Morrisroe of 311 objected to this bill, stating that “while 311 understands the intent of the proposed bill, we believe that what this bill proposes will have two unintended consequences.” He said that landlords could potentially game the system to get a temporary reprieve from complaints and that the bill risks a citizen’s right to report a complaint without fear of retaliation, citing immigrants and tenants as vulnerable populations.

Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, took an issue with Morrisroe’s objections to the bill, telling the 311 director that “not everything that comes out of this Council is dumb.” He told Morrisroe that he’d like to “roll the dice” and see if abuse Morrisroe predicted would actually happen. On the second objection, Yeger said he did not think it would be a concern and did not see a correlation between the bill and an increased risk of retribution. He also said he thought the bill wasn’t harsh enough on abuse, saying that he would like to make it a crime to make repeated unsubstantiated complaints about the same property.

Council Member Cabrera asked about the ten-second increase in wait times for 311 callers in the past year. In 2018, the average wait time was 28 seconds, which is just under the 30-second industry standard for 311. Morrisroe said it was in part due to the extreme cold temperatures of January 2018, which led to an increase in complaints about problems with heat or hot water. Additionally, he pointed to 311 taking on the responsibility of handling appointment requests for bulk item collection as a cause of increased wait times.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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City's 311 Upgrade Set for Mid-Year Launch Thu, 24 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
With De Blasio in Debt, City Council Considers Bill to Allow ‘Legal Defense Trusts’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8218-with-de-blasio-in-debt-city-council-considers-bill-to-allow-legal-defense-trusts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8218-with-de-blasio-in-debt-city-council-considers-bill-to-allow-legal-defense-trusts nycczerohearingsl

City Council Member Stephen Levin (photo via New York City Council)


Mayor Bill de Blasio owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawyers who helped him during legal investigations that ultimately resulted in no criminal charges against the mayor, but left him with bills to pay even after he reversed course and decided to use public funds to cover the portion of his legal expenses related to his government work. The remaining balance, for work related to campaign activity de Blasio was involved with that was the subject of part of the inquiries, has left de Blasio looking for a new way to pay off his debts: a legal defense fund whereby he raises money from donors willing to help him.

But, there’s been a key catch: the city does not have a legal framework for allowing public officials to create such accounts, and the advice the mayor got from the city’s Conflict of Interest Board limited him to receiving very small gifts from prospective benefactors.

Spotlighting this perceived gap in the city’s legal and campaign finance framework, de Blasio’s situation, as well as others before him, has spurred action, and the City Council has begun to consider a new law to create “legal defense trusts.”

On Monday, January 14, the Council’s Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on a bill proposed by Council Member Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn Democrat, that would allow city officials to establish such trusts for fees incurred during an investigation or trial. The bill sets a donation limit at $5,000 per donor, which is more than double the $2,000 limit for campaign contributions, with no limit on how much an official can raise in such a fund. As written, the bill bans lobbyists, persons doing business with the city, corporations, and LLCs from contributing to legal defense trusts. Additionally, any legal defense trusts would be required to make quarterly reports to the Conflict of Interest Board on their donations, which would then be made public and posted online, in a manner similar to the Campaign Finance Board’s reporting of political donations. No campaign funds could be used for a legal defense trust or vice versa and each trust will be overseen by an independent trustee.

Levin said that his bill “would bring transparency and regulation to a system that is in need of improvement.” Under the current law, city officials in civil and some criminal cases are entitled to a legal defense paid for by the city, as long as the cases relate to their public duties. However, offenses unrelated to an official’s public duties (such as political campaigns, issue advocacy, and certain administrative issues) are not paid for by the city.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx Democrat and the chair of the Government Operations Committee, explained it as a problem because “public officials are not highly paid and rarely independently wealthy,” and “defending against allegations and investigations for alleged wrongdoing can be financially devastating for someone of average means.”

While there have been past instances to raise the issue, the bill and committee hearing were spurred by a March 2017 advisory opinion from the city’s Conflict of Interest Board, which stated that because there was no law specifically addressing the issue, donations to a public official’s legal defense fund are considered gifts under current law and therefore limited to $50 per person. The advisory opinion came after Mayor de Blasio planned to create a legal defense fund to cover fees from state and federal investigations into his fundraising activities.

De Blasio, a second-term Democrat, was never mentioned by name during the hearing, but was frequently referred to as a “public official in the headlines,” when the advisory opinion was brought up during testimony provided by representatives of the Conflict of Interest Board.

At a press conference on January 8, de Blasio reiterated his assertion that a new legal framework was necessary. “I believe there is a need in a democratic society for this kind of mechanism, a legal defense fund is a very well established idea,” he said. He added the caveat that the bill had not gone through the legislative process, so he didn’t know the final wording. When asked if he would disclose his donors if the bill passed, he replied “absolutely” (it may be required).

While de Blasio has been earning the salaries afforded to elected officials for many years, he also owns two houses in Park Slope, Brooklyn, making him fairly wealthy. He has indicated he does not have the means to pay his legal bills, not acknowledging the possibility of leveraging his property, or at least its value. He has pointed to the larger case for legal defense funds that goes beyond his situation, something it appears City Council members and others are in agreement about. De Blasio has claimed that law enforcement investigations are part of being in political office.

At the hearing, the bill appeared to have the support of the Council members who spoke, although some had suggestions for improving it. The Conflict of Interest Board, represented at the hearing by its executive director, Carolyn Lisa Miller, and general counsel, Ethan Carrier, also expressed general support. However, Miller said there are some reservations about a section of the proposed bill that would ban the use of a defense fund from paying legal fines, but allows a fund to pay civil and administrative fines, such as Campaign Finance Board fines. Council Member Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat who expressed support for the concept of the bill but is undecided about its current form, asked about this section, but it was unclear if the provision would be changed.

Miller stated the COIB already does not have enough resources to do its mandated work and would require additional funds to fulfill the requirements of the bill. She estimated that an online reporting portal would cost $40,000 to set up and a few thousand each year afterwards for licensing. The bill requires quarterly reporting for defense funds and each audit would cost between $5,000 and $10,000, according to Miller’s estimate based on information from other city agencies. When asked about the number of defense funds that would be registered, she said she did not know. If the section allowing defense funds to pay campaign finance violation fines were to be included in a final bill, she estimated that as many as 50 defense funds could be established. Without that provision, she said there were only be a few, if any, per year. Many candidates for office wind up incurring some amount of fines from the Campaign Finance Board, often ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, said he supports the concept behind the bill, but thinks that the specifics could be improved. He questioned why the Campaign Finance Board would not allow COIB to use its reporting portal or certified auditors, which he said would save taxpayers money. According to Miller, the CFB’s portal is proprietary to that agency and cannot be used by COIB. Near the end of the hearing, Cabrera proposed that the CFB could administer the bill’s requirements instead of the COIB. Both Levin and Treyger were against this proposal, but Yeger reaffirmed that he would like a mandate included in the bill for the CFB and COIB to share resources.

While not at the hearing, watchdog group Common Cause supports the bill. In a July 2017 statement in support of legal defense trusts, Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause/NY,  said that “there must and should be a process for public officials to raise funds to pay for legal bills” and “we need a policy in place to give public officials a workable solution and avoid ad hoc improvisation.” Common Cause commissioned a study of legal defense fund laws across the country and made recommendations to cover New York City’s perceived “policy gap.” Levin’s bill includes many of Common Cause’s recommendations.

The Council committee hearing on the bill only included a statement from Council Member Levin, its lead sponsor, and the representatives from COIB. The Council now has to decide whether to amend Levin’s bill and if more hearings are required to address the issues raised at the January 14 hearing. The Council will also have to decide to vote on the bill or put it on indefinite hold. If it passes committee, it will go to the full 51-member Council. Meanwhile, it is unclear when exactly Mayor de Blasio’s legal bills are due, the debt has been outstanding for quite some time now.

In response to a tweet about the bill from Politico reporter Sally Goldenberg, former City Council Member Sal Albanese, a 2013 and 2017 Democratic primary opponent of de Blasio, said that Levin and the bill’s other sponsors “should be held accountable for introducing this self serving corruption hazard” and called them “Bill de Blasio sycophants.” Levin replied to Albanese, stating that “I never spoke to [the Mayor’s Office] before introing this bill” and that “the bill itself is specifically designed to eliminate a corruption hazard.”

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: after initially mistaking Council Member Yeger for Treyger, this article has been corrected. It has also been updated to clarify Council Member Powers' stance on the bill.

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With De Blasio in Debt, City Council Considers Bill to Allow ‘Legal Defense Trusts’ Mon, 21 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers Requiring More Reporting on Required Reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7700-city-council-considers-requiring-more-reporting-on-required-reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7700-city-council-considers-requiring-more-reporting-on-required-reporting City Council Cabrera Vallone

CMs Cabrera, left, and Vallone (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


How does the New York City Council check city government agencies without legislating agency operations, which it sometimes does not have the power to do? Reporting bills.

The Council often passes legislation that requires an agency under the direction of the mayor to produce a report, like Local Law 47, which compels the NYPD to compile data on subway fare-beating arrests. This bill, and the NYPD’s response, quickly became another flash point in tensions between city agencies and the Council, which has mandated oversight responsibilities along with its legislative powers.

The intention behind the bulk of reporting bills -- which, like other legislation passed by the Council, are typically signed into law by the mayor -- is more transparency into agencies that then allows both the public and Council members additional insight into government function, effectiveness, and efficiency, and indications of operational or budgetary reforms that may be needed. But, reporting bills can also be onerous, requiring valuable resources at city agencies mandated to compile information, and there are questions about how often required reports are even produced or used by the Council.

Now, a new bill at the Council is aimed at bringing additional oversight and transparency to the totality of required reporting -- but that bill itself is the source of disagreement. A recent hearing on the bill, which is sponsored by City Council Member Fernando Cabrera and would add new requirements for an online database of all required reports, saw discussion of the bill as well as the practice of passing reporting bills. The bill would add new information about when reports are due and put public pressure on city agencies to produce required reports.

According to the listing for the bill on the Council website, the bill would require the city’s Department of Records and Information Services, “which is currently required to receive and post all reports required to be produced by local law or executive order on its website, to list all required reports, when they were last received and when they are next due.” It would also require DORIS to send a request “to any agency that does not transmit a required report, and would require the posting of such request on the website in lieu of the required report until such report is received.”

At the April 26 hearing, representatives of the mayor’s office and the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) testified in opposition to the bill, which also received a lukewarm public reception from some City Council members.

The bill currently has the sponsorship of only Council Member Cabrera, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, which held the hearing, at which other Council members voiced concerns over the Council’s tendency to pass reporting laws and whether or not such laws do more to inundate agencies than substantially help the Council or the public.

If enacted, the bill -- known as Intro. 828 -- would enhance the DORIS-run digital database of reports required by local laws, executive orders, or mayoral directives. Currently, DORIS maintains the Government Publications Portal; however, the scope of this portal is limited by a mandatory keyword search engine as well as the fact that it lacks some of the most recent reports from city agencies. For example, the portal does not provide any reports from the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) past the year 2014, despite reports being published as recently as this year.

Additionally, other recent reports by agencies such as the Department of Buildings, including those on gas utility risks or construction safety, or the Department of Criminal Justice, such as annual reports on jail population or crime rates, are similarly not accessible through the current portal.

DORIS and the Mayor’s Office of Operations cited unnecessary burden and premature planning as to why the bill should not be passed.

“With the continuous addition of legislated reports required of city agencies, we recognize the need to ensure strong administrative practices to support agency compliance,” said Emily Newman, the acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, at the hearing last month. “However, we do not believe that Intro. 828 identifies the most effective approach and that it is not in the city’s best interest to mandate a new process in advance of any relevant recommendations of the Report and Advisory Board Review Commission.”

The Report and Advisory Board Review Commission, which reviews reporting requirements and assesses the usefulness of such reports, among other objectives, was set to reconvene this month. The last time the commission met was in 2012, despite the city charter mandating that it has annual public meetings.

“Intro. 828, as drafted, includes requirements that would be onerous for DORIS to undertake in real-time,” Pauline Toole, the DORIS commissioner, said at the City Council hearing. “Some agencies submit reports on a weekly basis, some monthly, some quarterly, and updating the list for each submission would require extensive resources and, ultimately, not provide the public with a worthwhile service.” Toole said DORIS currently updates the site on a “regular basis.”

Toole also cited an increase in the number of reports submitted to the government publications portal, where over 21,000 reports have been submitted to the current DORIS portal today, a jump from 7,000 reports submitted in 2014.

Both Toole and Newman reaffirmed a desire to work on another possible solution in concert with the City Council in order to update the accessibility of all governmental reports online. Meanwhile, other concerns were additionally raised by Council members.

“I am as big on transparency as anything, but when we make demands out of agencies to do their jobs in other ways, I do worry that we are adding in so much onto them that is unfunded,” Council Member Keith Powers said at the hearing. “You know, we don’t fund new staff for that.”

Council Member Kalman Yeger also raised the concern of finances by considering what the potential savings would be if DORIS had a smaller annual quota for reports it must make available, which, according to Toole, currently stands at about 400 reports per year. “I’m curious to know how much we can save the taxpayers if we perhaps were to stop legislating the various agencies of this city to prepare information that is probably readily available by simply asking the agency to give the information out,” Yeger said at the hearing.

Alex Camarda, a senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, a government reform group focused on increased transparency, testified in support of the bill at the hearing – albeit, with some tweaks.

While the bill currently says that DORIS would send a letter of request of transmission to agencies ten days prior to a report’s deadline, and subsequently post that request on the website until the actual report is submitted, Camarda suggested that such a letter should be sent at the beginning of the fiscal year and that a seperate column listing all the agencies that did not yet transmit a report be created. Other proposed amendments to the bill include identifying which part of the charter administrative code requires the report as well as providing a brief summary of the report in the online database.

“We think government generally needs to move away from providing information that’s locked in static PDF reports and report data in an open, usable and dynamic form,” said Camarda.

Council Member Cabrera’s office did not respond to multiple requests to discuss the hearing and any modifications that he might consider making to the bill.

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by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

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City Council Considers Requiring More Reporting on Required Reporting Tue, 29 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000