Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/257 Mon, 22 Jul 2019 01:34:52 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 'There’s a real schism here': Developers, Electeds & Community Stakeholders Discuss Future of Harlem https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8667-developers-electeds-community-stakeholders-discuss-future-of-harlem https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8667-developers-electeds-community-stakeholders-discuss-future-of-harlem deliver harlem rev al sharp

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


Following years-long demographic shifts of Harlem — which has been the center of pressing concerns over race, resident displacement, and loss of historical black culture — developers are eager to jump on the new opportunities for residential and commercial development while residents are wary of how their neighborhoods will change. 

Elected officials, meanwhile, have emphasized different priorities for development, and, in many instances, expressed caution about growth. At a Thursday conference on “The Future of Harlem” that focused on development, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said more affordable housing must be built while State Assemblymember Inez Dickens stressed that the need to protect residential areas cannot come “to the detriment of business.”

Brewer and Dickens spoke at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem during a half-day event hosted by Bisnow — a commercial real estate news site — that was residential, commercial, and affordable housing-focused, with panels of developers discussing their projects in Harlem, how they will benefit current and new residents, and how they plan to incorporate community culture into their plans.

Much of the conference focused on what new development means for recently-rezoned East Harlem and how community engagement will be the “rallying cry for developers in Harlem’s historic neighborhoods,” as stated on the event’s webpage. There were three panels made up of representatives mostly from real-estate firms, a few based in Harlem, and focused on repercussions from the 2017 East Harlem rezoning passed by the de Blasio administration and City Council. Dickens opened the event, while Brewer closed it out.

“There really is one industry in New York City and it’s real estate, real estate, and real estate,” Brewer said.

The new development, some of which must include affordable housing units, include 20-story mixed-use rental buildings and condos offering Central Park views.

One conference panel concentrated on new development that has resulted from the new opportunities the rezoning created, and the other two looked at the residential and commercial sides of development in Harlem. Much of the conversation centered around growth, and opportunity for growth, in East Harlem.

Steve Kliegerman, the president of Halstead Development Marketing, said until now, East Harlem had not seen the same redevelopment that has occurred in the rest of Harlem. 

Community members were not included on the panels, but spoke during Q&A sessions at the end of the first panel to ask about how the developers planned to engage with the community as well as express concern that they had not yet been advised on some projects. (Tickets were $109, and Bisnow scheduled time for networking before and after speakers.)

“We’re making our first foray into East Harlem,” said Eric Brody, the chief operating officer at Wonder Works Construction, who spoke on a panel about new projects in the neighborhood. “We see it as drastically changing over the next few years.”

The 96-block East Harlem rezoning that in 2017 passed the City Council, working with the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, allowed higher densities and taller buildings, increased allowable residential and commercial development on certain blocks, and was intended to create economic development and affordable housing in an area that was seeing an influx of new residents and real estate speculation. The city expects the creation of about 1,200 affordable units, but some housing advocates have said the ones built so far have been more expensive than what East Harlem residents need. 

“The intent of the rezoning was to increase density and increase growth while also improving affordability,” said Nicole Assa, a development associate at Blumenfeld Development Group. “There has been a lot of that, however, unfortunately the recent rent regulations reform have really thrown a wrench into this whole rezoning.”

Another developer said state government’s recent changes to rent regulations “turn the winds against” building mixed-income affordable housing buildings, but said it is complicated and potential benefits or challenges are still unclear, though he did not go into specifics.

Considerably more tenant-friendly, the strengthened rent regulations out of Albany apply to roughly 1 million existing New York City apartments and make it harder for units to be taken out of regulation and the lower than market-rate rents typically involved.

“In our city and in our office we look for more affordable housing,” Brewer said. “And in East Harlem we absolutely have to find more.”

The potential for new development in East Harlem has added to resident concerns that it will follow the same path as the gentrification in Central Harlem, where local stores around 125th Street disappear and The Gap, H&M, and Whole Foods take their place. Central Harlem’s demographics have shifted over the last 20 years from predominantly black to a more diverse and whiter population. The white population increased in the area from 2 percent of the population in 2000 to 15 percent in 2017. In the same time period, the black population decreased from 77 percent of the population to 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile in East Harlem, which is historically Latino, from 1990 to 2016 the white population increased by 172 percent to make up 16 percent of the population, according to a state comptroller report from 2016.

As Gotham Gazette and other outlets reported, local advocates who strongly opposed the East Harlem rezoning believed it would cause more gentrification and displacement. Marco Lala, a real estate broker from the Bronx, said at the Bisnow conference that Whole Foods opened in 2017, many thought it was the “final nail in the coffin.”

Mayor de Blasio and then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represented East Harlem, argued that the neighborhood was seeing an initial wave of gentrification and that a city-led rezoning was necessary to help harness the forces of development to produce affordable housing and other community benefits (de Blasio's approach to neighborhood rezonings in communities of color has been criticized).

Community leaders in attendance Thursday morning expressed concern that some of the projects will not work for Harlem, in part due to a lack of outreach by developers, and will continue to transform the broader area in harmful ways. Stanley Gleaton, a member of Community Board 10 in Harlem, said in the audience during a Q&A portion of the panel the developers need to consult with Latino and African-American real-estate agencies.

“We’re here because we want to preserve our community,” Gleaton said. “[The developers] are here because you want to change. There’s a real schism here.”

A local small business owner said it has become increasingly difficult to change lease agreements and wanted to know how the developers plan to support the local boutiques and shops that have attracted people to Harlem.

Tell Metzger, a development director at L+M Development Partners, which focuses on affordable housing, said small businesses generally do not meet the criteria that developers are looking for in commercial tenants. He said the criteria “conspires” against small business owners.

“I have no idea how to bridge that gap,” Metzger said. “It’s a problem.”

Other developers and brokers at the conference said they try to be cognizant of Harlem’s history and incorporate the “Harlem brand” into their plans. Beatrice Sibblies, a managing partner of a Harlem-based real estate firm, said when she first came to Harlem she researched what the neighborhood is known for and used it as a “comparative advantage” for her business.

“A big part of the Harlem brand is a hospitality brand and a culinary brand and a cultural brand,” Sibblies said. “There is untapped potential in the Harlem brand.”

Kliegerman said many of their projects have worked with the community to get rid of gang and drug activity on the blocks near their developments, helping transform some from “block horrible to block beautiful.” He did not explain in detail.

He added that he believes the developers on the panel have tried to cooperate with the communities to make sure the new buildings both fit in with the neighborhood and make financial sense for the developers.

Brewer said the developers in the past who have made community engagement a top priority have had the better outcomes. She said in one case, representatives from the Janus Property Company spent a decade in West Harlem to develop their project. 

“That kind of work pays off,” Brewer said. “You don’t have people screaming and yelling.”

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bySamantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

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'There’s a real schism here': Developers, Electeds & Community Stakeholders Discuss Future of Harlem Thu, 11 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8496-max-murphy-podcast-manhattan-borough-president-gale-brewer https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8496-max-murphy-podcast-manhattan-borough-president-gale-brewer Gale Brewer

Manhattan BP Gale Brewer (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


May 1, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

gale brewer 150pxManhattan Borough President Gale Brewer joined the show to discuss a wide variety of topics, from her lawsuit against the de Blasio administration over planned housing development on NYCHA land to how she deals with NIMBYism and Mayor de Blasio, her potential plans for when she's term-limited from her current office at the end of 2021, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer Wed, 01 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Officials Discuss Next Steps in Bridging Digital Divides, Including Online Census https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8486-officials-discuss-next-steps-in-bridging-digital-divides-including-online-census https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8486-officials-discuss-next-steps-in-bridging-digital-divides-including-online-census Cuomo broadband for all

(photo: governor's office)


Leaders in civic technology, including elected and appointed government officials, appeared at a forum Monday to discuss the necessary next steps to bridge New York’s gaps in internet access and digital literacy.

It is essential, they said, that New Yorkers not only have access to the web, for a variety of reasons including job and housing opportunities, but that they are skilled enough to use it. And both gaps must be bridged, they explained, not only in the state’s rural areas, but also in urban areas with high levels of internet isolation.

The forum, hosted by New York Law School, was addressed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; Josh Breitbart, the de Blasio administration’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer; and Karim Camara, the head of Governor Cuomo’s Office of Faith Based Community Development Services. All three officials addressed the critical need for universal, equitable access to the internet and digital technology, and to ensure that certain, often marginalized groups are not left behind.

The half-day event also included a panel discussion on similar topics, featuring former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn; Nicol Turner Lee of the Brookings Institution; Tom Kamber of Older Adults Technology Services; and Justin Vélez-Hagan of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce.

Civic technology, and the way government can broaden access to and interest in the digital world as it becomes more and more essential to everyday life, is due to play a major role in upcoming public policy debates. The 2020 U.S. Census will be the first decennial federal census to be largely conducted online. In addition to the various controversies associated with the Trump administration’s handling of the census, most notably the proposed citizenship question, a mostly-online census threatens to undercount communities with limited access to the internet, such as the elderly or low-income people.

New York City and State governments are investing in census outreach programs for the coming year, with the city planning to fund an initiative to place help desks in libraries and public schools to assist those lacking tech access to complete the census. An incomplete count would put New York’s share of federal funding and its representation in Congress in jeopardy.

“We may have areas that are not counted because they don’t have the technology. And isn’t that ironic, because they’re gonna lose federal funds that could help their community because we’re not helping their community now,” Camara said in his closing address to the forum. “And so I think that’s so critical, and why this discussion is something that’s an urgent discussion.”

The recently passed state budget included $20 million in census outreach funding, half of what advocates called for, and the mayor’s executive budget plan includes $26 million for such funding, again less than the $40 million advocates said should be dedicated to working with nonprofit and other organizations to help ensure a full count.

“With the census coming, it’s gonna be a big challenge making sure that there is enough technology in the libraries and the non-profit community to end up supporting those who are not tech savvy,” Brewer said. In her speech, Brewer highlighted other initiatives her office has either worked on or is working on, such as equity in broadband access across public schools and assisting community boards in learning how to use the city’s open data portal.

The notion that certain communities are being left behind in the technologized world permeated throughout the conference. Breitbart discussed the challenges of both providing affordable, easy-to-use internet access to all communities while also preventing the proliferation of scams, hacks, racist abuse, and fake news from negatively affecting them.

“We can’t solve the digital divide having internet that exists that way,” Breitbart said, noting that the city is working on municipal wifi infrastructure beyond Link NYC kiosks, which replaced payphones, while also hosting workshops at libraries and other municipal spaces to assist seniors and others in the identification of threats and negative trends.

Several speakers highlighted that policymakers often neglect broadband coverage and usage gaps in urban areas in favor of proposing solutions for rural areas, having a disproportionately negative effect on residents of color. “Digital exclusion,” as some speakers described the phenomenon, not only prevents people from watching videos of cats, but also from searching for housing, applyong for jobs, and accessing social services, among other things.

“We need federal lawmakers, as well as state lawmakers, to understand that the digital divide still exists within urban communities,” Turner Lee said, noting that while rural communities should not be left out of the picture, focusing only on the lack of access in those communities ignores a vast swath of unconnected people.

“It’s disheartening when you go to a city like Hartford, Connecticut, and black girls still have to walk to McDonald’s to get wifi access to finish their homework,” Turner Lee said. “That’s disheartening. And so we have to work on lawmakers to understand that, even though there may be less market failure in urban areas, it does not mean that they’re not deserving of the same type of access.”

Rural residents were not left out of the conversation at the forum, though. Camara noted the state’s efforts in his remarks, citing the Cuomo administration’s $500 million commitment of state subsidies to expand high-speed broadband to rural regions lacking connectivity, with the state incentivizing the private sector to provide 100 mbps speeds to most underserved regions and 25 mbps to the most remote areas.

The program has apparently been successful, with Cuomo claiming that the state has cut the percentage of New Yorkers without high speed broadband access down from 30% in 2015 to 2% last year.

This puts New York ahead of the nation at large on broadband access. The FCC’s 2018 Broadband Progress Report found that 6% of Americans still lack access to fixed broadband service, and in rural areas that proportion is approaching a quarter of the population. And despite strides in ensuring access to broadband, “approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe.”

Nonetheless, the third and final phase of New York’s broadband project, which provides $210 million in awards to expand high speed broadband to 122,000 hard-to-reach households, has stalled. The administration did not meet its end-of-2018 deadline to achieve comprehensive high speed broadband access, owing largely to its dispute with Charter Communications over its own unmet obligations to expand its network in the state’s rural areas. And though broadband access is now nearly universal, a report by Microsoft found that high speed broadband usage in hard-to-reach areas is still relatively low.

“We’re certainly making progress,” Camara said, “but broadband development and rolling out at a cost point affordable to most people is still very challenging work, and we still have a lot of work to do.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Officials Discuss Next Steps in Bridging Digital Divides, Including Online Census Mon, 29 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Super-Fast 5G is Coming to the Five Boroughs, But City Officials Aren’t Sure When https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8453-super-fast-5g-is-coming-to-the-five-boroughs-but-city-officials-aren-t-sure-when https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8453-super-fast-5g-is-coming-to-the-five-boroughs-but-city-officials-aren-t-sure-when color 5g corrected2

(photo: Lisette Voytko)


As new lightning-fast networks are launching around the country, New Yorkers are looking at how “5G” technology may impact the city.

Government officials, technologists, academics, activists, and others are grappling with the pros and cons of implementing 5G, which includes download speeds 10 times faster than current smartphone connections and has the potential to allow many more devices to communicate simultaneously, greatly reducing lags in service. The overall effect would be a speedier, more seamless experience while using the internet on smartphones and other 5G-compatible devices.

Last week, at a conference co-sponsored by City & State and Verizon, titled “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” one panel of experts delved into the 5G discussion as it relates to New York City’s connectivity, public health, and safety. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer along with Joshua Breitbart of the mayor’s office of the chief technology officer, LeRoy Reese, associate professor of health at the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Jerome Hauer, a senior advisor for the Teneo Risk consulting firm, spoke about the potential of 5G networks to improve New Yorkers’ lives, as well as some of the concerns around the technology.

From a technology perspective, 5G (“G” stands for generation) is promising in sheer speed. It’s 10 times faster than the current 4G connections available in New York City, according to Leecia Eve, Verizon’s vice president of public policy (and a 2018 candidate for New York Attorney General). Latency, or delay in sending data across a network, is practically non-existent in 5G compared to 4G, the latter being the current “generation” of wireless networking. 4G connectivity is still being rolled out across the city, said Samir Saini, commissioner of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), during a March 7 City Council budget hearing.

Last month, Verizon was the first telecommunications company to launch 5G networks in Houston, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, among other cities, according to Eve. Michael Pastor, general counsel for DoITT, said during the March budget hearing that it is currently reviewing submissions from mobile telecommunications franchises, with an eye towards 5G.

Hypothetical and planned uses of the ultra-fast connection are numerous. Hauer, the former commissioner of homeland security for New York State, discussed how 5G could make triage more efficient in the event of a mass casualty incident. “Let’s say there is a shooting in one of the boroughs,” said Hauer. “That activates and sends messages to track license plates, turns security cameras on, starts facial recognition, if a car moves and is detected, that can be tracked. And you have a network moving [gigabytes of data] in milliseconds.”

The public health benefits of 5G could be enormous, according to Reese, citing its use for telemedicine in areas underserved by primary care doctors. Smartphones collecting personal health data could also be used in telemedicine, he said, through the devices’ diagnostic information. “It’s less about speculation and opportunity to improve quality of health in communities. 5G helps us level-set, and move in the direction of health equity,” said Reese.

City officials, however, have a more immediate perspective on how 5G would affect New Yorkers.

“It’s a potentially powerful way to serve more people,” said Breitbart, whose responsibilities include developing the city’s broadband strategy to provide internet to all. “But I have yet to see how 5G will connect people who are under-connected here in the city, that’s the real question.”

Under-connection is still a significant issue in some parts of the five boroughs. Democratizing internet access has been a goal for the de Blasio administration, which in 2015 made a $70 million commitment to covering the city with broadband access. As of 2018, according to an annual report by OneNYC (the city’s broad roadmap to address social, economic, and environmental issues), 69% of New Yorkers have a broadband subscription, while 28% have free wireless internet access within an eighth of a mile from their homes.

Advocates share concerns around equal distribution of internet resources. Members of NYC Mesh, an organization that provides cheaper wireless internet through a group of volunteers who place routers on their windowsills and rooftops, believes the city should work with residents to ensure an even rollout of 5G and any new technology.

Scott Rasmussen, director of business development and partnerships for NYC Mesh, said in a phone interview that local groups should be “working with the city to make sure [5G] is distributed in an equitable way, not just as a fast track to the highway for the wealthy of the city.”

In order to be launched, new 5G-capable sensors would need to be installed across the city. New York City’s dense infrastructure adds to the difficulty of deploying 5G for residents. Brewer,  who prior to being elected Manhattan borough president chaired the technology committee in the City Council, and helped pass the city’s open data law, pointed to the issue of the sensors’ inability to penetrate the walls of some buildings, notably ones owned by the city’s public housing authority, which in turn affects residents living there.

The timeline for sensor installation, said Brewer, is quite a while. Saini of DoITT said similarly at the March hearing. “When you have a multi-family complex, and you have small cells deployed around the perimeter, the 5G signal, and all the benefits of the gigabit-plus speed, actually aren’t realized within the home,” Saini said.

In addition to the challenges facing any deployment of 5G, residents are concerned about potential health risks of radiation exposure to the new network’s frequencies. According to Brewer, her office had received approximately 30 phone calls over the prior three weeks from Manhattan residents concerned about the related health impacts. “The scientists say it’s not an issue, but then you’ll see some scientists who say it is. I don’t know,” said Brewer. According to the latest guidance from the National Cancer Institute, studies on the relationship between radiation from cell phone use and cancer have not found a correlation between the two.

“What most people call and are concerned about are the radiation emitted from shorter millimeter wavelengths could impact cancer survivors, or cause cancer,” said Daniel Alam, Brewer’s technology and policy analyst. “5G hasn’t really been around long enough for us to have definitive data on it.”

Rasmussen also cited privacy as a concern with 5G, as its fast speed is suited to what is known as the Internet of Things (IoT). With IoT, everything from coffee makers to light switches can be connected to the internet, which can in turn gather data from those connected devices. “People should be concerned. Their data will go into algorithms and artificial intelligence decision-making, impacting their lives, and it exercises opportunities for corporate control [of their data],” he said.

While the potential health and privacy impacts of 5G are still being understood, Brewer said that historically, New Yorkers have had misgivings about other technologies that are now a given in daily life. “You know, I’ve been around a long time. So it was the same problem with cable [TV],” she said. “Because the cable has to go up and down buildings and streets, so people were concerned.”

The timeline to roll out 5G in the five boroughs is hard to define, according to Pastor, citing the sensors’ penetration issues at the March budget hearing. Saini said there is no deadline currently for a 5G launch.

Brewer’s final comment last week summed up the immediate future of New York City and 5G. “I still think it needs discussion,” she said.

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Super-Fast 5G is Coming to the Five Boroughs, But City Officials Aren’t Sure When Tue, 16 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Giving Our Children Tools to Eat and Live Healthily https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8377-giving-our-children-tools-to-eat-and-live-healthily-school-food https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8377-giving-our-children-tools-to-eat-and-live-healthily-school-food school garden 2 002

(photo: 123rf rawpixel)


It’s 10 a.m. in Ms. Montalvo-Teller’s second grade science lab at P.S. 75. A group of students are happily scarfing down kale, arugula, and bok choy leaves they grew themselves. While they enjoy their snack, Ms. Montalvo-Teller engages them in a science lesson about what parts of the plant we eat. And, Ms. Montalvo-Teller says, many will then go home and pester their parents to buy more of the tasty greens for dinner.

These kids are getting great food and nutrition education that will help them develop as healthy eaters and advocates for good food. Yet there is no guarantee that students in the school down the street, or in other schools across the city, are getting similar opportunities. In fact, according to a recent study, almost half of our city’s schools lack access to external food and nutrition education programs.

We face incredible odds in helping our children eat well. Show us a parent who hasn’t had to contend with the colorful sugar-cereal aisle, the athlete’s face on the soda can, or the fast food toy promotion. And parents who struggle to put any food at all on the table face even more challenges.

That’s where school-based food and nutrition education comes in. The evidence shows, and parents know, that when children are excited and empowered to eat well, they will.

Kindergarteners visiting the local farmers market. Fifth-graders cooking and sharing a meal together. High school seniors learning to combat how structural racism makes healthful foods inaccessible in some communities. In all its forms, food and nutrition education engages students in navigating our challenging food supply. And, with students eating up to three meals and a snack during the school day, they have the chance to put new skills into practice within hours of learning them.

With school-based food and nutrition education, we can improve our children’s health, our communities’ health, and even the health of our planet. Food and nutrition education is a key to combating childhood obesity. In New York City, one in five kindergarten students is obese and the ratio is even higher for black and Latino children.

Eating a nutritious diet improves students’ physical, mental, and emotional health. They learn better today and avoid a host of chronic diseases down the line. Many of our city’s communities lack access to healthy and affordable food. Students who have learned to look critically at the types of foods available in their neighborhoods go on to launch campaigns for better choices in their local bodegas.

And of course, we can’t ignore climate change. Children who learn about the impact of food and agriculture on the environment grow up to be conscious consumers and advocates for a more sustainable food system.

All New York City students deserve healthy, equitable, sustainable, and culturally-responsive food access and education. Yet the city’s Department of Education (DOE) does not provide any data on which students are getting food and nutrition education, how much they are getting, or who is delivering it. Anecdotally, we know there are more teachers like Ms. Montalvo-Teller in schools across the city. And according to a Tisch Food Center report, we also know that there are dozens of organizations that provide food and nutrition education to just over half the city’s schools. Yet the picture is far from complete.

That is why we are behind a bill in the City Council, Intro. 1283-2018, that would require the DOE to report on school-based food and nutrition education. DOE needs to shine a light on the gaps in food and nutrition education so that parents, students, educators, advocates, and policy-makers can craft equitable policies that direct resources to the schools and students that need them most. The City Council can’t legislate the implementation of food and nutrition education, but it can require reporting and transparency, which will help highlight and expand what is already happening.

We wouldn’t give a child a book and expect them to understand it without learning to read and analyze the words. Faced with today’s food supply, children likewise need and deserve education that empowers them to prepare, enjoy, and ask for good food. As the children in Ms. Montalvo-Teller’s class will tell you, growing your own salad is a fun way to eat your greens. Let’s make sure food and nutrition education like this is on every student’s academic menu. Passing the food and nutrition education reporting bill is just the first course.

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City Council Member Mark Treyger represents parts of Brooklyn and chairs the Council’s education committee; Gale Brewer is Manhattan Borough President; and Dr. Pamela Koch is Executive Director of Columbia University’s Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy. On Twitter @MarkTreyger718 & @galeabrewer & @pam_koch & @tischfoodcenter.

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

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Giving Our Children Tools to Eat and Live Healthily Mon, 01 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Where Top Officials Stand on the SHSAT and Specialized High School Admissions https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8406-where-top-city-officials-stand-on-the-shsat-and-specialized-high-school-admissions https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8406-where-top-city-officials-stand-on-the-shsat-and-specialized-high-school-admissions de Blasio SHSAT

Mayor de Blasio announces specialized high schools plan (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


In June of 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a plan to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) for New York City’s specialized public high schools, in an effort to increase diversity, especially for black and Latino youth, at the city’s eight elite test-based institutions. Joined for a press conference in Brooklyn’s JHS 292 school by a Hunter College student, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, and a number of City Council members and State Assembly members, he hosted a rally-like announcement, where he initiated a call-and-response: “Time for change?” de Blasio asked three times. “Yes!” the audience yelled back.

“For thousands and thousands of students and neighborhoods all over New York City, the message has been these specialized schools aren’t for you,” de Blasio said in June. “So, the solution is simple: the test has to go.”

But it’s not simple. He received swift backlash from the city’s Asian-American community––especially those of low income, who comprise a significant portion of the specialized public high school student body. Though his plan was celebrated by some local politicians, as months passed, some began to shy away from their support for de Blasio’s plan and insisted on a more broadly palatable path.

De Blasio had not gotten much of the necessary buy-in to move his plan in the state Legislature -- state law dictates that the SHSAT is the sole criteria for entry into the three largest specialized high schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech -- the mayor did little else to push his plan, and the discussion fizzled.

Then came the news earlier this month that of the 895 students offered admission to Stuyvesant High School, the city’s most rigorous and exclusive public school, only seven of those students were black. The controversy reenergized the debate around school admissions, the SHSAT, the city’s larger school system, and other key issues, embroiling not only city politicians, but also those who work in Albany.

The latest data for admissions to Stuyvesant and the other specialized schools set off a new round of questioning the use of the SHSAT (few if any other learning institutions at any level across the country use a single test to determine admissions) and reinvigorated interest in plans put forth by de Blasio and others to ensure more racial and ethnic diversity at the schools. While those who prefer the current system dug in.

Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed the lack of diversity at the schools is a problem and said the city should change admissions at the five schools it controls and then put pressure on state legislators to follow suit for the other three. He did not offer any specifics on what he believes to be the right admissions criteria.

Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie nor Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has taken a concrete position on the SHSAT and specialized high school admissions. Heastie did say on March 8 that he wants to see “more specialized slots” and the schools "more reflective of the city's population," but he did not go further. He said the Assembly majority would take the issue up at some point.

A group of state senators called for “open dialogue and consensus-building on school diversity and admissions.” Queens Senator John Liu, who chairs the Senate’s New York City schools subcommittee, said de Blasio’s plan exacerbates racial tension, but brought together colleagues to announce a plan to hold hearings later this year.

“What we need is open-mindedness and open dialogue in order to build a consensus for a plan going forward,” Liu said. Other senators echoed Liu, decrying the city’s diversity statistics and calling for a series of community forums, but neglecting to offer any other concrete solutions.

De Blasio said he looked forward to future dialogue. A couple of weeks later, on Thursday, he acknowledged that he did not roll out his plan well, and pledged more engagement with the city’s Asian communities.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote an op-ed in Chalkbeat NY on Thursday in which he called for the eventual elimination of the use of the SHSAT for admissions to the city’s specialized high schools and for “additional City-designated elite high schools, separate from the eight test-based high schools governed by state law.” Johnson wrote that this process “would allow the [Department of Education] to pilot new admissions criteria that will promote diversity without needing state approval.”

Johnson also wrote that City Council will soon consider new legislation addressing diversity in specialized high schools and beyond, including a task force to determine new admissions criteria, codification of the School Diversity Advisory Group, establishing District Diversity Working Groups in each school district, and the creation of an oversight role housed in the city Human Rights Commission called a School Diversity Monitor.

"The problem with the specialized high schools’ admissions process runs much deeper than one test," said Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the education committee, in a statement, noting that he will hold a hearing on school segregation next month. Treyger also cited an op-ed published in the New York Daily News on Wednesday by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who argued against eliminating the test and pushed for expanding gifted-and-talented programs citywide.

"I won’t support a plan that solely abolishes an exam, which was essentially the Mayor’s plan," Treyger said. "I’m open to a plan that includes revamping and expanding enrichment programs, adding more crucial seats, across all districts, particularly in communities of color. We must engage with all marginalized communities as we examine how to better integrate schools, from pre-k to high school. We need full integration, which means examining evidence-based multiple measures to enter specialized schools, and the pipeline of schools that populate them and the rest of our school system."

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams initially backed de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the use of the SHSAT and move to multiple measures for admissions to the specialized schools, even appearing at the announcement to lend his support, but he then backtracked.

Adams penned an op-ed in the Amsterdam News last July voicing his support for the SHSAT––with caveats. He called for “free preparatory services for every student who wants to take the SHSAT but faces economic hardship,” funded by the city, in addition to expanding middle school gifted and talented programs. Additionally, he advocated creating five new specialized high schools, one per borough, and incorporating other academic metrics like class performance into the admissions process. This week, Adams’ office told the Gotham Gazette that his position remains the same.

After de Blasio announced his plan, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. also voiced his support, calling it a “welcome step forward” and a “validation of the diligent work of so many elected officials, educators, activists and parents whose efforts have focused on this issue for years, if not decades.” Like Adams, he has since walked back his support, telling the Max & Murphy podcast this week that he favors a more holistic admissions approach that includes the SHSAT in addition to a number of other academic criteria.

Asked for her position by Gotham Gazette, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer advocated for methods of improving diversity beyond eliminating the entrance exam and also called for community forums. The city should engage in “a back and forth with students and parents about the many options to reform the admissions at these specific high schools,” she said.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has not responded to a request for comment.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Committee on Education.

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Where Top Officials Stand on the SHSAT and Specialized High School Admissions Thu, 28 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Pushes 'Yes' Vote on 3 Ballot Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8040-de-blasio-pushes-yes-vote-on-3-ballot-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8040-de-blasio-pushes-yes-vote-on-3-ballot-proposals de blasio 3 ballet

32BJ's Hector Figueroa, with Mayor de Blasio and others (photo: @32BJSEIU)


Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday continued his eleventh-hour push for the ballot proposals put forth by his Charter Revision Commission, with a rally at the headquarters of labor union 32BJ SEIU, where he was joined by other unions, elected officials, and advocates in favor of the three reforms that will appear on New York City voters’ ballots on Election Day.

De Blasio, who announced the commission in his 2018 State of the City address to examine and propose revisions to the city’s charter, characterizes the three proposals as ones that will strengthen democracy in New York City. Broadly speaking, though each has numerous accompanying details, the proposals are to lower individual campaign contribution limits and increase the public match ratio; create a civic engagement commission that would run a citywide participatory budgeting program and do other tasks to promote civic involvement; and, most controversially, term limits for community board members and other changes to the community board membership process.

After saying virtually nothing about them for weeks, the mayor has been on something of a last-minute whirlwind tour in favor of the proposals. On Sunday, the mayor stumped for them at two Manhattan churches. On Tuesday, he conducted a telephone town hall and published an op-ed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle supporting the measures. He and his team have been urging allies, including Senator Bernie Sanders, to promote “yes” votes, and the mayor’s social media feeds have been promoting the measures and expressions of support for them.

The Thursday rally, backed by the “Democracy Yes” coalition of unions, advocates, good government groups, and community groups that support the proposals, is the latest in de Blasio’s campaign sweep through the city in favor of the charter revisions.

The mayor and the assembled crowd characterized the measures as a way to wrest control of the democratic process away from old, wealthy, white men and towards more democratic control and greater representation for young people, people of color, immigrants, and low-income people.

“If what young people hear from everyone else around them is, ‘wait your turn,’ that is not a way to create a healthier, stronger democracy,” de Blasio said, referencing opposition to the community board term limit proposal. Critics say term limits would lead to a brain drain on community boards to the benefit of real estate developers, though the real estate lobby itself is against term limits. The proposal would limit members to four consectuve two-year terms, but those term-limited from reapplying would only have to sit out one two-year term before being eligible for reappointment by their borough president.

The borough presidents, aside from Brooklyn’s Eric Adams, and Comptroller Scott Stringer (the former Manhattan borough president) have led the charge against Proposal 3.

“Our message needs to be the opposite,” the mayor continued.

“Imagine if the system was not rigged against everyday people, but actually strengthened the hand of everyday New Yorkers so we could lead our own city,” de Blasio said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton also spoke in favor of all three proposals, making racial justice arguments and calling the measures models for the country and bulwarks against voter suppression nationwide, invoking the memory of civil rights movement protesters.

“These measures that we’re voting in New York is what they fought for to give us the right to vote,” Sharpton said. “They did not fight, and some die, to give us the right to vote for only people with rich friends to be able to run for office.”

The city’s public campaign financing system, whereby the first or up to $175 of a donation is matched 6-to-1 by public dollars, is often considered a model for the nation for how to achieve sustainable public financing of campaigns. Proposal 1 would increase the match to 8-to-1, and match donations up to $250. It would also lower campaign contribution limits for all city offices. Advocates say that it would allow more people to run for office and lower prospective candidates’ reliance on wealthy people for funding.

“When we consider running for office, we encounter barriers so difficult to overcome, many feel defeated,” said Hercules Reid, the former student government president at the New York City College of Technology and current legislative director for the CUNY University Student Senate. “It is a herculean task trying to get elected in this city.”

“Barriers to office are real, and a real big one is that not a lot of us know a ton of rich people,” Reid continued. De Blasio later echoed this point, though the mayor has raised significant funds from large donors, both for his election campaigns and outside groups. It was fundraising for those outside groups -- nonprofit advocacy organizations -- that led to investigations of de Blasio and his associates that resulted in no criminal charges but sharp criticism from law enforcement leaders and good government advocates, among others, as well as new city laws meant to curb the type of fundraising de Blasio did.

The second ballot question would establish a “civic engagement commission” to increase participation in New York’s civic life, including voting. The mayor noted improving translation services at the polls as a particularly important item for the commission to take up, while City Council Member Brad Lander discussed increasing community engagement with and knowledge of community boards, PTAs, and other institutions. The most significant job of the commission, however, would be to expand participatory budgeting citywide.

Practiced in 31 of the 51 City Council districts this year, participatory budgeting allows community residents to suggest and vote on specific projects within their districts that they would like to fund with tax dollars allocated through the local Council member’s capital funds.

“A little over half the city now has it, but almost half does not, and most New Yorkers don’t yet know about it, because we’ve not been able to invest real citywide resources in it,” Lander said. “Participatory budgeting functions like a gateway drug to democracy.” Some projects funded in Lander’s district in the last cycle include replacing “derelict Kindergarten sinks at PS 282,” replacing a broken gate at the PS 118 schoolyard to make it accessible, and building a “playground” for seniors.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Comptroller Stringer both take issue with the civic engagement commission, which Stringer characterizes as a power grab by the mayor, who would appoint a majority of its members. Brewer, who has formed an independent expenditure committee in opposition to questions 2 and 3, asserts that the commission’s outreach and assistance efforts with community boards would be an encroachment by the mayor on a duty typically performed by borough presidents.

“A ‘Civic Engagement Commission’ controlled by any Mayor also puts communities at a disadvantage and won’t enhance democracy in our neighborhoods,” Stringer said in a statement released soon after the mayor’s rally. Asked for a response, de Blasio said that the commission’s structure as proposed is “organized for effectiveness” but didn’t elaborate, and noted that he supports a “professionalized” Board of Elections.

On the third and most controversial proposal, which is centered on term limits for community board members, the mayor and advocates claim that term limits have been successful for elected city officials, and instituting them for community boards would free up space for new voices where older and whiter ones than the communities they represent typically reign. The proposal would also require borough presidents to seek people of “diverse backgrounds” for appointments, to make the boards more accurately represent their communities, and provide more public information.

“If the door’s not open, that’s not democracy,” de Blasio said. “Community boards have to be for everyone, every community, every background, young, old, everyone needs a chance to serve. Term limits for community boards is simply the way of saying ‘let’s give everyone a chance to participate.’”

Opponents of term limits, such as Brewer and Stringer, have charged that an exodus of longtime, experienced community board members would cause both a brain drain and a diminution of influence on complex land use decisions, allowing developers to run roughshod over them.

“It would have the effect of allowing developers and their lawyers—who are never term limited!—to dominate development negotiations, because those long-time members will be gone,” Brewer wrote in an email to supporters in October signaling her opposition to Questions 2 and 3. “And on long-term city projects like street redesign or sustainability, newly-appointed community board members would have little influence over long-term projects. Every Board’s institutional memory would be wiped out.”

De Blasio did not buy the arguments. “I have term limits, my colleagues in the City Council have term limits, the President of the United States has term limits,” he said. “I think there’s something healthy about the notion that all public servants have an opportunity to turn over the reins once in a while.”

“Let’s say someone served for 20 years on their community board,” he continued. “Under this ballot measure, they will get to serve another eight years, they would take a two year break, and if they wanted to come back and there was a seat, they could have that seat. I think there will be plenty of institutional knowledge preserved. But honestly, what we’re missing right now is new voices, we’re missing diversity, we’re missing young people.”

Another charter revision commission, empaneled by the City Council through legislation pushed by Brewer and Public Advocate Letitia James, started while the mayor’s commission was underway and is working to produce its own ballot measures for 2019. The mayor told Gotham Gazette that the commissions are not rivaling each other, and that his office is working with the 2019 commission, on which he has several appointees.

Some issues were considered and rejected by the mayor’s commission, including independent redistricting of City Council districts and ranked-choice voting. The mayor told Gotham Gazette that he hopes the 2019 commission continues looking into ranked-choice voting, in particular.

“There was a very vibrant discussion in this charter revision commission, for example, about ranked-choice voting,” he said. “For me, the jury’s still out on ranked-choice voting. I grew up with it, in Massachusetts. I think it has strengths and I think it has weaknesses, and I’d certainly like to see a lot more research on it. But there’s a lot of people who believe it might be very beneficial in New York City. That’s the kind of thing that deserves a really thorough airing of all the facts.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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De Blasio Pushes 'Yes' Vote on 3 Ballot Proposals Thu, 01 Nov 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to make a lasting impact on city governance through a charter revision commission that would transform the city’s campaign finance system, promote greater civic involvement in city affairs, and inject new blood into local community boards. But prominent elected officials, most of whom are Democrats like de Blasio, don’t agree with the proposals the mayor’s commission has put on the November 6 ballot and are urging New Yorkers to reject them.

The mayor’s commission put three questions on the ballot for voter approval through a simple majority. The first would significantly reduce individual campaign contribution limits and expand the city’s public matching funds program; the second would create a civic engagement commission with appointments mostly by the mayor to coordinate citywide participatory budgeting and other initiatives such as interpreting services at polling sites; and the third would impose term limits on community board members and alter how those members are recruited and appointed to ensure greater diversity.

Though the mayor appointed the commission and announced its areas of focus, he was not to have direct say over its final report or proposals, but he did announce support for all three and is now campaigning to see them approved by voters.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” he said in a September statement, when the proposals were released. “There's no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.” On Sunday, de Blasio spoke at two churches in Manhattan, urging congregants to flip their ballot and decide on the three questions. “[V]ote yes, yes, yes. So we can open up the doors of democracy wide and make this an even greater city,” he said at Bethel Gospel Assembly.

Other elected officials, however, are not so certain, and are expressing somewhat mixed reviews, though many are opposed to community board term limits.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, for instance, supports lowering contribution limits and creating a civic engagement commission, but not term limits for community board members. “I don’t think term limits are necessary,” Johnson, a former community boar chair, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These aren’t lifetime appointments. They must be reappointed by elected officials who are term limited. I think that provides enough checks and balances to our community boards, while allowing us to keep the good members with experience and wisdom. It is also our job as elected officials to always be looking to appoint new civic minded leaders who are interested in serving.”

It’s an argument that’s also been advanced by four of the five borough presidents -- only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams supports the term limits question.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in fact, led the creation of an independent expenditure committee to oppose both term limits and the civic engagement commission, an effort in which she was joined by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo (Oddo is the lone Republican in the group). “These proposals would be a real—and in some cases dangerous—disruption to the way Community Boards protect our communities,” Brewer wrote in an email to supporters earlier this month, arguing that it could lead to a drain in institutional wisdom and give real estate interests and lobbyists a leg up in discussions about community development. The proposal does include a provision whereby individuals term-limited off of community boards are eligible to serve again after a one-term, two-year “cooling off period.”

“Our community boards are the eyes and ears of our neighborhoods and are often the first line of defense against unwanted projects as well as the initial point of contact between city agencies and our neighbors,” said Diaz Jr. “We should be working to strengthen their role, not strip them of the knowledge and historical focus that makes them so important in the first place.”

Katz said the current appointment process allows “ample opportunity” to pick diverse candidates “for a dynamic mix of talent,” while Oddo worried that the “one-size-fits-all solution” could have unintended consequences.

Adams, however, has argued, “While institutional knowledge is valuable, a reasonable term limit for Community Board members will allow the best of both worlds: institutional knowledge and new voices.”

On expanding the campaign finance system, however, only Adams and Oddo have publicly opposed the question among the borough presidents, though for different reasons. “[Brooklyn BP Adams] opposes the campaign finance reform measure because it doesn’t go far enough as he believes in 100 percent public financing,” said an Adams spokesperson. Oddo, on the other hand, has been a staunch opponent of public financing and simply said, “Hell no!” about proposal one.

Spokespeople for Katz and Diaz Jr. did not respond to requests for comment about the campaign finance reform proposal.

[Read: Brewer Creates Committee to Oppose Charter Revision Proposals]

Comptroller Scott Stringer also opposes the second and third questions while supporting the first on campaign finance reform. “The City must take a serious look at our Charter — it’s critical to tackling the important issues facing New Yorkers,” he said in a statement. Stringer has laid out his own exhaustive plan of charter proposals to the 2019 charter commission, a separate one from the mayor’s that was created through City Council legislation that is taking a far broader look at the city’s governing principles. 

Stringer added, “I support the first initiative because we need a campaign finance system that does everything it can to engage New Yorkers and help people run for office. I oppose proposals 2 and 3 which will weaken communities’ voices in shaping their own development.”

At an October 31 news conference at City Hall, Gotham Gazette asked Speaker Johnson if he would urge the 2019 commission to reverse community board term limits if they should pass. Johnson said he would not. "I think it's important to lice by the will of the voters," he said.  

A spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James did not provide her stances despite multiple requests for comment, one of which was acknowledged.

Among a few rank-and-file City Council Members, reception of the proposals seems to be mixed. Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, for example, supports all three proposals and has in particular been advocating for the creation of the civic engagement commission -- Lander had proposed the idea through legislation and presented it to the commission.

“I truly believe these ballot proposals give us an opportunity to do something important to strengthen our local democracy: To improve our campaign finance rules. To turbo-charge civic engagement. To expand participatory budgeting city-wide,” he said in an email blast to supporters, calling on New Yorkers to pledge their support.

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, also a Democrat, is backing all the proposals as well. Kallos has been a staunch campaign finance reform advocate and the first question would partially achieve what he has in the past tried to do through legislation, to expand the amount of public funds given to candidates running for office. “Democracy in New York City will finally get better,” he said in a September 6 statement, if the first question is passed, “reducing contribution limits and making small dollars more valuable by matching more of them with a greater multiplier.”

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat, is also urging a "yes" vote on all three proposals. City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, has expressed support for the campaign finance proposal, but a spokesperson did not respond to a request for his positions on the other two.

On the other end, there’s Council Member Helen Rosenthal, again a Manhattan Democrat, who opposes all three measures. “The spirit of the first two proposals is positive and some of the substance is even promising, but each raises significant concerns to the point where I cannot support them,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Also noting a criticism that was raised when the mayor first announced his commission, she added, “Of course, all three proposals could be implemented through the current legislative process.”

Even government reform groups appear somewhat split on the ballot proposals. Reinvent Albany is advocating for all three. “Reinvent Albany believes a YES vote on these ballot measures will collectively amplify the voice of everyday New Yorkers and create new opportunities for injecting fresh perspectives into the public debate over how to make our city better for everyone,” the group said in an email blast on Monday.

Citizens Union, another good government advocacy organization opposes the proposal for a civic engagement commission, supports community board term limits, and has not taken a position on the campaign finance question.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with additional comment from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Jumaane Williams.   

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Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Brewer Creates Committee to Oppose Charter Revision Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8000-brewer-creates-committee-to-oppose-charter-revision-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8000-brewer-creates-committee-to-oppose-charter-revision-proposals brewer de blasio bill signing

Mayor de Blasio & BP Brewer (photo: Brewer's office)


Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is forming an independent expenditure committee to try to defeat two public referenda on the November general election ballot that would impose term limits on community board members and create a new citywide civic engagement agency under the control of the mayor’s office.

Last month, the charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio approved three ballot questions to present to voters on November 6. The first would significantly reduce campaign contribution limits and make small but significant enhancements to the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, which incentivizes small-dollar fundraising. Brewer has not taken a position on that proposal.

[Read: Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot]

On the other two questions, however, the Manhattan borough president is ardently opposed, and is mobilizing people and money to persuade New York City voters to defeat them.

Question two creates a centralized Civic Engagement Commission, with a majority of members appointed by the mayor, to coordinate citywide efforts on participatory budgeting, community engagement, and to provide technical assistance to the city’s 59 community boards.

Question three, the most controversial of the proposals, would limit the number of terms community board members can serve while also reforming the recruitment and appointment process that borough presidents use to fill board rosters.

Brewer insists both those questions are misguided, and is forming a committee called “Vote No on 2 & 3” to campaign against them. 

“These proposals would be a real—and in some cases dangerous—disruption to the way Community Boards protect our communities,” she wrote in an email blast to supporters from her personal email account, soliciting funds for the incipient committee and urging recipients to spread the word. (Elected officials are not allowed to advocate for or against ballot proposals in their official capacity under state law and per guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board.)

Though the committee does not yet seem to be registered with the state Board of Elections, a sign-up web page declares that it is “an official NYS independent expenditure committee, made up of volunteers, some belonging to Community Boards and some not, who think Proposals 2 & 3 are bad news for neighborhoods and a giveaway to developers and City Hall.” Asked for clarification, a spokesperson for the committee did not respond.

Brewer argues, as have other opponents, that community board term limits would lead to a brain drain of experienced and engaged community board members to the benefit of lobbyists and developers looking to exploit communities without facing pushback. In particular, she said, community board members with know-how on complicated land use and zoning issues would be kicked out.

“It would have the effect of allowing developers and their lawyers—who are never term limited!—to dominate development negotiations, because those long-time members will be gone,” Brewer wrote. “And on long-term city projects like street redesign or sustainability, newly-appointed community board members would have little influence over long-term projects. Every Board’s institutional memory would be wiped out.”

In a statement, Matt Gewolb, executive director of the charter commission, emphasized the testimony received from across the five boroughs, urging the commission to make community boards more diverse, reflective of the neighborhoods they serve, and to give them additional resources. “The Commission's proposals are designed in response to this community input,” he said. “As the Commission has described in its reports, the proposal seeks to strike a reasonable balance between retaining valuable institutional knowledge and providing opportunities for new voices to have a seat at the table.”

Brewer, however, insisted that the proposal is “redundant” since the borough presidents and City Council members that apppoint community board members are themselves limited to serving two terms each. She also took issue with the proposed duties that the Civic Engagement Commission would have in assisting community boards, seeing it as an encroachment on the powers of the borough presidents who currently perform those roles.

The Manhattan borough president isn’t alone in her opposition. Of the five borough presidents, only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams has come out in support of community board term limits, which supporters say would diversify the boards, providing more representation for younger people and people of color. The other three -- Ruben Diaz Jr. in the Bronx, Melinda Katz in Queens, and Staten Island’s James Oddo -- all oppose the second and third questions.

In a statement through a spokesperson, Adams said, “This is what democracy is all about. I applaud my colleague and friend Borough President Brewer for making her voice heard.”

Brewer ended her appeal by urging supporters to vote against the two proposals and also to testify against them at several forums scheduled over the next week by the charter commission to educate voters. Last month, she also took her message to the 2019 charter revision commission, urging it to reverse the mayor’s commission’s proposals if they are approved by voters. “Community Boards are our first line of offense in promoting neighborhood planning and our first line of defense in protecting neighborhoods from developers who seek only maximum profit from their work in our communities,” she said at the September 27 hearing of the commission that will put proposals on next year’s general election ballot, and on which she appointed one member as part of a process created by legislation she and Public Advocate Letitia James moved through the City Council.

Asked last week about the possibility that the 2019 commission could negate the mayor’s commission’s work, mayoral spokesperson Seth Stein said in an email, “We’re not going to predict what the Council Commission will do, and will review any proposals.”

[Read: Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated. 

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Brewer Creates Committee to Oppose Charter Revision Proposals Tue, 16 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission stringer charter testimony

Comptroller Stringer testifies at the 2019 Charter Revision Commission (photo: @NYCComptroller)


The charter revision commission created through New York City Council legislation concluded its first round of public hearings last month, receiving dozens of suggestions about improving the functions and structure of city government. Unlike the commission established by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which has three proposals on this November’s ballot, the Council-created commission is set to propose changes to the city’s central governing document via the 2019 election.

Among those who testified at the 2019 commission’s initial hearings were several elected officials who presented their own broad proposals that could significantly change how the city conducts its business and how those who hold power can wield it. They included City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, and several City Council members from the five boroughs.

Johnson -- who appointed the commission’s chair Gail Benjamin, the former head of the Council’s land use division, and three other members -- sees in the commission an opportunity to fix the balance of power in the city, which tilts toward the mayoralty and at times can diminish the oversight and accountability role played by the 51-member Council.

In testimony at the September 27 hearing held at City Hall, Johnson noted the Council’s limited ability to review mayoral appointees to head city agencies, and that the body cannot remove an agency head. He also suggested that the commission examine whether the budgets for certain offices “which are uncertain and subject to political considerations as opposed to substantive need, should be fixed or independently set.”

Johnson also recommended the commission look at the structure of the Law Department and the Corporation Counsel. “One lawyer attempting to serve two separate branches of government is an invitation for confusion and disruption and may not be in the best interests of the City,” his testimony reads, in reference to representation of both the executive and legislative branches of city government, an issue that has come to the fore as Council members have sought to join a lawsuit against the city’s property tax system.

Johnson is also pushing for changes to the city’s budget process to give the Council a greater voice and to tie budget allocations more closely to city programs, and also argued in favor of instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting.

The most sweeping reforms that Johnson proposed, however, deal with the city’s land use process, which is almost always contentious and has been recently as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has moved to rezone several neighborhoods -- mostly low-income, communities of color -- to increase density and create more affordable housing. Johnson and other members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus have advocated for a citywide planning framework that gives communities greater say in land use decisions and balances equity with development. They have also called for an independent City Planning Commission, as opposed to the one currently composed largely of mayoral appointees. Council Members Diana Ayala, who co-chairs the caucus, Keith Powers, a vice co-chair, Brad Lander, and Adrienne Adams each testified on those proposals at separate borough hearings. “The status quo of ad hoc planning is just not working…We need a larger vision based on equity, a vision in which low-income communities do not have to slowly bear the brunt of the city’s every housing and infrastructure need,” Ayala said at a September 12 hearing in the Bronx.

Those goals are also in line with a report released in January by the Regional Planning Association, a prominent think tank, in partnership with community advocacy groups, academic experts and partners in city government. The RPA report, titled “Inclusive City”, was also presented to the charter commission and cited by elected officials, including Brewer, who also testified at the Sept. 27 hearing. Brewer, along with Public Advocate Letitia James, was the driver behind the legislation that created the commission and has expressed hope that it can bring a sea change the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1989 charter commission fundamentally altered the structure of city government, giving it its present form.

In her testimony, Brewer emphasized a more thoughtful process for land use decisions that includes early input from community boards and elected officials before applications are certified through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). “With pre-planning we can do more than merely react—we can shape a project,” she said.

She also pushed for more technical improvements to zoning and permitting procedures, in the context of a long-term citywide approach. “There needs to be a citywide comprehensive plan every ten years,” she said. “This planning process could distribute new development equitably across the city, rather than concentrate rezonings in communities of color.”

Similar to Johnson’s testimony, Brewer advocated for increased transparency in the city budget. She also said the Civilian Complaint Review Board should be strengthened and its budget tied to the NYPD’s, to ensure that the watchdog agency has sufficient resources to deal with a growing police body. Additionally, she noted her opposition to term limits for community boards, which have been proposed in a ballot question by the mayor’s commission. Borough presidents appoint most community board members.

Comptroller Stringer’s ideas, in number at least, outpaced other elected officials. In an exhaustive report presented at the City Hall hearing, Stringer recommended 65 revisions to the charter ranging from proposals on city budgeting and procurement to housing, cybersecurity, children’s services, campaign finance and voting reforms.

“Since the last major charter revision nearly thirty years ago, New York City has grown by 1.2 million people and the world has changed around it, yet its charter is not prepared to meet the needs of today’s challenges,” Stringer said in a statement. “The Charter Review Commission is an opportunity for us to build a better government that takes aim at our affordability crisis and builds a fairer city by giving a voice to New Yorkers.”

Chief among Stringer’s proposals was a push for a Chief Diversity Officer in the mayor’s office and in each city agency, to ensure diversity in hiring and in contracting. Stringer has advocated for increased investment in Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs) and he noted that though New York City spends nearly $20 billion on goods and services each year, less than 5 percent of the contracts are given to M/WBEs.

He also proposed a new Office of Inspection independent of the Department of Buildings and the Housing and Preservation Department, which he said play conflicting roles since they both approve new construction and development and are also charged with enforcing housing and construction codes. In line with his role as the city’s chief fiscal officer, Stringer also pushed for reforms to the capital budget, which funds infrastructure projects in the city. He said it should be transparent enough so the public can identify the cost of specific projects and be informed when those costs change.

Several other City Council members also weighed in on proposed charter revisions.

Council Member Ben Kallos, also co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, proposed 72 ideas in total, in updated testimony, including a citizen “Bill of Rights to free higher education, affordable health and mental health care, and, access to parks, libraries, public transit and affordable internet.” He stressed that any revisions to the charter brought about through a ballot referendum should go through further changes only after being presented to voters again. He pushed to give the Council and borough presidents the ability to make appointments to mayoral boards that have land use authority and said the charter should be amended to allow city residents to propose legislation and be heard before the Council. “Our City’s Charter is truly a living document,” he said in a statement, “but it is up to us to make sure it remains alive.”

Council Member Helen Rosenthal pushed for the charter to formally adopt the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW), and also advocated for reforms to the city's contracting process to ease burdensome requirements on non-profits that provide early childhood
education, homeless services, senior services, and mental healthcare.  

At the September 20 hearing in Queens, Council Members Adams and Francisco Moya, who is not a Progressive Caucus member, supported improvements to ULURP. “Displacement in our neighborhoods is no longer a possibility but a fact of life,” Moya said, according to written testimony. He called for the charter to mandate assessments of displacement brought about by proposed development. “We cannot view our city and its neighborhoods in a vacuum,” Moya said.

There were, of course, elected officials with more borough-specific agendas. At the September 24 hearing on Staten Island, testimony by Borough President James Oddo, and Council Members Steven Matteo and Joseph Borelli (all three Republicans, unlike all of the other aforementioned officials, who are Democrats), advocated for greater freedom for the borough from “bureaucrats in Manhattan,” as Oddo and Matteo put it.

Oddo and Matteo, in submitted testimony, said that city agencies should be restructured to give borough commissioners more power over local issues. “Agencies should be restructured in such a way that the chain of command within the agency is clear, and that one individual on the local level is not only responsible and accountable, but specifically empowered within the agency to act,” they wrote.

Borelli similarly pushed for more decentralization of power, expressing concern that the priorities of Staten Islanders are often ignored by city government and that new changes to the charter could adversely affect the borough. “We don’t want to be laboratories for the latest experiments in social engineering as too often seems the case on issues ranging from buses to composting,” he said. He largely argued for giving the borough president greater jurisdiction over local issues, similar to a county executive outside New York City.

He also criticized the city’s public matching funds program for campaign financing, calling on the commission to negate the potential expansion of the program that could happen through a ballot proposal put forward by the mayor’s commission. And, he advanced several other proposals -- mandating that the Independent Budget Office study the fiscal impact of every piece of City Council legislation; reducing duplicative roles played by different city agencies; making it harder to raise taxes in the city; improving the process for holding special elections; and curbing the power of the Board of Standards and Appeals.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to include testimony from Council Member Helen Rosenthal and updated testimony from Council Member Ben Kallos.  

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Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission Thu, 11 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000