Gotham Gazette Mon, 21 Oct 2019 00:11:06 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) There are NYPD Oversight Measures on the Ballot - How Significant are They? police academ gra

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City may soon take several steps toward strengthening the power of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, the agency responsible for investigating misconduct allegations against police officers.

Voters have the opportunity to approve or reject a package of CCRB-related measures on this fall’s ballot, just months after the Board played a consequential role in the high-profile trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, resulting in his firing by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission has placed five “yes” or “no” questions on this fall’s ballot, one of which includes five proposed CCRB reforms. Perhaps the most controversial of the five is expanding the jurisdiction of the Board to include investigating some instances of suspected lying by police officers. It is a step police reform advocates say is important but which has limitations that illustrate the city’s caution toward tightening the reins on police misconduct.

The ballot question, which will be the second of the five presented to voters during early voting or on Election Day, also includes expanding the size of the Board and changing certain appointment processes; giving the CCRB a budget large enough to hire staff of a certain size relative to that of the NYPD force; providing the CCRB executive director subpoena power; and requiring that the police commissioner provides written explanation to the CCRB when the commissioner “intends to depart or has departed from discipline recommended by the CCRB” or by one of the NYPD’s top internal trials officials.

The proposals, which will pass or fail together, could significantly impact the performance of the Board in its work to hold officers accountable in cases of alleged excessive force, abuse of authority, and other specifically-outlined examples of possible misconduct. They are being put before voters, along with other changes to city elections and governance, during what is expected to be a very low-turnout election and amid heightened attention, both in New York City and nationally, toward police misconduct, transparency, and consequences for officers who break their pledge to protect and serve the public.

In sum, the reforms amount to changes that CCRB officials and police accountability watchdogs believe would help the board operate more efficiently and independently.

“I think on the whole they are good for the agency and will help to advance civilian oversight of certain disciplinary aspects of the NYPD, those that fall within our jurisdiction,” said Fred Davie, the chair of the CCRB appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The CCRB is a police oversight agency made up of civilians that falls outside the NYPD but is part of the disciplinary framework for officers accused of certain kinds of misconduct. Agency staff and the Board it reports to are empowered by the City Charter to investigate complaints of officers using unnecessary force or abusing their authority as police and recommend discipline to the police commissioner.

Davie said there has not necessarily been a proliferation of false statements made by officers during the course of the Board’s investigations, “but where there might be, we should be able to investigate that and then work out the appropriate discipline to recommend to the police commissioner.” That power is currently beyond the Board’s reach.

The false official statements provision is the only one that actually expands the Board’s jurisdiction. The rest have to do with CCRB operations, though they also have the potential for significant impact.

On the proposal related to guaranteeing a CCRB budget tied to NYPD headcount, Davie said it will provide a baseline in budget negotiations and “increase the agency’s stability and effectiveness.”

The proposed changes to the size of the Board and structure of appointments to it would limit the influence of the mayor -- who also appoints the police commissioner -- and give the City Council far more power in selecting appointees, including the chair. It would also add an appointee by the public advocate.

The Charter Revision Commission this year was chaired by an appointee of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and was balanced with other appointments made by the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, and borough presidents, with no one authority having a majority (though all but one are Democrats). It tackled a wider range of charter issues in its public hearings than previous commissions appointed by mayors, including some targets that have never before been touched.

The commission ultimately came up with 19 proposals in the form of five ballot questions dealing with elections, the CCRB, ethics, the city budget, and land use, all of which are expected to be approved by voters. There has been little public push for or against any of the five sets of reforms, other than a coalition organized to seek passage of ranked-choice voting for certain city elections, which will be question one on the ballot.

The potential changes to police oversight, many of which have long been supported by reformers, are modest enough to have avoided a concerted public effort to defeat the proposals, particularly from the labor unions representing NYPD officers. The Police Benevolent Association, the largest police officer union, did not return a request for comment for this article.

False Official Statements
“The proposed reform related to the CCRB obtaining authority to prosecute officers who lie during the investigation process is by far the most important charter amendment for voters to look for this [fall],” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, an attorney at Legal Aid Society with experience litigating police transparency matters.

The CCRB was established in its current all-civilian form (former NYPD officers are regularly appointed by the police commissioner) in 1993 to investigate complaints made against officers from outside the NYPD. Over the years its budget has increased and its authority expanded to allow it to prosecute substantiated cases in a police trial setting.

Its jurisdiction is restricted to “FADO” -- unnecessary force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language -- complaints, which must be made by civilians in order to be investigated. The charter amendments would, among other things, expand that jurisdiction to include lying to CCRB investigators.

But the reform does have significant limits. It applies only to the police officer(s) originally under investigation and not to any other officers who may provide false testimony related to the inquiry. Even if the CCRB has proof that an officer lied to its investigators, it has no ability to initiate a new case on the matter.

This means that police witnesses who lie to protect a colleague under investigation or to shield their own behavior, when not the subject of an ongoing investigation themselves, can do so without recourse from the CCRB.

Currently, when the CCRB has evidence of an officer lying, it refers the case to the NYPD’s internal affairs bureau where it gets dealt with out of public view. Because of a provision in the state’s Civil Rights Law known as Section 50-a, any discipline issued by the police department, including any action against dishonest officers, is sealed.

Limits of CCRB Proposals
Gail Benjamin, the chair of the Charter Revision Commission that created the ballot proposals, told Gotham Gazette the body was limited in how much it could expand the authority of the CCRB to investigate misconduct because of a catch-22 involving the complaint-initiated nature of the agency’s mandate.

“Because the CCRB can only investigate based on a complaint and a complainant, if there are other officers, somebody else would have to complain about them in order for the CCRB to have jurisdiction. Their jurisdiction, as I said, is only over FADO and other officers would be outside of that," she said in an interview.

A State Supreme Court ruling from February determined that the City Charter barred the CCRB from initiating an investigation or gathering evidence without first receiving a complaint. But because this is an issue of the City Charter and not state law, the Charter Revision Commission had the authority to deal with it.

“To the extent that that is a limitation of the Charter then the Charter Revision Commission could have looked at altering those provisions in order to expand the CCRB’s mandate, but didn’t in this case,” said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), in an interview. He said he is not aware of any state law that would prevent the CCRB from beginning an investigation without a civilian complaint.

“I can't say that that was an issue that came up. What came up was how to affect the greatest change. I'm not sure what would have happened if it had,” said Benjamin.

“I'm not sure we would even have the jurisdiction,” she added. “It's a very complicated question to change and pull out one thing."

“I think to me the emphasis was on materiality,” Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner appointed by de Blasio, told Gotham Gazette in a brief interview. “The person who is being looked at at the CCRB is the officer who is under investigation, and that I think was the rationale.”

‘We haven’t seen that willingness’
The commission’s relatively narrow expansion of the CCRB’s jurisdiction is in some ways characteristic of the history of resistance to bringing police oversight outside of the purview of the police department itself.

From the early days of investigating civilian complaints in the mid-1960s when the powerful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association fought to keep the function within the NYPD, to earlier this year when Gotham Gazette reported on the secret effort by de Blasio administration officials to lobby commissioners to scuttle the provision related to officer lying -- attempts to create a police accountability framework independent of the NYPD has met resistance. Only after a second vote and a change of heart this year did the commissioners move to place false official statements on the ballot in its circumscribed form.

Other measures sought by police reformers never made it onto the ballot. Things like bringing school safety agents and other peace officers under the jurisdiction of the CCRB were proposed but never taken up. High on the list for reform advocates was codifying the CCRB’s administrative prosecutorial unit (APU), through which the CCRB prosecutes cases of misconduct when the Board is seeking the highest forms of discipline.

Currently governed by a memorandum of understanding, the CCRB’s APU provides a layer of oversight that can have large consequences. It was the APU that brought charges against Officer Pantaleo for Garner’s death, which led to a guilty verdict by the NYPD trial judge and Commissioner O’Neill to dismiss Pantaleo from the force this summer.

Only one provision in the APU agreement was picked up by the Charter Revision Commission to be codified in the Charter despite advocates pushing for more. Under the proposed amendments, the police commissioner will be required to explain in writing to the CCRB in any instance when deviating from a disciplinary recommendation, as is currently required under the memorandum of understanding.

“I think it’s disappointing on the one hand that we haven’t seen that willingness to take on expanding the CCRB’s mandate,” said Sisitzky, especially on the issue of peace officers and on strengthening the board’s “ability to actually make discipline stick.”

“But I don’t want that to take away from the fact that there are important changes being proposed to the CCRB as part of this ballot measure that we support and want to see enacted,” he said.

Layers of Accountability
To reform advocates, the changes made to give the CCRB greater sway in the Sity Charter are important but limited in their impact because state law gives the police commissioner the ultimate authority to discipline members of the force.

“The CCRB is ultimately not given more teeth in terms of being able to enforce penalties, but allowing an independent agency to conduct investigations into false statements made to that agency is still an important way for the agency to have increased authority to hold officers accountable,” said Sisitzky.

NYPD officials have expressed concerns about the package of amendments and said that the system of referring cases of misconduct to the department’s internal affairs team works well, especially in instances of false official statements. “Currently, the CCRB has been integrated into this framework and makes referrals to Internal Affairs when it suspects an officer has made a false statement during its investigation,” wrote Al Baker, the NYPD’s director of media relations, in an email.

“Going forward, it is imperative for the integrity of our criminal justice system that a uniform standard remain in place when assessing the serious issue of officer credibility," Baker added.

According to police reform advocates, however, the current system is not doing enough to curtail police lying to the CCRB. “The fact that false statements made it into the ballot is incredibly important because false statements are given in almost every police killing and misconduct case our members have worked on,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of the advocacy coalition Communities United for Police Reform, in an interview.

Over 130 cases of police making false official statements to CCRB investigators were referred to the NYPD between 2014 and 2018 (nearly half of which occurred in 2015 alone), according to a report provided by the CCRB. That figure includes only the cases where the CCRB had enough evidence to prove an officer lied without initiating a separate investigation into the matter.

Officer credibility is also a concern for New York City prosecutors, who often rely on police testimony at trial. WNYC reported in April that district attorneys in all five boroughs kept files of police dishonesty and Bronx DA Darcel Clark recently released a large portion of her office’s files to Gothamist following a Freedom of Information request.

City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Republican representing parts of Staten Island and a candidate this fall for New York City Public Advocate, is opposed to expanding the authority of the CCRB in many ways, saying he’s voted against giving the agency the power to prosecute misconduct and supports limiting the scope of “what it can do unilaterally against police officers.” Borelli told Gotham Gazette he would be voting against the CCRB ballot proposals.

But he backs the measure to allow the CCRB to pursue cases of police lying, he said. “If that was a stand-alone bill I’d probably support that,” he said in an interview.

“Because what is the point of having a court if you can’t validate a statement people make while they are swearing...before it. That to me is not a problem,” he said.

Layers of Obfuscation
In the interview, Borelli ruminated on whether police witness testimony in CCRB investigations was that important. “With all the video evidence we have now of most incidents with body cameras, usually the fact pattern is pretty established,” he said.

But establishing the facts through video evidence is a difficult task for the CCRB, Board representatives have said, and one that has led agency officials to push for other reforms on the ballot.

CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche testified before the Charter Revision Commission in March about the need for the agency’s highest ranking staff to have subpoena power. Currently, the CCRB chair can sign subpoenas after a vote of the Board, at times creating a period during which material evidence may be lost.

Many of the subpoenas the Board issues are to government agencies or businesses for evidence, especially video surveillance, which don’t necessarily have a system for preserving recordings, according to Davie, the Board’s chair. The Charter Revision Commission proposal will allow the CCRB to delegate its subpoena power to the executive director so the agency can more quickly respond to and acquire potential evidence.

The CCRB also has trouble obtaining body-worn camera footage from the police department, noted CCRB communications director Colleen Roache, despite the Charter-mandated duty to cooperate with the Board’s investigations. Since the complete rollout of body-worn cameras to NYPD patrol officers in March, month-to-month between 29 and 37 percent of CCRB investigations have pending footage requests with the NYPD. Roughly 13 percent of cases are pending for more than 90 days. The NYPD has not put forth publicly any formal policy for releasing body camera footage to the CCRB or the public at large.

“The step that has been taken helps,” Davie told Gotham Gazette, referring to the false statements ballot proposal. “It’s a step in the right direction, and if expanding it makes our ability to do our job better then of course we would not be opposed to that.”

Another layer of obfuscation is Section 50-a, the part of state law that prevents public disclosure of police disciplinary records, which the Charter Revision Commission does not have the power to suggest changing via ballot referendum. Because of Section 50-a, the public has no ability to see the outcome of CCRB investigations, even when it substantiates complaints of misconduct.

“If we should ever be able to repeal 50-a, [the false official statements amendment] might even add a little more transparency,” said Davie. Davie has never taken a public position on Section 50-a “other than recognizing the challenges it poses to the agency,” according to a CCRB spokesperson, but he will be testifying at a State Senate hearing on a bill that would repeal the law taking place in Manhattan on Thursday.

Amending the City Charter to allow the CCRB to go after officers under investigation who lie, he believes, will enhance the agency’s abilities to serve its mandate. “I think that it adds integrity to the process. It adds another level of accountability,” he said of what the commission has proposed.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

There are NYPD Oversight Measures on the Ballot - How Significant are They? Mon, 14 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Williams Challengers Fail to Qualify for Official Public Advocate Debate, But Candidates May Spar Anyway jw jb db2

l-r: Devin Balkind, Jumaane Williams and Joe Borelli (photo: William Alatriste & John McCarten/City Council)

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, one of three citywide elected officials, is up for reelection this fall, but it looks like the Brooklyn Democrat won’t have to defend his (albeit short) tenure so far in a public forum with his two challengers. Neither Staten Island City Council Member Joe Borelli nor nonprofit leader Devin Balkind, the Republican and Libertarian nominees, respectively, seeking to unseat Williams, has qualified for the first of two official, televised debates scheduled in the public advocate race.

And from all indications, the second debate may also be out of the question, leaving it to Williams to decide whether to voluntarily debate his opponents in what is a special election to decide who is the public advocate for 2020 and 2021, the year of the next full city election cycle. Williams won the initial nonpartisan special election in February that decided the seat for the rest of this year after Letitia James stepped down after being elected New York Attorney General.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board hosts two mandatory debates before every citywide election for candidates who participate in the public matching funds program, which awards public money to match small dollar donations at either a 6-to-1 or 8-to-1 ratio, and meet the qualifying thresholds.

Those thresholds are meant to ensure that only viable candidates take the stage. For the first debate for this year’s public advocate election, set for this Thursday, October 10, candidates had to have raised and spent $113,875 by October 4, the latest campaign finance disclosure deadline.

Only Williams met the criteria, having raised $133,009 and spent $138,953 so far. Borelli, a former Assembly member popular in his deep red South Shore district, has raised $42,959 and spent $22,683 on his longshot bid to replace a Democrat in an overwhelmingly blue city. The Libertarian Party’s Balkind, who was also the party’s nominee for the same position in 2017, has raised just $3,825 and spent only $1,313.

Borelli and Balkind also don’t seem likely to qualify for the second debate, scheduled for October 29, which has higher qualifying thresholds including a raise-and-spend requirement of $136,650. Even Williams’ expenditure is just short of that mark at this point in what is shaping up to be a sleepy race for a citywide post first in line to the mayor. The candidates must also show either an endorsement from a local, state, or federal official representing the city or from a membership organization (such as a union) with 250 members who live in the city; or must have at least 750 small-dollar donors, who gave $250 or less, from the city in order to qualify.

Nonetheless, both challengers are pushing Williams to agree to debate them in other forums, but he has been noncommittal so far.

“Our campaign is moving full speed ahead leading up to the November 5th general election,” Williams said in a statement through a spokesperson. “We aren't taking anything for granted, so as we enter into the final stretch, we will be working aggressively to speak directly to voters to discuss the work we've done since entering office and plan moving forward to address some of the toughest challenges New Yorkers face today.”

Early voting, being implemented for the first time in New York this year, kicks off October 26 and runs through November 3. Election Day is November 5. There are few elections on the ballot this fall, but there are several ballot questions of proposals from the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission to change aspects of city elections and governance. While there are some local races, the public advocate special election is the only other citywide vote at hand.

Manhattan Neighborhood Network is attempting to organize a debate and both Borelli and Balkind have expressed a commitment to participating, pending scheduling and Williams’ participation. Williams’ spokesperson, when asked if the public advocate would participate, said the campaign is "working to lock in our participation for a separate debate soon." It is unclear at this point if NY1 will successfully host a debate that is not part of the official Campaign Finance Board program. A spokesperson for Spectrum News, NY1’s parent company, said in a statement, "We look forward to hosting a debate before the election with both candidates on NY1."

Borelli, who conceded that it’s doubtful he’ll qualify for the second debate, has for months been calling on Williams to do a series of podcast debates without a moderator that would be broadly accessible to members of the public. He made that request in a June 12 letter he sent to Williams, in which he freely acknowledged that the incumbent is the frontrunner and said neither of them should accept public funds from the CFB to reduce the cost of the election. “[I] am proposing a way to reach all New Yorkers in a novel, unique, and groundbreaking way,” he wrote.

“I asked him to do a weekly podcast on whatever topics he wanted to discuss, for a few weeks leading up to the election,” Borelli said in a text message on Monday. “I actually think it would be an entertaining show.” Williams has not accepted the invitation.

Borelli also said he didn’t want to attend debates limited to advocacy group members. “For example, I wouldn’t waste my time at a debate hosted by a ‘Close Rikers’ advocacy group. I’d chalk their support up to a loss before I waste a moment,” he said of the types of issue or community-based candidate forums that often dot campaigns, as they did ahead of the February public advocate special election, where more than 20 candidates appeared at many events to talk to voters. There were also two televised, officially-sanctioned debates in that special election, which Williams won in a runaway despite the crowded field including many sitting office-holders.

For Balkind, a public debate could potentially drum up some limited amount of support. “If I have a platform to share my solutions I'll prove there are more libertarians in this city than there are Trump supporters,” he said in an email, pointing to a rapid growth in the Libertarian Party’s membership. “We won official status in New York State for the first time in 2018. I'm the first candidate of the official party. The sky is the limit,” he said. Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Larry Sharpe won 95,033 votes in last fall’s election, coming in fourth, and therefore securing the party’s ballot line for four years.

Balkind also chided civic institutions for not organizing debates outside the official ones sponsored by the CFB and its partners. “With modern technology it's never been cheaper and easier to produce a video broadcast,” he said. “We need civic organizations to take more responsibility for the health of our city's democracy. Why are New Yorkers relying on a partnership between a government agencies (NYCCFB) and a for profit corporation (Spectrum Cable) to produce debates? We reap what we sow and this a reason why government bureaucracies and corporations are getting what they want from New York City's political class, but everyday New Yorkers aren't.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to include a statement from a spokesperson for Spectrum News. 

Williams Challengers Fail to Qualify for Official Public Advocate Debate, But Candidates May Spar Anyway Mon, 07 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
How Vulnerable is Max Rose? rose handshake

Rep. Max Rose (photo: @MaxRose4NY)

Max Rose calls himself a “centrist populist.” The first-term Democrat who represents New York’s 11th congressional district, which spans across Staten Island and along the shore of Southern Brooklyn, appears set on trying to make that label stick, and in doing so earn a second term when voters head to the polls next year.

Rose’s pitch and politics seem to match the district well: he’s a moderate, center-left politician and military veteran with a no-nonsense but affable and energetic personality. His mantra is serving constituents above political party, he regularly criticizes fellow Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio, and he distances himself from the ascendent left-wing of his party, but sticks close to the House majority, though in fulfilling a campaign promise he did not vote for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to retain her leadership role.

But as he runs for reelection for the first time in 2020, a presidential year where Donald Trump is expected to be on the top of the Republican ticket, Rose is one of the top targets of Republicans hoping to regain majority control of the House of Representatives while holding the Senate and reelecting the president. Representing one of the swing-iest districts in the country -- represented by three Republicans and two Democrats in the last 10 years -- Rose is dealing with major countervailing forces: Trump’s strong popularity among many New York-11 voters and Democrats awakened by Trump’s surprise 2016 win who swept Rose into office last year.

Indicative of the minefield he finds himself navigating, Rose just became the last Democrat from New York City to announce support for impeachment proceedings against the president. While Rose’s somewhat cautious approach to Trump may endear him to some of his district’s center-right voters, it, coupled with his moderate positions on a variety of issues, could embitter the very Democratic base that he needs in his corner. But upon announcing he backs the impeachment inquiry into Trump at a Staten Island constituent town hall on Wednesday night, Rose shifted the terms of his already-heated reelection campaign.

“So while the President of the United States may be willing to violate the constitution to get re-elected, I will not,” Rose said on Wednesday. “I will not shirk my duty and I will not violate my oath. I will support and I will defend the United States Constitution. And it is for that reason that I intend to fully support this impeachment inquiry and follow the facts."

His announcement, coming just the day after a Democratic primary challenger launched a campaign against him, was met by derision from Republicans who hope to unseat him through next year's election.

Rose won the 11th district seat last year against Republican Dan Donovan, the former Staten Island District Attorney elected to Congress in 2015, in a 2018 election that saw a surge in Democratic turnout, giving the Democrats control of the House and dramatically shifting the national political landscape. Rose’s margin of victory was substantial – he received 101,823 votes to Donovan’s 89,441, even defeating the Republican on Staten Island by more than 5,000 votes.

It was a reversal of fortune for Donovan, who had been reelected to the seat in 2016 with 142,934 votes against Democrat Richard Reichard’s 85,257 (there were nearly 60,000 more votes cast that presidential year than in the 2018 midterms). It helped Donovan that Trump was running for president and won Staten Island with 56.3% of the vote against Hillary Clinton’s 41.2%.

But Rose is confident he can pull off another victory, even with Trump on the ballot, in part by remaining far more focused on local issues than the national dynamics of the 2020 election. “We have gotten tremendous amounts of legislation through and by that I don't mean symbolic or ceremonial pieces of legislation passed by the House of Representatives, and then resigned to the graveyard that is Mitch McConnell's Senate,” Rose said in a recent phone interview. “I mean things that have or will be signed by the president of the United States.”

He cited four major victories – approval for the Staten Island east shore seawall, permanent funding for the 9/11 victims compensation fund, sanctions on Chinese pharmaceutical companies to stem the flow of fentanyl into the city, and two-way tolling on the Verrazzano bridge to reduce traffic.

“Staten Island and south Brooklyn are on the map, and we are not stopping. We are advocating for issues at every level of government to make sure that people are no longer ignored,” Rose said.

Though there is a Republican primary for the seat as well – between Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis and longshot candidate Joseph Saladino, a YouTube personality who goes by the name Joey Salads and has a history of racist pranks – virtually all observers see the race as an eventual Rose-Malliotakis battle, though there does remain the question of whether any other Republicans may jump into the race ahead of the June 2020 primary.

When he first ran for office last year, Rose set himself apart from most other New York City Democrats, seen as a necessity in a district that defies the bluer boroughs. Though there are more active registered Democrats (191,145) than Republicans (114,363) in New York-11, along with 93,303 party-unaffiliated voters, the district elected Trump by a margin of nearly 10 points, after a tight victory there for President Barack Obama in 2012. Governor Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, won the district in his last two elections. 

Though Trump remains extremely unpopular in New York City, with his approval rating at 26% (to 71% disapprove) in an April Quinnipiac University poll, his approval was generally higher on Staten Island, at 47% approval to 52% disapproval. The Island is fairly split, with more Democrats concentrated along the northern shore than in other parts of the borough, which gets more conservative the further south one goes.

Rose made it clear he was running against what he saw as ‘the establishment’ and the ‘career politicians’ in Congress and elsewhere who had ground the business of the people to a halt. He was, and remains, a critic of de Blasio, even focusing on him in a 2018 campaign ad, and refuses to embrace the politics of newly elected progressives in the House such as fellow New York City Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“We are showing people that you can make war against the establishment, you can choose not to play by the rules of inside-D.C. establishment politics while also accomplishing something,” Rose said in the interview, citing his vote against Pelosi’s election as speaker.

City Council Member Justin Brannan, a Southern Brooklyn Democrat and Rose ally, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “Ultimately this election is going to come down to what kind of elected official do you want. Max refuses to take money from lobbyists. He supports campaign finance reform. He has been unwavering in his battle against [the Trump] administration's discriminatory policies that directly impact the hardworking people he represents.” Brannan added that Rose has fought “Trump's discriminatory Muslim ban not just in words but in action by literally helping reunite families torn apart by conflict. Meanwhile, his Republican opponent is on Twitter posting ‘You're Fired’ memes.”

Despite his distance from Ocasio-Cortez and others, Republicans have still sought to paint Rose as a “socialist Democrat” who has betrayed the will of the voters who elected him. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has spent months hammering at Rose in press releases and public statements, largely on the general principle that he’s part of a Democratic operation hostile to the president.

NRCC spokesperson Michael McAdams says the party’s chances of taking back the seat are strong, citing the district’s strong Republican presence and Trump’s victory there in 2016. “Max has claimed that he is a moderate. On the campaign trail, he said he was going to be an independent voice for Staten Island, and he's gotten to Washington, D.C. and he's fallen right in line with the socialist Democrats and their socialist agenda,” McAdams said in a phone interview, though he did not provide specific examples (later in the interview he said Rose hasn’t taken a position on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants).

“He votes against President Trump 96% of the time, which is an absolutely shocking number given that a majority of his constituents voted for the president last cycle,” McAdams said.

Malliotakis, whose Assembly district covers much of the east shore of Staten Island and a small part of Southern Brooklyn, has extended the same argument. “As far as I’m concerned, this race is between me and Max Rose,” she said, dismissing any worries about facing a primary opponent. Though Salads is running a barebones campaign, there’s also the possibility that others could jump into the race. Michael Grimm, who previously represented the district and served prison time for felony tax evasion, has signalled he may run. New York City Council Member Joe Borelli, who represents the South Shore of Staten Island and is running for public advocate in this fall’s special election, has also not ruled it out.

“I believe I am more in line with the people in this district,” Malliotakis said, citing her nine years in elected office. She said the race would be a combination of local and federal factors. “This is a district that is pretty impacted by what the federal government does,” she said, pointing to the seawall project, national parks, a veterans hospital, and the Fort Hamilton army base. She also brought up issues that were salient in the 2017 mayor’s race, including her opposition to sanctuary city policies and safe injection sites for drug-addicted people, and said she would push for a federal infrastructure package.

“The Democrats in the House are more concerned with continuing investigation instead of actually working with the president to address a lot of these issues,” said Malliotakis, who has come around to closely embrace Trump as she runs for Congress after having been a supporter of Senator Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican presidential primary and distancing herself from Trump in the 2017 mayoral race. She begrudgingly stated at one point that she had voted for Trump over Clinton, and expressed regret for having done so.

“I’m going to be running on the same ticket as the president and I embrace that,” Malliotakis said, when asked if she sees herself in line with the president, calling Trump a “voice of reason” in Washington, D.C.

The House of Representatives has “absolutely no interest in actually doing the job that they were elected to do and instead they're just looking to see how they can tear down the president,” she said, “And so he needs people who are willing to work with him, and particularly from New York City, and I will be an individual who will work with him to accomplish things where we see eye to eye...I'm not going to agree with everything the president does but for the most part, yes, I do agree with a majority of what he's doing. And I think that he's doing a good job overall.”

Malliotakis says Rose has been more progressive than moderate, insisting that he votes “in lockstep” with Pelosi and members of the so-called Squad of Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women of color. “The votes he's taking in Washington are not representative of views in this district,” she said, citing, for instance, his support for a resolution that criticized Trump for a racist tweet about the women of color representatives of “the Squad.”

But it’s a tenuous argument, says Richard Flanagan, political science professor at the College of Staten Island. “I don't think it holds water with the independent voters at all,” he said. “Rose has done a really good job of positioning himself in the center, getting federal action on local issues. He's very upfront about his military record. It’s definitely differentiated him from [the members of the Squad]...I guess [Republicans are] going to do that to try to get their base to come out to vote, but it's not persuading anybody in the middle.”

Rose himself scoffed at the Republicans’ attempts to align him with progressives. “If they think anyone's gonna believe that, they're idiots. The truth is that nobody in the entire Democratic caucus has pushed back more than I have,” he said, pointing to his votes against Pelosi, his opposition to the Green New Deal, which he called a “socialist lie” in the interview with Gotham Gazette, and his repeated disapproval of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar over her criticism of Israel. “The NRCC and Nicole Malliotakis have such an obsession with these individuals that it's clear they would rather run against them than me,” he added.

On the question of impeachment Rose found himself in a difficult place. He issued public statements that showed him seemingly vacillating on the issue saying that “all options must be on the table,” which signalled to some that he was open to jumping on board. He voted to table a privileged resolution led by Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that would have disapproved of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s actions to begin an impeachment inquiry.

Just before Rose announced his support for the impeachment inquiry, McAdams from the NRCC said Rose’s decision, either for or against, would doom his chances of reelection with one or the other segment of voters.

“I think support for the president is at the top of the line there,” he said, predicting that support for impeachment would lose Rose votes among Republicans and opposition to it will anger the Democrats who powered his victory. The latest Quinnipiac University poll from September 30 may show a fast-moving shift, as it found that nationally voters were split 47-47 percent on impeaching and removing Trump from office. Just last week, support was at 37% and opposition at 57%. By a majority of 52-45 percent, voters approved of the impeachment inquiry opened by the House.

The NRCC and Malliotakis both quickly jumped on Rose after he proclaimed his support for the House impeachment inquiry. "Just one day after finding out he had a challenger in the Democrat primary, Congressman Max Rose caved to socialists Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Nancy Pelosi in the rush to impeach President Donald Trump," Malliotakis said in a statement. "It just shows that when pressure is applied, Max Rose stands with the radical left instead of Staten Island."

During his remarks at the Wednesday town hall, Rose followed his comments about the impeachment process by attempting to preempt that line of attack: "But, I want to make something else very, very clear: nothing, nothing at all—impeachment or otherwise—will distract us, will distract me from my work fighting for you," he said. "I will not let this or anything else detract us from our focus on ending the opioid epidemic, holding pharmaceutical companies accountable, making sure that we have the backs of our cops and our firefighters and our first responders, and yes--ending our commuting nightmare.”

What kind of impact Rose's support for the impeachment inquiry has on his standing in his district is yet to be seen. A great deal will of course play out over the next year-plus before the 2020 general election.

Rabyaah Althaibani, a community organizer and co-founder of Arab Women's Voice, a consulting firm, rallied the Arab vote in Southern Brooklyn behind Rose last year. But she’s worried that he has disappointed progressives, particularly by refusing to support impeachment. “There are a lot of issues that progressives...just don't agree with Max on, and a pretty sizable bunch of people are very upset with him,” she said, although she praised him for supporting the Yemeni American community by questioning the rationale behind Trump’s Muslim travel ban and for pushing to end American support for the war in Yemen.

“The Yemeni community and allies that care about the community, I'm just hoping that they're going to rally and help us get him elected again,” she added. “But Max has a lot of work to do, a lot of explaining to do. He needs to reach out to the progressive base.”

Althaibani did recognize that Rose faces a tough situation, having to reconcile the differing parts of the district with its spread of conservatives and progressives, and many moderates in between. She expressed doubt that Rose would face a tough primary. “I don't think anyone can do what Max is doing right now,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Staten Island Advance reported that Richard-Olivier Marius, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is challenging Rose in the Democratic primary. In an interview with the paper, Marius said he had voted for Rose in 2018 but was running because of Rose’s failure to support progressive legislation like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, as well as impeachment of Trump. 

A Democratic operative familiar with the race, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that Rose may be trying the same balancing act as the last Democrat to hold the seat, Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, who voted against the Affordable Care Act in the hopes of not alienating conservative voters. But while that move backfired against McMahon, the dynamics of the district necessitate similar thinking by Rose.

As of the latest fundraising deadlines, Rose held a significant advantage. His campaign had $1.2 million in cash on hand as of June 30, compared to Malliotakis’ $475,000. (Saladino had $16,877 in his campaign account.)

But the Trump effect may nullify that. As Flanagan from College of Staten Island noted, the district has always been competitive and even Republicans have never won in a blowout. He said the race will hinge on voter turnout, which will be hard to predict since Trump being on the ballot will drive voters from both parties to the polls. “Are these Trump voters gonna come back and vote for Trump and vote straight ticket? Or are they willing to ticket-split? I think that's the big question,” he said.

Malliotakis is trying hard to turn Trump’s presence to her benefit, and appeal to voters across the district who have seen her on the ballot before, whether in her Assembly district or when she faced de Blasio in 2017 and, while receiving only 27.1% of the overall vote to de Blasio’s 65.1%, did blow the incumbent mayor away on Staten Island, winning 70% of votes to de Blasio’s 25.3%. (As it was in Rose’s 2018 win, one of the keys in 2020 will be the turnout in the more Democratic Southern Brooklyn portion of the district.)

On several issues, Malliotakis has broken from Trump while embracing him on most fronts. She has wholeheartedly accepted the aid of Trump and his allies, including national Republican stars like U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney and Dan Crenshaw, who canvassed for her in Staten Island a few weeks ago, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Yet a source close to the Staten Island Republican Party said she is far from an ideal candidate to beat Rose, despite the potential that’s there to unseat him. “Rose is vulnerable to a candidate that can land some punches on him,” the source said. “However, we saw from Malliotakis’ race against Bill de Blasio that she can't land a punch on even him.”

The source, who requested anonymity to speak freely about internal party concerns, added, “Rose is moderate, he's likeable, he hasn't made many errors. And I think when he campaigns, he grows his support. And the more Malliotakis’ campaign develops, the less it seems successful.”

The Republican said Malliotakis needs to “clarify where she stands” with respect to Trump. “The 2017 Malliotakis is not the same as the 2019 Malliotakis,” the person said. “It’s just so plainly evident that anyone can see it.”

Rose, meanwhile, believes Trump will fail to affect the vote. “I'm going to win,” he said. “The people of this district are independent and they will vote and have consistently voted for the person, not the party.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated to reflect Rose's support for the House impeachment inquiry.

How Vulnerable is Max Rose? Tue, 01 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Government’s Most Outspoken Republican on De Blasio, Trump, and the Future of the GOP in New York spcojo borelli

Joe Borelli, center (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Joe Borelli, the Republican City Council Member from Staten Island’s South Shore, has made a name for himself as one of the most vociferous pro-Donald Trump supporters in the president’s home city. But, Borelli is a realist and knows that Trump is unpopular in very-Democratic New York, and that the Republican Party has a lot of work to do to regain a foothold in city or state government after several disappointing elections.

During a wide-ranging interview on the Max and Murphy podcast, Borelli said the New York GOP, now under new leadership, must focus on rebuilding locally around the state and looked ahead to the party’s chances in the 2020 state and federal elections, the 2021 New York City mayoral race, and the 2022 state elections that will include the next race for governor. He also touched on his own admittedly quixotic campaign for New York City Public Advocate, where he’s running this year in a special election to unseat incumbent Jumaane Williams, what the party’s message should be, and how the New York GOP should approach Trump’s long shadow.

“The new chairman, Nick Langworthy, would do a better job by focusing on the county executive races, the county legislative races, where we can dominate,” Borelli said of the new state chair, when asked about the next race for governor. “Having those competitive races upstate, with good candidates, has an effect on the gubernatorial race.”

For governor, “The Republican Party needs someone in the batter’s box, someone who can hit home runs,” Borelli said, meaning someone with star power who can overcome the daunting voter registration odds that are better for the GOP statewide than in New York City, but still create a steep uphill battle for the first Republican statewide win since Governor George Pataki won a third term in 2002.

The party needs to keep building a bench, but also needs to find candidates for governor and mayor that can far outperform the baseline numbers, Borelli acknowledges. Many point to recapturing control of the state Senate as a pressing need, while Langworthy has said his top goal is winning the 2022 governor’s race.

It’s certainly not only upstate that should matter to New York Republicans, for if they only dominate there, they will still be out of power when it comes to the governor’s office or even the state Senate, which had been the GOP’s last statewide stronghold until last November’s elections swung it to Democrats by a fairly wide margin.

Citing the special election that will likely be called early next year to replace current Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who is in line to become Queens District Attorney, Borelli said that it’s “a seat where Republicans have not ran credibly in the past. I think identifying those seats where we can run a good race, where it’s worth it to have a Republican on the ballot, is one of the things that we could certainly do.”

Queens City Council Member Eric Ulrich, who along with Borelli and Staten Island’s Steven Matteo make up the Council’s only three Republicans in 51 seats, is expected to run in the special election. Ulrich is significantly more moderate than Borelli and has been highly critical of Trump, but many Republicans acknowledge they must embrace candidates like Ulrich to have a chance in urban and suburban areas.

“Giving each locality or region of the state the autonomy to make these kind of party direction decisions is something Nick Langworthy has to do,” Borelli said.

Borelli believes Democrats in New York City have created an opening for moderate Republican candidates.

“If there are people who are disaffected with progressive activists, I’m not saying they’re gonna be Republicans, but they might be New York City Republicans. They might entertain a Mike Bloomberg again. They’re not gonna entertain me for mayor,” he said, “and I don’t expect them to. I don’t think that’s a realistic proposition. But they might entertain a moderate mayoral candidate at some point who is more back-to-basics.”

Borelli said that he’s seen some evidence that this is already happening, especially with voters of color. “The Republican Party has long talked about rebuilding and attracting new voters. I think that, not since we’ve had Mayor de Blasio has there been the actual opportunity to do so. The mayor is the most uniting mayor we’ve ever had – no matter where you go, people don’t seem to like him…He has opened up opportunities for us to attract new groups.”

The Republican Party should “look at [voters of color] as who they are outside of their ethnic identity, and try to find common ground where they care about,” according to Borelli. He cited controversial local issues such as the SHSAT, school discipline, property taxes, and the minimum wage where Republicans could find common ground with Democratic voters, no matter whether those voters are “black, brown, or purple.”

Most important to Borelli is simply reasserting the Republican Party as the main alternative to Democrats in New York.

“When you talk about opposition to Cuomo, most often, you in media, you’re talking about his left flank, and you’re talking about the Working Families [Party], and some labor unions,” Borelli said. “The GOP under [former Chairman Ed] Cox, the failure was not to offer a viable alternative. Even if a lot of voters don’t think that alternative is great, I think the bigger failure was not being the major opposition party in the state.”

“Bringing the state GOP as the opposition group, so that disaffected people gravitate this way instead of that way, I think is more important than hedging our opinion on any issue,” Borelli added. [LISTEN to the full interview]

A Race Borelli’s “Not Gonna Win”
Amidst his many proposals for Republican revitalization, Borelli also spoke of his own upcoming November election against Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, for Public Advocate -- a race about which Borelli has no delusions.

“I’m running in a race I’m not gonna win, let’s be frank,” Borelli said. “This is a really uphill fight, it’s a 7:1 or 6½:1 Democratic enrollment, so I’m doing this because I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy beating a drum a little differently than the other guy.”

The big difference, Borelli says, is that he would actually be a public advocate who holds the mayor accountable, whereas Williams is more aligned with de Blasio, even if Williams has been critical of the mayor at times.

Borelli wants to give what is currently a relatively powerless office far more influence. “The charter doesn’t say much of must, the Public Advocate must, right? It doesn’t give them the great seal of the exchequer, or something like that. It’s no guidance. The Public Advocate may do this, should do that, could do that.” 

Among the changes Borelli has proposed are to give the office oversight of the Department of Investigations and a seat on several powerful boards, such the MTA’s. 

“If that doesn’t happen” Borelli said, “then I would support…revising the office itself, and that would mean to eliminate it.”  

“The only function of the job is to be a bully pulpit and direct your bullseye...on the mayor,” Borelli said. “And I think it’s better to have someone who fundamentally disagrees with most stuff the mayor does.”

“As the Public Advocate, I could do a pretty good job of treating [Mayor de Blasio] as my punching bag,” he says, echoing a message Ulrich used in the February nonpartisan special election, that Williams won, where Ulrich came in second. The only merchandise that Borelli’s website is currently selling is a series of t-shirts and stickers featuring de Blasio’s face and a red line crossing it.

Borelli acknowledges that he’s having a hard time raising significant funds for the campaign, or even asking for them, and that Republicans generally concentrate on mayoral races in New York City, at the expense of others like for public advocate or comptroller.

“I’m not always right. I’m OK admitting that,” he said. “But I think someone should be addressing things from an alternate point of view and offering an alternative vision for the city.”

Donald Trump’s Long Shadow
Borelli, who was co-chair of Trump’s campaign team in the 2016 New York primary, said that he’s sticking by Trump despite his many controversies.

Asked about how he reconciles support for some of Trump’s policies and judicial appointments, why he isn’t among the conservatives who say they simply can’t support Trump because of his morals, ethics, and behavior, Borelli said, “In my brain I can separate the two.”

“When I’ve disagreed with the president on both policy and on personality, I’m not someone who toes the line,” Borelli continued. “They have not asked me to be on the advisory board for 2020…probably because I don’t toe the line all the time. I think you measure every president on the balance of whether they’re doing good or bad.”

He said Trump’s policies are good for New York, especially economically. “On balance, a lot of us just can ignore the things we disagree with.”

Is he OK telling kids Trump is the moral leader of the country and someone they should look up to, Borelli hedged, saying there’s something about the office of the presidency to respect, and said “I’m not as offended as most people on most things,” he said.

“We’re sick of being called racists,” he said of Trump supporters. “Do you know how many times a day I get called a racist? It’s almost mind-numbing...It’s almost entrenching on our side, when you get called deplorable, and a racist, and every -ism imaginable, because you have a difference of opinion. It almost entrenches you into that bubble.”

After seeing 2018 Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro hedge on his support for Trump, Borelli said he wishes people in his party would be more direct in their opinions on the President, whatever they may be.

“Just be pretty brutally honest about how you feel. If you don’t like Trump, say it. If you like Trump, say it, and come what may.” He added, “I’m not saying there wouldn’t be an electoral cost to it.”

Molinaro repeatedly stated throughout his campaign that he had not voted for Trump (he said he wrote in former New York Congressional Rep. Chris Gibson), but was mostly hesitant to explain why or criticize Trump during the campaign, and Cuomo repeatedly tied Molinaro to Trump.

In spite of his strong support for Trump, Borelli characterized himself as a “moderate.” He clarified, “I think I would be billed as a conservative” by others. “Although, hey, I swing some ways on some issues.”

2020, 2021 and Beyond
2018 represented a drubbing for New York Republicans, with the party losing three Congressional seats and eight state Senate seats (along with the majority in both chambers). But according to Borelli, 2020 gives the party a clear chance to rebound.

“Four [state] Senate seats -- I think that’s a realistic goal,” Borelli said of how many seats Republicans can and should recapture next year, when the entire Legislature is on the ballot, along with Trump. “I think it’s a possibility. It still doesn’t bring us to the promised land, but I think that’s enough of a pendulum swinging back, and a check on sort of the movement of the far left, that it would build a better mousetrap for at least two years in the state.”

“I think,” he continued, “you’d have people like [Senate President] Andrea Stewart-Cousins saying, ‘let’s pump the brakes on some of the stuff that we’re doing, because it’s clearly not playing well in the Hudson Valley,’ for example.”

On the subject of Congress, Borelli’s predictions were even more specific. He singled out Max Rose, his home borough’s Democratic Congressman, as uniquely vulnerable.

“Yeah, 100%, [Max Rose is beatable],” Borelli said when asked if newcomer Rose could be defeated. “He’s certainly beatable on the ground level, and he’s certainly beatable in the metrics they consider in Washington. The resulting action of that is going to be a lot of money spent on each side. He’s really doing an incredible job raising money, credit where credit is due. It will be tough for whoever the Republican nominee is to beat him, but there’s a chance.”

The leading Republican in that race is Staten Island Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, whom Borelli did not mention by name, though he briefly criticized her 2017 mayoral campaign, and whom he has not endorsed. Borelli had given some consideration to joining the congressional race, but opted against it and ran for public advocate instead.

Borelli also raised several Upstate congressional seats he thinks Republicans can hold or retake, and said that after a tough 2018, having Trump at the top of the ticket in 2020 is likely to help certain Republican candidates.

Looking even further into the future, Borelli said he could see Molinaro running for governor again in 2022, when Cuomo is planning to seek a fourth term, but he also mentioned Congressional Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is attempting to win what is likely a tough reelection campaign next year, as someone he’d like to see consider a run for governor.

And Borelli predicted that Republicans may have to wait another six years to have a shot at the New York City mayor’s office. In 2021, he said, “there’s going to be so much attention, so much public financing, on the five or six, or however many it ends up being, Democratic candidates that it will be very difficult for a Republican to win. I say that with the full knowledge that I’ll be out there, probably supporting whoever we run, trying my best to get him or her elected, but it is an uphill race.”

In 2025, however, “when you have an incumbent who’s going to get beat up in a primary, and then you are the sole opposition person against them in the general, I think that’s an easier race.” He referenced Republicans beating Mayor David Dinkins in his bid for a second term in 1993, and said that in the future, the Republican pitch to voters in the city has to be about the cost of living and the cost of doing business.

“You can get very far when you have someone like Bill de Blasio, knocking Bill de Blasio,” Borelli said when asked about the Republican vision and pitch. “But you’re right; I think it always is going to be harder for conservatives to formulate a vision of the future, because in essence, conservatism is the preservation of the status quo. I don’t mean that in any racial or whatever ‘isms’ you want to throw at me, I mean that that’s the nature of the conservative mindset.”

As for his own 2021 plans, Borelli has a bold plan in mind. “I’ll say it right now: if I win for Public Advocate, I am running for mayor. Don’t ask, just pack your bags and come on the ride with me. I’m going to Gracie. If we somehow eke out this incredible win, then put me on the list.”

LISTEN to the full interview with Joe Borelli: Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of the Republican Party in New York

by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Government’s Most Outspoken Republican on De Blasio, Trump, and the Future of the GOP in New York Sun, 18 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of the Republican Party in New York Joe Borelli

City Council Member Joe Borelli (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

August 14, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of the New York Republican Party

joe borelli wbai 150 pxCity Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican and strong supporter of President Donald Trump, joined the show to discuss his candidacy for Public Advocate and the present and future of the New York Republican Party.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of the Republican Party in New York Wed, 14 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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.

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.  

Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission Thu, 11 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Potentially Crowded Public Advocate Special Election Could Feature Two Former Council Speakers Quinn Mark-Viverito

Christine Quinn, center, & Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo: City Council on flickr)

The September primary election is just over one week away and if New York City Public Advocate Letitia James wins the Democratic nomination for attorney general over her three primary opponents, she will be a significant favorite to win the position in November owing in large part to the state’s Democrat-heavy electorate. No Republican has won statewide since Governor George Pataki captured a third term in 2002; it’s been far longer for a Republican attorney general.

James winning the nomination will likely kick-off, in earnest, a mad scramble by several sitting and former elected officials who may seek to replace her through the at-that-point nearly certain special election for her citywide seat. Among the stronger potential contenders discussed in Democratic circles are two former speakers of the New York City Council -- Melissa Mark-Viverito, who led the body until last year, and Christine Quinn, her predecessor.

[Read: James Victory in Attorney General Race Would Trigger Citywide Special Election]

While they come from different wings of the New York Democratic Party, both Mark-Viverito and Quinn are firebrand politicians in their own right, and both made history in their respective ascensions to the speakership.

Quinn, a Democrat who represented parts of the lower west side of Manhattan, became the first openly gay and first female speaker in 2006, presiding over the 51-member legislative body for two four-year terms. For the last three years, since being term-limited out of office and losing in the 2013 mayoral primary, she has served as president and CEO of Women in Need (WIN), a nonprofit that provides services to homeless women and children. Some Democrats and others have criticized Quinn for her close working relationship with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, including the effort to extend term limits, which allowed Bloomberg, Quinn, and others to seek a third term in 2009 despite public disapproval. She is currently a close ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appointed her vice chair of the New York State Democratic Committee.

Mark-Viverito, a Puerto Rican native who represented a district that includes East Harlem and part of the south Bronx, became the Council’s first Latina speaker in 2014, pushing a broad agenda of criminal justice reform, immigrant protection, police accountability and affordable housing. In January, she became a senior adviser at the Latino Victory Fund PAC, a group that supports Latino candidates for elected office. As speaker, Mark-Viverito was at times criticized for her close relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow progressive Democrat, and she has been an outspoken critic of the governor, endorsing his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon. Mark-Viverito is one of a relatively small group of prominent Democrats that is backing Nixon for governor and James for attorney general.

After a New York Law School panel earlier this month, Quinn did not deny having an eye on the office of public advocate. “We have to get Tish James elected and that’s what I’m focused on and also let’s not forget the Lieutenant Governor, Kathy Hochul, we have to get reelected,” she told Gotham Gazette, when asked if she had considered running for public advocate in the event of James’ ascension to attorney general. “Right now, I am focused, most importantly, on running WIN and helping the homeless families that we serve...and then in my spare time, so to speak, among other things, I’m helping candidates and friends run for office. So that’s what this summer and fall is about.”

Pressed further, she simply repeated the statement. “That’s what this summer and fall is about.”

Mark-Viverito is slightly less circumspect about her own political future. “I’ve been consistent in saying that I’m really proud of the record that I have accomplished and the issues that I’ve championed and what we’ve been able to get done in the city of New York,” she told Gotham Gazette in a recent phone interview. “I’m not gonna close the door on looking at possibilities in the future if other positions or other opportunities became available...So if there is an opportunity that presents itself, I will definitely be taking a look at that. And I feel strongly that Tish will win so we’ll have that conversation later.”

She emphasized that she brings a strong perspective to policy-making as a Latina representing a low-income community. “I think that’s something that we consistently need to have in positions of authority in the city,” Mark-Viverito said. “And I believe my record speaks for itself and I look forward to being able to continue to serve this wonderful city.”

The special election, if there is one, would take place in March, assuming James is sworn in January 1 and vacates her current seat. Special elections for public advocate are nonpartisan, and each candidate would have to run on their own unique political party ballot line. The winner would then have to run for the seat again in a primary and general election later in 2019, if that person wants to keep the position.

There are several others who have either been floated as candidates or have signalled an interest in becoming the city’s ombudsperson, a post also considered a strong launching pad for a mayoral bid as de Blasio illustrated. They include sitting City Council Members Rafael Espinal, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres, and Joe Borelli, the only Republican among them. All of them but Borelli will be term-limited out of office in 2021. State Assemblymember Michael Blake is another potential candidate, as are Republican attorney J.C. Polanco and Columbia professor David Eisenbach, who both challenged James when she was up for reelection last year -- Eisenbach in the primary and Polanco in the general. Eisenbach has already officially filed papers with the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

“I think the position obviously has a lot of potential,” said a Democratic consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It has different potential than being the City Council speaker where you’re not just responsible for yourself, you’re responsible for 50 other members, hundreds of staff, dozens of appointments here or there. It’s a different set of responsibilities and in the hands of someone who understands the levers of government, who understands the bully pulpit and is sort of willing to take bold steps, it can be a very strong position.”

The public advocate can act as more than just a “counterweight to the mayor,” the consultant said. “That person also can establish themselves as someone who is also driving the agenda for New York, and that’s something we haven’t really seen since Mark Green,” the person added, referring to the city’s first-ever public advocate, who served from 1994 to 2001.

Espinal, a Brooklyn representative, said in an email, “I’m seriously considering it, and whether to launch a campaign will come down to the positive energy and support from New Yorkers.”

A spokesperson for Rodriguez, whose district covers neighborhoods in upper Manhattan and a small section of the Bronx, said, “[Council Member Rodriguez] is committed to supporting Public Advocate James in her run for attorney general as she is the most qualified in the race. Should there be a special election for public advocate, he would consider running for that seat.”

Torres, in a statement through a spokesperson, said, “I am still thinking about it and where I would be most effective. I’m debating which position would allow me to be a better advocate for the city.” The Bronx Council member is also said to be looking at a run for Congress or Bronx borough president.

Borelli also said he was considering a run for public advocate, though he conceded that it would be tough to retain. “It’s possible to win a special, but it will be difficult for a Republican to win the following November,” he said in a text message.

When asked about Quinn and Mark-Viverito both running, he said, “Each would be formidable.”

Shortly before a primary debate among the four Democratic attorney general candidates on Tuesday, Assembly Member Blake told Gotham Gazette he was watching closely in case James’ seat becomes vacant. “She’s gotta win first, but it would be irresponsible not to be looking at it,” he said about considering a run. “First and foremost, this is brand new terrain for all of us. The possibility for a citywide special election is unique to say the least...Out of respect for everybody in the field, this is a moot point unless [James] is the attorney general, and we’re gonna be respectful of that.”

He added, “As I tell my team often, proper preparation prevents poor performance. So you’re just ready, and if that opportunity presents itself, we have some serious decisions to make.”

Blake, who is a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, was the campaign manager for 2013 public advocate candidate Reshma Saujani, giving him some recent experience with a citywide race. He was then elected to the Assembly in 2014.

No current elected official would have to give up their seat to run in the special election, but, if victorious, would then have to vacate their position to become public advocate.

As Borelli alluded to, one effect of numerous Democrats entering the fray is that they could split the vote in what will likely be a low-turnout special election, offering up an opportunity for a Republican to claim victory.

Polanco, the attorney and former public advocate candidate, recognizes that opening. Having run for the seat just last year, he has certain advantages. “Whoever is gonna come from our side, there has to be just one candidate,” Polanco said in a phone interview. “We’re small enough as it is. Even in a non-partisan race, you’re gonna need organizational support. So the organizations have to line up behind one candidate from the beginning in order for us to have a shot.”

Polanco noted that the nonpartisan aspect of the election is “always good for democracy, always good for participation,” since voters won’t necessarily make choices along party lines. But he also echoed the risk for any sitting Republican elected official who might run, as Borelli noted. “Do you give up your Council seat for that? I don’t know whether that’s a good gamble or not, especially if you have three years left on your Council seat,” Polanco said.

Polanco also weighed in on the potential contest between two former Council speakers, saying Quinn would be the “ultimate” candidate. “She’s the most qualified of the candidates on that side running,” he said. “But I think the Democratic Party of today is more along the lines of Melissa Mark-Viverito. The Ocasio-Cortezes of the world, the democratic socialists, are getting momentum. She represents that faction. We can’t kid ourselves.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Potentially Crowded Public Advocate Special Election Could Feature Two Former Council Speakers Mon, 03 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Three City Council Members Don't Support 'Fair Fares' citycouncil cojo

Speaker Johnson on the subway (photo via City Council)

A budget proposal to provide half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers has the New York City Council’s full weight this year. Well, almost.

Only three City Council Members -- Joe Borelli, Steven Matteo, and Ruben Diaz, Sr. -- in the 51-member body have so far declined to support Fair Fares, the proposal that would cost the city about $212 million to offer discounted fares to nearly 800,000 city residents living below the federal poverty line.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has made an unprecedented push for the proposal to be funded in the next city budget, due by July 1, which will outline roughly $90 billion in spending. Johnson, his Council colleagues, and his aides have employed social media campaigns and on-the-ground outreach to convince Mayor Bill de Blasio to agree to the necessary funding. The mayor has shown nominal support for the idea but has insisted that it should be funded by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is controlled by the state and effectively answers to Governor Andrew Cuomo, or through an added tax on high income earners.

“The Fair Fares proposal is not a representation of the needs of my constituents, who continually face the longest and costliest commutes in the city,” said Council Member Matteo from Staten Island, one of three Republicans in the Council and the minority leader, in a statement. “It is certainly not a budget priority for me.”

Matteo and fellow Staten Island Republican Council Member Joe Borelli, who is also unsupportive of Fair Fares, are among those behind a Council push -- supported by Johnson -- to convince de Blasio to fund a $400 property tax rebate to homeowners with household incomes under $150,000, another initiative the mayor has thus far spurned.

Last month, the Council organized a digital Day of Action, followed the next week with a street-level effort at subway stations across the city, to build a crescendo around Fair Fares targeted largely at an audience of one: the mayor. Of the 51 members, 47 had signalled their support for the proposal. Since then, Council Member Chaim Deutsch from Brooklyn has also signed on. In a brief phone interview, he told Gotham Gazette, “I support it 100 percent.”

Borelli was less enthused. “Where have all these ‘Fair Fares’ supporters been while my constituents pay $6.50 for a bus to Manhattan, or shell out $15 tolls to subsidize a subway system we don’t have access to?,” he said in a text message. “Do they not understand that the middle class will be on the line to pay for this subsidy?”

Politico New York reported last month that Speaker Johnson was considering cutting certain Council initiatives from the budget to fund Fair Fares, which could mean that individual members may see some of their own priorities unfunded in the final budget if the mayor doesn’t concede to the Council’s demand. Johnson has declined to confirm the report, and a new report by Politico indicated on Wednesday that the speaker appeared to be close to getting de Blasio to agree to some initial version of a Fair Fares program in an imminent budget deal.

“I’m still undecided,” said Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., a Democrat from the Bronx and the fourth of the four Council members who didn’t sign the Fair Fares letter, when reached by phone on Wednesday. “I’m inclined to support it but I’m looking at other things to see what happens.”

When asked to elaborate on his concerns, Diaz Sr. refused. “I’m telling you as much as I can tell you,” he said.

[Read: City Council Pushes Property Tax Rebate as De Blasio Stalls Broader Reform]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Three City Council Members Don't Support 'Fair Fares' Thu, 07 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes Bill Mandating Public Broadcast of Citywide Debates Joe Borelli City Council

Council Member Borelli (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

The general election debates in last year’s mayoral race largely lacked substance and order, as Mayor Bill de Blasio twice faced off against two challengers -- Republican Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis and independent candidate Bo Dietl. Perhaps in part because de Blasio was not seen as vulnerable to defeat in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, the debates also lacked a wide audience. But there was another issue at play, for those debates and others mandated as part of the city’s campaign finance system: public accessibility to view them.

City Council Member Joe Borelli and his colleagues seek to expand access to televised city election debates -- which can be held for the three citywide positions in party primaries and general elections -- through a bill passed by the Council on Wednesday.

Borelli’s bill requires that all mandatory debates hosted by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in partnership with numerous local news organizations, be publicly broadcast at no charge on a city-owned or operated television channel to reach the widest possible audience. This would be in addition to broadcast by any selected network as the CFB typically chooses a lead TV station for each debate.

The bill was prompted largely because some of the debates, including the first general election mayoral debate and the lone general election debates in the 2017 races for comptroller and public advocate, were broadcast on television on NY1 and accessible only to those with cable television packages that include the channel. (NY1 did choose to air its debates live for free on its website and social media, as did other debate sponsors, and archived footage is easily available on the Campaign Finance Board website.)

“This may not be priority one and we’re likely three years away from any city-wide debates, but the fact that we spend so much public money to increase voter turnout to then only allow a small percentage of city residents to see the debate seemed counter-productive,” Borelli said, in a statement after the passage of the bill. “I can’t believe this would have even been allowed in the first place and I’m glad I’m changing the rules.” 

He said that more than half of the city’s residents did not have access to certain debates because they either could not afford or refused to subscribe to Spectrum, NY1’s parent company. In the 2017 election cycle, the debates not televised by NY1 were broadcast on TV by CBS-2 New York, a network typically part of all basic television packages. This included the second of two general election mayoral debates.

A press release from Borelli’s office said the bill is expected to be signed by the mayor. Seth Stein, a mayoral spokesperson said in a statement, "We look forward to reviewing the final version of this bill that was passed by the Council. The Mayor supports measures to make our democratic process more open and accessible to New Yorkers."

The bill has general support from government reform groups. At an April 26 hearing of the Committee on Governmental Operations, Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, said, “Generally speaking, we encourage civic participation in our democracy through the use of modern technology.”

Camarda also urged the committee to consider webcasting debates on one or several city government-run sites. “We think that that’s advantageous, not only because it’s less expensive, it allows for archiving at much lower costs, and it can be watched on smart phones which, more and more, is what people watch their content on these days,” Camarda said. Those proposals weren’t reflected in the final legislation.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Camarda said, “It can’t hurt to expand the TV channels that debates are on but we would prefer webcasting and more modern modes of delivery be mandated.”

“Access to information is essential to make elections fair for everyone,” said Assembly Member Malliotakis, in a statement supporting the bill’s passage. “The more widespread debate coverage is, the more prepared voters will be to make an informed decision of who they want to represent them in government.”

The CFB also came out in support of the bill. Executive Director Amy Loprest said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the agency is “committed to getting voters the information they need to cast an informed ballot on Election Day.”

“These efforts include helping all New Yorkers view the official citywide debates to learn more about candidates seeking elected office,” she added. “Today’s passage of Int. No. 14-A, requiring these debates to be simulcast on a city-owned or operated television channel, will help ensure that as many New Yorkers as possible have live access to the debates.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Passes Bill Mandating Public Broadcast of Citywide Debates Wed, 23 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Pushes Property Tax Rebate as De Blasio Continues Stall on Broader Reform Corey Johnson City Council hearing

Speaker Johnson & Council members (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The New York City Council has been pushing for temporary relief for lower- and middle-class homeowners in this year’s budget, calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to fund a one-time $400 property tax rebate that would cost about $187 million in total. Council Members, some of whom are homeowners themselves and could potentially qualify for the rebate, say it’s a much needed measure that could help thousands of New Yorkers reduce their annual tax burden.

The Council’s proposal set a $150,000 threshold for households to qualify for the $400 rebate, which would reach roughly 467,000 homeowners, according to the Council’s finance division. The proposal is merely a stop-gap, in lieu of broader reform of the city’s property tax system, which the mayor has promised but has been slow to act on.

At least a few Council members themselves stand to benefit from the rebate, given that the City Council voted in 2016 to increase members’ salaries from $112,500 to $148,500, while at the same time limiting the outside income they can earn, meaning that individual members fall just under the Council’s income threshold for the rebate. Most Council members, like most residents of the city, are renters, but a few do own property according to the latest available disclosures filed with the city Conflicts of Interest Board.

A Council spokesperson said member income was not part of the discussion on the rebate, which would reach about 75 percent of home, coop, and condo owners.

“Middle class homeowners deserve a break, which is why the City Council proposed a $400 refund for them in this year’s budget response,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement. “We know that every little bit counts and felt this refund could help people while we work on the bigger issue - reforming the broken system.”

Council Member Joseph Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island and a homeowner, says he wouldn’t qualify for the rebate since he earns about $6,000 from teaching at College of Staten Island, which he’s allowed to do under the Council’s rule change, which includes exceptions for forms of passive income and a few activities like teaching. That extra income puts him just over the top.

[Related: City Council Members Still Navigating Outside Income Divestment Ahead of Deadline]

Borelli, whose district is largely homeowners and is one of the main proponents of the rebate, isn’t concerned about the optics of Council members potentially benefiting from a rebate that they’re pushing so hard, though he conceded that members could be forthcoming about qualifying for it. “It’s like saying we all receive the public benefit of a new stop sign or a new highway,” he said. “If there’s something that’s done as a public benefit to all taxpayers, if you wanna require people to disclose that they’re going to get a check for 400 bucks in the mail, I’m certainly happy to do that. Also saying I won’t qualify myself.”

He rightly predicted that even members who own property will likely pass the threshold since many file their tax returns jointly with their spouses. “It’s an interesting question, I just don’t have the answer. But it sucks that I won’t be getting it,” he half-joked. “That’s on record, too.”

[Listen: Max & Murphy Podcat: City Council Member Joe Borelli]

Borelli is among the members who were particularly disappointed by the mayor’s refusal to address property taxes in his $89 billion executive budget proposal, released late last month. A joint statement from Borelli and Council Members Justin Brannan, Steven Matteo, Paul Vallone, Barry Grodenchik, and Mark Gjonaj noted that the administration had yet to address “the glaring inequities of a property tax system that charges the owner of a modest home in our districts more than the owner of a multi-million dollar brownstone in Park Slope,” a clear reference to de Blasio’s Brooklyn homeownership, which includes two houses that he currently rents out. De Blasio would not be eligible for the rebate given his $258,750 salary.

“I know we speak for just about every property owner in the five boroughs when we say, ‘C’mon man, give us a break!,’” the Council members concluded.

“[L]ike many of his constituents, Councilman Matteo owns a home,” said Peter Spencer, a spokesperson for the minority leader, also a Staten Island Republican, in an email. “His household income fluctuates, so it would depend on the tax filing year as to whether he would meet the $150,000 threshold. He has been advocating for a property tax rebate for years for all homeowners, to alleviate the financial burden skyrocketing property taxes are having on so many families and seniors.”

The other members on the statement are all Democrats, as are de Blasio and Speaker Johnson, but they represent areas of the city with higher home ownership rates than most other Council members. Grodenchik and Vallone’s offices did not respond to voicemails requesting comment. Reginald Johnson, Gjonaj’s chief of staff, said the Council member owns property but files a joint tax return with his wife, who is a nurse, and would not qualify for the rebate.

De Blasio has repeatedly said that he would launch a commission to look at the city’s property tax system and to recommend fundamental change in how taxes are assessed. Unlike other taxes, the city does not need approval from the state Legislature to amend its property tax rates, which have remained flat over the last few years but have been evenly applied across the city with no accounting for varying property values, while assessments continue to rise, increasing tax bills virtually across the board.

“We’re going to...go at the heart of the property tax problem and have a commission, working closely with the Council to try and reform fundamentally the property tax to be more fair for everyone,” de Blasio told reporters at his executive budget presentation on April 26. “So, I would argue the best way to address the property tax question is the fix the whole system. Everyone loves a rebate, but it doesn’t fix the root cause, and most rebates are pretty small and then you never see them again. We want to get at the root cause.”

Maria Doulis, vice-president of Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog, echoed that position while also pointing out that the Council’s interim approach may be flawed. “It’s a well-intentioned proposal,” she said of the rebate, “but it’s too broad a measure to address their concerns.” An umbrella threshold, she said, doesn’t capture the differences in households and property values across the city, so those with a high property tax burden would stand to receive the same benefit as those with a negligible one.

“It’s best to do it with a circuit breaker rather than a flat rebate,” she said, referring to an industry term for targeted property tax breaks based on a percentage of income. “Circuit breakers take into account your income as well as your burden. That’s a better way to do it. Given the complexity and problems with the property tax, I’m not sure adding another wrinkle is the best thing to do.”

Council Member Brannan, who has been advocating for property tax reform since his campaign for office, is a renter but he understands the effect a rebate could have. “I’m a renter, but my landlord certainly would factor that into my rent,” he said.

“Obviously it doesn’t benefit me because I’m a renter but because when I was knocking on doors for nine months in my campaign, that was one of the top things I heard about, was people getting squeezed -- renters too. It all trickles down. Coops, condos, homeowners, everything. It’s a big deal for me. I’m not gonna benefit from it but it’s a big deal,” he added. (CBC’s Doulis said it’s unclear that a temporary rebate would get passed down to renters but that wholesale reform was more likely to have that effect.)

Other homeowners identified in COIB disclosures include Council Members Peter Koo, Jumaane Williams, and Fernando Cabrera.

Cabrera and Williams did not respond to requests for comment. Scott Sieber, a spokesperson for Koo told Gotham Gazette the Council member files taxes jointly with his wife and would not qualify for the rebate. “The rebate is good for all our constituents in the city,” Koo said at City Hall last week.

Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., a former state senator, said that he has qualified for state property tax credits in the past but has refused to apply for them. “When I was in Albany, they gave credits to property owners and I never took one and I would never apply for it until I retire,” he told Gotham Gazette in the Council chambers last week. “But there are people in the City of New York, homeowners that deserve to take a break on those things. I support the speaker.”

What if he qualified for the Council’s proposed rebate? “I won’t take it,” he said.

The City Council is in the midst of weeks of hearings on de Blasio’s executive budget, while Johnson and others continue to push their top priorities -- the property tax rebate, reduced price MetroCards for people living in poverty, and an added $500 million into reserves -- for inclusion in the adopted budget, which the two sides must agree on by the July 1 start to the new fiscal year.

On the steps of City Hall, Council Member Chaim Deutsch brushed aside any concerns about personal conflicts in pushing for a rebate. “When we’re fighting for issues, a lot of the time we fight for issues that affect us because that’s where we get the experience from, and that’s how we know sometimes how to fight for things,” he said. “Because we as New Yorkers understand sometimes when it’s difficult for a Council member to make ends meet, that we know how difficult it may be for others. So we fight for issues. So you can’t single out one thing over another.”

[Related: De Blasio, City Council Tangle Over How to Spend $1 Billion]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Pushes Property Tax Rebate as De Blasio Continues Stall on Broader Reform Mon, 14 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000