Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2164 Tue, 18 Feb 2020 12:59:25 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Council to Examine Persistent and Growing Violence Plaguing City Jails https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9069-council-to-examine-growing-violence-plaguing-city-jails-rikers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9069-council-to-examine-growing-violence-plaguing-city-jails-rikers dept corr joseph ponte island

Mayor de Blasio on Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


In the wake of a series of damning reports showing a rise of violence and use of force in city jails -- even as the inmate population has plummeted and city government has significantly increased its spending on the Department of Correction -- lawmakers are looking at ways to address the problem, beginning with court-mandated reforms, which seem to have fallen by the wayside.

The City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice will be holding an oversight hearing next week to examine the issue of jail violence, which is increasing -- both in terms of detainee assaults and officer use of force. Council members say they will be focusing on the feasibility and potential impact of reforms discussed in a recent report by an independent federal monitor and the de Blasio administration’s progress towards implementing them, together with the administration’s own violence-reduction platform.

“We want to have a better understanding of which reforms are put into place, which continue to have progress that needs to be made on them, and get a better understanding of how they’re actually doing it,” Council Member Keith Powers, who chairs the committee, told Gotham Gazette.

The two most pressing areas to lawmakers, which they plan to raise at the February 3 hearing, are the upward trend in jail violence involving detainees, of which there are currently about 5,600, and the safety of correctional employees. Over the past decade, the rate of fight or assault infractions recorded by the Department of Correction has tripled to approximately 1,500 per 1,000 detainees, according to a December report by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

In October, a federal monitor reported officer use of force is also on the rise, with monthly incidents reaching their highest point in nearly four years, despite new policies aimed at reducing them. City spending on DOC personnel has gone up over the past decade while violence indicators increase and the total daily cost to detain an individual in a city jail is $925 in fiscal year 2019, an 85 percent increase in five years, according to Stringer’s report.

Asked about the federal monitor’s report showing an uptick in use of force, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on WNYC radio in November, “I would be careful to not to...read too much into that given all the programmatic changes that are being made and given – most importantly – that we’re about to entirely transform our corrections system and close down the facilities that have been the root of this problem.”

According to Council staff, the Department of Correction and the Board of Correction, which sets some departmental policy and plays an oversight role, have been invited to testify at the upcoming oversight hearing. DOC representatives did not say whether Commissioner Cynthia Brann, appointed by de Blasio in 2017, would be testifying. A spokesperson for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) said the union is likely to have a representative testify.

“We continue to hear concerns both from advocates and those representing people who are incarcerated around use of force and other measures of violence, and then we hear from folks who work there who are concerned about attacks on employees and staff,” Powers said.

In response to the monitor’s October report, Brann said changing the culture of violence in city jails is a long-term endeavor. “We will not be satisfied until we see substantial improvement across the board,” she reportedly said in a statement at the time. “The safety and wellbeing of the people who work and live in our facilities is our top priority.”

New York City jails have a long history of brutality with spikes and falls since the 1990s, when the total daily jail population was nearly 22,000 and violence was at the highest point in recent decades. Since then the jail population has dropped dramatically for a number of apparent reasons, from declining crime rates and the end of the crack epidemic, to changes in law enforcement practices and recent reform to bail laws. DOC reported a daily jail population of 7,938 for fiscal year 2019, which ended last June 30. According to the city’s Open Data Portal, the city jail population on Monday (January 27) was 5,642, the lowest in decades.

But amind new scrutiny over jail conditions and a city-backed plan to close Rikers Island jails and build four borough-based replacements, recent reports show that despite the downward trend in jail population, incidents of violence by both detainees and correction officers has risen over the past decade, leading to renewed efforts to identify and curtail the causes of such incidents. 

Violence in city jails became a key part of the push to close the Rikers facilities. Now, as the plan to close the Rikers jails and build new, modern facilities has moved ahead, a key yet quieter portion of the conversation has been about how to change the city's jail culture to reduce violence, increase safety, and ensure that city jails are as rehabilitative as possible. Some who opposed closing the Rikers jails said they feared the culture at Rikers would simply be replicated at new jails, while supporters of the plans talked about modern, humane jail design with more effective programming.

The court-appointed federal monitor, overseeing the implementation of recommendations following a 2015 ruling, reported in October 2019 that the city’s Department of Correction “remains in Non-Compliance with four of the most consequential provisions of the Consent Judgment,” including implementing a use of force policy, conducting “timely and quality investigations” and “meaningful and adequate discipline,” and minimizing violence among young people.

The Department of Correction says it is working on a problem that has existed for many years and requires extensive retooling to overcome.

“Increasing safety and reducing violence always lie at the very core of our mission, and we look forward to updating the City Council on our efforts to create enduring culture change that not only makes our jails safer, but more humane,” wrote Peter Thorne, DOC’s deputy commissioner of public information, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

In 2015, spurred by a class-action suit over widespread use of force and civil rights abuses in city jails, de Blasio announced a 14-point plan aimed at reducing violence among detainees, with an emphasis on cracking down on dangerous contraband, changing the logic of housing placements, and enhancing video surveillance. Other elements of the plan stressed inmate-enrichment with educational opportunities and programming to “reduce idle time,” according to a press release at the time. The platform also included an effort to launch specialized crisis intervention teams to target inmate violence more quickly.

A different spokesperson for the Department of Correction said that the 14-point plan has evolved since it was first announced, partially because of the ongoing work with the federal monitor established later that year. The spokesperson pointed to a number of new initiatives like state legislation authorizing the use of ionizing body scanners to better detect contraband, reducing the work-hours of correction officers, and the revamping of an investigation division, a change that has been credited with reducing sexual assaults on Rikers Island.

Yet the most recent monitor’s report from October, covering the six-month period from January to June 2019, shows the total number of use-of-force incidents by correction officers was between 500 and 600, compared to approximately between 300 and 400 incidents during the first monitoring period from January to June 2016. Since January 2016, the jail population fell by roughly 2,000 detainees, indicating a higher rate of use-of-force per detainee despite recent reforms and a higher officer-to-detainee ratio.

“The Department’s use of force rates during the Eighth Monitoring Period reached their highest levels since the Consent Judgment went into effect,” the October 2019 report reads.

According to Nicole Triplett, policy counsel at New York Civil Liberties Union, the monitor’s report shows that “the rise in violence in the jails, not from people who are detained there but actually from [correction officers], is contributing to this culture of violence.”

She said NYCLU is urging the city to do a better job addressing the culture of violence. “It seems like what they have not done is look at the Department of Correction with the scrutiny that it’s due to address this. And I think it’s going to be necessary if not critical to move forward with their ‘close Rikers’ plan,” she said.

Levels of violence in other areas have also increased over the last decade. The report from Comptroller Stringer, published in December, shows the rate of assault infractions per 1,000 inmates rose three-fold, from about 500 in fiscal year 2009 to 1,500 in 2019.

The comptroller’s report shows correction officer safety has worsened over the same period of time: roughly 35 assaults on staff per 1,000 inmates in fiscal year 2009, compared to approximately 151 in 2019. Between fiscal years 2018 and 2019 the number of assaults on officers jumped 37 percent, according to Stringer’s office.

“Our message at the upcoming City Council Hearing on jail violence will be consistent with our message over the past four years- we need safer jails now!,” wrote COBA President Elias Husamudeen in an email. “We will continue to outline our proposals to make the jails safer for everyone. The question for the committee and the Council as a whole is whether or not they will actually listen and adopt our recommendations.” Among COBA’s biggest recommendations are to rely more heavily on solitary confinement to separate more violent detainees from the general population, a request that contradicts an ongoing advocate-led effort to reduce if not eliminate the use of solitary in city jails.

One member of the Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice, Council Member Robert Holden, a Democrat representing parts of Queens, wants to see a crackdown on inmates who commit violence, especially as the use of solitary confinement has been drastically cut down since de Blasio took office in 2014. According to a DOC spokesperson, the population in punitive segregation in 2014 was nearly 700, with a backlog of 1,700 more ordered to solitary, compared with a population of 117 on November 28, 2019.

“It seems like violence in jails has been increasing, especially against correction officers, and detainees aren’t given additional punishment for it,” Holden said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “I believe that the most violent inmates should be separated from the general population, from other fellow gang members, or put in punitive segregation.”

“I’d like to see an explanation as to how the most violent people in our jails will be dealt with going forward. I proposed two bills in 2019 related to this topic, and I don’t know why they aren’t at least being heard in the committee,” he added. One of Holden’s bills would allow DOC to place detainees ages 18 to 21 in punitive segregation (solitary confinement) when they commit violence and have already received counseling. The other would require DOC to take gang affiliation into account when assigning housing to detainees.

“The focus of the hearing is to do oversight and the Chair looks forward to hearing Members’ input,” wrote Liz Peters, a spokesperson for Powers, in response to Holden’s comments.

One trend that has accompanied the reduction in jail population is the smaller ratio of detainees to correction officers. According to the latest monitor’s report, “The Department enjoys the largest staffing compliment for jails in the United States with an inmate-to-staff ratio of 1 to 1.3.”

According to Michael Jacobson, the executive director of CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance and a former correction commissioner in the 1990s, “the staffing has basically stayed the same” since the ‘90s as the jail population has dropped by approximately three-quarters.

“The ratio of staff to inmates now is unbelievable. I believe it’s probably the most richly-resourced correctional system on the planet,” he recently told Gotham Gazette.

Another issue is staff turnover, which is extremely high, with some jail facilities cycling through up to six wardens in a three-and-a-half year period from January 2016 to June 2019, according to the latest report from the federal monitor. Powers told Gotham Gazette this would likely be a focus at the upcoming oversight hearing.

The causes of rising jail violence are likely many, Powers said. “We want to have a better understanding of why it’s happening and what steps the Department of Correction can take to reduce violence in the coming year.”

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Council to Examine Persistent and Growing Violence Plaguing City Jails Mon, 27 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Getting in the Holiday Spirit of Improved Public Space https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8881-getting-in-holiday-spirit-improved-public-space-rockefeller-center-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8881-getting-in-holiday-spirit-improved-public-space-rockefeller-center-new-york-city mayorrockefeller

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


‘Tis the season for improving public spaces.

The 14th Street busway has been live for just over three weeks and the accolades are already enough to deem its opening as historic. New Yorkers are now seeking more innovative ideas to improve the pedestrian and commuter experience throughout the city. 

With the holiday season approaching, we are hopeful that this embrace of open space can be adopted in Midtown. 

Rockefeller Center is one of the centerpieces of Manhattan. Every year, the area sees close to 1 million pedestrians during the holidays. It’s the must-see destination for both New Yorkers and tourists, and one of the places where the city absolutely shines. 

But if you are looking anywhere other than the top of the tree, it’s a sea of people and cars competing to get a glimpse of the scene.

If we think of Rockefeller Center with a people-first mentality, we can make streets safer and enrich public space. That’s why we have called for the City to pedestrianize the historic plaza by closing 49th and 50th Streets from 5th Avenue to 6th Avenue for the holiday season. 

The current set up relies on blockades that take up large amounts of space and cause groups of pedestrians to crowd crosswalks and spill over into the street: a recipe for injuries. And each day, the parameters change. With a defined set-up, rules of the area would be more easily communicated and expectations clear. 

Ten years ago, Times Square took the jump to clear out cars. Five streets transformed into 110,000 square feet of pedestrian space. The successes of the Department of Transportation's endeavor are indisputable. Pedestrian injuries have decreased by 40% and vehicular crashes have decreased by 15% after the streets became a plaza. The number of individuals passing through increased, too: a boon to area businesses. 

Rockefeller Center is a 12-acre landmark in the middle of Manhattan, open to New Yorkers and visitors -- it is time we protect the space and everyone who visits, and encourage even more people to take part safely.

There is nothing like New York during the holidays. Let’s prepare for the celebration and those to come. The countdown is on.

***
Gale A. Brewer is the Borough President of Manhattan. Keith Powers is a City Council Member for Manhattan’s East Side, including the Rockefeller Center area. On Twitter @galeabrewer & @KeithPowersNYC.

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

]]>
Getting in the Holiday Spirit of Improved Public Space Sun, 27 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part I - Taking on the Difficult Task https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8712-an-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-s-property-tax-conundrum-part-i https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8712-an-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-s-property-tax-conundrum-part-i mayor deblasio clears

Mayor de Blasio shovels snow outside one of his two Brooklyn houses (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


This is part one of a three-part series. Skip to part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

In May 2018, after years of criticism that New York City’s property tax system lacks equity, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced they would empanel a commission of “blue chip” experts to explore the issue. Its tasks are to examine everything from the way different property values are assessed to relief for vulnerable homeowners, solicit input from the public and specialists, and make recommendations for reform.

Because of the laws and practices governing New York property taxes, the recommendations will inevitably include some changes that can be enacted by the city and others that would require action in Albany, both of which would upset a longstanding and largely unchallenged system. Even coming up with recommendations has proven fraught.

The commission was tasked with an important constraint: make recommendations to overhaul a complicated, decades-old tax system without changing the city’s bottom line -- in other words, to make sure that a new property tax system would continue to provide city government with its single largest revenue stream, good for roughly $27.8 billion last fiscal year.

More than a year later, with the 2019 legislative session in Albany well over, the panel has conducted ten public hearings and meetings but has produced no report nor indicated what consensus is emerging on a path forward. Asked about it repeatedly, de Blasio, who was criticized for punting on the issue until his second and final term, has said he expects recommendations by the end of this year.

The property tax system impacts homeowners and renters, landlords and developers -- virtually every one of the city’s 8.5 million residents. Problems with the system are myriad in New York, where real estate dominates and nearly a third of the city’s annual revenue comes from real property levies.

Critics have contended that the property tax system is overly complex and opaque, that property assessments are not reflective of true market values, and that classifications and caps aimed at mitigating rapid property tax increases contribute to disproportionate tax burdens across many populations.

Twelve months before the commission was announced, a coalition led by a former city finance commissioner filed a lawsuit alleging the Byzantine tax structure creates vast inequities and that those disparities are felt most severely by low-income New Yorkers and people of color.

One of the central problems is the vast under-assessment of many owner-occupied cooperatives and condominiums, which have experienced sweeping growth in property values over the past two decades, but are taxed instead based not on their sales value but on the much lower income they would likely make if they were rentals. Homeowners, in general, pay a lower effective tax rate (taxes as a percent of sales prices) than commercial and residential rental property owners, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog.

Another problem is the labyrinth of abatements, rebates, caps, and phase-ins that obscure the causes of rising property taxes, making them hard for residents to trace and understand.

As property values ratchet up in gentrifying neighborhoods, so do the taxes assessed on them, which can put a strain on lower-, middle-, and fixed-income homeowners struggling to keep up with bills and maintenance fees. At the same time, homeowners in places with slower real estate market growth, like Staten Island and the Bronx, see their taxes rise higher relative to home sales prices because of caps that keep tax hikes low when the housing market unexpectedly leaps.

The symptoms of unequal assessment and taxation land harder on different populations of New Yorkers. The coalition behind the lawsuit says these factors lead to higher tax assessments in communities of color than in majority-white neighborhoods. Others over the years have asserted that when landlords’ tax burdens increase, they may be passed on to tenants in the form of higher rent, especially in large apartment buildings with sizable black and Latino populations, critics say.

The most expensive home sold in United States history is a Midtown Manhattan condo that went for $238 million earlier this year to Ken Griffin, the hedge fund manager ranked the 45th richest American by Forbes. Griffin pays taxes on a property valuation of just $9.4 million, or .22 percent of the sales price, according to the Wall Street Journal. By contrast, the owner of a two-family home in the northeast Bronx that sold for $439,000 in the most recent fiscal year pays 1.16 percent of the price tag in property taxes, according to an Independent Budget Office analysis provided to Gotham Gazette.

Yet the owners of both these types of homes -- owned by some of the wealthiest New Yorkers, as well as lower- and middle-income residents -- often say they feel pressure from rising property taxes year after year and are seeking relief. One of the barriers to property tax reform is that virtually all homeowners, whether they are likely under-assessed or not, believe they are getting squeezed by property taxes, which for small homes rose an average of 7.7 percent annually between 2001 and 2017, according to a Citizens Budget Commission analysis. (New York City has been repeatedly exempted from a state cap of 2 percent on annual property tax growth that applies everywhere else.)

There is broad agreement that the New York City property tax system produces inequality, that it hurts a wide range of communities from senior homeowners to renters of color to (some) outer-borough residents. Democrats, Republicans, and others across the political spectrum have called for change. But while the debate over the city’s property taxes crosses partisan lines, efforts to make an unequal system more equal means upsetting some stakeholders.

The complexities in the system have cut out a difficult task for members of the commission launched by de Blasio and Johnson, commissioners who were originally given only a year to produce results. But, as with other attempts to rethink the city’s relationship to its most essential resources, the task of unpacking the property tax system reveals a tangle of practical and political factors that have led to the status quo and make change so challenging.

Hope quickly faded that the commission would put forth recommendations to be taken up before the June end of this year’s state legislative session. During a May interview, Marc V. Shaw, one of two commission co-chairs, told Gotham Gazette that for lawmakers to deal with complicated concepts at the end of the legislative session, “there just would not be time...even if we were prepared. But we haven’t reached the point of making even the recommendations. We’re still sort of in an analysis phase.”

A Difficult Task
“I think all of us that have been working on the commission, knew from the beginning that that was a time schedule that was going to be pretty...difficult to attain...so from our perspective we’re looking at trying to put together a series of recommendations to be available for discussion and debate in the next legislative session,” Shaw said in May. Legislators will return to Albany in January, but the mayor and City Council can evaluate the commission’s work throughout the rest of this year, pending a report.

Shaw, a former first deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg, is the interim chief operating officer for CUNY. He has been the Advisory Commission’s single (co-)chair since its other, Vicki Been, stepped down when she was appointed Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development in April. The body is made up of fiscal policy experts, business leaders, and city planning specialists, almost all of whom have served in city government in the past.

Spokespeople for both the mayor and City Council told Gotham Gazette the Advisory Commission is now planning to release a preliminary report in the coming months and hold another round of public hearings in the fall to solicit feedback. In a July 19 WNYC radio interview, Mayor de Blasio said the commission would produce a final report by the end of the calendar year, in time to be taken up in the next state legislative session.

City Council Member Keith Powers, a Democrat who represents a Manhattan district with a mix of property, is concerned the timeline doesn’t allow for much flexibility to work in Albany’s tight calendar. The timeline “puts you rolling right into January’s legislative session,” and just before state budget negotiations begin, he told Gotham Gazette. “You just may lose a little steam if you don’t have a bill early next year, and you know agencies miss deadlines all the time.”

In the meantime, the Legislature is waiting to hear from the commission. “It just kept coming up where we may be modifying some bills, or not doing some bills, because of the commission and not knowing what their positions are going to be,” Sandy Galef, chair of the Assembly’s real property tax committee, told Gotham Gazette at the end of May. “So yes, I would say it’s holding back some ideas.”

It appears important that the city has its ducks in a row before the January to June state session begins, giving a report and decisions by the mayor and Council enough time to work their way through Albany’s political corridors. Complicating matters further is the fact that 2020 is an election year for the entire state Legislature. Albany lawmakers sometimes try to get around dealing with especially thorny issues in conspicuous ways by packing them into state budget bills, which are due by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Many of the reforms will focus on the state Real Property Tax Law, which sets standards for property tax assessment, among other things, and will require the state Legislature and governor to act. Once the commission produces its final report and city leaders make their opinions known, proposals will have to be negotiated in Albany, which in the past has proven fatal to serious property tax reform.

“We’re involved but at this point I view it as local home rule,” Galef said in May before the legislative session ended. Much if not all of what the city will ask of the state will come through the City Council, even if some of it is through non-binding measures.

Some tax programs were set to expire this year, like tax relief for property owners who install green roofs, which the Legislature extended and the governor signed notwithstanding the city property tax commission’s progress. “Even if the commission does the report at the end of the year, by the time they get authority from the state, there may be a lot of time in between,” Galef said.

That prospect does not sit well with Powers. “I think that any commission or body that’s working on this needs to understand that there are real people who are waiting for this relief,” he said, noting he has heard from constituents who are anticipating the commission’s recommendations.

The Status Quo
The complexities the commission is now grappling with are the result of a system with antique origins, one which has not been comprehensively updated and seldom reviewed over the past four decades. New York State’s current property tax apparatus is the outcome of a judicial ruling that shook up the prior system in the mid-1970s, and subsequent legislative action that mostly put it back into place in the early ‘80s.

In 1975, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, sided in favor of Jerome Hellerstein, an Upper West Side lawyer representing his wife, Pauline, who had sued the Town of Islip for assessing the property value of the family’s Fire Island vacation home -- and every other property on its roll -- at only a fraction of its market value, in violation of state statute (and, apparently, in their own interests). The law, at the time section 306 of the Real Property Tax Law, stated, “All real property in each assessing unit shall be assessed at the full value thereof.”

hellerstein fire island houseThe Hellerstein Fire Island home (image courtesy of Walter Hellerstein)

For nearly 200 years prior, however, property taxes for homeowners in New York State were assessed on only a fraction of the “full value,” based on what assessors “deemed proper,” “not ‘according to their best information and belief, of its value,’ ‘but according to the usual way of assessing,’” an 1852 Court of Appeals decision reads. The decision, in 1852, noted, “the usual method is to estimate property at less than half its value.”

The discretion given to assessors meant commercial and apartment building owners in 1975 paid taxes on a much larger fraction of the market value of their property than homeowners. According to an account published by the city’s Independent Budget Office, reports at the time of the Hellerstein court decision found even the tax burden from similar homes in different neighborhoods could vary, with homeowners in New York City’s lower-income communities paying more than homeowners in more affluent ones.

The Hellerstein decision upended centuries of property tax assessment practices and sent New York’s political world into a spin. For six years, officials in Albany battled over the implications of the decision with some, like Democratic Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, arguing for the fractional assessment practice to be codified into law, fearing the effects homeowners would feel if their property taxes were to rise rapidly.

There was panic that “fiscal chaos” would ensue if wholesale changes were made to the way the properties of people and businesses were assessed across the board, according to Judge Solomon Wachtler who wrote the majority opinion in the Hellerstein case. A report from the New York Times during that period quotes Edwin Margolis, counsel to the Assembly majority, saying, “The goal is not to shift the burden from residential to industrial or commercial, but simply to keep the status quo.”

The Legislature achieved that goal in 1981 after overriding a veto by Governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat. Instead of meaningfully changing assessment practices, the new legislation removed the “full value” language from the law and established a system in New York City that separated properties into four different categories, each to be taxed on a different portion of the full market value, mirroring the de facto practices assessors had been using all along.

The system placed one- to three-family homes into Class 1; apartment buildings, co-ops, and condos into Class 2; utilities into Class 3; and commercial properties into Class 4.

“The law was set up in such a way that each class of property would continue to pay roughly the same share of the levy” as they did at the time the law was passed, according to Ana Champeny, a property tax expert at the Citizens Budget Commission.

This “is the property tax system that we essentially currently operate under,” said Shaw, the commission chair. “That just gives you a sense that it’s always been a complicated system from the beginning.”

Before the 1981 law codified the current system, a number of other proposals had been floated and a bipartisan commission was even set up, the Temporary State Commission on the Real Property Tax, to review the state’s practices. That commission suggested that as an alternative to moving toward assessment by class, the state could mitigate the shift in tax burden from businesses to homeowners by implementing homeowner assistance programs.

But the political might of homeowners won out over the interests of commercial property owners, as well as over the will of the governor and a sizable minority in the Assembly. As part of the 1981 legislation, lawmakers enacted caps on the amount assessments could increase annually and over a five-year period, further protecting homeowners against rapid rises in property taxes in the event they be more accurately assessed going forward.

The resulting system, in a nutshell, is one where one- to three-family homes, which are more often occupied by their owner, are assessed based on the comparable sales prices of the property, while commercial and rental properties are assessed based on the income those businesses could generate.

One catch to this, which has been a recurring sticking point in perennial calls for property tax equity, is that co-ops and condos like Griffin’s are assessed on the income that would be made if they were rental apartments, rather than the sales prices of owner-occupied homes most observers say they more closely resemble. Another has been the caps on how much the assessed value of a home can increase, which more recently has led to owners of homes in booming neighborhoods paying relatively low property taxes compared to other homeowners in more economically stagnant parts of the city.

“What we’re facing is looking at how to do a reset of the property tax, given all of those problems, to make it a fairer system now,” said Shaw.

This is part one of a three-part series on the property tax system in New York City and potential for changes to it that may be on the horizon. Read part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part I - Taking on the Difficult Task Wed, 31 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Hears 3 Campaign Finance Bills to Enhance Low-Dollar Impact, Limit Criminals, Curb Conflicts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8624-city-council-campaign-finance-reform-enhance-low-dollar-impact-curb-conflicts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8624-city-council-campaign-finance-reform-enhance-low-dollar-impact-curb-conflicts council comm hearing

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Council Hears 3 Campaign Finance Bills to Enhance Low-Dollar Impact, Limit Criminals, Curb Conflicts Thu, 20 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Elected Officials Present Broad Proposals to 2019 Charter Revision Commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7990-elected-officials-present-broad-proposals-to-2019-charter-revision-commission stringer charter testimony

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
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
City Council Considers Requiring More Reporting on Required Reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7700-city-council-considers-requiring-more-reporting-on-required-reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7700-city-council-considers-requiring-more-reporting-on-required-reporting City Council Cabrera Vallone

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
City Council Considers Requiring More Reporting on Required Reporting Tue, 29 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Council Member Proposes Campaign Finance Changes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7541-council-member-to-propose-campaign-finance-changes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7541-council-member-to-propose-campaign-finance-changes cm keith powers cc

Council Member Keith Powers (photo: William Alatriste)


City Council Member Keith Powers, a former lobbyist who ran for election on a platform that included a 22-point electoral and government reform agenda, has introduced a package of legislation to make small but significant changes to the city’s campaign finance program.

Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, is proposing five bills, introduced at the full meeting of the City Council on Wednesday, that will change campaign finance thresholds and reporting requirements, with the goal of making running for elected office easier for first-time candidates and those with little access to wealthy donors.

The city’s campaign finance program is “already a gold standard,” Powers said, in a recent phone interview, but can be even more effective with certain tweaks. The package of bills, he said, were based on his personal experience with the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program -- which incentivizes small-dollar donations from city residents up to $175 by matching them at a 6-to-1 ratio -- and also a recent Council hearing where the CFB testified before the Committee on Governmental Operations, of which Powers is a member.

One of his bills would increase the small-dollar matchable amount from $175 to $250, giving smaller campaigns a boost in fundraising. Any candidate who wants to receive public matching funds must hit two thresholds -- a minimum number of contributions of at least $10 and a minimum amount. For instance, City Council candidates who participate in the program must raise at least 75 contributions from donors within their district and raise a minimum of $5,000. The thresholds are far greater for borough-wide and city-wide races.

A second bill would also reduce the lowest qualifying contribution from $10 to $5. “It makes it easier for candidates to hit the matching threshold,” Powers said.

The third bill in the package would establish a pilot program to provide full matching funds for special elections, where candidates must raise funds in a much shorter period of time. Currently, the CFB's program only provides matching funds up to 55 percent of the spending limit for a particular race. The bill would increase the match to 85 percent, effectively allowing candidates to raise as much as they are allowed to spend.  

Finally, Powers also hopes to ease the burden of complying with the city’s campaign finance law for candidates that tend to run campaigns with limited funds. The CFB requires that all campaigns submit detailed disclosure reports of the money they raise and spend during an election season, a requirement that has at times been criticized as overly onerous for candidates who do not have experience with the program or the help of high-priced professional consultants to help them comply. Candidates who fail to file disclosures, or improperly file them, can incur costly fines sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars from the CFB after an election.

However, “small campaigns” that do not surpass $1,000 in fundraising and expenditure do not have to file these reports under the campaign finance law. The bill Powers is proposing would raise that amount to $3,000, lifting the reporting requirements on dozens of candidates. A companion resolution would also call on the state to do the same. 

The intent of Powers’ proposals overlaps with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s February announcement that he will convene a Charter Revision Commission to explore, among other things, limiting the influence of moneyed interests in city elections and reducing contribution limits. To some, a commission that would look at campaign finance seemed duplicative and Powers is among those who are skeptical about the need for a commission to essentially do the City Council’s job. “We can legislate these issues without a Charter Revision Commission,” Powers said, noting that he also considered legislation to reduce contribution limits, but only for special elections. There has been some talk about reducing the maximum individual contributions allowed, which just recently rose slightly to $5,100 for city-wide candidates and $2,850 for City Council candidates, which de Blasio’s commission may explore.

Powers did praise the mayor for propelling a much-needed debate, and said it was an opportunity to move ahead with more drastic changes to the public financing system. One change, he said, could involve increasing the cap on matching funds available to candidates from 55 percent of the spending limit for their seat to 85 percent. That proposal is currently before the Council in legislation from Council Member Ben Kallos, the former chair of the governmental operations committee.

“I think it’s a totally fine idea to have a Charter Revision Commission and doing contribution limits as one of the topics totally makes sense,” Powers said. But, he added, “I want to have a Commission that includes a conversation about the larger structure of city government...At a moment when we have a need for more representation across the board, especially for women in the City Council, I think it’s important that we look to remove any barriers to running for elected office.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in partnership with Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, is pushing ahead with a separate Charter Revision Commission, with a broader initial mandate. A bill to create that commission is expected to pass the Council this week. 

[Read: With Tweaks, City Council Charter Revision Commission Bill Expected to Pass]

Powers also promised that he has another package of bills he will introduce down the line that relates to contribution limits, matching funds, and contributions from individuals and entities doing business with the city. This may coincide with the typical process by which the Campaign Finance Board issues its post-election report, due in August, with recommendations for changes to the campaign finance system, usually the subject of a government operations committee hearing and subsequent legislation.

And Powers is also introducing a connected bill that would affect the city’s doing business database of companies and individuals that work for or with the city. Entities on the Doing Business Database are significantly limited in the amount of money they contribute to electoral candidates and their donations are not matchable under the public funds program. For mayoral candidates, the doing business contribution limit is $400, and for City Council candidates it’s $250.

Powers’ bill would directly address real estate developers, who have been some of the largest donors in recent elections and have spent millions to support candidates from city-wides down to the boroughs and Council districts. The bill would mandate that developers formally seeking a city contract are added to the doing-business list so that their contributions are reigned in.

Developers who submit land use applications for city-proposed developments would be entered in the doing business database at an earlier stage in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Currently, developers are only included in the database once their application is certified. Powers’ bill would require that they are listed once they apply to start the certification process, moving the timeline of their inclusion in the database up by a few months.

“Sometimes, years before the ULURP, developers can be talking with the administration,” he said, highlighting the necessity of the bill.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

  ]]>
Council Member Proposes Campaign Finance Changes Mon, 09 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Now Overseeing Closure, Council Member Makes First Visit to Rikers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7516-now-overseeing-rikers-closure-council-member-makes-first-visit https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7516-now-overseeing-rikers-closure-council-member-makes-first-visit Keith Powers Rikers Island

City Council Member Keith Powers (photo: John McCarten)


Last week, members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice toured Rikers Island to see for themselves the conditions at the problem-plagued jail complex, which is slated for closure within the next ten years. It was the first visit for the new chair of the committee, Council Member Keith Powers, who spoke with Gotham Gazette about what he and his colleagues saw, their conversations with detainees and corrections officers, and the issues it moved him to pursue.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gotham Gazette (GG): How was Rikers?

Council Member Keith Powers (KP): “It was my first time going. It was quite educational and you know, I wouldn’t use the word ‘surprising’ because I’m not surprised but it certainly reconfirmed my belief that we should be doing what we are doing, which is to move in a hopefully expedited time manner to move into communities and create new borough-based facilities. It was super informative.

“We were surprisingly joined by the head of the correction officers’ union [Elias Husamudeen], who came along. We also had Stanley Richards, who’s the Board of Correction member from The Fortune Society, who also came. So with those two joining it was even better than I think we expected and had more conversation than just sort of what was going to be normally presented to us by the agency.”

GG: What was the tour like? How many buildings did you see? Did you meet with any inmates, any officers?

KP: “Yeah we did, we did a bunch. We saw the visitor’s center. We saw what they call ‘advanced supervision housing,’ which replaced solitary confinement for young inmates. We went there, we saw two parts of that. The one for the most restrictive and the one that’s least restrictive. But they’re all the most violent young, or the ones that have had a violent incident amongst the young folks. In one of them, they’re actually restrained, they can’t even get up from their desks even when they’re in the open area and in the second one there’s more freedom...We stood there and we talked to inmates in both of those facilities.

“These are young inmates who have had an incident, whether it’s a slashing or a fight or something else that led them to get in there, and so we talked to them there. We saw the academy, the school for the young inmates, we saw a sort-of medium facility...we saw the welcoming and visiting center where you actually come and show up if you’re a family member, you drop packages off -- we looked at all the protocols there. And we looked at one unit where there’s a pilot program around bringing dogs actually into one of the units, which is kind of like a reward for good behavior, I think.”

GG: This sounds like a long tour. How long were you there?

KP: “We got there around 10 o’clock and we were there till about 5 o’clock. It was really a long day. We left at 9 a.m. and we got home around 6 so basically 9 to 6, and we sort of spent an hour each way but the [DOC] actually set up the bus so we had a bus to get both ways.”

GG: What was your first impression?

KP: “Certain facilities are almost like a century old and they are, even if they’re not unsafe, even if they maybe were, they were perceived to be safe in the past, they’re certainly not, they’re not really set up to succeed, I think, on a lot of safety measures. You have, and the Department of Correction would say that, there’s some facilities that are old and the materials they used could be used, they don’t have modern materials in some of the cells, in some of the facilities that are, that would make it easier to protect the inmates, not being able to be transformed into weapons, things like that.

“And the second is that, a new facility would seem to lend itself to set up so that you could actually have less direct contact between staff and inmates, especially the very violent ones. And the other thing is that you go into a cell and you see how ridiculously small and lacking a cell is, especially particular cells we saw. It’s incredible to think that you have to spend your entire life for some period of time in one of these cells because they’re tiny and they’re not modern...it depends on where you are but there are jails that go back to the 1930s, so you’re in something that was built before World War II. It’s incredible.

“So it’s shocking, it’s really shocking. When you talk to the inmates directly, some of them are really candid, they didn’t really hide why they were there. They speak openly about what they did to end up in Rikers but also end up in a unit where, what the situation was that caused them to go into a unit with additional security.

“You know getting there and getting into the facility, the time it would take to do a whole trip there and see a loved one, that takes an entire day out of your life. And second, once you’re in there, you can see how these are really not, these are really meant to be upgraded, modernized and put closer to home.”

GG: At any point did you lock yourself in a cell to see how it feels

KP: “We went into one cell...I actually asked them to open one up…[O]ne of the most fascinating points was when Elias [Husamudeen] from the correction officers union and Stanley Richards had a kind of impromptu back and forth about solitary confinement. The argument is that corrections officers want to see solitary, punitive segregation as they call it, restored for inmates that are under the age of 21, believing that they’re still a risk...not having them in solitary, a policy the city took a few years ago to end it.

“So his argument is that it’s basically just the same thing as being in a regular cell, and so all you’re doing is having less hours outside of your cell, it’s not a dungeon or anything. So I actually asked them to open one up so I can walk in and see what it would feel like to be inside of a cell for like a minute, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone to be in there for 23 hours a day. We can always talk about ways to keep it more secure but I don’t think, an average stay on Rikers is 60 days and solitary is less than that but any period of time to be in a cell for 23 hours, that seems beyond reason, I think anybody would agree with that.”

GG: How did it feel? Claustrophobic?

KP: “The one I was in was small, I saw other ones that would be claustrophobic and almost impossible to believe that you could stay within your own senses. They were tiny and they were old and they, you know, they’re meant to be jail cells, I mean they’re meant to be restrictive. They’re claustrophobic...you feel your lack of freedom while you’re in there.”

GG: You said you spoke with inmates. What did they feel about the jail? Did anyone talk about what they wanted? About what they felt the jail was like?

KP: “We talked to a few. We went to the high school and we saw some that are getting ready to take the TASC [Test Assessing Secondary Completion] test, which is the new GRE, and were taking actually a sample test, so we talked to them a little about what they were doing. I gotta say, the teacher that was in that classroom won, I think, an award last year for being one of the best teachers in New York City. She seemed fantastic.

“I think they were just reading ‘The Alienist’ and she seemed to really challenge them, but the challenge in that setting is that they can be only there for 100 days or a year and so it’s only a moment in time where they’re getting a particular education. We talked to them a bit..Then we went to the unit where we really talked about what got them in and, you know, look there was a sense of frustration. We had certainly some complaints about process-related stuff, about them believing that they were supposed to get a hearing and that the hearings weren’t getting recorded...wasn’t being recorded correctly. Two of them told us that they received notice that they had refused a hearing and they hadn’t. So there were a lot of process related complaints.

“One of them talked about an altercation that he had with a corrections officer where he admitted that he got in a fight with a corrections officer and instigated it, well, was part of the instigation of it. A lot of it was about the relationship between the staff and the inmates...But I think we all understood that I think almost anybody in a restrictive climate would feel restricted and then thereby would have complaints about those who they have to deal with on a daily basis. You know a lot of it was talking about why they got in, particularly what got them in a specific unit, and then a lot of it was about process of getting a hearing, but acknowledging they had an audience and they knew we were City Council members and that this was an opportunity to raise any points that they wanted to.”

GG: Did you talk to any of the guards?

KP: “We talked to a lot of them. I will certainly tell you two things. One is, we met with a lot of guards, we met with wardens, deputy wardens, we met with corrections officers, we met with people working in the mental health unit. We met with one of them in the mental health unit who I would say demonstrated to me a real compassion and care, he was deputy warden, I think, in that unit, been there for like 30 years. Elias told me he retired and then unretired and really seemed to care.

“I thought the staff was, I thought they were really impressive. They were smart, they had a real care for the job, the ones we met at least. They really had a deep knowledge, not beyond just the job they do but more like the whole ecosystem around Rikers Island. We were there briefly for a security incident where they actually put the vests on and there was light that was going off, and we talked a lot about security and safety in there.

“Look, they have a really, really, really tough job and I was impressed by a lot of the staff that we met and their commitment to the job but recognizing that they would all tell you how difficult it can be and how safety and security is the top priority for them, not just themselves but for the inmates as well, the inmate-on-inmate violence and keeping people safe.

“I’m recognizing that there are people on that island who are not even guilty, who potentially could not be found guilty... so there’s a lot of different constituencies...in any building on the whole island. So we talked to a lot of staff and they were knowledgeable and they were smart and had a care for the job. But none of them would tell you it’s an easy job or that they feel safe at all moments.”

GG: Has it pushed you on wanting to move on one specific thing first? Has it changed your priorities at all?

KP: “Yeah it did. Number one is, it reaffirmed to me that we can build safer facilities and put people close to home and the proximity to your family and loved ones, the ability to have safer facilities and more modernized facilities and the ability for people to come and get there much easier is all worth it. It’s all worth what we’ve been talking about all along. The Close Rikers campaign was grounded in people’s real experiences, it was not just an ideological goal. People had come to this with real concerns.

“The second part of it is, I think we want to look at safety and security protocols in two ways. This opened my eyes. One is the procedures ongoing about keeping the people that work there safe in light of the incident a few weeks ago [where a guard was attacked] and in light of the things that we talked about. I think I would like to have a hearing at some point on the safety and security of everybody who works there and ways we can improve it. And second is, we were already planning on talking about contraband, but my visit to the visitors center, or the welcome center where you first walk in, did highlight for myself and some members the idea that it seems to me we could be doing more around preventing people from getting contraband into the prison.

“We asked a number of questions about packages and people that are entering into the jail and I think we still have a lot unanswered questions about safety of the inmates and security based on who and what is coming onto the island. So I think a hearing on two safety items - you know the people that work in the facility and people who work in the jails and two is the contraband.

“And the third one I think is grounded in conversations I had...today with [Board of Corrections] members but also based on being there, which is health services on the island and ensuring that we’re providing appropriate medical services to people on that island who really need it. And we didn’t get to go to the women’s facility but I think in that facility particularly there’s probably a lot of services that are required. So I think we should dive into health care on the island and connected to the island as well.”

GG: What do you think about what’s happening with the Bronx jail site proposal?

KP: “I think that, when the announcement was made and that was obviously the newest jail, while the other ones had been discussed and previewed in the past, and they’re based on existing sites, this is a totally new one. So it’s not totally surprising to me that there are a lot of questions that are coming from the community and that we end up talking about concerns.

“I think that there is a way that we can work with the community and the elected officials there to find something or find some compromise, or some way to work to site it there. I think that everybody understands the need and the importance of having the borough-based facilities and the fact that the Bronx would be one of them. But the elected officials that represent that area or nearby...found out about it from a press conference and were concerned about it. I think every community, every elected official wants to find out well in advance, at least have an opportunity to talk to the community about it.

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that it’s caused a conversation about location and the siting of it but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get to a place where all communities that are receiving new sites will be comfortable with them and will find the appropriate balance between their needs and the needs of the city.”

GG: Do you think Rikers will be shut down in less than 10 years?

KP: “Yes, I do. I do and I think that there’s two points that matter here. One is, we’re now on the land use, siting, and design process part of it -- which is, we’ve actually put us on a timeline on the process...if they certify the ULURP in November or December, which is what I think they’re expecting to do, and then they go through the ULURP. Then that’s a year or so by which they’re sited. That’s the good news. That was the importance of doing this now, to actually get that year of process out...I think we’re ahead of the ten-year schedule and we’re gonna be moving faster. And if we can get some reforms in Albany like speedy trials and bail reform and design-build...I think we move even faster than expected.”

[Related: Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site]

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Now Overseeing Closure, Council Member Makes First Visit to Rikers Tue, 06 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7419-new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7419-new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates City Council Speaker Corey Johnson members

Members of th new City Council with Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The new class of the New York City Council took greater shape on Thursday with the appointment of chairs and members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees that oversee the broad legislative, land use, and oversight roles of the 51-member body. Most returning Council members were reassigned to lead different committees while some remained in the positions they’ve served the past four years. New Speaker Corey Johnson also chose to create a few new committees to boost staff levels in certain areas and to better address specific issues that were subsumed under broader committee purviews.

In their new roles, many of the committee chairs will have to navigate a slate of issues, which in many cases will likely lead them into direct confrontation with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. This holds particularly true for the powerful land use and finance committees, both of which have new Council members at the helm. Speaker Johnson has also pledged broader independence from the mayor than his predecessor, indicating that members will be allowed, and even encouraged, to take the administration to task. He has pledged an enhanced oversight and investigations committee to lead the way in that regard.

Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. of the Bronx was appointed chair of the land use committee, which is tasked with overseeing and reviewing land use applications, zoning amendment,s and landmark preservation in the city. Since the committee has the final say on any development projects that require city government approval, it plays a prominent role in determining the success of the mayor’s affordable housing program, in particular thus far by approving comprehensive, and controversial, neighborhood rezonings in communities such as East New York and East Harlem.

The city is exploring similar rezonings -- to create more affordable housing while also injecting economic energy and other benefits into neighborhoods -- in the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and Flushing, Queens, among other communities. “Our city is at a crossroads, including my community in the South Bronx,” Salamanca said in a statement Thursday. The City Council, he said, “should be on the front lines on shaping the planning, development and all other land use actions in a way that listens to and addresses the concerns of all New Yorkers.” Freshman Council Member Francisco Moya is heading up the subcommittee on zoning and franchises which falls under Salamanca’s purview.

The finance committee, led by its new chair Council Member Daniel Dromm of Queens, also has a tough task ahead as it heads into budget season. Dromm will lead the Council’s negotiations with the administration over the $86 billion-plus city budget. The mayor is expected to release his fiscal year 2019 preliminary budget proposal later this month and the administration has been bracing for cuts in federal funding, threatened by the Trump administration, and a widely expected economic slowdown after years of continuous growth.

Last year, the Council advocated for increased savings and reduced agency inefficiencies even as they called for new funding for Council priorities. “I intend to use this position to move a progressive budget forward working closely with Speaker Corey Johnson who I thank for giving me this opportunity to serve,” Dromm said in a statement.

The Council’s budget hearings will no doubt also touch on the city’s $96 billion capital budget. Numerous Council members called last year for increased transparency in how capital projects are funded and managed, insisting that the city needs to reduce financial waste and cut down on project delays.
Johnson has now gone so far as to create an entirely new subcommittee to oversee the capital budget, chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson. “Many members, including myself, have been frustrated by the capital process itself,” Gibson told Gotham Gazette outside the Council chambers on Thursday. She said the new committee will allow expanded oversight of capital spending, particularly by individual city agencies. “At the end of the day, we just wanna say to the public, to New Yorkers and to all of my colleagues that we are spending your money wisely,” she said.

The transportation committee continues to be led by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the Move New York congestion pricing plan, which would impose tolls on the East River bridges to raise funds for mass transit infrastructure and reduced fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, while also lowering tolls on other bridges.

De Blasio has opposed both congestion pricing and the “Fair Fares” campaign, insisting that fair fares should be funded by the state and that congestion pricing is a “regressive tax” that hurts outer borough commuters. He has instead proposed a so-called millionaires tax, which Rodriguez also supports, that would accomplish both goals - subsidized MetroCards and new transit revenue. However, like congestion pricing, the tax would have to be approved by the state Legislature where it has already been rejected by Governor Cuomo and the state Senate, portending perhaps that the fair fares fight will be fought locally yet again. Cuomo appears on the verge of pursuing some version of congestion pricing.

In keeping with Johnson’s promise to stand up to the de Blasio administration, the Council now has an expanded Oversight and Investigations committee, led by Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. The committee is expected to have a full-time investigation staff made up of professional investigators, former prosecutors, and journalists. In an interview with the New York Times, Torres indicated a number of different issue areas he would approach for added oversight. “The abuse of placards. The use of eminent domain. The disposition of public land. Deed restriction. The disbursement of city subsidies. All of it is on the table,” he said.

On Thursday, Torres told Gotham Gazette that the New York City Housing Authority’s lead contamination issue, which has been a black eye for the de Blasio administration, was a “continuing concern” for him. “I have not set the investigative priorities of the committee just yet, but given my former position as chairman of the public housing committee, given my interest in the subject, NYCHA is going to be figuring prominently in my oversight priorities,” he said.

Torres’ role will crossover with the work of other committees, such as the Committee on Public Housing, which he led last term and will this term be led by Brooklyn Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. The public housing authority needs $25 billion for infrastructure improvements, with few forthcoming state and federal funds this year. The authority’s numerous public failures continue to haunt the administration and invite criticism from the Council and community activists. And although the city has put a NYCHA overhaul plan into motion and seen some successes and promising developments, problems are not likely to abate any time soon.

“As chair, I will ensure that critical issues are addressed, from heat, to lead, to security issues,” Ampry-Samuel said in a statement. “I look forward to visiting every housing development in the city and the opportunity to hear from the residents and the resident leaders.”

Johnson also chose to expand the role the Council plays in scrutinizing the city’s criminal justice system. Council Member Rory Lancman of Queens was chosen to lead the newly formed Committee on the Justice System, which has oversight of city courts, district attorneys, legal service providers and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers will be heading the Committee on Criminal Justice, which has oversight of the Department of Correction and Department of Probation. Both committees will play a prominent part in the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, which is contingent on reducing the city’s jail population to less than 5,000 -- it is currently just under 9,000 detainees -- while also creating borough-based jail facilities. Lancman told Gotham Gazette he expects to “aggressively oversee and try to reform” the city’s justice system. “You’ll see a very robust agenda coming out of my committee,” he said.

Lancman and Powers’ committees were carved out of the earlier Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which Lancman led last term. Powers, who is new to the Council like Ampry-Samuel and others, said that move “recognizes that Rikers Island and the corrections system is really its own issue that needs to be tackled in the next coming years.”

“There are a lot of thorny issues,” Powers said of the closure of Rikers, “and I think a big part of it is really making sure that we put on the right timeline and that we make sure we manage all the different constituencies that are involved here.”

New York City Health + Hospitals, the cash-strapped municipal hospital system, continues to be a big area of concern for the Council and in particular Johnson, who led the health committee for the last four years. Johnson created a separate Committee on Hospitals to oversee the system, appointing new Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera as chair.

Council Member Mark Levine, chosen to be the new health committee chair, noted a number of issues he will address, including the opioid crisis, racial disparities in health outcomes, animal rights and the threat of bioterrorism. He has promised to push for a single payer healthcare system in the city -- a priority for the speaker -- and told Gotham Gazette he expects “there will be times when the Council and the administration are on different sides of an issue,” and that its incumbent on members to advocate for the Council’s priorities. “That’s the job of a good committee chair,” he said.

See the full list of new Council leadership, committee chairs, and committee members.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates Thu, 11 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7127-a-rarity-city-council-candidate-releases-detailed-reform-agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7127-a-rarity-city-council-candidate-releases-detailed-reform-agenda powers petitioning stuytown keithpowersnyc

City Council candidate Keith Powers (photo: @KeithPowersNYC)


Candidates across the city this year are running for City Council on all sorts of issues, but only one has released a detailed list of government, campaign finance, and voting reform proposals. That agenda, called “Sunlight in the City,” has been put forward by Keith Powers, a Democrat competing in the crowded field to replace term-limited City Council Member Dan Garodnick on Manhattan’s East Side.

At a time of widespread distrust in government, continued problems with public corruption and unethical conduct, and low voter turnout, especially here in New York, Powers’ agenda is especially noteworthy. The 22-point platform on government and electoral reform in New York City is something of an amalgamation of longtime goals for voting reform advocates and good government groups. Some of the measures have actually already been passed or implemented; some have to be approved at the state level.

Powers’ reform agenda also comes as he is has been attacked by opponents for his work as a lobbyist -- he was until May a vice president at the firm Constantinople and Vallone. Sunlight in the City includes several planks directly related to lobbying, including more disclosure of lobbying meetings held by City Council members and more detailed lobbyist reporting to indicate, among other things, “who got lobbied, who did the lobbying, and the specific bill or subject matter.”

Some of the mainstay priorities of electoral and government reform advocates that appear in Powers’ platform include a move to instant runoff voting for all city elections and lowering the number of City Council issue committees to diminish patronage and redundancy in the legislative body. These planks have been proposed in the Council and, in the case of instant runoff voting, at the state level, but have gone nowhere.

Powers also calls for lowering the individual contribution limit to Council candidates campaigns from $2,750 to $1,225, “to make small donors and large donors equal in their donation capacity.” Ideally, his agenda says, he wants to see 100% publicly financed elections in the city to replace the city’s current matching funds mechanism, starting with a pilot program for special elections. Kallos introduced a bill to increase the matching funds payout for Council races “to a full match with the expenditure limit,” which is currently in committee.

A few planks in the platform are already in place, such as the closure of the “doing business loophole” that allows those doing business with the city to circumvent donation limits by giving to political nonprofits. The loophole was closed in a bill passed by the Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2016, after the mayor himself was investigated for issues related to his own political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, which was shuttered amid controversy.

“I think it’s important we’re always sort of constantly evaluating our process by which we do government or help get people elected or otherwise,” Powers said in an interview, “we can always do better.” He indicated he believes the City Council is, in most cases, a model for transparent government, but that there’s still more that can be done.

In part because of his reform agenda, Powers has received the endorsement of City Council Member Ben Kallos, himself an advocate of open and ethical government and the representative of a neighboring Council district to the one Powers hopes to represent. Kallos also chairs the Council’s government operations committee, which often hears bills related to government and campaign finance reform.

“In terms of his Sunlight in the City report, it is a list of the 22 items that the City Council is currently working on or should be working on to really clean up government,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Kallos said that he hasn’t seen anything like it from anyone running this year.

While few City Council candidates are talking about government and campaign finance reform, Democratic mayoral hopeful Sal Albanese has made the topic central to his attempt to unseat de Blasio. Albanese has proposed a significant campaign finance reform to completely eliminate private money from the system, something de Blasio has said he favors in theory, but has not advanced legislation on.

Powers acknowledges the difficulties in getting some things on his list passed, but said that shouldn’t be a reason to not try.

“I think the City Council reform, I think that is the one where I look at as there being a lot of really achievable ideas in there,” said Powers, citing the creation of an independent bill drafting unit as something that many legislators are clamoring for, despite the existence of such a unit. The unit was part of a package of Council reforms passed in 2014, but Powers believes that these reforms can go further; regarding the drafting unit, Powers believes the current iteration is an improvement, but that it should be even more autonomous in instances such as the number of bills that can be introduced at a given time.

Another Council reform Powers sees as achievable deals with bill aging. Currently, a bill ages seven days after introduction for public input, but Powers claims that it just sits in City Hall and is essentially unavailable to the public. He believes it should publicly age online.

Powers said that the challenge of moving some of the reforms through the state government shouldn’t be a deterrent, that the city shouldn’t be “abdicating our authority to Albany.” Kallos said that the voting reform planks, other than ending patronage at the Board of Elections, don’t have to go through the state Legislature. Many of the other planks need city passage, some can be done through City Council rules.

On closing doing business loophole, which already became law, Powers conceded to have not known the full extent of the legislative package that was passed. He also was largely nonspecific on his proposed additions to the 2014 member item reform, stating that there’s a lot to look at where the Council can “do better.”

The Powers agenda received an enthusiastic response from democratic reform group Citizens Union, which interviews candidates and releases preferences in some city elections based on good government bona fides.

“Keith Powers has put forward an ambitious and wide-ranging plan to increase transparency and accountability, and bring some needed sunlight to the New York City Council. While we do not support all of his proposed reforms, Citizens Union has long been advocating for several of them and will continue to do so in the upcoming session,” said Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s Public Policy director.

For example, Citizens Union is not in support of the full public financing of city elections plank of Powers’ platform -- the organization “feel[s] that candidates should have to raise money in the districts they seek to represent,” Bloom said. However, it is supportive of Powers’ proposed pilot program in special elections. The organization has not yet made its preference in the Council District 4 race or any other.

In the Democratic primary to be voted on September 12, Powers is competing against Marti Speranza, Jeff Mailman, Bessie Schachter, Maria Castro, Vanessa Aronson, Barry Shapiro, Rachel Honig, and Alec Hartman, none of whom have released government reform platforms, though Shapiro called for transparency in lobbying in a campaign video.

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

 

The Citizens Union candidate interview and preference process is wholly separate from Gotham Gazette operations. Gotham Gazette does not endorse or support candidates for office.

]]>
A Rarity: City Council Candidate Releases Detailed Reform Agenda Mon, 14 Aug 2017 20:28:30 +0000