Gotham Gazette Wed, 05 Aug 2020 13:46:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Public Advocate's Office, Law Department, Ranked-Choice Voting charter2019nyc pub adv

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)

Three former New York City Public Advocates argued for strengthening the powers of the office. Former and current Law Department officials defended the agency’s independence. Experts on city government argued for and against expanding the powers of non-mayoral elected officials. And a Board of Elections official detailed the logistics of implementing ranked-choice voting in New York City.

Those were the broad themes of a Monday night hearing held at the City Council chambers by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, which is tasked with examining the powers and functions of city government with the aim of improving them. The commission, whose members are appointed by a variety of the city’s elected officials, will put forth proposals to change the city’s constitution that will go before voters this November.

Monday’s was one in a series of “expert hearings” being held by the commission as it considers specifics within its previously outlined focus areas. Before Monday, expert hearings had been held on police accountability, election reforms, city budgeting and contracting, and conflicts of interest and a proposal to create a chief diversity officer across city government.

Strengthening the Public Advocate
Among the ideas the commission is considering is giving more authority to the public advocate -- or to eliminate the office entirely if not -- and three of the four former officeholders were at the hearing to defend the role of the city’s ombudsperson. They included Mark Green, Betsy Gotbaum and Letitia James, who held the position before being elected attorney general last year. James was also one of the original sponsors, along with Borough President Gale Brewer, of the legislation that created the charter commission.

The only former public advocate not in attendance was Mayor Bill de Blasio. City Council Member Jumaane Williams is currently public advocate-elect after winning the February special election. He’ll take office soon. The public advocate is the city’s watchdog and ombudsperson, one of just three citywide elected officials and first in line to the mayor if the city’s chief executive is unable to finish his or her term.

James, Gotbaum, and Green all defended the responsibilities of the office they once held, and called for giving the public advocate greater authority. James pushed for subpoena power for the office and for the statutory ability to bring lawsuits against city agencies on behalf of New Yorkers, an issue she pursued after using litigation to mixed effect against the de Blasio administration. She called on the commission to “finally fulfill the promise of a fully empowered people’s watchdog.”

All three also argued for an independent budget for the public advocate, where it would receive a certain percentage of the city’s overall budget or financing based on some other statistical model, removing its reliance on the mayor’s whims. The office receives about $3.6 million in funding for the current fiscal year. Though de Blasio, a former public advocate himself, has increased the office’s budget and is proposed another small increase for next fiscal year, previous mayors have not been so generous. “It was this constant dance and constant fight,” said Gotbaum, now the executive director of government reform organization Citizens Union, of her fight for greater funding under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “That’s just unnecessary.”

Green was the only one to suggest a number: at least $6 million to carry out the office’s duties. “It is wrong and foolish that if an office does its job, it loses its job because of a mayor who is politically or personally antagonistic,” he said.

He also urged the commission to finally put to rest the idea that the public advocate should be eliminated, a suggestion that was even put into legislation by a few City Council members earlier this year.

Though the commission seemed open to the former public advocates’ ideas, Commissioner Sal Albanese, a former City Council member and three-time mayoral candidate, repeatedly asked them to justify the office’s existence, citing anecdotal evidence that people believe it is a wasteful use of taxpayer money. He insisted that City Council members can perform the same duties and that the public advocate was a “vestigial” institution in the city’s political system.

Naturally, the three former public advocates pushed back. James cited the thousands of complaints she fielded and resolved for New Yorkers, and the bills she introduced that were passed into law -- more than all public advocates before her combined, as she is fond of noting. Green cited the office’s push for the creation of the city’s 311 helpline, among other successes, saying it was “spurious and silly” to consider scrapping the office altogether.

James and Gotbaum also advocated for giving the public advocate the power to appoint members to other watchdog agencies such as the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Conflicts of Interest Board, and the Human Rights Commission. “Putting more public officials on those committees would at least get a better balance of interests on those committees so that the mayor isn’t so, so powerful,” Gotbaum said.

Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College who has worked with previous charter commissions, did later agree with Albanese that the public advocate’s office has been ill-defined since it was created by a 1989 charter revision commission that drastically changed the structure of city government -- the last major overhaul to the city’s governing document and structure. “It derives from the ambiguity of the position,” Muzzio said during his testimony. “It was never decided what the purpose of the body was...All the reforms are random decorations on the christmas tree. They’re not integrated into a purpose that is coherent, logical, and adequately funded.”

Conflicts at the Law Department
In its recommendations to the charter commission, the City Council raised questions about the corporation counsel, the city’s top lawyer and a mayoral appointee, and the Law Department, specifically wondering who the agency represents if there are internecine disagreements in city government. The Council has in the last year sued the city to block a development project on the East River waterfront and even filed a lawsuit against the corporation counsel, arguing for the ability to file amicus briefs in court.

At the hearing, former corporation counsel Victor Kovner and Karen Griffin, senior counsel at the Law Department, defended how the department functions and attempted to clarify how legal decisions are made. Both urged caution and insisted that any attempts to interfere in the powers of the corporation counsel, including imposing term limits as some have suggested, would undermine the office’s independence.

“It would undermine the independence of that office at great cost to the city,” Kovner said.

“Ultimately, the charter gives the corp counsel the authority to make final decisions about what’s in the best interest of city,” Griffin said.

Though Griffin did not take a position on whether the City Council should be given “advise and consent” authority in the selection of the corporation counsel, as the Council has called for, Kovner rejected the proposal, again citing the office’s independent reputation. “I think it’s a great mistake...Leave it. It’s working well,” he said.

Griffin also explained that when conflicts arise in the Law Department’s representation of a city official against another, the agency would “independently decide which position is legally correct.” And, in cases involving the mayor facing off against the City Council, the department sides with the mayor as the appointing authority, which could change if advise and consent is approved as a policy. Otherwise, in those circumstances, the Council has called on the charter commission to consider mandating that the Law Department provide funding for outside counsel for all other non-mayoral elected officials.

Muzzio later suggested that the city do away with the corporation counsel and create the position of city attorney, similar to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Balance of Power
The commissioners questioned the third panel of experts -- Muzzio and Stanley Brezenoff, a veteran of decades of city government service who recently retired after holding several positions under de Blasio -- on improving the balance of power in city government, which heavily favors the mayor.

“Is there anything that either of you envision that a body like this could do to provide for a meaningful voice…to the borough executives without disrupting [the] strong mayoral formula?” asked Commissioner Stephen Fiala.

Muzzio suggested that the power of borough presidents could be enhanced through independent budgeting and by giving them a greater voice in the city’s land use approval process.

“We don’t have a government, fortunately, that is simply a top government and a bottom government. We have an intermediate government that can recognize the needs and desires of boroughs and at the same time work within a citywide paradigm,” he said. “This is a supplemental power, it’s not revolutionary. It’s not going to change the basic strong mayor structure of city government.”

He similarly argued that the City Council’s authority could be strengthened in various ways without undermining the mayor.

But Brezenoff warned of diluting the power of the mayor or the Office of Management and Budget, which sets funding levels for the borough presidents. “This surgical approach to governmental structure is hard stuff,” he said. Brezenoff also did not seem to agree with the idea that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) should have set timelines under the charter. “This is a very difficult balancing act. I would just urge care,” he said. (ULURP will be one focus of Thursday’s expert hearing.)

Ranked Choice Voting and Special Elections
Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, was the final panellist to testify before the commission on Monday. Ryan primarily urged the commission to consider a change in the charter’s provisions on special elections, pointing to the recent one held for public advocate in February.

Currently, the charter requires that the mayor declare a special election, after a vacancy, to be held within 45 days. That short timeline, he said, precludes the BOE from being able to send out ballots in time, particularly military ballots, and also prevents candidates or voters from successfully challenging ballot petition decisions in court. It will also mean that once Council Member Jumaane Williams, now the public advocate-elect, resigns his Council seat, another special election will have to be held within just six weeks, instead of waiting for the already-scheduled election days this year, which are for a June primary and November general election.

Ryan said the commission should consider bringing the “glaring inconsistency” in the city’s special elections in line with timelines set for state special elections -- elections take place between 70 and 80 days after the governor’s proclamation. That would also be particularly necessary once the city begins to implement early voting for elections under a new state law, he said. “The more predictability that people have in the conduct of elections, the better off we’re all gonna be,” he said.

Asked about ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, Ryan said the BOE did not have an official position. A charter commission convened by the mayor last year declined to formally take up the issue, citing a lack of sufficient time to explore its pros and cons.

At the hearing. Ryan did lay out the prerequisites for implementing ranked-choice voting from his perspective. He said the BOE’s vendor of election systems would be able to implement it with its current mechanisms, though with duplicative counting required by the agency, and that a more automatic process would require more time to upgrade software. “Until we know what the rules are and what the expectation is, the algorithm can’t be determined,” he said of the ranked-choice formula that voting machines would have to use. [Read more about ranked-choice voting]

He did point out that the state BOE would have to approve any changes passed by the city, though he doubted it would face any opposition since it would be limited to New York City alone. “I can’t imagine a scenario where the state would say no,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Public Advocate's Office, Law Department, Ranked-Choice Voting Tue, 19 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Law Department Issues Warning as Community Boards Consider Charter Commission's Term Limits Proposal Mayor town hall

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

One of three questions placed on this year’s general election ballot by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission would, if approved by voters, impose term limits on community board members. Though the proposal has left many community board members fuming about the potential impact, the city’s Law Department has sought to remind the boards that they cannot pass official resolutions taking a position on a ballot question.

In a September 13 memo sent to the director of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, Marco Carrion (who was also a commissioner on the charter revision commission), and circulated to the city’s 59 community boards a week later, officials from de Blasio's Law Department emphasized that boards may be tempted to speak out for or against the ballot question but must maintain neutrality.

“It is unlawful and inappropriate for a community board, acting as a community board, to take a position in favor of or against a Charter Revision Commission proposal,” reads the memo, signed by Stephen Louis, chief of the Division of Legal Counsel, and Stephen Goulden, senior counsel in the division.

The ballot proposal, approved earlier this month, would create staggered term limits for community board members and impose reforms to the appointment and recruiting process in order to diversify membership. Community boards are made up of about 50 members each, half of whom are nominated by City Council members, and are appointed by the borough presidents for two-year terms. There is no limit currently on how many terms a member may serve and some have served for decades on their local boards, leading many to testify before the mayor’s commission about the need for change.

At the same time, the commission’s proposal was met with much consternation from community board members who fear term limits could lead to brain drain, a loss of talent, and engaged members who they believe act in the best interests of their communities. Of the five borough presidents, only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams was in favor of the ballot proposal.

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

“I don’t think the city got a real representation of how community boards feel about this,” said Brian Kaszuba, a member of Community Board 10 in Brooklyn, who said the memo would deprive boards of an important voice in the process. Kaszuba noted that many of the commission’s hearings were held over the summer when community boards were on hiatus and that the ballot proposals were advanced without boards having enough time to discuss and take a position on them.

A law department spokesperson denied that the memo silences or weakens community boards, noting that the guidance that was issued is a refresher on long-standing policy based on case law. “Court decisions on this subject largely rely on the New York State Constitution’s prohibition of the ‘gift’ of public funds,” the memo reads.

The guidance also does not preclude community board members from speaking out in a personal capacity, as long as they do not use community board personnel or resources to do so. A community board -- which can educate but not advocate, according to the Law Department -- could still feasibly hold a forum or discussion on one or more ballot questions, for instance, but could not push the public to vote for or against.

Kaszuba conceded that it may be inappropriate to use a board’s funds or other resources for partisan campaigning, but was unconvinced that resolutions could constitute a “gift” of public funds. “None of the case law is on point with regards to passage of resolutions,” he said. “Many community boards are in the dark about exactly what this means.”

The Law Department spokesperson did say that the department may issue further guidance for clarity.

Notably, such a memo was not sent out last year before a question was presented in November to voters statewide on whether to establish a constitutional convention to revise the state constitution (a proposal that de Blasio opposed). At least one community board, CB 7 in Queens, passed a resolution opposing the question, which would seem to be a violation of the Law Department guidance. CB 7 also passed a resolution, three days before the Law Department memo was disseminated last week, coming out against the charter commission’s ballot proposal. The Law Department spokesperson, however, could not say what penalty that would invite.

“Community boards and their members ought to have the ability to weigh in on the proposal,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group. “That’s part of democracy. Their voice should be heard on a matter that impacts them directly.”

Camarda, though, noted that he personally witnessed a significant amount of testimony given to the charter commission regarding community boards. “There was a substantial group of people who were interested in the issue and weighed in on both sides,” he said. “If a community board missed out on an opportunity to weigh in, I think they weren’t paying attention.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Law Department Issues Warning as Community Boards Consider Charter Commission's Term Limits Proposal Wed, 26 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Law Department Budget Hearing Focuses on De Blasio Administration Legal Defense de blasio aides courtyard

Mayor de Blasio & aides in a courtyard (photo: Mayor's Office on flickr)

The investigations into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration have cost the city $10.5 million in outside legal defense spending so far, and might cost millions more, said Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter at a City Council preliminary budget hearing on Monday.

Carter, who heads the city’s Law Department, testified before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations that the state and federal investigations into the mayor and his aides necessitated the hiring of outside counsel. “The ongoing investigations are criminal in nature,” Carter told Council Member Ben Kallos, the committee chair, “and I know from my 40 years of experience in law enforcement that that is a…specialized area of practice that requires experience because of the delicacy of the judgments to be made.”

Carter noted that the investigations involve an area of practice “particularly sensitive to conflicts of interest” and dozens of witnesses, some of whom insisted on independent counsel, thus the hiring of at least 11 outside law firms for the legal defense.

He also estimated additional costs for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, but insisted they would not be substantial. “I don’t believe that it will be a large magnitude of expenditures,” he said, predicting that the investigations are winding down. Late last month, the mayor sat down with federal prosecutors for a four-hour interview, which many saw as a sign that the U.S. Attorney’s office was nearly done with its probe. The mayor also met with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office weeks prior to that. The mayor’s own legal fees are not being paid by taxpayers; he plans to set up a legal defense fund to pay the bills he has accrued.  

Carter could not provide an exact dollar amount for the expected costs as the investigations wrap up, but he said that there may be “an additional seven-figure expenditure” for the department.

Although the cost to the city to defend the mayor and his aides has been a source of significant criticism, it is a relatively small part of the Law Department’s proposed preliminary budget of $206.3 million for fiscal year 2018, which is down from $211.5 million in last year’s adopted budget. (In the November budget modification, the department’s outlay was revised to $220.3 million for the current fiscal year (2017).)

Council Member Kallos noted at the hearing that the city’s budget for judgements and claims resulting from lawsuits for fiscal year 2018 is $720 million, and projected to increase to $740 million by fiscal year 2021. It’s an issue Kallos has raised for years, pushing the administration to reduce the amount of money it budgets for lawsuits by instead rectifying problems that are sources of constant claims against the city.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has taken aim at the issue in two annual reports, the most recent released Feb. 10, that include a data-driven approach to reducing preventable lawsuits. For instance, Stringer’s report noted the five costliest personal injury claim categories that accounted for 78 percent of all personal injury settlements and judgments in fiscal year 2016: civil rights claims ($158.0 million), medical malpractice claims ($101.1 million), police action claims ($100.6 million), motor vehicle claims ($89.7 million), and sidewalk claims ($31.8 million).

In response to Kallos’ concerns, Carter noted that the department has a risk management unit that specifically advises the city on recurring themes in the types of claims made against employees and agencies. The department does not, however, create reports on that unit’s work with different agencies to mitigate risks.

“We’ve got his $720 million plan to pay out,” Kallos said. “How much can you and your unit reduce from our plan to payout from before?”

“I don’t believe that we can give a firm estimate on reduction,” Carter responded. “I think that it is fair to say that any time we provide feedback to agencies, in connection with these conditions, that it reduces the likelihood these conditions will recur, but I’m not in a position to quantify that with certainty.”

Carter also noted that “a handful” of large settlements from lawsuits spanning years can “distort” the judgements and claims budget, which has remained otherwise relatively level. For instance, per Stringer’s report, in fiscal year 2016 four settlements from old cases against the NYPD totalled $76.7 million or 27 percent of the $279.7 million payouts by the NYPD. The City paid out $629.5 million in total for claim settlements and judgments that year.

In 2016, Carter said, there were 32,640 claims filed against the city.

Kallos also made another push for performance budgeting, or tying the allocations for key initiatives and programs to quantifiable results.

[Related: Renewed Push for 'Performance Budgeting' Through Mayor's Management Report]

Carter was supportive of the idea. “I agree with you that we should use performance measures and we’re certainly willing to provide statistical information that actually presents an accurate picture of the progress being made to reduce judgements and claims,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Law Department Budget Hearing Focuses on De Blasio Administration Legal Defense Mon, 13 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Additional Information Means 'Ongoing Investigation' into Rivington Deal BdB holds paper hearing

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

A bureaucratic procedure gone wrong has turned out to be a major headache for Mayor Bill de Blasio that refuses to go away. Even after two recent and damning investigative reports, one city agency maintains its investigation is "ongoing" given newly turned over information and the state Attorney General is still looking into the matter.

The lifting of deed restrictions on Rivington House, a nursing home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which allowed the property owner to sell to a luxury condo developer at massive profit, has been scrutinized and criticized over the past several months. Mayor Bill de Blasio has admitted that his administration made a significant mistake, but there have been more questions than answers.

With allegations of impropriety swirling, de Blasio insisted that there was no inappropriate intent, only poor communication and an outdated deed restriction removal process. Two reports on the matter - one each from the city’s Department of Investigation and Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office - sought to answers some of the lingering questions and both painted a picture of City Hall mismanagement, though not criminality. A third investigation, by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, continues.

But while the DOI did release a report on the Rivington matter, that investigation featured condemnation of City Hall for redacting information and limiting access to computers. Now, after DOI threatened to sue and City Hall granted more access, DOI has indicated that it still has “an ongoing investigation,” according to a spokesperson for DOI, who declined to comment further.

The watchdog agency could issue a follow-up to its report given new information, which, it said in a press release upon receiving the unredacted documents, includes an essential de Blasio administration memo on the Rivington matter.

While DOI continues its Rivington investigation, the Comptroller’s office confirmed to Gotham Gazette that its report on the deal is final and that Comptroller Stringer has nothing else to add at this time.

The two reports mainly criticized City Hall for poor communication with city agencies and allowing the Rivington deal to go through without the proper checks and oversight that would have stopped such a transaction.

The DOI report, released July 14, found a stark absence of accountability in how the city deals with deed changes and a lack of vigilance among city officials who knew of the deal yet did little to ensure adequate public benefit. It stated that City Hall pleaded ignorance of the details despite having been informed at multiple occasions by agency subordinates.

The Comptroller’s report from August 1 was more pointed in assigning blame, stating that though the process could be improved, the problem largely stemmed from failure in execution and communication by city officials.

Both reports showed that First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris was not overseeing the related deliberations and processes with clarity, and no one from his office was reading reports that contained key information. Neither the DOI report nor Stringer’s report found that Mayor de Blasio was at fault or even aware of the deal.  

That the DOI should consider the matter still open is not surprising. Its report pointed out that it did not receive all the information and documents requested and that the Law Department denied access to computers at City Hall. DOI claimed that “a substantial number of documents” that it did receive were redacted by the Law Department. The report concluded, “Because DOI did not receive a full production of what it requested, it is unclear what Rivington-related information remains on the City Hall servers and computers, to which DOI was denied access.”

A tense back and forth followed, with Mayor de Blasio and the Law Department, led by Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter, at first denying claims that DOI’s investigation was hindered in any way. “There’s been a huge effort made by various elements of the administration to be cooperative and helpful to DOI and obviously the other entities that are investigating,” the mayor said following the release of the report.

“A huge amount of material was provided,” he said. “There was a lot of transparency. The Law Department has a job to do, to make sure things are done the right way. And there’s a natural institutional tension between the two agencies...I’m very convinced that everything was provided that was necessary, and clearly [DOI was] able to come up with a comprehensive report.”

The apparent attempts to obfuscate the investigation have been a separate but related source of criticism to the issues that led to the Rivington mishap, the likes of which de Blasio has pledged will never happen again. In part, he says, because all deed restriction lifts will go through the Mayor’s desk.

A week after DOI’s report, Inspector General Jodi Franzese wrote to Carter asking that the Law Department give them the information and access they were denied in the investigation. "DOI has the exclusive prerogative to determine how it conducts its investigations and what information is relevant to its investigations,” Franzese wrote. “Neither City Hall, Law, nor any other City agency or official is entitled to interfere or refuse to cooperate with a DOI investigation or determine what material is relevant to that investigation."

Five days later, under DOI’s threat of legal action, Carter released thousands of pages of documents and gave DOI access to City Hall computers. One of the crucial pieces of documentation to emerge was a July 2014 memo that showed city officials had reviewed the benefits and possible drawbacks of converting Rivington House to condominiums. (Carter had also redacted a deed restriction waiver for the Harlem Dance Theater in a separate transaction.)

The newly unredacted memo shows detailed consideration of the deed restriction removal and various options for the Rivington property, indicating a good deal of attention from administration officials about the situation. It is the type of deliberation that de Blasio had indicated did not go into the decision to lift the deed restrictions, which he assigned to miscommunication and bad process, which left a lack of scrutiny over whether lifting deed restrictions on any property advance the city's interests.

While DOI says the investigation continues, that does not necessarily mean that it will release additional findings, a new report, or an addendum to its prior report. A DOI spokesperson declined to give indication about what the public could anticipate may come from examination of new information.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, criticized the mayor and the Law Department about their cooperation - or lack thereof - with DOI, insisting that the response to the investigations was the “exact opposite” of what should have happened.

Zachary Carter’s obligation is to the people of New York City rather than the mayor, Dadey said, and that his actions came across as an attempt to protect de Blasio. “There are a lot of questions about this whole process and who is going to be held accountable for the mistakes that were made along the way,” Dadey told Gotham Gazette. “That the corporation counsel’s office now seems to have attempted to conceal needed information from the DOI raises even more questions about the integrity of this investigation and whether or not we will get to the truth about what happened.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

Additional Information Means 'Ongoing Investigation' into Rivington Deal Sun, 21 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Without Key Stakeholders, Administration Supports Council Police Misconduct Bill jumaane williams

Council Member Jumaane Williams (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations heard a bill on Tuesday, sponsored by Council Member Jumaane Williams, which would require centralized reporting of data on police misconduct from multiple agencies to identify systemic problems and help create an early intervention system for the NYPD. To the disappointment of Williams and others, though, key stakeholders to be affected by the bill and instrumental in implementing it if it becomes law, were not present to testify at the hearing.

The bill, Intro. 119, requires the Inspector General for the NYPD, whose office is part of the Department of Investigations, to provide a report every six months on cases of police misconduct, particularly civil cases filed against police officers, in order to develop systemic recommendations on training, disciplining and monitoring officers. Council Member Williams was a co-lead sponsor of the law creating the NYPD IG, which passed over a Mayor Michael Bloomberg veto in 2013.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the city’s Law Department testified in support of the bill, which has been through a number of revisions since it was first heard at the Council two years ago. At earlier hearings, Law Department representatives expressed concern that they lacked the necessary resources to provide the data required and that some of the information may be confidential under attorney-client privilege. The department represents employees of city agencies, including the NYPD, in civil and criminal litigation.

Thomas Giovanni, chief of staff and executive assistant for government policy at the Law Department, said the bill in its current form resolved those issues and “strikes an appropriate balance between the Law Department’s operational capability and its mandate to safeguard the attorney-client relationship with the desire of the public to know more about the performance of the city’s police officers.”

Other than the Law Department, there was no other testimony from the de Blasio administration or related entities. No one testified from the NYPD, the Department of Investigations, the NYPD inspector general’s office, the Civilian Complaints Review Board, or the Commission to Combat Police Corruption. Under the legislation, these agencies would coordinate to provide the required data. The absences of the IG and NYPD were particularly felt, considering the bill aims at reforming the police department and would be executed by the IG’s office.

“Certainly there were questions here that were relevant to the PD, the IG or the DOI, and those questions couldn’t be adequately asked or answered because they were absent,” Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee, told reporters after the hearing.

Council Member Williams also expressed disappointment that the IG and NYPD failed to show up at the hearing. “I think if they weren’t here, someone from the administration should’ve been here that can answer the questions as a whole because it does apply to more than just the law department,” he said after the hearing.

The Department of Investigation declined to comment for this article. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, an IG report that undermined the belief in aggressive policing of low-level offenses as preventative of felony crimes invited a sharp rebuke from the NYPD and led to an ensuing back-and-forth between the head of the DOI, Mark Peters, and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. One reporter asked Council Members Williams and Gentile if this might have been a reason behind the absences. “If there is a spat going on,” Gentile responded, “they shouldn’t hold our bill hostage as a result, so to speak. We’re gonna move forward in any regard. It would’ve just been a more complete hearing had they been here.”

(The same reporter, from Crain’s New York Business, said Council Member Rory Lancman, a member of the committee, told her after the hearing that the administration was “contemptuous” of the Council for not being there.)

Representatives from the Legal Aid Society and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also testified at the hearing. “This bill is an important first step in identifying patterns and trends of police misconduct and has the potential to improve both officer performance and police-community relations,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Unit in Criminal Practice. The two organizations also proposed amendments to the bill to make it more effective. These included expanding the data collected, specifying how civil action data can be used, and ensuring transparency in the collection and analysis of the data.

A concern brought up by Council Members Lancman and Helen Rosenthal was that the city should also collect and examine data on misconduct by precinct and geographical area. Law Department officials said this would be overly cumbersome and even possibly misleading in cases where police officers are assigned to different locations for specific events.

A second-order effect of the bill that emerged at the hearing is a reduction in the city’s expenditure on litigation arising from misconduct cases. Early in the hearing, Gentile cited Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allocation of $4.5 million to the Law Department to fight the increasing number of lawsuits against the NYPD, especially frivolous ones. The Law Department’s Giovanni stressed that this funding was meant for hiring more attorneys to deal with cases faster and more efficiently.

Later, in response to Gentile’s questioning, Giovanni said, “The more efficient information exchange we have, the more clear we are about trends, the more we know about what’s happening, I assume that hopefully more efficient our response will be, and ultimately that means cost savings. That’s the goal.” He estimated these savings would occur at least a year after the bill is approved.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Without Key Stakeholders, Administration Supports Council Police Misconduct Bill Tue, 28 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Government Operations Budget Hearing Leaves Several Questions Unanswered DCAS testimony May 13

DCAS testimony (photo: William Alatriste)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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