Gotham Gazette Wed, 17 Jul 2019 00:51:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) 400 Old and New Bills Introduced at City Council Johnson podium stated meeting

Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

After weeks of mostly procedural activity to start its new four-year term, the New York City Council convened Wednesday afternoon for its first legislation-focused 2018 meeting, which included discussion and reintroduction of bills from the previous session that had not passed, as well as the introduction of new bills.

Some of the 408 pieces of legislation reintroduced deal with tenant protection, zoning and scaffolding regulations, and a bill to prohibit people who have been found guilty of a specific set of felonies from holding office.

Following roughly five minutes of formalities, new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced that immigration activist Ravi Ragbir, who a federal judge ruled had been wrongfully detained by ICE on January 11, was in the chamber. Johnson called his detention “brutal” and “unjust;” Ragbir was greeted with a standing ovation from the majority of those in attendance. Earlier, activists and Council members gathered to support him at a press conference on the City Council steps. Two Council members, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams, had been arrested protesting Ragbir’s detainment.

Johnson then led the Council through its vote on legislation that had moved through committee, mostly land use items, outlining two Manhattan locations to be given property tax exemptions, one on West 28th Street, located in District 3, which he represents. “It’s going to create 37 units of supportive housing, which I am really happy about,” he said.

The other building proposed to be granted a property tax exemption is in District 1, represented by Council Member Margaret Chin, which aims to preserve 198 units of affordable housing in the Two Bridges neighborhood. In addition, Johnson briefly mentioned a rezoning along Bedford Avenue.

Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan’s Upper East Side re-introduced a pair of bills, Intro. 85 and 86, aimed at ensuring people who have had cases heard in housing court do not face discrimination from landlords. “[The bill] would require tenant screening companies who make these so-called “tenant blacklists” to provide fair and complete information. Landlords would no longer be able to discriminate against tenants,” he said. “No one should face homelessness suddenly because they’ve been to housing court.”

In a similar vein, Chin introduced a tenant protection measure of her own, Intro. 30. This bill, she said, would mandate that landlords, in the event that residents needed to be vacated, could not put relocation expenses on the city's dime. “We need to continue holding bad landlords accountable for their actions,” she said. “Or in this case, inaction.”

Kallos, who announced his wife is imminently due to give birth and that he is slated to begin paid parental leave until March, spoke about the importance of fathers taking their paid leave and re-introduced a bill designed to limit how long scaffolding could remain in place. “Some scaffolding is almost old enough to vote,” he quipped.

While not discussed during the session, one notable bill reintroduced this week was Intro. 374, which was sparked by former State Senator and former City Council Member Hiram Monserrate, who was convicted for domestic violence, launched an ultimately unsuccessful bid for City Council last summer, which was met with condemnation from elected officeholders and many others.

Asked about the scaffolding bill at a press conference after the Council session, Johnson said he is receptive to the idea of reducing the amount of time scaffolding remains in place, though he did not explicitly state his position on it. “We have to make sure the public is safe, while at the same time not allowing scaffolding to remain up longer than needs to,” he said.

“I don’t know enough about the nitty gritty on the bill itself, but there was an issue yesterday, I believe the Republican House did something to invalidate our scaffolding laws” he added, presumably referencing H.R. 3808, the Infrastructure Expansion Act, designed to undermine New York’s “Scaffold Law,” which is meant to protect workers by placing legal responsibility on property owners when they incur injuries. He went on to label scaffolding a “blight” and “eyesore.”

Johnson was asked about allegations related to Mayor de Blasio allowing a pay-to-play climate to fester in his government. “Every New Yorker, regardless of if you gave money to an elected official or you’re a random person that calls someone’s office or shows up outside City Hall, your local elected official should be responsive to you,” Johnson said.

Asked if mayor de Blasio acts in this spirit, Johnson said, “He says he does that.”

He added, “I don’t know what it’s like for any New Yorker who stops him on the street, but you have to make sure that government is responsive to everyone.”

Johnson was also asked to comment on NYCHA, which has come under fire in recent months for issues ranging from lead paint to malfunctioning boilers, the topic of a hearing set for Tuesday, February 6.

“I’m going to be there the whole time,” he said of the hearing. “Four hours, five hours, however long the meeting goes.”

The speaker had harsh words for management of the authority, but stopped short of calling for the chair, Shola Olatoye, to step down. The problems at NYCHA, he said, could not be blamed solely on Olatoye. “If she left tomorrow, the issues would still exist,” said Johnson.

“This is a long-term issue. It’s taken a lot of time for the neglect that NYCHA has faced to get in this situation,” he explained. “We’re not going to get all the money overnight, we’re not going to fix the developments overnight.”

To that end, Johnson vowed to use the city budget process to ensure NYCHA receives more funding.

400 Old and New Bills Introduced at City Council Thu, 01 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Protecting Immigrant Workers in the City of Immigrants nice immigrant protections

(photo: NICE)

Just last week, Juan Chonilla and another still unidentified worker died from construction accidents. These men were important members of our immigrant community. As one of the members of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), one of these men was family. These tragic deaths and severe injuries of multiple construction workers last week, on sites with safety violations, underscore the urgency for New York City to enact legislation that meets the needs of all workers.

The City Council is currently considering a bill, Intro. 1447-C, that would mandate increased safety training standards, and the Council has the opportunity to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the fact that we are talking about safety - and the very lives - of the city’s immigrant workers.

On any given day in New York City, there are thousands of immigrant construction workers seeking increased access to trainings for higher safety and health standards in their workplaces. These workers live under precarious and dangerous conditions every day due to their immigration status and work conditions. There are countless examples of bad-acting employers who use immigration status as a threat to workers, denying their rights to health, safety, and fair wages.

Organizations like NICE, a worker center and member of the New York Immigration Coalition,​ are often the only support these workers have. We are able to help workers get critical services such as health and safety trainings in their native language and help address other labor issues they face. Many of these workers come to us after they have already started working, only to discover health and safety violations at their worksites after receiving training.

The story of one of NICE’s members, Antonio, is the embodiment of the unique struggle of our city’s immigrant construction workers. Antonio and his two co-workers noticed a crack in the reinforcement of an excavation and informed their supervisor of the danger, as they had been trained to do. Their supervisor instructed them to begin work, and within minutes of beginning, the wall collapsed, trapping Antonio and another worker under crushing dirt and concrete. While the employer was busy locking the entrance to the site so no one could see, Antonio’s colleagues called 911 and recorded the incident on video. Antonio’s co-workers were subsequently fired for this act of solidarity and humanity.

Antonio’s story shows that construction workers are often the victims of blatantly negligent employers, who value their production over workers’ well-being. Workers like Antonio are not only deprived of safety on their jobs, but also of real protections and compensation after an accident. Their bad-acting employers face weak penalties and are able to continue construction projects that will inevitably put more workers at risk of injury or death.

Immigrant workers come to New York City with aspirations to support their families and build a better future, only to find that they are the target of unscrupulous employers, offered lower-wage work, and put in abusive and dangerous working conditions. If New York City is truly committed to its immigrant population, it cannot let these conditions continue on its watch. When workers like Antonio or Juan Chonillo are hurt or killed on the job, it is far from incidental. Accidents can be prevented when employers respect and adhere to the labor rights of their workers. We know from our experience that when an employer ignores health and safety laws, they will likely violate other labor laws; studies have shown this correlation.

This week, as the City Council considers Intro. 1447, we call on it to ensure that immigrant workers are able to obtain adequate safety training required by the bill. We furthermore call on the Council to develop stricter enforcement for safety protocols at constructions sites in the City in the future. The health, well-being and very lives of our members, our families, our neighbors are currently at stake. We need to make sure we are listening to their voices to develop solutions that protect them.

Manuel Castro is executive director of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). On Twitter @NICE4Workers.

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Protecting Immigrant Workers in the City of Immigrants Mon, 25 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Supporters Launch Renewed Push to Pass Plastic Bag Bill by Earth Day lander plastic bags

Council Member Lander & young people against plastic bags (photo: William Alatriste)

“Last year, we said bag fees by Earth Day,” Council Member Brad Lander told Gotham Gazette, shortly before an unrelated committee hearing at City Hall. “I’m saying it again. Bag fees by Earth Day.”

Even a year later, Lander is confident that the bill he is co-sponsoring with Council Member Margaret Chin to impose fees on single-use plastic and paper bags at grocery stores and bodegas will pass the Council by April 22, Earth Day. Lander, Chin, and their allies are making a renewed push to see the legislation pass, including making tweaks to the bill and gathering new support.

The bill, an effort to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in the city’s waste stream, was introduced in March 2014 but has not moved since it was initially heard on Nov. 19, 2014 by the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management. While supporters call it an important environment-friendly measure, opponents say it will be cumbersome for families when grocery shopping and everyday people making quick purchases. Proponents cite the already underway increase in the use of reusable bags for shopping, while opponents say this is an unnecessary infringement into the private marketplace and people’s lives.

In order to become law, the bill must pass in committee and the full Council, then be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Now, in a 2016 effort that even involves support from state legislators, Lander, Chin, and others are pushing forward with the hope that by the time Spring rolls into Summer, de Blasio will have signed the bill into law. Currently, the bill has 21 Council sponsors in total, plus the support of Public Advocate Letitia James. It needs five more co-sponsors for a majority in the 51-member Council.

“As Spring starts to return to New York, people remember that plastic bags aren’t what’s supposed to bloom in trees, and it’s time for the city to adopt the fee and significantly reduce plastic bag waste,” Lander told Gotham Gazette. “I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.” Lander said that the bill is being changed slightly to be more effective as he and Chin respond to the issues raised at the initial hearing.

State Senator Brad Hoylman, who chairs the Senate’s environmental conservation committee, is paying close attention to the city bag bill, which he believes is a litmus test for any efforts the state might make to legislate on the issue. At an event at New York University on Feb. 25 co-sponsored by members of Congress, the State Assembly and Senate, the Manhattan Borough President’s office, and a number of Manhattan community boards, Hoylman and Council Member Chin discussed the proposals and the way forward.

Hoylman said New York City is setting the standard for the state. “The city is a good testing ground for how we might get this passed statewide,” he told Gotham Gazette after the event, “working with advocates and retailers on finding a formula that satisfies the goals of reducing use and not making it too onerous for the retail industry.”

But the struggle is likely to be even harder at the state level where the Democrats don’t have control of the Legislature as they do in the city (the Assembly is controlled by Democrats whereas the Senate is run by a Republican majority). Hoylman, a Democrat, said the Senate majority “typically opposes” legislation like the plastic bag bill. But he isn’t giving up hope that the Democrats could turn things around in this year’s election cycle, when all 213 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot, and perhaps pass a bill next year.

Hoylman is partnering with Sen. Liz Krueger, another Manhattan Democrat, to draft policy to be introduced, but only once New York City moves ahead with its bill. “We’ll see how the negotiations go at the city level and see what they end up with,” he said.

A number of environmental advocates attended the event, along with representatives from Senator Krueger’s office and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office in the audience. Jenny Romer, founder of and an advocate of bag fees and bans, spent close to an hour explaining the issue and discussing parallel efforts in other cities, some of which have been successful.

In New York City, the opposition to the bill has been fierce from those in the plastics industry who say it will do little to curb waste, that reusable bags will spread harmful bacteria and, most significantly, that it is a “tax” which will hurt low-income people. This opposition has come from within the City Council, too. (Under the bill, SNAP and WIC enrollees would be exempt from paying the fee.)

A number of groups came out against the bill, including the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the plastics industry trade association, the Society of the Plastics Industry. APBA chairman, Mark Daniels, who also works with Novolex, a plastic bag manufacturer and recycler, testified at the February hearing. “The reality is that taxes and bans on plastic bags will fail to solve any environmental problem, turn people towards inferior options and jeopardize good American jobs, including those right here in New York City,” he said.

Council Member David Greenfield called the proposal “outrageous” at the hearing. He stressed the impracticality of carrying dozens of reusable bags to the grocery store and said low-income families would be worst-affected by the bill.

Minority Leader Steven Matteo, one of three Republican members of the Council, was more direct in his words. “If it looks like a tax, smells like a tax, feels like a tax, it’s a tax, and it’s a tax that is hurting our constituents and our businesses,” he said at the hearing.

In trying to win over a “handful” of her colleagues, Council Member Chin said at the event at NYU that supporters are considering lowering the proposed fee from 10 cents to 5 cents per bag, and that it might make the difference in getting majority support for the bill.

“That’s one of the big ones,” she said of the possible amendment, which might be among a few changes made to the bill. “I think so far, we’re trying to get everything together, and we want to have Earth Day as the day to finally make it happen.”

Recently, concerns were raised about Chin’s use of public money to fund outreach efforts about the bag bill through a non-profit, the Citizens Committee of New York, which is a registered lobbyist with the city. Lander dismissed the charges as a "hatchet job."

Mayor de Blasio is in favor of the bill’s intent -- reducing bag waste -- but has stopped short of outright support for the measure. “Well, that’s something we’ve been talking to the Council about and I’ve said that we share the goal of addressing the problem of plastic bags,” he said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette at a news conference on Feb. 1 where he announced the CleaNYC program, which includes increased graffiti-removal efforts, sidewalk power washing, and stepped-up litter basket collection on Sundays and holidays.

“This is a real environmental problem,” he said of the roughly 100,000 tons of plastic bags that New York City disposes of annually. “There are still some issues being worked through on the best way to do it, but, you know, when there are two parties who agree on the goal it’s just a matter of time of figuring it out the best way to get it done. And I’m pretty confident we’ll get there.” 

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been changed to include the correct dates that the bill was introduced and heard in committee.

Supporters Launch Renewed Push to Pass Plastic Bag Bill by Earth Day Mon, 29 Feb 2016 22:39:23 +0000
Questions Remain as City Council Moves Ahead with Pay Raises, Reforms lander mmv kallos

Council Members Lander, Mark-Viverito, Kallos (l-r) (photo: William Alatriste) 

At the first and only City Council hearing on a package of legislation that will raise the salaries of all the city’s elected officials and reform how Council members are compensated, the Council was roundly praised for accepting several reforms long sought by good government groups, but criticized both for raising their salaries higher than recommended and for the the timing of the vote.

The proposed legislation was first announced late last Thursday, and the vote will take place two days after Wednesday's hearing, during an usual Friday session. The raises are retroactive to Jan. 1, regardless of when the bills are passed.

Asking that the Council delay the vote in order to allow more public input, Dick Dadey, executive director of the good government group Citizens Union, testified, “not delaying denies the public sufficient input on a matter that they will pay for and from which you personally benefit.” Dadey and Citizens Union had previously expressed criticism of the Council crafting its plan without a public hearing first.

The four bills largely adhere to the recommendations made by an independent advisory commission tasked with reviewing the compensation levels of the city’s elected officials, including eliminating stipends for chairing committees, making the Council member position full time, and raising the salaries of the Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, Borough Presidents, and District Attorneys to the amount outlined by the commission.

Other reforms, like mandating that financial disclosure forms be published online, banning almost all outside income, and making future raises prospective, go a step further than the commission’s report had recommended. These changes are earning the Council praise from good government advocates.

Significantly, the Council’s proposed legislation will raise Council member salaries from $112,500 to $148,500 - $10,185 higher than the $138,315 salary the commission had recommended. This, Council members say, is to compensate for the fact that they will ban almost all forms of outside income.

Yet, only three Council members currently earn significant outside income, and they will be grandfathered in until the end of their current term.

“We did not recommend any additional bump in pay [for eliminating outside income]…considering the fact that only very few of the members here have an income that would be banned under the new law, and the grandfathering…no present City Council person is adversely affected by the change until the end of this term,” Fritz Schwarz, Jr., chief counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and chair of the advisory commission said during his testimony.

Dadey and Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, also took issue with the bonus for banning outside income, and suggested that particular increase should only be effective after the ban on outside income affects all members, on Jan. 1, 2018.

Of the three members of the Council earning significant outside income who will get the new salary nonetheless, Lerner said, “for the next year and a half, they are also going to be collecting that outside income. So that double-dipping doesn’t really make any sense to us.”

“These raises, the first in almost a decade, are well deserved,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said, starting off the hearing. Saying that the Council was adopting most of the commission’s recommendations, she said, “We diverged in one area: compensation for becoming full time and giving up the potential for outside income. The commission recommended no increase for this important reform. We disagree, and have proposed a modest increase to account for it.”

Some Council members were asking for an even larger salary increase, like Ydanis Rodriguez, who used the few minutes allotted for asking the panel questions to instead talk about how hard Council members work.

“We work more than 60 hours a week,” Rodriguez said. “For me, this is a big compromise that we’re doing…Our salaries should be $175,000.”

“That, I’m not in agreement with,” Mark-Viverito said to reporters when asked about Rodriguez’s remark.

Council members, commissioners, good government groups, and members of the Conflicts of Interest Board were all in agreement that Council members work hard, yet several Council members seemed defensive about the amount of work the position comes with. Council Member Chin added that the job is “more than full time.”

“Can we agree that the commission recognizes that the Council member works more than full time?” Rodriguez asked.

“We never received time sheets, so I can’t answer specifically, but in general, it was our impression…that absolutely you are working long periods of time,” commissioner Paul Quintero replied.

Speaking with press after his testimony, Schwarz expressed frustration with the fact that, though Council members spoke passionately of their need for better compensation and the hard work that they do during the hearing, not a single one had expressed that to the commission during its two public hearings.

“We invited all elected officials to come [testify at the two public hearings] and none of them did," Schwarz said, though he noted that Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer was the only one of the city’s 64 elected officials to testify before the commission.

“It would be far better for the public, for us, and for them, if they’d come to testify,” Schwarz added.

Dadey echoed that sentiment, telling members of the press after his testimony, “This is the problem with the process - there are a lot of legitimate questions to be asked of the Council and how they arrived at the numbers. And to get a committee report two days before the vote…this is being rushed way too fast.”

The timing of the vote has raised eyebrows, as the Council rescheduled its stated meeting to Friday to vote on the legislation, at which point it will also vote on controversial legislation regarding Mayor de Blasio’s plan to shrink the horse-carriage industry. [Note: the vote on the horse-carriage deal was postponed when union support for the legislation fell through on Thursday]

When asked about the rush to vote on the salary legislation, Mark-Viverito first said, “The timing is something we cannot control…I didn’t think delaying it any further was a good thing to do.”

After members of the press pointed out that it is entirely within the Council’s control to decide when to vote on legislation, Mark-Viverito added, “Based on conversations with members there is an interest to move on this issue.” It was a sentiment echoed by Council Members Brad Lander and Ben Kallos, who co-chaired the hearing and defended the Council's plans, citing the unprecedented reforms and the value in raising Council salaries so as to attract strong people to run for office.

Dadey, however, said he has “talked to many Council members and [has] not heard any of them say they wanted it to be rushed. Many of them have a problem with the quick process.”

Two other issues that were raised several times during the hearing were whether most outside income should be banned entirely or if there should be a cap on the amount of outside income Council members can earn; and the low pay of Council staffers. Aides to Council members often make salaries between $30,000 and $50,000, with Council members deciding to hire additional people rather than pay a smaller staff more per person.

Council Member David Greenfield, who gave up practicing law and the outside income he earned from it months ago, said he is “concerned” about limiting types of outside income, saying it “may dissuade people from going into government” and asked if the commission would support a cap on outside income.

Schwarz said the commission is against a cap, adding “every other city official since 1937 have not been able to earn outside income.”

There is a possibility that some last minute amendments may be added to the package of bills on the floor of the Council during Friday’s full-body meeting. Some Council members seemed to be expecting to put amendments forward.

Good government groups have urged the Council not to accept a raise until their next term in office, if re-elected. Mayor de Blasio will not take a raise this term. As Dadey pointed out, 37 Council members said, in response to a Citizens Union questionnaire, that they think pay raises should be prospective.

Yet it seems highly unlikely that the Council will follow through on that, as both the commission and the Council support the rationale that, since it has been almost a decade since the salaries of elected officials have changed, accepting a raise this term would be fair. The Council is changing the process for the future, though, so that raises are put into effect for the next class of Council members. The timeline in part relies on the Mayor calling a compensation review commission every four years as he or she is supposed to.

While questions remain, this round of pay increases and the connected reforms move forward. As Council Member Greenfield pointed out Wednesday, “Prior councils have taken the raises, but have never done the reforms. This is a big deal…for the first time ever we’re actually taking the raises but also making the reforms, and that’s huge.”

"Just to be fair,” Greenfield said, emphasizing the desire for credit that several Council members expressed, “the Council can do whatever it wants.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

Questions Remain as City Council Moves Ahead with Pay Raises, Reforms Thu, 04 Feb 2016 04:24:12 +0000