Gotham Gazette Mon, 26 Oct 2020 03:19:35 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Letitia James Serves as Last Line of Defense Against Trump Administration 3 lj ag

Attorney General Letitia James (photo: @NewYorkStateAG)

In blocking the Trump administration’s attempt to sabotage the 2020 Census, a California court last week handed yet another key victory to the Office of the New York Attorney General. And this is just the latest in a string of triumphs coming from the office of the Empire State’s top lawyer as the president pushes his election-year agenda.

While the president’s rhetoric often translates to the introduction of potentially devastating policies, many of the administration’s most egregious moves have faced successful opposition on the legal battlefield. In large part, that is due to the tireless efforts by Democratic state attorneys general. And New York’s Letitia James has long been in the lead, fighting back the Trump administration’s agenda.

On immigration issues, she has been particularly successful. She led the successful charge to block immigration agents from making arrests at courthouses and filed a lawsuit that pressured the Department of Homeland Security to abandon plans to deport international students during the pandemic.

In another victory for asylum seekers and asylum recipients around the country, a lawsuit filed by Attorney General James blocked an order that would have limited employment authorization for asylum recipients. Her efforts also stopped the increase of fees for immigration related applications. Earlier this month, AG James secured another hard-fought win when a judge ruled in her favor to invalidate regulations that would have stripped workers of labor protections.

While James has used her role as the state’s top legal officer to protect vulnerable communities, that position has been weaponized by conservative attorneys general putting political interests above the public good.

The Trump administration’s frequent political stunts have further underscored the motivational differences between Democrats and Republicans holding the office. Democratic state attorneys general dedicated to preserving this nation’s bedrock principles have built coalitions and banded together to challenge the administration’s efforts to erode the rule of law. The same cannot be said of many Republican AGs, who have joined United States Attorney General Bill Barr in converting their offices into Trump campaign subsidiaries.

James has proven she can take Trump to task and her victories are adding up. In addition to her latest triumph in support of an accurate Census, in June, her office thwarted the administration’s craven bid to exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 count.

More than just lawsuits, James’ office carries institutional heft that she has put to use to call out flagrant abuses of power and advocate for increased transparency in law enforcement. This year, that role has been more important than ever. Last week, she joined the chorus of voices calling on Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear to release grand jury evidence in the Breonna Taylor police shooting case.

In addition to fighting for the voice of the people, AG James has rightfully blasted self-serving attorneys general such as Texas’ Ken Paxton, who has used the COVID-19 pandemic to attack reproductive rights. James, on the other hand, has continually backed an agenda to protect women’s rights and expand access to reproductive health care, which has included sparring with Trump and his attempts to reduce options for women everywhere.

Importantly, James hasn’t shied away from investigating the Trump Organization’s financial dealings. A Manhattan judge recently ordered the president’s son, Eric Trump, to comply with a subpoena and sit for an interview with James’ office.

In the coming months, it’s likely her leadership will be needed to combat a new slate of obvious overreach by an administration looking to exploit government powers to exact political retribution and gain. One of the latest attempts to undermine the rule of law: weaponizing the Department of Justice and taking aim at liability protections in order to bludgeon the administration’s perceived political enemies in Silicon Valley.

As the election approaches, New Yorkers will continue to look to AG James to protect democracy’s most foundational institutions. Her office ― time and time again ― has served as a last line of defense against a dangerously partisan president and his team of sycophantic enablers.

I look forward to continuing to support her on her journey to give voice to our most vulnerable citizens and bring justice for all New Yorkers. The future depends on it.

Jeremy Sherber is the founding president of Grand Street Democrats in New York City. On Twitter @jsherber.

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Letitia James Serves as Last Line of Defense Against Trump Administration Wed, 07 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
We’re Still Waiting for Answers from the New York Attorney General Six Months After Police Killed My Brother attg l pd

NY Attorney General Letitia James (photo: @NewYorkStateAG)

It’s been over six months since my younger brother Matthew Felix was unjustly and needlessly murdered by the Nassau County police. Over 190 days of those officers not being held accountable for robbing him of his life the week before his 20th birthday. On February 25, 2020, the Nassau police department believed my brother to be the alleged perpetrator of a carjacking and proceeded to stake out our Queens home. But he was never to be arrested or have his day in court.

After Matthew exited our home and entered his personal vehicle, undercover officers followed him for a few blocks. It’s not clear what happened next, but the end result? A hail of bullets that killed my brother and caused him to crash his car. 

To this day, we do not know why the Nassau police chose to undergo an undercover operation or what led them to brutally kill my brother. We do not even know who the officers were, who decided to take my brother’s life, nor how many bullets ripped through his car to cause his death. Due to Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 147, the investigation into my brother’s death was immediately placed in the hands of the New York State Attorney General’s office. 

Though I want to assume that the executive order was well intentioned, meant to provide justice for those killed by law enforcement, the Governor and Attorney General Letitia James have so far failed in that regard. 

As recent events in Rochester reveal, we are not the only family dealing with the unresolved death of a loved one currently under investigation by New York’s Attorney General. 

In a statement regarding the murder of Daniel Prude, another Black person killed by police, the Governor said that “justice delayed is justice denied.” My family and brother have been denied justice for over half a year now. The Attorney General’s office told my mother that they worked for the people and that we could trust them. But after six months of not being provided the most basic information, how can we even believe the results of their investigation if and when it finally concludes? 

It is not lost on me that Rochester’s Mayor Lovely Warren, Attorney General James, and Governor Cuomo only just acknowledged and sprang into action to provide accountability and justice after the family of Daniel Prude fought to secure and release the video of his death. Footage that the Attorney General’s office itself allegedly sought to keep quiet. So despite the Attorney General’s office investigating his death for months, it seems a public outcry is the only way to drive those in power to take these investigations seriously.

In a statement, Attorney General James said, “we will work tirelessly to provide the transparency and accountability that all our communities deserve.” Attorney General James, I am still waiting for any information related to the death of my brother early this year.

While her words may bring some comfort to those shocked by what happened to Daniel Prude, they are a slap in the face to my family, which has held rallies and repeatedly reached out to the Attorney General’s office seeking answers concerning its investigation into Matthew’s killing. 

What prevented them from taking action to provide justice for Daniel Prude before the video was released to the public? What keeps them from concluding their investigation into my brother’s death after six months? Should we continue to expose the deaths of Black people at the hands of police for the world to see, in order for them to be taken seriously? Is our only option to use video footage to cause enough outrage and pressure that elected officials finally stop treating Black life with apathy? 

While the Governor and Attorney General pat themselves on the back for just beginning the process of justice for Daniel Prude, my family is still waiting. We are still demanding the Attorney General’s office conclude its investigation and provide us with the truth. Every second, day, and week they continue to take with their investigation, they rob my family of our grieving process. 

They told us that they worked for us, the people of New York, and it is long overdue they prove it. 

Samantha Felix is a resident of Queens. Her brother Matthew Felix was killed by Nassau police in Queens in February.

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We’re Still Waiting for Answers from the New York Attorney General Six Months After Police Killed My Brother Sun, 13 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Jury Still Out in Several Investigations of NYPD's Protest Policing bomb threat bk

NYPD officers; the department remains under multiple investigations (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) and Law Department have missed the August 31 benchmark set by Mayor Bill de Blasio to submit a final report in their joint investigation into the NYPD's response to summer protests that broke out in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Officers' frequently violent engagement with demonstrators marching against police racism and brutality led to hundreds of allegations of police misconduct and excessive force, and numerous city and state investigations, none of which have made final determinations.

In the days after Floyd's killing on May 25, peaceful marchers were corralled, beaten with batons, and arrested by NYPD officers; pepper spray was commonly used, even on nonviolent crowds; officers drove their vehicles into protesters and used helicopters to whip-up debris around them; many officers covered their badge numbers; and many didn't wear masks, against city and state guidelines, in the midst of the first widespread public gatherings of the pandemic.

The demonstrations were accompanied by destruction on the part of some protesters and others who appeared to take advantage of the moment of chaos, with police cars smashed and burned and sprees of looting. Meanwhile, persistent questions were raised about the degree of systemic police aggression. De Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea frequently discussed violence perpetrated upon NYPD officers while also offering unproven allegations of the dangerous presence of "outside agitators" and plots to harm police. They largely dismissed clear evidence of repeated incidents of unprovoked use of force by police, though in a few instances both condemned specific officers’ actions.

After two days of unrest in New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo asked Attorney General Letitia James to investigate the NYPD's response. The same day, de Blasio said the city would conduct its own "independent review" of police-civilian interactions and the next day, May 31, he announced Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett and Corporation Counsel Jim Johnson would lead the investigation. The NYPD is conducting its own misconduct investigations through its Internal Affairs Bureau, as well as a broader analysis by the department's operations unit and top leadership, including Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan. Separately, complaints from the public have initiated hundreds of investigations by the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

"The whole idea of having an independent review is to look at all the video and determine discipline for anyone who needs it, actions that should be taken additionally towards those who incited violence amongst the protesters, and any changes we need in our approach to policing," de Blasio told reporters when he announced the investigation.

"The first results will come back in June and we'll take action immediately on the initial findings," the mayor said.

On June 20, he signed an executive order outlining the scope of the investigation, in which he directed the two entities to assess the NYPD's "planning and response to the protests" and make factual findings about the events. The order also directs the Corporation Counsel to conduct a separate review of "the factors that may have impacted the events at protests" during the period under review from the first demonstrations on May 28 to the date of the order. (Members of the Office of the Inspector General of the NYPD, which is housed within DOI, are part of the team conducting the investigation, according to a DOI spokesperson.)

The order calls for a status report and for the agencies to "make best efforts to produce a final report on August 31, 2020."

But protests continued for weeks and in a June 24 letter to the mayor and other elected officials Garnett said the timeline was too short to analyze a period over 20 days long. Other investigations, either by the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau or by District Attorneys, also hampered the review, she wrote. "If there is to be individual accountability for officers involved in specific incidents, the disciplinary process and criminal investigations must be given precedence," Garnett wrote.

On September 1, DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi told Gotham Gazette the investigation was still in progress.

"As we indicated in our June statement, the investigation is active and ongoing and DOI would endeavor to meet an August 31, 2020 deadline requested by the Mayor's Executive Order, but that the timing of the report, or series of reports, would be determined by the fact-finding process and the status of parallel proceedings," she wrote. "That has not changed."

"As we indicated in our June statement, until the completion of this investigation, DOI will not comment publicly on the investigation’s status, or provide updates to City or elected officials on our findings, unless unforeseen circumstances arise that warrant a further update," Struzzi added.

"This is vital work. We are committed to getting it right," wrote a Law Department spokesperson in an email.

The mayor's office did not provide a comment on the missed deadline.

De Blasio and Shea have also said there needs to be discipline for officers who committed specific transgressions during the protests.

"I want to see real action quickly on individual cases of discipline that need to be addressed," de Blasio said on May 31, the same day he announced the Law Department-DOI review. "I want to see real action on any officer who should not be in the police force, real action on any officer who needs to be transferred from one command to another because of performance and approach. These can all happen immediately and they will."

The NYPD did not respond to Gotham Gazette inquiries about its internal review of misconduct during the protests. At least two officers have been suspended without pay and one supervisor transferred to another precinct, according to Shea in June. One of the suspended officers has also been criminally charged with assault after he shoved a demonstrator into the curb in a particularly high-profile incident, which was caught on video and went viral on social media. His supervisor, who was present at the scene of the crime, was transferred for failing to take action. Another officer, who was caught on film pulling the mask off a protester to pepper spray them at close range while their hands were up, was suspended without pay.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city entity with board members appointed largely by the mayor and tasked with investigating certain allegations of police misconduct, received over 750 complaints stemming from 250 separate incidents during the protests, a spokesperson said. According to initial figures provided by the CCRB, roughly one-third of those complaints are for inappropriate use of force, and one in five are claims that officers abused their authority.

“I strongly believe what New Yorkers saw during the protests in support of Black lives warrants fact-based, independent, civilian-led investigations into allegations of individual misconduct," wrote CCRB Chair Fred Davie in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "The CCRB is undertaking these investigations, and will be making disciplinary recommendations in the near future.”

The CCRB has the power to make recommendations for discipline when it substantiates misconduct claims, but the police commissioner retains ultimate decision-making powers about punishment.

The CCRB spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that information on final determinations, if there are any, are not available at this time.

In addition to the incident where a protester was violently shoved by an officer, district attorneys have launched several criminal investigations into other police actions.

At the state level, Attorney General James is performing a parallel investigation into NYPD behavior during the protests at the request of Governor Cuomo. The directive, issued on May 30, after two nights of demonstrations, called for the attorney general to issue a public report within 30 days.

That investigation is still ongoing, according to a spokesperson for James. In June, she held multiple day-long hearings to solicit testimony from New Yorkers who protested, some of whom testified to police brutality, as well as Shea. The police commissioner testified that officers exercised "extreme discretion" when dealing with protesters and that many of the aggressive tactics witnessed were in response to dangerous situations created by protesters. He said he had not heard of "kettling" -- a strategic maneuver in which lines of officers cordon and charge a barricaded crowd -- which was common throughout the first week of protests.

On July 8, James held a press conference announcing a preliminary report, in which she made a series of recommendations for police reform. But James prompted confusion and criticism for not making any material determinations about the behavior of police during the protests.

"I don't know if we were tasked with the ability to judge the police," James told reporters. "We were tasked with the responsibility of looking at the interactions between police and protesters during a certain period of time."

"While OAG’s investigation into NYPD’s response to the protests remains ongoing, it is clear that real, meaningful reform cannot wait," reads a statement accompanying the report. The recommendations range from major changes to NYPD structure to more frequently sounded calls.

At the top of the list is the creation of a commission to oversee the police department with the power to hire and fire the commissioner. The preliminary report also suggests the CCRB and Office of Inspector General of the NYPD (which is within DOI) both be strengthened and certain public-response duties be moved away from the NYPD. James also wanted to see codified use of force standards "with real legal consequences for violations" (per legislation passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor, the city published a "disciplinary matrix" on Monday, with a mandatory range of punishments for certain officer misconduct).

James’ final report will include an assessment of police use of force and kettling tactics, arrest practices (including the use of "extremely tight zip-tie" handcuffs), and the treatment of members of the press, legal observers, and essential workers, according to a statement from her office.

In terms of passing judgement on the NYPD's actions, James demurred.

"Well I do know that the testimony of Police Commissioner Shea was at odds with the vast majority of the protesters who came before us," she told reporters at a July press briefing. "And so what we are trying to do is continue to examine the testimony."

"Other protesters have come forward and submitted additional evidence,” she added, “and we are still in the process of examining all of the evidence before us.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Jury Still Out in Several Investigations of NYPD's Protest Policing Fri, 04 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Crunch Time for New York Census Count as September 30 Deadline Looms and Numbers Lag 3 census app research

A pre-pandemic Census press conference (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

With less than a month left till the U.S. Census Bureau intends to end its constitutionally-mandated decennial population count, elected officials and advocates issued a dire warning to New Yorkers on Tuesday to fill out the Census questionnaire or risk losing crucial funding for a raft of federal programs as well as political representation in Congress.

Last month, the Trump administration moved up the deadline for the 2020 Census from October 31 to September 30, leaving the Census Bureau and local and state officials scrambling to ensure an accurate count, which has already been thrown into jeopardy by the coronavirus pandemic. The Census Bureau currently has enumerators out in the field attempting to count those households that have not self-responded through the online portal or by mail.

As of August 31, the nationwide response rate to the Census was 64.9%, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census tracking project; New York State’s response rate was 61% and New York City’s was 57.7%. Census data is used to determine many billions of dollars in funding to states and localities and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

At a Tuesday news conference, New York elected officials and Census advocates raised concerns about the state’s response lagging behind the nation and the detrimental effects that could have over the next decade. The Census count determines how the federal government distributes funds for everything from education and health care to infrastructure, transit, and a range of social welfare programs. It also forms the basis for drawing electoral districts at the local, state, and congressional levels and New York, with it’s already declining population, stands to lose as many as two seats in the House due to an undercount in the Census.

As U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand pointed out at the news conference, New York receives more than $73 billion in federal funds annually for 55 programs, out of a $1.5 trillion pot.

“We need that funding to respond to this pandemic and prepare for the next one,” she said, noting that the state could lose money for Medicaid, maternal health, housing assistance, among other programs. “The federal government won't know how much our communities should get if they don't know how many people live there,” she added. Gillibrand has joined with Democratic and Republican Congressional representatives to call on the Trump administration to extend the deadline for delivering Census data and has pushed for that provision to be included in any potential stimulus package that is approved by Congress.

“The Census is more important than ever amidst the ongoing pandemic, which has already badly harmed our state and city budgets and has laid bare many of the inequities that currently exist in our communities,” said U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler of Manhattan and Brooklyn. “If we don't get an accurate count, this will only be made worse.”

The Trump administration’s move to shift the deadline has also been challenged in court and, on Tuesday, New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed an amicus brief in that case on behalf of a coalition of 23 attorneys general, five cities, four counties, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“An undercount would skew state and local representation when the districts are redrawn and federal funding could be drawn off and decreased for many urban areas with large immigrant populations like New York City,” James said at the news conference. “This could affect our roads, our bridges, our schools, the number of first responders we have in our communities and so much more. And while each of these situations are on face value costly, it's important to note that what is at stake is so much more than just numbers. It's about the people who will be adversely impacted by these numbers.”

What makes the Census particularly challenging in New York is the number of hard-to-count communities that tend to not participate in the Census or that are often miscounted. That includes immigrants, low- and middle-income Black communities, Native Americans, seniors, children under the age of five, people with limited English proficiency and non-English speakers, among others.

President Donald Trump has also taken several steps that seemed geared towards discouraging participation. His administration unsuccessfully attempted to place a citizenship question on the Census and underfunded the Census Bureau. On July 21, Trump also issued a memo to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, ordering that undocumented immigrants be excluded from state populations for the apportionment of congressional representatives. That order has been challenged in court.

“Under the Trump administration, the Census has become about fear and misinformation,” said Meeta Anand, the Census 2020 senior fellow at the New York Immigration Coalition, at Tuesday’s news conference.

Recognizing those many challenges, city officials are in the midst of a concerted $40 million Census outreach campaign and recently launched a home-stretch effort, particularly to target areas where the response has been far lower than other parts of the city.

Led by Census Director Julie Menin, appointed to the role by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city launched a massive ad campaign across 26 languages, more than 175 publications and websites covering radio, television, social media. City Census workers have made more than 3.5 million phone calls and sent more than 7 million texts about the Census, getting more than 423,000 New Yorkers to fill out the questionnaire, the city Census office said.

“Let's be clear what this fight is about. It's an insidious political ploy to defund cities like New York, to have us lose congressional representation and move that funding and congressional representation to Red Republican districts all across the country,” Menin said Tuesday.

The city is also attempting to reach the thousands of New Yorkers who left the city during the pandemic but who requested absentee ballots for the recent primary elections. Many of them completed the Census using their temporary addresses, which would require them to re-fill the questionnaire, which takes roughly 10 minutes, to be counted as New York residents.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo re-launched some semblance of Census outreach efforts at the end of July after months of inaction. The state was originally pledged to put $70 million toward the Census, including grants to community outreach groups and the reallocation of state agency resources, but the Cuomo administration did not follow through, in part, it has indicated, due to the budget crunch resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of a recent “Census Push Week,” the state said it was partnering with Spanish-language media outlets to conduct phone-banking, while several public-facing state agencies such as the MTA and Department of State’s Division of Licensing Services rolled out awareness initiatives of their own. There has been little additional news, however. A request for comment to Empire State Development, the state’s economic development agency that is overseeing the Census effort, went unanswered.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Crunch Time for New York Census Count as September 30 Deadline Looms and Numbers Lag Tue, 01 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'A Very Pathetic Response': Charles and Inez Barron on Protest, Police Reform and Radical, Black-Led Politics 2 very pathetic

Charles, left, & Inez Barron, right, at a ceremony with the Mayor & others (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Anything short of a revolution won’t satisfy Charles and Inez Barron, the married Brooklynites who hold seats in the State Assembly and City Council, respectively, and the police reforms and city budget passed in the wake of recent widespread Black Lives Matter protests serve merely as a distraction to their radical idea of Black-led politics. 

Assemblymember Charles Barron and City Council Member Inez Barron, both Democrats, have a combined 30 years in city and state elected office, and many more in activism. They are two Black elected officials with a long history of fighting racism and representing majority-Black neighborhoods like East New York, East Flatbush, and Canarsie, and they are eyeing the current moment as a new opportunity in their campaign against oppression and vision for a new political party. 

“My biggest goal right now, and has been for the last couple of decades, is to build a powerful, independent, Black, radical political movement for the liberation of Black people in communities where we constitute the majority,” said Charles Barron, once a member of the Black Panther Party and now representing the 60th Assembly District encompassing East New York.

For the Barrons, who’ve been civil rights activists for decades whether in or out of elected office, the recent Black Lives Matter protests spurred by police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people, as well as the city and state government response, are seen in a long, historical context. And, they say, the heated political debates the protests catalyzed in New York still amounted to tinkering at the margins, not properly reinventing a racist society.

While they ignited protests across the country, those recent deaths hit New York nerves still raw from past deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police, especially the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, and ongoing complaints of excessive force and disproportionate enforcement by race by the NYPD. The massive wave of protests prompted city and state politicians to pass a very long list of idled police reform bills, as well as a New York City budget that became focused around calls by activists and some elected officials to “defund the police.”

Though many New Yorkers saw the recent sweep of city and state legislation -- which included outlawing police chokeholds, codifying the New York Attorney General as special prosecutor in certain cases of civilian deaths at the hands of police, and much more -- as either too much or major victories in the fight against injustice, the Barrons said the reforms (and the new city budget) fell far short of what they believe is required.

“That is a very pathetic response,” said Charles Barron. “I supported all of it, the activists, the advocates wanted it, the families that were harmed and lost loved ones wanted it. I supported it. But it was a bunch of bogus legislation that was around for years.”

Whether it’s the state budget in Albany or the New York City budget at City Hall, the Barrons -- who swapped seats in 2013/2014 and may do so again in 2021/2022 -- are often among the “no” votes even as most of their fellow Democrats vote “yes.” In separate interviews with Gotham Gazette, Charles and Inez Barron emphasized their own ideas for increasing public safety, like dismantling current models of policing, involving the community in adding or removing officers, establishing a truly independent prosecutor for when police kill unarmed civilians (since they view New York Attorney General Letitia James as not independent enough), abolishing prisons, and increasing Cure Violence programs.

Inez Barron also said she plans to introduce new legislation aimed at replacing the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a police oversight agency, with an elected body that reviews NYPD misconduct.

The Barrons also described what they call their own Black-led radical political movement, which they currently run through a nonprofit grassroots advocacy organization they founded called Operation P.O.W.E.R, or People Organizing and Working for Empowerment and Respect, and how they eventually want to grow it to a political party that supports Black people running for office.

Inez Barron said the couple’s future political plans remain uncertain as her time in the Council ends at the end of next year due to term limits. There are no term limits in the State Assembly, however, and Council members are allowed more than two terms if they run again after a break, so the possibility of another Barron seat swap remains. While it’s possible Charles Barron may run for City Council and Inez Barron for Assembly again, Inez Barron said elevating youth to positions of power is a priority for her and her husband. 

“Well, that’s an interesting idea and we don’t see it as ‘switched,’ because it certainly was not a musical chairs kind of thing, the people voted and we were elected to those positions and we’re very pleased to see that the community appreciates and recognizes our service and wants us to represent them,” said Inez, who represents the 42nd City Council District, which includes East New York, Brownsville, Canarsie, East Flatbush, Spring Creek, and Starrett City. “So what the future holds, I don’t know, my term as you say does end until December of 2021. And we work from a collaborative, a co-operative group Operation P.O.W.E.R. and the decisions about people and positions and elections and campaigns is in fact made collectively, those decisions are made collectively, so we have not in fact made those decisions.”

“We do have several young people that we are grooming and training and making sure they understand the intricacies of how things work,” Inez Barron continued. “And we are preparing them to step into those positions and represent the people.”

History of Activism
According to the biography on his website, Charles Barron joined the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party before founding the branch of the National Black United Front, or NBUF, in the same neighborhood. The chairperson at the time made him chief of staff of NBUF and also secretary general of the African Peoples Christian Organization, or APCO. 

Charles Barron touts efforts to bring truly affordable housing to the areas he’s represented in the Council and Assembly, and securing millions of dollars in funding for CUNY’s Black Male Initiative.

Inez Barron has highlighted a long history of fighting segregation and discrimination, excluding Africa from school curriculum, police misconduct, and environmental racism. Before being elected to the City Council, Barron authored legislation in the Assembly to preserve affordable housing in Spring Creek and Starrett City. Before being elected to the Assembly in 2008, Barron was a public school teacher for more than three decades.

Operation P.O.W.E.R. and a Public Safety Vision
Inez and Charles Barron offer a similar vision of the community taking control of public safety. Charles said he wants to see the police department, in its current state, dismantled, and for the community to lead in the hiring and firing of police in their neighborhoods. He stressed the importance of having more social workers involved in intervention. The Assembly member also said he wants to abolish the prison system as it exists today and find alternative solutions for people who are mentally challenged or display antisocial behavior. 

Both Barrons emphasized preventative measures in public safety. Charles pointed to poverty as the root of crime and that unemployment causes mental distress. Inez praised Cure Violence programs, which take an evidence-based, public health approach to stop the spread of violence through conflict-resolution by authentic messengers, engagement with high-risk individuals, and community mobilization. Inez said nonprofit Man Up! works in her Council district to promote peace in communities, and its work has contributed to the relatively lower increase in gun violence in her district compared to others, who have seen a proportionally larger uptick. The BK Reader recently reported the relatively high shooting numbers in East New York are on par with similar numbers from last year, a stark contrast to other neighborhoods that have experienced spikes.

As for the implementation of their vision, the Barrons said they have been building their Black-led, radical movement for years. Working through Operation P.O.W.E.R., they foresee building a Black-led political party because, as Charles Barron said, the Democratic Party does not fit their vision of Black liberation. The Barrons formed their organization with specific goals in mind, including self-determination, community control of organizations and governmental agencies embedded in the community, land trusts, and worker cooperatives to combat a capitalist society, according to Inez Barron. 

Charles Barron said their tactic right now is to use the Democratic Party as a way to win elections until they build a separate party. He disparaged other Black elected officials who he said let their neighborhoods gentrify, saying many of them fall to political ambition or party loyalty. The Assembly member also said political organizations like the New King Democrats or the Democratic Socialists of America or parties like the Working Families Party are not matches for the movement the Barrons spearhead.

“Any Black person looking for liberation, these groups are not viable options,” said Charles Barron. “They’re using us to maintain the status quo. They’re not trying to really change any system of capitalist oppression, they’re trying to reform things and some are just opportunists for themselves.”

Next year, Inez’s time in the Council expires. When Charles, who held her seat before her,   reached his consecutive term limit, East New Yorkers voted him into the Assembly seat while Inez ran for City Council. That may be a possibility again, but Operation P.O.W.E.R. will reach a decision on who it wants to support in elections towards the end of this year, according to Inez Barron. She said they have also mentored young people in East New York who they want to help boost into office, though she did not name any names. 

“All that’s represented by my Council district are the areas in which we’re looking to make sure we can have strong, radical, independent, decision-making people in those positions,” said Inez Barron. “If you grow too quickly and if you don’t have other areas that adhere to what you say are the principles of your organization it can morph into something that you did not intend.”

The Barrons tend to differentiate the movement they are building as more radical and revolutionary from the one New Yorkers have recently seen a resurgence of in the streets. Charles Barron advised Black Lives Matter advocates to move from the symptoms of racism to root causes. 

“There’s a difference between organizing and mobilizing for power,” said Charles Barron. “When you mobilize people around issues like police brutality or some other kinds of issues, you don’t get any power doing that. You’re just responding to issues and they placate you with some empty reform.”

State Police Reform
On the state level, reforms included the Eric Garner Chokehold Act that criminalizes police using chokeholds when it leads to serious injury or death; the repeal of 50-A, which kept law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records from the public eye; the appointment of the Attorney General as a special prosecutor when police kill an unarmed civilian; the “Amy Cooper” bill that makes false, race-based 911 calls illegal; the right for persons not under arrest to record law enforcement; and the Police Statistics and Transparency Act, which directs courts to collect racial and demographic data for low-level offenses and publish it online each month, along with mandating police to report any deaths during arrest to the Department of Criminal Justice Services. The governor also signed laws requiring that officers report discharging their weapons; people in custody are given medical and mental health services as needed; State Police patrol officers wear body cameras; and the state creates a Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office under the Department of Law which will investigate misconduct complaints against any local police department.

Charles and Inez Barron both said the new state laws, as well as those passed at the city level, are not fully responsive to the needs of the people, and that their passage had been long overdue. Charles referred to the history of the chokehold bill and how, although an NYPD ban on chokeholds had been implemented in different forms for decades it had not stopped police from using the maneuver on unarmed, Black civilians (like Eric Garner).

Charles Barron launched into criticism of Attorney General Letitia James, who like the Barrons is a Black Democratic Brooklynite (James was a City Council member, then New York City Public Advocate before being elected Attorney General). By Cuomo executive order going back several years, before James took office in 2019, the Attorney General acts as a special prosecutor in cases where police kill unarmed civilians, a responsibility now codified. James is also currently investigating NYPD interactions with protestors, as requested by Cuomo. Charles Barron said he doesn’t see James’ office as a separate, objective entity because of the attorney general’s connection to Cuomo, who helped James win a crowded 2018 Democratic primary as the Democratic governor and former attorney general won a third gubernatorial term himself. 

“She is a disgrace to our people,” Charles Barron said of James. “She is a puppet for the governor and he doesn’t mind showing the strings. An independent office doesn’t need a governor to appoint them to do anything, but she got in there by way of favor from the governor and she’s his puppet.”

Charles Barron said that the attorney general’s office chose not to prosecute instances of police misconduct like the case of Saheed Vassell, an unarmed Black Brooklyn man who was shot by an NYPD officer in 2018, and appealed the case of Jalil Muntaqim, a former member of the Black Panther Party who contracted COVID-19 in prison and was set for temporary release until the state blocked the initial decision.

“Attorney General James has worked tirelessly and independently to investigate the interactions between the NYPD and protesters,” said a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office in response to the criticism from Charles Barron. “While this investigation remains ongoing, it’s clear that many New Yorkers have lost faith in law enforcement, and Attorney General James is leading the charge for transparency, accountability, and progress. We must all work together to change the system, and we encourage Assemblymember Barron to share his ideas about redesigning the role of public safety with us.”

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article. These are not Charles Barron’s first critique of the governor’s actions, as seen in 2016 and 2018 when the Assembly member interrupted Cuomo’s annual State of the State addresses to question his commitment to public school funding, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

City Police Reform
The City Council also passed and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a set of laws aimed at police reform and accountability. It approved its own chokehold bill, which went farther than the state legislation in that it criminalized any use of chokeholds by police, classified the action as a Class A misdemeanor, prohibited officers from compressing someone’s diaphragm during arrest, and criminalized other forms of restraint that put pressure on a person’s neck or back that may prevent breathing or blood flow. The Council also approved the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology, or POST, Act, which requires the police to report on its surveillance technology and how it is used to the public; a disciplinary matrix to track officer misconduct; the right of the public to record law enforcement; and a mandate for police to display their badges at all times. 

Inez Barron said she commends her colleagues in the Council on the chokehold bill, but they need to stay resolute in the face of opposition from the police commissioner.

“I encourage them to stand tall and dig in because there’s going to be pushback,” she said. “There’s already talk about, ‘Well we need to amend that and not include the restrictions on other airway passages, we need to not have that in.’”

Otherwise, Inez Barron said the new disciplinary matrix loses some of its footing in reform because the police commissioner has no obligation to act on the findings. To introduce the type of accountability she wants to see in the NYPD, she said she is cosponsoring a bill with Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, also a Black Brooklynite, to reform the Civilian Complaint Review Board. 

The CCRB is an agency that can receive complaints about certain types of alleged NYPD office misconduct, investigate those claims, and make recommendations on disciplinary actions. But Inez Barron said she found fault in the process because the police do not have to execute the recommendations and only a small percent of complaints are substantiated, meaning the CCRB finds enough evidence “to believe that the subject officer committed the alleged act without legal justification.” Jon Darche, the executive director of the CCRB, confirmed that 10 percent of complaints ultimately become substantiated in a June board meeting. 

The mayor, City Council, public advocate and police commissioner appoint the members of the CCRB, and that is one of Inez’s primary concerns in replacing the agency. The Barron-Ampry-Samuel legislation would section the city into 17 districts and hold elections in those districts for members of a new civilian review board. In addition, the four districts with the highest incidents of police misconduct complaints would receive an extra representative, for a total of 21 members. 

“This is legislation that is not just a knee-jerk response to the most recent conditions that we’re facing of police misconduct and police causing death,” said Inez. “This is legislation that’s been five, six years in the making.”

The Council member said the bill will also address another of her primary concerns, the CCRB’s power in investigating misconduct. She said the proposed new body would be able to hold hearings, have subpoena power, and implement binding decisions the commissioner cannot change but the individual who filed the complaint may appeal.

The last piece of the legislation would create the appointment of an independent prosecutor who is elected by the people and has the authority to prosecute police abuse cases that “rise to the level of a crime.”

Inez Barron said she and Ampry-Samuel will likely introduce the bill in the next several weeks, and have received calls from other Council members who want to support the proposal.

She said that officers who commit certain offenses, especially the shooting of unarmed civilians, should be immediately dismissed. She pointed again to what she said was a police force without adequate repercussions or accountability for their actions. 

“Things are not gonna change when they know the consequences for their actions are minimal,” said Inez. “They continue to be on the job, they continue to get increases in salary and rise through the ranks. It’s criminal, it’s really criminal.”

A Divisive City Budget 
The city budget that passed for the July 1 start to the new fiscal year served as another piece in the recent and ongoing public safety and police reform debate. Many protestors and elected officials called for an at least $1 billion reduction to the roughly $6 billion NYPD annual operating budget.

Inez Barron was among those officials, and she voted “no” on the budget deal -- as did Council Members Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca, Jimmy Van Bramer, Ben Kallos, Antonio Reynoso, Carlina Rivera, Donovan Richards, and Helen Rosenthal -- because she said it did not meet those demands, not going far enough to “defund the NYPD” and shift resources to youth and social services.

Both Charles and Inez Barron noted some claims, chiefly by Mayor de Blasio, that the new budget moved $1 billion from the police, but said clearly, as acknowledged by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and others, that it did not in actuality. While explaining her “no” vote during the City Council budget proceedings on June 30, Inez Barron said the mayor did not acknowledge the demands of the protestors in the actions he took, and argued for a “reduction in the ranks” of those officers “killing Black and brown people.”

“We need a hiring freeze, no new academy classes, and a reduction in uniformed officers’ headcount,” Barron said. “And just as the city had to pivot on a dime to address the COVID-19 pandemic, we must do likewise regarding the NYPD. There is, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, quote, ‘the fierce urgency of now’ end quote. I vote no.”

The Barrons’ call for defunding the NYPD and, more broadly, for abolition of the police as it is currently structured, stands in some contrast to several Black City Council members who supported the budget deal reached between the mayor and the Council. Several of those Black elected officials, like Brooklyn’s Laurie Cumbo and Robert Cornegy and the Bronx’s Vanessa Gibson, have argued they while they want fairer policing their communities also want a strong police presence, and that while they favored moving some resources from the NYPD in the recent city budget, they were not supportive of a major “defunding” of the police department. Richards, who is likely to become the next Queens Borough President based on the recent Democratic primary he won, was the only Black Council member aside from Inez Barron who voted against the budget deal.

In particular with the city budget, the Barrons both called attention to school safety agents' planned multi-year move from the NYPD to the Department of Education as a soft reform and accounting gimmick.

“It was, I don’t want to say symbolic,” Inez Barron told Gotham Gazette of the NYPD changes in the budget. “It was, in fact, the act of defunding but it did not affect the officers themselves. I think as long as [Mayor de Blasio] has the commissioner that he has in place there’s going to be a lot of continuation of situations that are not beneficial to Black and brown people, particularly as they get involved in issues with the NYPD.”

Charles’ strong opinions have been recognized by most elected officials, including Mayor de Blasio. In a 2018 ceremony unveiling the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center, named after a 6-year-old boy who was murdered in East New York, Charles suggested that as much as they were celebrating the new center, a revolution was imminent, and he repeated calls to abolish jails and shelters while investing more in jobs, youth centers, and economic development.

“So I want to say about the Assembly member – what you see is what you get,” de Blasio said after Barron’s remarks. “And that’s a compliment.” 

Youth services is also a significant point of contention for the Barrons in this year’s city finances. Charles said people should not consider the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which the adopted budget partially restored through the Summer Bridge initiative after de Blasio had cut the entire SYEP in his executive budget plan, as a win in the city budget.

“On the youth program alone I wouldn’t have passed this budget, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” Charles Barron said. “How can they feel good about 35,000 youth slots and you got $88 billion [total budget]? You cut it from 70 [thousand slots] and then brag about how you saved it.”

Both Barrons also brought up $450 million the mayor said was being moved from planned NYPD capital spending and reserved for youth and recreation centers and how, in their experience, the bureaucracy around creating those buildings delays plans by three to five years. Inez Barron did say, however, that she saw the restoration of funding for CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) as an accomplishment. ASAP offers special financial and academic resources for students to graduate from associate-degree programs. Both Barrons are CUNY Hunter College alumni; Inez served as teacher, administrator, and principal in education for years before running for office, and she serves as the chair of the Council’s Committee on Higher Education, where she has pushed for making CUNY tuition-free again.

In light of what they considered disappointing reforms and budgeting amid a more widespread reckoning about race and power, their pursuit of a Black-led political movement seems top of mind for both Barrons. They said they will continue to grow their movement until it is strong enough to stand as its own political party without being co-opted by people who do not share their same aims.

“I plan on speaking truth to power no matter what the consequences are,” said Charles Barron. “Inevitably, I believe our struggle may be long, but our victory is certain.”

by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to list all the correct neighborhoods in Council District 42.

'A Very Pathetic Response': Charles and Inez Barron on Protest, Police Reform and Radical, Black-Led Politics Mon, 10 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Attorney General Disrupts Progress on Taxi Loan Crisis ydanis rod ste levin rec

Taxi driver-owners protest at City Hall (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Last May I wrote a column criticizing the practice of including taxi medallion sales revenue in the city’s operating budget and pointed out the perverse incentive it creates to encourage high sales prices. My comments were triggered by the publication of a compelling investigative series on the New York City taxi medallion market in the New York Times.

The series provoked outrage from elected officials, several of whom launched investigations and studies of their own. The City Council appointed a task force, which recently came up with thoughtful recommendations; but the state’s attorney general has thrown a wrench into efforts to responsibly help needy taxi medallion owners by threatening to sue the city to give all their money back to everyone who bought medallions during the ten-year period when prices rose and then fell so dramatically.

It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of taxi drivers, many of them immigrants, who thought that ownership of a taxi medallion was a ticket to the American dream, only to see their value plummet as an onslaught of ride-hailing vehicles flooded city streets. But the challenge is how to help these driver-owners in a way that is appropriate and fiscally responsible.

In the early 2000s when the city’s economy was doing well and the ceiling on the number of medallions made them a scarce resource, it made sense that they were extremely valuable. Yes, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (and city’s budget office, which counted on medallion sales revenue to help balance the budget) encouraged -- or at best, did not try to mitigate – the rapid growth in medallion prices from 2004-2014, but market conditions were the primary cause.

In retrospect it looks crazy that prices rose as high as they did, but no one wanted to cast a skeptical eye (except Citizens Budget Commission and other fiscal monitors, of course) on a business that could empower hard-working people to prosper. No one anticipated the rapid and dramatic creation and growth of Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services that have overwhelmed city streets with cars and left taxi drivers scrambling for passengers and income.

After the Times series the City Council created a Taxi Medallion Task Force that issued its report last month, recommending that the city form an entity to purchase outstanding medallion loans at discounted prices and work with borrowers to pay them back over time. The report recognizes that it is not feasible for the city itself to fully buy the loans, although it states that costly city-sponsored loan insurance might be necessary to make the fund viable. What is proposed is a kind of public-private partnership in which “mission-driven” entities such as socially responsible investors and philanthropies contribute to a pool of funds. While Mayor de Blasio has not endorsed this specific recommendation he has said this is the best solution he has heard to the problem so far. 

However, before there has been any time for this approach to be refined and pursued, along comes New York Attorney General Letitia James with a plan that would be more straightforward and far more costly to execute: sue the city and make it pay back all the $800 million-plus  it has collected for medallion sales since 2004. A notice has been filed with the City Comptroller giving the city 30 days to resolve the claim before a lawsuit is filed.

The threat of this litigation casts a pall over other attempts to help underwater taxi medallion owners by getting their lenders to accept discounted amounts. Why would anyone agree to take less money when there is now the prospect that the city will pay the full amount borrowed? Why would financial institutions and other lenders participate in the City Council’s plan to create a fund for this purpose if the need is obviated by the AG’s lawsuit?

While AG James is undoubtedly trying to help struggling individual driver-owners, it is primarily professional industry lenders and fleet owners who would benefit from her claim. And it would unfairly hold New York City government responsible for a problem that has multiple layers and causes. 

Most important, the AG’s litigation would set an extremely dangerous and expensive precedent that taxpayer dollars can and should be used to bail out an entire line of business that has hit hard times. (It is unclear how the lawsuit would impact negotiations to reduce the amount due on several thousand medallion loans just purchased from the National Credit Union Administration by a hedge fund, Marblegate Capital.)

Can the city be expected to pay off the loans of restaurateurs who must close because of new minimum wage and other regulatory requirements? What about the mortgages of homeowners who may face more difficulty paying them off if and when property tax reforms are adopted? By the way, when the Attorney General was a City Council member she voted to approve the budgets that included the revenue from medallion sales; does that make her culpable too?

The city has no choice but to resist the AG’s attempt to be the taxi industry hero at everyone else’s expense and the City Council should join the mayor in denouncing the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, even if the city successfully facilitates a loan fund, still left unresolved is how to keep medallions financially viable over the long-term. What is needed is a coherent plan of reforms and new policies to make the system of taxis and for-hire vehicles in New York City functional going forward.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email


Attorney General Disrupts Progress on Taxi Loan Crisis Thu, 27 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Where Top City Officials Who Appointed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission Stand on Its Proposals council finance dromm johnson mbdblasio fiscal budget

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and other top city officials have remained mostly quiet about their positions on a set of proposed changes to city government and elections, which are set to go before voters when early voting begins on Saturday. The five “yes” or “no” ballot questions include 19 distinct proposals from the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, whose members were appointed by the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, City Council speaker, and five borough presidents. Yet those same elected officials have been hesitant to say whether they approve of the commission’s recommendations.

While some of the city’s top elected officials, namely City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, have when prodded expressed their thoughts on some or all of the proposed charter amendments, Mayor de Blasio is said to still be reviewing the proposals and other top officials have been reluctant to opine on the potentially consequential changes.

The ballot proposals include instituting ranked-choice voting for some city elections, strengthening the city’s civilian police oversight body, and making various other changes to city governance, budgeting, and land use processes.

Gotham Gazette surveyed the city’s most powerful elected officials to find out how they plan to vote on the proposals and whether they have taken positions on any provisions in particular. Almost all of the elected officials contacted had at least one appointment to the body that created the proposed amendments (Williams is the exception given that he took over as public advocate after his predecessor, Attorney General Letitia James, had made the office’s one appointment to the charter commision).

Williams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have all indicated they support a “yes” vote on all five ballot questions. (Johnson had initially expressed enthusiastic support for a “yes” vote on question one, which includes instituting ranked-choice voting, and on the land use question, number five, then said he supports all five sets of proposals in an October 31 tweet to Gotham Gazette).

The commission was conceived by James and Brewer, and created through City Council legislation with the support of Johnson, who wound up with the power to appoint several members and the commission chair. Appointments were apportioned so that no one official or entity held a majority. Gotham Gazette contacted each of the appointing offices and received varying degrees of response, while Johnson and Williams made some of their thoughts known during a recent radio and podcast interview, respectively, as well as Johnson's subsequent tweet.

To amend the Charter, the city’s central governing document, the proposed changes must be approved by voters, who can weigh in either during the new nine-day early voting period October 26 through November 3, or on Election Day, November 5.

The commission developed the five questions, which encompass 19 individual measures to change city governance. As captured by the commission, each question covers a different category of potential reform: elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use.

Question one, which mainly deals with ranked-choice voting, has garnered widespread support and almost no opposition, and could have a major impact on how party primaries and special elections work.

Together, the changes in questions two through five amount to a relatively minor retailoring of certain aspects of city government, not a large-scale overhaul. But, some of the provisions are considered important by various officials, experts, and interest groups.

Perhaps the most controversial changes voters will decide on related to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s civilian police oversight agency that investigates certain allegations of police misconduct. One provision within question two would expand the jurisdiction of the CCRB to include prosecuting officers who lie while they are under investigation. That provision is being supported by many police reformers and opposed by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the state’s largest law enforcement union.

Another proposal, found within question four, to allow the city to use a “rainy day fund” for savings during times of prosperity is being supported by the Citizens Budget Commission and other fiscal watchdogs.

Mayor de Blasio has not taken a public position on any of the five questions or the specific proposed amendments they contain.

“Mayor de Blasio continues to review the Charter revision questions that will be on the ballot,” wrote administration spokesperson Will Baskin-Gerwitz in an email to Gotham Gazette. De Blasio appointed four of the 15 members of the Charter Revision Commission that devised the proposals, two of whom currently serve as top officials in his administration.

While still avoiding a public position, Baskin-Gerwitz says the mayor “encourages every New Yorker to do their civic duty and have their say on their city’s Charter after early voting begins on October 26 or on Election Day November 5.”

De Blasio’s non-position on this year’s proposed charter amendments contrasts with his push last fall to secure a “yes” vote on the three ballot questions last year, placed on the ballot by a charter revision commission created and appointed entirely by the mayor.

Four of the officials contacted by Gotham Gazette have publicly expressed support for all five of this year’s ballot questions.

Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Comptroller Scott Stringer, said he supports all five proposals but would not comment on any specific proposal nor whether he is urging New Yorkers to vote in favor of the amendments. Some of that hesitancy may be related to questions about whether elected officials are allowed to in their official capacities discuss items on an election ballot.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is “100% supportive of all five ballot questions and is urging New Yorkers to vote for them all,” according to her press secretary, Courtney McGee. McGee did not elaborate on any of the positions or what outreach Brewer has done. There are major questions about how many New Yorkers actually know about the ballot questions and the ability of the Charter Revision Commission to get the word out, especially with limited help from top elected officials.

On the Max & Murphy podcast, Public Advocate Williams said, “I am in favor of voting ‘yes’ on all of the ballot initiatives, including ranked-choice voting.” A number of the proposals deal directly with the office of the public advocate. Two of the provisions would give the public advocate an appointment to the Conflicts of Interest Board and Civilian Complaint Review Board, and another would guarantee the public advocate’s budget at a set minimum calculated based on the size of the overall city budget.

“If people come out and vote, [we] may have an independent budget, which I think is critical. It sucks if you have to go ask the people for money that you are supposed to hold accountable,” Williams said.

Johnson, who appointed four charter revision commissioners including the chair, spoke about two of the measures -- ranked-choice voting, and changes to the city’s land use process -- on The Brian Lehrer Show on Monday. He said he supported both -- which are parts of question one and five, respectively -- but did not discuss any of the other proposals. Johnson’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, but the speaker then made his opinion clear in the October 31 tweet.

Other officials have either weighed in on specific aspects of the ballot questions, did not respond to requests for comment, or declined to comment.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams “supports ranked-choice voting, and encourages New Yorkers to support it,” wrote Jonah Allon, an Adams spokesperson, in an email.

“He has also been a strong champion of police accountability and transparency dating back to his days serving in the NYPD, and supports any proposal that would further the goal of making police more accountable, while upholding the public safety gains we’ve made in recent decades,” Allon wrote, apparently referring to the amendments related to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. He did not clarify whether the borough president explicitly supports that ballot question or others.

“We are closely reviewing the other questions, and encourage a robust debate in the weeks ahead to ensure all New Yorkers are informed and make their voices heard on these important proposals,” added Allon.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, the lone Republican with an appointment to the charter commission, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Queens Borough President Melinda Katz declined to comment. Katz is the Democratic nominee for Queens District Attorney, appearing on the ballot in her borough along with the charter questions, and expected to win that election easily.

Attorney General Letitia James, who as public advocate co-sponsored the legislation creating the charter commission and appointed one of its members, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some officials or their representatives expressed trepidation about whether they were allowed under the city’s conflicts of interest law to promote their positions on ballot questions at all. During his conversation with Lehrer, Johnson made sure to indicate he was talking about his personal, not official, positions on ranked-choice voting and other measures.

A Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) representative said they could not comment on general policy matters related to elected official conduct, but added in an email, “To the extent that elected officials may not understand the scope of the application of the conflicts of interest law to their conduct you should feel free to refer them to us.” The spokesperson said they could not respond to a question asking whether any officials had sought clarity from COIB on publicly promoting their positions on the referenda.

Johnson, Adams, Stringer, and Diaz, Jr. are all Democrats expected to run for mayor in 2021, what would be the first city election to use ranked-choice voting should it pass.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with Johnson's Oct. 31 tweet.

Where Top City Officials Who Appointed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission Stand on Its Proposals Thu, 24 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Attorney General James Should Sue to Dissolve the Trump Organization let james att

NY AG Letitia James (photo: @NewYorkStateAG)

For a company of only a few dozen employees, the Trump Organization has accumulated an astonishing rap sheet of fraud, crime, and other corporate misconduct over the years. And since its owner came to occupy the Oval Office, the company has sunk to new depths as a vehicle for influence and corruption by supplicants from corporate lobbies and foreign governments.

Now that federal prosecutors have refused to pursue a clear case of felony campaign violations using the Trump Organization as the fraudulent financial vehicle, Trump’s Attorney General and the federal Department of Justice are giving the boss’ company a green light for similar campaign crimes in 2020.

But New York Attorney General Letitia James doesn’t answer to Trump, and she has a power unique in America: the power to investigate and potentially dissolve the Trump Organization. It’s time to use that power.

Under the state’s Business Corporation Law—the modern version of a long-standing legal procedure with a rich history tracing back to the medieval English “writ of quo warranto” —Attorney General James can file a lawsuit in state court to dissolve a corporation, such as the Trump Organization, that is incorporated in New York. The test is whether the company “has exceeded the authority conferred upon it by law,...or carried on, conducted or transacted its business in a persistently fraudulent or illegal manner, or by the abuse of its powers contrary to the public policy of the state has become liable to be dissolved.” (This is a cousin of the separate legal provision under which the New York Attorney General successfully sued to dissolve the Trump Foundation.)

This type of lawsuit to dissolve a corporation isn’t common, but it isn’t rare either. Right now, Attorney General James is in the middle of a dissolution case against a credit card equipment leasing company, and just last year her office won another dissolution order against a different company. It’s true that neither of those were companies owned by the president of the United States—but it’s all the more important that the president should not get more lenient treatment for fraud than other citizens get. If no one is above the law, New York state law should apply to presidents and non-presidents equally.

Consider, then, the Trump Organization. That’s the small nerve center, based in Manhattan’s Trump Tower, that oversees a sprawling empire of about 500 tightly-controlled Trump businesses and real estate developments. Some of those, like the Trump National Doral Miami golf course, were legitimate businesses before the Trump Organization bought them. Others, such as the no-longer-Trump SoHo in Manhattan, seem on paper like they might be legitimate, but due to the Trumps’ poor business skills, can only be profitable through extensive fraud.

Still others, such as the Mar-a-Lago resort and the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., began as legitimate businesses, but have become festering swamps of corruption since Trump entered the White House. And a few, such as a Panama City development dubbed “Narco-a-Lago,” or the failed Trump Tower Baku in Azerbaijan, seem to have been conceived at the start as vehicles for money laundering and corruption.

The case against the Trump Organization, detailed in a series of letters that we and our colleagues sent to Attorney General James and her predecessors, is extensive. Keep in mind that Michael Cohen already pleaded guilty to a campaign finance felony directly implicating Trump himself and Trump Organization officials knowingly and willfully.

Some of the charges on the company’s rap sheet—fraud against customers and investors, illegal political contributions, bribery, and obstruction of justice—reflect corporate misconduct of a relatively familiar type, but at an eye-opening scale. Other charges—violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, and facilitating the most flagrant presidential violations of the Constitution’s foreign and domestic emoluments clauses as a business model—are more unusual and also more compromising of our national security. The overall picture is a company soaked in a culture of corruption and impunity.

Dissolving the Trump Organization doesn’t mean closing office buildings, hotels, or golf courses, or putting innocent people out of work. The law provides that the Attorney General can work with a court-appointed receiver to develop a plan to ensure that relevant businesses can continue to operate and pay their staff and vendors while dissolution is pending in court, and allow for successful operation afterwards under new ownership.

Will Attorney General James use her authority to hold this corrupt company accountable? She’s not afraid to tangle with Trump. When he accused her—the first woman and the first African-American to be elected New York attorney general—of just being Governor Cuomo’s “tool” for “harassing” Trump’s businesses, she kept her cool and responded, “No one is above the law, not even the President. P.S. My name is Letitia James.”

It’s a name that Trump—as well as Don Jr., Eric, Ivanka, and the assortment of corrupt “business associates” sweating in Trump Tower—had better learn. Because if enough New Yorkers make their voices heard, her signature may soon appear on a lawsuit to dissolve the Trump Organization.

Ron Fein is the Legal Director of Free Speech For People. Jed Shugerman is Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law. On Twitter @RonFein & @JedShug.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Attorney General James Should Sue to Dissolve the Trump Organization Thu, 15 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
A Monument to an Indigenous Future, Worthy of Attorney General James’ Support shinnecock indian nation 600x400

The Shinnecock billboard on Route 27 (photo via a Shinnecock Nation member)

New York State Attorney General Letitia James earned a reputation as a relentless fighter for working people in the Brooklyn gentrification struggles of the early 21st century. Representing parts of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant in the early 2000s, City Council Member James insisted that low-income and working people must have a place and a future in Brooklyn.

Block by block, James helped community members keep their homes and businesses in a context where the rent -- tied to the speculative dreams of wealthy investors and not to the livelihoods of current residents -- was always rising. James's office supported my own rent battle in Crown Heights from 2005 to 2010.

But now, in her new statewide role as Attorney General, James is threatening the land rights of a community that has resisted and survived one of the original, violent processes of forced displacement in United States history. Why? 

The Shinnecock Nation of Eastern Long Island is facing legal threats from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and the State of New York for launching a billboard project on tribal land.

The advertising revenue from two 60-foot electronic billboards on either side of Route 27, known as Sunrise Highway, at Hampton Bays is slated to support health and dental clinics, a community daycare facility, and other projects for the Shinnecock community. 

The town of Southampton, the Shinnecock's nearest neighbor since 1640, has deemed the billboards a driver distraction, an aesthetic blight, a detraction from the 'character' of the Hamptons, and has enlisted the DOT to stop the project.

The irony of Southamptonites' pearl-clutching in response to the Shinnecock’s modest attempt to chart a path toward economic survival, and not to the McMansions, the private jets, the environmental disaster of a golf course, and all manner of excess that characterize the Hamptons development trajectory is laughable, but not surprising. For generations, Southampton town has insisted that the Shinnecock should play a particular role (read: silent, servile, picturesque) in their shared community. 

And yet, the Shinnecock Nation's decision to use its land as its members wish is their right, the result of 32 years of successful struggle to become a federally-recognized Indian nation; NIMBY doesn't work when it is not actually your backyard.  The legal battle involving this only highway into the Hamptons tests the solidity of federal tribal sovereignty rights against a monied community’s belief that the future of the Hamptons is theirs alone to dream and develop.

Supporting the Shinnecock are the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and others who recognize that the survival of indigenous communities will require new, creative, and unapologetic assertions of sovereignty. In many parts of the country, state or federal highways run across tribal land. These thoroughfares are spatial evidence of a history of violent displacement but they also offer economic opportunities for native communities. By foregoing local or state permits, the Shinnecock root their economic development project in their hard-won federal legal status; and well they should. State and local courts have historically lacked the precedents or courage to support indigenous economic self-determination. The problem of so-called “home cooking” in biased state courts is legendary in federal Indian law jurisprudence

Given her 2018 election as the state’s chief legal officer, Letitia James has an opportunity to move Albany beyond the acrimony that predates her, and has long characterized the relationship between New York State and the Shinnecock Nation.

James had spoken of a desire to use the law to fight for all New Yorkers; there are few politicians who better understand the right to space as a key battleground for creating opportunity and equity. However, the entanglement of economic marginalization and geographic displacement looks different in the state versus the city contexts. Here, the "neighborhood" is the curling whippet of land along the Peconic Bay; "gentrification" has looked alternately like genocide, golf courses, and greenwashing (among other things) over the past five centuries. 

A phenomenon that native scholars have coined “indigenous erasure” helps explain why the Shinnecock billboard project faces such opposition in eastern Long Island, why few in the New York City-Hamptons circuit have spoken out about this issue, and why a progressive fighter like James has not yet reached out to the Shinnecock Nation, choosing instead to maintain the state’s track record of relating to this community through lawsuits and threats. 

I live in eastern Long Island, where indigenous names dot the landscape from Montauk to Massapequa and yet non-native communities are defensive or downright hostile when asked to acknowledge the indigenous present or make room for an indigenous future. Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman’s claim that "[the billboards] will completely change the character of the community we have fought long to protect" reflects a jarring sense of entitlement; 500 years of settler history will do that to you.  

In these parts, people wonder out loud why the Shinnecock can’t think of anything beyond cigarettes and billboards to earn money -- which is really a way of insisting that the Shinnecock future must follow a course pre-approved by the settlers in their midst who know little about the Nation and care even less. In my area, people crow loudly that this billboard project is the Shinnecock “straying from their culture”-- which is really a way of saying that externally-generated stereotypes of American Indians are more authentic than the voices of actual living indigenous people. ‘Why can’t they just follow the law?’ I have heard. ‘This is not about race, it’s the law!’ But this too is a smokescreen, a bemusing disregard of the copious evidence that U.S. law, particularly where land is concerned, has never been color- or power-blind.

And yet, with all deliberation and speed the Shinnecock Nation moves forward to pursue an economic future despite being largely excluded from the wealth streams of the Hamptons development machine. And so Shinnecock tribal elders have deemed these billboards a monument. They have claimed them as works of art and justice, as a tangible symbol of the Nation’s effort to choose how it is represented in public and to determine its economic trajectory.

As a historian, I understand the multivalent work of monuments -- the way they preserve and petrify particular narratives in their heavy materials. So this past July 4 at sunrise, I joined my Shinnecock neighbors at this monument as an act of solidarity and gratitude for their work of art and faith. I almost hoped to see Attorney General James there. I’ll be looking out for her on Labor Day Weekend at the 72nd Annual Shinnecock Pow Wow.  

Dr. Abena Ampofoa Asare is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Stony Brook University (SUNY). She is the author of Truth Without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana (University of Pennsylvania, 2018).

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A Monument to an Indigenous Future, Worthy of Attorney General James’ Support Sun, 11 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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