Gotham Gazette Thu, 09 Apr 2020 11:18:22 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) City Hall Hire to Help First Deputy Mayor with Vast Portfolio Tony Shorris City Hall City Council Rivington

First Deputy Mayor Shorris testifies (photo: William Alatriste)

The de Blasio administration is bringing in a new chief administrative officer to work under First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris starting January 1. Laura Anglin, who comes to City Hall after serving as president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities for the last seven years, “will support the work of a number of City agencies,” according to the December 15 press release announcing her hire.

Those agencies include several within Shorris’ 30-agency portfolio, the vastness of which was a key point of contention at a City Council oversight hearing in September. At that hearing, which focused on the administratioan’s mistakes in removing deed restrictions on Rivington House, City Council Member Ben Kallos asked Shorris a series of questions about the structure of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s upper management and whether the first deputy mayor has too much on his plate. Kallos indicated that he believes de Blasio should have a deputy mayor for operations like some of his predecessors.

Shorris repeatedly said the structure of the cabinet is up to the mayor and, while acknowledging mistakes on Rivington House, indicated that he is comfortable with his workload.

City Hall insists that Anglin’s hire has nothing to do with Rivington, where a nonprofit health care facility is becoming market-rate condos after a series of miscommunications, questionable decisions, and limited agency oversight by Shorris. But, the new chief administrative officer will be responsible for supporting the work of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), which, along with Shorris’ office, was at the center of the Rivington mishap.

Asked on Tuesday whether Anglin was being brought on as a response to what the Rivington saga showed about Shorris’ workload, de Blasio said, “It’s a way of just making the team stronger. She’s a real proven leader; tremendous experience, particularly at the state level.”

The mayor continued, saying that Shorris “has a huge portfolio,” and credited his first deputy with key contributions to the successes of the past three years. “I think he’s done a fantastic job,” de Blasio said of Shorris. “But, it gives us the ability to support his work more effectively, it’s as simple as that.”

According to the announcement of her hire, Anglin will deal with agencies including “Fire, Sanitation, Transportation, DEP, DOITT, DDC, DCAS, Buildings and TLC.”

According to the mayor’s office, Anglin will be paid $218,000 annually, coming in at a higher level, but in a sense filling several vacant positions, including a senior advisor for contracts and administration who left earlier this year.

“This hire allows us to bring an exceptionally talented individual on to the First Deputy Mayor’s team, and in doing so, making up for some positions that were vacated earlier this year,” said Natalie Grybauskas, a de Blasio spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

According to the announcement of her hire, prior to her time as CICU’s president, Anglin “spent time working as the First Deputy Budget Director and Budget Director for New York State, largely in charge of managing the State’s financial plan and proposals. Additionally, Anglin has spent time as an economist at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, an Econometrician at the New York Department of Taxation and Finance, and has had various roles in the NY State Assembly.”

During the September hearing on the Rivington matter, Council Member Kallos asked Shorris about his portfolio, at one point asking him if he agreed that approximately 30 agencies is “a lot,” to which Shorris replied “Yes.”

When Kallos asked why there is no deputy mayor for operations under de Blasio, Shorris said, “Well, the decision on the structure of the government at City Hall is obviously the Mayor's decision; we discussed that and there are many models. As I'm sure you know, over the course of the years there have been many different structures for City Hall -- some have first deputy mayors, some don't; some have deputy mayors for operations, some don't; some have seven deputy mayors; some have three; it's all based on how a mayor wants to organize his government and do so effectively.”

De Blasio has structured his government with Shorris as first deputy mayor for the entirety of his term thus far, and three other deputy mayors, one each for housing and economic development (Alicia Glen throughout); health and human services (currently Dr. Herminia Palacio); and strategic policy initiatives (Richard Buery throughout).

Kallos, who declined to comment for this article, asked Shorris if he felt that he had been able to “effectively manage” his vast portfolio. “I'm extremely proud of the record of this administration in implementing a series of initiatives,” Shorris said, before Kallos interrupted and the two simultaneously for a few moments.

One breakdown in the Rivington chain of events was that Shorris had stopped reading the weekly memos prepared for him by commissioners who report to him and key decisions were being made that were not otherwise communicated in person or by phone or email. The memos came up during the hearing, with Kallos asking about them and whether Shorris reads them.

“As I mentioned in my testimony, Councilman, when I began, I asked [commissioners] to provide a weekly memo that summarized their activities in the prior week,” Shorris said. “I initially read some of them, 'cause I was obviously trying to learn the way the government operated. Over time, as I became more comfortable with the operations of the government and my meetings with the agencies became more and more frequent, that became less necessary; as a result, as I mentioned in my testimony, I took to reviewing the memos on an episodic basis, just to sort of get a feel for what was going on -- they were not decision-making vehicles.”

“So have you told the commissioners and agencies that they don't actually have to do these anymore because they're not useful?” Kallos asked.

“No,” Shorris responded. “No, what I've told them is they should continue to send them and our staff reviews them, I review some of them. From time to time they provide information that's helpful in context, but they're not for decision-making, Councilman, but they have other purposes.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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City Hall Hire to Help First Deputy Mayor with Vast Portfolio Tue, 20 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
At Rivington Hearing, Discussion of Extent of City Hall Mismanagement Shorris Rivington

First Deputy Mayor Shorris testifies (photo: William Alatriste)

Over the course of a Thursday oversight hearing lasting more than six hours, top officials from the de Blasio administration attempted to explain to the City Council all the missteps that led to a Lower East Side AIDS hospice being sold to a luxury condominium developer with virtually no public benefit.

Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, said early in the hearing, “Something went very wrong here and we must address issues of mismanagement, indecision, communication failures, the role of outside influence, and what we can salvage from this mess to improve things moving forward.”

The sale of the facility, known as Rivington House, has dogged the administration for months after news broke that the property owner was able to make a massive profit from the deal, facilitated by a deed change approved by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Two city entities have investigated the deal and troubling released reports, while the offices of both Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara have ongoing investigations.

Before DCAS removed two deed restrictions on the property, the home was limited to use as a nonprofit health care facility. The city Department of Investigation and City Comptroller Scott Stringer separately investigated the transaction and found multiple systemic failures and miscommunication involving top agency officials and deputy mayors. Neither report found any malfeasance, however, and did not fault Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has maintained throughout that he was unaware of the deal until afterward. The DOI and comptroller reports did, however, paint a picture of dysfunction and mismanagement at City Hall that First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris was tasked with explaining in front of the City Council on Thursday.

At a joint hearing of the City Council’s Committees on Governmental Operations and Oversight and Investigations, Council members finally had a chance to ask the administration about its glaring mistakes, problems with deed restriction removal procedures, and proposals to reform the process by which the city allows deed changes.

Largely setting aside the deceptive conduct of one key player in the transaction, Joel Landau of the Allure Group, the hearing went into the minutiae of the city’s process in the Rivington deal and also looked at the broader picture of management in the administration, coming away with little new information, but extended discussion about who was to blame and how to fix the system. There was also discussion of, but little closure on, whose head would be on the chopping block.

Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of oversight and investigations, in his opening statement said assigning responsibility for the Rivington deal “is a little like playing the game of ‘whack-a-mole.’ Just when you think you’ve hit that line of responsibility, it shifts and seems to move someplace else.” He faulted all the city agencies and officials involved in the lifting of the deed restriction -- DCAS, the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, the Law Department, Shorris, and other deputy mayors. “It is almost as if each of these entities were all passengers on the same bus that was headed straight for lifting the deed restrictions but ignoring the stop signs,” he said, adding that he still wants to know who was “driving the bus.”

First to testify, and perhaps most importantly, was Shorris, de blasio’s second-in-command who featured prominently in the comptroller’s report on Rivington House. Shorris was composed and apologetic, and took sole responsibility for the snafu, refusing to scapegoat anyone within his staff or at agencies under his purview for the widespread miscommunication in the process and disastrous outcome. Throughout his testimony, he drove home the point that Rivington was simply an isolated case that didn’t reflect the overall administration which has been a successful and efficiently run operation.

“I want to state from the outset,” Shorris said, “that I recognize that what happened here was not the right outcome for the community and taxpayers, nor was it consistent with the policy goals and values of the de Blasio administration.”

“We execute on our policy goals in the administration extremely effectively,” Shorris said later in his testimony. “The record I think demonstrates that in agency after agency. Doesn’t mean there are not cases where we have made a mistake. This was a case where we made a mistake.”

Shorris admitted that the administration, and he himself, had made multiple errors on Rivington. He was sent weekly reports from agency heads and he only reviewed a sampling, missing the references to Rivington House. He conceded that he believed the property was going to continue to be a nursing home and had communicated that preference to his staff, which failed to effectively relay that message to DCAS. He also said that no one, within his staff or at DCAS, flagged for him that the property may be converted to luxury housing. But, he emphasized that all those slip ups were limited to Rivington. It's an assertion that Mayor de Blasio has also made, crediting Shorris with excellent management overall.

Shorris said he had two goals following the Rivington failure -- to attempt to rectify the issue and to prevent such issues in the future -- and laid out the city’s progress since the deal happened.

As part of the solution, the de Blasio administration announced on Thursday that it is investing the $16 million it received for lifting the deed restrictions (and likely more) into building affordable senior housing to replace most of the beds lost at Rivington House. The second effort involves a larger evaluation of the process by which deed restrictions are lifted. The administration is currently soliciting public review on new rules proposals, which include increased community outreach.

He also promised that in the future, the city would most often consider amending deed restrictions instead of lifting them altogether and the people applying for deed changes would have to provide affirmation of the purported use for a site, which could be legally enforceable. The city has also established an internal review committee, which includes the Office of Management and Budget and the Law Department, to assess any application for a deed change. Once the Rivington scandal was brought to light, de Blasio quickly moved to freeze other deed restriction appeals and then ensure that City Hall would have final say on any moving forward.

As with most of the Council members at Thursday’s hearing, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito demanded more clarity on how the administration lost focus on an issue that has ramifications for affordable housing across the city, which is a top mayoral priority. “You say that you were very clear about your priority,” she said to Shorris, “yet it was not implemented…That sounds like some level of mismanagement.”

Shorris fell back on a similar refrain throughout. The city’s policy for deed restrictions, he stressed, was a narrow, financial-based, “mechanistic” policy and process that did not apply the administration’s values. “It was a failure on our part…to introduce our values into that process,” he said.

One Council member who seemed exasperated by Shorris’ testimony was David Greenfield, who wanted to know precisely who was to blame for Rivington. “There’s accountability and there’s blame, they’re two different things,” he said. “So you’re accountable, but I think it’s fair to say you’re not to blame. Is that correct?” Shorris yet again fell on his sword, and informed Greenfield that he was ultimately responsible and that no one on his staff had been disciplined in the aftermath of Rivington.

Things turned a bit more tense when controversy emerged over the length of Shorris’ testimony in front of the Council. From the start of the hearing, it was announced that it would be limited to two-and-a-half hours. Because of an apparent miscommunication between the City Council and the mayor's office, Kallos, who had agreed to the time restriction, thought Shorris was scheduled to leave town. As Shorris was wrapping up his testimony, it became clear to everyone in attendance that Shorris was not going to Oklahoma for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, but staying put as acting mayor with de Blasio on his way to the conference.

Shorris was confused about the confusion. Kallos briefly expressed outrage.

In a statement, City Council Communications Director Eric Koch said, “The administration misled the Council and the Speaker’s Office into believing that First Deputy Mayor Shorris’ availability for the hearing this morning would be limited because of events related to the U.S Conference of Mayors in Oklahoma City. This turned out to be false. At a hearing which focused on government honesty and transparency this is particularly shocking and unacceptable.”

Not long after, the mayor’s office put out its own statement, with de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips saying, “Ben Kallos said the administration said Tony Shorris would be going to Oklahoma. That’s false. The Administration has always been crystal clear that Tony Shorris’ time today was limited due to his role as acting Mayor in New York City during Mayor de Blasio’s short trip to Oklahoma. Mr. Shorris testified for two and one-half hours, answering dozens of questions on this matter. The Council owes Tony Shorris an apology.”

While that distraction from the essential matter at hand was brewing, the hearing resumed after a brief break.

Shorris was followed by Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter, who heads the city’s Law Department, and DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo, who took over two months before the Rivington deal became a public spectacle through a news report in the Wall Street Journal. Carter faced particularly tough questions about the Law Department’s apparent interference in the DOI’s probe into Rivington. DOI claimed in its report that the Law Department had failed to cooperate and had blocked access to necessary documents and electronic records of the administration.

Council Member Rory Lancman criticized Carter for trying to circumvent DOI’s legal authority as laid out by past mayoral executive orders that give it unrestricted access to documents as an investigative body. Carter repeatedly emphasized that the Law Department had been forthcoming and that any redaction of documents, as the DOI claimed, was standard practice for irrelevant information rather than a deliberate attempt to obstruct the investigation. Lancman was not pleased and released a statement to the press after his protracted exchange with Carter. “Instead of acknowledging the administration’s blatant overstepping of its boundaries by refusing to cooperate with the Department of Investigation, the administration doubled down on its wrongdoing,” Lancman said.

Camilo’s testimony was less controversial since her involvement in the deal was relatively minor. She was director of MOCS when the Rivington deal was approved by former DCAS Commissioner Stacey Cumberbatch, who left her post in December to take a position with New York City Health + Hospitals. Cumberbatch has since retired, according to Shorris. (Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, the US Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General requested that the Council only call current city employees to testify, so Cumberbatch was not present.)

It became evident during Shorris’ testimony that he or someone close to him had encouraged Cumberbatch to leave DCAS, but all Shorris would say was that he approved of her transfer to H+H when she found that opportunity.

Council members peppered Camilo with questions about the deed restriction process as it stands now and how the city aims to improve it. She echoed much of Shorris’ testimony, pointing out that a “flawed process” focused on revenue led to the Rivington deal. She promised an updated and more rigorous review process for deed restrictions in the future, one that would take into account public comment, prioritize community benefit, and formally seek opinions from multiple city agencies and stakeholders.

Camilo also expressed the administration’s support for a bill, introduced by Council Member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, which would require the city to maintain an online searchable database of properties with deed restrictions imposed by the city. Many of these properties were once city-owned. The bill also requires the city to provide notice to the Borough President, the local Council member, and community board any time a proposal is made to remove or modify a deed restrictions.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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At Rivington Hearing, Discussion of Extent of City Hall Mismanagement Thu, 29 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Additional Information Means 'Ongoing Investigation' into Rivington Deal BdB holds paper hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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

Additional Information Means 'Ongoing Investigation' into Rivington Deal Sun, 21 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Investigations Paint Picture of City Hall Mismanagement BdB Shorris NYCTransition

Mayor de Blasio & First Deputy Mayor Shorris in 2013 (photo: @NYCTransition)

Two recent reports on City Hall’s role in the questionable lifting of deed restrictions on a nursing home property issued scathing indictments of both process and personnel in the de Blasio administration. They revealed mismanagement and miscommunication that belies Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own attempts to portray City Hall and its agencies as well-oiled machines that deliver swift and efficient services to the people of New York.

The reports, one by the Department of Investigation and one by Comptroller Scott Stringer, paint a picture of dysfunction and raise significant questions about oversight by First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris. De Blasio has acknowledged gaps in communication while defending Shorris unequivocally.

The Department of Investigation report, released July 14, found “a complete lack of accountability within City government regarding deed restriction removals and significant communication failures between and within City Hall and DCAS.”

Comptroller Stringer’s report, released August 1, stated that Rivington House, the nursing home property, “was allowed to slip away not so much because of poor City processes, but because of poor execution of those processes in a manner that undermined both public input and the interests of the City…[S]enior City officials required agency commissioners to prepare weekly reports but then chose not to read them...decisions were made but never communicated to subordinates, and...a lack of vigilance allowed a single individual to gain control of a valued community resource.”

The deal in question involved Rivington House, a nursing home on the Lower East Side that was restricted to use as a non-profit health care facility until last year when the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) allowed two deed restrictions on the property to be lifted. The owner, the Allure Group, paid the city $16 million to lift the deed restrictions, and then quickly sold the property to a luxury condominium developer for a $72 million profit.

In March, after the Wall Street Journal first reported that Stringer was looking into the Rivington House deal, the mayor said in a subsequent news conference that it was the first time he had heard of the problematic deal. Acknowledging that agency officials had made mistakes, the mayor promised to overhaul procedures at DCAS and at City Hall. He said that if he had been notified of what was going on he would have put a stop to it and that the moves did not represent the values of his administration. He also laid blame on the Allure Group for misleading city officials.

It later emerged that the Department of Investigation (DOI) was already looking into the transaction, referred to it by DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo in consultation with the Mayor’s Office. The deal also drew the attention of the state Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, whose office has yet to conclude its investigation.

On July 14, DOI issued its investigative report, which was critical of the role that DCAS, the Law Department, and the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services (MOCS) played in letting the deal go through without adequate analysis of whether it was in the best interests of the city. The investigation found that top officials at City Hall and DCAS were well aware of the deal and did not raise any objections or attempt to ensure the property would continue to serve a purpose for the community. It also pointed out that DCAS employees were aware that the Allure Group was considering selling the property to a private developer.

The investigation was also clouded by controversy. DOI revealed that the mayor’s office had withheld information from investigators, ultimately hampering their findings. De Blasio has persistently denied these allegations, while admitting that some paperwork had been redacted and pointing to natural tension between the Law Department and DOI.

In his report, Comptroller Stringer echoed many DOI findings. He pointed to failures of communication at multiple points between City Hall and DCAS and said the officials involved were at fault, not the process itself. This contradicted most of de Blasio’s focus on the need to update the deed restriction removal process as a result of the incident. While Stringer said updated procedures area  good idea, it was poor management and “information flow” that led to the mistaken deal on Rivington House.

Stringer’s report notes that more than 40 officials were involved in the deal, including three agency heads and three deputy mayors, but no red flags were raised. It also criticizes DCAS for undervaluing the property in its appraisal and stated that the efforts to solicit public input on the deal were inadequate.

Neither report directly faults Mayor Bill de Blasio, who maintains he had no knowledge of the proceedings until after the fact. There is one key email that was sent to de Blasio that the mayor says he did not read.

The comptroller’s report also placed individual blame; first on Joel Landau, Allure Group principal, for exploiting the system and misrepresenting the company’s intentions; and secondly, but more importantly, on First Deputy Mayor Shorris for ignoring memos about the Rivington deal sent to him by the DCAS commissioner and not ensuring adequate internal systems.

Despite the clear failings of his top functionaries, the mayor has presented a full-throated defense of his administration, blaming flawed procedures inherited from earlier administrations and the bad actor that deceived the city in this particular case. De Blasio has admitted that mistakes were made by his administration, but has been loathe to hold anyone to account.

At an unrelated news conference on July 25, in response to a question from Gotham Gazette about Shorris’ role in the deed change, the mayor said, “I don’t have a concern. I think Tony Shorris is one of the finest public servants I’ve ever worked with, and he has an immense amount of material he has to deal with. I think he deals with it very well in a very organized fashion.”

The mayor reiterated that the city’s policies on deed restrictions needed to be reevaluated and, taking full responsibility, he said, “[W]e should’ve understood that the underlying policy did not represent our values.”

Later that week, on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, the mayor said he had “total confidence” in Shorris, who “probably has the most on his plate” of anyone in the administration. “A deed restriction change – you can understand – might not be on the top of anyone’s list on a given day,” he added. Both investigative reports noted that Shorris was given updates of the Rivington deal at multiple occasions, receiving weekly memos which he did not read. Neither Shorris nor other top city officials thought that Rivington House was an important matter.

This was an unsatisfactory explanation for Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College’s School of Public and International Affairs, who believes Shorris dropped the ball. “He’s doing a million things,” Muzzio said of Shorris, “but that doesn’t absolve him of a management and communications error.”

What irks Muzzio most about the Rivington House situation was how the administration dealt with the fallout. “In and of itself, the Rivington case isn’t a major deal,” said Muzzio. “It’s the sidestepping and stonewalling, the half-truths, untruths, and sophistry,” which are. “It’s part of this administration’s DNA,” he added.

“One could argue it was a minor deal and people gave it perfunctory attention,” he said, “but it shows that, after the fact, communication was lousy.”

At the July 25 news conference, de Blasio said of Shorris, “I think if you look across the whole range of issues he deals with…this is one of the only things you can say like this. It’s a pretty damn good batting average on his part.”

Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, called the selling of Rivington House to a condo developer a “civic tragedy” considering the historical importance of the building as a home for HIV/AIDS patients. But Sherrill doesn’t believe there was any intentional wrongdoing or gross incompetence. “What ended up seeming to be massive incompetence could’ve been the cumulative effect of a lot of small mistakes,” he said in phone interview.

Sherrill said the administration was on its back foot once the news broke that the deal was being scrutinized. “It’s very difficult to get ahead of this kind of story once it’s broken so City Hall was playing catch up,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Investigations Paint Picture of City Hall Mismanagement Mon, 08 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Calls Grow for New Council-Led Deed Restriction Process MMV deed restriction presser

Chin, Mark-Viverito, Brewer (l-r) at Wednesday's presser (photo: William Alatriste)

Armed with the findings of a newly-released investigation that faults City Hall for a “lack of accountability,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Margaret Chin called for reform to the city’s deed restriction removal process at a press conference on Wednesday outside City Hall.

In a show of strength and seriousness, Brewer and Chin were joined by Public Advocate Letitia James, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others.

The report, issued by the Department of Investigations last Thursday, found that the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) failed to stop the removal of a deed restriction at 45 Rivington Street in Manhattan and neglected to weigh whether the removal was in the city’s best interests.

Because of “communication failures” between DCAS and City Hall, the site that formerly housed a not-for-profit nursing home known as Rivington House was sold to a developer of luxury condominiums without objection from the administration, according to the DOI report. Deed restrictions are in place on a fairly small number of properties around the city, often ones that once belonged to the city, and establish certain restrictions on what a piece of land can be used for. The result on Rivington House has become a point for criticism of the de Blasio administration, and the process is still under investigation by the city comptroller and state attorney general.

Brewer, Chin, Council Members Ben Kallos and Rosie Mendez, Public Advocate James, Speaker Mark-Viverito, and members of various community boards, blamed the mishandling of Rivington House and a similar deed restriction removal at Dance Theater of Harlem on the current “murky, opaque” process by which deed restriction changes are approved at the press conference.

Brewer added that the issue would be solved by treating deed restriction changes using the same process as land use decisions, as well as passing a bill she recommended and Chin sponsors aimed at increasing transparency in the process.

“These are land use questions, but they weren’t being handled like land use questions. Decisions to lift deed restrictions were being managed by the wrong people at the wrong agencies in the wrong process,” Brewer said. “We have a tried and true way to manage land use decisions. It’s called ULURP.”

Brewer refers to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. Unlike the current procedure for deed restriction changes, ULURP would mandate input from community boards and the borough president, and would require final action by the City Council before deed restrictions could be lifted.

The City Planning Commission is the only entity with the charter-mandated power to alter the deed restriction review process, meaning the Council must receive the recommendation of the CPC before it can enact a local law subjecting deed restriction changes to ULURP. The Commission will hold its next review session on July 25 and a public meeting on July 27.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appoints the CPC Chair and six of its 13 members, indicated in a July 8 press release that the CPC will adopt a series of reforms that align with some of Chin and Brewer’s suggestions, such as involving Borough Presidents and City Planning in the deed review process. He also announced that the city will re-invest $16 million in proceeds from the Rivington House sale “in the affected community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

De Blasio’s plan, however, does not establish ULURP as the norm for deed restriction changes, instead favoring a plan that does not give the Council ultimate decisionmaking power in reviewing deed restriction changes. Chin said the Mayor’s plan is “not enough,” a stance that Brewer echoed. Brewer also said the $16 million restitution was “not sufficient” as securing a building the size of Rivington House for the community would cost “closer to $200 million.”

Further, Chin criticized the administration’s lack of action to discipline those responsible for overseeing Rivington House’s deed restriction removal. According to the DOI report, City Hall First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris was sent memos regarding the removal months in advance by former DCAS Commissioner Stacey Cumberbatch, but did not read the memos as he did not believe the matter to be important at the time.

“I think the people who are responsible should be held accountable. The mayor should reconsider,” Chin said at the press conference. When asked whether she believed Shorris specifically should be held accountable, Chin simply repeated, “those who are responsible.”

When reached for comment, a mayoral spokesperson did not respond to Chin and Brewer’s criticisms, and instead reiterated the goals of the mayor’s proposed reforms in a statement sent to Gotham Gazette.

"The Mayor's instituting a series of reforms aimed at overhauling a broken, decades-old deed modification process. Our focus is on making sure these reforms deliver for local communities," the spokesperson said.

For her part, Mark-Viverito was careful not to condemn any City Hall officials at the press conference. She did, however, speak in support of Chin and Brewer’s proposal to grant the Council final decision-making power by instituting ULURP for deed restriction changes.

“The removal of the deed restrictions at the Rivington House and Dance Theater of Harlem wasn’t malicious but it was inexcusably sloppy,” Mark-Viverito said. “Although we cannot change the actions of the last year, we can enact measures to insure nothing like this happens again.”

by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Calls Grow for New Council-Led Deed Restriction Process Thu, 21 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000