Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/485 Thu, 22 Apr 2021 20:30:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Highly Competitive Borough President Race Underway in Brooklyn https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10339-competitive-brooklyn-borough-president-race-democratic-primary https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10339-competitive-brooklyn-borough-president-race-democratic-primary 4x1 mashup edit

(l-r) Robert Cornegy Jr, Jo Anne Simon, Antonio Reynoso, Khari Edwards


With Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a Democrat, facing term limits and pursuing a bid for mayor, there is a competitive “open” primary race underway to replace him. More than a dozen candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination in the June primary, which is all but assured to decide the next borough president because of the overwhelming majority of registered Democrats in Brooklyn.

The race features three City Council members, a State Assembly member, a former hospital executive with deep community ties, a bishop, a state committee person, a high school English and theater teacher, a daycare teacher and labor activist, a reference librarian and minister, a business administrator for non-profit organizations, and a gang violence activist. Like the rest of the party primary elections for all of city government — mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidents, and City Council seats — happening this June, the Brooklyn Borough President primary will feature ranked-choice voting for the first time.

The office of borough president is a relatively ceremonial role without many concrete enumerated powers. A borough president can appoint members to various local and boroughwide boards, including half of all members of their borough’s community boards, local school boards, one member each to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy and City Planning Commission. 

One of the more important roles borough presidents play, albeit in an advisory capacity, is their voice in land use and development matters through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The process determines how rezonings, changes with development, and city map alterations are made. Borough presidents also control millions of dollars in capital funding that they can allocate for infrastructure including everything from parks and playgrounds to schools and community centers.

While there aren’t many other decision-making powers of the borough president, they can also sponsor legislation before the City Council, often in partnership with Council members, though the borough president can’t vote on those bills. The borough president can also award proclamations to people he or she feels are notable and can convene task forces to discuss issues facing the borough, issue reports and policy recommendations, and advocate.

And that is perhaps the most important power of the borough president, albeit an abstract one: the bully pulpit. The borough president is supposed to be the borough’s strongest advocate, representative, and cheerleader, a champion for diverse communities and for the borough as a whole. They are the link between the local districts and boards and the centralized City Hall and City Council, between their borough and the mayor and governor. A proactive borough president can influence major decisions.

Brooklyn, like the rest of the city, is continuing to struggle with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and faces a long road to recovery. It is home to communities that have been disproportionately affected by the crisis, a result of long-standing inequities that stem from structural socio-economic disparities. There are also the perennial issues that are pertinent to all or most of the five boroughs including the lack of affordable housing, the future of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), large-scale rezonings, criminal justice, transit infrastructure, coastal resiliency, and more.

More specific to Brooklyn, these and other issues manifest in terms of challenges like addressing coastal resiliency in the south of the borough, deciding how to rebuild or reinvent the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the revival of Coney Island’s tourist economy, environmental justice in northern Brooklyn, education equity and safety from hate crimes in the large Orthodox Jewish communities, the plan to build a new downtown jail as part of the closure of the Rikers Island complex, gun violence, poverty, and a lack of health care in parts of central Brooklyn, housing and displacement in gentrifying areas, and much more.

Though there are 14 candidates running to be the next Brooklyn Borough President, the top tier — as determined by candidates’ public profiles, political experience, endorsements, fundraising, campaign activity, and more — consists of six: State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, City Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr., City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, City Council Member Mathieu Eugene, nonprofit executive Kimberly Council, and former Brookdale Hospital executive Khari Edwards. The other candidates include Robert Elstein, Pearlene Fields, Anthony Jones, Shanduke McPhatter, Robert Ramos, Jr., Trisha Ocona, and Lamor Miller-Whitehead.

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Gotham Gazette spoke with five of those leading candidates running for Brooklyn borough president, while Eugene did not respond to multiple inquiries. Highlights from those interviews and other key information about the six leading candidates are below, followed by, on page two of this article, information about the other candidates in the running for Brooklyn Borough President.

Robert Cornegy, Jr.
Robert Cornegy, Jr., a two-term Democrat in office since 2014, represents Council District 36, which includes the neighborhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant and Northern Crown Heights.

In the Council, Cornegy chaired the Committee on Small Business in his first term and now heads the Committee on Housing and Buildings. He championed several initiatives and bills to support small businesses including the Chamber On-the-Go mobile business support program and a bill to penalize landlords who harass commercial tenants. He also successfully sponsored a bill that requires the city health department to provide lactation rooms for breastfeeding mothers at government agencies and offices where many New Yorkers get services.

Among his more prominent achievements is the Kalief Browder law, which mandates that any person detained or incarcerated at Rikers for more than 10 days should receive the necessary vocational, educational, and health care services they need. He’s also been a proponent of expanding gifted and talented programs in elementary schools.

Cornegy touts his experience in the Council as key to being successful as the next borough president, particularly his leadership on small business and housing issues. “I believe that those are the actual pillars by which recovery and resiliency will take place not only in the city, but also in the borough of Brooklyn, which to me drives the city,” he said in an interview.

As with most candidates, Cornegy wants to pursue a new approach to land use and development, focused on creating truly affordable housing. “The three components to affordability in this borough are going to be the ability to access and utilize the powers in land use and zoning, but also the almost $100 million annually of capital funding that help reshape every corner of the borough,” he said.

He wants to strike a balance in how development occurs in the borough, seeming to criticize both as-of-right market development and the major city-led rezonings aimed at encouraging new housing, including a portion that is rent-restricted. “The private-public partnership is what's really going to get us to affordability in this borough,” he said. “We've seen, when it’s driven by the private sector, abuses that are far too many to document. And we've also seen inequities when it's been led solely by the public sector,” he said.

Cornegy did promise that before his term is up in the City Council, he would “reshape” ULURP to make the process more inclusive for communities on the ground, though he did not specify the legislative changes he would propose to do so. “I intend to do that as a legacy project before I leave the City Council,” he said.

Among the ways that the Council is already considering changes to how the city pursues the larger context of housing development, rezonings, and all sorts of borough and local needs is comprehensive planning legislation championed by Council Speaker Corey Johnson and originally proposed by Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso, another contender for Brooklyn borough president. Cornegy did say he supports “portions” of the bill, but could not say specifically which parts of it he opposed.

But Cornegy repeatedly emphasized the need to ensure greater community input in rezonings. “It’s really important for us to look at rezonings and make sure they don't favor one demographic over another, and to make sure to give community viability and input in every single project. That's where communities have taken exception, not to the process in and of itself,” he said.

That dynamic also played out in the city’s plan to build a borough-based jail in every borough except Staten Island, to replace Rikers Island, which is slated to close in 2026. Cornegy voted for the plan in the Council and takes pride in playing a role in the closure of Rikers.

(In terms of changes to how the city does development, there is also a Council bill, pushed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, to mandate a racial impact study as part of all rezoning proposals, but Cornegy did not mention it.)

On the power of making appointments to community boards, which play an advisory role in land use at the hyperlocal level and where new term limits start being implemented next year, after a charter change was approved by voters in 2017 with the goal of seeing more turnover and diversity, Cornegy said he supports term limits but worries about completely replacing current members from the boards.

“There are people who have institutional knowledge who we don't want to throw out. You don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he said. “However, there should be a healthy mix of past, present and future community residents on these boards…Yes, we want fresh blood and fresh eyes but getting rid of tremendous institutional knowledge in the process is not the best thing ever.” (Community board term limits will be implemented on a staggered schedule and members can reapply to boards after being off for one two-year term.)

Asked how he would ensure that community boards don’t become roadblocks to local projects like busways and bike lanes, as happens fairly often, Cornegy said there is no “blanket” approach. “Every community has their needs, and they're able to articulate those needs,” he said.

As with most candidates, he expressed reservations about the NYCHA rescue plan being pursued by the de Blasio administration to raise funds for the struggling public housing authority and renovate and rebuild its many developments. On one portion of the plan, often called infill development as it would allow the lease of unused or underused NYCHA land to private developers to build housing, including or at times fully rent-restricted housing, Cornegy expressed opposition. “So in its current form, I'm not thrilled with that,” he said, “because of the concerns that I have around keeping those employees and labor members who have been a part of NYCHA, and those families who've lived in NYCHA.”

Cornegy has been a clear supporter of charter schools and believes the state cap on their growth in the city should be lifted. “As a parent of six, I think it's important to give pathways for all children to be successful,” he said, noting that three of his children attend charters. “I think that there are solid arguments for raising the charter school cap,” he added.

As borough president, Cornegy also said he would pursue a “comprehensive transportation plan” for the entire borough, assessing which communities need dedicated busways, which ones need protected bike lanes, and such. “A real robust program that can be driven actually, by the borough president's office, that incorporates the use of public transportation, protected bike lanes, and access to the waterways, is what's going to be necessary to get this entire borough moving,” he said.

Cornegy’s campaign hasn’t been without controversy. The City reported in February on a complaint filed by a former Cornegy staff member alleging that he used official resources and staff for his campaign. Then in March, The City also reported on a verbal scuffle between Cornegy’s staff and a constituent.

Still, Cornegy is seen as among the frontrunners in the race. He had about $493,000 in cash on hand as of the last campaign finance filing from March 15 (Due to a filing error, the CFB's database incorrectly showed he had more than $1 million). He has also received several prominent endorsements including from State Senators Diane Savino and Roxanne Persaud, Assemblymembers William Colton, Jaime Williams, and Erik Dilan, and City Council Members Chaim Deutsch, Alan Maisel, Laurie Cumbo, and Darma Diaz. He even has the backing of director Spike Lee and comedian Tracy Morgan.

Jo Anne Simon
Since 2015, Simon has represented State Assembly District 52, which covers Downtown Brooklyn, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Gowanus, and parts of Park Slope. A lawyer by training, she previously ran a disability civil rights practice and is also an adjunct assistant professor of law at Fordham University.

Before her time in office, Simon built her reputation as a community activist opposing large scale developments in the borough including Atlantic Yards and the closure and sale of Long Island College Hospital (LICH). That second project led her to introduce and pass through the Assembly a bill called the Local Input in Community Healthcare (LICH) Act, to ensure that the state health department cannot close hospitals without assessing the community’s health care needs. The bill has stalled in the State Senate.

Simon has generally been anti-development over the course of her activism and elected career, even speaking up against the recently scrapped Industry City rezoning and the proposed Gowanus rezoning. She previously served as President of the Boerum Hill Association, chaired its committees on traffic and transportation, land use, and Atlantic Yards. She also chaired the Gowanus Community Stakeholder Group and Gowanus Expressway Community Coalition. In 2004, she was elected female District Leader and State Committeewoman for the 52nd Assembly District, and would go on to win the Assembly seat.

“I am running because I am really tired of issues being categorized as women's issues and therefore being given less credence and less value,” she said in an interview. “It's time, I think, for some ‘good trouble,’ as Congressman [John] Lewis used to say. Women's issues are small business issues, they’re education issues, they’re health issues, they’re immigration issues, they’re environmental and economic and social justice issues. And it's time for women's leadership in Brooklyn.” As Simon noted, she would be the first woman ever to serve as Brooklyn Borough President.

Simon said the borough president’s office is only limited by the way its holder uses it. “The real power is in the ability to lead by convening, by coalition building, and by a strategic use of capital funding, for example, to help shape and support issues that are consistent with policy,” she said.

As with Cornegy, Simon wants to see changes to the ULURP process, though she said it should happen through an amendment to the city charter. “My approach to land use would be very different from what is currently in the charter,” she said. “[W]hat we have right now under ULURP isn't working really well for anybody, and nobody involved with that process is particularly enamored of it. What we really need is sort of smart, responsible and community driven development.” It was a veiled critique of the top-down approach employed by the de Blasio administration, which has often seen rezonings delayed or even derailed because of community opposition. More often than not, communities feel they have not been heard and several communities have even attempted neighborhood-led rezonings to meet their demands. “The ULURP process does not really involve the community. It was designed to make it look like it involved the community, but it doesn't actually involve them. So that sets up the community to be unhappy because somebody else came in with an idea and he's trying to sell it to them,” she said.

The comprehensive planning legislation before the City Council ostensibly seeks to fix that issue by giving communities a greater voice. But Simon disagrees with the legislation as it stands. “I think we need comprehensive planning,” she said, “My concern about the speaker's approach at this juncture, without some modifications, is that it still ends up putting the development community in the driver's seat.”

Besides giving communities more power, she also wants developers to give them more resources. “We need to find a way that developers when they develop, that they put in some money that goes to public services,” she said. “We need water and sewer, we need to build out our broadband seriously... That's infrastructure, right? We should be putting money into a pot to build schools where we need the schools.”

But that wasn’t her only critique of the major neighborhood rezonings pursued by de Blasio, most of which have been focused on low-income communities of color. They come with the threat of accelerating gentrification and mass permanent displacement, she said, without adequate planning for community benefit. “The problem with these big rezonings is that everything's up for grabs in other words,” she said.

A central concern for Simon is environmental justice, which  runs through issues of land use, public health, transit and waterfront infrastructure. “To the extent that the borough president has a role in ULURP...in any kind of proposal, what is the impact on climate and climate justice?...That's the North Star there. And so everything then has to point in that direction,” she said, promising to strategically use capital funds to ensure all new projects are climate resilient.

Though Simon may not be able to affect the borough-based jails plan, she nonetheless opposes it, insisting that the “critical flaw” was that the city did not place a facility in each borough. More facilities would have meant a more spread out jail population footprint and smaller facilities, she said. “I came out against that particular proposal, ultimately, even though I had wanted very much to be able to support it,” she said. “And so I think it could be improved significantly...I don't know what another administration would do to modify that.”

Simon also promised to provide more resources to community boards to strengthen their ability to weigh in on land use matters “because we're asking people to evaluate incredibly complicated projects, beyond their area of expertise, and we're not giving them any help.”

She believes NYCHA infill development is misguided. “You may have what looks like a lot of room. But the reality is, you'd have to build too close to the existing buildings and it would just be awful,” she said. “And it also just engendered a lot of fear and distrust in the part of the residents and I think that was unnecessary.”

She is opposed to raising the charter school cap. “It’s a legislative decision as opposed to a borough president’s,” she said. She is supportive of building more dedicated busways and protected bike lanes, she said.

Simon’s bid has been endorsed by several fellow elected officials and political clubs including State Senator Andrew Gounardes, Assemblymember Robert Carroll, former State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, 504 Democratic Club, former Assemblymember Joan Millman, Union of Arab Women of NYC, the Bay Ridge Democrats, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, Brooklyn Young Democrats, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn and Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. She is in second place in fundraising and had over $727,000 in campaign cash as of March 15, but her filings also show an outstanding loan of $125,000, which Simon lent to the campaign.

Khari Edwards
Khari Edwards was the vice president of external affairs at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center for more than seven years, where he was the first person of color to hold the position, according to his website. In this role, he worked with various community-based organizations to make the hospital a fixture of the local community, his site says.

Before working at the hospital, Edwards served as a special advisor to the Democratic leader of the New York State Senate for nearly four years and as the regional representative for the Office of the New York State Executive Chamber for about two years, per his LinkedIn page.

Edwards’ main four borough president campaign issues, according to his website, are housing and homelessness, healthcare, small businesses, and opportunities for youth.

His main goal when it comes to housing is to ensure the creation of more units for families, meaning three to four bedroom apartments, which would benefit families that have children or extended family members living with them.

“My first piece of legislation is any new city-funded development should be three or four bedrooms,” he told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. “We haven’t built three and four bedrooms since, I think, 2006. I tell the story all the time that my wife and I, my three children, and my 85-year-old dad, we had a fire in our home, and while we were waiting to move back into our house, we couldn’t find a place that all of us could stay together.”

For NYCHA, Edwards said he is not supportive of the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program that encourages private management of public housing and the city is utilizing and expanding, and that more of the money that’s going to the public housing authority should be used to renovate existing properties and eliminate issues such as lead and mold inside the apartments.

“I believe that public housing should remain public. It is the last frontier for affordability. I do think that, however, NYCHA needs to be fully renovated, fully invested in,” Edwards said, though he did not say where he believed the money should come from.

Additionally on housing, Edwards wants to change how Area Median Income is determined and used for setting housing affordability thresholds.

Edwards proposes using the AMI of each individual ZIP code, and then only approving affordable housing development projects if they include housing for people who make 50% of the ZIP code’s AMI.

When it comes to the land use review process, ULURP, Edwards said that he believes it should become more community-based.

“What I want to do is put the power back into the community’s hands and to make sure that our community boards have a vote in ULURP,” Edwards said, offering a major proposed change to how land use decisions are made given that community boards, like borough presidents, are currently in an advisory capacity.

Edwards also wants to create a screening process to ensure that members of community boards are diverse and reflective of the district they serve. The screening committee would be made up of stakeholders — community members, churches, teachers and business owners — who would interview the candidates to help him make appointments.

And he plans to promote community board meetings through newly-created marketing teams, as well as making sure those meetings are recorded and posted online for those who cannot attend in person.

Edwards also wants each community board to set aside two positions for members 18 years old and younger and two positions for people ages 19-25.

Other opportunities Edwards wants to provide for youth in the borough, according to his campaign website, are creating a youth job and internship portal and covering the costs of community-based organizations housed in city school buildings, like after-school programs.

Edwards said he does not support raising the cap on charter schools. “I feel that charter schools, even though they’ve played their role, have really kind of decimated our public school system and I feel that charter schools have the ability to pay for their own space, but right now, with COVID...I don’t feel that all charter schools have our students’ best interests at hand,”  he said.

In terms of small business, his campaign website states that Edwards will use the borough president’s nonprofit fund to provide relief to small businesses and will create incentives to and a portal for businesses to collaborate with one another.

Edwards has been endorsed by the large and influential DC 37 labor union as well as Brooklyn City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel and Assemblymember Nick Perry. As of the mid-March campaign finance filing he had raised a total of $673,204 in public and private funds.

Antonio Reynoso
Reynoso, also a term-limited Democrat, represents City Council District 34, which includes parts of Bushwick, Ridgewood, and Williamsburg. Through his two terms in office, he has chaired the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, while he has focused on those issues, environmental justice, police accountability, and transit.

Reynoso is framing himself as the progressive champion in the race and pitched his campaign for borough president in deeply personal terms. “I'm a son of two immigrant parents that got here with very little money,” he said in an interview. “Whether it was welfare, Section 8, food stamps, Medicaid, you name it, if there was a government aid that existed, my family had to take advantage of it just to give us a fair shot at life. So I knew from a very young age what government can do for people in need. And I want to make sure that I can pay that forward.”

Reynoso wants to be the borough’s cheerleader, evoking the popular former Borough President Marty Markowitz, who was Adams’ predecessor. “Brooklyn gave me everything and Brooklyn is my home. I love it dearly. I want to bring a little bit of the Marty Markowitz back,” he said. But it’s not just the best bagels or pizza in town that he wants to promote. “I also want to make Brooklyn the model for progressive politics and progressive policy,” he said.

Reynoso acknowledges the limited charter-mandated responsibilities of the office, with the focus on community board appointments and land use recommendations. “I think the strongest and most important responsibility is the bully pulpit,” he said. “You are representing Brooklyn, the largest county in the country, and you're representing an area that is larger than some states in some cases and definitely larger than most cities in itself.”

At the top of his list for using capital dollars is creating more health equity across the borough, particularly for Black women who have historically suffered worse health outcomes. “I'm looking to outfit every single public hospital in Brooklyn with a state of the art birthing center,” Reynoso said. “I really want to start talking about Black women's health during childbirth. I think it's one of the most significant gross inequities that exist in our city, but definitely in Brooklyn.”

As one of the original sponsors of comprehensive planning legislation that has been introduced in the City Council, Reynoso has long been a critic of the city’s current land use and development processes. The problem he sees is that the city looks at blocs of development rather than borough-wide needs, imposes rezonings rather than soliciting community input on their demands.

“We could spread this burden of building housing in the city,” he said. “The comprehensive planning idea here is to allow for every community board to send us information about where they think potential development can occur, and then encouraging the city to build more equitably, as opposed to just cramming all their housing in these poor Black and brown neighborhoods,” he said. The legislation, championed by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is running for Comptroller, has had one Council hearing and is among the major proposals that could be passed before the end of the term this year.

Reynoso wants to expand the land use and planning expertise in the borough president’s office to provide technical assistance to community boards.

The lack of comprehensive planning is also why Reynoso believes the rezonings pursued by the de Blasio administration in places like East New York are flawed, though he did reserve some judgement. “It's hard to determine whether a rezoning is good or bad in short order...The outcomes I guess dictate whether or not it was a good rezoning. So the jury's still out on these,” he said.

“The rezonings are a product of a flawed process and a flawed process is going to have a flawed outcome,” he said. “So I think we need to start rethinking about how we're doing rezonings, rethinking the process. And until then, I can't necessarily say that I think any of these rezonings are beneficial to communities.” Last year, Reynoso was the leading elected official urging the administration to study a community-led rezoning plan for Bushwick, in his district, instead of an administration-led proposal. The rezoning was ultimately put on hold after the two sides could not come to an agreement on the scale and scope of the rezoning.

Another failure of city government is that the administration tends to promise large-scale community investments only when proposing major neighborhood rezonings. “Why is it that we need a rezoning before they can start dealing with our sewer lines? Why is it that we need a rezoning before we can get transportation options or MTA stations or housing development?” Reynoso said. “There's just so many things that the city should be taking care of independent of rezonings.”

He extended the argument to borough-based jails as well, calling them “a result of a flawed process,” though he does not regret voting in favor of the plan.

“It's very hard to say that you want to build more humane jails, because jails in themselves are inhumane,” he said, explaining his conflict about the jails plan. “It's hard to make it independent,” he said of closing Rikers and not building new jails, “but we closed Rikers. That's what we set out to do. I am very happy and very proud of the vote. It was tough. It was a tough vote, but we closed Rikers...These new jails, there's still opportunities to have conversations about exactly what we want them to look like.”

As borough president, Reynoso said he would be deliberate about diversifying community boards “with perspectives, with professions, with ethnicities and race, religion, age, income.” He also wants to ensure they do not prevent beneficial projects that he supports. “I don't want any community boards to be like the first stop of NIMBYism,” he said, referring to the oft-used community board philosophy of “not in my back yard.”

He was direct about his opposition to the NYCHA infill development as it’s currently taking place, with mixed-income projects being pursued by the city. He insisted that private for-profit developers should not benefit from public land and should particularly not get an opportunity to build more market-rate housing there. “100% affordable housing done by not-for-profits is the way to go,” he said. “We need more affordable housing. Anything less than that is a big problem for me.”

He went further, saying the infill program should be put on hold until a new administration comes to power.  “I don't think that we should be having this conversation under this current mayor and his current leadership, because they just don't manage well,” he said. “And I think that this new election is going to be a mandate to do something different, and it not be this business as usual.”

Reynoso is opposed to raising the charter school cap. “The issue that I have is that there's a double standard when it comes to these charter schools. There are things that are accepted there that are not accepted in public schools.”

Reynoso, who has been a long-time proponent of public transit and of bike-riding in the city, supports building more dedicated busways and protected bike lanes. “Yes, 100%,” he said when asked about expanding both.

Having championed successful legislation to create commercial waste zones across the city that will cut down on truck traffic and limit the over-saturation of low-income communities of color with waste stations, Reynoso said the approach to infrastructure, particularly climate resiliency, needs to be boroughwide, not based in individual communities along the waterfront. “Right now, every single community along the waterfront is having their own individual fight for resiliency up and down along the coast…What we should have is one coordinated effort where the city goes to the federal government and asks for funding for the entire coast of Brooklyn,” he said. “That is not what happens right now. When we don't coordinate our work together, the inequities start existing. The people who have more money or more political capital, end up getting more resources than the people that don't have that. And I don't want that to be the case.”

“For me, it’s not so much about necessarily where you land on policy, because I don’t think many of us are going to be too far away on too many issues,” he said of the many candidates in the race. “It comes down to who do you think can deliver.”

Reynoso has been endorsed by a ‘who’s who’ of progressive organizations and elected officials including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, fellow City Council Members Brad Lander, Margaret Chin, and Helen Rosenthal, State Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, Assemblymembers Marcela Mitaynes and Maritza Davila, the Working Families Party, Make the Road Action, and the New Kings Democrats. As of March 15, Reynoso’s campaign had about $618,000 in cash on hand.

Kimberly Council
Kimberly Council has worked for roughly two decades as an associate minister at Historic Berean Baptist Church and as a senior reference librarian at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, a New York City-based international law firm. She has also run for several elected offices in recent years, including City Council and State Assembly.

Council is running for borough president in part based on her lived experience of being raised in a publicly-subsidized home with her parents and four siblings, and dealing with food insecurity and poverty. She highlights her membership in the NAACP, Church Women United, and the National Council of Negro Women, and as the former president of the Law Librarian Association of Greater New York.

Council’s top campaign issues are affordable housing and health care, but her website provides issue stances for an array of other topics as well.

When it comes to housing and land use, Council said that the overarching goal is to make dealings more transparent and community-involved. “Typically by the time it gets to the community level, it’s already been through several different areas and we want to make sure that the community is involved in the project from the beginning and that the developer solicits their input as they’re developing the project,” she said in reference to the ULURP process and development proposals.

She told Gotham Gazette in an interview that she would demand that 60% of all new housing projects that come to her for input as borough president be affordable at a lower, more localized Area Median Income (AMI).

Additionally, Council’s borough president campaign website says that she plans to “Ensure that all proposed zoning changes consider educational infrastructure, healthcare infrastructure, impact on first responders, access to transit, impact on utility service, and environmental sustainability in the scope.”

On the related topic of community boards, Council said that she wants the boards to be more diverse and to actually be representative of their communities. She also said that she feels communication is the key to ensuring that community boards work on behalf of their constituents.

For NYCHA, the candidate said that she supports legislation by Reps. Nydia Velázquez’s and Yvette Clarke, both New York City Democrats, that would put more money into the housing authority, but she also wants to use the bully pulpit to push the mayor and governor to invest more money into NYCHA. By doing so, she said, the city would be able to ensure public housing facilities are environmentally sound and would be creating jobs around the developments.

“We want to make sure that we are investing not just in the projects but in the people that live in those projects,” she said.

When it comes to the closing of the Rikers Island jail complex, Council said that she is in favor of a community-based jails plan, but emphasized that community input needs to be taken into consideration when developing the plan (the city’s plan already went through the ULURP process and passed the City Council).

“This will be something that you will see throughout every answer is that we want community input,” she said. “I want the community’s input in what it is that we’re going to do, don’t want this to be something where we come in and dictate, ‘This is what’s gonna’ happen,’ but that we have them involved in the process from the very beginning.”

Council’s education plan is based on her experience as “a member of the White House Community Leader Briefing Series, where she advised high level Obama Administration officials on educational policy,” she says. According to her campaign website, she will fight for increased baseline funding from the city and state to hire more teaching assistants, librarians, nurses, and social workers.

On the subject of charter schools, Council told Gotham Gazette that she does not support raising the state-imposed cap on charter schools that prevents new charter schools from being created in the city.

Another component of her campaign is transit infrastructure, specifically to add more bus stops and lines, more ferry stops, and more protected bike lanes throughout the borough.

She would like to see more stops added to the city’s five current ferry lines, especially in south Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Coney Island and Mill Basin. A Coney Island ferry line is already planned for a 2021 opening, which will have a start/end point in Coney Island, a stop in Bay Ridge, and start/end at Pier 11 in Manhattan.

Council said that while she would push to expand the number of bike lanes, she would also make sure that all bike lanes, both old and new, are clearly marked.

She also plans on creating a “Mobile Borough Hall,” which would consist of social services that can be brought into communities so that they don’t have to go to the physical Borough Hall building for help.

“I want to make Borough Hall a one-stop-shop for small businesses, for people in the community, for social services, for everything that everybody needs,” Council said. “They should know that they can come to Borough Hall to have their issues dealt with.”

Council had raised about $84,000 as of the March campaign finance filing.

Mathieu Eugene
Mathieu Eugene is the term-limited City Council member for the 40th District, which includes the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Midwood, Prospect Park South, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.

He has held this position since 2007, when he won in a special election, making him the first-ever Haitian-American elected to the New York City Council. Eugene chairs the Council’s Committee on Civil and Human Rights and previously chaired the Committee on Youth Services.

Gotham Gazette was unable to find a borough president campaign website for Eugene, and he did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this article. Eugene has been sending fundraising solicitations to his supporters by email, though his fundraising has been lackluster, and he has appeared at some candidate forums, but he does not appear to be campaigning aggressively.

As of the March campaign finance filing, Eugene had raised about $54,000.

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While the candidates discussed above are the apparent top six contenders for the position, there are still six other candidates vying for the role of Brooklyn Borough President.

Go to page two of this article to read about the remaining candidates and their backgrounds, past accomplishments, issue stances, and plans for the borough. READ MORE.

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by Samar Khurshid & Amanda Salazar

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to reflect accurate campaign fundraising numbers for Robert Cornegy. He has about $493,000 in cash on hand, not more than $1 million as previously stated.

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Highly Competitive Borough President Race Underway in Brooklyn Mon, 05 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
First Mandated Survey of Small Businesses Identifies Problems But City Points to Existing Services https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8836-first-mandated-city-survey-of-small-businesses-identifies-problems https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8836-first-mandated-city-survey-of-small-businesses-identifies-problems bdb rec business

Mayor de Blasio & Council Member Cornegy stop at a small business (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


New York City’s small businesses need more employees but struggle with hiring, and lack the time and resources they need to find and train talent. Their operational costs continue to be a challenge, including the cost of rent, insurance, and utilities. They need more financial support for growth and more assistance to comply with government rules and regulations.

Those are just a few of the findings of a limited and first-of-its-kind survey conducted by the New York City Department of Small Business Services under new laws passed by the City Council in 2017.

As mandated by the law, the survey began in August 2018 and was ongoing when the initial results were published in June of this year (it has since concluded). It was required by a pair of bills, sponsored by City Council Member Robert Cornegy, which also require the city to create a “workforce development plan” based on the survey results.

A total of 543 business owners – out of more than 220,000 in the city – responded to the online survey, according to the 35-page report, outlining the issues they face in running and growing their enterprises. The responses came from across a range of businesses including food service establishments, professional and scientific businesses, construction trades, arts and entertainment, retail, and education, to name a few. About half the respondents were white, while African-American and Hispanic owners accounted for 20% and 15%, respectively.

The report comes as city government officials wrestle with how to help local small businesses amid a changing economy, sky-high costs, especially for rent, an increasing focus on vacant storefronts in the five boroughs, and debate over new mandates that some owners are opposing.

The report acknowledges early on that the sample “is not representative of the city’s business population” because of the relatively small number of responses – on key questions, there were fewer than 200 responses. Nonetheless, the report gets at some of the issues that businesses face in the city. About 42% of respondents said they did not have enough employees to run their business, and more than 60% said they suffered from a lack of tools to recruit employees and meet other pressing needs.

“There's no question that small businesses are facing growing challenges and this survey certainly echoes that,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan policy group focused on economic opportunity, in a phone interview. Dvorkin said he was disappointed that the study did not contain more holistic data about the city’s small business landscape but did say it generally tracks with CUF’s research on the challenges faced by small businesses.

And he underscored the importance of understanding the problem. Small businesses, he said, “have consistently added jobs every single year since 2000. And as a result...very small businesses with fewer than 20 employees have added more net jobs every year than businesses with more than 500 employees have in New York City.”

About 40% of respondents to the survey said their top need was help in training new employees, while 33% said recruitment was their biggest challenge, and 27% pointed to general human resources management. The respondents said their key qualifications for employees include work ethic (the most-given response), customer service skills, relevant work experience and subject matter familiarity, and punctuality, among others.

But the “plan” accompanying the survey results is sparse on new offerings. The report notes that most of the issues that small businesses face are covered by free services provided by SBS, but points out that about half of the respondents had not availed themselves of those services, requiring more outreach about SBS programs.

The report lists those various services including training and free recruitment services through 18 of the city’s Workforce1 Career Centers, human resources support, financial and free legal assistance, and more. But it focuses more on the need to more broadly educate small businesses about these services rather than providing new ones.

“SBS is always looking to expand the offerings we provide to small businesses and as their needs continue to adapt, our programming teams are working to address each demand,” an SBS spokesperson said in a statement, when asked if the report had prompted any additional services.

Council Member Cornegy was not made available for comment on the initial results of his bills that became law.

Dvorkin said the city needs to do more. He pointed out, as the report notes, that SBS runs a Customized Training program intended to help businesses invest in employee training with grants up to $400,000, which can address the most dire need expressed by business owners in the survey. But that program is only available for businesses that train batches of at least 10 or more employees at once, effectively being out of reach for the 90% of small businesses that have fewer than 10 employees.

“It fundamentally presents a disconnect,” Dvorkin said, insisting that the city should try to expand these services for smaller workforces. “Most small businesses are not ever going to be able to actually access this really effective and really important service that the city provides.”

He did note that there would be considerable costs associated with added services. “You may not be able to scale it up to meet the needs across the entire city without a significant new influx of dollars,” he said. “But I think, to be able to test out the model to see, can this work for companies that are only training five employees or three employees? We won't know until we try.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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First Mandated Survey of Small Businesses Identifies Problems But City Points to Existing Services Mon, 07 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 16,000 - The Future of Gifted & Talented Schooling in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8776-what-s-the-data-point-16-000-gifted-talented-education-schools https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8776-what-s-the-data-point-16-000-gifted-talented-education-schools whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 79 -- 16,000, with David Tipson of Appleseed & City Council Member Robert Cornegy [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

cornergy tippson wtdpMayor de Blasio's School Diversity Advisory Group recently released its second and final set of recommendations to integrate the city's schools and improve the overall education system for 1.1 million studens. One particular recommendation -- to replace current gifted and talented programming -- caught a lot of attention, including from City Council Member Robert Cornegy of Brooklyn, who has worked to expand G&T in his district and across the city. Cornegy and David Tipson of Appleseed, a nonprofit dedicated to school integration and improvement, joined the podcast to discuss the work of the SDAG, the future of gifted and talented programming in the city, and how G&T fits into the larger school system.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What's The [DATA] Point? 16,000 - The Future of Gifted & Talented Schooling in New York City Thu, 05 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Field for Public Advocate Special Election Comes Into Focus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8069-field-for-public-advocate-special-election-comes-into-focus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8069-field-for-public-advocate-special-election-comes-into-focus Rafael Espinal

Council Member Rafael Espinal (photo: William Alatriste)


Letitia James’ win in the race to become the next New York Attorney General means there will be a special election early in 2019 to name New York City’s next Public Advocate. The candidates for what will be a roughly three-month race were just beginning to become clear when news broke of planned City Council legislation calling for the position of public advocate to be abolished, as reported by Politico.

Though the post of public advocate has had critics since it was created during a massive 1989 New York City Charter revision process, the Council bill faces an uphill path to passage, and the race to replace James as one of just three popularly-elected citywide officials will capture much of the city’s political attention over the coming weeks.

The somewhat undefined and underfunded role of public advocate is largely shaped by the person who fills it. It is broadly expected that the public advocate will do as the name suggests and fight for public interests, serving as a watchdog over the rest of city government. It is also seen as a stepping stone post -- Bill de Blasio launched his successful 2013 campaign for mayor from the perch.

With James expected to win her race for attorney general since she launched her campaign several months ago, a long list of potential public advocate candidates formed. Now that Election Day is in the past, some are making it official, while others are still officially in the considering phase.

Pushing the decision-making is that organizations have begun to host candidate forums, including the first on Monday night, held in Manhattan by several progressive advocacy groups and Democratic clubs. Another will follow on Wednesday night, hosted by government reform group Citizens Union and AARP-NY. Candidates must also consider fundraising and pursuing endorsements from groups, labor unions, and high-profile individuals.

Even before James won her race, a handful of candidates declared their candidacies: City Council Member Jumaane Williams, state Assembly Members Daniel O’Donnell and Michael Blake, activist and journalist Nomiki Konst, and Columbia history professor David Eisenbach, who ran in the 2017 public advocate Democratic primary against James.

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is said to be nearing the launch of a campaign, while there have been grumblings that her predecessor in that role, Christine Quinn, may also give the race a look. There has also been some question about whether Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams would consider it, though he has expressed his intention to run for mayor in 2021. Both Quinn and Adams appear unlikely candidates at this point.

Meanwhile, along with Williams, who just lost a bid to become the Democratic lieutenant governor nominee, current City Council Members either starting or flirting with a run for public advocate include Rafael Espinal, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Eric Ulrich, the lone Republican in the mix at this point. (Meanwhile, five of their colleagues - Kalman Yeger, Robert Holden, Ruben Diaz Sr., Mark Gjonaj, and Rtichie Torres -- announced on Monday that they are backing a new bill to eliminate the position.)

Also in the running for public advocate are Dawn Smalls, a Manhattan attorney with a background in federal government, open government advocate and Democratic Party activist Ben Yee, and systems engineer Theo Chino. Other names could easily emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Once James is officially sworn in as attorney general on January 1, Mayor de Blasio will have just a few days to call a special election, likely to take place in late February. That election will be “non-partisan,” meaning there are no party primaries and each candidate must create their own ballot line through petitioning to accrue signatures from voters.

Once the special election is decided, the winner will only hold the office until the end of 2019. In the fall, there will be a “regular” election, with party primaries (as necessary) and a general election. The winner of that election will serve out the rest of James’ term until the end of 2021. He or she would be eligible to run for reelection that fall and able to serve two full terms on top of the partial term, though there is of course talk that whoever holds the seat at the start of 2020 may very well run for mayor in 2021, when de Blasio is term-limited out of office.

The forum on Wednesday will be held at New York Law School starting at 6:30 p.m., participating candidates including Blake, Williams, Espinal, Ulrich, O'Donnell, Konst, and Smalls.

[Updated: Listen to the full Wednesday forum here]

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

This story has been updated to indicate that City Council Member Robert Cornegy told Gotham Gazette he is not running for public advocate and that he is pursuing a run for Brooklyn borough president in 2021.

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Field for Public Advocate Special Election Comes Into Focus Mon, 12 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Fostering Feeder Schools Will Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7841-fostering-feeder-schools-to-improve-diversity-at-the-specialized-high-schools https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7841-fostering-feeder-schools-to-improve-diversity-at-the-specialized-high-schools students

students (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The public education system in New York City remains one of the most segregated and unequally resourced school systems in the country, reflective of segregation and inequality in other areas of our civic life.

That segregation is starkly obvious in our specialized high schools. In a city where two out of three public high school students are black or Latino, it is unacceptable that they comprise only 10% of the student body across all eight of our elite high schools.

Much has been made recently of Mayor de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT, from the admissions process. The plan is to replace it with a more holistic assessment of achievement based on students’ classroom grades, scores on state standardized English and math tests, and potentially other criteria yet to be determined. But the lack of diversity in our specialized high schools is not a function of the admissions process alone.

The city’s specialized high schools draw from just 21 of the nearly 600 public middle schools citywide. The two Brooklyn City Council districts that we represent factor into this discussion in important ways, and help us draw a path toward improvements to our school system and more diversity at our elite high schools.

Three of these 21 feeder schools are located in the city’s 43rd City Council District in south Brooklyn, with nearly a quarter of all students admitted to specialized high schools coming from School Districts 20, 21, and 22. The schools in these communities are exceptionally diverse, with a majority of students coming from first and second generation immigrant families -- white, black, Hispanic, and Asian alike.

District 16 in central Brooklyn, where schools are 77 percent black and 18.5 percent Hispanic, is a different story. There is not one feeder middle school in District 16, which decades ago had enhanced academics that sent hundreds of students of color to the specialized schools. In fact, until 2015, District 16 schools did not offer the advanced level courses and programming known as “gifted and talented.”

It took pressure from local elected officials forced the Department of Education to provide many majority-minority school districts access to the kind of enhanced academics that provide a pathway to the specialized schools. Despite representing over two-thirds of our public school population, black and Latino students make up only 27% of those enrolled in gifted and talented programs. But even now, the enhanced academics are poorly resourced.

To be sure, improving the admissions process to ensure greater diversity in our specialized high schools is critically important. Expanding access to a great education for minority communities already facing obstacles to their achievement is necessary if we are going to provide equality of opportunity for all New Yorkers.

High-stakes, standardized tests like the SHSAT are poor indicators of students’ potential for success. However, the test is not in itself the problem, and need not be eliminated in order to increase opportunity and diversity. But even with additional methods of assessment, the reality of unequal resources and underinvestment in certain schools would mean improving diversity at our elite high schools will still be a significant challenge.

When you consider that nearly 60% of the middle schools that sent students to specialized high schools were in districts that had gifted and talented schools that required a test for admission, it is evident how decades of unequal investment in enrichment for students of color might be the most significant contributing factor to the city’s problem of diversity in specialized high schools.

Barring state intervention, the students who receive a qualifying score on the SHSAT will continue to be those who have access to test prep and other educational enrichment that most black and Latino students do not.

Today, the National Society of Black Engineers offers test prep to youngsters in District 16 schools to prepare them for tests like the SHSAT. This programming should be expanded, not just to succeed on a test, but to teach how to succeed in life. We must give students enriching experiences that make them connect with learning and foster critical thought and engagement. And we have to do more to create parent awareness and interest in gifted and talented programming.

But it is not enough simply to offer gifted and talented programs and call it a day. The programming provided must be adequately resourced and targeted at the students who are currently underrepresented.

Our colleagues in the City Council agree that the city must restore the funding for enhanced academics in black and Latino communities. As recently as 1989, Brooklyn Tech, for example, was 51 percent black and Latino. As enhanced academics for high-potential students was eliminated in those communities, the percentages of students of color decreased to the point we are at today. We know students, whether in southern or central Brooklyn, can compete successfully if given the resources. They have done it before. They can do it again.

Ending the SHSAT without providing adequate funding and a commitment to educating all students equitably will do nothing to adequately resolve the lack of diversity in our schools, specialized or otherwise.

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Robert E. Cornegy, Jr. represents the Brooklyn communities of Bedford Stuyvesant and Northern Crown Heights in the New York City Council. Justin Brannan represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst in the City Council. On Twitter @RobertCornegyJr & @JustinBrannan.

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

Note: this column has been corrected to reflect that in 1989, Brooklyn Tech was 51 percent black and Latino, not 67 percent as originally stated.

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Fostering Feeder Schools Will Improve Diversity at the Specialized High Schools Thu, 02 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
We Need Commercial Waste Reform, and Now We Have a Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7816-we-need-commercial-waste-reform-and-now-we-have-a-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7816-we-need-commercial-waste-reform-and-now-we-have-a-plan city council cm cornegy

Council Member Cornegy, the author (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


New Yorkers have good reason to be concerned, even angry, about the state of affairs in our city's commercial waste industry. Stakeholders and commentators are absolutely right to note that, among other issues to address, the tragic loss of life in this industry is unacceptable.

However, agreement on the importance of cleaning up commercial waste carting does not change the fact that a huge question is still on the table: How can we actually achieve our shared goals as quickly and effectively as possible?

In many ways, the answer lies in comments made just this week by Mayor de Blasio, when he said, "I hope that we can really strengthen the hand of the Business Integrity Commission, give them a lot more tools, a lot more teeth to work with in their regulation of that industry."

My colleagues in the City Council and I have introduced legislation, known as Intro. 996, which would do that by empowering the Business Integrity Commission (BIC) to raise standards in the commercial waste industry and hold bad actors accountable.

Our bill would enable BIC to create standardized safety certifications for industry employees and institute requirements that ensure workers are properly trained. It would also give BIC the tools to establish clear rules regarding allowable levels of emissions for commercial waste trucks. Additionally, the bill would empower BIC to more stringently regulate the industry with regard to maximizing efficiency along each waste collection route.

These are just several examples of how Intro. 996 would give BIC more of the tools and teeth that Mayor de Blasio has said are necessary for advancing commercial waste carting reforms. Our legislation would also let BIC establish its own task force to offer additional insight and recommendations for continuing to improve this industry over the long-term.

On the other hand, Mayor de Blasio's own Department of Sanitation has offered a nebulous and flawed proposal to develop commercial waste zones, which would replace the industry's current open market system with a series of geographic zones that are exclusively contracted to a small number of waste carters.

First, Sanitation’s proposal is not squarely focused on advancing the mayor's stated goal of empowering BIC. By relying on a fundamental restructuring of the industry, this plan would essentially take power away from BIC rather than giving it more of the tools it needs to regulate carting companies.

There is also the issue of unintended consequences. It is common knowledge by now that the zone-based waste collection plan implemented last year in Los Angeles had a truly disastrous rollout. Prices and service complaints skyrocketed, leading to a chaotic situation that, if it were to happen in New York, would surely make it extremely difficult to achieve our shared goals.

The Department of Sanitation’s own 2016 report, released as part of introducing its waste zone proposal, acknowledged that costs for small businesses that are served by this industry would increase under a zone-based plan. Additionally, the report acknowledged that zones would lead to job losses in the industry - and I do not think that efforts to increase safety have to include putting people out of work.

To be clear, I am ready to advance commercial waste carting reforms now and deliver results on increasing safety, reducing environmental impact and increasing regulatory oversight. And I want to achieve this in the way that Mayor de Blasio himself has articulated - by giving BIC more of the tools and teeth it needs.

Now is the time to translate our concerns about this industry into tangible, sensible, and effective action - we just need to get it done.

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Robert E. Cornegy, Jr. represents the central Brooklyn communities of Bedford Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights in the New York City Council. On Twitter @RobertCornegyJr.

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

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We Need Commercial Waste Reform, and Now We Have a Plan Thu, 19 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Johnson Makes Series of City Council Changes, But Sidelines Formal Rules Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7726-johnson-makes-series-of-city-council-changes-but-sidelines-formal-rules-reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7726-johnson-makes-series-of-city-council-changes-but-sidelines-formal-rules-reforms cojo cm team

Speaker Johnson, middle, and Council members (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


In December, several City Council members jostling to become the powerful next speaker of the 51-member legislative body signed on to a broad platform of reforms to the Council’s rules and procedures, which can have a significant impact on city law-making and funding for communities. Both returning and newly-elected Council members, 33 of them in total, backed the proposals, which would make legislative drafting procedures more transparent, bolster staffing for prominent divisions such as land use, and tweak the Council’s internal culture in significant ways, among other more minor adjustments.

But a deadline set in that platform for convening a public hearing on the proposals came and went as new Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was among the signatories, has chosen instead to implement administrative changes in lieu of more formal reforms through the Council’s Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges. Several Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette largely praised those measures but others expressed concern that important promises have been left unfulfilled.

In a process somewhat similar to four years prior when Council members proposed changes ahead of the election of a new speaker, the document signed by the Council members in December of last year laid out broad areas where the Council could improve its functions, including in bill drafting, the role and operations of the 40-plus issue committees, the body’s oversight and investigations capacity, its budget negotiation process, its land use powers, and the quality of working life for members and their staff.

“A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018,” states the letter, signed by both Speaker Johnson and Council Member Karen Koslowitz, whom he appointed as chair of the rules committee. “The reforms should then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later than June 2018.”

By this time in 2014, then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had ushered in transformative rules changes that made the body more democratic, diluting some of the traditional powers of the speaker and empowering individual members. The changes were spearheaded along with Council Member Brad Lander, who she appointed to chair the rules committee and was instrumental in drafting the reforms.

Discretionary funding -- also known as “member items” that are usually awarded by Council members to local nonprofits in their districts -- was equalized across Council districts, with additional resources allocated to poorer districts, and could no longer be a tool to punish members who might oppose the speaker, as Mark-Viverito’s predecessors had used it. A new bill drafting unit was created to aid Council members and speed up the legislative process, and other changes were made to how bills are introduced and heard in committees.

Johnson has taken a different tack, making significant administrative changes that cover large parts of the rules reform package and were key pledges he made as he ran for speaker.

The Council voted to significantly increase its own annual budget to $81.3 million, up from $64 million, with the new funds pegged for staffing increases in the land use, legislative, and finance divisions. A dedicated 15-member oversight and investigations unit was created to conduct systemic analyses of city agencies and their functioning. According to a Council spokesperson, the central staff has also internally overseen improvements in bill drafting, no longer allowing indefinite delays on bill introductions and impressing on members to move their bills or release them for others. Members can now also electronically access the status of their bills in real time and there is a timely process for staff to express legal concerns with bill language. Members are provided legal memos on their bills on request, which is apparently rare. All moves meant to address major areas of frustration for some members, though key pieces of proposed changes to bill-drafting have not been implemented.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Council also moved rapidly to change its rules to mandate anti-sexual harassment trainings.

“I am proud to have taken important steps on necessary reforms in my first months as speaker, including the creation of the new Oversight and Investigations Unit that will strengthen our capacity for monitoring city agencies as mandated by the charter,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I will continue to discuss with members what reforms should be made in the future to help better serve the people of New York.”

photobyemilyWhen asked for comment, a spokesperson for Council Member Koslowitz (pictured), chair of the rules committee, initially said the Council member was unfamiliar with the rules reform package that she had signed. When presented with the full list of proposals, the spokesperson declined to comment.

By and large, Council members are appreciative of the steps Johnson has taken. Several members said their bills are moving faster and, without making any comparisons with Mark-Viverito, that Johnson is openly seeking member input on the budget and larger strategy.  

“The rules reform this time around, there were a lot of legitimate questions about whether or not these reforms needed to be put into the Council’s rules or they could just be effected,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a member of the rules committee. “A lot of them had to do with resource allocation. So I don’t know if once Corey’s done with putting his administrative imprint on the body, how much of the rules reforms still need to get done. Maybe that’ll be something to assess once we get through the city budget.”

At the same time, some members declined to comment, taking a wait-and-see approach before they evaluate Johnson’s commitment to rules reform. Others only agreed to speak anonymously, fearing what they say is increased scrutiny of public comments by the speaker’s office.

Those members pointed out, for instance, that though there have been changes to bill drafting, the process still falls largely to the discretion of the speaker’s central staff. Under a long-standing process, Council members who made “first-in-time” legislative services requests -- Council speak for when a member asks for a bill to be drafted -- were given priority even if other members may have similar bill requests. Having a “first-in-time” request meant that members could sit on bills indefinitely, which the rules reforms would have amended with an official time-bound process.

A Council spokesperson said that practice has ended and that members have offered positive feedback for the changes that have been made. Members are no longer allowed to sit on bills, and lose them to other members, the spokesperson said, without providing the details of how the new protocols work.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, said that is perhaps the most significant item in the rules reform package. “There’s no known criteria by which they’re making that decision and that needs to change,” he said in a phone interview. “At the very least, the speaker’s office ought to declare the criteria by which they decide which bills are moved.”

Council members who spoke to Gotham Gazette seemed to be in the dark about whether rules reforms were even being discussed. The overarching platform hasn’t been discussed in hearings though some of the issues have been raised in the Democratic conference meetings, said one member who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.  

“The first-in-time issues have not been changed,” the member said. “They did update the database -- truthfully, this was mostly done last term -- you can find out more quickly whether you’re first-in-time or not, but the process itself is still exactly as it was. And the legal concerns issue,” about getting legal opinions on bills in a timely manner, “is still as it was...And some of the disability and accessibility investments [for Council hearings] still need to be advanced.”

Though the Council allocated more money for pay raises for staffers, it hasn’t implemented pay parity with other city agencies where benefits are better and salaries are higher, despite that being a priority outlined in the draft of reforms. “Yeah, I would add that to the list,” the Council member said. Nor is childcare provided to members or staffers, as called for in the reform proposal.

The Council spokesperson noted that audio induction loops for those with hearing impairments were added last year and that language accessibility can be requested. The spokesperson also said that pay parity has been discussed with members when the Council was deciding its own budget, and ultimately members get to decide how they will use the increased funds budgeted for their offices and staff. The spokesperson also acknowledged that the Council does not currently provide childcare options but insisted that the Council is always looking at ways to expand it for all New Yorkers.

Council Member Mark Levine, one of Johnson’s chief rivals for the speakership, said the Council has made major improvements. “[The Speaker] has made progress on a lot of fronts,” he said, pointing to the uptick in the budget, the staffing increases, and more transparency and faster timelines on bill introductions. “It helps tremendously in managing your LS [legislative service] requests to have real-time access to that information. They’ve also staffed up pretty dramatically in the bill-drafting unit,” he said. “And it’s more equitable now. Everybody gets to identify 10 priority LSs which we want staff to work on and that evens it out a little bit more.”

Echoing Lancman, Levine said a formal hearing wasn’t absolutely necessary. “These changes have been possible through a combination of changing internal procedure, through allocation of resources, and that really is a very big deal,” he said.  

Some members are waiting until after budget negotiations have concluded with the administration to see more changes go into effect, particularly with new funding at the Council’s disposal.

“To date, the specifics of the rules reform stuff that we signed on to hasn’t been evidenced,” said Council Member Robert Cornegy, another current rules committee member and speaker candidate of last year. “There has been some efforts, especially in bill drafting, to make sure that bills move faster. But we’re so deep in the budget and I’m on the budget negotiation team, I can’t really see anything. I almost don’t know what’s going on around me as it relates to the legislation or the rules reform because we’re so deep in the budget.”

Cornegy said he wants to see “a bit more latitude” for members in the drafting process so bills can move more quickly.

Council Member Adrienne Adams, also a rules committee member, said very briefly before a Council hearing, “We’re still waiting. It’s been a while. We’re still waiting. I really don’t have anything to add right now.”

Among other items that remain unfinished are changes to the functioning of the Council committees, which hear bills and hold oversight hearings.

Despite being included in the proposed agenda, there’s still no protocol for committee hearing scheduling; there isn’t a standard process for members who want to switch committees midway through the term; hearings are not automatically triggered for bills with popular support; and committee staff aren’t publishing recaps of hearings that summarize testimony, requests made by members and promises made by the administration (though the full testimony from hearings continues to be readily available online.)

It’s likely once the budget is decided, which could be as soon as the coming week, that the Council will ramp up some of the changes put in motion by Johnson and get to other delayed reforms. Yet, Council members and government reform groups say that needs to happen in a public, transparent way. “If the speaker and 32 members made a commitment to pass rules reforms,” said Camarda of Reinvent Albany, “they should honor that commitment and hold public hearings to solicit input and pass meaningful rules changes.”

Camarda also pointed to a New York Post report from May that highlighted Johnson’s partial reversal on a promise to regularly publish his full public schedule and details of his contact with lobbyists. “We hope this isn’t the beginning of a trend that the speaker’s promises on good government issues go unfulfilled,” Camarda said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Inset Koslowitz photo by Emil Cohen

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Johnson Makes Series of City Council Changes, But Sidelines Formal Rules Reforms Fri, 08 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Council Members Renew Call for Task Force on NYPD Response to Emotionally Disturbed Persons https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7603-council-members-renew-call-for-task-force-on-nypd-response-to-emotionally-disturbed-persons https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7603-council-members-renew-call-for-task-force-on-nypd-response-to-emotionally-disturbed-persons de Blasio NYPD

Mayor de Blasio & top NYPD officials (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


In August of last year, shortly after NYPD officers shot to death an emotionally disturbed man in his apartment, City Council Member Jumaane Williams led an effort calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to set up a task force to conduct a wholesale review of the police department’s protocols in dealing with “emotionally disturbed persons,” or EDPs. Almost eight months later, with many in the city again reeling from the fatal shooting of an emotionally disturbed man at the hands of the NYPD, the mayor has continued to vacillate on the request.

“It seems to me that there’s systemic failure there,” said Williams in a phone interview. The initial request was made in a letter dated August 11 and co-signed by Council Members Ritchie Torres and Robert Cornegy representing the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Ben Kallos representing the Progressive Caucus, and Council Member Andrew Cohen, who was then chair of the Council’s mental health committee.

The letter was sent shortly after the shooting death of Dwayne Jeune, a 32-year-old resident of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, in Williams’ district. Jeune was tazed and then shot by officers, who responded to a 911 call from his mother, when he advanced on them with a knife. Jeune’s mother had told a 911 caller that her son was mentally ill and was not acting violently. In January, the Jeune family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, seeking $20 million in damages.

Since then, even though police officials have signaled support for the task force proposal, there has been little action.

The letter called for a task force to be convened and for it to complete its work within 60 days, conducting a top-to-bottom review of NYPD protocols; the department’s implementation of recommendations made last year by the NYPD Inspector General; and a look at how the administration’s much-touted Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) can be integrated with the 911 system. The Council members insisted that the task force include the chairs of the Council’s Committees on Mental Health and on Public Safety, mental health and police reform advocates, and people directly affected by officer-involved shootings.

“We keep having people who simply need help end up dead because they reached out in times of emergency,” the letter reads. “The natural consequence of this will be those New Yorkers suffering from episodes of poor mental health, as well as their loved ones, hesitating to ask for help from emergency services.”

The mayor himself showed initial reluctance to agree to the proposal. At an unrelated news conference on August 3, after Williams had first floated the idea, de Blasio said, “I don’t personally see the need for a specific task force because I think it’s an area of tremendous concern right now both at City Hall and at the NYPD to continue to improve the NYPD’s ability to address situations involving emotionally disturbed people.”

The number of 911 calls regarding EDPs, de Blasio noted, were “staggering,” about 150,000 the prior year. “[I] would say given the intense concern at City Hall related to mental health and the focus the NYPD has put on it, the right ideas are in place. We now have to just continue to deepen our implementation of those ideas,” he said, touting the ThriveNYC mental health program and the NYPD’s Crisis Intervention Training for officers to handle situations involving people with mental illness.

But the city hasn’t gone far enough, say the Council members who signed the August letter and who, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights, Brooklyn last week, are renewing their push for the task force. “It’s seven months later and nothing’s happened,” said Williams. “It’s concerning. The NYPD is ready and willing but now it’s on City Hall.”

“You have to look at what’s happening from a bird’s-eye view,” he added, “because we can’t just keep going along with the status quo where people in crisis, who need mental health treatment, are being killed.”

The Daily News recently reported that only about 8,200 of the NYPD's 36,000-member force have gone through the CIT training.

As far back as September, the NYPD expressed support for the task force. At a hearing of the public safety committee last month, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman reiterated that support, for either a new working group or reconstituting the mayor’s 2014 Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice. “[W]e have been continuing to work even as that hasn’t yet happened,” Herman said. “We did a pretty substantial review within the police department of our response to people who are mentally ill quite recently and are in the process of implementing several recommendations. So the work has continued.”

When could they expect to hear news of the task force, Williams asked.  

“It’s really a City Hall conversation,” Herman responded.  

Mayoral spokesperson Eric Phillips did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

“Obviously the most recent tragedies kind of highlight the fact that we need that task force,” said Council Member Cornegy, at City Hall on Monday, saying he would directly reach out to the mayor’s office to see if there has been movement on the request. He did say that he had “heard through the grapevine” that the NYPD is in the process of setting up the unit but that there had been no official word of how far along it was.

Cornegy said he is proposing a bill that would create a separate crisis hotline for EDPs, similar to 911 and 311. “NYPD should not necessarily be required to come out and be the first line of defense when you have mental health situations, whether they are egregious or whether they’re mid-level,” he said, noting that Saheed Vassell had past encounters with the police because of the lack of an alternate system. “I believe and the [Vassell] family believes that if that step had been available to them early on then they may have had a better treatment plan for his success as a person living with mental illness in the community.”

Council Member Cohen, similarly, introduced a number of bills late last year (which were reintroduced this year) that would require the NYPD to provide more data regarding interactions with people suffering from mental illness.

[Read: Bills Seek to Examine NYPD Interactions with ‘Emotionally Disturbed Persons,’ Prevent Tragedies]

“I think that there’s more information needed about EDP calls,” Cohen said outside the Council chambers on Monday. “It seems to me...the people who are getting shot by the NYPD seem to be disproportionately EDPs…These tragedies are mounting so time is of the essence. I’m not sure why it’s taken so long to get a response. That’s something you’re going to have ask the other side of the building.”

Police reform advocates have long criticized the mayor and his administration for not acting urgently enough, particularly at a time when a national conversation is happening around the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers and the lack of accountability by police departments. “I think absolutely the mayor has show he’s not giving real credit to these calls from the Council members for a task force,” said Yul-san Liem, a representative of Communities United for Police Reform and co-director of the Justice Committee. “At the same time, people in distress, people who are mentally ill, are still being brutalized and killed...We need a complete overhaul of how we treat people in emotional distress or with psychological disabilities.

Liem noted that after each incident in the recent past involving use of force against mentally ill people, the administration has fallen back on the argument that they are continually training and retraining officers to handle such situations. “But that’s really rhetoric to shield the police force from accountability and making substantial changes.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Members Renew Call for Task Force on NYPD Response to Emotionally Disturbed Persons Mon, 09 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Airbnb Reality in Central Brooklyn https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7381-the-airbnb-reality-in-central-brooklyn https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7381-the-airbnb-reality-in-central-brooklyn robert cornegy airbnb

City Council Member Robert Cornegy (photo: William Alatriste)


Just when I thought I’d seen it all, here comes Michael McKee with a screed against middle class home sharers like me that would -- or at least should -- make the hotel industry blush.  From one New Yorker to another - thanks but no thanks. We don’t need a white “savior” to tell people of color that they know how to best address gentrification in their communities.

I am a third generation Bedford-Stuyvesant resident, mother of three, and a proud constituent of City Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr. For years, I’ve shared my home with travelers from all over the world -- introducing people to my favorite local businesses and generating some extra income to provide for my family.

Hosting through Airbnb helps me pay my property taxes, contribute to my children’s education, and stay in the home and neighborhood I love, so that one day I can pass it on to my children.

In his op-ed, McKee uses desperate attacks filled with debunked reports and misleading data to explain his misinformed view of why home sharing “doesn’t work.” He asserts that "75 percent of Airbnb revenue in New York City is generated by commercial hosts with multiple listings, not ‘regular folks’ renting their own place.” This is false.  

In reality, 95 percent of New York City hosts who share an entire space have a single listing and 88 percent of host ​earnings ​in ​the city ​come from ​guest ​stays ​in ​private ​and ​shared ​spaces (i.e. a spare bedroom), ​long-term ​stays ​lasting ​at ​least ​30 ​days, ​and short-term ​stays ​with ​hosts ​who ​have ​only ​one ​entire ​home ​listing.  

This data can easily be found in Airbnb’s monthly data releases, but it’s pretty clear that McKee has no use for facts.

Indeed, he claims, without evidence, that "North and Central Brooklyn are the epicenter of gentrification in New York City, and Airbnb has played a destructive role.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Airbnb is helping families like mine stay in our communities. Home sharing is a bulwark against gentrification and the rising cost of living. Seventy-nine percent of Airbnb hosts in New York City report that home sharing has helped them stay in their homes, with 30 percent saying it’s helped them avoid eviction or foreclosure.

Moreover, rents in many Brooklyn neighborhoods were rising far before Airbnb came to town. According to MNS monthly reports, the average 1-bedroom in Williamsburg in January 2011 -- when Airbnb was still in its infancy -- cost $2,979 a month. In October 2017, the figure was $2,946, a decrease over the period of Airbnb's greatest growth.

The sad truth for a proud organization like Tenants PAC is that its leader, Mr. McKee, sounds more like a mouthpiece for the big hotel industry than he does an ally of tenants and homeowners.

It’s outrageous for McKee, who lives in a pre-war condo in Chelsea, where two-bedroom units sell for over $1 million and one-bedrooms rent for more than $4,000, to point his finger at New Yorkers like me as the cause of gentrification in our own neighborhoods. It's even more ridiculous when he cites an offensive, completely flawed "study" by an opponent of home sharing that was torn apart by actual academics.

Instead of parroting specious arguments made by the hotel industry, which continues to bulldoze permanent housing to build luxury hotels in New York City, even as profits stand at all-time highs, true advocates for tenants should get behind a bill introduced by Brooklyn Assemblymember Joe Lentol, A-7520, which would ensure that New Yorkers could share their own home, while protecting affordable housing from bad actors who threaten to remove permanent tenants.

The bill creates a mandatory registration system for hosts and would allow Airbnb to collect nearly $100 million in lodging/sales taxes in the first year alone. That’s money that could be used for affordable housing, as in Portland, Oregon and New Orleans, or services for people without homes, as in Chicago and Los Angeles.

You don’t have to look at Census data to realize that there are more white folks and fewer black folks here than there were 10 years ago. Bed-Stuy isn’t static -- no neighborhood ever is. But families like mine that have invested blood, sweat, and tears into this community for generations are going to do whatever we can -- including hosting through Airbnb -- to keep a toehold in the place we call home. Maybe Michael McKee should swing by sometime and see what we’re all about.

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Richelle Burnett is Airbnb host who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

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

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The Airbnb Reality in Central Brooklyn Thu, 21 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7368-council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7368-council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections City Council chambers with members

photo by William Alatriste/City Council


The New York City Board of Elections has widely been acknowledged as a dysfunctional agency in need of urgent and sweeping reform, yet the political will for modernizing and professionalizing the board has not existed, at least in part because its current structure benefits those in power.

Its system of appointments based on political patronage has long been a source of criticism and its mismanagement of election operations has frustrated voters and been the subject of City Council oversight hearings. But, when asked, the eight men vying to become the next Speaker of the City Council recently said concerns about the BOE are misguided. To varying degrees, they indicated that the board is effective and efficient, that its failings are isolated rather than systematic, and that its current structure should be preserved.

At a November 20 speaker candidate forum hosted by Citizens Union, other government reform groups, and New York Law School, seven speaker candidates -- Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, and Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan; Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens; and Robert Cornegy and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn -- were present and they mostly took the middle of the road when asked about the steps the City Council, which approves appointments to the BOE, could take to improve the board. The ten BOE commissioners include two -- one Republican and one Democrat -- from each borough.

The Council members hedged their bets and praised the BOE, recognizing that any criticism could potentially be read as directed toward the county party organizations that nominate BOE commissioners and place other employees at the board -- the same county organizations whose support each candidate is seeking in order to become speaker. The eighth candidate, Ritchie Torres from the Bronx, would later give Gotham Gazette a similar response.

None of the members were in favor of a non-partisan restructuring of the board. “That’s a tough question to ask of speaker candidates,” Williams said, to laughter from his colleagues in acknowledgement of the role of the county party machines in both picking BOE commissioners and picking the Council speaker. Williams defended the board but did acknowledge that patronage has played a role in appointments and that the Council could do more to improve it.

“We know that we do have some issues and if we can just do some more thinking through that process and make sure that it’s not as patronage as some folks may think, we can move a lot further,” Williams said, taking the most bold position of the group. “I’m not sure if we push as hard as we can when things go wrong.”

Other candidates spoke generally about reforming election and voting laws, a tangential subject that is mostly the prerogative of the state Legislature, and some staunchly argued in favor of the current partisan composition of the board, which they insisted maintains a balance and prevents one-party hegemony in elections.

“I do not support non-partisan appointments to the Board of Elections,” said Johnson, one of the three perceived frontrunners in the race, along with Levine and Cornegy. “I believe that the parties play a particular role in ensuring that we make sure that any party that’s dominant at a given time cannot run roughshod over another party. If someone came up with a perfect system of a non-partisan way to handle it, maybe I’d entertain it. I’ve never heard of that system, I don’t know how you take political influence out of politics.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Van Bramer said in response.

The city BOE falls under state jurisdiction, like all local boards of election, although the city gets to decide the board’s budget and not much else. The ten board commissioners are nominated by the county party machinery and appointed by the City Council. Representatives from the board testify at City Council hearings, usually during budget season, and receive recommendations and often admonitions from Council members, but are not bound to follow any Council mandates.

The board is often seen as favoring the Democratic Party establishment, given that the vast majority of candidates for city offices are Democrats. Candidates not backed by the party machinery are often challenged in board proceedings and kicked off the ballot, though they are often first-time candidates with fewer resources and without experienced election lawyers.

On Monday, Torres reiterated what his colleagues had said weeks ago. “I suspect you’re misdiagnosing the problem, the problem is a lack of resources,” he told Gotham Gazette at City Hall. “I suspect it’s a lack of resources more than the manner in which the appointments are made.”

He continued, “Does the BOE have inefficiencies? Yes. It’s true of every agency in city government. There’s not a single agency in city government that’s free of inefficiency. So the notion that you would cite inefficiency as an excuse for fundamentally changing the structure of an institution is dubious.” Torres said he would oppose any measures that could weaken the party organizations’ role but conceded that the Council should “study the problem comprehensively” to determine the needs and inefficiencies of the BOE.

There have been studies in the past, and each has found persistent issues.

A 2013 report by the city’s Department of Investigations found a raft of problems in elections management as well as internal board administration. In 2016, the BOE was responsible for a massive voter purge in Brooklyn during the presidential primaries, resulting in legal action by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In November, Schneiderman announced a consent decree with the BOE that requires added oversight of the board’s voter list maintenance.

Less than a week before this year’s general election on November 7, city Comptroller Scott Stringer also released an audit that excoriated the BOE’s dysfunctional election operations. At each step, the BOE has pushed back and has been resistant to change. Even when Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a $20 million incentive for the board to enact major reforms -- recommending the empaneling of a Blue Ribbon Commission to analyze the BOE, more transparency in hiring and improved poll worker training, among other measures -- its commissioners refused.

“The Mayor believes that it is critical that we reform the Board of Elections,” said Seth Stein, a mayoral spokesperson, in a statement on Tuesday. “They have demonstrated time and again that they are unable to perform the basic functions of their office, like keeping eligible voters on the rolls. The Mayor looks forward to working with whoever the next Speaker is to encourage the Board to accept the $20 million we have offered in exchange for necessary reforms.”

State-level BOE reforms have not progressed in Albany.

Those who could take steps or apply pressure to improve the BOE’s abysmal record are the very people invested in the status quo, however, and the City Council, particularly its speaker, falls squarely within that dynamic. Election experts also tend to agree that the Council can pass little meaningful reform, absent legislative action at the state level, and that the bi-partisan BOE composition is appropriate.  

“There’s very little the City Council can do regarding the structural functioning of the agency,” said Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer. “They could maybe fund the board at a higher level so it could function better.”

“In terms of patronage, it’s a bi-partisan agency, not a civil service agency. Unless that’s changed, the county organizations is where the commissioners and employees will come from,” she added. She insisted that most of the board’s employees are, in her experience, qualified and hard-working professionals. “As in any organization, some employees are better than others,” she said. And she warned that a civil service agency running elections could be open to political interference, while the current structure is designed to prevent just that.

Steiner praised, in particular, the speed and accuracy with which the BOE provides election night results. But, she said, “they are less good at some of the work regarding candidates. I think the rules structure for candidates needs substantial revision.” Unlike the state BOE, the city agency doesn’t provide a public comment period for rules changes, she said, which often leaves the candidates and their campaigns unaware and unprepared. “The administrative rules are not as easy as the board thinks they are, and they’re largely a minefield,” she added.

J.C. Polanco, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for public advocate this year, has served as  president of the city BOE and saw the problems first hand and attempted to fix them. He campaigned this year on a platform that included BOE reform. He’s blunt about the Council speaker candidates and why they wouldn’t speak up against the agency. “Each candidate has to try not to offend the county organizations,” he said.  

Though Polanco also agrees that the BOE’s partisan structure may be necessary, he believes it can be better. “One of the things to do is to professionalize the board,” he said, “by forcing every candidate to go through the crucible of the [Council’s] investigations process required of commissioners.” He favors merit-based hiring and called for it when he worked at the board.

“There are professionals at the board that get a bad rap for the failures of the board to modernize,” he insisted, echoing Steiner. “You can definitely have a professionalized partisan agency.” The board should post positions with qualifications online, he said, and more publicly seek employees. “It would require an enlightenment of the citizenry and the board,” Polanco said. He also speculated about giving third parties representation on the board, proportionate to their vote shares in prior elections.

Although the Council members poised to be the next speaker may not agree, the official they are hoping to succeed believes that the BOE needs improvement. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who, in the waning days of her speakership, has waded into conflict with the Manhattan Democratic County Committee over a BOE commissioner appointment, said the Council has discussed reforming the BOE for years. Responding to a question from Gotham Gazette, she said, “There’s obviously a lot more work that has to be done. We’ve seen the reports issued by DOI and others with the dysfunction at the Board of Elections and there definitely has to be a lot more professionalizing of the Board of Elections and being able to implement reforms.”

While much of the conversation around elections and voting in New York tends to revolve around the state’s antiquated laws, there have been local attempts at such reform. Council Member Ben Kallos has been a particularly vocal critic of the board and, as chair of the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, has pushed legislation that can improve elections and voting access. He has time and again urged representatives of the board to move towards merit-based hiring --  “I favor the civil service over the patronage appointment process,” he told Gotham Gazette on Monday. Kallos’ bill allowing online voter registration recently passed the Council. The mayor is expected to sign it into law, and it is considered valid under guidance from A.G. Schneiderman.

We can “find meaningful alternatives that can help fix the BOE at the city level,” Kallos said. “As we learned with online voter registration, with a little bit of creativity and good attorneys, I think a lot can be possible at the local level.”

[Read: City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections Wed, 13 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000