Gotham Gazette Tue, 07 Jul 2020 03:54:11 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: The 30th Anniversary of David Dinkins' Election as Mayor may dd wbai600

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)

August 21, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The 30th Anniversary of David Dinkins' Election as Mayor

may dd wbai250This November marks 30 years since David Dinkins was elected New York City's first (and to date only) black mayor. Dinkins joined the show to discuss his 1989 victory, his term as mayor, and more. Then, journalist Tom Robbins joined the show to discuss Dinkins' win, his tenure, his 1993 loss to Rudy Giuliani, and Dinkins' legacy.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: The 30th Anniversary of David Dinkins' Election as Mayor Wed, 21 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
A Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention? It Almost Happened 25 Years Ago mayor chirlane david

Former Mayor David Dinkins, left, with Chirlane McCray (photo: Edwin J. Torres/City Council)

In October 1992, amid sexual harassment scandals that rocked his administration, former Mayor David Dinkins created a task force to examine the issue of sexual harassment in city government. The task force, chaired by late Congressional Rep. Bella Abzug, who led the larger Commission on the Status of Women, submitted its report to the mayor the next year in November, recommending that the city create a Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention.

The following month, in December 1993 and just two weeks before his mayoralty ended, Dinkins heeded the recommendation and signed an executive order to establish that citywide office as a pilot for two years.

The office was to advise and counsel city employees on sexual harassment issues, as well as mediate when allegations were made. It would be mandated to investigate formal complaints of harassment and discrimination, and recommend disciplinary measures. It was to monitor how city agencies dealt with harassment, evaluate the effectiveness of harassment trainings for employees, and be required to submit quarterly reports on its work to the mayor. And it was to maintain a central repository of formal and informal sexual harassment complaints.

But as administrations switched, Dinkins’ eleventh-hour executive order was lost to the pages of the municipal archives -- the Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention was never established. The Rudolph Giuliani administration does not seem to have paid any attention to the executive order, which lapsed after its two-year lifespan without being specifically rescinded.

Twenty-five years later, the #MeToo movement’s focus on addressing sexual harassment triggered a cultural paradigm shift across the country and beyond. The New York City Council took stock and passed the Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act, a package of 11 new laws to prevent sexual harassment in the public and private sector, through a push led by Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity.

New York State also passed similar legislation last year to address sexual harassment, and more recently held its first public hearing on workplace harassment in nearly three decades, with additional change to the law being pushed by advocates and victims this year and another hearing scheduled for May 24.

A spokesperson for former Mayor Dinkins, who currently teaches at Columbia University, said there was insufficient time to implement the order before his term ended.

“I’ve never heard of it and I’ve been around in almost every administration since,” said Dr. Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who served as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s director of the Department of Personnel, under whom the citywide sexual harassment prevention office would have been established under the order. “In retrospect, it would’ve been a wonderful thing. It’s a horrible thing for any human being to go through those kinds of things.”

When Giuliani came to power, Barrios-Paoli said the administration’s immediate focus was civil service reform and drastically cutting down the city’s workforce. “I don’t recall [the sexual harassment office] ever coming up with me,” she said, lamenting the lost time on addressing the issue. In city leadership, she said, “There was so little awareness of that those days. The consciousness was just not there.”

“I don’t think there was a woman that was exempt. We didn’t think there was any recourse,” she said of harassment in the workplace. “What happens in the change of administration is a lot of things fall by the wayside unless they have a champion.”

The creation of Dinkins’ task force led by Abzug owed largely to the efforts of former Congressional Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who was City Comptroller during Dinkins’ term and attempted to examine sexual harassment policies in city agencies only to find a dearth of information.

Only two agencies responded to Holtzman’s requests for information, the Department of Transportation and the Fire Department, and they woefully misunderstood and mishandled the issue of sexual harassment, Holtzman said in a phone interview. “Both responses showed that neither agency understood what the legal requirements were, how to enforce the law and...the people who were victimized by sexual harassment were revictimized by reporting and the people who were perpetrators were allowed to get away with, at worst, a slap on the wrist,” she said.

The glaring lack of a standard across agencies should have invited “a major citywide response,” she said, and Dinkins’ executive order came much too late. “I’m not surprised about Mr. Giuliani’s indifference to sexual harassment. We can see that from his present employment. But I am surprised that both Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor de Blasio have turned a deaf ear to it as well. It’s not a good sign,” Holtzman added, with reference to Giuliani’s work for President Trump, who has a history of misogyny and was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.

“It just shows how important the MeToo movement is and it shows that nobody’s exempt, including the City of New York,” Holtzman continued, “and even though it wants to tell the country how liberal and progressive it is, the fact of the matter is that when it comes to sexual harassment, they’ve got a lot to account for.”

That accounting is meant to happen under the package of bills the Council passed, which include requirements for reporting on sexual harassment within city government, mandated anti-harassment trainings at city agencies and private employers, and required climate surveys and action plans from city agencies, besides strengthening existing anti-harassment protections.

Merrick Rossein, professor at CUNY School of Law, served on Dinkins’ sexual harassment task force and was also a commissioner on the Equal Employment Practices Commission under both Dinkins and Giuliani. “I do not recall if the Office was functioning by the time Giuliani took office in January 1994. He was hostile to all [Equal Employment Opportunity] enforcement,” Rossein said in an email.   

“The City was an early leader in addressing sexual harassment, including mandating training,” he added, noting that he conducted interactive sexual harassment trainings for Dinkins, his deputy mayors and the corporation counsel to show that the city was taking the issue seriously.

“The City should have followed through by establishing the recommended Citywide office. There have been too many cases of sexual harassment from that period until the #MeToo movement and the recent City Council legislation. Too many victims were harmed and tax payers were on the hook for the millions of dollars in settlements, court awards, and lost productivity caused by the disruption of failing to prevent or stop the harassment effectively. The recent legislation is helpful but still insufficient.”

As Rossein noted, the citywide office would have tackled many of the issues that became apparent in city government once the #MeToo movement pushed the New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to look inward at their own approach to a systemic problem.

After the passage of the Stop Sexual Harassment Act last year, the mayor released what data was available on the number of harassment complaints across city government, showing glaring discrepancies in how different agencies approached the issue. The mayor himself conceded that “what’s abundantly clear is there was not a single standard for ‘mayoral’ and ‘non-mayoral’ agencies.” Though de Blasio also downplayed complaints that had come through the Department of Education, remarks he later walked back, and has more recently faced intense scrutiny over his administration’s handling of harassment by his former acting chief of staff.

"Mayor Dinkins was a visionary leader who understood the importance of taking a stand against sexual harassment decades before the Me Too movement, and his executive order was a prime example. The spirit of this order lives on under the de Blasio Administration," said mayoral spokesperson Marcy Miranda in a statement. "Last year, the Mayor signed the Stop Sexual Harassment Act to address and prevent sexual harassment, and we continue looking at ways the City can improve its processes to reduce sexual harassment and all forms of EEO discrimination at work."

Council Member Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity, led the way on the Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act and was shocked to learn that the city could have acted aggressively so long ago through Dinkins’ order. “What we’ve learned from the MeToo movement is that with focused attention on sexual harassment and experiences of sexual harassment, we are in the midst of changing the cultural tide that allows sexual harassment to continue,” she said. “I can only imagine how much farther along we would be if the...Giuliani administration would have implemented this executive order.”

Dinkins created his task force soon after his own office came under scrutiny for appointing a new deputy mayor who faced allegations of sexual harassment. Dinkins later defended the deputy mayor who would then resign from his post.

Now, the City Council is preparing to hold another hearing on sexual harassment policies next month, where it will examine the implementation of the laws passed last year. Rosenthal said she is waiting to hear if the mayoral administration is “resisting or embracing” the new policies. The Council is currently dealing with sexual harassment allegations against two of its members, and held a mandatory training on Wednesday at City Hall, which was, according to the Daily News, marred by outbursts from another member, Ruben Diaz Sr., who later told the Daily News that sometimes "sexual harassment is a compliment."

Asked if a citywide office would be worth creating, she said the Council would likely receive pushback from the administration. The Equal Employment Practices Commission and the city Commission on Human Rights both currently handle enforcement of laws against sexual harassment, and it’s possible a new agency would be duplicative, Rosenthal noted. But, she said, “I think we have to learn more from our reporting bills to see whether or not the administration is following through on our set of bills that we passed.”

Holtzman praised Rosenthal’s legislation and the overall package the Council approved, but she nonetheless believes the city needs a dedicated office to tackle sexual harassment. “It’s one thing to have reports and it’s another thing to have a commission that has its responsibility rooting out this problem,” she said. “Unless they can show it’s not a problem, why not?”

She continued, “You need to have a proper administrative structure. I remember when I was trying to deal with the problem of Nazi war criminals in America, the government had done nothing about them for more than 25 years and they were finding sanctuary in the United States. I did create an administrative structure in the Department of Justice, which had that as its mission. You have to give an agency a mission and monitor that agency to make sure it carries out that mission, and instead the message was to all city agencies, it’s not a serious problem.”

At the April 25, 2018 news conference when Mayor de Blasio, who worked in City Hall under Dinkins, addressed reporters’ questions about sexual harassment complaints, he noted that the #MeToo movement was leading to a sea change in city government. “So one thing that has come out of this very important movement, this emerged from a social movement in this country that demanded clearer answers from every segment of this society, is we’re aligning all standards on sexual harassment across all agencies,” he said. “And I think that’s going to make a big difference.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: The Long Fight for New City Sexual Harassment Laws, with Liz Holtzman and Helen Rosenthal]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

A Citywide Office for Sexual Harassment Prevention? It Almost Happened 25 Years Ago Wed, 08 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
10 Great NYC Debate Moments quinn liu de blasio albanese

Quinn, Liu, de Blasio, Albanese (from 2013)

Debates have been an invaluable part of political discourse and elections for centuries. The face-to-face interactions between candidates reveal a lot about their character, policies, and ability to perform under pressure.

Debates for citywide races in New York -- for Mayor, Comptroller, and Public Advocate -- have played no small part in helping New Yorkers decide which candidates best represent their interests. Ahead of the 2017 debates, which begin Wednesday with the first Democratic mayoral primary debate between Mayor Bill de Blasio and former City Council Member Sal Albanese, Gotham Gazette presents 10 great moments from New York City debates of the last few decades.

1. Giuliani declines debate, spurs matching funds/must debate law
1993 General Mayoral Debate; 10/17/93
Candidates: David Dinkins (D); Rudy Giuliani (R); George Marlin (Conservative)

A non-debate on a debate list belongs because of the importance of the decision, both during the contentious 1993 rematch between Dinkins and Giuliani, which Giuliani would win, and the long-term implications of the subsequent change in law.

Mayor Dinkins wanted to include the Conservative Party candidate in any debate between himself and Giuliani, but Giuliani would only agree to a one-on-one debate, and so the two major party candidates did not have a single debate before the election that year. In response, the City Council voted on legislation that forced any candidate taking public matching funds (as both Giuliani and Dinkins did) to participate in two debates before both the primary and general elections, given certain criteria.

At the debate that Dinkins and Marlin did have, they both attacked Giuliani for not participating, and on other grounds. In his closing statement, Dinkins, who had bested Giuliani in 1989, said, “It takes a certain kind of temperament and personality to deal with the various legislative bodies in order to achieve [my accomplishments], I suggest to you that Rudolph Giuliani does not have the temperament to get the kind of consensus necessary to achieve the things that we’ve done.”

For his part, Giuliani explained, “I have a letter from April of this year, where I had a firm commitment for a one-on-one debate with Mayor Dinkins, which NBC has now allowed him to sneak out of, because he rolled over for them. He shouldn’t do that, it’s wrong. And I know why David Dinkins won’t face me. On 12 occasions in 1989, he ducked out of one-on-one debates with me. On 7 occasions, he has ducked out of one-on-one debates with me in this election. They shouldn’t allow him to do it, because I’ll ask him the questions that some of you won’t ask him about how he’s cheating.”

Watch the October 17, 1993 debate between Dinkins and Marlin here.

2. Mayor Bloomberg tries to speak Spanish
2009 General Mayoral Debate; 10/13/2009
Candidates: Michael Bloomberg (i); Bill Thompson (D)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempts to speak Spanish are well-known and much-skewered, most famously by the @ElBloombito Twitter account. Bloomberg used to end each news conference by summarizing his statements in Spanish, and he occasionally gave entire interviews in his second tongue. In a 2009 general election mayoral debate, Bloomberg tried responding to a question about diversity in his cabinet from Juan Manuel Benitez, host of Pura Política on NY1 Noticias, in Spanish. Although the mayor received applause, the moderator had to ask him to repeat his answer in English, as many in the room and at home had no idea what he had said.

Watch the moment here and watch the entire October 13, 2009 debate between Bloomberg and Democrat Bill Thompson here.

3. David Yassky sings Beyonce
2009 Comptroller Debate, Democratic Primary; 9/10/2009
Candidates: David Yassky (D); Melinda Katz (D); John Liu (D); David Weprin (D)

A crowded Democratic primary for Comptroller in 2009 included a lightning round of questions during the September 10 debate. When candidates were asked if they had listened to Beyoncé, all candidates said yes, and Melinda Katz even quietly said, “To the left.” But only David Yassky actually sang, to the amusement of the audience, especially the moderators. Yassky sang the chorus to Beyonce’s 2006 mega-hit, “Irreplaceable.”

Yassky’s singing prowess did not carry him to victory, however, as John Liu won the primary and became Comptroller.

Watch the moment here, and watch the entire September 10, 2009 Democratic Primary Comptroller debate here.

4. Giuliani calls out Henry Hewes for not even being his party’s official candidate
1989 General Mayoral Debate; 11/5/89
Candidates: David Dinkins (D); Rudy Giuliani (R); Henry Hewes (Right to Life)

Before he refused to debate with a third-party candidate present in 1993, Republican mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani showed his distaste for them in this surreal moment from the second of two general election debates that took place the week before the 1989 election, which Giuliani narrowly lost to Dinkins. Eight minutes into the hour-long debate, Giuliani claimed that Right to Life candidate Henry Hewes didn’t deserve to be there. He then explained Hewes was not even the officially registered candidate of the Right to Life Party, as he pulled out a letter from the Board of Elections confirming that, indeed, Henry Hewes was a registered Republican and had not filed any declaration of his candidacy on the Right to Life ticket.

Watch the November 5, 1989 debate here. The moment is at 7:50.

5. Donald Trump’s influence on New York City
2005 General Mayoral Debate; 10/6/05
Candidates: Fernando Ferrer (D); Thomas V. Ognibene (Conservative)

During the lightning round of this 2005 general mayoral debate, the moderator asked Democrat Fernando Ferrer and Conservative Thomas Ognibene (Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not attend as he was addressing a potential threat in the city), “Is Donald Trump a positive influence on the city?”

At the time, this was a throwaway question about an infamous New York celebrity. Before Twitter, before the presidential run, Trump was a local tabloid legend, real estate baron, and TV personality to most New Yorkers. The candidates agreed in their initial response: “I could care less.”

Listen to the lightning round that included the question here, or watch the entire October 6, 2005 debate here.

6. Scott Stringer goes for Spitzer's jugular
2013 Democratic Primary Comptroller Debate; 8/12/13
Candidates: Eliot Spitzer (D); Scott Stringer (D)

The 2013 Democratic primary for Comptroller was defined by consistent antagonism between the two candidates, then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and former Governor Eliot Spitzer.

Five years earlier, Spitzer had resigned while under federal investigation, and during a section of the debate in which the candidates could ask each other a question, Stringer seized. “So Eliot, if you were the chairman of a large company, and you hired a CEO, and they engaged in money laundering, illegal wiring of funds to shell corporations, and if the CEO was under federal investigation - criminal investigation - and that CEO was fired, would you hire that CEO again?”

Listen to highlights from the debate, including this moment, here, or watch the entire August 12, 2013 debate here.

7. Democrats try to tie each other to Mayor Bloomberg
2013 Public Advocate Democratic Primary Run-off Debate; 9/24/13
Candidates: Letitia James (D); Daniel Squadron (D)

The end of Mayor Bloomberg’s third term was a time when many New Yorkers were seeking change in city leadership. Candidates capitalized on this desire, and in few places was this more apparent than the 2013 Public Advocate Democratic primary. Candidates Letitia James and Daniel Squadron -- locked in a run-off for the nomination -- traded the usual barbs about each other’s backgrounds, but they often simply used any kind of tie the other candidate had to Bloomberg as an attack.

James stated that Squadron had stayed silent when Bloomberg’s third term was being debated, while Squadron claimed that it was not right that James had “stood with the mayor over 98 percent of the time.”

Listen to highlights from the debate, including this moment, here, or watch the entire September 24, 2013 debate here.

8. Bloomberg pressed by moderator and opponent about book of jokes he allegedly made
2001 Republican Primary for Mayor; 9/9/01
Candidates: Michael Bloomberg (R); Herman Badillo (R)

During his initial run for mayor, Michael Bloomberg was repeatedly questioned at a primary debate about an article in New York Magazine in which columnist Michael Wolff described a gift given to the future mayor at a company party in 1990. The gift was a booklet of quotations supposedly said by Bloomberg, some of which were blatantly misogynistic and homophobic.

During one of the 2001 Republican primary debates, both moderator Gabe Pressman and rival Herman Badillo pressed Bloomberg on whether or not he said what was written in the booklet. Bloomberg repeatedly claimed he did not remember saying any of those things, and in the end, he attempted to move the debate along, claiming, “It was in a book written by somebody else. Let's go on to the issues. Come on…”

Read a transcript of debate highlights, including this moment, here, or watch the entire September 9, 2001 debate here.

9. Candidates debate prevalence of racial profiling in NYPD
2001 Mayoral General Election Debate; 11/1/2001
Candidates: Michael Bloomberg (R); Mark Green (D) 

Michael Bloomberg’s implementation of widespread “stop-and-frisk,” a police tactic criticized for disproportionately targeting African-American and Hispanic men, is perhaps the least popular aspect of his legacy. During a 2001 general election mayoral debate between first-time candidate Bloomberg and Democrat Mark Green, one exchange reveals Bloomberg’s early views on racial profiling in the NYPD. When asked, Bloomberg agreed that racial profiling must be combated because “the perception is widespread.”

Watch the moment here, or watch the entire November 1, 2001 debate here.

10. Bill de Blasio targeted as Democratic frontrunner
2013 Democratic Primary Debates; 8/14/13 & 8/21/2013
Candidates: 8/14/13: Christine Quinn (D); Bill de Blasio (D); John Liu (D); Anthony Weiner (D); Bill Thompson (D)
Candidates 8/21/13: Sal Albanese (D), Christine Quinn (D); Bill de Blasio (D); John Liu (D); Anthony Weiner (D); Bill Thompson (D), Erik Salgado (D)

As the fast-moving 2013 Democratic primary moved to within a month of a vote, Bill de Blasio made a surprise leap into the lead of the polls. Just after a new poll showed de Blasio in the lead for the first time, the leading Democratic candidates showed for a debate, and the other candidates clearly recognized the new order by attacking de Blasio more than they previously had, when it appeared that Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner and Bill Thompson were all likelier nominees.

Quinn said de Blasio “was in the Council for eight years, he didn’t pass one bill to create a good paying job, not one bill to help our schools, not one bill to keep our city safe. That’s not a record of results,” according to The Daily News.

“The only difference between Speaker Quinn and Bill de Blasio is Speaker Quinn has been more successful. They made the same promises to the same people. She got elected speaker and he’s never gotten over it,” Weiner said.

A week later, for the first of two official, Campaign Finance Board-sanctioned primary debates, those same leading Democrats, along with Sal Albanese and Erik Salgado, took the stage in prime-time. De Blasio was again the focus of many attacks. He would go on to win the primary less three weeks later, even securing the 40 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.

by Thomas Duda
with reporting by Ben Weiss

10 Great NYC Debate Moments Sun, 20 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Suing the Hand That Feeds You Tish James rally via her office

Public Advocate Letitia James

Capitalizing on a boost to a historically anemic budget, Public Advocate Letitia James has emphasized the use of litigation in her capacity as the city’s elected gadfly, often suing the city that funds her.


James is utilizing her office’s limited funds in accordance with her own background as an assistant attorney general and public defender, hiring additional attorneys to her team and filing several suits against the de Blasio administration— a mayoralty with which she is politically aligned. Since taking office in January 2014, James has filed over a dozen suits, amicus briefs, complaints and petitions against the city and its agencies, with mixed results. She is set to announce another lawsuit on Wednesday, according to Politico NY.


The public advocate, alongside the comptroller and City Council, is tasked with oversight of city agencies and programs, ensuring good government and good living and working conditions for New Yorkers. The public advocate may introduce legislation in the City Council and will serve as mayor in his or her extended absence.


The Office of the Public Advocate has traditionally been limited by budgetary restraints, the result of years of mayors implementing retributive and devastating cuts. But, Mayor Bill de Blasio, the first public advocate to move into the mayoralty, added $700,000 to the office’s budget his first year - a small amount relative to the overall city budget, which totals over $78 billion, but fairly large in terms of the public advocate’s office. The budget bump was an attempt to compensate for budget cuts made during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, according to the public advocate’s office.


“The Public Advocate serves a critical role as the City's watchdog - something the Mayor knows firsthand from his own time serving in that office,” a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette. “It's important to our City's democratic process that the office have sufficient resources.”


Now, in de Blasio’s second budget, which took effect July 1, Letitia James’ office has $3.27 million for the 2016 fiscal year, according to a spokesperson for the public advocate. To put that in perspective, a newly created Department of Education task force also dedicated to performing an oversight role— rooting out cheating by teachers and administrators in city schools— is likely to utilize $5 million a year.


Both Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum, who served as the city’s first and second public advocates before de Blasio became the third, agree that the office suffers from having its budget controlled by the very person it is supposed to be watchdogging.


“The structure of the office of the public advocate— it’s something that should be looked at and changed. The mayor…should not be controlling the budget of the person who’s looking over their shoulder. It’s silly, it doesn’t make any sense,” Gotbaum said. “Because [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] would get furious at me and then come June, July, he’d cut the budget.”


In 2009, Bloomberg infamously declared the office a “total waste of everybody’s money,” even after he and the City Council nearly halved Gotbaum’s budget from $2.9 million to $1.8 million.


That’s a situation that James has not found herself in, Green notes, saying she will likely not suffer at the hands of de Blasio.


“Of course, the new mayor has a special appreciation for the budget difficulties of the public advocate since he was the prior occupant of that office,” Green said, “and that increase should help [James] do the kind of long-term investigations that can yield real benefits to city performance and law.”


With these new funds, James has molded the role of public advocate into one with an aggressively litigious attitude.


The role of public advocate as an ombuds and watchdog has always, somewhat necessarily, been tied to litigation. As public advocate under Bloomberg, Gotbaum sued the city (along with city Comptroller William Thompson and sundry council members) in the lawsuit Molinari v. Bloomberg, opposing an extension of term limits.


As public advocate under Mayor Giuliani, Green famously pursued litigation against the city in Green v. Safir, (in which Green won the right to access documents on the conduct of the New York City Civilian Complaint Board after the police commissioner refused to provide them to his office) and Green v. Giuliani (in which Green successfully sought a judicial inquiry into whether the mayor obtained and released information that had been sealed pursuant to state criminal procedure law concerning the criminal record of a man who had been shot and killed by an NYPD officer).


As public advocate, de Blasio sued Bloomberg to compel the mayor’s office to turn over data on the city’s revenue from business fines.


But James has been particularly robust in taking legal action against the city.


“Everyday New Yorkers don't have access to expensive lawyers and fancy lobbyists, which is why they need a Public Advocate who will fight for them,” James said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette. “We've resolved to use every tool at our disposal, whether it's litigation, legislation, or agitation to stand up for working people.”


The list of lawsuits, petitions, or complaints James has filed is long and getting longer: her office sued the city’s Department of Finance over a rule change to the city’s rent freeze program; filed and won a lawsuit against the Department of Education, opening school leadership team meetings to the public; filed and won a lawsuit to block co-located charter schools; and petitioned unsuccessfully to unseal the Eric Garner grand jury proceedings, though she continues to appeal decisions in this pursuit. James also petitioned the Board of Corrections to enact rules to protect inmates at Rikers’ Island from sexual assault.


Recently, the office filed a class action lawsuit against New York City and state foster care agencies. The lawsuit alleges the city Administration for Children’s Services and the state Office of Children and Family Services fail to protect children from maltreatment, to ensure that services provided are effective, and to ensure appropriate placements. Some have questioned the suit, asking why the city’s usual legal opponents on child welfare issues did not sign on and citing nuances in New York law that explain some of the data cited in the suit.


The public advocate’s office employs 44 staff members, including six attorneys (other than James herself) and one legal assistant. Two of the six attorneys were hired this year. According to the office, feedback received by the constituent services unit can spur the litigation unit to file a suit or complaint. After tenants reached out to the unit, the public advocate was compelled to file a lawsuit on behalf of four Bronx residents, asserting that the city’s Department of Buildings is violating the civil rights of people with disabilities by permitting landlords to deprive mobility-impaired tenants of access to means of egress during extensive elevator outages.


James’ office also scrutinized the quality of life for children and families and workers in the city, releasing reports on the child care available to CUNY students, the city’s foster care system, and car wash and nail salon workers.


In September 2014, almost eight months before The New York Times ran its incendiary “Unvarnished” series, James released a report on the state of nail salons in the city, calling for designated city nail salon inspectors, the implementation of a citywide nail salon safety study, and a healthy salon incentive program.

James finds herself in an unprecedented situation— she is the first public advocate to share the same party affiliation with the mayor (the position has only ever been held by Democrats and existed during the terms of Giuliani and Bloomberg). Some questioned whether her ability to act as a watchdog over the mayor would be compromised by their common viewpoints.

“If you’re the public advocate and you have a lovebird relationship with mayor, what’s the point of the office?” one Democrat who backed James asked the Observer (James once described the mayor as her “political husband.”)

Critics claimed that James left de Blasio largely unscathed in the first year of her term as watchdog, taking “safe” stances on equipping police with body cameras, authoring a bill against campus sex crimes, and completing her work on nail salons.

Gotbaum noted that she often thought the public advocate could be more effective if they had a positive relationship with the mayor.

“I thought it was better for the city that if I found out there was a problem and I called an agency or the mayor himself and it was solved quickly, then I wouldn’t have to have a press conference and I wouldn’t have to jump all over the mayor,” Gotbaum said, adding that the contentious relationship Giuliani had with Green rendered Green the “municipal nag.”

“Giuliani ordered his agencies not to talk to Mark Green, which to me makes the whole thing ridiculous,” Gotbaum told Gotham Gazette. “I thought it was better for the city if [the public advocate and the mayor] had a positive relationship. That’s what you’re there for, you’re there to help people who are desperate, have no place else to turn, and it’s generally allied with some sort of city agency.”

But in recent months, it appears that James has become increasingly comfortable with publicly criticizing the mayor and city agencies.

During budget season, James held a late May press conference advocating for universal free school lunch and condemning the mayor’s opposition to the program.

“I was shocked and disappointed that Mayor de Blasio said during his executive budget presentation that no expansion of free lunch would happen this year,” James said at a press conference outside the Department of Education headquarters. “Mr. Mayor, you’re wrong. Universal free lunch works and the results are in.”

In her report on mayoral control of city schools, James also recommended that the mayor lose his deciding majority on the Panel for Educational Policy in favor of increased parent engagement. The report came after James conducted public town hall meetings on the subject in each borough, a general strategy for constituent feedback that de Blasio has not adopted.

According to James’ office, she has held 27 town hall-style events, with a 28th scheduled for Wednesday evening in Brooklyn - the subject will be public safety.

Green, the city’s first public advocate (who endorsed State Senator Daniel Squadron over James in the 2013 public advocate primary), said that regardless of party affiliation, the public advocate must act as a gadfly and compel reform rather than simply espouse ideals.

“I laud her earlier initiative looking into the problems of nail salons, which is a real home run because it helped inspire others to follow up and now the governor and mayor are in a competition who can clean up this early 20th century sweatshop,” Green said earlier this summer. “I just wish there could be more of that and fewer press releases saying I believe in ‘x.’ The issue isn’t so much what she believes in— which is very similar to what Bill de Blasio believes in— but to blow the whistle on problematic agencies that the mayor won’t own up to.”

Indeed, James’ office frequently issues releases on a variety of topics, including gun control, collision avoidance technology in city vehicles, ending the sale of toy guns, and the one-year anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping in Nigeria among them.

According to Green, James has yet to take full advantage of the uniquely situated role.

“Because the charter gives the public advocate a lot of discretion, this public advocate is somewhat free to contour the office to his or her temperament, values, skills. If the question is has she evolved more toward oversight ombudsman role over city services, I think the only fair answer is ‘not yet,’” Green said. “In my personal opinion, it doesn’t add that much value when a longtime ally of the mayor spends so much of her valuable time either saying ‘yay’ or ‘I wish he could’ve done [something] a little better or sooner.’”

Gotbaum, who at times during her tenure as public advocate struggled to assert the relevance of the office, noted the difficulty of drawing attention to causes and the importance of highlighting substantive ones.

“I think it’s very hard to get traction, there’s so much going on in New York, unfortunately it’s very hard to get publicity,” Gotbaum said. “It’s hard to get attention to some of these issues and the more [Public Advocate James] gets it the better, when it’s on issues of real substance, and she isn’t just attacking the mayor.”

Most recently, the office has lobbied the New York City Employee Retirement System, the board of the city’s largest pension fund, to divest from gun retailers, including Walmart. In response, NYCERS passed a resolution James authored that would commision a study of the board’s investments in gun retailers and would analyze the transitional costs of divestment.

“Any council member or council body can sound off about what they think is a better way,” Green said, “but the public advocate is uniquely situated to do policy and performance audits of city agencies, respond to patterns of complaints in the thousands they receive, do investigative reports way beyond what any individual councilman can do.”

by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette

Suing the Hand That Feeds You Tue, 18 Aug 2015 23:10:35 +0000
26 Years Since the Board of Estimate's Demise bdb and cms

The mayor, council members, & advocates (photo: William Alatriste)

New York City politics might seem convoluted now, but for nearly a century the city was governed by the Board of Estimate, an eight-member body as opaque and sinister as it sounds. On March 22, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Board of Estimate unconstitutional. The subsequent revision to the City Charter created the political system we have today. Twenty-six years after the Court's decision, a few of the attorneys involved with this landmark case have mixed reviews of exactly how major a turning point it was for the city.

Richard Emery was driving in his car when the idea for a lawsuit hit him. It was 1982, and a federal court had just declared New York City's use of "at-large" Council members unconstitutional. At the time, New Yorkers were represented by 35 local Council members, along with ten at-large reps, two per borough. The court held that this violated the principle of "one person, one vote," which, despite sounding like a sacred democratic principle, had only been a requirement in local government for about twenty years - since the Supreme Court's decision in Reynolds v. Sims.

Emery, an ACLU attorney in his mid-30s, and his colleague, Art Eisenberg, debated whether the courts would apply a similar standard to the Board of Estimate, which had a far bigger impact on city life than the City Council.

The Board of Estimate had run New York City politics since the five-borough consolidation of 1898. Comprised of the mayor, comptroller, city council president - all of whom were elected citywide - and the five borough presidents, the Board of Estimate was responsible for land use, city contracts, and budgeting. Most citizens never saw the Board of Estimate in action, testifying in front of their proxies while the real power brokers cut backroom deals.

Emery's lawsuit charged that the Board of Estimate violated "one person, one vote," by granting the Staten Island Borough President, who represented fewer than 400,000 people, the same power as the Brooklyn Borough President, who represented more than two million.

For Emery and his plaintiffs ("friends from Brooklyn"), the lawsuit wasn't just a Constitutional Law exercise. "Services and funding for specific projects were very disproportionate," with Staten Island much more likely to receive city support than underfunded parts of Brooklyn, Emery claimed. In addition, "Virtually all corruption was focused at the Board of Estimate."

That charge was validated when U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani rained down a hailstorm of criminal indictments on elected officials across the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, a tale of corruption told masterfully by investigative journalists Wayne Barrett and Jack Newfield in City for Sale. The corruption scandal wrecked Mayor Ed Koch's third term, but not before he set in motion two commissions that dramatically shaped New York City politics to the present day.

Frederick A.O Schwartz, Jr. (descendant of the toy retailer), whose brilliant legal career included uncovering CIA assassination plots, had been named by Koch as New York City's Corporation Counsel in 1982. The "Corp Counsel" represents the City in everything from sidewalk slip-and-falls to massive municipal contracts. By 1985, Schwartz was pretty sure that the Board of Estimate was losing in court, and advised Koch to plan for an alternative. Koch appointed legendary New York crisis-fixer Richard Ravitch to head a City Charter revision commission. That commission ultimately recommended the creation of the city's first public financing system for elections.

Meanwhile, Emery and his plaintiffs won a string of federal court decisions before the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the city's appeal. For oral arguments in 1988, Emery faced off against the city's new Corp Counsel, Peter Zimroth. Zimroth called the Board of Estimate "the glue which has kept the City of New York together" and argued that the Board of Estimate had been a compromise between the many boroughs, villages and towns that had voted to unify in the 1894 consolidation referendum. Though he made other legal arguments, Zimroth hung his hat on the city's longstanding political support for the Board of Estimate system.

On March 22, 1989, the Supreme Court delivered a resounding 9-0 vote against the Board of Estimate for violating "one person, one vote."

There's a lot more to this story:
visit Janos.NYC to continue reading

by Janos Marton for Gotham Gazette and Janos.NYC

26 Years Since the Board of Estimate's Demise Mon, 23 Mar 2015 03:48:25 +0000