Gotham Gazette Tue, 07 Jul 2020 01:53:26 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Oversight Bill Moves Ahead, with Police Union Opposition But De Blasio Support de Blasio Jumaane Williams NYPD

Mayor de Blasio & Council Member Williams (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

A police oversight bill sponsored by City Council Member Jumaane Williams unanimously sailed through the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations on Tuesday, and is all but certain to be voted through the full City Council on Thursday. The legislation, which increases reporting requirements about and efforts to mitigate police misconduct, has the support of the de Blasio administration, but is being opposed and criticized by the city’s largest police union.

The bill requires aggregation of public data regarding litigation in state and federal courts against the NYPD and individual officers into a report to the Comptroller, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the NYPD, and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, after which the NYPD Inspector General must use the data to make recommendations regarding training and disciplining of officers and the department.

Police misconduct has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements. According to a report from the Comptroller’s Office, the city paid out $100.6 million in Fiscal Year 2016 in settlements related to police misconduct.

“The legislative process has been very valuable and very long,” said Williams in his opening statement at Tuesday’s committee vote, which was 4-0 (the other three members of the committee were absent). “But we received a lot of information. We got information about transparency issues. This is not about making police officers look bad. We are trying to find ways to make the department better.”

Vincent Gentile, the committee chair, echoed Williams’ sentiments, stating that there was “no negative intent” to the bill despite what opponents might say. After passing committee, the bill is set for a vote of the full 51-seat City Council on Thursday.

The legislation is seeing last minute opposition from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the main union representing uniformed police officers in the city. In written testimony submitted to the committee in advance of Tuesday’s vote, the PBA questioned the intention of the bill and stated that the increased transparency would prove harmful to the department, individual officers, and the city overall.

“The “evaluation” contemplated by this legislation is apparently designed to reach a foregone conclusion — that New York City police officers engage in widespread, willful violations New Yorkers’ rights, and that the NYPD’s leadership is incapable of performing the disciplinary and governance duties assigned to it by the City Charter — that is not supported by any available evidence,” reads the testimony. “In this effort, the legislation would do significant harm to police officers’ reputations and due process rights by substituting mere allegations of misconduct for proof of the same. Moreover, by highlighting and publicizing those allegations for the benefit of entities that profit from the harassment and denigration of police officers, this legislation would undermine the NYPD’s governance and operations and diminish public safety for the City as a whole.”

The union also alleges that the legislation is explicitly designed to hurt police officers, and to serve an ideological agenda rather than to increase accountability, which it claims is already up to par.

“Far from seeking correcting the injustices in the existing system, this legislation amounts to an indictment of the NYPD’s leadership and its disciplinary policies for failing to produce a desired or expected outcome: the punishment of as many police officers possible, as harshly as possible, regardless of the merits of the allegations they face.”

The union also argues that the aggregation of public data into a single report “serves no purpose other than as a tool of convenience for the lucrative plaintiffs’ bar that profits from the filing of specious claims of police misconduct.”

The PBA provided only written testimony; no one spoke gave oral testimony to the Council committee.

Williams, who in an interview with Gotham Gazette for a previous article stated that the department has a woeful record on transparency and accountability, had choice words for the union at the hearing.

“There have been two hearings on this bill, the PBA hasn’t come to either one,” said Williams. “They haven’t provided any testimony, except for right now. And I know many of my colleagues have received some calls from the PBA telling them to oppose this.”

“I have never seen one piece of legislation that deals with policing that the PBA has supported,” he continued. “And they very rarely, if ever, engage in any discussion around these bills. They simply say no.”

“I’ve never denied the PBA the opportunity to discuss issues with me,” he said. “I’ve never tried to deny them the opportunity to come talk before us.”

Williams has bluntly criticized the PBA before. In 2014, he accused the union of lying to the public in order to foment “mass hysteria.” He has accused the PBA of failing to engage in “productive discussion” with the Council and reform advocates regarding Williams most controversial policing-related legislation, the 2013 Community Safety Act that created the NYPD IG and new prohibitions around racial profiling. The legislation, in part a response to the NYPD’s excessive use of stop-and-frisk policing, was passed by the Council over a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

PBA sources told Gotham Gazette that Williams wasn’t telling the whole story about the bill currently at hand. “This is a policing bill without the input of the police. They had a hearing 17 months ago and made no effort to contact us or get our feedback ever since that hearing.”

Meanwhile, the legislation has moved ahead with the support from the de Blasio administration, which indicated it helped shape the final product of a bill that has been around for several years, since Williams first introduced it.

"We're proud to have worked on this legislation with our partners in the Council as part of the Administration's broader effort to bring greater transparency to how our City is policed and continue to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve and protect,” said Austin Finan, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio. Changes to the bill indicate that the administration reduced some of the reporting requirements in negotiations with the Council.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Oversight Bill Moves Ahead, with Police Union Opposition But De Blasio Support Tue, 22 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Brooklyn District Attorney Candidates Address Criminal Justice Reform at Forum dfnjhhbv0aazwy

Brooklyn DA candidates at Thursday's forum (photo: @FaithinNewYork)

The candidates for the Brooklyn District Attorney race gathered at St. Francis College in Brooklyn on Thursday for a forum hosted by criminal justice and civil rights advocacy groups, focusing on contentious issues revolving around criminal justice in the borough. Five candidates offered their takes to an audience of community advocates and Brooklynites concerned about mass incarceration, police abuse, bail, and other contentious issues.

The candidates present were Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, City Council Member Vincent Gentile, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner, and Anne Swern. Candidate Patricia Gatling, who attended a previous debate in June, was not present.

The presence of former DA Ken Thompson, who died in 2016 after a bout with cancer and for whom Gonzalez stepped in, hung above the forum throughout the night. Thompson had widely been praised as a reformer after replacing the controversial longtime DA Charles Hynes. Gonzalez, in his opening statement, framed himself as a continuation of Thompson’s legacy.

“I stand with all of you to say that I believe that we can end mass incarceration while continuing to keep our city and our borough safe,” Gonzalez said. “In 2014, Ken Thompson chose me to help him run that DA’s office, and I stand with all organizations who want to see a continuation of the policies that started in Brooklyn and the expansion of those policies, because I believe we can send less people to prison than we’re currently doing, and make sure that Brooklyn continues to be safe.”

Fliedner was formerly chief of the Civil Rights Bureau under Thompson; he left after a dispute over the handling of the Peter Liang case, in which an NYPD officer received no jail time despite being convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. Fleidner jumped out of the gate with stinging criticisms of Gonzalez.

“You cannot vote for acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez into office,” Fliedner said, eliciting both claps and boos. “In the short time that he was in charge of that office, he’s committed more acts exhibiting a disregard for the rule of law, a lack of respect for victims, and out and out acts of corruption.” Audience members frequently and freely engaged with the candidates throughout the night, loudly calling them out on answers they deemed unsatisfactory or dishonest.

Dwimoh, a former prosecutor under Hynes, also left the office due to a “difference in values” with the then-DA, she said. She emphasized “proactive justice,” meaning a focus on prevention rather than punishment, and “rebuilding trust between the community and law enforcement.” But she also erred towards a “tough on crime” mentality in some areas, saying that crime is going up in some neighborhoods and being the only candidate who didn’t support ending mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession.

Swern, a former Assistant District Attorney (ADA) under Hynes who also has experience as a defense attorney, claimed her experience as the latter gave her a unique connection and empathy among the candidates for those on the other side of the justice system: the defendants. In her opening statement and throughout the night, she focused her argument on making the DA’s office more transparent and the DA him- or her-self more accountable. She said she would hire a statistician for her office to determine how actions and policies undertaken by the DA disproportionately affect people of color.

City Council Member Gentile, who is term-limited from running again for his current position, framed himself as the “only independent person” running in the race. Gentile, who had a career as a prosecutor under the Queens DA rather than the Brooklyn DA, was referring to the fact that he was the only candidate at the forum who was not working at the DA’s office in the time period where numerous wrongful convictions occurred under Hynes, which were later uncovered and undone by Thompson.

The candidates were all largely in agreement on many of the major, big picture issues: all candidates supported either diminishing or eliminating reliance on cash bail, which has come under intense scrutiny after young Bronx resident Kalief Browder committed suicide following a two-year stay on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail. All the candidates supported diminishing the use of broken windows policing, though they didn’t offer specific solutions, with the exception of Fliedner who noted low-level drug offenses and gravity knife offenses as two crimes that wouldn’t be prosecuted under his stewardship.

The candidates also all stated their support for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ call for an independent commission into wrongful convictions, as well as for term limits of two or three terms -- there are currently no term limits for District Attorneys.

[Related: Candidates for Brooklyn District Attorney Seek to Set Themselves Apart]

The shouting matches, interruptions, and audience interjections mainly concerned the candidates’ records. The candidates routinely accused Gonzalez of malfeasance and not 'walking the walk,' as well as co-opting the legacy of Ken Thompson.

Hertencia Petersen, the aunt of Akai Gurley, a young black man killed by NYPD officer Peter Liang in an apparently accidental stairwell shooting, rose to ask a question and accused Gonzalez of mishandling the Liang case. Liang was sentenced to five years probation and 800 hours of community service, a move that had been widely criticized by criminal justice reform advocates. Petersen chastised the DA’s office, then under Thompson, for failing to adequately communicate with the Gurley family during the legal process and for recommending that Liang serve no jail time, which the family only found out about in press reports.

For Petersen, Gonzalez is a continuation of that kind of leadership; she referred to him as having been a “crony” to Thompson throughout the legal process. Petersen also explicitly admonished Gonzalez for seeming to run as the second Ken Thompson without necessarily presenting his own plan. “Run on your own vision, she said to loud applause. “Give the people of Brooklyn what you want for your family.” After the debate, Petersen tweeted, “#ERIC GONZALEZ IS NOT FOR THE PEOPLE OF BROOKLYN.”

Defending himself, Gonzalez pointed to the fact that Liang had been convicted, and denied that the office had maintained inadequate contact with the Gurley family.

“She’s upset because Ken Thompson recommended a no jail plea on Peter Liang,” he said. An audience member shouted to Gonzalez, pointing out that he had been Thompson’s “chief advisor” (Gonzalez was Chief Assistant District Attorney under Thompson).

Gonzalez also received criticism for continuing to impose punishingly high cash bail despite his stance that its use should be diminished. “$500 is asked for bail for a homeless person who steals cheese, and the Assistant District Attorney responds to the defense attorney, ‘well, it was expensive cheese,’” said Swern. “We will never close Rikers Island,” she said, referring to the fact that many held at the jails there are pre-trial detainees unable to post bail.

Fliedner said that if he is elected, his office would not seek bail “on cases where we’re not seeking jail,” and further reprimanded Gonzalez on his supposed failure on bail reform, citing a case where bail was set at $1,000 for a turnstile jumper.

Gonzalez was also singled out on the issue of wrongful convictions -- since he worked for the DA’s office under Hynes -- despite the fact that all candidates with the exception of Gentile had worked at the Brooklyn DA office under Hynes in some capacity.

In this regard, Gentile seized the opportunity to paint himself as the only candidate separate from the failures of the Hynes era. Concerning the spate of wrongful convictions, Gentile said this “all happened under the tutelage of Charles Hynes...and Eric Gonzalez is a creation of Charles Hynes. He spent most of his years as prosecutor under Charles Hynes and only three years under Ken Thompson.” He proceeded to say that he has “never gotten the answer” to his inquiries into the policies that led to the Hynes-era wrongful convictions.

Nonetheless, Gonzalez resolved to defend his record, touting for example a “Young Adult Court” diversionary program for young offenders created by Thompson’s office (Swern insisted that it was created in 2012, prior to Thompson’s ascendancy to the office). He also said that he has “done more work on wrongful convictions than all the other candidates put together.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: This article has been updated.

Brooklyn District Attorney Candidates Address Criminal Justice Reform at Forum Sat, 22 Jul 2017 18:29:00 +0000
Illegal Conversions Crackdown Could Worsen City’s Housing Crisis  hum listings

(photo: Tarry Hum)

The New York City Council recently passed an “Aggravated Illegal Conversions” bill by a 49-0 vote. The legislation -- sponsored by City Council Members Gentile, Williams, and Grodenchik, and Brooklyn Borough President Adams, and signed into law by Mayor de Blasio -- significantly increases the civil penalties for owners who illegally subdivide their residential property to create three or more dwelling units (typically single rooms) above the number legally permitted by the property’s certificate of occupancy. Unpaid penalties become a tax lien that the city can recoup through a forced property sale.  

Representing the South Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, and Bensonhurst, Council Member Gentile has long argued the high risks and costs of illegal conversions in terms of tenant and emergency responder safety and overburdened public infrastructure. Media coverage of several incidences of illegal conversions in summer 2016 added momentum and renewed urgency to the bill’s passage.

Illegal conversions provide a housing source of last resort and their prevalence in working-class, immigrant enclaves and neighboring areas underscore New York City’s acute housing crisis. The outstanding demand for affordable housing augmented by rising real estate values are the driving forces behind predatory landlord practices. Investor-owners subdivide their property in order to maximize rental profits; homeowners may similarly seek to capture untapped profits, or they may depend on rental income to support a huge mortgage debt.

In either scenario, modest one- to three-family properties have become “modern-day tenements” where working-class New Yorkers are only able to afford a substandard, single room. A common sight in Sunset Park and Flushing are bulletin boards with numerous notices publicizing single rooms for rent. Long discarded as a viable source of housing for low-income tenants, SROs were recently touted as a niche alternative for affluent millennials.

In addition to identifying and punishing predatory landlords who profit by subjecting tenants to substandard housing, Council Member Williams noted, “It is also our responsibility to offer a realistic, affordable housing alternative to the residents.”

There is no question that illegal conversions pose a present danger to the thousands of New Yorkers who rely on this form of shelter. However, this legislation offers no alternatives or protections for tenants whose only source of “affordable” rental housing typically entails risk to personal safety, arbitrary eviction, and hazardous conditions.

The law -- which increases fines, requires the DOB to seek an access warrant and vacate illegal conversions, and potentially, dispossess offending property owners -- has tremendous appeal for middle-class homeowners and civic associations who are, foremost, concerned about a diminished neighborhood quality of life and aesthetic as measured by overcrowdedness, lack of street parking, and front yards converted to parking spaces. Bob Cassara of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance worries that illegal conversions will tip the balance of a neighborhood’s demography: “Once a home is sold and illegally converted, people refuse to live next to a home with triple the legal occupancy.”  

During an October 2016 City Council hearing, Council Member Williams expressed concern that the aggravated illegal conversions bill may appear to be targeting particular tenant populations such as immigrants and people of color. “I know there were some questions of what this bill was and if we were trying to hurt specific demographics and whether it was Haitians in my district and Chinese in Council Member Gentile’s district,” Williams said.

There is good reason for his concerns. Since Trump’s election, New Yorkers — including community board members representing the city’s celebrated hyper-diverse neighborhoods —feel emboldened to express anti-immigrant sentiments. A longtime member was recently removed from Community Board 4 in Queens for her comment that bicycle lanes will no longer be needed once Trump “removes all the illegals.” According to a DNAinfo map of the November 2016 elections, a large part of Council Member Gentile’s district voted for Trump. Less than a month after the presidential election, a Muslim off-duty NYPD officer and her son were the targets of a racist verbal assault in her Bay Ridge neighborhood. News accounts of escalating fears of detainment and deportation has prompted Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez to introduce legislation that prohibits Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from identifying themselves as local police officers.

Mayor de Blasio has declared our city a sanctuary for immigrants. In this climate, we need to actively ensure that all New Yorkers have safe haven. While this illegal conversions law rightly seeks to punish predatory landlords and their exploitative practices, without the provision of alternative, safe and affordable long-term housing, this law deepens the crisis facing our most vulnerable tenant populations including immigrants, seniors, and the working-poor.

Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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Illegal Conversions Crackdown Could Worsen City’s Housing Crisis Wed, 14 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Southern Brooklyn Candidates Pitch Democratic Club gentile byd

City Council Member Gentile (photo: Sam Raskin)

Brooklyn Democratic office-seekers pitched their candidacies to the Brooklyn Young Democrats (BYD) club at a forum the group hosted in Bay Ridge Wednesday night.

The event was part of the candidate and club endorsement circuit leading up to the September primary elections for City Council and other offices, including Mayor.

The BYD meeting featured candidates for several offices, but was centered around the race for City Council in District 43, which includes parts of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, along with Bath Beach and Dyker Heights. Several Democrats and Republicans are attempting to replace outgoing Council Member Vincent Gentile, who is term-limited and running for District Attorney.

Three of the four declared Democratic candidates -- Justin Brannan, Khader El-Yateem and Kevin Peter Carroll -- made their cases to the BYD crowd, the members of which could be helpful in terms of campaign volunteers and general support. Due to the volume of candidates who participated in the event and time constraints, all speakers were given just three minutes to speak, followed by three questions from attendees. The candidates spoke predominantly about themselves and their general outlook, while questioners brought up specific policy issues.

Gentile kicked off the evening by promoting his District Attorney candidacy, addressing the roughly 50 attendees.

Brannan, a musician turned local activist and government aide, followed his boss, Gentile -- for the past decade, Brannan has mostly worked in Gentile’s Council office. He also spent a recent spell in the de Blasio administration, doing intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Education. He also worked on the effort to see universal pre-kindergarten funding come to the city through Albany.

“As a progressive, the cornerstone of progressive politics is making government work,” he said. Brannan, who is well-known in Southern Brooklyn, especially Bay Ridge, where he has led the local Democratic club, chronicled his multifaceted pre-political life, highlighting union organizing as the endeavor that first piqued his interest in electoral politics. Brannan also brandished his progressive credentials on issues such as animal rights and the promotion of inclusivity in the diverse Southern Brooklyn community.

The former punk-rocker also distanced himself some from Gentile, who had since exited the forum, but who has endorsed Brannan as his successor. An audience member asked Brannan about Gentile’s 2013 vote against the Community Safety Act, which put further restrictions on racial profiling by the NYPD and created the NYPD Inspector General. “I’m running to replace Councilman Gentile; I’m not Vince Gentile,” he said to scattered applause. (A source from the Brannan campaign later said the questioner was aligned with the El-Yateem camp.)

Afterwards, Carroll, who works for City Council Member Stephen Levin, tried to sell himself to the group. Carroll made heavy use of simple sloganeering to brand himself as a young, fresh face and someone who would “stand up” as an “independent voice.” He delved into policy specifics only to criticize the MTA, which he believes is both ineffective and unaccountable to New Yorkers. He pointed to the fact that “the MTA can issue bonds,” but said it is a problem that “public authorities can do that without the public ever knowing about it.”

Carroll did not provide more in terms of a solution. While MTA governance is currently more determined by the governor than the mayor or City Council, Brannan has called for a return of the MTA to city control.

Reverend Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian-American pastor, followed Carroll. “I was born and raised in Bethlehem...Not Bethlehem, Pennsylvania...the real Bethlehem!” he joked while introducing himself, sparking some laughter. If elected to the City Council, El-Yateem would be the first Arab-American to join the body, a quality he contends gives him unique potential to bridge divides among various demographic cohorts in South Brooklyn. El-Yateem said he would fight for his constituents at City Hall, without regard for outside interests on matters such as rising costs of rent. “We need housing that is affordable to the people that live here,” he argued, rather than newcomers from outside the neighborhood.

At Wednesday night’s forum, City Council Member Mark Treyger, who represents the 47th Council District and is seeking reelection, and Anne Swern, a lawyer, district leader, and candidate for Brooklyn District Attorney, also made appearances.

In his opening remarks, Council Member Gentile cited his 11 years in the Queens District Attorney’s office and his City Council as well as New York State Assembly experience, claiming he was the most prepared candidate for the District Attorney job. “I know how to keep Brooklyn safe,” Gentile said. “But also, I know how to give Brooklyn hope,” he added. Gentile emphasized his policies would strike a balance between utilizing a compassionate criminal justice approache while still keeping crime at bay. He specifically mentioned the Right to Know Act, legislation that has stalled in the City Council that would mandate certain disclosures from police officers in particular interactions with civilians.

Candidates for City Council District 48 also participated in the event, with two Democratic primary candidates speaking toward the end of the night. Kalman Yeger, the New York City political operative, has launched a primary challenge against incumbent Council Member Chaim Deutsch. It is shaping up to be a contentious intra-party contest.

“I’m running against an incumbent who I think hasn’t been there,” Yeger said. He went on to accuse Deutsch of spending too much time elsewhere. “He’s absent because he has another job. He’s at his real estate company all day long,” he said, adding that he suspects the money Deutsch earns via Chasa Management, of which he is president, impacted his decision to vote against the ban on Council members earning outside income in 2016. “I think we can do better in our neighborhood,” Yeger said.

Deutsch, who was not yet present at the venue to hear his rival’s criticism, seemed to be aware of his opponent's critiques. The Council member boasted about his near-perfect attendance at City Hall, as well as his availability to his constituents. “There are some people who say ‘oh that person is crazy’” and thus will refuse to speak with them, Deutsch said.”...[I’ll] meet with everyone.”

The Brooklyn Young Democrats will meet again June 19, hosting a North Brooklyn forum in Bushwick.

Southern Brooklyn Candidates Pitch Democratic Club Thu, 08 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Substandard Housing Is Not Affordable Housing, It's Dangerous Housing

City Council Member Gentile, the author (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Over two years ago I stood with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Council Member Jumaane Williams on Flatbush Avenue by the ravaged remains of a building consumed by a fatal two-alarm fire. A 23 year-old security guard was killed and 15 others were injured.The cause? Illegal residential conversions.

Partitioning one and two family homes with shoddy construction, faulty wiring, and compromised gas work has become a common practice by predatory landlords. Maximizing profit at the expense of the safety of inhabitants has led to today’s proliferation of illegal home conversions. Just last summer in the Dyker Heights portion of my Brooklyn district, 18 adults and 13 children were vacated from an illegally subdivided home riddled with hazardous conditions such as insufficient egress and extreme overcrowding.

The dominoes of peril continue to fall from there. Our city’s first responders encounter immediate danger and confusion when entering these premises during emergencies. Heightening the already threatening situation, firefighters must navigate their way through a disjointed maze of subdivided units losing people in need of rescue along the way.  

Considering the deterioration to a neighborhood’s quality of life is important to qualify in assessing the effects of illegal conversions. There is direct correlation between 311 complaints of illegal conversions to overcrowded elementary schools as evidence by this cross-section map from Brooklyn Daily. In addition to severely overcrowded schools, public transportation systems are overburdened, sewage systems overflow, and other essential city services are drained thin.  

Very few neighborhoods across the five boroughs are spared from the inhumane predatory scheme of illegally subdividing homes. In 2016, there were 18,049 complaints of illegal residential conversions, an average of almost 50 per day. To put this in perspective, there have been more complaints of illegal conversions than of graffiti, smoking, and illegal fireworks combined!

My “Aggravated Illegal Conversions” bill, Intro. 1218-A, introduced jointly with Borough President Adams, Council Member Williams, and Council Member Grodenchik, will make this unethical practice an unlawful one. We will codify a year’s long rallying cry, “substandard housing is not affordable housing.” Setting this precedent is vitally important as our city rids itself of modern day tenement housing for stable affordable housing.

Focusing on the most egregious purveyors of illegal conversions, my bill establishes a $15,000 penalty strictly on the unscrupulous owner for each illegally partitioned dwelling unit that is three or more units above the Certificate of Occupancy. So if a two family home is found to have been illegally converted to five illegal residences, a $45,000 fine will be imposed on the person or persons responsible for victimizing tenants and endangering human life. To ensure rectification and payment of the violation, the fine constitutes a lien on the property. If unpaid for one year, the lien can be sold by the city.

Let me be clear, penalizing aggravated illegal conversions will not impede the efforts to legalize and standardize basement apartments, grandma’s basement, or granny flats. Instead Intro. 1218-A will root out those profiteering landlords who gut and partition entire buildings for maximum profit with no concern for health or safety.

The conditions inside these Aggravated Illegal Conversions may be life threatening and possibly immediately hazardous. If the circumstances force the Department of Buildings (DOB) to issue  a vacate order, residents can apply for transitional housing services that are facilitated by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the American Red Cross. My office has been in discussion with the Mayor’s Office to establish a Memorandum of Understanding so these fines would be purposed towards assisting the residents’ relocation from a modern day tenement to safer living arrangements.   

Finally, in the Dyker Heights case, DOB was fortunately able to gain entry to the partitioned home and prevent a catastrophe. However, obtaining access is a tall hurdle to jump over and often an impediment for building inspectors. Intro. 1218-A will institutionalize the process of obtaining an access warrant to an alleged illegal subdivision. After two unsuccessful attempts to gain entry, DOB will request the Law Department apply for an access warrant. Once granted by a judge, inspectors will finally be equipped with the necessary tools to inspect a property and act accordingly based on the violations.    

All in all, this bill will serve as strong deterrents on the front end, and if needed, strong enforcement tools on the back end to combat aggravated illegal residential conversions. Almost half of my colleagues in the City Council have already attached their names to Intro. 1218-A and I look forward to guiding it into law.

Vincent Gentile is a New York City Council Member representing the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights,  Bensonhurst, and Bath Beach in the 43rd District in Brooklyn.

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Substandard Housing Is Not Affordable Housing, It's Dangerous Housing Tue, 09 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Investigations Commissioner Lays Out Budget Needs For Agency peters and bk da

DOI Commissioner Mark Peters (photo: @DOInews)

At a City Council preliminary budget hearing on Thursday, Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters laid out new funding and staffing needs for his agency, which is facing a $5 million proposed reduction in its fiscal year 2018 allocation by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The proposed preliminary budget for the Department of Investigation (DOI), the watchdog body that monitors and probes public corruption and other wrongdoing at 45 city agencies, is $41.7 million, down from $46.7 million in last year’s adopted budget. (That number does not include another $13 million in federal forfeiture funds that is available for the agency to spend through fiscal year 2018. Peters also noted that these funds are not affected by federal budget fluctuations.)

Testifying at the hearing, held by the Council’s oversight and investigations committee, Peters stressed the need for adequate funding as the agency’s work has grown in key areas, including monitoring construction safety, NYPD surveillance practices, the Administration of Children’s Services, and the Department of Corrections. The agency has over 700 personnel, Peters said in his opening statement, working towards a “comprehensive strategy of systemic investigations, high impact arrests, preventative controls and operational reforms, in a manner designed to ensure we leverage our resources effectively.”

Although Peters didn’t provide an exact budget ask, he said after the hearing, “There’s work we’re doing both around the Department of Corrections and ACS where we believe that we could make very good use of some additional staff so we’re talking with OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] about it.”

Peters also spoke of the need for additional staff to cover a massive backlog in background checks for city employees, an issue raised by Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee, during the hearing. The city currently has a backlog of 4,000 needed background checks, and Peters projected that number would grow by another 1,600 over the next fiscal year.

Gentile expressed a range of concerns about the DOI’s responsibilities and how DOI measures success. Pointing to the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, which gauges performance indicators for all city agencies, Gentile wondered why the report did not include data for individual Inspectors General at different city agencies. Peters, who had earlier in his testimony warned against a heavy dependence on statistics, instead emphasized the agency’s focus on citywide systemic change. Reporting on 45 city agencies, he said, would be “cumbersome” and “not necessarily helpful” to gauge effectiveness as DOI works to root out waste, fraud, and abuse.

At Gentile’s insistence, Peters also explained his reticence in relying on the length of an investigation as a performance metric. Quicker investigations, he said, could be less effective. “The biggest cases where we have the most impact are the ones where we don’t jump too quickly,” he said.

He added, “I think the best metric, that’s hard to put a number about is, ‘Is there a greater sense in these city agencies that there’s a cop on the beat watching and are we seeing significant institutional change?’”

Peters did provide numbers to illustrate the agency’s work, however. In the 2016 calendar year, DOI made 694 arrests, a 22% increase over 2015, stemming from more than 1,800 investigations. The agency also referred over 800 cases for criminal prosecution, a 14% increase.

The hearing also touched on agency financial savings, a particularly pertinent subject this year round with major risks in the city budget, including potential federal funding cuts, proposed state funding cuts, and slowing city economic growth. DOI identified a one percent reduction in its Other Than Personal Spending (OTPS) costs, amounting to about $22,000. “Have you considered other areas that might yield some cost savings,” Gentile asked.

Peters said the agency had little room for creating savings through efficiencies. “The real savings come from things like doing the monitoring of monies spent,” he said, referring to DOI’s role as a watchdog of others and citing the $40 million saved by the agency’s arrest of four people involved in defrauding the “Build It Back” Superstorm Sandy relief program.

Gentile, in closing out the hearing, said he anticipates an executive budget hearing for the agency, unlike last year when DOI saw a substantial 43 percent increase in its budget. The executive budget will follow on the heels of the Council’s official response to the mayor’s preliminary budget, after weeks of hearings like the one held Thursday. The next fiscal year starts July 1.

[Related: Under the Hood at Agencies, Investigation Department Increases Policy Focus]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Investigations Commissioner Lays Out Budget Needs For Agency Thu, 09 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
At Rivington Hearing, Discussion of Extent of City Hall Mismanagement Shorris Rivington

First Deputy Mayor Shorris testifies (photo: William Alatriste)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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At Rivington Hearing, Discussion of Extent of City Hall Mismanagement Thu, 29 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Illegal Conversions and South Brooklyn’s Affordable Housing Crisis south brooklyn illegal conversions affordable housing 

A home that has been illegally converted (photo: Tarry Hum)

Described as “a secret world of New York City housing” by The New York Times, several actions by the Department of Buildings (DOB) this summer exposed the ubiquity of illegal subdivisions in South Brooklyn’s immigrant neighborhoods.

Two August incidences within a two-block area near 70th Street and 7th Avenue in Dyker Heights received local media coverage while the raid of 818 55th Street in Sunset Park was reported only in the Chinese language press. In each case, a two family home was illegally subdivided to house multiple families including those with children.

The Sunset Park property was divided into 25 single room occupancy (SRO) units. According to one media outlet, Kings County Politics, these incidences “lend credence” to City Council Member Vincent Gentile’s ongoing efforts to pass legislation to impose severe civil penalties on “unscrupulous landlords” and expand the authority of DOB and the Environmental Control Board to inspect properties and issue fines and other penalties.

Earlier this summer, Council Member Gentile introduced his most recent bill, Intro 1218, co-sponsored by Council Members Williams and Grodenchik with the strong support of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and members of the New York State Assembly and Senate.

Illegal subdivisions are long standing and fairly pervasive in immigrant neighborhoods.  While there is no question that illegal conversions create substandard, unsafe, and overcrowded conditions that strain public infrastructure including transportation, utilities, and local schools, illegal SROs and basement units are often housing options of last resort for the city’s working poor.

A 2008 Pratt Center and Chhaya CDC study estimated that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in illegal subdivisions or “phantom apartments.” In fact, MFY Legal Services attorneys argue, “the City depends on illegal SROs to ward off a homeless crisis that would ‘dwarf’ anything seen before.” Council Member Gentile and his co-sponsors seek to punish landlords who construct illegal and unsafe subdivisions and the provisions of Intro 1218 may be more effective in protecting and preserving the residential character of low-density neighborhoods than addressing the housing crisis faced by working poor New Yorkers.

Leading the charge for greater DOB enforcement and civil penalties for offending property owners are Community Board 10, Dyker Heights Civic Association, and Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance. Their well-attended town hall in February 2015 held at the Bay Ridge Knights of Columbus provided an opportunity for numerous residents to vent their long-standing anger and frustration. Most recently, these groups participated in a three-part informational series on illegal conversions produced by a Chinese language media outlet.

While the rationale for legislative action is framed around public safety due to potential hazards for emergency responders and tenants, and concerns about strained public services and infrastructure, Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance’s Bob Cassara made clear that the grievances are not just about public welfare and overcrowded schools. He asks, “Why do people want to live here? Why are those houses multi-million dollar homes? Because they’re maintaining the look of the neighborhood and that’s what we want to maintain over here as well.  So people are welcome here but they gotta play by the same rules. If they’re not playing by the same rules, they’re really not welcome in this community.”

A hyper-speculative real estate market has elevated and sustains the multi-million dollar value of South Brooklyn’s housing stock largely comprised of one- and two-family properties. However, these same market conditions are also the driving force for predatory equity and the practice of illegal conversions.

Sunset Park’s 818 55th Street is a particularly egregious example of greed and exploitation. Tracing the ownership of this property provides a genealogy of Sunset Park’s demography as the modest, two-family rowhouse passed from an Irish owner to a Norwegian owner, in 1973, and then, a series of Chinese owners beginning in 1987. Most significantly, when the property was sold in March 2015 to 818 Inc., it ceased to be a family home and became an investment vehicle.

Given Sunset Park’s speculative real estate market, within six months of 818 Inc.’s $1.45 million purchase, the investor group flipped the property for a mere $100,000 profit in the sale to Access 818 LLC in September 2015. A short month later, the first of several complaints that the two-family building was illegally subdivided into a SRO hotel with 25 rooms was registered with DOB. Although a full vacate order was issued in May, the Chinese press reported that at least 13 tenants were still living at the property, each paying a monthly rent of $400 for a closet-sized room, when the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement took action July 14. Access 818 LLC has since been issued six Class 1 violations indicating immediately hazardous conditions and incurred $69,000 in penalties.

Right around the corner from this illegal SRO hotel is a huge construction site for the future Winley Plaza Condominium, a modern, glassy six-story commercial condominium building with ground level retail. Financed, in part, with a Cathay Bank mortgage and EB-5 investments, the developers seek an unprecedented total sellout of $76.3 million which, according to The Real Deal, “would be the most expensive condo offering of any kind to date” in Sunset Park.

Developer confidence in the lucrative profitability of the neighborhood’s commercial real estate is evidenced further south on 8th Avenue near the Dyker Heights border, where a “ginormous” mixed use development is proposed. Purchased for $51.5 million in 2014, the developer and investment partners plan to build an office tower, two luxury residential towers and a hotel anchored by a Chelsea Market-style retail base. Nearby, a third place-making project called the Brooklyn Friendship Archway, an ornate traditional Chinese pagoda gateway, is expected to receive Public Design Commission approval later this month.

Some community leaders have deemed Council Member Gentile’s bill a form of “tough love” – unpopular but necessary. They also call for more residential development to alleviate the outstanding need for affordable housing. Given the current market climate, more development will not only fail to address the housing gap but will further exacerbate the affordability crisis faced by the working poor. As long as real estate properties are viewed as investment vehicles with tremendous untapped value, predatory activities such as illegal conversions will continue to shape the residential landscape of the city’s neighborhoods.

Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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Illegal Conversions and South Brooklyn’s Affordable Housing Crisis Sun, 18 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Without Key Stakeholders, Administration Supports Council Police Misconduct Bill jumaane williams

Council Member Jumaane Williams (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations heard a bill on Tuesday, sponsored by Council Member Jumaane Williams, which would require centralized reporting of data on police misconduct from multiple agencies to identify systemic problems and help create an early intervention system for the NYPD. To the disappointment of Williams and others, though, key stakeholders to be affected by the bill and instrumental in implementing it if it becomes law, were not present to testify at the hearing.

The bill, Intro. 119, requires the Inspector General for the NYPD, whose office is part of the Department of Investigations, to provide a report every six months on cases of police misconduct, particularly civil cases filed against police officers, in order to develop systemic recommendations on training, disciplining and monitoring officers. Council Member Williams was a co-lead sponsor of the law creating the NYPD IG, which passed over a Mayor Michael Bloomberg veto in 2013.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the city’s Law Department testified in support of the bill, which has been through a number of revisions since it was first heard at the Council two years ago. At earlier hearings, Law Department representatives expressed concern that they lacked the necessary resources to provide the data required and that some of the information may be confidential under attorney-client privilege. The department represents employees of city agencies, including the NYPD, in civil and criminal litigation.

Thomas Giovanni, chief of staff and executive assistant for government policy at the Law Department, said the bill in its current form resolved those issues and “strikes an appropriate balance between the Law Department’s operational capability and its mandate to safeguard the attorney-client relationship with the desire of the public to know more about the performance of the city’s police officers.”

Other than the Law Department, there was no other testimony from the de Blasio administration or related entities. No one testified from the NYPD, the Department of Investigations, the NYPD inspector general’s office, the Civilian Complaints Review Board, or the Commission to Combat Police Corruption. Under the legislation, these agencies would coordinate to provide the required data. The absences of the IG and NYPD were particularly felt, considering the bill aims at reforming the police department and would be executed by the IG’s office.

“Certainly there were questions here that were relevant to the PD, the IG or the DOI, and those questions couldn’t be adequately asked or answered because they were absent,” Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee, told reporters after the hearing.

Council Member Williams also expressed disappointment that the IG and NYPD failed to show up at the hearing. “I think if they weren’t here, someone from the administration should’ve been here that can answer the questions as a whole because it does apply to more than just the law department,” he said after the hearing.

The Department of Investigation declined to comment for this article. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, an IG report that undermined the belief in aggressive policing of low-level offenses as preventative of felony crimes invited a sharp rebuke from the NYPD and led to an ensuing back-and-forth between the head of the DOI, Mark Peters, and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. One reporter asked Council Members Williams and Gentile if this might have been a reason behind the absences. “If there is a spat going on,” Gentile responded, “they shouldn’t hold our bill hostage as a result, so to speak. We’re gonna move forward in any regard. It would’ve just been a more complete hearing had they been here.”

(The same reporter, from Crain’s New York Business, said Council Member Rory Lancman, a member of the committee, told her after the hearing that the administration was “contemptuous” of the Council for not being there.)

Representatives from the Legal Aid Society and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also testified at the hearing. “This bill is an important first step in identifying patterns and trends of police misconduct and has the potential to improve both officer performance and police-community relations,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Unit in Criminal Practice. The two organizations also proposed amendments to the bill to make it more effective. These included expanding the data collected, specifying how civil action data can be used, and ensuring transparency in the collection and analysis of the data.

A concern brought up by Council Members Lancman and Helen Rosenthal was that the city should also collect and examine data on misconduct by precinct and geographical area. Law Department officials said this would be overly cumbersome and even possibly misleading in cases where police officers are assigned to different locations for specific events.

A second-order effect of the bill that emerged at the hearing is a reduction in the city’s expenditure on litigation arising from misconduct cases. Early in the hearing, Gentile cited Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allocation of $4.5 million to the Law Department to fight the increasing number of lawsuits against the NYPD, especially frivolous ones. The Law Department’s Giovanni stressed that this funding was meant for hiring more attorneys to deal with cases faster and more efficiently.

Later, in response to Gentile’s questioning, Giovanni said, “The more efficient information exchange we have, the more clear we are about trends, the more we know about what’s happening, I assume that hopefully more efficient our response will be, and ultimately that means cost savings. That’s the goal.” He estimated these savings would occur at least a year after the bill is approved.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Without Key Stakeholders, Administration Supports Council Police Misconduct Bill Tue, 28 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Budget Allocations Measure Mayor’s Commitment to Ethics Agencies bdb town hall mic crowd

Mayor de Blasio at a town hall (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

Over the last few weeks, facing the spectre of multiple investigations, Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly stressed that he, his administration, and his allies operate ethically. “We hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity,” the mayor has said repeatedly as reporters have questioned him about allegations of impropriety in his fundraising operations.

In support, the mayor has regularly referred to the city’s internal mechanisms for ensuring such behavior.

“Our Conflict of Interest Board, our Department of Investigation, all the different tools that we have here in the city that create accountability have gotten stronger and stronger, and we have the most rigorous campaign finance system in the country,” he told reporters at a press conference on April 13. It was not the only time the mayor has referenced the threesome in place to help keep government officials on the straight and narrow and reduce the influence of money in politics.

As the mayor has cited the training the Conflict of Interest Board delivers to city employees and the guidance he and his team sought from it while engaging in their fundraising, as well as the work of the Department of Investigations, the city’s annual budget process has been unfolding.

The season has shifted from the preliminary to the executive budget iterations, with a final deal between de Blasio and the City Council due by the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. As the mayor has touted both COIB and DOI, he has had an opportunity to put money where his mouth is, so to speak, while his administration has also had the chance to weigh in on pending tweaks to the city’s campaign finance system that include reducing the impact of donation bundlers who have business before the city. There are currently limits on how much entities with business before the city can donate to candidates. (A federal investigation is reportedly focused on whether donors to a nonprofit aligned with the mayor received favorable city action. Nonprofits face no donation limits.)

During a preliminary budget hearing in March, COIB representatives told City Council members that the agency was significantly underfunded and thus unable to retain good staff or complete its mandated trainings.

DOI on the other hand, had no complaints as its budget was already ballooning, with Commissioner Mark Peters simply left to explain how he is using the additional millions.

When the mayor released his executive budget on April 27, both COIB and DOI saw bumps in funding, though for COIB funding is still not where board officials or City Council members want to see it.

The Department of Investigation’s $47.4 million allocation in the executive budget is about $3.2 million more than the preliminary budget of $44.2 million. Over last year’s adopted budget of $30.9 million, that’s a 53.3 percent increase. During his preliminary budget hearing, DOI Commissioner Peters justified the agency’s budget increase, telling the City Council’s Committee on Investigations, chaired by Council Member Vincent Gentile, that the agency has become more proactive and has started to focus on overarching systemic issues that can lead to corruption and ineffectiveness.

“As the City's workforce continues to expand,” said mayoral spokesperson Karen Hinton, “the funding provided in both financial plans will directly support the additional staff required for [DOI] to fulfill its Charter-mandated mission to eliminate fraud, corruption and mismanagement of public fund and policies.”

Mike Bistreich, legislation and budget director for Gentile, said the additional funding would also help alleviate some of the lag in background checks that DOI is supposed to perform.

However, DOI’s budget did not include significant savings, which was a cause for concern for Gentile at the preliminary budget hearing. In response, Peters proposed that 261 investigators at other agencies be moved to DOI’s payroll so their overtime could be paid through federal asset forfeiture funds.

“As investigative staff from other agencies come onboard with DOI through the positions approved in the last financial plans, DOI will be able to cover their overtime with this funding stream,” said Hinton. “In effect, saving City Tax Levy that was previously dedicated to the overtime burden. This has not been fully implemented.” Hinton said that DOI will save at least $1.6 million over the next two years, though, by implementing this for current lease payments and employee overtime.

Peters, it should be noted, has recused himself from one investigation DOI is undertaking into the de Blasio administration, over a suspect lifting of deed restrictions on a former health care facility that will become luxury housing. Peters was de Blasio’s 2013 campaign finance chair. His potential conflict of interest in leading the agency charged with investigating the mayor’s office and other city agencies was the subject of his 2014 City Council confirmation hearing when de Blasio nominated him for the job. He was voted through by a wide margin.

At the Conflicts of Interest Board, which is largely focused on preventing corruption through education and guidance, the funding picture is a bit more grim. Although it receives a $2.32 million allocation in the new executive budget, about $90,000 more than last year’s adopted budget, it is not enough for an agency where the workload in recent years has skyrocketed and staffing has remained relatively flat.

COIB representatives complained at their preliminary budget hearing that the agency struggles to retain staff because of low salaries. Three proposals they made in 2015 for increased funding were rejected by the Office of Management and Budget, they said.

Raising salaries across the board would’ve required less than $200,000, according to COIB officials who testified at the preliminary budget hearing. Instead, the executive budget outlines fiscal 2017 salary increases totaling $22,000, along with an additional $4,000 for training equipment, according to Hinton. Part of the total increase since last year’s adopted budget was due to collective bargaining agreements that have been settled. Hinton pointed out that during Mayor de Blasio’s tenure, COIB has received about $292,000 in additional funding over various budgets.

“I wish it was more,” said Alan Maisel, chair of the Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee, which has oversight of COIB. “With more money, they could always do more -- more trainings in ethics rules, they could send teams out to site locations.”

Since 2010, COIB has been mandated with training city employees in ethics rules every two years. The city has nearly 320,000 employees and COIB has only four full-time staffers, out of a total of 22, who conduct these trainings.

Maisel agreed with the mayor’s assertion that the COIB is a strong accountability agency but insisted that it could do a better job with more staffing and resources. When Gotham Gazette asked if he’d push for more funding in the executive budget negotiations, Maisel said, “I’ve already done my pushing. I don’t know where it’s going to go...Hopefully we can get them to add more money. We’re not asking for a fortune here.”

Council Member Brad Lander, a member of the ethics committee, agrees. “I think it’ll be great to give them a modest amount of additional resources,” he said, noting that COIB budget demands were relatively low, so the $90,000 increase already made this year was significant. But, he added, “I think it’ll be good to give them a little more.”

Executive budget hearings began on Friday with the Committee on Finance, an opportunity for Council members to air any budget concerns with de Blasio’s budget director. The hearing included no mention of the Conflict of Interest Board. There is no specific executive budget hearing for the Committee on Standards and Ethics scheduled. This often happens when Council members decide there is little to discuss around agency allocations.

There is also no executive budget hearing scheduled for the Committee on Oversight and Investigations.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Budget Allocations Measure Mayor’s Commitment to Ethics Agencies Mon, 09 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000