Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Persistent Themes and New Projects as Earth Day Hits 50 in New York

gov statewide research

Key themes of the first Earth Day remain on the 50th (photo: governor's office)

A half-century ago, the United States celebrated the first Earth Day. In New York City, Fifth Avenue connected Union Square Park and Central Park with tens of thousands of New Yorkers celebrating the environment and urging their government to take swift and decisive action to protect their air and water. Today, 50 years later, the world has been put on pause to combat a health crisis unseen in generations. But while we are unable to again take to the streets to mark Earth Day, it does not mean that the same spirit—or the same environmental issues—have vanished.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, New York City suffered from horrible toxic smog that killed hundreds a year and sickened many more. Thankfully, we don’t face the same scale of air pollution today, but it doesn’t mean pollution is any less deadly. In fact, we are seeing first-hand that our vulnerable and disadvantaged communities who carry the burden of poor air quality are also seeing the highest death rates of COVID-19. A recent report from Harvard connected these dots: death rates from COVID-19 infection are higher in areas of poor air quality.

In spite of this, the Trump Administration has consistently and aggressively moved to protect and prop up polluters. It has ignored science, rolled back regulations, and tried to return the country to a time before there was an Earth Day. 

So, if we can’t rely on the federal government, then it is again up to New York State to take the lead on protecting our air, water, and climate. We are in a good position to do so, having taken a huge step forward last year when state leaders passed a law that fights climate change by moving the entire economy of New York off of polluting fossil fuels and onto clean, renewable energy. That means electrifying all vehicles, expanding mass transit, transforming buildings, and developing the workforce necessary to get the job done. But that transition will require dedicated funding to help lift up the communities hit hardest by this crisis, and it’s the polluters who should be picking up the tab.

We must also expand and strengthen other pollution-reduction programs already on the books. For example, New York (and several other states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) make polluting power plants pay for the carbon they dump into our skies. That money—$1.3 billion since the beginning of the program—is then put into efforts that cut energy bills. This has been a successful program but could be more so by closing loopholes that exclude some of the worst polluting power plants and dedicating at least 35 percent of clean energy funding to frontline communities who suffer the worst from pollution.

Finally, we need to focus on programs and projects that will assist in an economic recovery and help protect our public health. Today, you will no doubt use tap water multiple times to wash your hands and protect yourself against the spread of COVID-19. Clean water and hygiene are at the front line of our defenses during this public health crisis, underscoring the need to continue to make investments in the state’s aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. There is a long line of shovel-ready projects throughout the state waiting for funding that will ensure clean water in our communities. Thankfully, this year’s state budget has authorized $500 million for these kinds of clean water projects. This will be an immediate environmental and economic catalyst for communities all over New York and why the state needs to move quickly to get these projects going. 

New York faces an unprecedented and uncertain future thanks to COVID-19. And the difficulties we confronted before this crisis started haven’t disappeared. Climate change still threatens, and we still need to protect our air and water. But the one thing that this situation has proved is that New Yorkers can come together and do what needs to be done to protect the health and well-being of ourselves and the environment. Fifty years ago, it was taking to the streets. Today, it’s staying at home. Tomorrow, it will be the hard work of ensuring a healthier, more equitable and economically vibrant state.

Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director of Environmental Advocates of New York, is one of the nation’s foremost climate advocates and a recent appointee to New York’s Climate Action Council. On Twitter @greenwatchdogNY.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Now More Than Ever: Abolish The City Marshal

health lincoln bx

The city should eliminate the marshal position, the author writes (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office:)

Since the 17th century, down on their luck New Yorkers have faced a familiar spectre: a New York City Marshal.

The marshals are enforcers of court judgments including evictions, foreclosures, utility shut-offs, and debt collections. The difference between the New York City Marshals and New York City Sheriffs are that sheriffs are salaried public servants employed by the city while the marshals are technically private entrepreneurs who, despite being appointed by the mayor, are contracted by landlords, banks, utility companies, debt collectors, etc.

For each job, the marshals collect fees and are also entitled to a 5% cut of the total amount collected, known as “poundage.” Not surprisingly, the marshals thrive in times of economic hardship; in 2009, at the nadir of the Great Recession, the marshals recorded their best year to date, with over a third of them having earned over a million dollars. This is why it’s important, now more than ever amid vast economic hardship and more ahead, to abolish the city marshal system and transfer its duties over to the New York City Sheriff’s Office.

You might be wondering: how is it that in 2020 the mayor of the proverbial “greatest city in the world” still appoints what are essentially legally-authorized bounty hunters? Mayor de Blasio, to his credit, has spoken out against the marshal system. But so too have several mayors before him. The reason why the marshals have been able to remain as an immovable part of the city’s firmament is a long history of patronage, influence peddling, and political inertia.

The marshal system was first established in 1655 when New York was then a Dutch colony and has been in operation ever since. Opposition to the marshal system goes back to the early 20th century, with the formation of good government groups that rose against the venalities of Tammany Hall-style influence and corruption. Pressed by groups like Citizens Union, mayors as far back as Fiorello La Guardia sought to abolish the marshal system, and almost every mayor since John Lindsay has come into office nominally against it. (Bloomberg was the exception; he liked the idea of privatized enforcement and appointed 20 new marshals.)

Each ran into the same problem: the New York City marshals are protected under New York State law. The most concerted effort to abolish the marshal system in the state Legislature, which Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul described in vivid detail in their terrific book “The Abuse of Power,” was in 1975. Organized by Citizens Union, the bill had passed in the State Senate, but failed in the Assembly. The Speaker at the time, Stanley Steingut, ruled over Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, in which patronage plums like recommendations for marshal appointments were a mainstay, and so Steingut smothered the bill by sending it through the Assembly committee of a fellow machine loyalist where it failed to reach the floor for a vote.

Ever since, the marshals have maintained their license to scavenge at the expense of the city’s most indigent by reinvesting no small portion of their earnings into political influence. They are prolific campaign contributors, which is why, despite a succession of mayors who came into office against the marshal system, each not only stood down from their opposition, but also consented to an expansion of the marshals’ powers. Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani, both having received significant contributions from the marshals, ultimately supported legislation that allowed the marshals to collect judgments awarded by the state Supreme Court (in addition to civil court). Today, the marshals’ lobbyist and spokesperson was de Blasio’s biggest bundler in his first campaign for mayor. (De Blasio, apropos of a Bloomberg News series that described the essential role the marshals had played in enforcing a type of predatory lending scheme called “merchant cash advance,” did say in December 2018 that the continuing existence of the marshal system “needs a new look” and questioned whether the system “makes sense at this point,” but nothing ever came of it.)

In 2020, the marshal system simply does not make sense – neither financially, according to the Independent Budget Office, nor as a tool of effective governance, as the backroom “clubhouse” dealmakers who protected the system have ceased to exist.

Indeed, the county party machines are hardly the potent force today as they were decades ago (or two years ago for that matter); while the State Senate Independent Democratic Conference, and especially former IDC leader Senator Jeff Klein – to whom individual marshals, as well as their PAC, had contributed tens of thousands of dollars – had been voted out by a new crop of legislators with a more promising vision of how government should work for people. In other words, the political resistance to this proposal no longer exists.

While the marshal system may still work well for the marshals’ clients: landlords, Con Edison, or debt collectors – who benefit from a privatized enforcement system that incentivizes fast turnover and imposes a merciless discipline on those who are going through a tough time – it does not work well for New Yorkers.

Any realistic anticipation of the economic fallout from COVID-19 that’s underway must take into account that until the federal government figures out how to develop an administrative infrastructure that can deliver stimulus directly into people’s pockets, it is incumbent on state and municipal governments to protect citizens from eviction or having their power turned off or their wages (or stimulus checks) garnished.

Yet, as The City has reported, already the New York City Department of Investigation (which oversees the marshals) has questioned the city’s authority under the current legal status quo to intercede against a marshal’s ability to collect on a debt. But by transferring the marshals’ duties over to the city sheriff’s office – that is, to public servants employed by the city – only those city employees would be authorized to enforce a collection. The same goes for other civil judgments. New York City’s government, in other words, would have a monopoly on enforcement. Instead of delegating this authority to for-profit contractors, the city would be accountable for those most in need.

The city must step up to this task. If the state will allow it.

Duncan Bryer was formerly the Director of Policy for Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar. He currently advises the senator and is a graduate student of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sirens and Suffering: Rethinking the Soundtrack of the Coronavirus Crisis

nys gov ac james com

Sirens and the city (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

A beautiful, clear April evening in Manhattan. No traffic, which is down 84% overall in the city, says StreetLight. Out of nowhere a screeching siren pierces the air. Many minutes later an ambulance appears—SeniorCare—blaring a siren that measures 124 decibels, higher than a jet takeoff or a thunderclap, the loudest natural sound on earth. The few people on the street cover their ears in pain as the noise gets ever louder, remaining in the air for several more minutes even as the ambulance disappears from sight.

Why the deafening siren on an otherwise quiet night? The argument has always been that sirens are needed to move traffic out of the way in emergencies, so that responders—firefighters, police officers, medical technicians—can make their way as quickly as possible. But this argument fades as traffic disappears under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down the city, forcing worried New Yorkers to shelter in place as the sirens heighten and prolong their anxiety. We’re living in a strange new world of danger and disease. The often-interminable sirens are becoming the defining sound of the pandemic in New York City, throughout all five boroughs, much as the distinctive European siren once defined World War II.

Ironically, even though noise complaints, including sirens, have for decades topped the quality-of-life list of complaints by residents to elected officials, no methodologically sound, controlled study has ever been done on the underlying assumption that justifies extraordinarily loud sirens in New York: Do sirens effectively expedite emergency vehicles? And do ever louder sirens carrying ever greater distances expedite vehicles faster and more efficiently? In other words, do sirens make us safer? The few studies that have been done show that very little time is saved by emergency sirens, as concludes a major literature analysis for the federal Emergency Medical Services.

Anxiety in Anxious Times
A recent review of medical research articles for the British journal Lancet on the psychological impact of disease outbreaks determined that quarantine can trigger depression, irritability, insomnia, post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. For people quarantined and on edge, sirens can become intolerable. After all, high-pitched, ear-splitting emergency sirens are intended to generate fear and anxiety in nearby human beings—and they succeed. For most people, noise levels over 70 decibels provoke physiological changes, constricting blood flow to the extremities while increasing it to the brain. 

Yet sirens operate way above 70 decibels, meaning they have traumatic effects on people almost by definition. The specifications for sirens on New York City fire engines have long been set for 118 decibels at 50 feet. According to manufacturers, ambulance sirens range from 110 to 129 dB, which means that even at their lower end ambulance sirens are dangerously loud. 

To put these decibels, which are measured on a logarithmic scale, in perspective: Quiet breathing registers 10 decibels; your refrigerator humming, about 40; quiet conversation, around 60; shouting across a room, 75. A sound of 40 decibels will awaken sensitive people; 70 will wake up almost anyone. Back when Midtown traffic was heavy it ranged from 80 to 95 decibels, while an express subway train roaring through a local station, such as 86th Street on the West Side, regularly hits 110. Noise of 120 decibels causes discomfort and sometimes injury. 

Emergency Responders
But it’s not only the citizenry endangered by excessive sirens—it’s also the emergency responders themselves.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health warns that two years of regular exposure to 90 decibels will produce hearing loss. For decades agency heads—and siren manufacturers—discounted any damage to emergency personnel, arguing that sirens were directed away from them. But common sense says that if people standing on the street—or 40 floors up in a high-rise building—can hear the ear-shattering sirens, then so can personnel in the vehicle.

In 2017, some 1,500 current and retired firefighters from New York joined 3,000 first responders from Chicago, Boston, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in a mass lawsuit against siren manufacturer Federal Signal Corp, arguing that the sirens left them with serious hearing damage. After losing a jury trial in Chicago, the company successfully argued in federal court that the sirens needed to be heard from all directions. The court did not address the question of hearing loss. Roughly 26% of firefighters nationally report suffering regularly from tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

Richard E. Fairfax, Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Compliance Programs, noted that in addition to hearing loss, with “consistent exposure to 95 decibels occurs, there exists a serious threat to the cardiovascular system, more specifically an elevation in systolic blood pressure (hypertension), digestive, respiratory, allergenic and musculo-skeletal disorders, as well as disorientation and reduction of eye focus, potentially leading to the increase of accidents and injuries.”

Official New York State policy calls for the siren to be sounded when lights are on but this varies widely in practice by agency and by employer. On a sunny Saturday morning last month an MTA bus pulled over on Amsterdam Avenue. Lights flashing but with no sirens, four NYPD patrol cars answered a distress call from a bus driver who said he was being assaulted by a passenger.

Meanwhile, a siren blared far away. Quite a bit later a Mt. Sinai ambulance appeared, driving very slowly up a traffic-free Amsterdam, lights flashing and sirens screeching at a decibel level of over 120, high enough to temporarily deafen most people.

Said one of the police officers: We try to restrict our sirens as much as possible. Our drivers are sensible and take proper care, but we know how much sirens disturb people. Said an ambulance driver: Mt. Sinai protocols call for us to use full sirens and lights. It’s to protect you as much as to protect us.

But why, in a time of extraordinarily high levels of anxiety for many New Yorkers, especially as they’re confined to their homes, and with streets often nearly empty, should the protocols for high-decibel sirens remain unchanged? Mt. Sinai ambulances (as well as those from once-independent hospitals like Lenox Hill) seem always to be running with full sirens, no matter how slowly they’re proceeding. The slowness just worsens the pain of those assaulted by the noise.

Aware of intense hostility to the sirens on its 25 ambulances, Mt. Sinai experimented last year with different options, including the high-low, European-style siren. After playing the sirens at community board meetings to solicit public opinion, Emergency Medical Services Director Joseph Davis concluded, "People hated them all, but the 'high-low' was least intrusive. It didn't have that piercing sound." A 40-year EMS veteran who himself suffers hearing damage from the job, Davis fully understands the consequences of sirens.

The presumption that every ambulance is on a life-saving mission is far from true. Year-to-date FDNY data show an overall 73 percent increase in 911 calls that resulted in “refusals of medical aid,” or RMAs, meaning that the person refused to be taken to a hospital after the ambulance arrived. In the first half of April the number of refusals surged 235%.

Part of the problem is that dispatchers do not solicit sufficiently precise information. Last month four black cars and an ambulance drove the wrong way on our empty street, sirens blaring. They parked haphazardly, and left the lights flashing. The four drivers pushed by the doormen, heading in different directions and getting lost. The emergency call turned out to have been utterly erroneous—a housekeeper unable to access her employer’s apartment had contacted a neighbor, who called for an ambulance. The employer, who had been on the phone, refused to open the door for the housekeeper—or the EMTs. Surely the dispatcher should have obtained more information about the nature of the “emergency,” which was non-existent.

Overall 911 call volume is way up—202,000 calls year-to-date compared with 167,000 for the same period last year. How many are true emergencies? A rigorous study would be helpful.

Quiet Streets
As the coronavirus has raged in New York it has cleared many streets of car and truck traffic, inducing unusual quiet that is broken by little except sirens. Ironically, manufacturers deliberately calibrate sirens to be heard above traffic under the assumption that the most important factor is moving cars out of the way. Pedestrians have seldom been considered, even as pedestrians have become increasingly important to urban life. And as New York streets have emptied out in the last several weeks, the sirens have continued to blare for previous levels of ambient noise, making them far louder in practice since there is little or no environmental noise cushioning the sound.

Excessive sirens are a direct consequence of excessive traffic. If the traffic is curbed, as so many New Yorkers urge, then the sirens can be modified as well. This is the moment.

Urban designer and architect John Massengale proposed a radical innovation on Streetsblog: A network of what he calls quiet streets, many of which would be car-free or nearly car-free, for example: “In the long run, Broadway north of Columbus Circle could be a pleasant street with light traffic on both sides, while Columbus Avenue or West End Avenue might be the best streets for little or no traffic. These are just quick ideas. A broad study of traffic on the Manhattan grid might have different and better long-term solutions for breaking the car culture.”

Not only would quiet streets be productive for neighborhoods, they would offer a route to rethinking deployment of emergency vehicles, which would be able to move more freely—albeit carefully—while employing far less aggressive sirens. Without traffic registering 80 decibels and above, sirens would have no justification for their now excessive levels of 120 decibels.

The Future
All of this needs to be rethought in the coming months.  

In his masterpiece, Plagues and Peoples, historian William McNeill makes a crucial point for our time: All historic plagues have had a second and sometimes third or fourth wave of contagion after the first. When this wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations slows, New York needs to prepare for the next wave—and that means seriously analyzing and probably rethinking its delivery of emergency medical services.

Manhattan City Council Members Carlina Rivera and Helen Rosenthal have already started, introducing a bill to require the gradual introduction of high-low sirens, and to mandate a maximum sound level not to exceed 90 decibels, which would constitute an enormous change.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a writer and planner. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Letter to the Editor: Coronavirus Not Relevant to Needed Closure of Indian Point

gov cuomo brief

Indian Point nuclear power plant (photo: governor's office)

In an opinion piece published April 7, several pro-nuclear energy advocates opportunistically attempt to link the imminent closure of Indian Point 2 with the region’s response to COVID-19, warning of potential blackouts if it closes. This cynical fear-mongering is wholly devoid of any factual support, impractical, runs contrary to law, and is the opposite of what we need right now, which is solutions-oriented forward thinking.

First, far from threatening blackouts, the current crisis has actually driven power demand in New York City down by 12%. In addition, study after study shows there is plenty of power without Indian Point and the grid will be as reliable as ever. The latest study by PSE Healthy Energy confirms that even without any new gas plants reliability would not be an issue. The same study shows that since the closure was announced in 2017, the state has added enough renewable energy and energy efficiency to replace Indian Point 2. In short, we have a public health crisis, but we do not have an energy crisis.

Second, in practice, Indian Point 2 is already shutting down, as its fuel rods run out of juice —- power is down by 18% and you'd need 18 months' lead time to refuel it. In addition, Entergy has requested approval of state and federal regulators to transfer the plant to a different owner for decommissioning. Even if we were experiencing an energy crisis, which we are not, Indian Point would not be the solution.

Finally, the closure agreement only allows the state to extend the operation of the plant if there is an emergency “by reason of war, terrorism, a sudden increase in the demand for electric energy, or a sudden shortage of electric energy or of facilities for the generation or transmission of electric energy.” Since none of these conditions exist, the closure agreement requires the plant to cease operations.

Indian Point is a safety risk due to aging, potential for earthquakes, and the impossibility of evacuation in case of an accident. Its outdated once-through cooling system also kills billions of aquatic organisms every year damaging the ecology of the Hudson River. Indian Point’s closure will create a safer metro area poised for new, more sustainable sources of energy and conservation that will put thousands to work. It will also lead to recovery of the Hudson’s ecosystem once its destructive cooling system ceases operation. Right now, we should all be focused on protecting the health and safety of our fellow New Yorkers, not getting sidetracked by those seeking to use the current crisis as a pretext to call into question sensible forward thinking decisions made years ago.

Richard Webster
Legal Program Director, Riverkeeper
@EnviroWeb, @Riverkeeper

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

When Homeless New Yorkers are Safe, We’ll All Be Safer; The Mayor Must Use 30,000 Hotel Rooms Now

illegal hotel int

Homeless New Yorkers must be cared for amid the coronavirus (photo: mayor's office)

Last week we learned of Mayor de Blasio’s plan to move an additional 2,500 New Yorkers living in crowded shelters into hotel rooms by the end of April. While this may help some people escape the dangers of COVID-19, it simply does not meet the need.

For tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers, virtually all of the protocols to prevent contracting and spreading coronavirus are impossible. Homeless people, by definition, cannot stay home, and many of the city’s 70,000-plus homeless people are living in settings that don’t allow them to easily wash their hands as frequently as needed or to shut a door and social distance from their neighbors.

If he really wants to make an impact, reduce the spread of coronavirus, and protect some of the city’s most vulnerable amid this crisis, Mayor de Blasio would utilize 30,000 of the 100,000-plus vacant hotel rooms across the city to move homeless New Yorkers out of the shelters and off the streets into spaces where they can easily practice social distancing, shower, use the bathroom, and wash their hands.

Further, the city already has a system and vendors for providing food to clients living in hotels, as it has long used commercial hotels as emergency shelters. And the mayor just announced enhanced efforts to deliver food to those who need it. The longer the mayor fails to act, the greater negative impact it will have on our whole city. Failing to act will lead to further spread of the virus and will continue to overwhelm the already overcrowded hospital system.

If homeless New Yorkers are safer, we are all safer!

Currently, over 19,000 homeless New Yorkers are living in congregate settings, where beds are often separated by less than six feet. Bathrooms and showers are shared by a large number of people. The food in the shelters is so notoriously awful that during the day, many people travel to soup kitchens or supermarkets to get nourishment. All of these factors lead to increased likelihood of contracting and spreading COVID-19. 

Then, there are the thousands of New Yorkers who have stayed out of shelter due to the fear of violence within them and the knowledge of their own previous experiences with health and safety issues in shelter. Like their sheltered peers, they do not have access to personal protective equipment. With restaurants, recreation centers, and other public spaces closing their doors, unsheltered homeless New Yorkers have virtually nowhere to go to the bathroom, shower, or wash their hands. Some of our friends and neighbors have not showered since the city shut down.

On top of that, there is still the threat of NYPD “sweeps,” where people are only offered congregate, intake shelters as an alternative to moving from their spot. Despite CDC guidelines, the city continues to conduct such “sweeps,” which only serve to move people from place to place and make them even more vulnerable to contracting and spreading coronavirus.

Just as importantly, workers in shelters also face many of the same risks as shelter residents. The city has made lackluster efforts to provide personal protective equipment in the shelters, but it’s been made clear that homeless services staff and shelter residents are being left behind. Workers return home and are forced to put their families at risk, too.

As of April 15, the Department of Homeless Services is tracking 487 homeless New Yorkers who are positive with coronavirus, including 22 living in the streets; 131 shelters have had positive cases and 33 homeless New Yorkers have passed away. We estimate that the true scope of the damage is much higher, but the data is lower due to undertesting.

We need 30,000 single hotel rooms now and the mayor has the resources to do it. Other cities and states are using federal emergency funding to make happen.

Mayor de Blasio has already made significant missteps in his efforts to combat coronavirus, including delays. He has waited far too long to help the homeless, and by doing so, he is putting homeless people, the staff that work with them, and all New Yorkers who come into contact with them at risk.

He must act immediately to prevent further tragedy.

Finally, after this is all over, there is no going back to normal. During this crisis, we are seeing the human toll we caused by managing homelessness rather than ending it. Moving forward, every possible resource should be used to move people out of the hotel rooms into their own apartments rather than back to the shelters. That means, among other important steps, strengthening the CityFHEPS voucher by increasing it to fair market rate so people can actually find apartments on the market, utilizing all vacant supportive housing units for those eligible, and placing people into set-aside housing units for those leaving homelessness.

The city must put forth an urgent plan for housing homeless New Yorkers, now and into the future. As a city, we made the mistake of accepting homelessness as an everyday reality. We can never make that mistake again.

Peter Malvan is currently homeless. He is a Safety Net Activist, the Co-Chair of the Persons with Lived Experience Committee of the NYC Continuum of Care, and the Vice President of the Midnight Run. Josh Dean is the Executive Director of, an advocacy organization focusing on street homelessness.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Lessons from the Pandemic: Coronavirus Crashes a New York City History Course

mayor bdb inaugural

City Hall (photo: Mayor's Office)

I usually start each session of my graduate seminar on the city with a question: “So did anything significant happen this past week that we should discuss?” This time, as I looked at 18 faces across a computer screen for the first time, it evoked a gasp.

My students and I won’t sit in a room together again as we did for weeks before, but we will continue to learn with and from each other. I think, teach, and write about New York. They are New York: diverse, smart, ambitious, striving to do better for themselves and for others. They are losing income; they are struggling to maintain some degree of normalcy. A few have done the unthinkable and moved back with their parents to gain space. 

The course is a deep dive into the history and politics of New York, organized around the tenure of mayors from La Guardia through de Blasio. Little did I know when I conceived it that de Blasio’s reign might mark the end of New York as we knew it. We still don’t know what that means. Can we draw anything from the past to help us anticipate what lies ahead? If history does not provide us with answers, perhaps it can help ask the right questions. 

I never liked the idea of remote learning. I saw it as a cost-cutting technique that would cheapen the educational experience. I still do. Now with no other choice, I have to admit that it enforces a sense of intimacy I had not expected. Now my students are in my home and I’m in theirs. Should I offer them a glass of wine or a wedge of cheese? We seem somehow closer, drawn together by the madness around us outside the safe space of the computer screen. We are in it together.     

What can we learn? We had just completed a lesson on the city fiscal crisis of 1975. The vulnerabilities of the local economy exposed then are on display now as theaters and restaurants close, people are furloughed, the tourist industry has tanked, and Wall Street is in a panic. What exactly will the budget cuts look like? Who will suffer?

Last time it hurt those who need city services the most. We had seen how the 1975 crisis magnified the state’s power over the city as our current governor distinguished himself and moved to the center of the national stage. Even those wary of his governing style had to concede a hint of admiration. He was now the good bully who could stand up to the Twitter monster of Washington. Yet, a glimpse of his usual self was apparent when he and the Legislature buried an election law provision in the crisis budget that would make it more difficult for his Working Families Party opponents to get their progressive candidates on the ballot. 

Our class already had covered the topic of suburbanization. Reading Ken Jackson’s history of how privileged 19th century families once built country homes to escape plague-ridden cities seemed quaint a few weeks earlier. Now it is suddenly relevant. Would the new pandemic serve as an equalizer between the rich and the poor? No, not a chance. Not in a city and country more economically polarized than ever. The poor and people of color are dying in larger numbers. 

Will the coronavirus restructure the economy of New York? Clever corporate executives who need to recoup losses don’t need much imagination to see the experience as an experiment in remote labor that could cut the costs of Manhattan office space. What will be the long-term effect on commercial real estate if working at home becomes more common? If employees don’t regularly commute and set up shop in their living rooms instead, will they start to rethink life in those cramped city apartments? Will they respond more appreciatively to the beckoning call of open spaces in the outer reaches? What if flight from the city drives down the cost of residential real estate in the boroughs? Could that slow an outward migration? 

Of course, the big question in our seminar is one I always thought I had the answer to. What is this creature we know as New York? Does it have a soul? If so, is it a kind and loving soul that takes care of the disadvantaged and the marginalized? Or is New York a harsh master that drives vulnerable people further into the ground? We examined the pre- and post-fiscal crisis city -- or should I say cities -- as a way to approach the question. 

The former was a city of hope and promise that took us through the Great Depression and became a battleground for equality during the sixties. The other was a city obsessed with its own economic survival, retreating from its ambitious social agenda. As New York struggled through the latter more sobering chapter of its recent history, we observed how gentrification evolved: once sought as a source of fiscal regeneration, now understood as a byproduct of economic polarization.  

Studying the past, we are reminded that New York was best-equipped to propel its progressive dreams when it had an enabling partner in Washington, D.C., epitomized by the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. More recently, with a White House devoid of capable or caring leadership, local leaders had convinced themselves that the next round of New York progressivism could be a bootstrap effort paid for by the proceeds of its own miraculous recovery. Today that recovery is at risk.

What will the future bring? It is too early in this bleak episode to say. For now, we can just keep educating ourselves and try to ask the right questions.        

Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College and author of The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York (Oxford).

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

State Budget Includes Extensive Cutbacks But We Don’t Know What They Are Yet

gov cuomo enacted budget highlights

Governor Cuomo gives a budget presentation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

New York State and City are the gruesome public health epicenter of COVID-19, with horrific daily death tolls. The coronavirus is likely causing New York to also be the economic epicenter of the nation’s staggering job and economic loss, although those are statistics that will play catch up.

New York State’s fiscal year is April 1 to the following March 31, so the Governor and the Legislature just adopted a new budget (slightly late on April 3),  just weeks after the national shutdown in mid-March, leaving little time to determine how the virus would affect the state’s economy and tax revenue. Several federal bailout bills were passed before New York adopted its budget, but Governor Cuomo bitterly complained New York was badly shortchanged in those bills and was among those calling for a fourth such package with significant aid to states and localities.

The National Governors Association (Gov. Cuomo is the Vice-Chair) just asked Congress for another $500 billion for state governments alone, not even including local governments.

The adopted New York state budget recognized revenues would plunge with the declining economy, and set targeted painful spending reductions without specifying exactly what they would be. The Budget Director is supposed to establish a plan for the spending reductions. The State Legislature authorized the creation of processes for remote voting even as it passed the budget two weeks ago, so that it could continue to make decisions without returning to Albany. But where the budget is headed is still uncertain; what’s really needed is another federal bailout package.

The state budget authorized a reduction of $10 billion, or about 10%, from what had been the initially submitted Financial Plan for $105.8 billion in state operating funds, the core of the budget funded with state dollars. The spending reduction will bring State Operating Funds to $95.8 billion. Some parts of the budget were exempted from cuts, meaning other parts might have to take cuts larger than 10%.

Below is a table showing how that $105.8 billion was proposed in January to be distributed, in the column FY 2021 PROPOSED. The Financial Plan to be released after budget adoption has not yet been published, but the spending parameters will be similar to what was submitted. The $10 billion cut will have to be taken from the programs in that column.

operating funds disbursments

The State law directing the $10 billion reduction prohibits cuts to public assistance benefits and income supplements for the aged and disabled. It also prohibits cuts to debt service, contractual obligations, and spending pursuant to court orders or judgments. That means pensions and health insurance for state employees and retirees could likely also be exempt from cuts in the short-term, in addition to debt service and public assistance.

Spending in other vital areas, like pre-K to 12 education, higher education, Medicaid, social services like child care and child welfare, public safety, or transportation, could take the brunt of the cuts, to the extent funding is not backfilled by what has already passed Congress.

The $10 billion cut, however, is potentially just the first reduction. The budget permits the Director of the Budget to reduce spending again at three intervals over the course of the year, depending on how much revenue is coming into the State Treasury. The Legislature must receive ten days notice before any new cuts, and has that time to override them, by concurrent resolution of both houses. The new remote voting procedures would enable the Legislature to do that without returning to Albany. Robert Mujica, the budget director, estimated revenue losses could reach $ 15 billion, but nobody knows right now. If the economy declines further than the initial estimate, cuts could be even more severe.

Implementation Lacks Transparency, Budget Plan Should Be Disclosed Says Citizens Budget Commission
Critical decisions include how the federal bailout funds are used, what gaps remain after federal funds are used, and what the choices for cutting will be where there is no federal relief. There also probably won’t be one set of decisions, but many over a number of months.

Congress has already passed several bailout bills, which have included estimates of about $1.1 billion for education for New York and Medicaid spending relief estimated at $4.5 billion. A general state and local relief package included $7.5 billion for New York State, but the state government must share those funds with local governments and the share reserved for the state government itself was estimated at $3.1 billion. Separate appropriations for hospitals were also included in the federal bailout. But it’s clear these federal funds won’t make up for New York’s adopted cutbacks, let alone any new ones.

Below are several critical aspects of the state budget framework:

New York Medicaid Cuts Partially Adopted, But Postponed to Access Federal $
Governor Cuomo had set up a Medicaid Redesign Team at the beginning of the budget process to ratchet down exploding Medicaid spending, and on March 19 the team recommended $1.6 billion in cuts to and savings from the program. But the federal Medicaid relief package prohibited states from using the funds while cutting their Medicaid programs. The enacted state budget permitted the Division of the Budget to delay implementation of the Medicaid cuts to take advantage of the federal funds. But the federal financing expires in a year; right now the cuts would go forward next year, absent further changes. 

Tax Filing Deadline Postponement Hurts New York Cash Flow; Budget Allows $8 Billion in Borrowing and $3 Billion Line of Credit
In April 2019, according to New York State Comptroller monthly cash reports, New York ran more than a $6 billion surplus in its State Operating accounts, primarily due to the April filing of New Yorkers’ tax returns. But New York will not have that luxury now. Federal and State tax return filing deadlines have been delayed from April 15 until July 15, putting New York’s cash flow into a precarious condition and delaying critical information on revenue to the state’s leadership.

The economy’s downward plunge cannot be tracked with normal tools. A decision to borrow up to $11 billion is mind-boggling, but essential to avoid a collapse of New York’s government and a good decision. The budget permits the short-term borrowing to be extended next year, or even converted into a long-term borrowing, which would be tantamount to borrowing to pay for operating expenses, a bad practice but we are in an emergency and interest rates are very low.

What’s Missing? Public Disclosure in Real Time
The state budget over the next several months will undoubtedly be a series of halting and difficult steps with no easy decisions. But the public deserves a regular process of disclosure of what choices are being made step by step. That includes state cuts, federal backfills, and state borrowing.

The adopted Financial Plan is not yet even public, and normally there would be a 1st quarter update released sometime after June 30 (the end of the 1st quarter). Last year the 1st quarter update was not released by the Division of the Budget until August. But now critical decisions will be ongoing within a few weeks and continue for months. The Governor and the Division of the Budget have an obligation to disclose such vital information in real time, not after the fact. If the situation improves and cuts can be restored, that will be good news.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Fighting Climate Change and Offering Good Green Jobs: New York City Must Save Its Recycling and Organics Composting Programs

exec order plastic

Mayor de Blasio at a garbage facility (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Even as the global COVID-19 shutdown produces fortuitous environmental benefits such as cleaner air due to a huge decline in travel, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cynically using the pandemic to justify backtracking on pollution standards and enforcement, easing a path for climate change and related catastrophes to continue unabated. This is deeply concerning. By some measures, last winter was the warmest ever recorded, and the 2020 hurricane season is expected to be more active and dangerous than normal.  

Sustainable waste management remains one of the vital environmental policy areas in which municipal and state governments retain full control. As New York City enters a budget process filled with painful choices, the mayor should rethink the hasty decision to suspend compost collections, and should preserve the Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) organic waste recycling programs. These are critical local climate change initiatives that also provide good, green jobs our communities will desperately need during this recession.

Food scraps, food-soiled paper, and yard waste comprise more than one-third of what New Yorkers throw out, and residential food waste will likely increase as more people eat at home during the emergency. When buried in landfills, as most of this material is, these organic materials emit methane, a greenhouse gas about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Modern organics composting and recycling facilities can transform food scraps and other organic waste into a nutrient-rich soil or fertilizer and renewable energy sources – but only if we sort and collect organic waste separately from other recyclables and trash. Without continuing and expanding our organics recycling capacity, we won’t be able to move the needle on this major greenhouse gas source anytime soon.

Composting and recycling waste also create and sustain far more jobs than exporting garbage to landfills and incinerators. Although relatively small, New York City’s organics programs already employ more than 100 uniformed sanitation workers in collections alone, in unionized jobs where safety, training, and benefits are available. Dozens more workers are employed at food scrap drop-off sites, local composting facilities, and in other green jobs. Rather than hastily axing these positions, we should view sustainable waste management as a green jobs pipeline at a time when New Yorkers are struggling more than ever. 

While recycling is often an easy target for cash-strapped local governments facing a grim fiscal picture, recycling programs cannot simply be switched back on after the economy recovers. Temporary suspension of activities that place our heroic sanitation workers at any additional risk of infection may be necessary, but the cuts to compost collection appear more long-term. Successful diversion programs require widespread public participation, years of ongoing education, and behavior changes by millions of individuals and businesses. Note that the city has only just started to approach the recycling levels achieved two decades ago before Mayor Bloomberg suspended metal, glass and plastic recycling in the aftermath of 9/11.

New data suggest that New Yorkers want to keep composting and recycling during this crisis. In March and the first week of April, residential compost collections continued unabated in the communities where the program is well-established, and New Yorkers separated more food scraps in their brown compost bins this March than they did in March 2019.

Other cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, have continued to treat compost collection as an essential service, despite implementing some of the strictest stay-home orders in the nation. Early reports suggest residents and businesses continue to diligently separate food scraps, yard waste, and other recyclable materials.

We know our leaders care about recycling too. In recent years, the Sanitation Department, the City Council, and the Mayor’s Office have taken critical steps to expand and normalize organic waste recycling. By last year, Sanitation was collecting and recycling about 250 tons of organic material per day.  The city is also poised to require and incentivize greater participation in food waste recycling by businesses, using a new commercial waste zones system. Several elected officials have emerged as champions of organics recycling and sustainable waste management, including City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Council sanitation committee, and Speaker Corey Johnson, both of whom fought to pass the landmark commercial waste zones bill and have called for citywide, mandatory food scrap recycling

These programs should be seen as essential services, cornerstones of our climate mitigation strategy, and a source of good jobs for communities that will desperately need them. New York City must prioritize our recycling and organics composting programs.

Justin Wood is Director of Organizing and Strategic Research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. On Twitter @NYLPI.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Coronavirus Widens Digital Divide, But Creates Opportunity to Finally Bring All Into 21st Century


Students and laptops, eyeing the digital divide (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Among the many lessons the coronavirus outbreak is teaching us about our society is that we are not prepared to live in the 21st century, particularly residents in low-income communities with little or no access to much-needed technology.

This century is a time of continued uncertainty, in which established norms change overnight and disruptions are being regularly caused by natural and man-made disasters. Our largely interconnected globe means that the spread of information, goods, and diseases can occur with lightning speed.

We’re in the midst of another technological revolution that is dramatically changing how people shop, communicate, work, and learn.

But even before the coronavirus pandemic, not everyone had been part of the changes that have been occurring in the 21st Century. And those discrepancies have come into full relief, and been exacerbated, as COVID-19 has led to school and workplace closures.

Consider the implications of the “stay at home” orders requiring K-12 schools, colleges, and universities to move education from in-person to remote, online learning. 

Many educators are ill-prepared to teach online; many students are unable to connect for their online classes. In New York City, a million households lack access to the Internet and, if they have a connection, it is often at speeds too slow for effective online education. Nearly 300,000 students in the New York City public schools have no computer or tablet of their own to access the Internet. In an age where companies have enormous amounts of data on individuals, the New York City Department of Education had no idea which students have access to the Internet or own a computer or tablet -- the city is now promising all who need them will have them seven weeks after school buildings were closed due to the pandemic. How can the DOE plan for a crisis without this kind of imperative data? The same can be said about the challenges faced by public colleges and universities.

The Center for an Urban Future recently reported the tech sector in New York City has been expanding faster than the number of available skilled personnel to fill the jobs. To qualify for these high-paying jobs requires education and the development of special skills – such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, teamwork, and the ability to work under uncertain conditions. The report further identified the underrepresentation of youth from low-income communities in the tech sector. The move to online education, however long it may last, reinforces the gaps for low-income communities, and shines a bright spotlight on the fact that students’ lack of access to the Internet and the equipment needed to access it are key reasons why these same young people can’t acquire the skills and knowledge needed for the 21st Century economy.

For all practical purposes, we have a system accessible only to those who can pay for access. In the 21st century, everyone needs access to a computer or tablet and connectivity to the Internet to make their way in life. For most, the only option is paying a private provider – this is not a viable option for many low-income families.

It is time to stop thinking of the Internet as a private good available only to those who can pay. Instead, the Internet needs to be viewed as a public good accessible to all, independent of ability to pay. As a public good access to the internet has to be extended to all households, independent of their ability to pay. Efforts in New York to accomplish this through charter agreements with cable companies have proven ineffective. The enormous federal funding allocated to address the many issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic provides opportunity for achieving an essential goal: completing the nation’s “Information Highway,” or Internet network. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated the House of Representatives is considering such an effort in a new infrastructure bill. Once the internet is available throughout the U.S., providers need to develop service plans that provide low-income communities, whether urban or rural, access to basic services at an affordable cost.

Life is not going to return to the way it was before the coronavirus. More people will work, learn, shop, and play using varied online tools, and more remotely than ever.

Bringing all Americans into the information age will require a momentous effort on the scale of the federal project that brought electricity to darkened regions of the country during the New Deal. The coronavirus has made it clear that completing the Information Highway, making it accessible to all, independent of ability to pay, is critical to the national interest and addressing the social injustice caused by the digital divide.

Stan Altman is President, Science and Arts Engagement New York, Inc; Professor, Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College; and Visiting Professor, The City College of New York.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Coronavirus Crisis Must Open Our Eyes to the Flaws of the New New York

mbdb housing pres dev

Mayor de Blasio at a supportive housing site (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

As our great city faces its most challenging crisis in the past 100 years, it has revealed to all of us how the city has radically changed in the past few decades.

The virus has now put a spotlight on the critical shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment like ventilators. In fact New York City ICU bed capacity ranks in the bottom quarter nationally. If you have lived in the city for over 40 years, as I have, you likely recall how many hospitals have closed and not been replaced.

But the current crisis also shows other deficiencies of the new New York of the past decade or so, even with all its wealth and abundance. These limits to the social fabric must be addressed as we look toward a rejuvenated post-coronavirus New York City.

I vividly remember visiting my assistant’s son as he and many other young men were suffering from the scourge of AIDS at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. This once-great medical center is now home to luxury condominiums, a conversion emblematic of troubling trends we’ve seen in our city. I can’t help but think of St. Vincent’s today as our hospitals overflow with coronavirus patients and we build pop-up facilities in parks and convention centers, while welcoming a Navy hospital ship to the Hudson.

We must place a total moratorium on the closure of hospitals in New York City, even if it means massive government support for these institutions whose importance has become even more evident during this crisis.

As our city has seen its population surge to 8.5 million and the yearly total of tourists climb to over 60 million a year, we’ve seen a city more crowded than ever. The subways were moving 4 million people a day in overcrowded trains, which was probably a factor in the spread of this virus. Experts say keep six feet away from another person to ensure some degree of safety, but many times the person next to us on our train is just 6 inches away, if that!

The surge in population over the past two decades based on foreign and domestic migration to the city, following in the grand tradition of New York as a place of opportunity and refuge, has contributed to a severe shortage of housing and record homelessness. There are now 58,000 men, women, and children living in our main city shelter system at a cost of $2 billion a year, with thousands of others in various other shelter accommodations. There are also roughly 3,500 homeless people sleeping on our streets and subways. The city is reporting a growing number of positive COVID-19 diagnoses in the shelter system and on the street, and some homeless people have already died after contracting the virus.

This scourge should once again put the spotlight on the need for low-income housing and, more importantly, supportive housing for those that are deeply afflicted by mental illness and drug addiction. And it should lead to a massive effort toward bringing many thousands of both types of housing online as quickly as possible.

In addition, the city’s public housing system, home to more than 400,000 tenants, is on the verge of collapse, and is also being rattled by the toll of the coronavirus. The city must take measures to safeguard NYCHA tenants, and must not now allow this very valuable resource to disappear as it has the hospitals. A NYCHA rescue plan must move ahead at full speed.

We also have a severe shortage of psychiatric beds to serve the most seriously mentally ill, including some of those individuals residing in shelters and sleeping on the streets and subways. There’s been a 15% decline in these beds in the past few years, continuing a longer-term trend. We must declare an immediate freeze on the closure of such facilities. The noble experiment, started 40 years ago, to release mentally ill patients from institutions and into the community has not been a total success and we need to admit that and increase, not decrease, the number of inpatient beds and outpatient treatment centers.

Our city is not only the epicenter of the virus in this country it is also the epicenter of income inequality, with 40% of the population living at or near the poverty level. We cannot continue to allow the destruction of moderately-priced apartments, such as I often see on the Upper East Side, where several floors of modest apartments, existing above a retail store, are torn down to make way for luxury housing. The city must declare a moratorium on this type of development. In addition, taxes must be increased on luxury apartments and their residents so that the city can meet the needs of those in need.

I am a proud New Yorker who has lived here all my life, and I am not giving up on our city, and I am confident we will rebound, but this horrible virus should open our eyes to the need to make changes to ensure our city is a great one for all in the future. Next year we will be electing a new mayor, and we must insist on that person being a visionary with important new ideas and not a custodian of the status quo

Robert Mascali is a former Deputy Commissioner at the New York City Department of Homeless Services and a former Vice President for Supportive Housing at Women in Need.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Surveillance and The City: A New York Dictatorship?

Cuomo coronavirus briefing power Albany

Gov. Cuomo at one of his coronavirus briefings (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

The consequences of poor social distancing, inadequate supply chains, and nearly every other facet of our COVID-19 calamity are nothing short of life and death. But as New York endures a disaster unlike any in our lifetimes, as we see our morgues filled and our store shelves stripped bare, this teeming tidal wave of death might upend most fundamental assumptions about our way of life.

We are about to face a deeply dangerous moment, not just because of COVID-19, but because of the extreme measures we use to stop it. As the weight of a previously unimaginable magnitude of human suffering turns the bedrock of civil society to quicksand, we run the risk that our core institutions might buckle and that we will undermine the rule of law as we know it.

If one looks for an American precedent for the extraordinary powers granted Governor Andrew Cuomo in this crisis, one will come up short. Whether you look at past pandemics or times of war, never before has our state entrusted one man with so much control over so many, with so few safeguards. Our courts are shuttered, our legislators are struggling to meet, and more and more reliance is placed in the executive branch. Since March 7, more than a dozen executive orders have modified everything from licensure requirements for funeral directors, to medical malpractice liability, to environmental protection laws, and even our election timelines.

No, there is no precedent in American history for this type of emergency action, but there are ancient parallels to a society where, “in times of plague,” a leader would be given extraordinary powers: the Roman Republic.

Long before the virtues of the Republic’s rule gave way to the tyranny of imperial Caesars, the Roman Senate saw the appointment of temporary “dictatores” as an emergency measure to counter existential threats, or as we would call them today “dictators.” Many will recoil at the use of the term “dictator,” with its modern-day connotations. The word may be centuries old, but it’s typically associated with modern-day war criminals — men marked by their violence and human rights violations. The dictators of Rome were a different creature, a single official granted extraordinary powers, but subject to one overriding restriction: temporary rule.

Unlike the dictators of today, whose tenure is often marked by permanent power, the dictators of Rome were a short-lived ‘necessary evil,’ citizens of the republic granted singular control for six months and no more. They were a walking contradiction, men given unilateral control to safeguard a society whose overarching aim was to prevent the consolidation of power. Their role was to suspend republicanism for a short time to safeguard it for the longer-term.

A “Dictator’s authority was bounded only by the requirement that he fulfill his task or lay down his power within a set time, and the requirement that he not change the constitution,” wrote Nomi Claire Lazar in “States of Emergency in Liberal Democracies.” As I explained in last-month’s column, Governor Cuomo’s new emergency power has only two limits: he cannot change the Constitution, and his powers expire next year.  Until that time, Cuomo can repeal or enact any law that he declares is needed to respond to COVID-19, any law, so long as he doesn’t violate the Constitution. And he hasn’t let that power go idle, introducing a new executive order (on average) every other day.

At a time when Cuomo has unprecedented popularity, when many of his emergency actions are saving lives, I know how few will care about “legal niceties” of checks and balances. But if we continue to rewrite the rules that have governed New York State since 1777, we have to be crystal clear about how we prevent these changes from undermining the values that are central to an open and democratic society.

It’s hard to imagine how New York’s founders, the men and women who wrote lengthy treatises on the need to “expel civil tyranny” might respond to a governor so empowered and emboldened as the one we have now. They too were students of history and knew well that those granted extraordinary powers to face extraordinary threats are rarely willing to part with them.

The sad truth is that there is no one right answer on what to do. If we blind ourselves to the crisis and fetishize the separation of powers, it will only slow our response and cost lives. But if we simply empower the executive and call for his actions, we create truly unprecedented dangers to democracy. A single man, free to act without approval or oversight, will make mistakes. Competing viewpoints are not merely a philosophical luxury, they are key to navigating complex decisions. This is why the legislature must keep a close eye on Cuomo’s actions, reasserting its authority and overriding his decrees when needed.

The reason New York kept checks on the powers of governors, even in times of crisis, for nearly 250 years is because we know that human beings are fallible. We know they will make mistakes. And we know that left to their own devices, they will wield power to their own ends. Let’s just hope that we follow the example of those earlier Romans and insist that no matter how grave this pandemic becomes, that we make sure the dictator yields his powers after a brief time, even if the threat remains.

Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. He writes the monthly Surveillance and the City column at Gotham Gazette. On Twitter @FoxCahn & @STOPSpyingNY.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: Cuomo Announces All Voters Will Get Absentee Ballot Applications and Polls Will Be Open for June ElectionsCuomo Announces All Voters Will Get Absentee Ballot Applications and Polls Will Be Open for June Elections Gotham Gazette: Cuomo Hasn't Submitted De Blasio's MTA Board Nominees to State Senate, Which Left Albany Indefinitely Cuomo Hasn't Submitted De Blasio's MTA Board Nominees to State Senate, Which Left Albany Indefinitely Gotham Gazette: A 'Human Rights Tragedy' Unfolding - Part I: Racial Bias and Life-Saving Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic A 'Human Rights Tragedy' Unfolding - Part I: Racial Bias and Life-Saving Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic Gotham Gazette: The Max & Murphy Podcast The Max & Murphy Podcast