CM Paul Vallone speaks about his veterans services bill (photo: @PaulVallone)
NEW YORK—On Thursday the City Council passed three bills aimed at helping New York City's roughly 200,000 military veterans. The bills will bring much needed reform to the Veterans Advisory Board (VAB) and require the City to keep better data on veterans seeking services.
Two bills will bring changes to the VAB, which acts as a liaison between the veterans community and the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA). The VAB has come under scrutiny in recent months for a lack of transparency and perceived inaccessibility to veterans.
Intro 619-A, introduced by City Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the veterans committee, adds another VAB meeting, requiring the board to meet five times per year, once in each borough. It requires meeting information be posted online in hopes of getting more in the community to attend, a practice not done in the past. In addition, the meetings must be recorded and either streamed or archived online.
"The bills we are passing into law today are really going to bring the Veterans Advisory Board into the 21st century by making it more transparent and by making it more accountable," Council Member Ulrich said on Thursday.
Intro 611-A, introduced by Council Member Mathieu Eugene, will expand the number of VAB members from nine to 11. VAB members, who are volunteers, will now be given City email addresses which must be published publicly, likely on the MOVA website.
"Reform of Veterans Advisory Board has been long overdue," Kristen Rouse, a U.S. Army veteran and member of NYC Veterans Alliance said on Thursday. "This reform legislation will breathe new life into the VAB, improving both accountability to, and representation of our city's incredibly diverse community of veterans and their families."
The VAB is required to issue an annual report, but up until now the report has consisted primarily of meeting minutes. The legislation recommends the VAB, which is an independent entity, submit policy or legislative recommendations in its report. The hope is the voices of veterans across the city will be heard even if the veterans can't make it to City Hall.
"We believe there is a lot of work that can be done, so hopefully this advisory board will really help put forward some recommendations we can follow up on," Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said Thursday.
The two bills greatly shore up the VAB, however, they do not address lagging appointments. Currently seven of nine VAB appointments have expired terms, according to the database on the MOVA website. All five mayoral appointees have expired terms and two of the four appointed by the speaker have expired terms.
The speaker appointments have been expired since 2005, long before Mark-Viverito took office. Three of the mayoral appointments expired in 2014 under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
When asked about the lapsed appointments, Speaker Mark-Viverito said there were thousands of appointments to be made.
"Sometimes the process may not be as expeditious as we would like it to be, but we are taking it very seriously," Mark-Viverito said, adding they are currently looking at recommendations. "We want to make sure, especially since we are passing legislation, that we really get that board fully functioning."
Mark-Viverito said diversity will be something she will be strongly considering in her appointments. She did not lay out a timeline for filling them, but did point to Rouse as a potential candidate.
"I think she [Rouse] comes across as a prime candidate for an advisory board position," Mark-Viverito said following Rouse's comments at the press conference.
The third bill passed on Thursday, Intro. 600-A, was introduced by Council Member Paul Vallone and will require five City agencies to better track the number of veterans utilizing city services. Veterans will need to self-identify, which can prove challenging. But the requirements should give the City better data on veterans, which has been a barrier to authorizing more services.
"You can't fix something if you don't know the problems that need to be addressed," Council Member Vallone said.
The New York City Housing Authority, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services will all have specific data points related to veteran services that will be submitted in an annual report.
"New York City cannot honestly say it is taking care of veterans until it is able to quantify and examine how city agencies are reaching out to veterans," Rouse said. "This legislation will begin that process."
The legislation will be sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio to sign into law. He has 30 days to take action on the bills.
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette