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Assembly Transparency Group Operates in Secret


Heastie tour wind

Assembly Speaker Heastie, middle, on a business tour (photo: @WeaverWind)


A host of good government groups and legislators say that a state Assembly working group tasked with reforming the chamber's rules to increase transparency and participation has been anything but transparent, operating in secret and rebuffing outside offers of help. One of its two chairs says his group has just been slow to move.

Creation of the 12-member working group, chaired by Assembly Members Brian Kavanagh and Gary Pretlow, was just one reform measure announced by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie after he took the reins from his indicted predecessor Sheldon Silver. And since that May announcement, it appears the group has only issued a single email soliciting ideas from members.

"It's a mistake not to reach out to the public and groups dedicated to making the legislature more open and independent," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "They are just making it harder on themselves by having an unclear process at this point."

"There seems to be no momentum and the Assembly leadership is not laying the groundwork for the kind of big, positive changes we need," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, another good government group. "It does not seem that the Assembly is creating an open process in which bills can progress to a committee hearing, then a vote, then to the floor for a vote. For that matter, there is no process to get a bill voted on when a large portion of the Assembly supports it. In other words, the Assembly process still seems to be about as undemocratic as it was when it was run by Sheldon Silver," says Kaehny.

Pretlow told Gotham Gazette that the task force was moving "slowly" in part because it is the summer and said he expected the group could have recommendations by December. "We only had a few responses from the members to Kavanagh's email so I'm going to start calling them individually," Pretlow said.

Pretlow added that he hadn't ruled out input from good government groups and would eventually contact them. "There are a lot of things that just don't matter," said Pretlow referring to the Assembly rules. "I don't want to do anything that might detract from the Speaker's power, but we are going to take a look at a number of things. I want to make sure every member has a say."

Under Silver, the Assembly became known as a place where it was impossible for younger members and members of the Republican minority to have bills considered or to win membership on an important committee. That perception has changed under Heastie as members say they have input like never before. Good government groups worry that without rules changes the new environment could quickly change when or if Heastie decides to consolidate power.

"The Speaker has done a great job including younger members," said Queens Assembly Member Nily Rozic. Rozic told Gotham Gazette that the working group asked members for their ideas and she specifically put forward her thoughts on using technology. She says Heastie has already made major changes on the technology front as members now get texts alerting them to hearings.

"Individuals are really more empowered than ever before," said Rozic. "Every single member is now on a subcommittee and I'm in my second term; that really speaks to Carl empowering the rank and file. We are lightyears ahead of where we were."

Rozic declined to comment on the working group as she is not a member. Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh's office did not return calls on the subject over a series of months. Calls to other members of the working group were not returned or Gotham Gazette was told to reach out to Kavanagh and Pretlow.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb told Gotham Gazette that his conference has not been kept in the loop about the reform efforts. In an emailed statement, Kolb said, "In the spirit of transparency, we [the Assembly Minority] have not been contacted by anyone in the Assembly Majority working group to strengthen operations and promote transparency and public participation, nor have we seen any recommendations for improving the way in which the House conducts the people's work. We believe they should reach out to us, because this is about the entire Assembly, not just the Assembly Majority."

Speaker Heastie announced smaller reform measures during his speaker bid and afterward. Facing major scrutiny for his particularly large travel expenses, he announced a plan to overhaul the Assembly's reimbursement system. He also created The Office of Ethics, designed to keep members informed about ethics rules and oversee ethics trainings. A bipartisan search group is currently looking for an executive director.

Some of the pressure Heastie faced to back reform came, of course, from the circumstances of his ascent - Silver has been indicted for using his office to enrich himself. However, during the few days when the Assembly was considering new leadership, a new and quickly formed 'reform caucus' comprised of 23 Assembly members, including Kavanagh and Rozic, issued all candidates for speaker a list of questions that appeared designed to boost a reform agenda, and asked any aspiring speaker to pledge to create a group tasked with reviewing the Assembly's rules with an eye towards increasing transparency.

Examples of reforms put forward by members of the caucus include those to create a measure whereby members could petition to have their bills moved out of committee and to a floor vote; to give freshman members more resources; to give members say in leadership appointments; and to increase opportunities to debate bills in committee.

"We recognize that implementation of many of these reforms will require extensive thought, discussion, and further detail," the reform caucus members wrote in February. "Therefore, we ask that the candidates for Speaker commit to appointing a task force on reform, representing the diversity of the conference. This task force would develop specific proposals on these and other reforms. In addition, we ask that all meetings of the task force be open to all members of the conference. We believe that these reforms are the best way to restore faith in our ability to serve the public."

Heastie did win the support of the reform caucus and has begun to address a number of its concerns. However, the only official work of the task force has been an email sent from Kavanagh soliciting ideas from members, which Pretlow referred to when speaking with Gotham Gazette.

However, observers worry that with Heastie firmly in control he no longer has any reason to deliver major reforms to the rules to enable rank-and-file members to advance their own legislation. Doing so would require him to give up some of the power he fought for, though it appears Heastie knew that he would not wield the same strength Silver did.

"Since becoming Speaker, I have made a special effort to create issue specific workgroups and a new subcommittee structure that promotes member participation while exploring new ideas to move New York forward," said Heastie in a statement announcing the creation of the working group on May 12. "Members have a lot of great ideas, and the creation of this new workgroup is an opportunity for us to build on the strong processes already in place that promote transparency and accountability."

At the time, members of the good government community were hopeful about the reforms but now many say they've simply given up on the idea that the working group is actually independent of the speaker's office, and they now expect a dog-and-pony show. Heastie's office did not reply to a request for comment.

Horner said he remains hopeful but is confused as to why the group charged with increasing transparency hasn't been open itself.

"We don't know even know what issues are on the table," said Horner. "They should be doing more publicly by now. It's been six months."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

The Week That Was in New York Politics, August 10-14


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday August 14

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: a Brooklyn street was officially renamed "Do The Right Thing Way," after the iconic Spike Lee movie, via Council Member Jumaane Williams

 do the right thing way jumaanewilliams

 TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Staten Island Standoff: There was a dramatic scene on Staten Island Friday as an individual with a long criminal record set fire to his home and began shooting at firefighters who responded, injuring one. Along standoff ensued, resulting in the apparent suicide of the suspect.

2. State Test Scores: 20% of 3-8 grade students opted out of taking New York State standardized test this year. Districts that fall below 95% participation could face sanctions from state and federal education departments. Opt-out in NYC was just 2%, though, and city students posted small gains on the annual exams, which were in their third year being much tougher and Common Core-aligned.

3. Legionnaires' Update: On Thursday, the City Council passed a bill that requires buildings with cooling towers to conduct quarterly inspections, in an effort to prevent future outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease. Mayor de Blasio has promised to sign the bill into law. The current outbreak is the largest in New York's history with more than 100 cases in the South Bronx, leading to 12 deaths. The outbreak appears to have abated, though, with no new cases diagnosed to have occurred since August 3.

4. Nail Salon Wage Bonds: Governor Cuomo announced that nail salon owners are required to secure a wage bond by October 6, 2015 or incur fines and penalties, which could include closing down the business. The wage bond requirement is part of the reforms Cuomo recently moved related to worker exploitation.

5. New Laws Signed - ADA, Uber, More: Monday, Mayor de Blasio signed a few new bills into law. One bill will show which parks are and are not in full compliance with ADA standards. One much-anticipated "Uber bill" was also signed, it requires the Taxi and Limousine Commission to study and present the impact of the growth in the taxi and for-hire vehicle industries.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 13 new members were appointed to the Mayor's Committee on City Marshals. The committee "establishes qualifying criteria for marshal candidates, identifies and recruits candidates, and recommends qualified individuals for appointment by the Mayor."
  • 74% of trains on weekdays and 81% of trains on weekends reach the end of their line within five minutes of their scheduled time in 2014, according to a new audit, which also shows a lot of delays.
  • 7 LaGuardia airport taxi dispatchers have been arrested and accused of bribery for letting cab drivers pay to skip the line.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for James Ferrara who will serve as acting President of New York City Transit.
  • It was a bad week for former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein: Amplify, the News Corp subsidiary he has been running is being shut down and sold off amid significant financial losses.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time last year, August 13, 2014, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced plans to reduce gun violence, with an initiative called "Gun Violence Crisis Management System." The initiative is based identifying and engaging individuals more likely to be involved in gun violence and intervening.
  • Twelve years ago, on August 15, 2003, was the largest blackout in history. At least eight states from the Northeast to the Midwest lost electricity and New York City was largely in the dark.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max

Does Staten Island Get Its Fair Share?


si wheel

Rendering of proposed New York Wheel on Staten Island


There may be no other borough that has the local pride and identity felt by Staten Islanders. To be a Staten Islander often means to be of New York City and to be disconnected from New York City. It often means to know your family, but wonder if you were switched at birth.

Since New York City adopted its outer boroughs in 1898, Staten Island has always been the odd child out. Even for a city of islands, Staten Island seems, and is, far away. It is the enigma of New York City in virtually every aspect - at least most of it is, as the stereotypes of Staten Island sometimes belie its diversity.

Stand Island sits apart, though. Even the island accent is a bit more bombastic — more expressive, even — than the standard New York intonation. It’s important to have your voice stand out when you’re struggling to be heard.

The Staten Island existence has been, and continues to be, in some part dominated by its uneasy relationship with the larger city it is a part of, and the ongoing struggle its residents and elected representatives engage in to ensure that “the forgotten borough” gets its fair share.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Staten Island is the size of a key at the bottom left of the MTA subway map, which, of course, shows few lines cutting through the borough. It is a borough geographically far from the others, and population-wise, nowhere near a fifth of New York, with just under 500,000 residents in a city of over eight million. While much of the city is chasing rent, Staten Island has higher home ownership than any other borough, and its residents rely heavily on cars. For the most part, Islanders are big supporters of law enforcement, and it is a suburbia to many current and retired uniforms.

This is not to say that Staten Island is homogenous, of course. It is not.

The Island, aka Richmond County, looks more like America than the rest of New York City. Or, as Joe Borelli, one of only four Staten Islanders who serve in the 150-seat New York State Assembly, told Gotham Gazette, “New York looks at Staten Island weird, but it’s the rest of the country who’s looking at New York weird.”

It is the only borough with a clear white majority, at 77 percent of the population, compared to 12 percent African-American and 18 percent Latino, according to recent census figures. And the racial divide is stark: the North Shore is far more ethnically diverse and less wealthy than the South Shore and much of Mid-Island, with a reliance on public housing and apartment complexes to accommodate booming immigration populations. Staten Island has more registered Democrats, but most of its elected officials are Republican. This ruling conservatism makes it an outlier.

There’s been a longstanding feeling of disconnect, both figuratively and literally, between the residents of Staten Island and City Hall — pleas unheard, problems ignored. There is an ongoing sense on Staten Island that things simply aren’t fair.

It is the only borough without a full-service public hospital. Its transportation system, as many residents will tell you, is abysmal: besides the ferry, there is no direct route to Manhattan. Commuters are left with the more expensive buses that route through Brooklyn, and the always congested, pricey Verrazano Bridge, whose toll now stands at $5.50 each way (at the resident discount). The only intra-borough train in existence is the SI Rail, while no train operates from east to west. And the borough has been left with spots of land that are widely inaccessible by public transit.

The discontent is about funding, for sure, but not just about the money. It’s simply often part of what it means to be a Staten Islander - a sense of otherness, of not being understood or served by the public servants who are supposed to represent the *entire* city. But the question is: has the borough really been shortchanged? Under Mayor de Blasio or anyone else. That’s up for debate.

And Gotham Gazette is not the only entity looking for answers. Last week, the College of Staten Island announced that a $20,000 study will be conducted into whether or not the “forgotten borough” is truly forgotten. Pushed by City Council Member Steven Matteo and his predecessor as Minority Leader, Vincent Ignizio, the Council-funded research will essentially evaluate city services to see if Staten Island is getting its fair share. So, next time its delegates negotiate the city budget or other upcoming policy, the island will have a better idea of where it stands.

Well before that study gets underway, we set out to assess how much of its due Staten Island receives.

*****

As is the case with the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, Staten Island often votes against the city grain — it was the only borough de Blasio lost in his landslide 2013 victory over Republican Joe Lhota. In the City Council, Staten Island has three seats of the 51, which are allotted by population. Brooklyn has 16. “We have less representatives in the Council and Albany, which puts us at a disadvantage,” Borelli argued.

So, in late July, the small City Council delegation from Staten Island — Council Members Debi Rose, former Council Minority Leader Vincent Ignizio, and Steven Matteo — held a press conference alongside elected officials to announce big news for the borough: $30 million of Council funding in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget for capital and expense projects across the island.

The new infusion of cash would be pooled by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office, the Staten Island council member delegation, and the Borough President’s office. Causes from libraries and school lunches to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center were getting a financial boost. A Council spokesperson also pointed out efforts in last year’s budget to increase ferry service and establish business improvement districts.

“This Council recognizes the important contributions of Staten Island and is thrilled to invest back into the borough in order to strengthen New York City as a whole,” Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito noted.

“I thank Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and my colleagues in the Staten Island delegation for being partners in crafting a budget that responds to the real needs of Staten Islanders,” Council Member Rose added. Rose is the lone Democrat representing Staten Island in the Council, she is African-American and hails from the North Shore.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the $30 million jackpot is due more nuanced analysis. The new city budget includes a total of $78.6 billion for expenses. Then there’s $13.9 billion for capital projects across the city. Much of the full picture of what Staten Island receives is buried deep in those amounts, through mayoral agencies and city operations. This fogs up how the $30 million factors into a larger total, and what it means on the local level.

Take, for example, the funds for the borough presidents. James Oddo, Staten Island borough president and former member of the City Council, received the smallest BP allotment, $4.2 million, while Eric Adams, of Brooklyn, has $5.8 million to work with. Yet, per capita, Oddo has more money than any other BP. Adams has $5.8 million to spend on 2.6 million people, about five times the population of its somewhat distant neighbor.

ignizio oddo si heynowjo

(former SI Council Members Ignizio, foreground, & Oddo)

Generally, it’s quite difficult to break the city budget down borough-by-borough, so much so that the College of Staten Island needs a well-resourced study to get to the bottom of this. You cannot flip open city budget documents to see a full accounting of what resources are devoted to each borough - it’s just not so easy to decipher how much of FDNY or Department of Health expenses are going to serve Staten Islanders, though estimates are surely possible.

Still, there’s the concept of insurance, that as part of the larger city, Staten Islanders can believe that there are virtually unlimited resources available were they to need them. Though, one need not look further than Superstorm Sandy to see the complicated nature of such a point.

There are many complicating factors to really trying to suss out how the city allocates resources.

“Let’s say a nonprofit agency based in Manhattan provides some of its services in the Bronx. The value of the contract for the work in the Bronx would show up in the Manhattan district where the agency is located,” Doug Turetsky, a spokesperson for the Independent Budget Office, told Gotham Gazette. “Another problem with these statements, or assigning dollars to a particular location, comes up with NYPD. An officer may be assigned to a particular precinct and that’s where he or she gets paid from, but on any given day that officer may be working in any part of the city.”

Turetsky was referring to what are known as District Resource Statements, which are provided by the Office of Management and Budget. These show analyses of the funds dedicated to the districts in every borough by each agency - but, as Turetsky explained, they don’t necessarily give the full picture of what Staten Island is getting, or, perhaps, not getting from the city.

Instead, Turetsky pointed to Community Board Geographic Reports, which are also OMB documents. This is a fuller borough-by-borough breakdown of the major agencies in the city (e.g. Parks and Recreation, Sanitation, NYPD). So, to get an idea of how Staten Island stacks up, looking at an agency like Parks and Recreation can be helpful.

According to the latest Community Board Geographic Report, for FY 2016, which began July 1, the funds for Staten Island borough-wide parks and rec total upwards of $1.8 million, with 27 full-time park employee positions. Queens, meanwhile, has $3.9 million allocated for borough-wide recreation, with 47 full-time positions. Around the same budget increase is set to occur next year for both boroughs: $55,000.

Staten Island parks see about half the funding of Queens’ while the borough has more park land, but many fewer residents. The island boasts the title of “Greenest Borough,” having 113 city parks, which, with state parks included, constitute a third of the island’s land mass, 12,400 acres in total. Queens has more parks, but covering fewer total acres: 284 parks, 7,000 acres. Queens, though, has 2.3 million residents, while Staten Island has just over 500,000.

It is no surprise that in every category for the Department of Sanitation, meanwhile, Staten Island ranks lowest out of the boroughs — less people, less garbage.

That’s the main obstacle in comparing Staten Island, in general, with the rest of the city: the demands are completely different. Brooklyn, for comparison, serves nearly 300,000 students in its public schools, while Staten Island has 60,000 students. Speaking with Joseph Viteritti, the chair of the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at CUNY Hunter, about this, Gotham Gazette asked him how to sort through this reality and analyze any discrepancies. “It’s very hard to answer that,” he responded. “You can’t do a straight budget analysis, because the budget is driven by demand.”

And it’s not all about population, of course. Yes, Staten Island police districts may have smaller budgets, but if areas in Brooklyn have higher concentrations of violent crime, then it makes sense that Brooklyn precincts receive a bigger piece of the pie. The same applies to schools, sanitation, parks, and so on. Think about Manhattan, Viteritti said. Even with the smallest land mass of the five boroughs, it is home to Wall Street, countless skyscrapers, Central Park, and 1.6 million people; not to mention the hordes upon hordes of tourists.

“Of course Manhattan gets more money from the city [than Staten Island],” he explained. “How can you even compare the two?”

*****

Joe Borelli, the Assembly member set to soon replace Ignizio in the City Council, says Staten Island’s blues arise from its uniqueness. He says the problems faced by residents are unlike those anywhere else in New York. “Since as far back as the American Revolution,” Borelli muses, “Station Island was different, and disconnected.”

And though there are sections of Queens and other boroughs that resemble large swaths of Staten Island, there’s nowhere in the city with the combination of characteristics of the island, including its remoteness, limited public transportation, and more.

As a result of “the failures of urban liberalism” in the 1960s and 1970s, Borelli argues, his home island served as a refuge for white flight as crime skyrocketed elsewhere. This is why on the island, “everyone you know is related to a cop,” Borelli added. Yet, after Manhattan and other parts of the city regained social stability, many of the developments achieved over the past decade-plus have failed to make it across the Verrazano.

For example, the ferries that now ride up and down the East River, servicing the re-emergence of neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Long Island City. Albeit suspended until 2017, even Rockaway Beach, at the far southeast corner of Queens, had some sort of ferry service (in addition to the A train). Residents on the South Shore of Staten Island, on the other hand, are still waiting to be picked up.

Then there’s bikes. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg peppered the city with bike lanes and pedestrian plazas throughout the 2000s, Staten Island watched from the sidelines: the borough is more car-dependent than any other, with a far distance between the North and South shores. Hylan Boulevard, which is arguably the busiest thoroughfare in the whole borough, has rows of perpetually empty bike racks, which the city spent $60,000 to build, because a solid portion of the avenue has no lane dedicated to cyclists.

Whether Staten Islanders wanted bike racks—or lanes, for that matter—is up for debate. But the situation, Borelli explained, demonstrates this “general distaste” of residents towards the city’s larger urban planning ideas, of which they’ve been largely left out of. It is this uneven growth that has driven Borelli’s current (and unopposed) campaign to fill the empty seat left by Ignizio, who recently became the CEO of Catholic Charities on Staten Island. "Somebody has to speak for the millions of outer-borough, middle class homeowners that are lately placed on the back burner of city policy,” Borelli told DNAinfo, referring to more than just Staten Island woes.

When asked about the stark differences — population, size, demand — between Staten Island and the other boroughs, Borelli said that, yes, those things are true, but shouldn’t be the reasoning behind neglect. He then listed conundrums that could happen few places in the city but Staten Island. Parks built without sidewalks leading to them. Bike lanes delayed because of too much brush blocking them. Nearly $5 million spent on replacing trees.

“We have a lot of resources, but they’re left vacant or without funding,” Borelli argued. “We have more parkland than any other borough, and somehow have less of the Parks budget than everyone else. Where else can you ride an ATV in the city?”

“Find me a property anywhere else where the city builds a park but doesn’t put sidewalks in,” he continued. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

This frustration, as expressed by Borelli, is part of the Staten Island id. In 1993, it came to a boiling point when Staten Island attempted to secede from New York City. The referendum effort, led by State Senator John Marchi, was, of course, a culmination of built-up emotions, but the immediate catalyst was the approval of a new City Charter in 1989, which did away with the Board of Estimate. Instead of having one vote of five, like every other borough, Staten Island now had just three City Council members to represent its interests across the Narrows. The borough arose in protest.

At the time, Joe Viteritti was the staff director of a commission that looked into the economic self-sustainability of Staten Island, or if an island with the population of a small city could manage alone without the help of sister boroughs and City Hall. The studies showed that it was feasible, Viteritto says, but his team also found that, in 1993, the cost of Staten Island to the city outpaced the revenue it generated by about $200 million. In other words, the city was putting more into Staten Island than it was receiving.

“These analyses point to the surprising conclusion that separation of Staten Island from New York would actually provide budget relief for the city,” he wrote then, in City Journal. “From a strictly economic perspective, the other four boroughs would come out ahead.”

This didn’t convince either Mayor Ed Koch or Mayor David Dinkins, both of whom strongly opposed the referendum. When Governor Mario Cuomo let the legislation proceed in Albany, Koch said the Democratic leader was “plunging a dagger into the city’s heart.” But it wasn’t up to him.

“Honestly, the only reason secession didn’t go through is that the legislation needed approval in the State Assembly, and it didn’t get it,” Viteritti told Gotham Gazette. “Cuomo, and then Pataki, were ready to sign it. [Former Assembly Speaker from Manhattan] Sheldon Silver bears sole responsibility for why Staten Island is not its own independent city right now.”

Now, over twenty years later, Viteritti doesn’t know if things are the same on Staten Island. The most immediate demands of the secession movement were met, and, in many ways, that’s why everyone Gotham Gazette spoke with for this article said Rudy Giuliani is still the most popular mayor on the island, by far.

Giuliani, a Republican, had a 1994 platform aimed at addressing the island’s two main grievances: making the Staten Island ferry free and closing the Fresh Kills dump (both were eventually accomplished). “To think, what was more symbolic to Staten Islanders than a place where the city can leave all of its garbage?” Doug Muzzio quipped.

At the time, Muzzio, a political scientist at CUNY Baruch and longtime city expert, was tasked with polling Staten Island residents. He said a “victim narrative” existed, in which residents felt their input surpassed the output (later found to be untrue) and, in return, they got the city’s garbage. While their transportation issues are “legitimate” reasons to be angry, Muzzio added, “Staten Islanders have always thought they were forgotten, and if they did get city services, they were ill-timed,” he said. This is part of the island’s “mythology” - too little, too late.

Yet, to Muzzio, Giuliani fit the Staten Island mold. His last name sounded like it was cut from the borough’s fabric. He was close with the renowned Borough President then, Guy Molinari. He was incredibly pro-NYPD, and he was a Republican. Staten Islanders still reminisce about the Giuliani days as a time when the island was truly a part of the city. In a recent tweet, James Oddo, the current BP, named the Giuliani Years as one of the few times in its history when “Staten Island was treated better than fairly.”

The same can almost be said about Bloomberg. Once again, a Republican, if only in his early mayoral years, and very close with the law enforcement base. To Staten Islanders, Bloomberg’s reign was praised for lower crime rates, much-needed rezoning and development, and finally, a focus on fixing their vast parkland. His property tax hike wasn’t received well, but, like with the rest of New Yorkers, maybe it will be down the line.

"I think his legacy is not fully baked,” now former Council Member Ignizio said when Bloomberg left office. “I think coming from Rudy Giuliani, who was wildly popular on Staten Island...following that act was tough.”

More controversially, Bloomberg was mayor during Superstorm Sandy, a storm that devastated Staten Island, perhaps more so than any other borough. It left millions of dollars worth of damages, and still, to this day, has residents rebuilding their homes. Bloomberg’s attention to the disaster was received well, but his funding program — Build It Back — was not. The initiative, which was meant to siphon federal funds to those not insured, hadn’t issued a single check or broke ground on any related construction programs when he left office.

It was an utter failure in Staten Islanders’ eyes. And one that was saved by an unlikely, if quite unpopular, new figure who Islanders did not want elected and are still coming to terms with.

*****

There were all the ingredients for Staten Island scorn: a persecuted policeman, a progressive mayor the borough didn’t vote for, and a publicly drawn-out war that put the hometown base and new city leader on opposite sides. Not to mention that it happened just minutes from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and for all the world to see. The death of Eric Garner at the hands of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo set off what had already been a begrudged populace. Within a year of his mayoralty, de Blasio had lost any goodwill many Staten Islanders had extended him, largely because of his comments in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo.

Since then, his administration has made efforts to make it clear that City Hall does care about the mid-Island and South Shore constituency, with more visits, more funds for extensive capital projects, and a continued overhaul of Build it Back that finally has the program up and running - though many still find the pace too slow. Even with a 19 percent approval rating amongst Islanders, de Blasio seems set on establishing some island credentials, even against all odds. A progressive Democrat, from Brooklyn; at least he has the Italian last name.

"Mayor de Blasio has invested nearly $5 million a year to deliver 24/7 half-hour Staten Island ferry service, added over $240 million to improve road conditions, brought faster [snow] plowing to Staten Island residential streets, and improved the Build it Back program so residents are finally receiving checks and rebuilding their homes,” Monica Klein, a deputy press secretary for de Blasio, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “showing time and again that he is committed to improving the lives of Staten Islanders and giving the borough the attention it deserves.”

For the announcement on the repaving efforts, de Blasio made a trip to Staten Island after mounting criticism that he had zigzagged the country while spending little time in the “forgotten borough.” But praise was in the air from Staten Island officials. “Mayor de Blasio heard our pleas for help and delivered, and we are thankful for his commitment to improving our roads,” BP Oddo said, alongside the mayor, and a large "pave baby pave" sign from the borough president's office.

 

pave baby pave heynowjo

(via BP Oddo)

Still, many car-owning Islanders happy about new investments in roads may continue to point to de Blasio’s handling of the Eric Garner saga and a perceived lack of support for the NYPD. They are likely to pin any upticks in crime or perceived quality-of-life issues to the mayor’s legacy; a sentiment that is true across the city, but most acute on Staten Island. But regardless of what happens between the mayor and Islanders, there are strong forces at work that could drastically change just about everything on and about the island.

In April, the New York Times beat the gentrification drum with a headline that read, “Staten Island’s Turning Point?” The writer, C.J. Hughes, pointed out major developments that will mark the island coast in the near future: the New York Wheel (a massive London-Eye-esque ferris wheel), Empire Outlets (a huge mall complex), and numerous stores, coffee shops, and breweries. Not to mention a condo complex called Lighthouse Point and another called URL Staten Island, which, along with the Wheel and outlets, have been deemed the “core four” by The Real Deal, a development-focused publication.

While some are excited and see jobs afoot, others are skeptical. One resident remarked, “I like the small-town vibe, and I don’t mind that there’s a little bit of grit.”

Linda Baran, the director of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, says that the impending development is a conversation that the borough has yet to have. What will it do if thousands of New Yorkers start to move in, once again escaping the mainland, this time because of high rents, not crime? The spike in prices is something that “resonates through every conversation,” she said. Is Staten Island really ready for that?

“There is no dialogue about how the borough should receive the people coming in,” Baran told Gotham Gazette. “Now the idea is to bring new businesses here so people don’t have to leave.”

Baran argued that development could solve one of the main issues the island faces, and has always faced: vacancy. The shore, she said, is lined with empty industrial lots, which are not only a blight on the islandscape, but bad for business. She’s hoping that development will bring more attention to major borough-wide concerns, like infrastructure and healthcare, as it has in Brooklyn and Queens.

She added that the de Blasio administration has done a fine job of cutting red tape for small businesses, but other City Council-backed measures, like paid sick leave and ‘ban the box’ legislation disallowing background checks, are “good initiatives,” but have left Staten Island owners weary of City Hall intrusion. “I think the city has talked about fixing the business community here,” she told me. “But the businesses aren’t seeing that just yet.”

Still, Baran touched upon what could be a new chapter in the Staten Island mystique. After feeling forgotten for decades, this could be the future the island has longed for; one where it is on an equal playing field, both economically and culturally, with its borough brethren. There is a fear — or irony — that the borough could be on its way to getting more than it bargained for, with high-rise condos and public attractions threatening the Staten Island way of life, causing more traffic. Be careful what you ask for, some seem to be saying.

“We were always used to being last on the totem pole,” Baran said. “We were an escape for everyone. And now, the boroughs are saturated, and growth is a good thing.”

She paused, then said, “Things are changing.”

***

John Surico is a freelance metro reporter. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and here, for Gotham Gazette. He lives in Queens. Find him on Twitter @JohnSurico

@GothamGazette

What is Flanagan Looking for From De Blasio on Mayoral Control?


Flanagan Cuomo

Sen. Flanagan, right, celebrates with the governor (Governor's Office via flickr)


Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has made it no secret that he lacks confidence in Mayor Bill de Blasio's handling of the New York City schools. Made clear when the state recently extended de Blasio's control of city schools for just one year, on Monday in a New York Post op-ed Flanagan sent another shot across de Blasio's bow.

Seizing on The Post's reporting about grade fixing in city schools, Flanagan reminded de Blasio that he not only expects the mayor to make himself available for hearings, but wants to see major improvements in the education system before he considers renewing mayoral control again next year.

"There are still unanswered questions about de Blasio's plan to fix New York City's 91 failing schools and the city's commitment — both financial and otherwise — to the students who attend those schools," wrote Flanagan. "Before we move forward, the mayor and chancellor must agree to hearings so we can examine this grade-fixing scandal and mayoral control...[R]eal reforms must be enacted before mayoral control can be extended any further."

Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island and former chair of the Senate education committee, published his column in the middle of an escalating feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio and months before the start of next Albany legislative session, which is sure to be dominated by political posturing in preparation for the 2016 elections when the entire legislature will be on the ballot.

Last year, rather than renewing mayoral control for multiple years as it had under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senate Republicans teamed with Cuomo to limit the extension to just one year. Though Cuomo and de Blasio are both Democrats, they have differing philosophies on education, with Cuomo supporting the so-called education reform movement and supporting the expansion of charter schools.

Both Flanagan and Cuomo have indicated they want to see significant improvements from city schools under de Blasio. "Next year we can come back, and if he does a good job, then we can say he should have more control," Cuomo said of de Blasio and mayoral control of schools at a press conference in July. The Cuomo administration did not return requests for comment for this story.

The posturing by Cuomo, Flanagan, and others begs questions: How much improvement can possibly be seen in one year? And exactly what kind of data points would demonstrate it?

When asked what would constitute significant improvements for Flanagan, spokesman Scott Reif, of the Senate's Republican Majority, referred Gotham Gazette back to the op-ed. Reif also said he expected the Senate's education committee to get deeper into the details in the next session.

Reif stressed that de Blasio must make himself and city education chancellor Carmen Farina available for hearings. Flanagan wrote in his op-ed that de Blasio only agreed to make Farina available for an hour last year. Leading up to the one-year extension, the de Blasio administration said that Flanagan failed to return the mayor's calls and was combative.

De Blasio administration officials stress that they think mayoral control should be judged over the long haul as a governmental system, not on incremental progress over a short period of time made by one mayor or the other. Administration officials say Flanagan's office has not communicated any specific concerns they want addressed, or benchmarks they want hit.

Senate Republicans did propose a host of changes to the system in bills last year, including one that would have given the legislature the ability to approve the city DOE budget. That measure is totally unacceptable to the de Blasio administration and did not fly with Assembly Democrats, who are more aligned with the mayor.

The administration clearly views Flanagan's position on mayoral control as designed to hurt the mayor rather than to boost the city's educational system. They point to a week's worth of New York Post articles attacking the DOE and Flanagan's op-ed as a strategy designed to blunt the good news contained in the test scores revealed this week.

On Wednesday, de Blasio and Farina announced that the city's students in grades 3-8 have made improvement on Common Core-aligned English and math tests. In touting mostly across-the-board gains, they also noted that 41 of the city's 63 struggling "Renewal Schools" saw an increase in their English scores and 36 saw an increase in math. These schools, identified by the state as the most unsuccessful, will likely be at the center of what de Blasio must answer for when he faces state lawmakers next year.

De Blasio said Wednesday that the city's test scores beat out increases seen in the state's other "Big 5" urban school districts and stressed that the city is closing its performance gap with schools across the state in general. "We now have the smallest-ever gap between New York City's scores and the rest of the state's scores," said de Blasio. "It's less than a one percentage point difference, and we intend to close that gap. This is an indication of how quickly things are changing in our schools."

An administration press release on the scores said that they demonstrate "the effectiveness" of the "Mayoral Control system and strategies to raise achievement."

Still, de Blasio downplayed the importance of "high-stakes testing" during the press conference, stressing instead the need to make sure children receive a practical education. "Our schools must deliver real preparation for the real world," he said. "Education determines economic destiny." De Blasio is likely to make his community schools push, whereby schools become hubs that provide social and medical services, central to his case for renewing mayoral control.

Jasmine Gripper of the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-supported group with close ties to the mayor, said that test scores shouldn't be used as a measuring stick on de Blasio's success with mayoral control. "The data points shouldn't be test scores but parent engagement, the amount of [student] suspensions, and the improvements made at struggling schools."

Gripper said AQE is paying attention to whether community schools are looking after the overall wellbeing of their students, examining the plans they submit to make sure students are getting eye exams and have access to guidance counselors and psychiatrists. "One year is just not enough time to see significant gains," said Gripper. "Three to four years would be more like it."

But de Blasio doesn't have three or four years. Instead, he faces the potential political embarrassment of having mayoral control stripped away by his enemies, which could leave him extremely vulnerable during the next mayoral election, in 2017. That's why many Democrats and education advocates see the one-year extension as a political move that serves both as retribution for de Blasio's attempts to win the state Senate for Democrats in 2014 and to prevent him from getting openly involved in the 2016 legislative elections.

Flanagan and Cuomo also both appear to be interested in quieting de Blasio's criticism of charter schools. "The grade-fixing scandal, along with the earlier attacks on charter schools, show exactly why we took such a cautious approach to mayoral control," Flanagan wrote in the Post.

But mayoral control isn't as simple as one side against the other. Many Democrats in both the Assembly and Senate, who rallied to de Blasio's side last year to support a minimum three-year extension of mayoral control, do harbor major concerns about the system. Some of them are concerned about creating more checks and balances on the city Department of Education's spending, while others want to increase parental involvement while weakening the mayor's ability to make appointments to the Panel for Educational Policy.

Sen. Diane Savino, of the Independent Democratic Conference, said she felt one year to show improvement in mayoral control is "reasonable."

"It shouldn't be that hard," said Savino. "Since the inception of mayoral control we've had a host of issues raised every year by just about all the major Democrats, including the mayor himself. Just pick some of them and get to work."

Savino, who said she hadn't read Flanagan's op-ed, said she wants de Blasio to get to work dealing with the grade-fixing scandal that sparked Flanagan's column. "What is a diploma worth when no employers take it seriously?" asked Savino. "We need to take action quickly against anyone who is rigging grades and we need to figure out what we are doing that leaves students without enough credits to graduate."

The mayor and his schools chancellor responded to new grade-fixing allegations by creating a new task force within the DOE to investigate and uphold academic integrity. Supporters of de Blasio note that credit-recovery problems have been at play in city schools for years, if not decades, and that there are a relatively small number of students involved. Regardless, anything happening with city education is de Blasio's responsibility now. And the mayor has repeatedly argued that mayoral control makes clear that he is ultimately accountable for the city's schools, and that voters will hold him so come 2017.

Savino and Flanagan both point to the fact that 77 percent of city high school students entering CUNY need remedial math or English. Savino said she'd like to bring CUNY officials to hearings on mayoral control to get their take on what kind of education city students are getting. "Test scores are just a piece of this," Savino told Gotham Gazette. "We need to involve CUNY because they are the best judge at whether we are providing our students with a sound education that holds up once send them out into the world."

During Wednesday's press conference de Blasio was asked whether he felt pressure to accelerate improvements given that he will have to go back and face the legislature to win renewal in less than a year. The mayor responded that "since day one" he felt the pressure to improve the city's schools regardless of Albany.

"So, no," de Blasio said. "The pressure I feel as the person accountable for our schools is to make sure our kids are getting what they need, and I'm accountable to their parents. That's my focus." 

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Progress Elusive as Bronx DA Cruises Toward Reelection


BX DA Johnson (AP)

Bronx DA Robert Johnson, foreground (photo: Associated Press) 


There’s a rooftop rock garden at the Bronx County Hall of Justice, the sprawling ten-story glass building that houses the county’s criminal and supreme courts. In theory, the space was designed to be a contemplative, community place, but in practice, it is not open to the public. Lawyers quip it has something to do with a potentially precarious confluence of angry people, the courthouse’s glass facade, and rocks.

The suggestion that people would throw rocks from a zen garden is both an ironic joke and emblematic of the frustration acutely felt in the Bronx court system. A central figure at the heart of this discontent is District Attorney Robert Johnson, up for re-election this year and seeking - so far unopposed - his eighth straight four-year term.

Elected to represent “the People,” Johnson is a virtual lock to secure a mechanical mandate returning him to the office, whether he faces a token opponent or not. It is likely that he will, yet again, be uncontested in a race that will culminate with little voter turnout.

Though just one cog in an overburdened system seen as dysfunctional in many ways, and operating in the city’s poorest borough, Johnson’s office has faced particular scrutiny, with many, including those who once worked in the office, questioning its efficiency and competence. Notably, it also appears to be an office home to little innovation, even as other district attorneys try new things.

To what extent criticism of Johnson is deserved is not immediately clear— the aggregate failings of the figurehead, the 400 attorneys who work for him, and “the system” are nearly impossible to parse and distinguish. But that does not diminish the pervasive dysfunction, manifested in astonishing backlogs, delays, low conviction rates, and concerns about how the office evaluates cases and handles the most high-profile among them.

The extreme likelihood that Johnson, a Democrat, will be re-elected with little to no pause serves to retain that status quo, and ensures that the Bronx District Attorney will be held to minimal public accountability leading to Election Day, but for by the press.

Culture of Delay
The overburdened Bronx criminal justice system, with an unprecedented backlog and slew of delayed cases, is notorious for being mired in a culture of delay.

In 2013, a New York Times series chronicled the dysfunctional system, finding that 73 percent of felony cases in the Bronx had exceeded the state court’s guidelines for excessive delay— 180 days.

Day to day, the signs of backlog are everywhere. On a recent visit to a courtroom processing arraignments at Bronx central booking, Gotham Gazette saw that nearly 20 of the thirty-plus people on the list waiting to be arraigned had been arrested and detained for over 24 hours, spending most of that time in the basement of the courthouse; the rest were approaching the 24-hour mark.

Next door at the Hall of Justice, defendants missing work or school can sit through hours of hearings as they anticipate their turn to stand before the judge. When Gotham Gazette visited one courtroom, an observer yawned, provoking a sharp rebuke.

“I heard someone yawn with a loud mouth. If you find out who it is, remove them,” the judge instructed a court officer. “There is no yawning with a loud mouth in my courtroom.”

The district attorney’s office was criticized for its role in maintaining the culture of delay— often attributed to a lack of judicial resources and defense attorneys— after 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide in June. Before his release and struggle to regain his footing, Browder spent three years at Rikers Island waiting for his day in court after allegedly stealing a backpack. Behind bars, Browder was beaten by guards and inmates, and spent months upon months in solitary confinement. News that the Bronx district attorney’s office finally admitted it had no witnesses, evidence, or a victim infuriated the public, spurring activists and politicians alike to call for criminal justice reform.

In a Daily News column, NY1 anchor Errol Louis wrote the responsibility for Browder’s death could not be placed on an abstract criminal justice system, but on its leaders, singling out Johnson.

“It must be noted that a heavy measure of responsibility lies with Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whose bungling subordinates contributed to the long delays in Kalief’s case. Johnson, who is up for re-election this year, is named in the lawsuit Kalief filed against the city before his death,” Louis wrote.

For Bronx City Council Member Andy King, the three years Browder spent in prison are the result of prosecutors’ preoccupation with getting convictions.

“What happened here with Kalief Browder, is that the district attorneys are more interested in convictions rather than the truth,” King said at a June press conference in front of Johnson’s office.

King introduced a bill to amend state criminal procedure law to compel open and early discovery— a policy King says Johnson does practice. In a separate interview, King told Gotham Gazette he likes Johnson and approves of the job he has done, but thinks that, as is the case with anything, there is room for improvement.

At the same press conference, Browder’s attorney Paul Prestia rebuked the district attorney, criticizing the delays he says Johnson’s office introduced that kept his client in prison.

“Kalief Browder languished in jail for three years while prosecutors delayed his case without any accountability,” Prestia said. “But I won’t digress into that and all of those details. You can speak to the so-called DA of this borough, and perhaps he’ll have the answers for you or something to say about it.”

District Attorney Johnson was not made available for an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Prestia told Gotham Gazette he hoped district attorneys would be held accountable for creating unreasonable delays.

“You’d think that with such a bureaucracy there’d be enough oversight that this wouldn’t happen,” he said of the backlogs in the Bronx court system. “Basically there’s no real sense of urgency on their part to go forward on cases.”

But a lack of urgency on the part of the district attorney’s office, real or perceived, likely does not tell the full story behind the pervasive culture of delay. Terry Raskyn, a spokesperson for Johnson’s office, attributed the delays to logistical issues and a lack of judicial resources.

“The law does not permit a “Law & Order” style of case management,” Raskyn said, referring to the TV series. “Every defendant and ‘the People’ have requirements that have to be met with regard to the opportunity to appear, plead, have motions made and decided upon, pretrial hearings, etc. Add to that the scheduling issues and you have delays,” Raskyn wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

“And then there is often delay in getting defendants produced, either from Rikers Island or other facilities – prisoner movement often delays scheduled appearances by hours, and those hours compound the problem.”

Also citing a lack of resources, Robert Dreher, an executive assistant district attorney in the office, dismissed the notion that prosecutors purposefully introduced delays.

“One of the primary problems we deal with is resources: judges, court rooms, stenographers, court officers that are needed...the more of that we have, the more efficient the system would be,” Dreher said. “We’re in favor of speedy trials...people sometimes think prosecutors like delays, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We want cases to go to trial quickly. Delays are for defendants’ benefit. Obviously no one wants someone sitting in jail waiting for trial for a long time, that’s not acceptable.”

The Bronx district attorney’s office is set to receive just over $58 million in funding through the city’s fiscal year 2016 budget, putting it behind New York County (Manhattan) and Queens County. The new fiscal year began July 1.

Though the office has seen slight increases to its budget in the last few years, in 2010 it was slashed and the office laid off 12 assistant district attorneys, Above the Law reported. In 2014, NBC news reported that Johnson led efforts on behalf of the city’s five district attorneys to meet with Mayor Bill de Blasio to discuss their budgets. A meeting was finally arranged after NBC’s report.

While the office did not respond to Gotham Gazette’s request for an interview, Johnson has discussed the function of his office in the recent past. “The major changes that need to be done are not in the way the system operates but in how the system handles the capacity of all the cases that come in. This is a statewide problem...I believe that we have really trailed behind in this issue for the past couple of decades,” Johnson told the Bronx Chronicle in 2014. “We need to take a long-term look concerning additional judges, additional courtrooms, and additional staff to better handle the caseloads we are getting in.”

A former assistant district attorney under Johnson, attorney Paul Martin, agrees.

“There were never enough courtrooms to meet the needs of having a defendant tried in a timely fashion, there is no doubt about that. So with more judges and more courtrooms, we’d be able to address the backlog of cases,” Martin said.

At the Hall of Justice, many of the trial parts — the term used to label a specific courtroom — were simply not open when Gotham Gazette visited on July 13. But it is also unclear how it is determined when a trial part is in use: a judge told attorneys all trial parts were in use when a visit to one nearby found another judge sitting in an empty room.

Efficiency
Even as it demands more trial parts, data shows that the Bronx district attorney’s office actually declines to prosecute cases more often than any of its counterparts across the city.

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, in 2014, the Bronx district attorney's office declined to press charges in 24 percent of violent felony arrests and roughly 16 percent of both felony and misdemeanor arrests. In contrast, in the same year, the Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to press charges in 4.1 percent of violent felony arrests, almost 3 percent of felony arrests, and just over 2 percent of misdemeanor arrests.

Those numbers— along with (and perhaps caused by) plummeting jury trial success rates— have led many to question whether the office is letting dangerous people walk free.

But Executive Assistant District Attorney Dreher says that the rates at which the office declines to press charges are indicative of the office’s practice of immediately rooting out weak cases.

“It’s not quite what it appears. Each office has a different way of approaching [evaluating a case]. Some offices, when the police officers make the arrest, they’ll bring the case in, they’ll process it, and then they go through and determine is it going be sufficient for trial, is it going to be sufficient to charge,” Dreher said. “We do triage much earlier in the case, we do it in the very beginning.”

But the office’s self-described careful triage has not prevented it from either accumulating a low conviction rate or from making a series of high profile blunders.

In April, the office came under fire after Bronx Criminal Court Judge John Wilson publicly condemned Assistant District Attorney Megan Teesdale for failing to reveal evidence that would have freed a man held on Rikers Island who was falsely accused of rape, the New York Daily News reported.

Later that month, the office was criticized for its “inexplicable” lack of follow-up in its role handling crimes committed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s mother. Prosecutors from the office failed to file routine papers to help recover stolen funds. As a result, Heastie was allowed keep a house his mother purchased with embezzled money; he later sold it and pocketed the profits, reported the New York Times.

In 2013, Johnson’s office declined to prosecute a group of corrections officers at Rikers who ignored a dying inmate’s pleas for medical assistance, citing a lack of evidence. The inmate’s death was ruled a homicide due to “neglect and denial of medical care.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged one of the officers, Captain Terrence Pendergrass, and was successful in seeking a conviction.

Community Context
In interviews, attorneys and politicians stressed the importance of understanding the problems specific to the Bronx when evaluating the district attorney. For attorney Jason Foy, a former ADA in the office, that understanding is particularly important when scrutinizing the Bronx DA’s conviction rate.

“I see articles about the conviction rate in the Bronx being lower than in other places. Well, that’s not necessarily the DA’s problem because that comes from a historical problem between the police and the community,” Foy said.

Bronx jurors are notoriously distrustful of the police— a dynamic rooted in policing practices like “stop-and-frisk,” broken windows enforcement, and Operation Clean Halls, in which police patrolled and searched apartment buildings and questioned residents. Johnson was lauded by Bronx residents in 2012 when he announced that his office would no longer prosecute people accused of trespassing in public housing who were searched and frisked unless the arresting officer explained the arrest to the office.

“When you’re an innocent person walking home, you don’t want to be searched and asked where you’re going. That experience, when you become a juror, impacts how you see the case. It’s hard for innocent people on those juries to just believe a cop automatically,” Foy said. “You may not have that same experience in Westchester County. In the Bronx it’s not that same type of deal...Now is that the DA’s fault?”

There will be little opportunity for voters to express their opinions of Distrcit Attorney Johnson at the polls this fall, given the lack of competition.

For former ADA Paul Martin, more troubling than the low conviction rate is what he described as “the lack of understanding or consistency” in the office’s recommendations for punishment.

“I thought there was a lack of understanding for the nature of the situation of the individuals and the community and situation in which they came from,” Martin said. “It was that lack of understanding that led individuals who never had any of that experience to be somewhat heavy-handed in the manner in which they would pick their cases.”

Foy noted that most lawyers in the office didn’t grow up in the Bronx.

“Most of them are not from there, they’re from other parts of the country, other less dysfunctional environments,” Foy said. “So that’s going to give you a different perspective.”

“Now, if you’re saying that the way the prosecutor's office doesn’t take into account some of these social issues that have historically plagued the area— that might be true, but,” Foy continued, “the prosecutor is there to do a job, they’re not there to address the social ills.”

***
by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

The Week That Was in New York Politics, August 3-7


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday August 7

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and others carry a symbolic casket as part of an anti-violence campaign, via Ross Barkan; Mayor Bill de Blasio and comedian Louis C.K., who was shadowing the mayor for two days, outside City Hall, also via Ross Barkan

adams casket barkan

BdB Louis CK Barkan

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Schneiderman Special Prosecutor Case: Earlier this week Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his first case as special prosecutor in police involved deaths of unarmed civilians would investigate the circumstances surrounding Raynette Turner’s death. [Read our in-depth look at how the new executive order shifts the relationship between oft-rivals Gov. Cuomo & AG Schneiderman]

2. Academic Integrity Task Force: After new allegations of issues with academic integrity at certain schools, NYC DOE Chancellor Carmen Fariña is establishing a permanent task force that provides oversight and training to ensure all schools comply with “rigorous policies and standards.”

3. Legionnaires’ Outbreak: On Friday, the numbers stood at just over 100 people infected, with ten dead in the most recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, this one in the Bronx. New York City buildings with water-cooling towers have to “assess and disinfect the units within the next two weeks,” under Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett’s new directive. On Thursday Mayor de Blasio said that there would be “substantial action next week, legislatively.”

4. De Blasio Mental Health/Public Safety Initiative: On Thursday Mayor de Blasio announced “NYC Safe,” a $22 million initiative, designed to find and help people with severe mental health issues and violent tendencies. The initiative will combine clinical treatment and law enforcement to intervene before or after violence occurs. The plan is part of a larger “mental health roadmap” that First Lady Chirlane McCray will unveil in September.

5. UFA Contract Agreement: On Thursday the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which covers 8,000 firefighters and FDNY personnel, and the City announced they had reached a tentative contract agreement. The deal includes new disability legislation, a key point of contention in negotiations. According to the administration, 83 percent of the city workforce is now under contract, after the number was zero when de Blasio took office.

THIS WEEK’S NUMBERS:

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for firefighters, who agreed to a new contract with the city that will see pay rise by 11 percent over seven years, including retroactivity. There is also good news for the 8,000 or so members of the UFA in terms of engine company staffing and disability pension.

  • It was a bad week for Mayor de Blasio - according to a new Quinnipiac poll, his approval rating among NYC voters is at 44%, “the worst net approval rating of his tenure.”

THE FLASH:

  • About 125 years ago, on August 6, 1890, in New York, William Kemmler became the first person to be executed by electrocution. The alternative method would have been a hanging. Kemmler was shocked twice, the second time at 1,030 volts for two minutes, before he died.

  • About this time last year, August 7, 2014, Mayor de Blasio announced a public-private partnership that would allow the City to “unlock and analyze municipal decision-making information” from the City Record and publish the record online while signing new legislation into law. The City Record has daily info from the city on government procurement, public hearings, and hiring, among other topics.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:
All from a big Thursday evening:

  • New York Senator Chuck Schumer announced he is voting against President Obama’s Iran deal.

  • The first Republican presidential primary debate was held Thursday evening.

  • Jon Stewart signed off as host of The Daily Show after 16 years. Watch his final episode here.

***
NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max

No Fly Zone: Council Members Push Helicopter, Drone Regulations


garodnick vallone drones

Council members introduce drone legislation (photo: William Alatriste)


Pointing to insufficient efforts on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration, New York City Council members are taking regulation of the city’s skies into their own hands.

In asserting their authority with respect to helicopters and drones on a turf traditionally maintained by the federal government, council members may find themselves in ambiguous legal territory. But they tell Gotham Gazette that they are acting in the interest of public safety and in part to push other levels of government to act.

Council Members Carlos Menchaca, Helen Rosenthal, and Margaret Chin introduced a legislative package of two bills last month that would prohibit the operation of sightseeing helicopters, citing concerns about noise pollution. The council members are supported by “Stop the Chop NYNJ,” a group of community members who complain the noise from sightseeing helicopters are diminishing quality of life.

“What we’ve tried to do is approach this issue from the perspective of the FAA, from the federal body that’s required to regulate this industry. And we’ve tried so hard to regulate this industry to some avail, but not totally dealing with the problems,” Rosenthal said a press conference in July. “What we’ve done at the City Council is identify a different way to deal with the problem, and that is through the issue of noise. And in fact what the city can do is to ban tourist helicopters...they are responsible for this incessant noise.”

The City Council does not have the authority to regulate airspace over the city in terms of flight patterns— that’s under the purview of the FAA. But the council does have some regulatory power, as Rosenthal referenced.

“If the federal government is regulating a field, then federal law generally will trump state law or local law and the question is, did the federal government intend to preempt the field—  that is, is the federal government doing all regulations of of all helicopters, or did it allow some discretion to the City of New York?” Steven Mirmina, a professor at Georgetown Law and expert in aviation law, told Gotham Gazette. “It looks like [City Council members] did a balancing where they said the federal government regulates a lot of aspects for helicopters, but there is some discretion for the city to regulate also.”

Part of the regulatory power stems from the city’s capacity as a proprietor, according to aviation attorney Brian Alexander.

“The heliports themselves are owned by the city or the Economic Development Corporation, so…their control of the heliports is the principal way in which the city can control or even ban these types of flights,” Alexander said.

This power was affirmed in 1998 after Mayor Giuliani and the City Council approved regulations to reduce helicopter traffic at the 34th Street heliport by nearly 50 percent and to ban weekend flights. The Second Circuit Court largely upheld City Hall’s regulations in an appeal after the operator of the heliport, National Helicopter Corporation, successfully sued the city.

As proprietors of the heliports, the City Council has the power to impose “reasonable, nonarbitrary, and non-discriminatory” regulations on noise levels. In the 1998 case National Helicopter Corporation v. City of New York, the Court held that the city was acting lawfully in its role as a proprietor— and not as a “police power”- when imposing regulations. Had the city been acting as a police power, the legal grounds for regulating the heliports would have been much more tenuous.

“The regulation [banning weekend flights] is based on the City's desire to protect area residents from significant noise intrusion during the weekend when most people are trying to rest and relax at home,” and thus was permissible, Chief Judge Winter wrote in the decision.

Importantly, the bill introduced last month prohibits the operation of helicopters based on their “stages,” or noise levels designated by the FAA (There are three stages— the bill bans all of them). When the Council tried to regulate noise from helicopters in 1996 by putting restrictions on the size of helicopters that could fly in and out of the 34th street heliport (the rationale being that larger helicopters are noisier), the Second Circuit Court found that such regulation was discriminatory.

But Mirmina, the law professor, pointed out that the helicopter bill’s scope— targeting only sightseeing helicopters— could be problematic.

“If they’re concerned about the noise, they could say no helicopters over a certain decibel level. What about media helicopters? Those could be noisier than the tourist helicopters. You could have a sightseeing helicopter that’s really quiet. Why are we going to ban all sightseeing helicopters?” Mirmina asked. “So such a ban to me is, while on its face nondiscriminatory, it may also be viewed as not reasonably calculated to achieve their objective of keeping the skies more quiet.”

Another potential problem with the bill: because the city does not have the authority to control airspace, it can’t ban the tours outright.

“Anything that the city does regulating helicopters…will have no effect on how many helicopters will fly in the city’s airspace, that is 100 percent under the control of the FAA,” said Chapin Fay, vice president of Mercury, the public strategy firm representing tour industry group Helicopters Matter. “So for example, they could take off and land in New Jersey, they could go to Connecticut or Long Island but they still could fly the same routes they’re flying now.”

But sightseeing helicopter operators in New Jersey may soon find themselves shut out of the state as well: in March, three Garden State Assembly members introduced a bill that would prohibit tourist helicopter operations from taking off and landing on “all aviation facilities licensed by the state.”

The bills, now introduced to the City Council Committee on Environmental Protection and with eight sponsors in the 51-member body, may see a first hearing as soon as September. They are the latest in a long line of efforts to regulate helicopter traffic in New York.

In 2010, the Economic Development Corporation and helicopter operators agreed that helicopters would no longer fly over Central Park, the Empire State Building, or Brooklyn. The agreement also eliminated short tours between four and eight minutes. Those tours made up one-fifth of sightseeing traffic at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, and were the most profitable for helicopter operators, the New York Times reported.

In 2008, Air Pegasus, the operator of the heliport at 30th Street, agreed to eliminate sightseeing tours after the Friends of the Hudson River Park sued the company, arguing that the location of the heliport on the land side of the park violated the law. This agreement— paired with the 1998 ruling of National Helicopter Corp. v. City of New York— left the downtown Manhattan heliport the only one open to sightseeing tours.

Drones
While helicopter regulation has a fairly lengthy New York City history, drone regulation does not. The question of the extent of the city’s authority to regulate aircraft becomes perhaps more pressing— and more ambiguous— as unmanned aviation vehicles (UAVs), or drones, become more prevalent.

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) famously described New York City as the “wild west” of drones. Underlining his point is the series of near-collisions drones have caused near John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports and a close call with a NYPD helicopter over the George Washington Bridge, to name a few of the twelve or more incidents in the past year alone.

In considering regulation, elected officials have also cited privacy concerns, as drones with cameras attached to them become more affordable for the average citizen to purchase. But federal regulations lag behind the increase in popularity.

In 2012, Congress passed a reauthorization act related to the FAA that, among other requirements, compelled the agency to release finalized rules for UAVs by September 2015. A government audit last March, one month after the agency released proposed rules, concluded they would not make the deadline. Finalized rules are not expected for another year.

In the interim, state and local governments are under pressure to tread into the murky territory of drone law.

“Local governments right now are in a really tough position when it comes to drones. And in New York I think that's probably especially true, not just because of what happened at JFK last week. So every time there’s a negative drone incident, it puts additional pressure on local officials,” said attorney Stephen Hartzell, who specializes in UAS law.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown released a statement Tuesday urging hobbyists to “use common sense when choosing to employ unmanned vehicles,” noting that his office “will utilize all legal tools available to insure the safety of those in the air and on the ground.” Queens, of course, is home to both of the city's major airports.

City Council members have introduced two bills looking to curb the use of drones. One, introduced by Council Member Dan Garodnick would ban drones from the city’s airspace with the exception of NYPD drones that had obtained a warrant. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Garodnick acknowledged that his bill starts from the “strictest possible place.”

“Our bill is very strict, largely because there exist insufficient tools for enforcement. If you start allowing drones at certain heights or in certain areas or conditions, law enforcement needs to have the ability to both monitor and take action when people do not follow those rules,” Garodnick said in reference to what could become quite onerous enforcement. “Today, there is no credible way to do that.”

Garodnick said that he believes there is reasonable place and time for drone enthusiasts to operate their unmanned aerial systems, but doesn’t want to “open the floodgates” before tools to enforce regulations exist.

The second bill, introduced by Council Member Paul Vallone, would seek to impose a series of regulations on drone usage.

Vallone’s bill would prohibit using UAVs for surveillance purposes, at night or operating them within five miles of any airport and within a quarter mile of schools, houses of worship, hospitals and “open-air assemblies.” Importantly, it also would require users to operate their drones within their line of sight, a requirement also suggested by the FAA.

“The legal side of me is always looking to put in a bill that’s actually got a good chance of passing, an outright ban on something to me is a real hard way to go about a proper balance,” Vallone said. “This bill was put in with the intention of trying to find a balance of places that really need to be protected and giving people a place to fly these if they so choose to do so for their recreation.”

The two drone bills take different degrees of approaching the same issue. Both bills enjoy support from other council members: Garodnick’s bill has 14 sponsors, Vallone’s has 23 (as of August 7). Interestingly, there’s overlap within those numbers, with Council Members Costa Constantinides, Daniel Dromm, Julissa Ferreras, Rory Lancman, and Jumaane Williams listed as co-sponsors of both bills.

Vallone explains his bill would act as an interim measure until the FAA releases final rules for UAS operation.

“With the absence of federal, or FAA, guidelines, then we as the greatest city have to take steps to protect ourselves. Once we have our hearing - let’s be positive - the bill gets passed and becomes law, it still would be preempted or superseded by whatever FAA guidelines come out,” Vallone said. “But hopefully they would take note of the steps we took as a city.”

Garodnick struck a somewhat cooler stance when asked how he envisioned his bill would interact with the FAA’s forthcoming regulations.

“When the FAA puts together rules that protect the safety of New Yorkers, and when they fully occupy the field of law with their own rules, we will defer. Until that happens, we need to act to protect the privacy and safety of people here,” Garodnick said.

Whether local governments’ efforts may be preempted by FAA regulation is unclear and likely won’t be resolved for several years, according to Hartzell, the attorney.

“It’s very easy for people to say, ‘wait a second, isn’t this preempted? The FAA regulates the airspace, the federal government has sovereignty over our airspace so therefore how can any local or state authority possibly do anything?’” Hartzell said. “And the answer is, it depends on what they want to do and how they do it, and what I promise you is that we won’t fully know unless and until there is a law passed that winds up being challenged in court.”

To Hartzell, an interesting ambiguity in both Vallone’s and Garodnick’s bills is the clause that would allow someone to operate a UAV “pursuant to and within the limits of an express authorization by the Federal Aviation Administration.”

Express authorization, according to Hartzell, could be interpreted to include FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, which sets voluntary guidelines for flying model aircraft. Though the circular was signed into effect in 1981, its scope includes recreational drones (the FAA put in a request last year to formally cancel the advisory).

“There’s going to be someone that challenges a rule or law that flatly prohibits drone operation. This [language] is interesting because it seems to contemplate some sort of operation as long as somebody is expressly authorized by the FAA,” Hartzell said. “So the question is, what does that mean? It could mean that the FAA has to grant somebody specific permission or what somebody is likely to argue is [the advisory circular] could be interpreted as an express authorization written by the FAA itself.”

Garodnick told Gotham Gazette that he does not interpret AC 91-57 as giving “express authorization” because it’s an advisory memo, not an individual grant.

The FAA does grant companies and individuals such authorizations, giving them the permission to operate drones in a “continuing effort to safely expand and support commercial unmanned aircraft operations in U.S. airspace.” The FAA has passed over 1000 of these so-called “Section 333 exemptions.” Those who receive Section 333 exemptions would be allowed to operate drones over the city, Garodnick said.

“Councilman Vallone and I are after the same thing, which is a responsible set of rules that protects New Yorkers in a changing technological environment. We put those bills out to start this conversation,” Garodnick said (he and Vallone held a joint press conference to announce their bills). “We want to hear feedback from the public at a hearing and we hope that we will be able to craft cutting edge rules which protect New Yorkers and also open the door to some of the novel and exciting uses for drones once we have appropriate enforcement mechanisms.”

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by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

Another Way of Looking at Infill Housing Development


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The Mayor's NYCHA plan (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


The mayor touted the number of affordable apartment units - 20,325 - as a one-year record, and far from anything seen in the city since Mayor Ed Koch’s ambitious housing plans of the ‘80s. The 20,000-plus, which includes both new and preserved units, is a big first step toward the de Blasio administration’s plan to build 80,000 entirely new affordable units and preserve another 120,000 over the next ten years. And, at a July 13 press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the accomplishments of his first full fiscal year in office.

But, in addition to political and economic capital, the 80,000 new units key to de Blasio’s plan require substantial space: a challenge in crowded and expensive New York real estate. In an attempt to clear this hurdle, the administration is revisiting an idea from the final months of the Bloomberg years: facilitating private development on property owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

De Blasio is seeking to at once short up NYCHA finances, make inroads toward his affordable housing goals, and, it appears, foster community development around public housing long seen as isolated. In fact, the latter may see the most progress of all three goals as the administration moves on so-called “infill” development.

In May, the de Blasio administration announced NYCHA Next Generation, a ten-year plan to raise capital for the beleaguered public housing authority through focused private development on its campuses. Under the plan, land on NYCHA campuses will be leased out to private developers, who will build new rental units adjacent to existing public housing. While NYCHA will not operate the developments, new apartment buildings will be required to include a proportion of affordable housing, and the agency will retain ownership of all property and receive revenue from the ground leases.

The mayor heavily stressed that Next Generation intends to both alleviate NYCHA’s capital budget woes and contribute to the broader affordable housing effort. “These two pieces will work hand in hand,” de Blasio said on May 19, “to begin with, there will be 10,000 new units of affordable housing created on underutilized and unutilized NYCHA property…It will contribute a crucial piece of our affordable housing plan — almost five percent of all the units that we create and preserve will be through [NYCHA Next Generation].”

Although the numbers are promising, impact from the newly built housing may be greatest as a targeted investment in community development, rather than just a five percent contribution to the goals of Housing New York. Infill can be a vehicle toward integrating public housing in a surrounding community. Beyond affordability, smart development on NYCHA’s “underutilized and unutilized” land has the potential to make an impact on other long-awaited reforms called for by community, transit, and planning advocates.

The Nature of Infill
Developing on under-utilized land in urban areas is often broadly referred to as “infill development” -- and combining infill development with affordable housing has a notably mixed history in New York City, especially when involving NYCHA. High costs of developing on small parcels of land can often become unfeasible for developers unless building at incredible density -- often defying existing zoning codes -- or for a small number of luxury units.

Historically, in an effort to spur affordable housing, the city has offered incentives both in the zoning code and in tax breaks, including the state’s controversial 421-a program, which was infamously used by the developers of the luxury tower One57 Park to earn a tax abatement of as much as $66 million, in exchange for building only 66 affordable units at a different site in the Bronx.

In 2013, the Bloomberg administration similarly proposed leasing NYCHA property for private development. The plan drew ire from affordable housing advocates and politicians, including then-candidate de Blasio, for extending the same low proportion of affordable housing as in other Bloomberg-era affordability programs: 20 percent affordable, 80 percent market-rate. Under fire and counting the days until exit, the Bloomberg administration ultimately deferred action on the NYCHA infill plans to the de Blasio administration.

The recent revision of 421-a in Albany, Mayor de Blasio’s recently announced mandatory inclusionary zoning proposal, and NYCHA Next Generation all similarly aim to mandate higher proportions of on-site affordable housing development than the norm during the Bloomberg years.

NYCHA and the Mayor’s Office have been quick and adamant to emphasize that Next Generation is different, particularly in that it will require much higher proportions of affordable housing when building on NYCHA grounds. The first three Requests for Proposals for three sites in Brooklyn and the Bronx are all for 100 percent affordable housing units. And going forward, the exact proportion of affordable housing requirements will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

So far, community advocates seem to be pleased with this new approach. Moses Gates, Director of Planning and Community Development at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), praised the current administration’s approach as balanced: “under Bloomberg we saw it go all the way to one direction, where the idea was let's just do the deals and get as much money as we can for NYCHA,” said Gates. ”The de Blasio approach is a balanced approach, where we are trying to build low-income housing but we are also trying to improve NYCHA's financing situation.”

But where some see balance in this plan, others see tension. Howard Husock of the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute considers infill development on NYCHA land a “neat solution for all those concerned -- there's no need to rezone, there's no need to buy the land, there's no need to finance the purchase of the land.”

However, Husock worries that filling in land with affordable units may have much more limited effects than market rate development would. “20,000 units, $618 million in direct city funding, that means that a relatively small number of New Yorkers are going to get the benefit of an extremely large investment on the part of the city,” Husock said, referring to the 20,000 new or preserved units touted by de Blasio for fiscal year 2015.

Moreover, affordable units risk wasting an opportunity to fully leverage the ground-leasing revenues at potentially high-value sites such as the Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn -- one of the sites included in the first round of RFPs. In Husock’s view, when NYCHA opts for 100 percent affordable sites, “the beneficiaries become those in the apartments and not those in the surrounding areas.”

Balancing the value of building more affordable units against the prospect of raising revenue is a task that the administration will have to carefully navigate when drafting each RFP. With each decision, NYCHA is likely to draw criticism from those who would prefer to see either maximum affordability or maximum revenues. Ultimately, to Husock, it comes down to the question, “is our goal to create more units no matter where, or is our goal to diversify economically as many neighborhoods as we can, even if it’s for a relatively small number of lower income tenants?”

While Husock’s question may be a very good one, a fundamental idea underpinning Next Generation is that development on NYCHA campuses could have potential knock-on effects beyond the apartments for the new residents themselves or the revenue for NYCHA.

Community Development by Another Name
To some affordable housing advocates, development outcomes are decidedly not just about the number of units, despite the mayor’s focus on the figures. Gates of ANHD is explicit: “it's not the point to just produce whatever you can however you can … When we give the administration credit or try to hold the administration accountable, it's not because they hit their number or they didn't hit their number, it's because they're building the right kind of housing, and they're approaching it in a community-based way.”

The perspective is not limited to advocacy. City Council Member Brad Lander, a leading voice on affordable housing in the Council’s Progressive Caucus and the Council’s Deputy Leader for Policy, acknowledges that in the grand scheme, “the new units proposed in the mayor's plan won't be enough to change the broader market dynamics.”

Rather, Lander highlighted that new units would not only benefit their future residents, but also alter an entire neighborhood’s “ability to stay diverse and be inclusive down the road, and [the new units] certainly prevent the problem from getting worse.”

NYCHA complexes are often a series of public housing towers that become isolated, insular neighborhoods unto themselves.

For Gates and ANHD, considering affordable housing as an element of a larger community empowerment initiative is ideal. “Optimally, the approach of the housing plan, and the administration policy overall, is a way to empower local communities, to invest in local communities, to create stable sustainable livable neighborhoods,” Gates says.

In some instances, community development could be achieved by just the act of building anything at all, regardless of whether the focus is affordability or generating revenue.

Rethinking “Towers in the Park”
A near-inevitable consequence of developing NYCHA-owned land is a revision of the widespread “tower in the park” design of many campuses. From the 1940s to ‘70s, many public housing sites were designed as several stand-alone towers among large superblocks of open space. Community advocates and urbanists, famously including Greenwich Village journalist and activist Jane Jacobs, have long criticized the designs for their insular nature and inefficient use of space. Proponents, on the other hand, point to the value of urban campuses and green space among an ever more congested New York.

Often, the question comes down to what counts as meaningful open space. In this light, parking lots have been the source of much criticism from not only design- and planning-oriented urbanists, but also policymakers and developers, who view the land as a latent opportunity for either new development or more responsive urban design.

In many city zoning codes, new residential developments are mandated to provide a minimum amount of parking. Reforming these requirements on NYCHA campuses is already popular with transit advocates, who warn of worsening traffic and incentivizing car ownership. Recently, transit advocates, looked to a Department of City Planning report issued in the final days of the Bloomberg administration as a vague sign of movement on parking reform.

Two of the three developments initially announced for infill in the NYCHA Next Generation plan capitalize on parking lots as sites of development. The Mill Brook and Van Dyke sites, in the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively, will both see development directly on existing accessory parking lots; and at all three sites, there are no new parking requirements accompanying new housing.

While the Department of City Planning remains tepid on addressing larger parking mandates explicitly, the RFPs issued by HPD so far suggest that transit advocates’ desire for discontinuing parking requirements finally holds sway within some city departments.

Council Member Lander endorses the sentiment behind utilizing parking lots as sites for development, noting “I don’t think the city has an obligation to provide free or reduced-cost parking to car-owning New Yorkers, whatever kind of housing they live in. I would in many cases rather see parking lots used in ways that bring more public benefit.”

Renewed Community Outreach
Perhaps the most striking difference between the Bloomberg and de Blasio plans so far appears to be not on paper, but in public reception. Community advocates back up the current mayor’s claim that community outreach efforts have been far more robust than during the last administration. “There is a really different approach to NYCHA and NYCHA development between this administration and the last administration…this administration is more engaged with NYCHA residents,” said Gates.

Of course, some residents and tenant associations remain skeptical, even when developments  are 100 percent affordable, such as those to be built at the Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville. Some tenant association leaders dispute that NYCHA incorporated community input into the final RFPs, and claim that some residents were misled into thinking they would be moving into the new units themselves. While the new developments will give preference to applicants living at any NYCHA site across the city, funding and fair housing rules prevent the agency from guaranteeing any new units to residents at Van Dyke in particular.

Lander acknowledges that much of that skepticism surrounding development on NYCHA land is “warranted by what people have seen in the past,” and that in any case, there is “just always some understandable resistance to change for [NYCHA infill].”

When evaluating sites for infill, the ability to consider local context is seen as a strength. “You have to take them on a case-by-case basis,” Lander notes, “obviously there's a big difference between a garden and a parking lot, which is not meaningful public space.”

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by Brit Byrd for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Executive Order Shifts Cuomo-Schneiderman Dynamic


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Cuomo and Schneiderman (photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order on July 8 giving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians, he did something he rarely does: he empowered a rival. In doing so, Cuomo made clear that the results of the order would be up to the AG's office, thus alleviating some of the pressure on himself to address what he has called a "crisis of confidence" in the criminal justice system, especially in communities of color.

But instead of shifting responsibility to Schneiderman and moving as far as possible from the matter, the governor has trumpeted the move as a national model and had an event with Schneiderman where the pair briefed clergy on the order. Cuomo and Schneiderman - bitter rivals who have thrown personal jabs at each other and feuded over power, money, and policy - are now by most accounts attached at the hip in one very important sense.

District attorneys across that state, angry that their power has been undermined and fairness questioned, have united to attack the move. But Schneiderman and Cuomo, to the surprise of many Democrats, have stood together to swat away criticism. And now, as Schneiderman has announced his office's first investigation under the order into a death in police custody, the two top Democrats will be judged together on the results.

It was only a few months ago that Schneiderman was being touted by many Democratic state legislators as their progressive savior--the progressive who may primary Cuomo in 2018, the politician with enough strength to publicly challenge Cuomo to deliver for the party. Schneiderman repeatedly challenged Cuomo on ethics reform throughout a spring legislative session marred by corruption. He's called on Cuomo to call a special session to deal with ethics, to push sweeping reform yet seen and including details of the AG's own legislative package.

"I have read Genesis. There is no Biblical injunction that the legislature has to shut down shop on the 17th of June," Schneiderman said at a press conference in Manhattan earlier this year. "And I think the people of the State of New York would welcome a few extra days of session."

While still in session Cuomo shot back that it was "late in the day" for ethics negotiations, but sources close to Schneiderman continued to insist that Cuomo should act. Post-session, Cuomo has dismissed calls for bringing lawmakers back to the capital, saying there's no political will and it would be a waste of taxpayer money.

Now, things have changed drastically in the Cuomo-Schneiderman dynamic. Schneiderman has quieted his rhetoric on reform and a number of insiders tell Gotham Gazette the AG has insisted to them that he will not run for governor if Cuomo seeks a third term in 2018.

"The relationship has changed; they are in this together," said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College. "This is actually good politically and policy-wise. The governor should share his powers with the attorney general where it is appropriate and the governor and the attorney general should be working together. They are members of the same party."

Cuomo took great pains during the executive order signing to indicate that he was not coming down on one side or the other of the debate about how to better deliver justice in instances of police killings of unarmed civilians. He said the order was meant to deal with a "perceived conflict," perception being that DAs are too close to local police departments to investigate them.

"I kept waiting to see how the governor was going to screw him," one legislator with ties to Schneiderman told Gotham Gazette when talking on the condition of anonymity. "It's hard not to think the worst of everything Andrew does."

Schneiderman has since been tasked with dealing with the fallout, working out just how his office will interact with district attorneys and local police and any public backlash. But Cuomo did participate in the clergy briefing on the executive order with Schneiderman and the two appear committed to ensuring that the new arrangement begins smoothly. After all, they each have a lot on the line, now tied in what can only be highly fraught circumstances.

It is still surprising for some to see the two working together. In June of this year Schneiderman's team called foul after Cuomo's office circulated a 22-question survey asking other agencies to rate Schneiderman's performance.

The last time both men worked so closely was during the activities of the short-lived Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. Cuomo had supported giving the AG the powers to investigate public corruption during his time in that office, but resisted doing so as governor, despite requests from Schneiderman.

However, when the governor empaneled the Moreland Commission he did work with Schneiderman and allowed him to name a number of appointees to the commission. Schneiderman remained quiet as reports broke that the Cuomo administration was meddling with the commission and steadfastly declined comment after Cuomo cut a deal to shutter it. However, sources from Schneiderman's office indicated at the time that their boss was frustrated and embarrassed.

After U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara seized the Moreland records and indicated the law might have been violated in closing the commission, Schneiderman faced questions about what his involvement was. He soon had a conspicuous lunch meeting with Bharara as if the US Attorney was giving him a public "all clear."

Cuomo teamed with the legislature in his first term to strip control of millions of dollars in settlement funds away from Schneiderman, and it was thought that Cuomo had worked fervently behind the scenes trying to prevent Schneiderman from becoming AG in the first place.

The political tides have shifted dramatically since then. Cuomo has been on a fence-mending tour targeting his liberal base since a fairly disastrous legislative session. Shortly after session ended Mayor Bill de Blasio openly questioned Cuomo's motivations and loyalty to progressive issues. More recently, Schneiderman and several other progressive leaders stood with Cuomo to celebrate the fast food wage board called by the governor having recommended an eventual $15 per hour minimum wage.

Cuomo Schneiderman wage rally

With the executive order Cuomo may have effectively silenced Schneiderman as a critic and made sure their fates are tied together for the length of the order as they both fend off slings and arrows from Republicans, district attorneys, and other law enforcement.

On Monday, Schneiderman announced that his office's "Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit will investigate the death of Raynette Turner, consistent with Executive Order No. 147 and a conforming order to be issued by the Governor at my request."

Turner, a black mother of eight, died in police custody in Mount Vernon after being arrested on a shoplifting charge.

Soon after word came from Schneiderman's office, the governor released a corresponding statement. "Today, the Attorney General informed my office that he intends to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute any unlawful acts arising from the death of Raynette Turner, who died last week while in the custody of the Mount Vernon Police Department," Cuomo said.

His statement continued: "Ms. Turner's death is a tragedy for her loved ones, and it raises questions not just from her family, but from her neighbors, elected officials, community members and the media – questions that deserve answers. This kind of situation is the reason that I signed Executive Order 147 last month, because the justice system must have the trust of our communities. With the Attorney General as special prosecutor leading an independent investigation, I believe that we can begin to restore trust, eliminate any perceived conflicts of interest, and let the community know, once and for all, that justice truly is blind."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Republicans Face Moment of Truth After Conviction of Senate Deputy Leader


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Sen. Flanagan, standing, & former Sen. Libous (photo: Lori Van Buren)


When Senator Tom Libous, deputy majority leader for the state Senate Republicans, was convicted last week it sent a shockwave through the capital. Sure, indictments and convictions of powerful sitting legislators are a dime a dozen these days thanks to the efforts of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, but many in Albany felt Libous' case was different.

Well-liked on both sides of the aisle, many legislators felt the case against Libous was weak, that the charge of lying to the FBI about using his power to help his son secure a job was the prosecution grasping at straws. Libous' colleagues were so confident he'd avoid conviction that new Majority Leader John Flannagan kept him on as deputy majority leader after Flanagan's ascension in the wake of the indictment of his own predecessor, Sen. Dean Skelos.

Not only was the 62-year-old Binghamton-area legislator thought to be honest by many, but Libous is also battling terminal cancer and was too ill to make most session days this spring. Many expected the jury to acquit Libous and that he would retire with his honor intact, with time for the GOP to prepare a strong replacement candidate. But, it took the jury just six hours to find Libous guilty. He now faces up to five years in prison.

"The amount of time it took for the jury to reach a decision sends a real message," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. The indictment of Sen. Skelos certainly set Senate Republicans into a spiral, but in some ways Libous' conviction was more impactful.

"This really sets a new bar," said one lawyer-legislator on the condition of anonymity. "It was a shock to most of us because it means anyone can be found guilty on whatever charge is made."

It is well-documented that anxiety, even paranoia, was already running high among Albany lawmakers as indictment after indictment comes down.

The message for a number of Republicans is that their former leader, Skelos, is not likely to get off scot-free and that prosecutors are likely to keep digging. Libous' conviction is different than that of Democrat John Sampson's, also reached last week, in that Senate Democrats had turned again Sampson long ago, ousting him from the conference, and actively tried to defeat him in the last election. Democrats have been on a rebuilding and rebranding spree for the last four years, though their mission took a hit with the charges against Silver. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have been delivering the same message: 'stay the course,' despite the fact that they hold a tenuous grasp on the majority.

It is a razor-thin majority that is at risk not only in the race to replace Libous, the election for which will occur this fall, but in the 2016 elections for every seat of the Legislature set to occur during a presidential year when Democrats typically perform better.

"The message the U.S. Attorney has sent with his indictments of Skelos, Sampson, Libous, and Silver was already very clear," said Karen Scharff of Citizen Action NY, a left-leaning reform group. "[Bharara] is very serious about looking into their behavior," she said of Albany legislators. "This conviction isn't anything new and is why it's so frustrating that Senate Republicans aren't willing to talk about real reform."

Senate Republicans are desperate to weather what is expected to be a 2016 Democratic storm thanks to the presidential race. Senate Democrats have won a numerical majority coinciding with the last two presidential elections and Democratic turnout is expected to be relatively immense in 2016, especially given what is likely to be a Hillary Clinton candidacy.

Democrats are sure push ethics and campaign finance reform, such as closing the infamous LLC loophole, throughout the rest of 2015 and 2016.

Libous' conviction spotlights another one of the conference's major liabilities - a shallow bench. While Democrats have a number of young sitting senators and have been recruiting and building up candidates in districts where they expect close contests, Republicans are dealing with a number of aging members who appear close to retirement, though committed to staying on to preserve the majority but not to do much else.

Libous was long talked about as a future majority leader and his name would periodically come up as a potential replacement for Skelos whenever there was dissension in the ranks. He was known for working across the aisle and continuing dialogue with Senate Democrats during even the most acrimonious episodes. "They are dealing with an aging conference and while we've seen Democrats recruit new faces each election, Republicans appear to be struggling to attract young, noteworthy leaders," said Scharff.

Sen. John DeFrancisco was recently named to replace Libous as deputy majority leader and while many Senate Republicans see it as a great, almost inevitable choice, it also exposes how thin their ranks are. DeFrancisco has long served as the chair of the finance committee and is integral in producing favorable budgets. Not many other members have the knowledge, commitment, or interest to replace DeFrancisco in that role, which he all but certainly vacates to become minority leader. "I'm afraid that he is going to try to do both," said one member on the condition of anonymity. "I really don't see that as being possible. It's too much for one man to do."

With Libous' seat now up for grabs the math for retaining an already thin majority becomes more difficult even though the seat is in a heavily Republican district. "We will absolutely hit the ground running," Flanagan said in Cooperstown last Wednesday. "I expect to spend a lot of time in Binghamton. It's a very important race. It's critical not only to our conference, but to the people of the State of New York."

Now, Republicans are coalescing around Broome County Undersheriff Fred Akshar. Denver Jones, who has campaigned as a Republican in the past, also appears to be seeking the seat, which could cause some trouble for Akshar and the party.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already endorsed the Democratic candidate, Barbara Fiala, even before she was officially a candidate. "Barbara Fiala is a quality person," Cuomo told reporters last week. "I've known her for a number of years, she was a member of my administration, she was a commissioner for the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Cuomo's endorsement surprised Republicans, as Cuomo has previously worked closely with them in preserving their majority and has praised a number of sitting Republican legislators. However, Libous still maintains a great deal of power and popularity in the district and could turn the tide if he is able to campaign.

Legislative corruption is almost certain to come up during a campaign for a seat rendered empty by the conviction of a sitting legislator. Democrats are likely to try to paint Republicans as roadblocks to sweeping ethics and campaign finance reforms, though it will be a tricky message to craft given the party's own corruption issues.

The vote to replace Libous will take place in November unless Cuomo calls a special election, something he has been loathe to do in the past. Whoever wins this year will have to turn around and defend the seat in 2016. Meanwhile, Skelos' case remains in the news as Bharara has introduced new charges and it heads toward trial. Both Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are scheduled to be on trial in early November, in the days surrounding the general election.

A recent Siena College poll found that public corruption is very much on voters' minds and likely to impact their votes come November. Ninety percent of voters surveyed for the poll released July 15 said public corruption is a major problem and 49 percent said recent scandal would make them less likely to reelect their incumbent legislator come 2016.

Horner said he believes Republicans hope the Libous case blows away as so many other scandals have so that they can attack Democrats on corruption in their ranks. Running races with corruption as an issue isn't exactly easy for Republicans as they have opposed every major reform measure good government advocates support.

"They really have no world view on reform other than term limits," said Horner of Senate Republicans. "And they back term limits in the same way Democrats back campaign finance reform - because they know the other side won't let it pass."

Meanwhile, reform groups and some legislators continue calls for a special session to address public corruption which in turn has forced Cuomo to point the finger at Senate Republicans for their recalcitrance. "I haven't heard a legislator say, 'OK, my mind is changed.' I haven't heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly saying, 'Our minds are changed, we now want to pass a bill that we didn't want to pass," Cuomo said in defending his dismissal of those calls for special session.

Cuomo, who was close to Libous and has spoken kindly of him even of late, is seen by many as a roadblock to true large-scale reform. Cuomo said Libous "never stopped serving the people of his district," despite having terminal cancer and added: "It's a sad, sad personal tragedy. This is a man who was a quality public servant for a lot of years."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing



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