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18 Months of NYCHA Scrutiny, Reform and Conflict


de blasio nycha olatoye

Mayor de Blasio at a NYCHA announcement (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


"If we were to lose public housing," warns City Council Member Ritchie Torres, "we might have a shelter system overflowing with hundreds of thousands of people."

With more than 400,000 residents, the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, is the largest public housing system in the country. Never far from the headlines due to ongoing problems, NYCHA is under even more scrutiny courtesy of a series of audits by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has made the authority a central focus of his early tenure.

Torres, who grew up in public housing in the Bronx and now chairs the so-named committee in the City Council, points to the stakes as debates over NYCHA management and oversight rage. Mayor Bill de Blasio has made NYCHA a far greater priority than prior administrations, but the push to ensure a sound public housing stock remains urgent for many.

NYCHA houses many of the city's poorest residents. Under NYCHA rules, those residents pay rent that does not exceed 30 percent of their family's income. The housing may be low cost but is often also low quality with recurring and widespread complaints of leaky roofs, mold, slow repairs, unhygienic living conditions, and lack of security. The comptroller's audits - six in 18 months - have aimed a spotlight at these and other long-running problems at the authority.

Representatives of NYCHA, headed by Chair Shola Olatoye, and of de Blasio's office, which is ultimately responsible for NYCHA, have on several occasions pushed back against Stringer's audits. They cite many changes implemented over the past year and a half since de Blasio's inauguration. There has been back-and-forth as the administration and the comptroller's office continue to argue over the data used in the audits and whether Stringer's reports give enough credit for work already underway. But what all stakeholders, including de Blasio, Stringer, Olatoye, Torres, and others do agree on is the need for reform.

"The status quo has forced NYCHA residents to shoulder the burden of billions in disinvestment from the federal and state governments, and live with mold, broken heating, vermin and too many other symptoms of a crumbling Housing Authority," de Blasio stated in May when announcing the "NextGeneration NYCHA" plan. "We will take every action to help NYCHA emerge from the financial crisis that has crippled its ability to provide safe housing in good repair to hundreds of thousands of our city's hardworking families."

According to the announcement of NextGeneration NYCHA, it is "a comprehensive ten-year plan to stabilize the financial crisis facing New York City's public housing and deliver long-needed improvements to residents' quality of life by changing the way NYCHA is funded, managed, and how it serves its residents." And one formulated "with the input of hundreds of stakeholders and residents."

Created in 1934 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, NYCHA is the country's oldest public housing authority. But since 2001, a steep drop in funding from federal, state, and city governments has led to severe deterioration of living conditions in NYCHA housing. Many buildings are crumbling, not having undergone any major repairs or renovations for decades.

"Most municipalities have demolished their public housing," says Torres. "So far, our approach has been demolition by neglect."

As conditions worsened, calls to deal with long-neglected NYCHA housing increased. By 2012, the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to respond due to "the extent and duration of resident outcry," according to Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at Community Service Society. In its last year, the Bloomberg administration redirected part of NYCHA's administrative budget toward a concentrated effort to target repairs and tackle over 420,000 outstanding work orders.

In 2013, conditions in NYCHA housing were highlighted in the mayoral election, with candidates agreeing that reform was needed. In July, the top five Democratic candidates spent a night in a NYCHA building in Harlem. The 'sleepover' arranged by Rev. Al Sharpton was to raise awareness of the decrepit living conditions and backlog of unresolved repair requests in NYCHA buildings across the city. "People in the city in a million years would never accept this," then-candidate de Blasio said after his night in public housing. "Yet NYCHA tenants are forced to accept this every single day."

With that in mind, since de Blasio became mayor, the administration has taken significant steps to improve life in NYCHA housing. "This administration, this mayor, from day one has made the Housing Authority a key component of his agenda," Olatoye recently told NY1.

To help the financially struggling agency, the mayor has both directed additional funding toward NYCHA as well as relieving it of financial obligations. The most significant changes under de Blasio include waiving NYCHA's $30 million annual payment in lieu of taxes and waiving the $72 million payments the housing authority was being forced to make to the city each year to cover the cost of its policing. "NYCHA effectively every year has over $100 million more to go into its operations for management and repairs than it did before the new mayor," explains Bach. Some of those funds are being used for roof repairs, the removal of unneeded scaffolding and shedding, projects to improve security and energy efficiency, and "fix-it-forward," an initiative to overhaul maintenance by increasing the speed and efficiency of repairs.

In May, NYCHA announced the 10-year NextGeneration plan to cut costs, get new sources of revenue, and improve and modernize its management. "Our plan reflects the tough decisions necessary to deliver a stronger, more effective housing authority that can take care of its buildings and its people," said de Blasio when announcing NextGen.

"What is cause for hope is that NYCHA has a master plan for preserving public housing over the long haul with political capital behind it, the backing of the mayor himself behind it," Council Member Torres told Gotham Gazette. While supportive of Olatoye and of de Blasio's approach, Torres is also wary, and told Gotham Gazette that he will hold oversight hearings this fall.

The NextGen plan includes initiatives such as OPMOM, a pilot program currently operating in 18 NYCHA developments to localize decision-making and give on-site housing management more autonomy. The agency describes such initiatives as a learning experience for its own administration. "We're learning what works and what doesn't on our end as an authority," says Aja Worthy-Davis, NYCHA's deputy press secretary. "It's an ongoing process."

Meanwhile, Comptroller Stringer has carried out six audits of the housing authority, revealing the scale of the problems with NYCHA management and maintenance, including questions about its inventory, apartments kept vacant for years due to renovations, and long wait periods for repairs.

No other city agency has been audited this many times by Stringer. Some, like Council Member Torres, believe this emphasis is justified. "There's no other institution that is confronted with an existential crisis to the extent that NYCHA is," he says.

Stringer frames his focus on NYCHA as a matter of equal treatment for those who live in public housing. "They don't make a lot of money, but they're the heart and soul of the city and they've been discriminated against for too long," he told Brian Lehrer of NYCHA residents, on WNYC radio.

To examine NYCHA's progress so far under its NextGen plan, Torres' Committee on Public Housing will hold a series of hearings, starting in September. "One of the problems with Council oversight is that the Council is largely dependent on the information from the very agencies it oversees," says Torres. "That is why the comptroller's audits are so critical, because it provides the Council with a source of independent information on which to conduct oversight hearings."

Torres has expressed support for de Blasio and Olatoye thus far, even co-authoring a Daily News op-ed with a NYCHA resident association president in June. In the column, the authors highlight major problems at NYCHA and that they "do not agree with everything NYCHA does or plans to do." But, they say that they know they can work with Olatoye and that "it's clear to us, and should be clear to all New Yorkers, that Mayor de Blasio has made the city's Housing Authority a priority."

The Council hearings will give NYCHA a new, very public chance to respond to the comptroller's data and highlight progress under the new administration. So far, NYCHA's response to the succession of Stringer audits has been mixed, at times accepting and at other times defensive.

In a joint press conference with the comptroller on May 15, after an audit of NYCHA's supply inventory, Olatoye took a conciliatory tone. "I thank the Comptroller for uncovering some troubling deficiencies in our supply chain and inventory management practices that hamper our ability to provide timely and quality service to our residents," she said. "These deficiencies are simply unacceptable. We are working in partnership with the comptroller to overhaul our supply and inventory practices to become a more effective and efficient landlord."

"The inventory audit – that was helpful," acknowledges Worthy-Davis. "That was something we stood with him on because that was a clear area that was not handled the way it should have been handled."

While conceding some problems, NYCHA has also defended itself on occasion and responded to some of the criticism in the comptroller's audits, contending the use of outdated information and pointing to reforms made under de Blasio and Olatoye.

The series began with Stringer's first audit of NYHCA, released July 24, 2014. The audit criticized the housing authority for depriving residents of wages by not ensuring that contractors comply with federal laws mandating that 30 percent of new hires are NYCHA residents and low-income New Yorkers. The audit looked at capital project contracts that NYCHA awarded between 2010 and 2012.

NYCHA pushed back, questioning the numbers used - its response read, "Under the new leadership of New York Housing Authority Chair and CEO Shola Olatoye, NYCHA is proud of its job growth and retention initiatives that continue to support our residents and the NYC economy too, so we're disappointed to see these efforts so publically [sic] misrepresented with old and incomplete data."

A financial audit of NYCHA was released on December 16, 2014; it found that cash-strapped NYCHA missed out on at least $692 million in revenue and cost-saving opportunities, and failed to meet revenue and savings projections. In its audit response, NYCHA agreed with "a number of the recommendations" but called the report "seriously flawed" in key aspects, citing the comptroller's use of information from several years prior to the scope of the report and questioning its use of "decisions and activities" that "virtually all" occurred before de Blasio took office. And, NYCHA wrote that the report "exaggerates and/or mischaracterizes" key information around cost-savings opportunities.

Another financial audit, released in May of this year, examined whether NYCHA procedures for verifying Section 8 Housing voucher program participant-reported information met the requirements of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The audit looked at Section 8 participants who were active up to November 2013 and found that NYCHA generally met the HUD requirements though there were discrepancies in the records of some participants. According to Stringer's office, "NYCHA officials were pleased with the report's conclusion" about its general procedures, but pushed back on other conclusions. The audit says that "NYCHA officials do not appear to have closely reviewed the results of our data analysis" and "did not provide any documentation or analysis" to support their claims.

"NYCHA agreed with four of the report's five recommendations," the audit says.

More recently, there was pushback from NYCHA and the de Blasio administration after the release of the June 24, 2015 audit, which stated that NYCHA keeps apartments vacant for an average of seven years while doing major repairs. De Blasio representative Peter Kadushin and Stringer spokesman Eric Sumberg got into an argument on Twitter over the validity of the data used in the audit. While Sumberg pointed out that NYCHA told auditors there were 2,342 vacant apartments as of September 2014, Kadushin responded that the number had gone down to 1,024 by May 2015. However, in a Daily News report at the time of the audit, NYCHA shared that it had 2,196 vacant apartments in May - good, though, for "a 39% decrease from the beginning of 2013." According to Stringer's audit, as of December NYCHA had a waiting list of 273,391 people, the News reported.

Earlier this summer, on July 13, Jean Weinberg, NYCHA's chief communications officer, issued a statement in response to the latest audit: "The Comptroller is recycling old news on NYCHA's maintenance and repairs." She called the data used in the audit "outdated," referring to the fact that it had reviewed work orders from January 1, 2013 to July 31, 2014.

The difference in figures is at least in part a matter of timing. Audits take several months to a year to complete and are based on figures available to the comptroller's office at the time they are started. But during the months that an audit is carried out, the situation on the ground can change.

This appears to have been the case with the vacancy audit released in June 2015, which used September 2014 vacancy figures. "We had already started work on a good chunk of those units," NYCHA's Worthy-Davis explains. She says that by the time the report was released, many of the apartments were ready to be rented to tenants. "We didn't get this information and decide to rent those units and start breaking down walls," she added. "This is work that's already been ongoing. It's our goal, even though we already have a low - very, very, very low - vacancy. Our goal is always to obviously turnover apartments and get folks who are on these waiting lists, in them."

"We respect the work that the Comptroller is doing," Worthy-Davis continued. "It's important work, but we as an agency, we make decisions based on the best interests of our residents and what we need to do to sustain our buildings and our infrastructure and keep NYCHA running."

In most cases, NYCHA representatives have agreed with Stringer's assessments in terms of general problems, but don't appreciate the comptroller painting a picture of ongoing dysfunction when they have reforms well under way.

Stringer has pulled no punches, and given NYCHA little credit for implementing reform. He has promised to follow up on his audits and has told Gotham Gazette that NYCHA would remain a central focus. In releasing the latest audit, he said, "For the 400,000 New Yorkers who live in NYCHA housing, the Authority's handling of repairs is a case study in mismanagement." He did add, though, "I know that NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye is committed to turning the Authority around." But, the latter statement was a way of introducing Stringer's own "four-part reform agenda to expand transparency and accountability at the Authority."

While NYCHA and the Comptroller's office debate numbers, for others, those numbers are fairly irrelevant. "I think the findings of the audits point to things that NYCHA needs to pay attention to," says Bach of Community Service Society. For Bach, the difference in the figures presented by both sides is marginal considering the scale of the problem. "I'm less concerned with the nitty gritty of the numbers that the comptroller includes in his audit than with the direction of change and whether things are better than they were two years ago, or worse, or the same."

And he believes things are headed in the right direction. "The problems are still enormous, NYCHA still faces a major challenge," says Bach. "But I think there's no question that the situation today is better than it was two years ago."

"Improvement is happening as broadly across the board as possible, as quickly as possible," says Worthy-Davis. She says the agency understands the frustration of residents who have been dealing with NYCHA over the years under various administrations. But, she adds, "It's going to take a little bit of time."

"This is 40 years of neglect that is not going to change in 15 months," Olatoye said on NY1.

After years of neglect, some NYCHA residents, like Sumner House resident association president Raymond Ballard, are also cautiously optimistic. While he has not yet seen much improvement, he says, he is hopeful that the new NYCHA initiatives will make a difference. "We have to go up now," says Ballard. "I know there are programs put in place to correct some of the things that they have been neglecting over the years." He has already seen efforts to fix brickwork at risk of collapse and the start of roof repairs. Yet, a lot more remains to be done. "I believe now that there will be some changes," he adds.

"I have to be hopeful because otherwise I think we'd be close to being homeless," says Ballard. "That's the shape that most developments are in now."

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by Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, July 27-31


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday July 31

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: rendering of the next LaGaurdia Airport, via the Governor's Office on flickr

La Guardia rendering

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. New LaGuardia: Governor Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden announced that LaGuardia Airport will be overhauled by 2021, with an estimated first-phase cost of about $4 billion. Experts say the project could take more than 10 years to build and cost about $8 billion.  

2. MTA Budget Battle: MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast sent an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, pushing for the city to add $3.2 billion over five years to the capital budget for MTA funding. Governor Cuomo has said he’s agreed to add more than $8 billion to the state budget plan towarding closing the MTA budget gap, and the governor has repeatedly pointed out that the city benefits the most from MTA services; while a spokesperson for the mayor said that “New York City, through taxes, tolls and fares already contributes over 70 percent of the MTA’s operating budget.”

3. JCOPE Controversy: Four of the 14 commissioners from the Joint Committee on Public Ethics wrote an open letter on the questionable hiring of “special counsel,” a position excluded from the original JCOPE staffing plan, but created previously and now being again filled, this time with Kevin Gagan, who will be chief of staff and counsel, by the outgoing executive director, Letizia Tagliafierro, at the behest of the governor, whom she is leaving to work for. Gagan has worked with the governor in multiple positions previously, part of a lengthy public sector resume, and the commissioners are calling this an example of “incessant interference.”

4. City Mental Health Plans: First Lady Chirlane McCray, Chair of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, announced a $30 million public-private partnership to support the new Connections to Care program, which will “integrate mental health services into programs already serving low-income communities.” It will be part of a larger mental health roadmap McCray is preparing, which will be unveiled in September.

5. Flanagan Names DeFrancisco Senate #2: New Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Republican from Long Island, named Syracuse Sen. John DeFrancisco (who had a friendly battle with Flanagan for the top post when indicted Sen. Dean Skelos stepped down) as Deputy Majority Leader - a seat also vacated due to corruption, this one when former Sen. Tom Libous was convicted on charges of lying to the FBI.

THIS WEEK’S NUMBERS:

  • 400,000 New Yorkers now have an IDNYC six months after the program began, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced.

  • 31 cases of Legionnaires disease have been diagnosed in the South Bronx since July 10 through July 29. New York City health officials are tracking the unusual increase, but say that there is no cause to panic.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for Governor Cuomo, who not only unveiled plans for a new La Guardia Airport, but was lauded by Vice President Joe Biden in multiple appearances Monday - Biden called Cuomo, “about the best governor in the United States.”

  • It was a bad week for New York Canna, Inc, the sixth-placing company in the competition for medical marijuana licences in New York. Five winners were announced Friday by the State Department of Health and will be allowed to dispense medicinal marijuana. Canna just barely missed out - the scoring revealed it was just .15 points behind the fifth-place company.

THE FLASH:

  • Last year, on July 28, 2014, Governor Cuomo called the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption (created by Governor Cuomo in July 2013 and shuttered less than a year later) a “phenomenal success,” following a report into the relationship between the governor’s office and Moreland amid reports that Cuomo was being investigated by United States Attorney Preet Bharara for interfering with the commission’s work.

  • 29 years ago, on July 30, 1986, Mayor Ed Koch, city, state and federal law enforcement held a press conference at City Hall and called for “more state judges, more Federal judges, more prosecutors, more courtroom space and the deportation of all illegal aliens convicted of narcotics offenses.”

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

  • WNYC’s The Takeaway tackles the economic effects of raising the minimum wage after a New York State Wage Board unanimously finalized their recommendation to gradually raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 per hour.
  • City Comptroller Scott Stringer released his office's analysis of the city's new fiscal year 2016 adopted budget.
  • Capital New York goes inside a meeting of New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and a Bronx superintendent.

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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

Note: this article has been updated with more detail about the JCOPE storyline, noting that the counsel position had been filled previously and adding other information.

Many Voting Opportunities for New Yorkers in 2015 and 2016


voter registration hands

Newly registered NY voters (photo: @NYCVotes)


When New Yorkers vote for president in November 2016, it could be their sixth trip to the polls in 14 months. While the city's resources will be stretched thin by the cost of these elections, those committed to cast their votes may be stretched to the point of fatigue.

Elections set to take place in New York City during 2015 and 2016 are for local, state, and federal posts, including district leaders, City Council members, judges, district attorneys, and state Senators and Assembly members. And, along with the rest of the country, New Yorkers will also be voting for members of Congress and, of course, president. Some of the city and state-level contests are special elections, wherein voters in certain districts will select a candidate to fill a vacant post, which is the case with two City Council seats, for example.

Whether the contested post is for local, state or federal government, the city's Board of Elections administers the election. The city pays entirely for local elections. For state and federal elections, the cost is divided, but the city still pays a share.

With the city bearing costs for all elections, some argue that it would make financial sense for consolidation by holding federal, state, and local primaries on the same day in any year possible. During an executive budget hearing in June, Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, talked of the benefits of consolidating election dates.

"There is some talk that the state may be coalescing around a merged date around both the presidential and the federal, but as they say, it's a long way from the lip to the cup," Ryan said, using a golf saying. If it happens, he said, "that will certainly be a significant reduction in the resources necessary."

Despite the advantages of consolidation, this is not something that has received too much support in the state Legislature where election dates are decided. Ryan and Ben Kallos, chair of the City Council's Committee on Governmental Operations, have both spoken of suggestions in the past to merge election dates. "There was no consensus from the board of commissioners, with respect to any exact date or preferred time of year," said Ryan. "However, it's clear that the same date is better than multiple."

While some dates in the upcoming election cycle have been moved, these changes were to accommodate religious holidays and there appears no serious talk of consolidation at the moment.

Frequent elections also result in voter fatigue, causing a dip in turnout. Voter participation has been dropping in all 50 states but New York's turnout rates are among the lowest in the country. In the 2014 elections for state-level positions, only 29 percent of eligible voters went to the general election polls in New York, making it the third worst performing state in terms voter turnout according to a report by Nonprofit Vote. With elections every few months over the next year and a half, voter fatigue is likely to be a factor - at least for those with the interest in voting at all.

Add to the mix concerns about wait-times at certain polling places and it might be enough to turn some ambivalent potential voters away. According to Capital New York, the state Board of Elections recently voted to "request a formal plan from the New York City board by September 30" that outlines its plans to comply with the state-mandated wait-time limit of 30 minutes by the 2016 election. The presidential contest is again expected to see a bump in voter participation, as it has in years past, while the so-called "off-year" or "mid-term" elections are not expected to see anything resembling heavy turnout. City BOE's Ryan has said that reforms are already taking hold to make the voting process efficient.

There are just six weeks until the first of these many election days, while changes in dates are still possible for some of the upcoming votes. As of July 28, the following are the New York election dates and general state of the races at play:

September 10, 2015
New York City voters will cast their votes in several primary elections for local posts on Thursday, September 10, 2015. In a break from tradition, these elections will be held on a Thursday due to Rosh Hashanah falling on the Tuesday of that week.

Due to Democratic City Council Member Mark Weprin's resignation in June, his District 23 seat in Queens is up for grabs. Contenders for the Democratic nomination include Barry Grodenchick, Rebecca Lynch, Ali Najmi, Satnam Singh Parhar, and others. The Republican field is much less crowded; retired NYPD Capt. Joe Concannon will probably be the Republican candidate.

There will also be a primary to replace William Scarborough, the former State Assembly member from Queens who vacated his seat in May after pleading guilty on charges of fraud. There are several Democratic contenders for the seat but the Queens Democratic Party is backing education activist Alicia Hyndman. State Committeewoman Scherie Murray is likely to be the Republican candidate in this overwhelmingly Democratic district.

Primary Elections will also be held for vacant posts for Judge of the Civil Court of the City of New York (4 in Queens, 3 in Manhattan, 4 in Brooklyn, and 2 in the Bronx).

On the same day, there will also be primaries for the district attorney races in Queens, Bronx and Staten Island, though none of them will be competitive and one or more may not even occur if they are uncontested. Both the Queens and Bronx district attorneys are long-time incumbents who will cruise to reelection, but the Staten Island seat is open after former DA Dan Donovan was elected to Congress in a special election earlier this year. The general election for Staten Island DA looks like it will be competitive.

Lastly, voters will be asked to decide local races for district leaders in Manhattan and Staten Island, and for State Committee.

November 3, 2015
On November 3, 2015, general elections will be held for the DA races, Civil Court judge positions, as well as special elections for vacant seats in the state Assembly and Senate. There will also be special elections to fill the City Council seats of Weprin and Vincent Ignizio of Staten Island who stepped down on July 10.

Because of the timing of Ignizio's resignation, there will be no primary for that seat in September, just an open general election in November - followed, due to a quirk in election law, by another race in 2016, and then another in 2017 when all of the Council seats will be elected. Only Joseph Borelli, a Republican Assembly member and former Ignizio chief of staff, is running for the seat in the 2015 special.

Also on this day is a special election for State Assembly District 46, in Brooklyn, previously represented by Democrat Alec Brook-Krasny. Because of the date on which Brook-Krasny resigned, election rules call for parties to decide on their candidate without holding a primary. On the Democratic side, Brook-Krasny is supporting his chief of staff, Kate Cucco, who is expected to replace him. Other Democrats interested in the seat are reported to be Andrew Gounardes, Pamela Harris, Michael Nelson and John Gangemi. On the Republican side, speculation is focused on District Leader Lucretia Regina-Potter.

The guilty verdict against Deputy Senate Majority Leader Thomas Libous, on July 22, has also resulted in a special election to fill his state Senate seat as he is automatically forced from office due to the conviction. Within a day of the verdict, Governor Andrew Cuomo endorsed Barbara Fiala, former Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner, as the Democratic candidate for the seat vacated by Libous, a Republican. This election for the Binghamton seat is sure to be hotly contested, and will occur on Election Day 2015.

A special election for Senate will also take place for the seat of former Brooklyn State Senator John Sampson, found guilty of several corruption charges on July 24.

In the district attorney races, Queens DA Richard Brown and Bronx DA Robert Johnson are running unopposed. The Staten Island DA seat vacated by Dan Donovan's election to Congress will be contested by former Congressman Michael McMahon, a Democrat, and Republican Joan Illuzzi, a Manhattan assistant district attorney.

April 19, 2016 – Presidential Primaries:
After some confusion, the New York state Legislature decided on April 19, 2016 as the date for both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. They changed the originally proposed date of April 26 as it fell during the Jewish holiday of Passover.

June 28, 2016 – Congressional Primaries:
Voters in New York will decide on their party's candidates for all Congressional races in the state on June 28, 2016. This includes the primaries for all 27 of New York's members of the House of Representatives. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer will also be running for reelection on this day.

September 13, 2016 – State Legislature Primaries:
On September 13, 2016, there will be primaries for all 53 members of the New York State Senate and all 150 districts of the New York State Assembly. There will also be elections for district leaders in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

November 8, 2016 - General Election:
On November 8, 2016, voters across the country will vote on their choice for the President of the United States. In New York, votes will also be cast for one US Senate race (Sen. Schumer), 27 races for the House of Representatives, and all State Senate and Senate Assembly seats. Democrats in New York are hoping that a presidential election, specifically a Hillary Clinton wave, will help them regain control of the State Senate. Stay tuned!

And, once the 2016 elections are through, expect the 2017 elections for New York City-level offices, including mayor, to heat up.

[Register to vote & find other voting related info here]

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by Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

City's Veterans Community Meets to Assess Policy, Build Cohesion


veterans policy event pic

From Tuesday's event (photo: NYC Veterans Alliance via Facebook)


A steady stream of hands shot in the air as the speaker asked audience members to indicate if they had served their country, beginning with Vietnam and ending post-9/11.

At a forum on New York City Veterans Policy Tuesday night, hosted by the New York City Veterans Alliance, veterans and veteran advocates of diverse ages and backgrounds gathered to discuss the issues facing their community, including homelessness, funding for employment, healthcare and other services, and even how to define the term 'veteran.' The event occurred amid ongoing debate over how well city government is attending to veterans' needs and organizing its resources to best provide support to the hundreds of thousands of veterans living in the city.

"I would say different era veterans are having much different experiences in NYC. A lot of the student vets, there's a lot more support for them with the new GI bill, they're doing a lot better overall. And they're a lot more active in honing the community and helping with various student organizations and veterans associations at schools," said Vadim Panasyuk, who served in Iraq and works at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). "But other era veterans that are struggling— from more forgotten conflicts, Korea, Vietnam— those vets are still struggling, and find themselves in legal whirlpool of all the different VSOs [veteran support organizations] and dealing with misinformation from one service provider to another and it becomes very discouraging to seek out help."

Iraq War veteran Tireak Tulloch, a spokesman for IAVA, agreed. "If you're a veteran from a different era, [service providers] don't know what to do with you," Tulloch said.

Vietnam veteran Lee Covino, who recently served as Vice-Chairman of the City's Veterans Advisory Board, described witnessing an "identity crisis."

"You have people who are separated by campaigns...you have a huge population out there and one of the things that irks me is when a vet tells me, 'I'm not a vet,'" Covino said. "That's nonsense. You're an era and you need to organize that way."

The efficacy and availability of resources for veterans was a key part of Tuesday night's discussion, with NYC Veterans Alliance interim director Kristen Rouse noting in her opening remarks that the city committed to a "notable" increase in funding for veterans in the fiscal year 2016 budget.

"I think there's been tremendous progress and the city has come together, but...There's a real sense to me of a lack of cohesion of all these different efforts," said Coco Culhane, the founding director of the Veteran Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center. "And there's not a whole lot of infrastructure they can turn to at the city level and especially for veterans who are not eligible for these federal VA dollars. The city is their safety net and we need to be there for them so I think we have a long way to go, even with just acknowledging veterans."

There is conversation at the city level over whether the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs, or MOVA, should become its own city agency, removed from within the mayor's office, but still under the mayor's purview. Creating a separate Department of Veterans Affairs, as called for by a City Council bill that has had one public hearing but does not have Mayor Bill de Blasio's support, would likely give work to support veterans more clarity, resources, and oversight.

"You need people who know what they're doing to serve this population and having experts but also having oversight. If we're going to address all of the issues that are included in that report," Rouse told Gotham Gazette referring to the report NYC Veterans Alliance recently released, "if we want to properly address this stuff, there has to be an accountable agency that has programmatic oversight of what these different city agencies are doing." The report, which surveyed almost 500 veterans in the New York metropolitan area, identified veterans' key concerns, including improving access to the VA suicide hotline and increasing oversight of veteran service organizations that receive city funding.

Comedian and television host John Oliver delivered opening remarks describing his experience being married to a veteran. "It's hard being married to a veteran because you can't complain about your day," Oliver quipped. "'Oh, you had a bad day writing jokes? Shut up!'"

But Oliver also took a more serious turn, underlining the importance of doing more than just saying "thank you" to military veterans.

"It's too easy to say 'thank you,' but you're not actually doing anything. There can be a real seduction in people having lovely commercials on TV, introducing veterans at football games, but it's not doing anything to fix infrastructure," Oliver said.

Moderator Phoebe Gavin, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, commented that "the average American is just not very connected to the [military] campaigns that have occurred," adding that many might not have a veteran in family. "There's just not as much connection to campaigns as there used to be...we've been at the mall all this time," Gavin said of most Americans going about their business, like shopping, while a small group serves in the military or has a family member doing so.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette prior to the forum, Oliver highlighted the work organizations Team Rubicon and Mission Continues do to assist veterans' transition back to civilian life. Team Rubicon unites military veterans with first responders to deploy emergency response teams, giving veterans the opportunity to put the skills they learned in the armed forces to use responding to natural disasters.

"They are a good example of providing practical assistance," Oliver said. "And most veterans don't want help, they're not a group that will complain, they don't want to be treated like a charity case. They want to be given opportunities."

***
by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

Despite Unprecedented Scandal, Calls for Special Ethics Session Fall on Deaf Ears


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Recently convicted former Sen. John Sampson (photo: @SampsonVictory)


It would reason to think that the conviction of two legislative leaders would lead to a flurry of anti-corruption activity in any state capital. But in Albany, where the new normal appears to involve multiple convictions and indictments of sitting lawmakers every year, last week's crime blotter appears to have barely turned a head. The convictions of Republican Senate Deputy Leader Tom Libous and Democratic Sen. John Sampson, a former Majority Leader, on charges of lying to the FBI (Sampson was also convicted of obstructing justice) don't appear to have had much of an impact at all on reform efforts, despite ongoing calls for action from those who don't work at the capitol.

Good-government groups including the New York Public Interest Research Group, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, and Citizens Union have reiterated calls for a special session on ethics reform, calls that began in June at the end of the legislative session. That was the session that saw the indictments of Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos - and that produced little by way of reform.

"Normally, in a rational world, these indictments would shock the legislative body into action, but it ain't gonna happen, not in New York," said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, the man who could compel the Legislature to return to session, made it crystal clear during a radio interview last week that he has no intention of doing so. "A special session to do what? I mean, we've proposed every ethics law imaginable," Cuomo said in an appearance on The Capitol Pressroom. "We've proposed and accomplished unprecedented disclosure," the governor added, referring to what did get done.

On Tuesday, Cuomo reiterated that a special session is not in the cards. Speaking to reporters after an event near Lake George, Cuomo said, "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.' So for the taxpayers to spend a lot of money to bring the legislators back to Albany for the same outcome they had several weeks ago makes no sense," according to Capital New York.

Cuomo's stance has a number of advocates concerned that he has abandoned reform efforts because the public has grown numb to the cloud of scandal that hangs around the state capitol - a cloud voters appear to be attaching to the governor in public opinion polls. Advocates also worry Cuomo has gone as far as he is willing to go on reform and is digging in to defend the reforms he has made, despite the fact that they haven't quelled the tide of indictments.

"It sounds like he's throwing in the towel," said Blair Horner of NYPIRG, one of the reform groups calling for a special session to deal with corruption. "He is trying to create an environment where action is not on the table. He dreamt up the current system, so it could be that he is trying to protect it."

Muzzio said that Cuomo is making the only play he has at the moment. "The upper house is going to come back and do nothing," Muzzio said of the Republican-controlled Senate. "The governor is making a sound governmental argument - he's asking what would the purpose be of having a special session when we know the bottom line is nothing is going to happen."

Other Democrats, including Cuomo rival Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have been advocating a special session to take on an overhaul of ethics enforcement. Schneiderman has been touting his "End New York Corruption Now Act" that would create a system of public campaign financing, eliminate outside employment for legislators, extend legislative terms, and allow the AG to prosecute public corruption, among other things.

Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat and constant advocate for reform, told Gotham Gazette he thinks a special session on ethics reform is desperately needed. "I can't think of anything that would better help excise the opprobrium from last week's twin state Senate convictions than a special session entirely devoted to ethics reforms," said Hoylman. "No more piecemeal fixes or trimming around the edges; it's time for Albany to address ethics comprehensively and head-on. Let's come back from our vacations and get to work closing the LLC loophole, restricting outside income, and rationalizing our campaign finance system. If this effort isn't begun now, it'll have to be addressed in January when we return."

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins indicated during an interview on The Capitol Pressroom on Monday that she would be more than willing to bring her conference back for special session should Cuomo call one. But she said she doubted Senate Republicans would be interested. "I have not, he has not, we collectively have not been able to get our Republican Senate colleagues to actually be serious about real, strong ethics reforms," Stewart-Cousins said, referring to the governor.

It isn't just the indictments and convictions that have reformers concerned. They point out that recent campaign filings show that candidates are taking in increasing amounts of campaign cash through the LLC loophole that allows corporations to flout donation limits by the creation of multiple LLCs. Developer Glenwood Management was the largest abuser of the system before it became entangled in the corruption cases against Silver and Skelos.

Both Cuomo and Schneiderman, who have decried the loophole and called to close it, were major beneficiaries of it in the last election cycle. Now, filings show that Schneiderman took in over $260,000 from LLCs since January; Cuomo took in $1.4 million from LLCs in the same period.

Meanwhile, two ethics enforcement units created under Cuomo's watch appear either slow to action or crippled by infighting. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, has been criticized for being the puppet of Cuomo and legislative leaders and its board has seen repeated turnover in its leadership. Legislative appointees are currently fuming over what they say is outside interference from the executive.

Four legislative appointees wrote the Albany Times Union expressing dismay at recent executive hires and appointments and stressed that the next JCOPE director must be found outside of state government (i.e. without direct ties to Cuomo). "If the next Executive Director is not hired from outside State government after an exhaustive search, the public trust will be inexorably destroyed," reads the letter.

"JCOPE is disintegrating," said Horner of NYPIRG. "What better time to act on a new system?"

Cuomo's enforcement counsel at the Board of Elections has also been criticized for being slow to move on the most basic enforcement issues. And the Board recently declined to close the LLC loophole, which it had created years ago.

Muzzio said he believes there will have to be major public outcry before the Legislature gets serious on reform. "You need someone charismatic enough to carry the message, because people forget about it unless they are forced," said Muzzio. "That kind of messenger just ain't there. The governor has been gun-shy since the SAFE Act hurt his poll numbers. I don't think he's gonna push it. It's gotta be another guy. There's Schneiderman, but he doesn't have the same cache as the governor. He can't deal."

Horner said it is obvious to him that New York does have a new, charismatic, corruption-fighting figurehead. He says Cuomo relinquished his status as "conductor of the reform train" to the U.S. Attorney responsible for many of the Albany indictments. "The new conductor's name is Preet Bharara, and New York will go wherever he takes us," Horner said.

A July 15 Siena Poll, taken before the convictions of Libous and Sampson, found that corruption is still on the minds of voters and that legislators should probably be concerned about the issue if they want to keep their jobs. The poll found 90 percent of voters felt state government corruption is a serious problem. Meanwhile 49 percent of those surveyed said recent scandals make it less likely they will re-elect their representatives in 2016.

Horner said he doesn't have much reason to believe Cuomo is going to return to ethics reform, but he does have some hope.

"We often see governors run as reformers in their first terms, and in their second terms become defenders of the status quo - because they become the status quo," said Horner. "Now, perhaps [Cuomo] thinks he will have more leverage next year around the budget. I would argue there is no better time than now. I don't think we've ever seen two legislative leaders convicted in the same week."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Queens Library Scandal Spurs Nonprofit Oversight Bill


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CM Crowley at a City Hall rally (photo: @magghayes)


On the heels of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer's report on Queens library executives engaging in questionable practices, Queens Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley is renewing her push for greater oversight of officers of city-funded nonprofit organizations.

Crowley's bill, introduced to the Council's contracts committee and currently in preliminary stages, would require officers of nonprofit organizations— defined as chief executive, operating and finance officers— that receive 50 percent or more of their funding from the city to file conflict of interest disclosure forms to the city agencies that fund them.

"This [bill] just came from my frustration learning about this and understanding that this corruption was happening and the city had no idea," Crowley told Gotham Gazette, referencing former Queens Borough Public Library President Tom Galante.

Galante was fired in December after the library board of trustees reviewed his expense account and discovered lavish spending on pricey meals, alcohol, and furniture at the same time the library cut staff. Stringer's audit and investigative report into the library's finances— released in July— found a series of abuses: Galante failed to disclose his outside businesses on government filings and recorded "time spent performing part-time services for another public employer" that conflicted with his library schedule. Stringer's report also questioned the practices of the current interim library president Bridget Carey-Quinn, who served as chief operating officer under Galante.

"If we only had extended this law, that we extend to all elected officials, to those that are top management at nonprofits getting most of their money from the city, then we would know if there was a conflict and we would've known already that Tom Galante was abusing his privileges as CEO of the library," Crowley said.

Crowley introduced the bill in April 2014, a month after the Council convened a special oversight hearing on library executives' compensation following a series of articles scrutinizing Galante's salary. A hearing for the bill is expected in September or October in the contracts committee, which is chaired by Manhattan Councilmember Helen Rosenthal.

"Every time he answered another question, we were more and more horrified by what he had to say," Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette of Galante's 2014 testimony, "and what we unearthed is that there was very little oversight for the Queens library president."

Rosenthal indicated she is eager to have a hearing on it this fall. Questions exist, though, about the burdens the bill would place on nonprofits if enacted into law. These questions are likely to be raised at the planned hearing.

Lauren George, associate director of Common Cause New York, a good government group, said the bill will require nonprofits to do some additional work in order to prevent future malfeasance.

"It will pose an additional burden, on small nonprofits especially, which have very limited staff and resources," George said. "Though increased public disclosure can't be a bad thing, and could help deter bad actors abusing access to city funds in the future, with the appropriate oversight and watch-dogging."

To what extent the bill will prove burdensome for nonprofits is not yet clear. For Doug Sauer, the CEO of the New York Council of Nonprofits, the bill overreaches in trying to regulate private organizations like public employees.

"If you look at Boeing industries and see how much money they get from the federal government, does the federal government come in and control how Boeing operates at the officer level, who their CEO is, or require all this personal information?" Sauer asked rhetorically. "So the basic premise— and there's gray area—is that the vast majority of not-for-profit organizations are independent, private not-for-profit corporations with boards of directors that share responsibility for the organization."

Sauer predicted the bill, if passed, will have a chilling effect on nonprofits and their ability to attract and retain employees in leadership positions.

"A lot of the City Council contracts are for small organizations so this would be tremendously onerous already on a talent pool that's very limited, that they can't properly compensate to begin with," Sauer said. "People won't want to do that [file disclosures], they're applying for a job where they may make $35,000. If they're a public employee they're in the pension system, they get good healthcare, they get good benefits. That's not the case for the majority of nonprofits."

Sauer also took issue with the 50 percent threshold the bill uses to determine whether officers of nonprofits will have to file conflict of interest disclosure firms.

"If you're talking about 85 or 90 percent of government money, you're talking a little bit of a different story, is this really more of a quasi-governmental entity? And that's a different debate," Sauer said. "But this is a real low figure and most organizations are community, grassroots organizations, not institutions, the vast majority don't have adequate funding as it is."

Rosenthal said that once taxpayer money is involved, nonprofits open themselves up to public scrutiny. "Taxpayers have the right to know what [their money] is being spent for," Rosenthal said.

It is also unclear how many nonprofits would be compelled to file disclosures if the bill is passed— an issue Crowley said will be looked into at the hearing in the fall but doesn't foresee as providing a significant burden. Representatives of the nonprofits that received the most money from the Council's pot of discretionary funds, the Hispanic Federation and the Catholic Charities Community Services, Archdiocese of New York, were not available for comment.

"I think that we'll see a clear benefit by rooting out corruption, you know when I file [my conflict of interest form] every year, I file electronically. I don't know that it would be so burdensome," Crowley said.

The bill currently has nine sponsors, including Crowley (but not Rosenthal), many of whom are from Queens. Indicating her support, Rosenthal lamented the need for the bill, but says it is necessary to ensure ethical practices are occurring at these nonprofits.

"It's always the bad apples that ruin it for the rest of us," Rosenthal said. "And I think that we are often as lawmakers dragged down to the lowest common denominator and it's too bad that we should be in this situation, but given that what [Galante] was doing was so egregious, it raises the question, is this happening in other sectors as well— so you want to check that out."

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Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

At 'Begin Again,' Signs of New Approach to Broken Justice System


ken thompson jumaane williams laurie cumbo

DA Thompson, center, with Council Members Williams & Cumbo (@JumaaneWilliams)


During Father's Day weekend, hundreds of individuals received the gift of a new beginning. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office held a 'Begin Again' event to lift open arrest warrants related to summonses for low-level offenses ranging from public intoxication, the most common violation, to being in a park after closing. In total, 1,039 individuals from across all five boroughs attended the two-day event and 670 warrants were cleared.

The 'Begin Again' initiative is part of a larger summons reform movement that aims to make it easier for individuals to respond to summonses and ultimately, avoid arrest warrants. While the total number of summons filings in New York City has decreased significantly in recent years, the system remains strained, with a citywide backlog of over a million summonses.

In Brooklyn, District Attorney Ken Thompson's office indicated that the success of the event would lead to another in September, and that while similar events were held under former District Attorney Charles Hynes, the Father's Day weekend initiative saw the greatest number of warrants cleared in Brooklyn during comparable time periods. Other district attorneys do not appear quick to follow suit.

City leaders from Thompson to Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others, are discussing summons reform.

"New York City's criminal justice system is overburdened with severely backlogged courts and millions of New Yorkers with outstanding warrants for low-level, minor offenses," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement sent to Gotham Gazette.

"District Attorney Ken Thompson's Begin Again initiative is a forward-thinking approach that tackles this issue head on," Mark-Viverito said, "enabling individuals to resolve their warrants and move on with a clean slate without the threat of impending arrest."

Thompson's office is quick to stress that warrants and the summonses that led to them were not simply dismissed wholesale, but that each individual who wanted to 'Begin Again' was given a fair hearing, with most warrants adjudicated and summonses cleared - as is the case when people show up to their summons-dictated court appearance.

While the initiative has received widespread support, some expressed reservations. "It does create a moral hazard that sends the message that people can expect such amnesties in the future," said Heather Mac Donald of The Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "It's a real issue and it has to be weighed against the public good in clearing these backlogs of warrants."

By using the term "amnesty," Mac Donald gets at a key issue for critics, who say that people should follow the law in the first place and pay the consequences for breaking it and for missing any mandated court appearance. People, including NYPD Commissioner Bratton, are hesitant to give the appearance of amnesty, believing that if New Yorkers believe there are no consequences to their actions, law-breaking will likely increase.

But Dawn Ryan, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society's Brooklyn criminal office, notes a distinction between the clearance of warrants and actual amnesty. "To me, amnesty is telling those who received the summonses that they may throw them away and forget they ever received them," said Ryan. By contrast, at 'Begin Again,' "they're still being held accountable in terms of showing up in response to the summons and having this matter resolved before a judge."

At 'Begin Again' events, those with outstanding warrants are assigned a Legal Aid attorney and brought before a judge, who hears the reason for the original summons and for not appearing in court, thus earning the warrant.

The Brooklyn District Attorney's office hailed 'Begin Again' a success and Ryan stated the event attracted so many people on its second day that the line remained open for an additional 45 minutes beyond the scheduled time. But the 670 warrants cleared barely make a dent in the 1.2 million open warrants related to unanswered summonses throughout New York City.

"It's just a drop in the bucket," acknowledged City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council's courts and legal services committee. An estimated one in seven New Yorkers have an outstanding summons warrant and with less than one tenth of one percent of open summons warrants resolved thus far through the 'Begin Again' initiative, the need for further reform measures becomes evident. "I thought it seemed to be a great success for what it was," said Lancman. "But in the scheme of things, it's not really a sustainable strategy for getting at the over one million warrants that are outstanding."

The staggering number of open summons warrants is one of the reasons why Lancman, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, and New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman are among those advocating for certain low-level criminal offenses to be reclassified as civil penalties. A reclassification of some offenses would lessen the burden on the summons court system while also granting a reprieve to individuals who have committed non-violent, so-called 'quality-of-life' infractions. Proponents of such measures have argued that summonses are disproportionately issued to poor people of color and that arrest warrants resulting from failure to respond to a summons can have grave repercussions that far outweigh the original offense.

But even certain summons reform measures, it would seem, are backlogged. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced "Justice Reboot," an initiative including a planned overhaul of the summons process. Among the proposed changes were a new summons form making the court appearance date more prominent, robocall and text message reminders for those with summonses, and a more flexible system allowing individuals to appear in court up to a week in advance of their scheduled court date. While these measures were originally scheduled to begin this summer, they are now slated to start in early fall.

Sarah Solon, chief external strategy officer at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, stated that the timing for the proposed reforms remains unchanged and that the measures will go into effect sequentially. "The new summons form has to roll out first, because it will collect the cell phone numbers that will allow for text message reminders and contain information about the flexible appearance dates," said Solon via e-mail. That new form will be released citywide within the next few months, Solon said, and going forward the form will collect data on an individual's race/ethnicity in order to ensure transparency in the summons process and provide important data.

The next Begin Again event is also scheduled for the fall-it will be held on September 12 in East New York. The flyer for the event - which will be posted around the borough and shared on social media as the one advertising the last one was - says, "we can help you take care of that old warrant." The literature seeks to reassure people: "over 1,000 people attended the last event," it says, followed by "no one was arrested" and "everyone got help."

Ryan said she and her colleagues at The Legal Aid Society hope other DA offices will follow Brooklyn District Attorney Thompson's lead in hosting such events.

So, apparently, does Thompson. In a July 15 letter addressed and hand-delivered to Mayor de Blasio with Chief Judge Lippman copied, Thompson urged the mayor to take the Brooklyn 'Begin Again' initiative citywide. Of the current way of doing things, Thompson wrote, "We simply cannot continue down this path any longer."

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Brooke L. Williams is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter @williamslbrooke
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, July 20-24


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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday July 24

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: the capitol office of former State Senator and Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, scrubbed of his name after he was convicted of lying to the FBI, via Joseph Spector, Gannett Albany

libous office no name

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Albany Corruption Drip - Sens. Sampson and Libous Convicted, Plus Additional Skelos Charges: On Tuesday Senator Dean Skelos and his son were charged with additional counts of bribery and extortion by a federal grand jury. On Wednesday Senator Tom Libous, the deputy majority leader, was found guilty of lying to an F.B.I agent and was automatically forced to give up his Senate seat. And on Friday Senator John Sampson was convicted on three federal charges and forced to resign as well.

2. Unaccompanied Minors Initiative Success: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that the initiative to provide legal representation for all undocumented immigrant children has been a “success.” Around 1,600 children have been provided with free lawyers and fourteen of them have been granted asylum.

3. Uber Politics: Uber and city officials reached an agreement announced on Wednesday that will not place a temporary cap on the for-hire vehicle industry, within which Uber is the leading operator, while the city conducts a four-month study. There is some controversy over who exactly deserves credit, or blame, depending on your perspective, for brokering the deal, with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito saying Thursday that the Council had the bill and that she was the key negotiator.

4. Fast Food Wage Board Recommends Eventual $15 Hourly Minimum: The Fast Food Wage Board called by Governor Cuomo through his Labor Department recommended fast food workers to receive a $15 an hour minimum wage by December 31, 2018 in New York City and in 2021 for the rest of New York State. The recommendation must be adopted by the Department of Labor to take effect in the fast food industry at franchises with 30 or more locations nationally.

5. Commissioner Bratton Says He Won’t Serve Two Full Terms: Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said this week that he is not expecting to remain in his post for a full two terms, should Mayor de Blasio be reelected, as he would be “70-some-odd” years old. Mayor de Blasio responded by pointing out that Pope Francis, whom he visited during a climate summit in Rome this week, is well into his seventies and having a profound impact.

THIS WEEK’S NUMBERS:

  • 19,000 Staten Islanders lost power on Monday due to Con Edison outages related to the brief heat wave.

  • 40% of New York’s emissions will be reduced by 2030, promised Mayor Bill de Blasio at a climate conference in Italy organized by Pope Francis.

  • $1 billion boost through 2019 for the MTA in “better-than-expected revenues from fares, tolls and real estate taxes,” part of a larger MTA capital plan restructuring announced in pieces this week amid ongoing controversy over how the agency will be funded.

  • 4,100 minority and women owned businesses were certified in the last year, a record the de Blasio administration announced.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for Republican City Council Member Steven Matteo of Staten Island, who officially became the Minority Leader of the City Council on Thursday. While the Republican caucus has just two members, it will likely add a third soon as Assembly Member Joseph Borelli is likely to replace Vincent Ignizio, who resigned his position for another job and stepped down as Minority Leader in the process. Oh, and the gig comes with a $15,000 annual bonus.

  • It was a bad week for former State Senator Tom Libous, who was convicted of lying to an FBI agent during an examination into his son’s hiring. Mr. Libous was the deputy majority leader and his departure leaves 31 elected Republican senators in the 63-member body. The Republicans still hold power, though, due to some complicated caucusing and alliances.

THE FLASH:

  • Last year this week, on July 24, 2014, the City Council unanimously passed ‘Avonte’s Law,’ requiring the DOE to evaluate the need for door alarms after Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic boy, left school and drowned in the East River.

  • Twelve years ago this week, on July 23, 2003, City Council Member James Davis was shot and killed in City Hall.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

  • Neil Barsky, chairman and founder of The Marshall Project, spoke about shutting down Rikers Island jails with Brian Lehrer on WNYC.
  • The Independent Budget Office released another in a series of analyses related to the city's schools, this one focused on per-pupil funding at traditional district schools and charter schools.

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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

Conference Keys to Restore Voter Confidence Start with Campaign Finance Reform


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Ann Ravel, Jared DeMarinis & Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, from left (photo: @NYCCFB)


Ninety-six percent of Americans are concerned by the role of money in politics. Ninety-one percent think there's nothing they can do to change it.

Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel presented these statistics during her keynote address at a conference - "American Elections at the Crossroads: How do we restore voters' faith in elections and get them back to the polls?" - focused on changing that cynical sentiment, held by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Committee for Economic Development on Wednesday.

Ravel, joined by elected officials, campaign finance experts, and academics, considered the effects of money in politics - particularly the role public campaign finance programs can play in spurring voter participation and leveling the influence playing field.

In her remarks, Ravel warned that the influence of money in politics is causing people to disassociate with electoral and government processes. "The influence of money in politics is contributing to this low level of political trust," she said. But, she added that the problem is not the amount of money, "the issue is where the money comes from."

John Mollenkopf, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the director of its Center for Urban Research began by noting the role of political contributions in spurring people to vote.

"The positive takeaway to begin with is people who contribute are more likely to vote. So clearly the act of contributing is an extension of political engagement, it's something people do on top of bothering to go to the polls and public match really incentivizes people to contribute," Mollenkopf said, referring to New York City's small donor matching program. The Campaign Finance Board matches contributions of up to $175 at a six-to-one ratio for candidates for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council.

Former U.S. Congressmember Tom Petri of Wisconsin agreed, describing political contributions as a way for people to feel they have a stake in elections, compelling interest particularly in local elections.

"I think sometimes we get too focused on big money in the big elections which are very important, but we should also remember the political process is a huge broad diverse one," Petri said, indicating that their are many municipal level contests that people often forget when focusing on presidential and congressional races.

For New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, campaign contributions from voters are as symbolically important as they are practically.

"When ordinary New Yorkers put their hard earned money into a campaign, they are putting faith in candidates," James said. Citing her modest personal means, the public advocate often points to the necessity of the public matching system in allowing her to compete electorally.

To combat the problem of low voter turnout in municipal and state-wide elections, Mollenkopf emphasized the role of political parties as agents of voter mobilization and suggested a solution that may be unsavory to many in City Hall.

"As strange as it may seem for a person like me who is a long-time Democrat, I think we need a stronger Republican Party in New York City," Mollenkopf said. "We need a party that will go out and contest these elections with candidates who will give the Democrat incumbents who often have no challenge, give them a run for their money, get everybody really involved."

City Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, agreed with the importance of a two-party system, but "as much as I'd love to see a stronger Republican party, I'm not going to hold my breath anytime soon," he joked.

Ulrich attributed low voter turnout to a cumbersome voting and voter registration process.

"A lot of people don't vote because they're not registered and they're not registered because we don't make it easy for people to vote," Ulrich said, adding he hopes to see an app developed that could register voters. "Imagine how many 18-year-olds we could register in the classroom in seconds; teachers could encourage students to whip out their smartphones and register."

Additionally, voters should be able to vote at any poll site in New York— not just their district's designating polling site— and should be able to vote early, Ulrich argued.

"One of the reasons voting turnout is so low is that we tell people you can only vote from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on a Tuesday," Ulrich said. "And if you can't make it, you can't be a part of the process."

Panelists also discussed localities which have successfully implemented public financing laws, as well as efforts across the country to pass laws encouraging small donations to candidates. In New York, proponents of the New York City system often call for a similar state program whereby campaign donations are more tightly limited and public matching dollars are available for small contributions.

"Money will always be in politics," acknowledged Jared DeMarinis, director of Maryland's State Board of Elections. In Maryland, Montgomery County's campaign finance program, the first in the country passed after Citizens United v. FEC - the Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations - was designed keeping in mind the altered political environment. "Let's not have the hard caps on expenditures," they decided. "Let's just cap how much public monies we'll give to candidates but allow them to keep raising beyond that but just restrict on how the money is raised." Montgomery's program was "basically modelled after the New York City idea," said DeMarinis.

Other parts of the country may be passing campaign finance laws, but not all have been as successful as New York City, according to Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute. He compared the small donor public matching programs in New York City and Los Angeles and found that "not all matching funds have the same effect." A study he conducted with Michael Parrott found the New York program to be significantly more effective than the one in Los Angeles due to differences in how they are structured, including around what percentage matching funds account for spending limits. "You need a program that will actually work, that will do its job well," he said.

One area in which he found success in both cities was that supporting small donations encouraged political participation among less wealthy and non-white racial and ethnic groups. "In both cities, small donors come from much more diverse neighborhoods than large donors," he said. His study found that New York City Council candidates raised campaign contributions from 90 percent of the city's census block groups. In Los Angeles, the percentage was lower, but still significant at 68 percent.

Currently, efforts are underway to create or strengthen campaign finance laws in several cities and states across the country, including Chicago, Santa Fe, Seattle and Maine, panelists said.

"We have seen an enormous interest in cities and states across the country. And in many places over the next two or three years, we are going to see dozens of jurisdictions looking to move small donor public financing," said Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president for strategy and programs at Common Cause. "It's about people wanting to reclaim their government."

"Our hope is that Chicago will mimic what's happening in New York, in Los Angeles, and other places," said Mike Petro, vice president of Committee for Economic Development. "Those are the victories that we need across the country."

***
by Catie Edmondson and Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Cuomo Waves Left with Executive Actions, Is Met with Shrugs


Cuomo wage rally

Cuomo at Wednesday's rally (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


On Wednesday, the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo streamed live video of the wage board he convened as its members recommended a multi-year plan to phase in a $15 per hour minimum wage for fast food workers across the state. As the meeting ended the same stream cut to a jubilant rally in New York City. In stark contrast to previous Cuomo administration efforts there was no pretense that the wage board was somehow separate from the governor.

The Cuomo administration attempted to propagate the appearance of independence for previous executive entities such as the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, two tax commissions, and even the Department of Environmental Conservation when it made its decision to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the state. But this time such a separation wasn't useful to the governor.

With his poll numbers at an all-time-low, members of his own party in open revolt and facing an ongoing feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo appears to be looking to bolster his standing among Democrats across the state by taking executive action on issues he failed to deliver on during the legislative session. Many prominent Democratic electeds and activists have questioned whether Cuomo actually expended any political capital during the legislative session to move progressive issues such as criminal justice reform, the DREAM Act, or a minimum wage increase.

"I don't believe the Assembly had a real working partner in the governor or the Senate in terms of getting things done for the people of this city and, in many cases, the people of this state," Mayor Bill de Blasio told NY1 late last month.

Trust among Democrats was further eroded when Senate Republicans released a memorandum of understanding with Cuomo's office that appeared to state that the governor agreed not to phase in a part of the SAFE Act until Republicans agree to it. Other than that MOU, Cuomo's post-session agenda has been dedicated to taking executive action on issues favored by the left and on which he did not deliver through legislation.

Cuomo has promised to use executive action to remove 16- and 17-year-olds from the state's prison system after failing to enact a sweeping policy to prevent those teens from being tried as adults, much less locked up with them. Failing to reach a deal with the legislature on other criminal justice reforms in the wake of death of Eric Garner, Cuomo signed an executive order earlier this month giving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to investigate police killings of unarmed individuals, an attempt to reduce the perception that local district attorneys are biased toward the police.

Cuomo was celebrated by Democrats when signing the special prosecutor executive order, and he was applauded at Wednesday's minimum wage rally. City Comptroller Scott Stringer heaped praise on the governor as a man of action when he spoke to those gathered. But, many of Cuomo's fellow Democratic electeds and progressive advocates were not so committed to attaching the governor's name to the wage board decision. Three of the state's most powerful Democratic electeds - Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie - all released statements praising the decision, but without any mention of the governor.

Celebratory statements from New York Communities for Change and the Working Families Party also failed to mention the governor by name.

"I think that's appropriate," said former Cuomo opponent Zephyr Teachout of the lack of support from other Democratic electeds. Teachout is the Fordham Law professor who embarrassed Cuomo with a stronger-than-expected showing during last year's Democratic primary. Teachout tapped into displeasure with the governor from his left.

Cuomo defended his use of executive actions during a Wednesday appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio program, and chose to eliminate any perception that he was separate from the wage board.

"I am the executive, I have many powers beyond those which the Legislature passes, right?" Cuomo told host Susan Arbetter rhetorically. "The executive, whether it's the president, the mayor, or the governor, you run the government, and you have a whole host of powers that are apart and aside from the Legislature. I often say to people [that] dealing with the Legislature and getting a budget passed, and then new laws, that's a part of my job. But that's only a part. And by the way, I don't even think that's the majority of my job. I run the government."

Teachout doesn't think Cuomo's problem lies exclusively with Democrats. "The governor has broad temperamental issues," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. "It's not like Cuomo has a problem with [only] the left. You are going to have a problem finding any group of voters who believe the governor is actually committed to fighting for them."

Cuomo has branded himself as a doer, as an executive who is about making sure the government is running efficiently and effectively, and who can get deals made by working with members of both parties.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that Cuomo's use of executive action is fairly typical for governors who have served more than one term. "In terms of putting it into context, governors have historically faced challenges in their second terms. Second terms tend to be harder. [Republican Governor George] Pataki had serious trouble in his second term. It wasn't just with Democrats, but with his own party challenging him."

Horner said that Cuomo is also dealing with "eroded approval ratings and unprecedented indictments" of state legislative leaders that have made getting what he wants from the Legislature that more difficult. And Horner said Cuomo is particularly notorious for "liking to put points on the board."

Many Democrats are happy Cuomo has used his executive powers on the issues he has but feel he acted out of political expediency so that he didn't have to place his Senate Republican allies in a difficult position during the legislative session. These Democrats are therefore reluctant to give him credit.

On the other hand, many business groups and Republican electeds are more than happy to connect Cuomo to his left-leaning executive actions, because they are opposed to them. "From day one Governor Cuomo's wage board has sought to silence the business community and force through an unfair and discriminatory increase on a single sector of one industry," said Melissa Fleischut, President and CEO of the NYS Restaurant Association, in a statement. Fleischut went on to accuse Cuomo of "stacking the board" with supporters of a wage increase, and allowing business owners "to get booed and heckled at public hearings."

Other business groups have attacked Cuomo for bypassing the Legislature on the wage issue, saying he has too much executive power. It may be surprising, but Teachout agrees to some extent. "The governor of New York has too much executive power and the 'three men in a room' have too much power," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. "Having said that, I'm happy he's using it for positive ends. But you know with this governor that if he has to move, he is always going to act in a way that maximizes his own power."

Cuomo is likely to face a lawsuit from the restaurant industry over the wage board's recommendations and subsequent adoption by the Department of Labor.

Regardless of his executive actions, pundits say Cuomo has to do something about his sinking poll numbers in New York City, which has been a reliable base for Cuomo in past elections. A June 15 Siena College poll found Cuomo's favorability rating drop to 39 percent, with his numbers dipping among city-based voters.

Horner said that executive actions are simply part of Cuomo's efforts to enact his agenda and that part of his agenda has to be "keeping the coalition together."

Teachout thinks Cuomo's executive actions indicate that he knows he faces an increasingly hostile electorate. "He is losing that default New York City vote that he could count on last time, and that's a big, big deal. When all you have left is the Buffalo base, that's a real problem. I don't think the wage board does much to help that."

Teachout - who has not ruled out challenging Cuomo again in 2018 (assuming he seeks a third term) - said that she believes voters have developed a view of Cuomo similar to the one that de Blasio expressed: a transactional politician, cynical, power-obsessed, and untrustworthy; and not much is going to change that.

A key question is how much workers, activists, and elected officials associate Cuomo with the action he is taking. Will the special prosecutor move endear Cuomo in communities distrustful of the police and district attorney offices? Will his move on the minimum wage earn him the loyalty of those low-wage and union workers? Are the progressive activists who have been burned by Cuomo willing to live with a governor who they don't feel they can trust but sometimes delivers for their causes?

"I compare this moment to the fracking moment," said Teachout. "I think the administration thought the fracking ban would have an equal impact to the marriage equality moment--that it would be this inspirational moment for people to rally around the governor. But I think most people saw it the same way I did: 'Great! He banned fracking.' But with no change in how they see him."

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



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