Gotham Gazette

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Government

Cautious Optimism Ahead of Hearing on Citywide Ferry Plan


ferry DOT

(images: NYC DOT/EDC)


Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed expansion of the city's ferry system, announced in February, appears to be one of the least politically controversial initiatives of his term. Ahead of a City Council hearing on the topic scheduled for Monday, no Council member has publicly opposed the plan, while some have loudly praised it.

But this support comes despite concerns from transit advocates that ferries may not be the most cost-effective form of transportation for New Yorkers and that other investments in buses or bike lanes should not be overlooked. Meanwhile, others like Staten Island Borough President James Oddo want the system expanded further.

The five planned ferry routes, connecting 21 locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, will be rolled out in two phases in 2017 and 2018, according to the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC). A sixth route to Staten Island is "proposed" but not part of the two phases or included in cost estimates. De Blasio said in February that rides would cost $2.75—the same as a subway or bus swipe, though MetroCards won't be accepted for payment—and that the system would bring residents of far-flung waterfront neighborhoods "closer to the opportunities they need."

"Beyond connecting residents to jobs in Manhattan, our new citywide ferry system will spur the development of new commercial corridors throughout the outer boroughs," de Blasio said during his State of the City speech.

One reason why the ferry plan is uncontroversial may be its relatively small size: its estimated 4.6 million riders per year by 2018 is less than the subway's average daily weekday ridership of nearly 5.6 million in 2014 (with 1.75 billion subway rides for the year). The boats' estimated $55 million price tag and $10 to $20 million annual operating subsidies are also a fraction of the city's $78.5 billion budget for the 2016 fiscal year.

"Because it's cheap, politicians can say they're pro-transit," Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank, said. "I think the bigger danger is neglecting other transit."

Few Concerns
Council members interviewed by Gotham Gazette were all supportive of the plan, which they say will provide a convenient mode of transportation in neighborhoods poorly served by subways.

"We are in a city with an existing transportation infrastructure that is at capacity...So we need additional alternatives," Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens said. His district includes Long Island City, which has seen tremendous residential development in recent years and will be served by one of the new stops.

At Monday's Council hearing, Van Bramer said he wants to "get a timeline on just when we can expect the landings to be sited, and when we can start service."

Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan's Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island said making sure the three stations planned for his district are moving forward is a "high priority."

The few concerns expressed about the current plan are oriented around the locations of landings. Residents at a recent community meeting in Long Island City were divided over where the neighborhood's stop should be: at Center Boulevard, close to waterfront high-rises, or at 44th Drive, less pedestrian-friendly but also less disruptive for a nearby boathouse.

Council Member Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn said EDC should try to offer solutions to siting concerns as it implements the project. Menchaca represents the busy waterway neighborhood of Red Hook.

Ydanis Rodriguez, Council member for Washington Heights and Inwood and chair of the City Council transportation committee, said that he is looking forward to hearing more details about the plan from EDC—as well as promoting his own proposal for a ferry route along the west side of Manhattan.

"I believe ferries play an important role when it comes to identifying different modes of transportation," Rodriguez said in an interview with the Gotham Gazette. "I hope that in the near future, all the areas not included in the present plan will be included." Rodriguez will co-chair Monday's Council oversight hearing, dubbed "Evaluating the Plan for a Citywide Ferry System" on the Council website.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo is also aboard the ferry plan, even though the first two phases of the plan will not reach his island and a sixth route has only been proposed for Stapleton, near the Staten Island Ferry's St. George terminal. Oddo said he's working to see if some sort of public or private service can one day reach other parts of the island.

"To me, it [ferries] doesn't take a great deal of capital investment in our borough," he said. "It's the quickest avenue Staten Islanders have to getting some help to their commutes."

Traffic engineer and former traffic commissioner "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz said that some of the issues he wants discussed at the Council include more details on expected ferry ridership, operating costs and fares, and integration with other forms of transit.

"I think it would be a mistake not to have as robust a ferry system as possible...as well as improving transit, bus, and rail," Schwartz told Gotham Gazette.

Cost and Control
Gelinas, of the Manhattan Institute, says an important question Council members should ask is how heavily the city should subsidize the ferry routes—especially if Mayor de Blasio sticks to his promise that each ride will cost the same as a MetroCard swipe.

"It really has to come down to a cost-benefit analysis of how many New Yorkers will benefit at what cost," Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said. "Ferries are a great option, but it's an option that should only be considered after rail and bus options have become untenable." White's group advocates for expanding bike lanes and mass transit projects like Select Bus Service, or express bus lines.

A 2011 EDC study showed a subsidy-per-trip of $5.95 for the fare-free Staten Island Ferry and $21.22 for a pilot Rockaway ferry service launched in 2008.

"Some subsidy is reasonable," Gelinas said. "It will also depend on how much development we get [along the waterfront]...The more people you have, the lower the subsidy."

Manhattan Council Member Dan Garodnick, who will also co-chair Monday's meeting, said that officials from EDC will have to answer questions about the status of the project, costs, community input, and integration with the rest of the city's transit system. He said he wants riders to be able to use MetroCards for boat fares—something EDC has ruled out, saying the 23-year-old card will be soon phased out.

"Many of us are extremely enthusiastic about growing our ferry system," Garodnick said. "At the same time, we want to understand its cost and long-term viability."

Other Council members were more optimistic about ferry finances.

"This is another piece to the puzzle," Kallos said. "Despite initially low projected ridership, when you are speaking about the infrastructure we're building, and the cost of it...This is providing a lot more service to four or five boroughs, and it's improving people's commutes."

EDC representatives are expected to testify Monday and say that the plans for the ferry system are on track. The agency is currently reviewing responses to a request for proposals for a ferry operator and plans to integrate the East River Ferry operator into the new larger ferry system. Officials point to the successes of the East River Ferry as they imagine expansion of ferry service.

Rodriguez said that ferries are also particularly effective when natural disasters hit—a route between Manhattan and the Rockaways was established within days after Hurricane Sandy knocked out subway service to the neighborhood in 2012. He and Kallos also pointed that the ferry system would be completely under the city's control—unlike the MTA, which is state-run.

"Investing in our waterfronts and our ferry system is a way for our city to have strong accountability and control over our infrastructure," Kallos said.

Gelinas and White said that there are ways for the city to invest in transit without relying on the state. The 7 train's new 34th Street-Hudson Yards station, for example, was funded primarily by city tax bonds.

proposed ferry network

Waves Ahead?
Schwartz said political opposition to ferries may emerge as waterfront dwellers start to complain about the noise and pollution boats generate. Residents of Battery Park City have long complained about ferry horns in the early morning hours—required by Coast Guard regulations.

Noise was one of several concerns expressed by Long Island City residents at a recent community meeting on the ferry plan. But even there, most speakers said they want even more ferries to more destinations, not fewer.

With the current plan, "you're only serving part of the community," resident Rebecca Olinger said. "I think it's foolish to put something in that serves such a small part of the neighborhood."

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by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@ChristiZhang

Rumored Scheme Brings Scrutiny to Bronx Political Machine


diaz jr heastie crespo

Diaz Jr., Heastie, Crespo (l-r) (photo: @rubendiazjr)


By all reasonable indicators, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson should cruise to reelection this November despite his low conviction rate, notoriously slow pace in filing charges, and apparent lack of serious fundraising. But many are watching closely to see if Johnson drops off the ballot this month and makes himself eligible to be appointed to a judgeship--thereby allowing the Bronx County Democrats to name his replacement.

As rumors and suspicions swirl, the notion of Johnson and other longtime Bronx party leaders manipulating the electoral system to their advantage comes as little surprise to those who've seen the Bronx machine at work. But, with powerful Bronx elected officials newly more prominent, the risks of such machinations are greater than in the past.

District Attorney Johnson has been in a unique situation for decades. Thanks to the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party, he has faced few serious political challenges since taking office in 1989 and is running this year on the Democratic, Conservative, and Republican ballot lines.

Bronx insiders are convinced that Bronx County Democratic Chair Marcos Crespo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (Crespo's predecessor as county chair) have decided to appoint Johnson to a judgeship and then replace him on the ticket with one of their allies, thereby subverting the democratic process.

The technique that could be used to replace Johnson isn't unique; it has been used time and time again across the city to, basically, gift seats to party-friendly candidates. The Bronx has long been a haven for the workings of the County Democratic machine, but with Heastie's ascent to one of the post powerful positions in the state and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.'s rising profile, it appears it will be much more difficult to pull off such maneuvers without paying a price.

Actions in the Bronx are now linked to the larger political aspirations of these rising stars and they've earned the attention of good government groups and media outside the borough.

What is particularly concerning to reformers inside and outside of government is that Crespo, Heastie, and Diaz would essentially be appointing the person who is, in part, supposed to police their actions. Johnson's record on corruption busting is suspicious to many. He has pursued cases against former Assemblymember Nelson Castro and former Senator Pedro Espada, but at the time both men were out of the county party's good graces. In fact, they were known for causing Bronx Democrats nasty headaches.

With Heastie, who this year replaced the indicted Sheldon Silver as speaker, pledging transparency and reform in the Assembly, some observers wonder if he isn't trying to avoid future embarrassment by being directly responsible for appointing the new district attorney.

"The bottom line is that it is always nice to have your derriere covered by a prosecutor that owes you their job," said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College.

Johnson's office has refused to comment for this story. Heastie has told other reporters that he gave up decision-making abilities as the chair of the Bronx County Democrats when he became Assembly speaker. And Assemblymember Crespo has avoided responding to queries from numerous outlets, including Gotham Gazette.

It stands to reason that Bronx Borough president Ruben Diaz, Jr., who would also have a say in the matter given his relationship with Heastie and his quest to run, eventually, for mayor. Diaz Jr.'s office also ignored requests for comment.

The scenario has been further complicated by Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda, who has made it no secret that he is interested the district attorney position. Sepulveda is said to have informed Johnson he would be challenging him down the road, even while helping him collect petitions for his reelection this summer.

Bob Kappstatter, a prolific Bronx journalist who currently works as a political consultant and counts Sepulveda as a client, took to Facebook to decry the behind-the-scenes machinations that may be afoot.

"We can count on one hand how many Bronx politicians Rob Johnson has gone after, with most of those being County's enemies. Meanwhile the feds have vacuumed the borough ALMOST clean," Kappstatter wrote on Facebook. "Carl [Heastie], whom we hear didn't expect all this heat from the media and good government groups, has dumped the deal in the lap of new County Leader Marcos Crespo, an honest, decent guy who will have to take the heat if it goes through. Marcos is already looking like Heastie's puppet, diminishing his power among the city's four other Dem county leaders while Carl still pulls County's strings."

Sepulveda's interest in the DA position has angered the Bronx County Democrats. Earlier this month the Daily News ran a story detailing how Sepulveda's estranged wife sought an order of protection from him earlier this summer. Both Luis and his wife told the Daily News that she withdrew the request. Insiders see it as retaliation from County for his interest in Johnson's job.

Exposing any deal among Johnson and other officials could benefit Sepulveda, because outside pressure might lead to Johnson stepping down after the election rather than before.

The process Bronx County Democrats could use to replace Johnson is particularly effective because Democratic enrollment in the borough greatly eclipses that of all other parties.

Democratic voters decide the election during the September primary, with the November election essentially being a formality - not that Johnson was challenged in the primary. If Johnson steps down before Election Day, his county-picked replacement would move into office with all the benefits of incumbency and the backing of the establishment. Any future primary challenger would face a well-known, well-financed incumbent who hadn't actually been elected by a significant number of voters.

"This is a fairly common practice in New York politics," said Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. "It is anti-competitive and it allows the newly appointed incumbent to use that incumbency to defeat their next challenger."

"As a general principle of government, it stinks," said Gene Russianoff of The New York Public Interest Research Group. "The primary election process might not be perfect but at least it offers hope. Forgoing it is a thumb in the eye to voters."

Johnson would have to submit a letter to the Board of Elections asking to be removed from the ballot by Monday, September 21.

If Johnson resigns after he is elected in November, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could name an interim district attorney and would eventually set a date for a special election. This would likely allow Sepulveda and other hopefuls a chance to actually vie for the seat.

Professor Benjamin said that voters should be especially concerned about the machinations involved in Johnson's possible replacement and appointment to a judgeship given what The New York Times described as "an unusual string of legal lapses" that allowed Heastie to keep a home his mother purchased with embezzled funds.

Heastie agreed to sell the house as part of a deal that allowed Heastie's mother to avoid jail time. His mother died three weeks after being sentenced and Heastie stopped trying to sell the home. He sold it six years later at a profit of $200,000.

"Carelessness of those involved in the case could be to blame, or something more questionable could have occurred, given the Bronx Democratic Party's influence on the court system and its long history of back-room deal-making," wrote the Times.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Did Bill De Blasio's Tirade Help Andrew Cuomo Get His Groove Back?


Cuomo labor day parade

Gov. Cuomo at the Labor Day parade (photo: The Governor's Office via flickr)


On Thursday Governor Andrew Cuomo, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, held a rally to announce a campaign to make New York the first state in the nation with a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

"So Mr. Vice President, today I announce that I will propose to the New York state legislature not just $15 for fast-food workers, because a fast-food worker deserves $15 an hour, construction workers deserve $15 an hour, and home healthcare aides deserve $15 an hour, and taxi-cab drivers deserve $15 an hour, and every working man and woman in the State of New York deserves $15 an hour as a minimum wage - and we are not going to stop until we get it done!" Cuomo said, his voice rising.

It was a triumphant moment for the governor, and for unions and progressive groups who have worked for the last year to get Cuomo on board with a $15 hourly minimum wage. It is being called a major about-face by many watchers, including some who note that Cuomo now supports a policy his rival, Mayor Bill de Blasio, has been pushing for quite some time and that Cuomo had previously dismissed.

The move, along with other recent Cuomo plays, is in striking contrast to the Cuomo of last spring, who some confidants and legislators describe as aimless, distracted, and maybe a little bit bored.

Now, though, any such perception has dissipated, perhaps in large part thanks to de Blasio's exasperated June tirade against the governor, which came at the end of this year's legislative session. Harsh, damning words from the mayor may have been the challenge Cuomo needed in order to reinvigorate.

De Blasio pulled no punches, boldly saying Cuomo had made promises he didn't intend to keep, is vindictive, and backed policies that were harmful to New York City. "And what I believe here is the governor worked with the Senate in some cases to inhibit the work of the Assembly, to inhibit the agenda that New York City put forward," de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis in a June interview, before sitting down with City Hall reporters to reiterate his message.

Cuomo had used de Blasio as a punching bag for months before de Blasio's explosion, even apparently giving publications blind quotes attacking the mayor. But with the feud spilling out into the open, observers say Cuomo was freed in a way, even given a gift--a political opponent to war with in the open.

The mayor's declaration of war was something pundits and sources close to the Cuomo administration say the governor desperately needed. "The governor is at his best when he has someone to duel in the political arena," one Albany insider told Gotham Gazette. "It is also when he is apt to make mistakes, but he comes alive when he is going for the kill."

For some Democrats, de Blasio's tirade was a breath of fresh air - someone, they said, had finally called out the bully. Others, including members of the Cuomo administration saw it much differently. They heard it as the younger brother finally crying "Uncle!" because he had no other means of retaliation.

Sources within the Cuomo administration say they saw de Blasio's "tantrum" as an admission that he had failed at moving his agenda and was giving up any hope of future success in Albany. That appears to have left an opening for Cuomo to reassert himself on progressive issues - like minimum wage - that de Blasio has staked out.

Not very long ago, Cuomo was advocating a plan that would eventually raise the minimum wage to $11.50 in New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in the state. He appeared to scoff at the Assembly's proposal that would have raised the minimum wage across the state to $15 by the end of 2018. "God bless them — shoot for the stars," Cuomo said, dismissively, in March at a stop in Rochester. The governor has repeatedly cited the Republican-controlled state Senate as a place where such progressive proposals go to die.

If Cuomo had made a major announcement on a $15 minimum wage a year ago, it would have appeared as though he had been dragged to the position kicking and screaming by The Working Families Party and de Blasio, who brokered a deal between the two to prevent a WFP-backed primary challenge to Cuomo in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

At the time, Cuomo appeared to agree to back the mayor's proposal to allow the city to raise its minimum wage up to 30 percent higher than the state's (as well as other WFP-backed policies and a Democratic takeover of the state Senate). But this year Cuomo presented his own plan, which did not include giving the city a say over its wage, and was still short of what activists on the left were calling for.

But now, Cuomo has swooped in to champion the $15 wage, albeit on an extended phase-in timeline that would implement $15 per hour in New York City at the end of 2018 and state-wide in the middle of 2021.

Cuomo is notorious for refusing to move on proposals that he won't receive absolute credit for enacting into law. With de Blasio all but slain in Albany after a rough 2015 legislative session, Cuomo was freed to move on minimum wage and other progressive initiatives, knowing he could charge in and pick up the baton that he had knocked out of de Blasio's hands.

Meanwhile, Cuomo enjoys the benefits of being de Blasio's enemy, which boosts his standing with conservatives and moderates (and even some liberals) across the state. Cuomo's favorability ratings dropped to all-time lows this summer, but de Blasio's poll numbers are even lower.

"I'm not buying de Blasio gave him an overarching focus, because clearly the governor used the mayor for a punching bag from the very beginning of the administration, whether it be on the millionaire's tax or charter schools," said Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College. "It certainly did exacerbate the relationship and gave Cuomo the opportunity to strike out at a perceived tormentor."

Cuomo and de Blasio have appeared to go out of their way to avoid each other at public events, though they did speak in person at a September 11th commemoration on Friday. Cuomo has either not invited the mayor to several, like his recent solidarity mission to Puerto Rico, or de Blasio has not appeared interested in attending, like for the governor's announcement of a new LaGuardia Airport.

Cuomo has appeared to jab at de Blasio when reporters ask why the two are not meeting at events, which have included several parades. He's also made efforts to strengthen relationships with sometime de Blasio antagonists like Comptroller Scott Stringer and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and de Blasio ally City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Last Thursday, Cuomo was honored as "Man of the Year" by the city's largest police union, which is headed by de Blasio nemesis Patrick Lynch. "You deserve to be paid for the job you do," Cuomo told the officers, hinting at their dispute with the city over pay raises. Someone in the back of the room shouted back: "Tell de Blasio!"

Cuomo's feud with de Blasio appears to be helping insulate him from backlash he has faced from police unions for signing an executive order giving the Attorney General the ability to act as special prosecutor in cases where police kill unarmed civilians.

"De Blasio has served as a foil for the governor with some groups," said Muzzio. "This conflict certainly enhances his influence with certain interests, especially with the Republican-controlled Senate."

Cuomo's moves on progressive issues may risk some of his goodwill with Republicans, but nevertheless, the governor has shown a renewed sense of urgency. It is energy that Cuomo has also been putting into efforts not easily labeled as progressive, such as Upstate economic development.

Pundits say they feel the Cuomo of the past few months is a stark contrast to the Cuomo of this legislative session, who shied away from public and media appearances for weeks at a time.

It's fairly easy to see why Cuomo may have been off his game.

His reelection bid was complicated by rebellious progressives and unions who felt Cuomo had delivered more on conservative causes than on Democratic ones. The governor was also reeling from the backlash he faced from shuttering the Moreland Commission. His campaign strategy to ignore his Republican opponent, Rob Astorino, might have been more effective if Fordham professor Zephyr Teachout hadn't joined the Democratic primary. Her campaign quickly made Cuomo appear detached from voters, and at times exposed his tendencies as a bully.

Cuomo moved from a closer-than-expected election to face the death of his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and the federal indictments of then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. He appeared ready to end the legislative session early after securing a number of education reforms that were fought tooth-and-nail by teachers unions (and opposed by de Blasio). But the pressure mounted on the governor to deliver deals on rent regulations, mayoral control of New York City schools, and other big-ticket items, all while the legislature remained in turmoil thanks to their leadership crises.

Virtually all of the deals reached were less than desired as far as de Blasio was concerned, with the one-year extension of mayoral control of schools an especially bitter pill - and perhaps the final nudge over the edge.

With session over and his legislative opponents out of town, Cuomo leaped into action, issuing an executive order to create a special prosecutor for police killings. This not only ingratiated Cuomo to many on his left, but also brought one of his main rivals - and a natural de Blasio ally - AG Eric Schneiderman, closer to Cuomo's hip.

A flurry of executive activity was capped off by the finding of his fast food wage board that workers in the industry should be paid a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Cuomo was lauded by union leaders and progressive elected officials; his achievements made for evidence in the effort to disprove de Blasio's accusations that the governor was hamstringing the progressive agenda.

And, they allowed the governor to demonstrate one of his favorite points: that he gets things done regardless of political ideology.

On Thursday, de Blasio's office quickly shot out a statement praising Cuomo's decision to advocate a $15 minimum wage but laced with language highlighting that Cuomo is late to the party the mayor's been leading.

"Nothing would do more to lift New Yorkers out of poverty and move our economy forward than raising the wage...We welcome the Governor's support for a $15 minimum wage – and New York City stands ready to help make it a reality," de Blasio's statement reads. "We have been doing all we can here in the city: affordable housing, Pre-K for All, increasing and expanding the living wage, and much more. But combating income inequality requires bold action on all levels of government. I urge Albany to act quickly."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

The Week That Was in New York Politics, September 7-11


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday September 11

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton surveys Times Square, via @CommissBratton; Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray greet a family on the first day of school, via @NYCMayorsOffice; and a 9/11 rememberance, via Ben Max

bratton times sq

BdB greets prek

Engine 7 911

TOP FOUR STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Primary Election Results: It was a rare Thursday election day and a year with lower-profile races on the ballot and thus even lower voter turnout, but there were still ballots being cast. In one of the higher-profile races, Barry Grodenchik emerged from a crowded Democratic primary in a Queens City Council race to fill a seat vacated by Mark Weprin, who left to work for Gov. Cuomo (Grodenchik is heavily favored to also win the November general). Read about other results around the state here, via Politico NY. And, read our look at the many voting opportunities for New Yorkers in 2015 and 2016.

2. De Blasio Celebrates Expanded Pre-K: Mayor Bill de Blasio went on a five-borough school tour Wednesday to celebrate the first day of the 2015-2016 academic year and the initial success of his universal pre-kindergarten program, now enrolling more than 65,500 children. If there is one thing that de Blasio promised on the 2013 campaign trail, it was "UPK," as it is often called, and in a short time he has devoted unseen resources to increase the number of New York City four-year-olds in school - up from about 20,000 full-day pre-K students in 2013-2014. De Blasio also defended his larger education agenda Wednesday and previewed the argument he'll make for another extension of mayoral control of city schools.

3. Cuomo Pushes $15/hr Minimum Wage: On Thursday, Governor Cuomo called for an across-the-board increase in the minimum wage to an eventual $15 per hour for all workers in New York State. He'll seek passage of a phased-in increase during the next legislative session in Albany, but is sure to face fierce Republican opposition.

4. Cuomo Announces New York Aid for Puerto Rico: On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo concluded a brief "solidarity mission" to Puerto Rico with a promise to offer advice, technical assistance, and other aid to the island territory facing some $72 billion in debt. In part, though, Cuomo is calling on the federal government to help Puerto Rico through a restructuring of its debt and systems.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 50 first days of school as an educator for city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña as of this week's opening day.
  • 45% of excessive force allegations made against police were substantiated with video evidence in the first six months of 2015 – as opposed to 34% in 2014, according to the CCRB’s semiannual report.
  • About 500 units of affordable housing to be built on public land at NYCHA developments in Wyckoff Gardens in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and Holmes Towers on the Upper East Side, officials said Wednesday.

THE FLASH:

  • 14 years ago, on September 11th, 2001, terrorists attacked New York City and other U.S. locations
  • 2 years ago around this time, on September 10, 2013, then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio took the lead in the primary, just attaining more than 40% of the vote to claim the nomination
  • 44 years ago around this time, on September 9, 1971, prisoners seized control of the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, N.Y., beginning a four-day siege that claimed 43 lives.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Pre-K Pillar in Place, De Blasio Must Build Rest of His Case for Mayoral Control, by Ben Max

In Battle with Local Bronx Media, Klein Publishes Own Newspaper, by David Howard King

McCray Set to Unveil ‘Mental Health Roadmap,' Signature De Blasio Plan, by Kaela Sanborn-Hum

Proposed Rikers Visitation Rules Stir Debate, by Meg O’Connor

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 Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Pre-K Pillar in Place, De Blasio Must Build Rest of His Case for Mayoral Control


bdb parent first day of school

De Blasio greets a parent on the first day of school (photo: @BilldeBlasio)


It was his number one campaign policy proposal and as mayor, he's delivering. Mayor Bill de Blasio went on a five-borough school tour Wednesday to celebrate the first day of the 2015-2016 academic year and the initial success of his universal pre-kindergarten program, now enrolling more than 65,500 children.

If there is one thing that de Blasio promised on the 2013 campaign trail, it was "UPK," as it is often called, and in a short time he has devoted unseen resources to increase the number of New York City four-year-olds in school - up from about 20,000 full-day pre-K students in 2013-2014. The only thing that may come ahead of pre-K at City Hall is crime, and that's not such a sure assertion.

How much the mayor's success on pre-K benefits city students, families, and de Blasio himself, is yet to be seen.

UPK is one initiative that has won the oft-embattled mayor universal praise, even, at times, from some of his harshest critics. In fact, de Blasio indicated on Wednesday that UPK will be a key pillar in his argument for another extension of mayoral control of city schools when he must go defend his stewardship to Albany skeptics such as Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan.

While de Blasio and members of his administration still need to prove pre-K is effective in helping children increase their learning and set on a path toward greater academic and professional success, the program is having immediate effects in terms of parents' savings on child care and opportunity to work or work more hours. To be sure, pre-K certainly cannot hurt young students from poor families in terms of their word acquisition and social-emotional development.

Still, as far as UPK goes, there will be little other than the impressive rollout for de Blasio to discuss when he sits in front of the state Legislature to discuss mayoral control whenever Flanagan next beckons.

There was much controversy when, this spring, the state extended de Blasio's rule of city schools for just one year (as opposed to a longer extension or letting mayoral control expire and returning the city's education governance to a decentralized Board of Education). This included some he-said/he-said over whether Flanagan, who used to be chair of the Senate education committee, had requested de Blasio appear at a hearing and whether de Blasio had been willing to testify.

On Wednesday, de Blasio promised more on his education initiatives later this month, and touted several aspects of his work on the subject in addition to pre-K, such as his community schools initiative. The mayor was asked about extension of his control of the schools and responded defiantly to any notion that it might be stripped from him.

Whether it was the effects of a humid day spent traversing the city, reading out loud to students, thanking teachers, and snapping selfies with grateful parents or the frustrating reality of the power dynamics at play, de Blasio sounded somewhat fatigued when asked about mayoral control during an afternoon press conference.

"I think the facts really will speak for themselves," the mayor said at his last school stop, in Manhattan. "I think the success of pre-K last year, now amplified on a much greater level. I think the success we're seeing on test scores, the progress we're seeing on renewal schools, the impact of greater professional development, which I know is going to help us retain good teachers," de Blasio said, previewing the argument he will make to Flanagan, Cuomo, and others.

The mayor continued, hitting on something that may help win over Cuomo: "We've obviously been assertive about helping teachers who shouldn't be in the profession to move along," de blasio said. "So I think that all those facts are going to add up. And I think, again, the people are going to demand that it be continued on a longer scale because it's part of what allows us to keep our school system improving."

Whether those points, even explained in more detail, will make for a convincing case in front of Senate Republicans and a governor whose education politics are far from de Blasio's is unclear.

The test scores de Blasio refers to (for 3-8 grade students on Common Core-aligned state tests) did indeed show slight progress, but also a great deal of room for improvement to see New York students meeting the standards as measured by the tests. While only about 30% of students are proficient in reading and 35% proficient in math, the city's test scores do compare well with the rest of the state, especially the other largest cities.

The "renewal schools" that de Blasio referenced are those in which the city has had to implement turnaround plans and are at risk of state takeover. Those 94 "persistently struggling" schools - along with de Blasio's opposition to charter schools, which are often juxtaposed with the city's most maligned schools - could be at the center of the discussion in Albany.

"Renewal schools are a huge focus for us," de Blasio said on Wednesday, "and we're very, very excited about the progress that's already happening in renewal schools...let's be blunt, a lot of those schools were left without the support and resources they needed. A lot of those schools happened to be in disadvantaged communities. We're changing that. We're giving them the support so they succeed."

In a press release, the de Blasio administration wrote that the 94 renewal schools are included in the 130-school community school initiative, which means that they have "wraparound services like counseling, free eyeglasses, and additional tutoring to eliminate barriers to learning for at-risk students." The renewals "all have extra academic support for struggling students, including an extra hour of time in class each day."

De Blasio won't have impressive renewal school test scores to bring to Albany, so he'll have to sell his turnaround model using those services, attendance records, and other metrics. There may be no getting past his opposition to charter school growth, which continues to provide ammunition to Cuomo, who is much less friendly with the teachers unions than de Blasio and is backed by donors who heavily support charters.

While de Blasio has made reforms to the city's education system since taking the helm some 20 months ago and may indeed feel good about the direction he has the schools headed, he knows that he will soon have to bring a scorecard to Albany - and then to New York City voters come 2017. De Blasio himself has said that the real accountability on mayoral control is that New Yorkers know who to hold responsible for the schools when they go to the polls.

It appears fairly certain that de Blasio has at least impressed many parents of new pre-k students.

In front of a Staten Island school the mayor promised "to talk a lot more in the coming days about the other elements that are going to allow us to transform this school system." He said that the month of September is an obvious one for a focus on education.

"But pre-k is literally the foundation, for each child, for each family, and for the change of this school system as a whole," de Blasio said, consistently bringing his narrative back to his crowning achievement.

On WPIX-11 Wednesday morning, the mayor said he'd be saying more on education next week. "We want to strengthen our schools across the system – not just pre-k. All the way up – we want to strengthen graduation rates, college readiness, and we're going to have a lot to put forward on that," de Blasio said. "But what's great about today is, this is really the foundation for the future not only for the individual children and their families, but this will make the whole school system stronger."

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

In Battle with Local Bronx Media, Klein Publishes Own Newspaper


klein riverdale record

The August issue of Riverdale Record, Sen. Jeff Klein's 'newspaper'


 

Some residents of the Bronx were surprised in August when what looked like a new newspaper arrived in their mailboxes. Upon closer inspection of Riverdale Record, some could tell they had received an elaborate piece of campaign literature from state Senator Jeff Klein dressed up as a community newspaper.

“Riverdale Record Serving the communities of Riverdale, Van Cortlandt Village & Kingsbridge” reads the masthead, next to a picture of a smiling Klein.

Underneath, in smaller white-on-red type: “The Official Publication of Senator Jeff Klein and Our Community.” The paper is also labeled as having a distribution of 36,000. At the very bottom of the fourth and last page there is a note that reads: “Paid for and approved by Klein for New York.”

The front page of the August edition features a headline about Engelbert Humperdinck and another that reads “Klein delivers during long legislative session.” Several pundits say Klein’s newspaper may be deceptive but has become part and parcel of big-money politics. However, some Bronx politicos and a host of journalists say that it is only the latest move by the extremely powerful and press-sensitive senator to bully and pressure local journalists and hamstring media outlets.

Klein’s press aides are notorious for lashing out at local journalists with threats, personal barbs, curse-laden tirades, and even boycotts. Staffers have tried to physically block journalists from speaking to Klein at public events and are accused of using their influence with the editorial boards of local papers that rely on access and political support from Klein to squash offensive stories.

A number of journalists offended by Klein’s latest move - publishing his own newspaper - say that it was borne of his displeasure with two articles from The Riverdale Press that examined the donations he received from real estate mogul Leonard Litwin and another that covered a protest by tenant advocates at Klein’s office. Litwin has been tied to the corruption cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Klein, who heads the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, has had a close working relationship with both Silver and Skelos, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The first issue of Klein’s paper includes Klein’s direct rebuttal to a Riverdale Press column that criticized the senator for his position on sex offender legislation. Klein has boycotted the paper on at least three occasions. He reportedly told The Riverdale Press, “Find another target!” when asked why he was ignoring its inquiries.

Shant Shahrigian, editor at The Riverdale Press and author of two of those articles, used to cover Klein in his previous role as political reporter. Shahrigian said that Klein’s office mailed him a copy of the Riverdale Record at his office. Shahrigian gave Gotham Gazette this statement:

“Politicians at every level today are doing their best to thwart independent reporting on their policies and activities. State Sen. Jeff Klein is a case in point. His staff has endeavored to control access to the senator — even at public events — and he has, from time to time, refused to communicate at all with his local newspaper, The Riverdale Press. Now he has packaged the same sort of self-promoting message that every office-holder sends to constituents in the guise of a newspaper. I am confident that readers will be able to tell the difference between that and real news.”

bronxpapers1

A veteran Bronx journalist expressed concern to Gotham Gazette that Klein’s paper could hurt the borough's already small media footprint. “It’s important that there be independent and responsible media,” said the journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of hurting a relationship with Bronx Democrats in general. “Putting out a faux newspaper is disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst. If Senator Klein disagrees with an editorial, he should respond in kind. But this poisons the media climate in a media-starved borough and that’s not good for anyone, including the senator.”

Bronx journalists theorize that Klein spokesperson Candice Giove is in charge of the paper as she used to write for The New York Post. Most of the articles in Klein’s paper do not feature bylines. One of Giove’s 2011 Post articles, “Bronx Dem Deserter’s Reward: $1M Staff,” centered on Klein and featured a quote likening Klein to disgraced Sen. Pedro Espada and detailed the increased salaries of his staffers.

The article noted that Klein’s spokesman at the time, Richard Azzopardi, made more than $95,000 a year working for Klein and the IDC. (Azzopardi now works in the governor’s press office.)

Reached by phone, Giove declined to discuss Gotham Gazette inquiries about the paper and asked that questions be emailed to her. She provided a statement about the intentions of the Riverdale Record, but did not respond to questions about who writes the articles. Klein was not made available for a requested phone interview about his relationship with Bronx media.

“The Riverdale Record is geared toward keeping local residents up to date on the latest news, upcoming events and important work Senator Klein is doing to build up our borough and invest in Bronx families,” wrote Giove. “Each month, highlights include Bronx small businesses, programs and services Senator Klein sponsors and the important legislation he is fighting for in Albany on behalf of all New Yorkers. Most importantly, the Riverdale Record champions the community – all the progress we’ve made together, and the work that lies ahead – to build a stronger, brighter borough.”

Gotham Gazette spoke to a number of journalists who currently cover Klein on a local level or who did previously, and they described being repeatedly abused by his press staff, insulted by the Senator personally when they asked relevant questions, and constantly contending with the pressure Klein can bring on them and their editors as the most powerful Bronx Senator.

The journalists’ major concern about Klein’s Riverdale Record is that it could negatively impact local community journalism that is already contending with lower readership and harsh financial realities. They say Klein’s delicacy and his office’s tactics have become major impediments to providing accurate, detailed coverage to the Bronx community that is already news-starved.

"Senator Klein speaks to local reporters throughout his district,” Giove wrote in a statement to Gotham Gazette, responding to questions about Klein’s relationship with local press. “Just look at the pages of the Riverdale Review, the Bronx Times, the Bronx Free Press, the Bronx News, the Norwood News, the Bronx Chronicle, the Hunts Point Express, the City Island Current, the Irish Echo, Pelham Weekly, the Pelham Patch, the Pelham Post, Pelham Plus, Pelham Rising, Westchester Rising, Mount Vernon Rising, the Mount Vernon Inquirer and DNAinfo or broadcasts on News12 The Bronx, News 12 Westchester and Fios1."

Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, said that Klein’s paper is simply par for the course. “This is no more deceptive than some radio or TV ads we see out there. We aren’t playing softball,” Benjamin told Gotham Gazette.

Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said that his group believes campaign funds should be spent during election season, not in off-years, but that Klein’s paper does not seem to be violating any particular piece of election law.

Good government advocates note that Klein is capable of putting out a monthly paper with a reported circulation of 36,000 because he is such a prolific fundraiser. Klein’s committee reported having $1,140,634 on hand in its periodic July campaign finance report, making Klein one of the largest fundraisers in the state. The senator may not have to report expenses incurred from publishing the Riverdale Record until January.

One question that could be answered by Klein’s next filings is whether he paid celebrity chef Padma Lakshmi for her column titled “Healthy Eating With Top Chef Padma Lakshmi,” or if the column was an in-kind donation. Giove only replied to a question about the column to say that Klein and Lakshmi have worked together in the past.

As Klein’s influence has grown as he has leveraged his Independent Democratic Conference’s votes to earn powerful positions and favorable legislation from Senate Republicans, Bronx reporters say he and his staff have become less likely to talk and more abusive.

One Bronx reporter who has run into significant backlash while covering Klein said, “They call him the golden goose and you don’t want to piss off the golden goose.”

The September issue of the Riverdale Record reports a circulation jump from 36,000 to 37,000.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Proposed Rikers Visitation Rules Stir Debate


Johnny Perez of the Jails Action Coalition

Johnny Perez of the Jails Action Coalition (photos: Meg O'Connor) 


On Tuesday, City Council members, faith leaders, and activists spoke out against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed restrictions for visitors to Rikers Island jails. At a rally on the steps of City Hall organized by the Jails Action Coalition, speakers called de Blasio’s plan to limit visitors and physical contact by those who do visit inmates counterproductive and wrong.

The proposed visitation limits were first announced when de Blasio visited Rikers Island in March, and are part of a 14-point plan to reduce violence among inmates and among inmates and guards.

 “We have to keep weapons, drugs, and other contraband off this island,” de Blasio said at Rikers on March 12. “The only weapons that should be used on this island should be used by people wearing uniforms, not by inmates who got weapons, who got drugs, who got contraband illegally and inappropriately.”

The proposed rules seek to limit the physical contact inmates may have with visitors, broaden the criteria for restricting visitors by allowing the Department of Correction to consider factors like criminal record, and establish a visitor registry. 

Yet, critics say the limitations would deter visitors, needlessly make an already arduous visitation process more difficult, and disproportionately affect black and Latino families, as well as poor people unable to afford bail.

 “I want to remind everybody that the overwhelming majority of people who are on Rikers have not yet been convicted of the crime for which they are being held,” City Council Member Daniel Dromm, of Queens, said at the Tuesday press conference. The jail complex has an average daily population of about 11,400 – roughly 85% of whom are pretrial detainees.

Others, like Tanya Krupat, Program Director for the NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, say that what is “most concerning is the way they’re talking about looking into the backgrounds of visitors and making an assessment about whether that person is deemed a threat, including a threat to the ‘good order of the facility,’ which is very vague.”

Krupat added, “the potential for arbitrary subjective implementation of these is what’s really worrisome. Where are the checks and balances? They have over 1,000 visitors coming in every day, and over 3,000 children visiting each month, so who is making these decisions?“ 

De Blasio and his corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, have been credited by prison reform activists for other changes they’re making at Rikers, including around treatment of mentally ill and younger prisoners. The proposed visitation limits fall into a different category - and the city’s Board of Correction will hold a public hearing in the near future before voting on the plan.

Advocates for the incarcerated and their families fear that the proposed changes will harm the mental well-being of those imprisoned on Rikers Island by denying inmates the much-needed sense of support and connection that visits from loved ones bring. “I believe the proposed plan to restrict visitation has the capacity to deteriorate the already-fragile family unit of people of color, contributing to depression, isolation, loneliness, and increased recidivism,” Reverend Que English, Chair of the NYC Clergy Roundtable said.

Asked about this criticism, a spokesperson for the mayor, Monica Klein, wrote Gotham Gazette to say, “Commissioner Ponte understands how important family relationships are in the rehabilitation and re-entry of inmates, and DOC’s proposed visitation policy will allow the Department to foster the kind of positive visitation environment that help inmates’ well-being while maintaining the safety and security of the facilities.”

Some see the stricter visitation rules as a give by de Blasio in order to obtain support for other reforms he’s making and seeking at Rikers, such as his work to reduce solitary confinement and separate younger offenders and detainees.

The proposed rules would restrict the amount of physical contact between inmates and their visitors to a “brief embrace and kiss between the inmate and visitor at both the beginning and the end of the visitation period.” There is currently no limitation on physical contact like hugs and hand-holding during visits. 

Speaking about the importance of physical contact with a loved one, Anisah Sabur, who was incarcerated on Rikers for eight months in 2008, said, “being in a place surrounded by people that you don’t know, to see somebody that you know, be it your loved one, your mother, your brother, that hug and that holding of the hand is very important for somebody on the inside who doesn’t know when they’ll get that again. That love and affection is truly needed for somebody to keep their sanity.”

Significantly, critics of the proposed policy changes have pointed out that a majority of the contraband at Rikers is not smuggled in by visitors. During a May 12 Board of Correction meeting, board member Dr. Robert Cohen noted that the BOC’s recent report using data from the Department of Correction showed that 80% of weapons recovered on Rikers are constructed on site, meaning they were not brought in by visitors or staff.

Additionally, as Dromm (pictured below) mentioned during the rally Tuesday, a 2014 investigation conducted by Mark Peters, Commissioner of the Department of Investigation, “found that the majority of drugs that were getting into Rikers Island were being brought in by corrections officers themselves.”

CM Daniel Dromm

City & State NY reported that the city has said “371 [visitors] were arrested in fiscal year 2015,” meaning that with over 1,000 people visiting Rikers every day, a small fraction of those visitors are contributing to the flow of contraband into the jail complex.

“You’re changing policy [in response to] less than 1% of the visitors who come in,” Krupat said at the press conference yesterday. “That’s not how policy is made.”

However, the de Blasio administration says it is responding to an increase in those arrests - the 371 was up 307 in the prior fiscal year, and drugs recovered during visits were also up.

 In March, when Mayor de Blasio and DOC Commissioner Joe Ponte announced the 14-point initiative to reduce violence at Rikers, de Blasio said, “we know that the reality is that so many inmates acquire weapons and acquire drugs through visitors. In fact, we know that many criminal gangs use the visitation process to pass weapons and pass drugs to their fellow gang members here in these facilities. They also pass messages. You’ve seen it in the movies – it happens in real life.”

“So, to address this problem at the root, we need a much stronger, much stricter visitor policy,” the mayor continued, “which will limit physical contact between visitors and inmates and will, in fact, restrict the right of certain individuals to visit, in the first place, if they do not pass a security screen.”

 The mayor said that the proposed changes would bring Department of Correction policy closer in line with that of other large jail systems around the country that place limits on physical contact between inmates and visitors and restrict visitors based on security concerns.

Yet critics view the proposed limitations as a step backwards for de Blasio’s self-professed progressive administration, which was praised by advocates for the incarcerated earlier this year after city officials agreed to make sweeping reforms aimed at increasing safety for inmates of the violence-stricken jail complex.

“The mayor ran on not having a tale of two cities, and this is kind of a tale of two cities issue,” said Krupat. “Most people are pre-trial, they just can’t afford their bail. If you’re poor, you’re on Rikers and now maybe your family can’t come and see you, but if you have means, you’re out in the community at home eating dinner with your family. It’s kind of shocking from a progressive administration to go after visitors as part of an agenda to reduce violence at Rikers.”

The Board of Correction must approve the policy before the proposed changes to visitation rules can go into effect. The BOC announced Tuesday that it will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules, though the date has not yet been set.

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by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13
@GothamGazette

McCray Set to Unveil ‘Mental Health Roadmap,' Signature De Blasio Plan


McCray roundtable

Chirlane McCray hosts a mental health roundtable (all photos: the Mayor's Office via flickr


Over the past several months, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray has had conversations with many of the city’s service providers, non-profit organizations, and long-time advocates for mental health care provision. In preparation to unveil a “roadmap” addressing the “mental health crisis in New York City,” McCray has spoken with a diverse array of constituents who will be directly impacted by new policies.

In collaboration with key departments of her husband’s administration, McCray, who is Chair of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, is leading a multi-agency effort to evaluate mental health care provision city-wide, particularly for low-income and at-risk communities, and chart a path forward.

“It is long overdue to acknowledge that our inattention to mental illness is a public health crisis that requires a public health solution,” McCray wrote in a recent column at CNN.com, in which she discusses mental health care in a national context.

Key to the push behind the initiative is the notion that better mental health care can not only help people live healthier, happier, and more productive lives, but that an improved approach to mental health care can help the city’s education, housing, criminal justice, and other systems.

Schools, homeless shelters, senior centers, and jails have been highlighted in the city’s new fiscal year 2016 budget as targets of funding for improved mental health care services. In unveiling her roadmap, McCray is likely to follow up with additional initiatives supporting and tying together these and other sectors, “bringing more resources and better resources to those who need it most,” as she writes. McCray’s plan is due to be released this fall and is certain to discuss mental health as important to all aspects of life, and city services.

Gotham Gazette spoke with service providers and experts in anticipation of the release of McCray’s roadmap and many applauded the work of the First Lady and Mayor de Blasio. There is widespread appreciation for their efforts to prioritize reforming mental health care in New York City - and relief that it is being spoken about so openly and with such urgency.

Regarding the roadmap, general suggestions were consistent, with experts and stakeholders saying that it should call for:
-Improved and sustained communication among service providers, city government and organizations for mental health care advocacy;
-Prioritizing mental health care in all aspects of city government policy;
-Reducing stigma of mental illness and promoting larger public education about mental wellness.

Last week, de Blasio’s office announced that Richard Buery, Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives, will spearhead the implementation of the plan “to create a more effective mental health system.” Over the past two years Buery has overseen and coordinated the rollout of de Blasio’s ambitious and initially successful universal pre-Kindergarten program. Dr. Mary Bassett, commissioner of the city Health Department, is also sure to play a key role in implementing any new mental health programming.

“Mental illness touches the lives of most New Yorkers,” McCray said in a statement, adding that there has long been two separate health care systems, “one for physical health and one for mental health."

“We can – and will –  improve access to mental health care in New York City and bring mental health care services where New Yorkers live, work and study," McCray promised.

In drawing a “mental health roadmap” to accomplish those lofty goals, it appears that McCray will focus on reducing stigma around mental illness and treatment; conducting a detailed assessment of the current state of service provision city-wide; and, creating a comprehensive and sustainable plan for mental health care for all New Yorkers. Informing the entire plan will be the notion that both governmental and non-governmental service providers of all kinds can contribute to a better, more intertwined mental health care system.

Programming efforts will surely be tied with outreach and publicity campaigns pushing New Yorkers to seek treatment and ensuring that people are more aware of both warning signs of mental illness and available services. There will all but certainly be a focus on equity throughout the city’s boroughs and neighborhoods, with a special focus on the poorest New Yorkers and those who do not speak English - aligning with the motivating theme of the de Blasio administration.

A few recent announcements regarding mental health care show key elements of the roadmap and give indication of what the larger plan will look like. McCray's map and contracts with service providers should provide indication of how the city will measure the effectiveness of its efforts.

On August 6 Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the NYC Safe program, “an evidence-driven public safety and public health program.” NYC Safe, a $22 million program, centralizes oversight of efforts by public health and public safety officials to intervene or prevent violence from people with mental health challenges.

“This is a subset of a much bigger mental health reform plan that you’ll hear about from the First Lady in the fall. This is just the first of many pieces,” said the mayor.

Connections to Care (CTC), a $30 million program launched in a public-private partnership between the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, the federal Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), and private funders, seeks to expand access to mental health care for low-income and at-risk communities.

The Mayor’s Fund announced the program on July 30, having successfully secured a $10 million federal grant, to be administered over the course of five years, from the Social Innovation Fund of the CNCS; an additional $20 million has been matched by the Mayor’s Fund and selected service partners. CTC will expand mental health care access by collaborating with community organizations to integrate mental health services into existing programs, providing training and support for staff.

The program will also fund a study to assess the efficacy of service providers and the experiences of those receiving care. In the fall, proposals from service providers will be accepted for review.

In May, de Blasio announced his fiscal year 2016 Executive Budget, allocating a projected total of $132.7 million for mental health care during fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The City increased funding for mental health care services in the sectors outlined below. The investment is intended to “build a more effective and inclusive mental health system in New York City” and create a national model. It is sure to form much of the backbone to McCray’s roadmap.

McCray de Blasio

Schools
According to the Office of School Health, it is estimated that 9% of 6-12 years olds in New York City suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. A survey conducted in 2011 reveals 8.4% of high school students have attempted suicide one or more times. McCray described the need to eliminate stigma around mental illness, citing statistics that 61% of adults and 35% of children in the city are not receiving the services they need.

More counselors and outside clinicians at city schools, especially in the "community schools" being opened by the de Blasio administration, are key to the effort of providing better mental health care to students.

Maria Astudillo, Director of Mental Health Services at the Children’s Aid Society, asks “what are some of the universal interventions we can do [in schools]?” Given that every year students are required to have physical examinations, Astudillo believes there should be social and emotional screenings for students as well. “We have to be creative, we have to think outside the box,” she said.

Jails
“What we effectively have seen in this country is that the largest mental health facilities in the country now are jails. And people who are mentally ill end up going through the criminal justice system in ways that are utterly inappropriate and hugely damaging and not at all helpful for community safety,” JoAnne Page, President and CEO of The Fortune Society told Gotham Gazette.

Rikers Island jails, recently headlining news due to the deaths of Bradley Ballard, Kalief Browder and others, are under review by the de Blasio administration and outside entities for both immediate and long-term reform.

“Being at Rikers is trauma -- when you’re talking about mental illness, both creation of it and exacerbation of it,” Page added.

Most recently, the de Blasio administration announced in June it would not renew the contracts with two contracted for-profit Rikers health care providers, Corizon, Inc. and Damian Family Care Centers, Inc. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) will take over as the primary provider.

“We have an essential responsibility to provide every individual in our City’s care with high-quality health services – and our inmates are no different,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a June press release. “This transfer to HHC will give our administration direct control and oversight of our inmates’ health services – furthering our goal of improving the quality and continuity of healthcare for every inmate in City custody.”

John Boston of the Legal Aid’s Prisoner’s Rights Project noted, “It is especially appropriate to make this change with respect to mental health care, since the City is attempting to improve mental health treatment in the jails,” adding that Corizon had a “track record” of failing to administer appropriate treatment.

Often anyone receiving treatment while in jail, juvenile detention centers, or homeless shelters has had “experiences with mental health services that were more about control than treatment,” says Page of The Fortune Society.

Furthermore, Page says that policing policies such as adherence to the “broken windows” model leaves “people getting arrested for things like being mentally ill and homeless. So the criminal justice system is stigmatizing people even more.”

In December 2014, the de Blasio Administration launched a $130 million, 4-year plan detailed in a report by the Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System in order to “drive down crime while also reducing the number of people with behavioral health issues needlessly cycling through the criminal justice system.”

First Lady McCray described the criminal justice system as “a maze [New Yorkers with mental health and substance use disorders] can never escape. The City has made a real commitment to addressing the root causes of this urgent problem.”

Initiatives outlined in the Task Force’s Action Plan -- fewer arrests for low-level crimes and, largely, more alternatives for police can use; better community-based treatment for mental illness; and better alternatives for incarceration or detention -- Page believes are a good start to  implementing any sustainable change.

“People should be in jail as a last resort – not on low bail,” Page says. “Not because nobody knows what to do with them, they should [only] be in jail because they’ve done something serious and there’s no better alternative. We lock up way too many people.”

McCray Oddo

Homelessness
The Coalition for the Homeless reports that every night thousands of unsheltered homeless people sleep in the streets and other public spaces. The large majority of street homeless people live with mental illness or other health problems, according to the Coalition.

“Many cities have a troubling number of cases in which a person with mental illness is subjected to unnecessary arrest or unnecessary violence,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College.

NYC Safe, the violence prevention program introduced in August by de Blasio, will partially assist in serving the homeless with “mobile treatment teams” and other resources for immediate care.

Though improved access to services and treatment is necessary, Vitale stresses that “ultimately, it is not just mental health outreach workers or a few targeted programs for violent offenders that is needed." To deal with chronic homelessness, to help mentally ill homeless people, “a supportive housing program” is essential, Vitale says. He wrote about such a need in a recent Gotham Gazette column.

Susan Wiviott, CEO of The Bridge, shares this sentiment. Wiviott believes McCray’s roadmap will revolve around preventative care and access to mental health services in communities, which is needed, but the costlier programs of supportive housing and in-treatment services must be on the agenda as well. “If you really want to help people and change their lives so they’re not living on the street, then there must be some access to a stable place to live.”

McCray’s outline could very well advocate for an increase of city funds toward supportive housing and renew de Blasio administration calls for the state government to significantly up its contribution to a new NY/NY supportive housing program, the source of recent controversy.

Seniors
Senior adults – 60 years and older – represent the fastest growing population in New York City. By 2030, one in five New Yorkers will be a senior adult. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) estimates that approximately 20% of New Yorkers 55 and older experience mental illness.

The de Blasio administration has allocated $800,000 in fiscal year 2016, which began July 1, to place clinical social workers in the city’s 20 largest senior centers.

This is not quite enough, though, for some service providers. “You have to recognize that a good portion of the people who are older, who will need mental health services, are homebound. There has to be support for those services,” Nancy Harvey, CEO of Service Program for Older People (SPOP), told Gotham Gazette.

“You can’t just be at senior centers because a lot of the older populations can’t get to senior centers,” Harvey adds. “Forty percent of clients at my agency are homebound, they cannot get out so you have to be able to deliver the services to their homes, there has to be support and recognition for that model, which is more expensive, but certainly less expensive than them ending up in hospitals or nursing homes.”

Harvey credits the First Lady for “bringing visibility to mental health” in New York City and is hopeful about the attention highlighting the need for greater services and treatment, especially for older adults. Senior centers cannot remain the sole focus, however, because “we need to have a broader view of how we’re going to reach [homebound] people,” she says.

McCray Bassett

Building a Better Mental Health Care System
DOHMH created the Center for Health Equity in 2014 under the direction of Commissioner Mary Bassett, hoping to employ a community-based approach toward healthy New Yorkers.

Marlon Williams works at the center as Director of Cross Agency Partnerships at DOHMH. He uses a “health-in-all-policies” (HiAP) approach, focusing on promoting community health in the work of different city agencies.

In an interview with Urban Omnibus, Williams spoke of external factors affecting the health of New Yorkers.

“Very few health outcomes actually have to do with your access to healthcare services,” Williams said. “Much of what determines your ability to live to your fullest health potential is about the physical and social context in which you live. Issues of race, discrimination, class, and poverty all have a tremendous impact on health and create specific health inequities.”

As has been cited in the recent Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak in the South Bronx, poverty and health care issues often overlap. The new Connections to Care program will soon be looking to contract with community-based organizations where vulnerable populations can be reached and people with symptoms or at risk of mental illness can be identified and helped. These can include people struggling with stable housing, employment, or sobriety; new or expecting parents; and out of work young adults.

McCray and her husband’s administration have announced programming so far that reflect the complexities of health, particularly mental health, disparities. McCray’s roadmap is all but certain to follow a HiAP model, including schools, jails, and other places where New Yorkers may access services and evaluating needs based on income, cultural background, and more.

Creating an effective and comprehensive mental health care system will require, Williams believes, that the city government figures out “place-based intervention to address, mitigate, or even prevent [health inequities] — so anyone anywhere in New York City has an opportunity for optimal health.”

Essential to the city's efforts will be tracking its programs and the work being done by community organizatins, service providers, and city agencies. With more investment comes more scrutiny and the need to prove the efficacy of devoting resources to new work.

In her recent op-ed for CNN, McCray extended a call for action to other local and national leaders, urging them to commit the time and resources to implement needed mental health care services.

“Stigma, a lack of resources and the marginalization of mental health for decades have left us a fragmented and broken system that must be fixed. Too many people's lives are at stake, in New York City and beyond.”

***
by Kaela Sanborn-Hum, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, August 31-September 4


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday September 4

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio rides the Staten Island Ferry, via Anna Sanders; de Blasio visits a homeless encampment, via The Daily News

BdB SI ferry

bdb encampment daily news

TOP FOUR STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. De Blasio & Homelessness: This week, Mayor de Blasio authorized a $10 million emergency measure to provide rental assistance to people facing homelessness. Not long after, the mayor announced the coming resignation of Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, after 20 months serving as deputy mayor of health and human services, where she oversees much of the administration's response to the ongoing homelessness crisis. Then, de Blasio visited a notorious homelessness encampment in the Bronx.

2. Cuomo to Puerto Rico: In the midst of the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, Gov. Cuomo "will lead a delegation to Puerto Rico to meet with local officials and discuss the Puerto Rican governments' ongoing healthcare crisis and economic challenges as well as the need for Washington to act." Leaving Monday (September 7) and returning Tuesday, the group will include financial experts and elected leaders, including City Council Speaker and Puerto Rico native Melissa Mark-Viverito, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

3. Cuomo Launches ‘Enough is Enough’: As students head back to college campuses, Governor Cuomo has kicked off his statewide awareness campaign to draw attention to his 'Enough is Enough' sexual conduct legislation, which will take effect in full later this fall. Legislation requires all colleges to adopt a set of comprehensive procedures and guidelines, including a uniform definition of affirmative consent, and expanded access to law enforcement.

4. Safe City Summer: New York City had the safest summer in over 20 years - the NYPD’s newly released crime statistics show that crime and shootings are at historic lows, along with over 40,000 fewer arrests made and 58,000 fewer criminal court summonses issued year-to-date over last year. New York City experienced the safest summer (June 1 through August 31) in the modern crime tracking era of the department. For that summer period, shootings and murders were the lowest they have ever been in the modern CompStat era; the NYPD recorded 82 murders and 345 shootings over the three summer months.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • $18 million in additional funding for final design and construction support services of the Brooklyn Bridge. Repairs for the iconic bridge are already $92 million over budget and a year behind schedule.

  • 25% wage advantage for New York women who belong to a union over women who aren’t union members

  • $1.25 million is how much a vacant lot in Crown Heights sold for after less than two days on the market.

  • 144 of the state’s struggling public schools have until Sept. 30 for administrators to finish improvement plans and file them with the state.

  • 180 feet is how high a mural of Pope Francis painted on the side of 494 Eighth Avenue in anticipation of the Pontiff's visit to the city will be.

THE FLASH:

  • 65 years ago around this time, on August 31, 1950, Mayor William O'Dwyer resigned amid rumors of a corruption scandal.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Led by New Office, De Blasio Forms His Brand of Public-Private Partnerships, by Brit Byrd

In Defense of Plazas, From Times Square to Brownsville (opinion)

Advocates Rally to Keep Solitary Confinement in Spotlight, by David King

Bill Puts City Landmarks Law At Serious Risk (opinon)

On Twitter, De Blasio Continues Recent Efforts at Direct Public Contact, by Ben Max

Map Launched to Bring Greater Accountability to Capital Spending, by Brit Byrd

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

  • Anthony Weiner on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show discussing a possible state constitutional convention and the governor-mayor relationship.
  • The New Yorker profiles NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.
  • Chalkbeat NY looks at the city DOE dragging its feet on allowing schools to change admissions policies aimed at increasing diversity.

***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!

***
by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Candidates Allege Wright Unfairly Influences Elections


Keith Wright parade

Keith Wright at the Puerto Rican Day Parade (photo: @KeithWright2016)


Afua Atta-Mensah, candidate for female district leader in Harlem's 70th Assembly District, had no illusions that running for office for the first time would be easy. But after campaigning against the entrenched Harlem political machine all summer she wonders if she would do it again. "Any newcomer is not taken kindly when they are running against the machine," said Atta-Mensah, a public defender who decided to run for the unpaid position because the job allows you to work for candidates at the grassroots level.

Her feeling is echoed by a number of candidates, including some already elected to district leader positions, but who are not supported by the County party. They say Assemblymember Keith Wright - who serves as the chair of the New York County Democratic Party and is head of the powerful Assembly Housing committee while representing the 70th AD - is unfairly using his influence and well-placed allies to tip the scales in his favor.

Wright, it is alleged, has brought political pressure for them to drop out of the little-watched races and has even used his allies at the Board of Elections to move polling places in a bid to reduce the Latino vote and ensure his loyalists are in place for what is expected to be a heated battle to replace Rep. Charles Rangel against one or more strong Latino candidates.

Since declaring for the office, Atta-Mensah has run up against the traditional roadblocks faced by new candidates, like fundraising and a lack of party apparatus and campaign network.

"These block parties they have, there is nothing like having Charlie Rangel campaign for you," said Atta-Mensah. "No matter what you think of him, he is simply a legend." But there have been additional obstacles for Atta-Mensah and other candidates for district leader and judicial delegate positions, including what they say amounts to drastic voter suppression that is meant to subvert the democratic process.

Recently the Board of Elections changed the locations of a number of polling places in Harlem adding to the confusion of a primary day that will be the first in recent memory to be held on a Thursday (September 10 - it was moved by the State to miss Rosh Hashanah). Turnout is expected to be miniscule at best and polling place changes are likely to further reduce the number of those who actually cast their votes.

A number of district leader incumbents and new candidates say the relocations are politically motivated and orchestrated by Assemblymember Wright's ally, Board of Elections clerk William Allen.

Allen, it happens, is also currently one incumbent male district leader in Assembly District 70. However, Board of Elections chair Michael Ryan told Gotham Gazette that he had Allen removed from making any decisions regarding the the 70th AD in accordance with his policy regarding anyone who is a candidate and a BOE employee.

"We have a policy in the agency in respect to political positions," Ryan told Gotham Gazette on Friday. "If an employee is a candidate and has an opponent we remove them from decision making. If they don't have an opponent it's not an issue. On July 17 I directed William Allen to refrain from activity in the 70th Assembly District."

Ryan added that no one had approached him about any possible conflict of interest before holding a Thursday press conference on the matter.

At that press conference at City Hall, several district leader candidates called this a major conflict of interest and said that Allen should step down from one of the two positions. They also said that it is all too easy for Wright and Allen to exert undue influence over poll workers, trained and hired by the BOE, and their efforts.

The uproar over the district races comes as Wright is set to run to replace Rangel against state Sen. Adriano Espaillat in a district notorious for political strife between black and Latino voters.

Joshua Bauchner, a judicial delegate on Atta-Mensah's ticket, said that he faced direct pressure from Wright's office to drop out of the race. He says Wright staffer Cathleen McCadden called him and told him his candidacy was an affront to the Assemblymember and that Wright intended to appoint the position.

"Cathleen told me these were appointed positions and asked me to withdraw," Bauchner told Gotham Gazette. "I told her I was extremely disappointed and that Wright should be encouraging debate. She asked what I would do. I said I intended to stay in because I thought there needed to be robust debate and that as County chair, Keith's job is to find people to run and increase voter involvement. She told me it would be an interesting summer."

McCadden denied the charge when reached by phone at Wright's district office, saying simply, "That's not the case," before insisting she would have to defer to Wright's press person. Gotham Gazette has not heard back from Wright's office since.

While Bauchner was the only subject willing to go on record, a number of other candidates and canvassers alleged to Gotham Gazette that Wright's office also pressured them to drop their bids for district leader or judicial delegate, or to stop working for certain campaigns. A few of these people say Wright called them personally and invoked his considerable influence both as County chair or head of the Assembly housing committee.

Bauchner said he was deeply disappointed by the call because the race is already expected to be low turnout and citing his proud involvement in politics, saying he's hosted candidates like Scott Stringer, Bill de Blasio, and even Wright at his home to boost voter education and involvement.

"Harlem is the last bastion of Tammany Hall," said Bauchner. "Keith and his generation of colleagues all suffered from the system in that they had to wait their turn for someone to turn 80-something before they could move up the ladder. I would think Keith Would support a robust election instead of a selection."

On Thursday, a group of district leaders and candidates held a press conference at City Hall to call for William Allen to resign his position as BOE clerk because of his connections to Wright. Marisol Alcantara, a District Leader in AD 70, told Gotham Gazette the polling site changes would make voting more difficult for Latino residents.

"We believe that the reason these voting sites were changed is to weaken new Americans, specifically in Northern Manhattan, from coming out to vote. And we believe that William Allen should do the honorable thing and step down," said Alcantara.

Alcantara says that she and other sitting district leaders are seeing County-backed challengers on the ballot, along with shifting poll sites. Alcantara has been honored by Espaillat for her work in the past.

John Ruiz, a District Leader for Assembly District 68, said he was concerned the polling place reshuffling will make it hard for his older constituents and those with health issues like asthma from making it to the polling place.

Maria Morillo, another uptown district leader, agreed with Ruiz. "People are telling me, 'I'm not going to vote, it's only district leader and it's too far to travel.' The polling site where I live, we have a lot of senior citizens, and a lot of them might not come out and vote. From 182 and Bennett, people have to travel seven blocks now to vote."

BOE head Michael Ryan told Gotham Gazette that politics had nothing to do with poll site moves, but instead, they were the result of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by a number of disabled voters concerned with poll site access.

Ryan did say that the BOE plans to review the changes to make sure they aren't actually creating a hardship. That review won't likely be complete until next May, and any other changes would have to be agreed upon and approved by a court. "What we are attempting to do now is to set up meetings with the plaintiffs to take a holistic look if some of the fixes created more of a burden. But so far the analysis has been done by an expert, but it hasn't included a look at distance or the terrain traversed that could have made it worse than it was before."

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



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