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


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Mayor de Blasio & the founders of Warby Parker (photo: @BilldeBlasio)


The de Blasio administration is attempting a new approach to a familiar game in municipal politics. Public-private partnerships, also known as P3s, are a popular tool throughout local, state, and federal government. They are often sought after as a way to formalize coalitions around an issue and take advantage of the flexibility and resources of the private sector to accomplish goals of government.

Run a search in any given political press room, and one is likely to find several announcements of public-private partnerships spanning a wide array of issues and taking many forms, from contracting agreements for infrastructure projects to philanthropic gifts.

The de Blasio administration, however, is seeking to deploy P3s differently than prior administrations. Like with the rest of his agenda, the mayor is infusing the time-honored tradition of leveraging the private sector for public good to focus as acutely as possible on reducing inequities.

Last year, de Blasio announced the new Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP) with a clear mandate in mind: bring entities together to address income inequality and opportunity gaps in New York City. While P3s are common in many administrations, establishing a new office with such a coherent objective has been billed as a noteworthy new approach. "We have been handed a very strong foundation by Mayor Bloomberg, and we look forward to building on it," de Blasio said last year.

Of course, de Blasio has also given the mandate to all of his agencies and offices, pre-existing and otherwise, requiring that commissioners explain efforts their departments are taking to combat inequality in the Mayor's Management Report.

At OSP, Gabrielle Fialkoff, senior advisor to the mayor and director of the office, highlights P3 work on mental health, youth employment, and early childhood education. Focusing on issues intersecting income inequality is seen as a next step from a legacy of strong private sector engagement in the Bloomberg administration, which would often welcome private sector funding and innovation, but with less of a pointed focus.

So far, the administration is enthusiastic about the results of the new approach. "Over the past year and half, we've worked together with New York's corporate and philanthropic sectors as well as the City's agencies and non-profits to leverage assets and strategies – and we've made great strides," Fialkoff said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

For a mayor seen with skepticism by many in the corporate world, the de Blasio administration has had to find willing partners. There are no shortage of non-profits for the city to work with, of course, and no matter how ambitious the P3 approach, there is always room to be doing more. Thus, the new office.

In July, the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, chaired by First Lady Chirlane McCray, announced a $30 mental health initiative, "Connections to Care," the largest public-private partnership thus far in the de Blasio administration. The Mayor's Fund, itself a not-for-profit, is partnering with the Corporation for National and Community Service, which is a federal agency, and private funders.

Not long after, de Blasio announced that Deputy Mayor Richard Buery will assume the role of coordinating mental health reform in the administration, working in partnership with McCray, who is creating a "mental health roadmap" that is said to be set for release later this month and is sure to rely on the city's work with non-profit and other non-governmental entities.

The Connections to Care Initiative looks to utilize outside funding to contract 12 community-based service providers to screen low-income residents for mental health and substance abuse disorders, and pay for a study tracking and assessing the impact of the program.

At its launch, Fialkoff hit at the fact that the initiative is not a expansion in the size of existing programs, but rather a partnership to bring new mental health training to service providers the city already relies upon. "In applying for the grant, she said, "the service provider partners with the mental health provider and they apply together. And the mental health provider will train the staff and then stay involved in the long-term through coaching and follow-up."

For youth employment, the Mayor's Fund and OSP looked to improve the city's existing programs by establishing the Center for Youth Employment, which aims to "substantially increase private sector participation by instituting reforms to make involvement more efficient, and offering increased support for employers throughout the process."

In a statement announcing the center's launch, Fialkoff commented that there had previously been "limited coordination between employers, city agencies, non-profits and the philanthropic community," but that the center would serve as a first step towards a more holistic system.

Earlier this week, the city announced a surge in the Summer Youth Employment program, credited to a $12 million increase in city funds. But the Center for Youth Employment is seeking to contribute beyond what may be capable through a simple bolstering of funds to the existing programs.

At its launch, the center noted that while the Summer Youth Employment program is already the largest of its kind in the country, even before this year's growth, it still was unable to serve some 90,000 applicants in 2014. And in 2015, an increase in applications outpaced the growth in jobs: more than 130,000 applied for 54,263 summer jobs. The center is aiming to fill that gap by "substantially increas[ing] private sector participation by instituting reforms to make involvement more efficient, and offering increased support for employers throughout the process." As it stands, city agencies and external partners work largely independently on various youth programs.

Another especially significant point of intersection for non-profits, for-profits, and city agencies is found in the growing Community Schools Initiative that de Blasio has made a centerpiece of his education agenda.

One recent high-profile P3 involving community schools is a partnership with stylish NYC-based eyewear brand Warby Parker to provide glasses to 20,000 students, free of charge, in conjunction with a vision screening program. Fialkoff and Buery praised the partnership as exemplary of combining the flexibility and generosity of the private sector with the reach of the public sector.

Adam Forman, Senior Researcher with the Center for an Urban Future, praised the P3 work being done through community schools, which will serve many of the city's neediest children. "They're trying to do a good job of making schools a hub of social service delivery, so it's not just education but in the after hours you have mental health care, tutoring, services like language training or job training for parents," said Forman.

P3 graphic

The idea of improved data sharing between existing partners has been a theme within the de Blasio administration, according to Forman, and one particular point of intersection for non-profits and city agencies to better share information has been within the Community Schools Initiative. Combining overlapping sets of data about students and parents already participating in services offered at Community Schools could both help expand coverage and reduce redundancies. As with virtually everything in the still-young de Blasio administration, results are hard to come by as of yet - it will take time to tell how effective these P3s or any new data sharing is.

Fialkoff ultimately hopes that the de Blasio administration's approach "will be a model for other municipalities on how we can harness the power of the private sector and the scale of government to truly change lives."

To some observers, though, while the overtones of targeting P3s specifically at inequality are new, the fundamentals of employing P3s for social services are continuous with decades of New York City governance.

"For social services in general, the city has been contracting out forever," said Forman, referring to the most basic public-private partnership relationship of the city paying for services.

Although programming and policy decisions are made in-house at agencies and departments, relying on private, not-for-profit organizations for actual service delivery is a well-worn practice. Because of such arrangements, the city's involvement in social services is deeper than many may often realize. Forman estimates, "New York City might have 300,000 people working for it officially on the payroll, but the city has over a million people working for it in terms of contracting out service delivery."

Accordingly, it is important to not characterize the de Blasio administration's "new approach" to P3s simply as a new expansion into more aggressive social service delivery. The administration is not so much reinventing the wheel of social services, but rather an attempt to coordinate with more nuance and efficiency, and potentially garner more trust and participation from the private and non-profit sectors.

The sheer ubiquity of the term "public-private partnership" does attract skepticism from parties interested in government transparency and accountability, and cognizant of infamous cases where local governments were on the bad end of deals with the private sector.

"The word 'public-private partnership' seems to evoke these warm feelings of these parties coming together and working together, which on some level does happen," said Shahrzad Habibi, Research and Policy Director at In the Public Interest, a think tank with a focus on transparency and accountability in P3s. "But the devil is in the details of these agreements...a lot of the times we don't know about these until they're already underway."

While cost-benefit analysis has grown in popularity as of late, including within the Obama White House, phrases that appear in the press releases for the Center for Youth Employment such as "return on investment" can perk the ears of those familiar with past horror stories involving compensation clauses in contracts with the private sector. Habibi offers an example of a tollway in Washington, DC built on a P3 model where the contract stipulated compensation if over a certain percentage of users were carpoolers.

Although the de Blasio administration heralds its new approach as an ambitious, coherent vision aimed towards tackling income inequality, ensuring the efficacy and transparency of each deal remains a case-by-case task.

In New York City, oversight of P3s entered into by city agencies is often left to the city Comptroller and the City Council. City Council Member Brad Lander offers that due to the sheer volume of P3s and their wide breadth of focus, "It's hard to figure out any uniform oversight framework, you really have to look at them on a case-by-case basis."

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by Brit Byrd, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Advocates Rally to Keep Solitary Confinement in Spotlight


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A rally to reform solitary confinement rules (photo: @NYCAIC)


Last November he United Nations committee on torture found that the United States was not in compliance with its Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment because of excessive use of solitary confinement in prisons across the country.

The UN found that use of solitary confinement of over 15 days amounts to torture. Nearly a year later New York state has no limit on how long an inmate can be held in solitary--some have served decades. With increasing focus on the conditions in prisons, New York is struggling to address flaws in its prison system that has led to deaths and that advocates say does irreversible mental and physical damage to inmates.

Up to 5,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement at one time in New York. Inmates in solitary spend 23 hours a day in an empty room with no outside contact. The brutal conditions faced by those subjected to this form of punishment, especially at New York City's most notorious jail, Rikers Island, have been splashed across front pages, the subject of major lawsuits and federal investigations, and the topic of debate throughout all levels of government.

Rikers has banned the use of solitary for inmates under 18 years of age and a plan is in the works to disallow the placement of anyone 21 and younger, moves made following a scathing federal report from the office of US Attorney Preet Bharara. Yet, bills that would limit the length of solitary confinement and who can be held in solitary have sat stagnant in the state legislature.

Activists hope to change that with a series of protests held on the 23rd of each month at locations across New York City. The rallies are held on the 23rd to draw focus to the fact that prisoners are held in solitary for 23 hours a day.

So far The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement have held two rallies. Their second rally, held in Rose Hill Park in the Bronx, aimed to relay the experience of Nicholas Zimmerman, an inmate in Attica who has been held in solitary confinement for the last ten of his 12 years in prison.

Zimmerman told advocates: "Since being in The SHU [Special Housing Unit], I have had a stroke, I have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and I have tried to commit suicide twice, and very often get these thoughts, but I fight really hard to keep my mind!"

Advocates have focused on relaying the human experience of being in solitary confinement as a way of getting the public to understand what it does to inmates and their families. Megan Crowe-Rothstein of The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement said that the rallies have been about keeping the issue alive in the grassroots by creating more understanding.

"People really become interested when they hear what [solitary confinement] does to people and their families--especially when it comes from people who have suffered and are brave enough to share their stories," said Crowe-Rothstein.

Supporters of solitary confinement, like the city's corrections officer union, say it is an important tool to protect guards and inmates from violence, as well as an effective behavioral tool. "You run a red light, you pay a ticket," corrections union president Norman Seabrook said at a City Council hearing in June of last year. "You punch an officer in the eye, you go to punitive segregation." (Punitive segregation is the term used for solitary confinement on Rikers.)

Advocates charge that the lack of interaction and sensory deprivation created in solitary can lead to severe physical and mental conditions.

Their argument is bolstered by the now-famous story of Kalief Browder. Browder was arrested at 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack and served three years at Rikers after he couldn't post bail, eventually being released without ever being charged. Browder spent nearly two years in solitary while at Rikers and suffered beatings by inmates and guards that were captured on video. Upon release, Browder struggled to put his life back together and eventually killed himself on June 8 of this year. Browder's death led to statements from major politicians, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, and a major invigoration of grassroots attention on both the bail and confinement aspects of the system.

"There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal, and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need," de Blasio said in a statement just after Browder's death. "On behalf of all New Yorkers, we send our condolences to the Browder family during this difficult time."

Bills that would restrict the use of solitary have been stalled in Albany for years. One piece of pending legislation, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT), would set major restrictions on how the punishment can be used.

The bill stipulates that no prisoner could be in solitary for more than a 15-day stretch, or for 20 days in a 60-day period. Prisoners who would be placed in solitary for more than 15 days would instead have to be sent to a separate residential rehabilitation unit with therapy and out-of-cell programming. The bill would ban the use of solitary confinement on prisoners under the age of 22 or above the age of 55, prisoners who are pregnant, who have a mental or physical disability or who are "perceived" to be LGBTQ.

This year the bill was referred to the Senate and Assembly corrections committees in January and never voted to the floor. In 2014, the same fate, as the bill's Assembly sponsor, Assemblymember Jeff Aubry, said the gubernatorial election would stymie any action.

A number of legislators concerned with criminal justice issues told Gotham Gazette that it was disheartening that the leadership of their houses did not take up the measures related to solitary given the public's focus on criminal justice issues stoked by police killings of unarmed civilians and deaths at Rikers Island. Legislators asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about angering leadership.

Advocates plan to continue their rallies into the next legislative session, giving themselves a head start on lobbying efforts when legislators return to Albany in January. The next rally will take place Wednesday, September 23 - the location has yet to be announced.

One of the roadblocks to reforming the state's use of solitary is the city's corrections officers union. Norman Seabrook, president of the 9,000-member union, lobbied hard to keep solitary confinement policy as it was in the city. He threatened to sue the Board of Corrections for every officer that was injured by an inmate after the board banned solitary confinement for those under 21.

The city's corrections board is expected to discuss further reforming solitary at upcoming meetings but no action is imminent. "Rikers gets so much attention for good reason," said Crowe-Rothstein, "but there are people in solitary across the state who are suffering and the state must act to change that."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect the fact that 16- and 17-year-olds are now banned from being placed in solitary confinement on Rikers Island and that banning those 21-and-under is in the works, but not final, as originally stated.

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


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Mayor de Blasio on the subway (@NYCMayorsOffice)


Mayor Bill de Blasio appears to be making a concerted effort to increase his direct, public interactions with New Yorkers. The mayor, who is more than halfway through his second year in office and has seen his public opinion poll numbers slide, took to Twitter Monday afternoon for a live chat, during which he replied eleven times to people who tweeted questions for him using the hashtag #BDBchat.

At just before 1 p.m., de Blasio's @BilldeBlasio account wrote "Hey New Yorkers, Bill here" and asked how people were preparing for the start of school. This was quickly followed by a tweet that said, "I'm excited to take your questions for the next few minutes. The team says I need a hashtag. Let's use: #bdbchat."

Monday's social media outreach is another in a series of recent efforts by the mayor to highlight the work of his administration and reassure New Yorkers that he is following through on his promises and that the city is headed in the right direction. It has been a tough stretch for the mayor including an unfavorable legislative session in Albany, an ongoing public feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, much media attention on the city's homelessness crisis, a battle with car-hailing company Uber, controversy over what to do about topless women in Times Square, and other setbacks and challenges. De Blasio has felt that the press has not treated him fairly and after repeatedly criticizing the media, he appears of late to have taken a more proactive approach to communicating directly with the public.

In less than two weeks, the mayor has made two radio appearances, published a lengthy op-ed column in the Daily News, and held his first Twitter chat. These efforts, along with a Saturday afternoon spent canvassing in Brooklyn to promote his pre-Kindergarten program and other public events have had the mayor interacting with constituents in distinct, direct ways. Since becoming mayor, de Blasio has stressed repeatedly that he hears from New Yorkers all the time when he's out and about in the city, sometimes in response to questions about whether he will hold any public town hall meetings.

Even without any acknowledgment of plans for town halls or a shift in communications strategy, there's a noticable difference of late as the mayor looks to correct any perception of his mayoralty as setting the city on the wrong path. The mayor appeared for more than 40 minutes on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show on August 19, taking several listener calls. He then appeared on Hot 97's morning radio show on August 25, spent time Saturday afternoon promoting pre-K in East Flatbush, and saw his column in the Daily News on Sunday before taking to Twitter Monday afternoon. Not to mention de Blasio taking in a weekend series of Mets games in Queens (the Mets were hosting de Blasio's hometown favorite team, the Boston Red Sox).

A mayoral spokesperson wrote Gotham Gazette to say that "The Mayor is very interested in connecting with New Yorkers directly, both to hear their concerns and thoughts, and to share information about his administration. He will continue to look for creative opportunities to engage with New Yorkers."

On Twitter Monday, de Blasio answered a fraction of the questions sent his way, ignoring the many tweeted by members of the city press corps, who had not been told about the chat ahead of time. The social media outreach was not listed on de Blasio's public schedule sent to members of the media and was given at least an air of spontaneity. De Blasio has said in the past that he does not control his own Twitter account and it is unclear if the mayor himself was typing his tweets on Monday, but the mayor's office assures Gotham Gazette that the answers coming from de Blasio were his.

In answering questions tweeted at him, de Blasio chose a couple of less substantive ones, answering that he is 6'6" tall when asked his height, for example. Otherwise, de Blasio was asked and answered questions about affordability, homelessness, environmental protection, and education. In brief answers that are all that the medium allows, de Blasio provided the link to his OneNYC plan aimed at addressing sustainability and affordability and highlighted efforts to combat homelessness and keep rent increases down in rent-regulated apartments.

On education, de Blasio replied to one particular question two times, writing, "We're focused on improving teacher training and retaining high quality educators" and that his administration has "Moved away from over-reliance on high-stakes testing and ended the misleading grading of schools."

The mayor is due in front of a large group of New Yorkers Monday evening as he is set to make remarks in Queens at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which has just begun. It's unclear if de Blasio will take the opportunity to highlight any of his policies.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

Map Launched to Bring Greater Accountability to Capital Spending


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A screenshot of the new map launched by Council Member Brad Lander


They are notoriously over-budget and late. Capital projects - infrastructure investments in things like transportation, parks, libraries, and schools - regularly leave members of the public wondering if their elected officials are competent or honest.

On a large-scale, think 2nd Avenue Subway, 7-line extension, and East Side Access. But, there are also many, many smaller capital projects all over the city.

As participatory budgeting has taken hold in about two dozen New York City Council districts, residents can see capital spending and project progress on a small-scale, down-the-block basis from the very start. One of the keys to the “PB” process is that district residents themselves get to design and decide where government money gets spent in their neighborhoods. Still, it is not always easy to keep track of these projects, which can often take longer than residents would like.

Now, New Yorkers of the city’s 39th council district have a new government accountability tool at their disposal. And, it is one that could be a model to bring greater transparency and urgency to capital projects across the city. Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander has published a new comprehensive map of ongoing capital projects in his district, which stretches from Cobble Hill to Park Slope to Kensington.

The interactive map, now available on the council member’s website, designates projects both in progress and completed, and whether or not they were funded through participatory budgeting. By simply clicking an icon on the map, users can find out more detail about each project in particular, including what year it was funded, the amount allocated to the project, and its current completion status.

Lander map zoom in on project

The tool, a Google Maps embed created by Pratt Institute summer intern Annie Levers (and a feasible project for anyone with a gmail account) is not being billed as the next big, highfalutin tech solution, but rather a simple common-sense step towards improving accountability in the city’s capital contracts.

The idea comes from desire for more transparency in the way that the city handles its capital projects. Discussing the tool and larger issue at hand, Lander points to the Parks Capital Tracker, introduced last year by the city Parks Department, as a good first step toward setting a new standard of transparency, but noted that council member-funded capital projects were still not included in discretionary funding information publicly provided the City Council.

Ideally, Lander considers the map a step toward a larger, more robust citywide system for tracking the ways in which public money is spent. Even though overhead costs were minimal and the data accessible to all council members, Lander does not expect his colleagues to follow suit and publish maps of their own.

“I think the long term answer is for the City of New York to provide a portal for all capital projects,” Lander told Gotham Gazette. “I am developing legislation that would require the city to provide something like this -- or the Parks Capital Tracker -- for all city capital projects, whether funded by an agency, City Hall, or by the Council.”

“I don't think the long-term answer is every council member developing their own map and database,” Lander said. Rather, “the long-term answer is a citywide system that tracks all capital projects.”

Such a system, Lander hopes, would be a resource for both individuals seeking information about a particular project in their neighborhood and for more formal research purposes, including the city’s own efforts to increase efficiency and accountability.

For instance, Lander offers that “it may be that a particular contractor works for three or four different agencies, but if you track it over time, you see that that contractor is persistently late or persistently coming in over budget. So there's a value in systems efficiency, there's value in meeting questions of equity: how's the number being spent in between neighborhoods; evaluating different priorities.”

This effort runs parallel to a broader theme within the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, Lander’s predecessor in the Council: simplifying and streamlining the city’s capital investments.

“I think [improved accountability] has been a theme in the de Blasio administration on the capital budget side,” says Adam Forman, of the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank. City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report in February looking at the rates at which capital projects are begun in the fiscal year they are supposed to, showing some of the inefficiencies in capital processes over the past ten years.

Meanwhile, Forman adds that due to the time that it takes to design contracts, bid them out, and finally get shovels in the ground, the City Council often authorizes some $15 billion of capital spending a year, “knowing full well” that only some $8-10 billion will actually be contracted out.

Simply opening up the details of capital contracts to public scrutiny could contribute more pressure towards a model where, as Forman puts it, “the money that we authorize to spend, let's actually spend it in that fiscal year.”

Bolstering a sense of public stewardship
A second goal of the map will be more difficult to quantify than improved contracting accountability. Lander hopes that making information more available, and importantly, more digestible will help bolster a sense of public stewardship in capital projects around his district.

Although increased accountability will be a main selling point when presenting legislation to the Council, the map was originally born out of a desire to merely better present updates about ongoing participatory budgeting projects within the district.

Lander map various

Lander says that a key value add of participatory budgeting, currently in its fifth year in the 39th District, is that it “enables people to feel like stewards of pieces of the public realm. They develop the ideas for them, they lobby for them, and so they feel a stronger sense of stewardship around the projects that they voted and advocated for, so that they're eager to know their status.”

“Because people voted on them, we felt a responsibility to provide updates on where these projects are,” Lander said. “And until now, we just had a big [Microsoft] Word-like webpage, where you have to scroll down and you see each year's project and which ones won, and look at it, and there it is. Now that we're in year five, we realized that's not the best way to keep people updated.” Thus, the new interactive map.

Constituent Julie Bero, a Windsor Terrace resident and member of the District Committee for Participatory Budgeting, agrees that the map has a deeper potential as a tool for public education. “Just a few years into the process, I think the effectiveness of PB is not quickly clear because many of the projects are not yet complete,” said Bero.

The PB process is largely run as a volunteer effort, where delays and bureaucratic holdups can present a challenge to recruiting and retaining volunteers, and winning over skeptics. Bero explains that “so much in our culture is about instant gratification and some people have expressed frustration that projects that won funding early on aren't already done.”

Bero thinks that tools such as the mapping project could compensate for the lack of feedback for many projects so far. Bero hopes that in several years, when a variety of PB projects finally are really bearing fruit, that a sense of communal stewardship and accomplishment may be more visible. “But in the meantime, this map can help residents of our district to understand the progress that's already been made and look forward to what's on the horizon.”

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by Brit Byrd, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

How To Become a New York City Council Member


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Mayor de Blasio, a former Council member, with several current CMs (William Alatriste)


Ask any New York City Council member and they'll tell you— there is no set formula that will send an aspiring candidate to City Hall.

"If you want to be a lawyer, the path is the same: get a bachelor's degree, take the LSATs, go to law school, take the bar exam, and voila, you're a lawyer," Ritchie Torres, the 51-member Council's youngest rep, told Gotham Gazette. "Whereas in politics, there is no single path."

Torres' ascent to deputy leader in the Council— he is an openly gay, Afro-Latino, college drop-out who grew up in public housing in the Bronx— is perhaps most emblematic of this truth, reflected in the broad expanse of backgrounds present in today's class of Council members.

The sole member of the Council with a doctorate of medicine, Mathieu Eugene, has another unique story. "I grew up in a country of many challenges. If somebody told my mother when I was a child, 'your son will be an elected official in New York,' she would've said, 'you're crazy,'" said the Haitian-born Eugene, of Brooklyn.

But while it's true that there's not a single path to becoming a member of the New York City Council, it is also true - as indicated by data and Council members' own admissions - that some paths are more commonly travelled than others.

Gotham Gazette found that nearly 40 percent of current Council members have served on the staff of a Council member or state Assembly member, with 60 percent of that group serving as chief of staff; and nearly 30 percent of Council members served on a community board.

Several Council members have come to the body directly from the state Assembly, the path being taken by soon-to-be Council Member Joseph Borrelli, of Staten Island. Borrelli is running unopposed in a special election to replace former Council Member Vincent Ignizio, who resigned recently to take a non-profit leadership job.

Meanwhile, last Thursday's primary day saw Barry Grodenchik emerge from a crowded Democratic field in a race to fill a vacant Queens Council post. Grodenchik, a former Assembly member and current aide to the Queens Borough President, still has to defeat a general election opponent, but is favored to do so.

Asked about his government experience preparing him for the Council, Grodenchik emailed Gotham Gazette to say that elected officials deal with many challenges in office, one being "the level of bureaucracy you sometimes face in navigating government on behalf of constituents." He believes that "experience doing so matters - and I believe my experience in the Assembly, as well as at [Queens] Borough Hall will help me be a better Councilman if elected."

Grodenchik continued to say that throughout his "career in public service" he's "gained insight on how to get things done in government." His experience likely appeals to voters, especially the small number willing to vote on a Thursday in an "off-year." It is also what led him to garner the support of the Queens County Democratic "establishment," which helped him get elected - establishment support is often a key to electoral victory in City Council races.

While many Council members come from other parts of government, including elected bodies like the Assembly, their predecessors' staffs, and local community boards, others come from community organizing and labor. Some enter the Council from the private sector, but usually have community ties to speak of.

Gotham Gazette spoke with current Council members about their journeys to City Hall and how the demographics of the Council are changing.

Chief of Staff
Many Council members who served in the role of chief of staff look back on the job as a pivotal position that gave them the tools to be an effective Council member.

"I think that anyone considering running for office should have some experience in government because I think it's important for people to know about the job that they are seeking," Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos said. Kallos served as chief of staff to former Assembly Member Jonathan Bing. "I can say that being a chief of staff, I was able to learn about the most important part of the job, which is constituent services and helping individuals with their cases."

Kallos also said he was able to learn about "how the legislative process works, how to get things done in a collegial environment...and ultimately as a chief of staff you get to learn a lot about the different jobs and what is necessary to run a well-functioning office."

Queens Council Member Costa Constantinides told Gotham Gazette his experience working as deputy chief of staff to former Council Member James Gennaro provided him with a strong skillset on which to run.

"When I made the choice to run for City Council I had a foundation in policies and I felt that was really important," Constantinides said. "I talked about, 'I have a record of getting bills passed, I have a record of knowing how this institution works, I have a record of taking on real fights already.'"

Council Member Torres, a former constituent liaison for now colleague Council Member Jimmy Vacca, said the role of chief of staff is particularly crucial: it allows for "far more access to the political establishment" than employees in a Council member's district office have.

"Yes, one path to elected office could be employment in the office of an elected official, but within that category there are huge differences between chief of staff and the role of a constituent organizer," Torres said. "The center of political action tends to be in City Hall and if you're in the district office, you're disconnected from the political dynamics."

Underlining the importance of working for an elected official: when asked what advice they would give a college student aspiring to serve as a Council member, each current member interviewed by Gotham Gazette suggested interning for a Council member or working on a campaign for City Council.

Community Boards & Name recognition
For many interested in helping their community, joining a community board is a natural first step, and one that may develop into the desire to run for City Council. For some, the perception exists that community boards may be used a springboard or requisite stop along the road for aspiring elected officials.

"Absolutely, community boards are supposed to be a voice for the community and naturally those that are providing that voice will be interested [in becoming a Council member], but often times— and one of the things I'm trying to discourage— is a place where it becomes a solely-owned subsidiary of the political establishment where it just ends up being full of people running for office," said Kallos, who served on Community Board 8. "So there needs to be a delicate balance."

To that end, Kallos is pushing community board reform legislation, including term limits.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a former Council member and community board member now in charge of appointing community board members, sees the boards practically, as a place where aspiring Council members can learn about the issues facing their community. If successful and effective as a board member, Brewer says, individuals can make a name for themselves and help their communities.

Brewer disagrees with Kallos' assertion that community boards are overly politicized (a fact they both amiably alluded to in interviews— Brewer is opposed to Kallos' term limits bill), noting that her office interviewed over 700 community board candidates this year alone.

"If you are going to be on the community board, you're going to take it seriously. So I think we are beyond the politicization, what's happened in the past is in the past," Brewer said, referring to more stringent reforms in the application and appointment processes now in place. "So I think people who think they're going to get on [the board] just so they can run for office— I mean it could happen, if you do a really good job on the community board then you should run, in my opinion, because you know the issues."

Brewer says it is good that for aspiring elected officials community boards can be a training ground and necessary step.

"I think unless you have some extraordinary circumstance in terms of name recognition, which I did not, and most people don't, then if you're a college student and you want to be a lawyer and then come back and run for office, you really do need to get on the community board, make a difference somehow," Brewer said, citing Helen Rosenthal and Corey Johnson as examples of current Council members who showed promise as leaders on their community boards. Rosenthal was elected in 2013 to replace Brewer on the Council.

"I have found it now that I'm on the Council really helpful that I was on the community board for so long," Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette. "I was on it for 15 years, so when issues come up I have a long history on them...So now as a Council member, when these same types of issues come up, I have a good toolbox to draw from."

Name recognition often rules the day when it comes to elections, and for local races, that neighborhood notoriety can be essential. Name recognition can also come in other ways.

"Look, you have the pure insider and the pure outsider," Torres said. "I'm neither purely an insider or purely an outsider, I think most of us fall in a spectrum in between, but I think what was unique about my candidacy was that no one had ever heard of me before. I think most Council members have much more name recognition with the political establishment than I did when I ran for public office."

In speaking of the importance of name recognition, Manhattan BP Brewer referenced the Weprins, of Queens— Assembly Member David Weprin and his brother, former Council Member Mark Weprin. The Weprin brothers have each held both the Assembly and Council seats that they were holding until Mark resigned this spring to work for Governor Cuomo; their father Saul was the Speaker of the Assembly.

Then there is the Rivera family— Assembly Member Jose Rivera and former Council Member Joel Rivera— for over 20 years Joel held the seat Torres now occupies.

Before joining Congress, U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke succeeded her mother Una Clarke in the City Council. Current Council Member Inez Barron and her husband, Assembly Member Charles Barron, completed an easy seat swap recently when he was term-limited out of the Council.

But according to political consultant and executive director of the New York State Democratic Party Basil Smikle, candidates with private sector backgrounds who toe the edge of what Torres referred to as the "outsider" side of the spectrum still can be appealing to voters.

"Voters tend to respond to candidates who can convey both an understanding for the issues as well as a passion to actually want to impact them. So you can be active in your community and not convey to a voter that you want the job. You can work in the private sector and be able to speak of a vision with a fervor that come across to the voter," Smikle said.

"I think ultimately no matter what path you take," Smikle continued, "having that so-called 'fire in the belly' always is important no matter where you come from and no matter what your trajectory. Having said that, I think even if you come from the private sector you still need to have a sense of what is going on with the voters in your neighborhood. You have to know that. A voter needs to know you can take whatever it is in your background up until this point and apply it to their situation."

Labor unions
"Unions are the other place people come out of," Brewer said. "It's where Melissa [Mark-Viverito, the current Speaker] came out of, where [Council Member] Annabel Palma came out of...You have to have some unions with you to win."

Council Member Daniel Dromm was a delegate and chapter chair for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) before he became a Council member and enjoyed the union's support once he decided to run. Dromm told Gotham Gazette that the UFT had thrown him an early endorsement in 2008 a few months before term limits were extended, enabling the Council member he was running against to seek a third term.

"So the UFT had to make a decision again the following June what to do because the incumbent who was also very supportive of the union decided she was going to run, and what they decided to do was do a dual endorsement," Dromm said. "But at that point I had gotten what I had needed out of the endorsement from the UFT, so it was very helpful to me in that sense and gave my candidacy a lot of legitimacy."

It is well-known that in Democrat-heavy New York City, unions can make a difference both in building legitimacy and name-recognition, but also in helping get out the vote come primary day. New York City Council elections often see crowded Democratic primaries, as was the case when Rosenthal was elected in 2013 and the primary that Grodenchik just won in Queens.

Smikle told Gotham Gazette that earning the support of unions is important both operationally and symbolically.

"You're still looking to represent districts that chances are have labor union representation among your constituents. If you're living in an area that has a large number of TWU workers, [for example], that union endorsement is very important. If other unions come on board, it looks like you are a friend to the working people, to laborers, and you get the symbolism that's attached to that as well because you're not just a friend to organized labor, you're a friend to people's aspirations. That is extraordinarily important," Smikle said.

The shift in demographics
The power unions hold to get candidates elected underlines the importance of having contacts in politics.

"If you're a poor kid from the Bronx without a college education and no position in politics, for all intents and purposes you have no means of fundraising," Torres said. "You have no social capital, no economic capital, no rolodex you can tap into for fundraising purposes. So you either need to have some position— even if you're at the margins of the political establishment, you need some position in politics— or you need to be part of the professional class."

Brewer, however, said that being a part of the professional class may actually put candidates at a disadvantage compared to people involved in community organizing or activism.

"If you work on Wall Street and then decide to come back and run, then you'll be able to raise money but you won't know the people...In Manhattan you can always raise more money whether you're on a community board, work for an elected official, or not," Brewer said.

The public campaign financing system in New York City, which provides public matching funds for small donations, "gives you the opportunity," Brewer said, "to raise a little money and still win. What you have to do is develop your own list. Initially you run and win financing-wise on friends and family."

At a forum hosted by the Campaign Finance Board in July, Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, also emphasized the importance of the city's matching funds program in equalizing the playing field for aspiring Council members.

"If it were not for the Campaign Finance Board I would never have been elected to City Council. I did not come from a political family, I came from a single parent household, we didn't come from money," Ulrich told attendees.

Constantinides also cited the CFB's matching program as being a game changer, adding the importance of the change in term limits.

"That's a huge, huge part to seeing this demographic shift," Constantinides said, referring to the changes in the age, race, and ethnic diversity in the Council. "Term limits have changed, it's leveled the playing field, it's allowed people to come in and say- you have matching funds, you're not worried about raising 300-, 400-thousand dollars, you're focused on raising a certain amount and then going out and making your case to your constituents."

The demographic shift to which Constantinides references came at the confluence of the implementation of stricter term limits and the rise of the Progressive Caucus, a liberal bloc of Council members formed in 2010 in response to the Bloomberg administration's more conservative policies and the city's shifting population.

"What you actually saw was this dramatic change in the Council where progressive Council members are helping other progressive Council members [and candidates]," Kallos, who was elected to the Council in 2013 and joined the Progressive Caucus upon taking office in 2014, said. "So whereas typically you'll have seen independent expenditures from the Real Estate Board of New York shaping elections, now what you'll see is organized activity by [progressive] members trying to elect more. So I think what you saw was a much more progressive body getting elected by virtue of members making that happen."

The rise of the caucus, which began with 12 and now includes 19 of the 51 council members (with several other close allies who are not official members), was viewed by many as a shift away from machine politics and toward community organizing and advocacy. But Torres, a caucus member whose ascent into politics is emblematic of this shift, said he thought the picture was more complicated.

"It is certainly true that you have an organized progressive movement, progressive infrastructure that operates independently of the traditional centers of political power, and it is true that the progressive movement has made a priority out of electing younger people to public office, people of color to public office, and more women in public office," Torres, who is 27, said. "So that is true, but I will caution you not to distinguish or completely separate the progressive movement from the establishment."

Even the progressive movement can be in danger of becoming an insider's game, where the progressives who get the endorsements are the ones who have the relationships and can raise money, Torres said. There is also always a question of how closely aligned unions and progressives are with the different county political machines.

"Even in the progressive world, the two currencies are the same: money and relationships," Torres said. "I think someone like me has a greater chance of succeeding in the new world in which we are operating, but I want to caution that. Relationships and money continue to be the dominant forces of politics."

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by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

State Constitutional Convention: Holy Grail or Pandora's Box?


convention

photo: @NYSenDems


With a legislature now routinely shaken by major indictments, pressing issues left perpetually unresolved, and voter dissatisfaction with state government on the rise, some see a constitutional convention as perhaps the only way to bypass the legislature and institute serious reform. It just so happens that in 2017 voters will get to decide whether to have such a convention.

"A lot of the reforms people want to see don't need a convention to be instituted, but political will on the part of the legislature," said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group, who was involved in the last conversation about holding a constitutional convention.

"The constitutional convention becomes a vessel that some pour their hopes into," says Horner. But, as supporters of a convention discovered in 1997, public support for conventions has proven to be unreliable when it comes time to vote to hold one.

This summer, a July 15 Siena College poll found 90 percent of New York voters feel government corruption is a serious problem. The same poll found that 69 percent of voters surveyed supported having a constitutional convention, which could reconfigure the state's governing document.

The poll results have boosted the hopes of those who see a constitutional convention, which would occur in 2019 if approved by voters in 2017, as the only real chance to fix state government. And yet the poll also contains chilling, bad news for those advocates: 75 percent of voters surveyed say they haven't heard anything about a constitutional convention.

Delegates could examine an untold number of changes to the constitution, but some of the areas advocates express interest in are better balancing the power between the executive and legislature; changing term limits; creating a full-time legislature; making pay-to-play politics illegal; and changing the redistricting process.

It's a familiar position for advocates who were involved the last time the topic came up in a serious way. Public support for constitutional conventions has proved to be a fragile thing in the past. "I think in general there was a lot of public discontent with state government not meeting budget deadlines; the business community was more upset then about taxes, as the government was less responsive to their concerns, and there was deep concern about local government issues," said professor Gerald Benjamin, who was appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo as Research Director of the Temporary State Commission on Constitutional Revision during the last discussion of a constitutional convention.

"There was a broad, but not deep, willingness to have a convention--but it dissipated when groups who were opposed to it for various reasons attacked it," Benjamin says.

State law requires that voters be asked every two decades whether they want a constitutional convention. The last such vote was in 1997. If the voters' answer is yes, they elect delegates to represent them at the convention, and any convention-negotiated changes are then put in front of voters as ballot referendums.

The last convention occurred in 1967 and was actually called by the legislature. Voters at that time said no to the proposed changes. The last voter-called convention occurred in 1938; voters rejected conventions in 1957, 1977, and 1997.

In 1997 initial public support for a convention was dissolved by the efforts of groups that were concerned measures they favored in the constitution would be done away with by conservative delegates. The League of Women Voters led opposition, attacking the delegate selection process for being accessible only to politicians and other connected individuals. "The League successfully argued that the convention would essentially be run by the same people who run the capital," said Horner.

But the League wasn't the only group opposed. Public labor unions poured considerable cash into the opposition movement, fearing pension guarantees could be stripped away. Environmental groups joined the opposition movement in fear that provisions that keep state parks "forever wild" would be excised. That fear stems in part from the fact that convention delegates are elected based on state Senate districts, which are drawn in favor of Republicans (the Assembly has Democrat-friendly lines).

"Some view the constitutional convention as putting state parks and other constitutional issues at risk," said Horner. "Last time there was public support, as Mario Cuomo created the rationale for a fourth term around a convention. And [Governor] Pataki later supported it, but it went down in flames because of the efforts of those who opposed it based on what they could lose over the efforts of those who had hopes for what they could gain."

Former Assembly Member Richard Brodsky, now a senior scholar at Demos who calls himself "the last surviving progressive supporter" of a constitutional convention, said that the fears of many of these groups are well founded. "Those issues should weigh very heavily on the conversation," said Brodsky. "There is a lot of good stuff in the constitution we don't want to lose. However, voters in this state are by and large thoughtful and educated. Those issues are likely to be supported again."

Horner said it is far too early in the current process to tell if the pro-convention side will have funds that match those of the opposing sides.

New York City voters have historically had the most say over whether there is a constitutional convention as mayoral elections fall at the same time as the ballot question is put to voters. That makes it easier for those for and against the convention to target the city's generally liberal voting base in the lead up to a convention vote. This time the vote will likely coincide with Mayor Bill de Blasio's re-election bid.

Convention supporters like Brodsky have proposed legislation that could alleviate concerns about delegate selection. One Brodsky-backed measure would have created a public financing system for delegates so that average citizens could run. It also would have changed the way voters selected delegates, making voters select individual delegates rather than a ticket.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican, has advocated banning delegates from being elected officials or lobbyists. "Our first priority must be to eliminate politics from the delegate selection process," said Kolb in a statement. "My "Peoples Convention To Reform New York Act" would require any elected or party official to vacate their office in order to serve as a delegate; and prohibit delegates from accepting contributions from PACs or party campaign committees. It is imperative that political influence is removed."

Horner said he expects a spike in debate over the convention in 2016 as reformers introduce bills to change the delegate selection process. "The problem some see is regular people--a teacher, a cop--would lose their career track if they ran as a delegate. They don't have the flexibility of a lawyer or a career politician. And who has the apparatus to run as a delegate other than an elected official?"

Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters said her group is focused on public education and has yet to take a position this time around. Her organization and other groups are teaming with the Rockefeller Institute for a series of public forums to inform New Yorkers about delegate selection and what issues are likely to come up.

"We want to make this more a people's convention than a politicians' convention," said Bartoletti. "I've lost a lot of faith in what the legislature will do. So we want to make sure we capture the public's imagination on how important this is. The more the public is involved, the better checks and balances we will have on the governor and legislature."

Many scholars and good-government groups are currently working on formulating proposals on how to reform the delegate process and how best to revamp the constitution, but many groups have yet to take a firm position.

"What we are really looking at is citizen education and at the end of 2016 we will come up with a position if we think enough changes have been made around the delegate selection process," said Bartoletti.

Brodsky said that voter education is key at this stage in the process and is encouraged that it has begun so early. "We have to start with very basic things, instead of focusing on ethics or reform of government. What is really important here is the social content: the rights of working people, the right to wilderness, a bill of rights - things that have a tremendous impact on people's daily lives."

Brodsky said that unlike the federal constitution, which is a "how-to document," most state constitutions are "what-to-do documents."

"The public needs to become aware of the social impact, the daily-life impact of the constitution," Brodsky argues. "We need to focus on questions like: 'Are the state's privacy laws adequate,' 'Should there be a right to higher education,' 'Should the state be able to use authorities to give public tax dollars to private corporations?'"

Brodsky says these are issues that may galvanize public interest, rather than questions of process and procedure.

Kolb stressed that while delegates would set the agenda, he would "hope that a Constitutional Convention would address areas such as ethics reform, government spending, debt accumulation, and unfunded mandates – just to name a few."

Meanwhile, many interested parties are watching to see how much energy Gov. Andrew Cuomo expends on the issue of holding a convention.

"Reformers were remarkably reticent due to concerns about who might be elected as delegates," said Professor Benjamin of efforts related to the 1997 ballot question. "The legislature was presumptively hostile, was hands-off, but the one thing we did have was the great advocate for constitutional change in Mario Cuomo. Had he been re-elected I believe we would have had a larger conversation, as gubernatorial involvement has been shown to make the question of a convention much closer."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed support for a convention during his 2010 run for governor but has been quiet on the topic recently. Benjamin points out that most governors are opposed to the status quo, but this time reformers have Cuomo's budget powers in their sights.

In an interview earlier this year, Brodsky told Gotham Gazette that he thought one of the prime questions facing a constitutional convention would be the governor's considerable budget powers, which basically allow the governor to enact the executive budget through extenders, without legislative approval.

Cuomo spokesperson Richard Azzopardi told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo still supports a constitutional convention.

Talk of a possible convention started earlier than normal this cycle as advocates began calling for a convention in light of the 2009 Senate coup, which was enabled in part by Gov. Eliot Spitzer's abrupt resignation. State law did not specifically allow for Gov. David Paterson to name his successor as Lieutenant Governor. The Lieutenant Governor would have theoretically been able to break the coup by voting with Senate Democrats. Paterson eventually did name Richard Ravitch to the position at the urging of good government groups, and the appointment held up in the courts. Regardless, the drama did lead to conversation about a convention.

Mario Cuomo suggested in 2009 that rank-and-file legislators could support a convention as a means of regaining credibility with the public. "Why are people afraid of fundamental change?" Cuomo asked The New York Times rhetorically. "You don't like three men in a room, or three women in a room? Then change it."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

The Week That Was in New York Politics, August 17-21


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday August 21

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio at a Thursday ground-breaking for what will be affordable housing for low-income seniors and Mayor de Blasio on Thursday evening at the site of an explosion, both via the Mayoral Photography Office on flickr

de blasio groundbreaking far rockaway

de blasio school explosion

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. De Blasio Toplessness Task Force: On Thursday Mayor de Blasio announced that a multiagency task force will be studying the "legal and oversight issues with regulating topless individuals and costumed characters." The task force will be co-chaired by Police Commissioner Bratton and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, it will also include representatives from the Manhattan District Attorney's office, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Law Department, and more. The issue, mostly focused around topless women working for tips in Times Square, led to much controversy over the idea, presently forcefully by Bratton, that the city could undo the pedestrian plazas in Times Square.

[IS IT TIME FOR THE MAYOR TO DO TOWN HALLS?]

2. State Emergency System: On Monday Governor Cuomo announced the "NY Responds" initiative, which will "coordinate and strengthen the State's emergency preparedness," in large part due to a new universal emergency management software system. Every county will have access to this software at no personal cost and will allow vital "disaster-related" information to be shared and dispersed.

[ASSEMBLY TRANSPARENCY GROUP OPERATES IN SECRET]

3. Legionnaires' Outbreak Over, Source ID'd: An AC unit from a historic Bronx hotel, the Opera House Hotel, had strains of legionella that matched the strains from patients infected in the outbreak that killed twelve. The Opera House stated that its cooling system is only two years old and that it will go beyond new regulations and test the cooling tower every 30 days (instead of every 90 days now required). Over 18 buildings with cooling towers tested positive for the bacteria.

4. Hudson Tunnel Meeting Without Cuomo: Governor Cuomo has said repeatedly that the Hudson Tunnel, which is used by New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, is not "his tunnel." He declined to attend a meeting with federal and NJ officials earlier this week, saying he's happy there is progress being made, but that NY will not be paying for a new tunnel. Even though New York doesn't own the tunnel, the passengers who use it are key to the New York economy.

5. Public Advocate Sues City Again: Public Advocate Letitia James is suing the city, again, this time saying that the Department of Education is violating a law that requires air conditioned buses for children with disabilities when temperatures are above 70 degrees. James first complained to the city last summer and even though reps assured her that the problem had been fixed, she continued to hear from parents and students, in some cases about temperatures reaching 90 degrees on the buses. [ Read our in-depth look at James' use of the public advocate's office and her use of a bigger budget to hire lawyers and sue the city at a rapid pace ]

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 10% decrease in taxi pickups in the first six months of 2015 means that the yellow cabs' pickups were down 8.5 million, from 85.5 million last year to 77 million this year.
  • $8 million in federal grants will be used to fund new screening initiatives from the State Health Department for colorectal cancer, announced Governor Cuomo earlier this week.
  • 16,000 supporters of raising the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 an hour gave public comment to the state's Department of Labor.
  • 1,000 workers are collectively owed $3.7 million after contracters failed to pay the prevailing wage on public projects over the past 10 years. Comptroller Stringer announced on Wednesday that his office is unable to locate workers but urged people to check his website to see if they qualified.

THE FLASH:

  • Eight years ago around this time, on August 22, 2007, a bill was introduced "allowing schoolchildren to carry cellular phones to and from school for safety purposes." Mayor Bloomberg eventually vetoed the bill. 
  • Two years ago around this time, on August 16, 2013, the New York Times released results of its poll of New Yorkers on Mayor Bloomberg's legacy, his effectiveness and priorities. Over two-thirds of New Yorkers say New York City's schools have stayed the same or worsened, while most New Yorkers agreed that his policies favored the rich over the middle class and the poor.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

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

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

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

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max

Is It Time For The Mayor To Do Town Halls?


bdb stickball

Mayor de Blasio greets a constituent (photo: @BilldeBlasio)


Scott Stringer has led 16 town hall-style events since becoming Comptroller; Letitia James, the Public Advocate, hosted her 28th on Wednesday night in Brooklyn. As has been well-documented, Mayor Bill de Blasio - along with Stringer and James, one of three popularly-elected citywide officials - has not yet held a town hall event himself.

Is it time for the mayor to host one?

As de Blasio and his team wrestle with how to combat sagging public opinion poll numbers, what they see as unfair press coverage, and a perception gap that many agree leaves New Yorkers thinking de Blasio is performing worse than he actually is, it may be time for de Blasio to take his message directly to the people and hold his first town hall.

"He might want to look at where his criticism is coming from in his base," says Fordham political science professor Dr. Christina Greer. "If you're going to do a town hall, be strategic about it, so that it is effective for you and for New Yorkers," Greer advises.

Greer says that de Blasio should target where he had the deepest support in his 2013 election, with an eye, though, "especially on people feeling neglected," and go communicate with them. She said that these would be "productive places to start, but can't be the end."

Political consultant Evan Thies argues it would be smart for de Blasio to utilize his elected allies to get his message out, possibly at town hall-style events. "If they believe they can get those surrogates to host friendly conversations with real New Yorkers they should do that," Thies said, adding that de Blasio is suffering from a major perception problem and that he and his team need to resume "politicking."

"The perception" among the public, Thies says, "is not just that he's not the doing the job they hired him for, the perception is that he doesn't care about opinions that aren't his. And I just don't think that's true. He's trying to lead on issues of affordability - it's really just a perception problem and he needs to get out there and talk to people."

Doing so in the form of town halls would surely be risky for the mayor, who mostly plays things safe, but public forums are high-risk, high-reward opportunities. De Blasio could show New Yorkers that he is engaged, that his ear is to the ground, and that he is both tough and humble.

"The risk is not any worse than having the tabloids portray him as they are now," says former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who held many town halls when in office and has urged de Blasio to adopt the practice.

Sure, Weiner says, there can be some tough moments, and the TV cameras will gravitate toward those. But, holding town halls has many advantages: "You become a better representative when you do it...you hear the language real citizens use to describe the problems in their lives," Weiner tells Gotham Gazette.

"It would help him with a lot of the problems that he has," Weiner argues of the mayor. "He develops a little bit more of a fighter identity. If you're standing up in a hostile room, people respect that. There's a sense he's being pushed around too much, town halls gives you the opportunity to change that."

As of now, no one would call de Blasio a hothead or peg him as likely to commit a serious gaffe, but of course a public event with open microphones would leave the mayor prone to all sorts of challenges. (For example, we've seen of late what Black Lives Matter activists have accomplished at several presidential candidate events.) But, these events are always well-staffed with aides and security.

Even if he does a few town halls, there would be inevitable questions about where he's held them, and surely some media latching on to any outrageous moments.

However, nothing says 'I'm listening' like actually listening. And it appears the mayor needs a bit of a correction to perceptions that he's distracted by national politics and not a strong enough chief executive of this very hard to manage city.

In correspondence with City Hall, it does not appear that a de Blasio-led town hall is afoot.

Spokesperson Karen Hinton wrote Gotham Gazette saying, "Mayor de Blasio hears directly from New Yorkers in both formal and informal ways - whether it's through taking calls on public radio, or being stopped on the street - as he often is."

Indeed, in what was a rare formal opportunity for the mayor to engage in unscripted conversation with constituents, de Blasio took calls while on air with radio host Brian Lehrer Wednesday morning. All told, de Blasio's WNYC appearance lasted more than 40 minutes and gave the mayor a chance to speak directly to a wide swath of New Yorkers, and with several who called in.

Doing so, de Blasio again showed he is adept at responding to impromptu gripes about the city and his stewardship of it. Yet, the mayor has made only sporadic appearances on call-in radio.

Hinton's response echoes what the mayor himself has said when asked about holding town halls, something that his predecessors did with varying frequency - but did - and that his current fellow citywide electeds are clearly doing fairly regularly.

Public Advocate James held one town hall in each borough specifically about mayoral control of city schools, releasing a report afterward in which she called for some modifications to the system that would weaken the mayor's power. Among her twenty-plus other open events, James held a public safety town hall Wednesday evening in Brooklyn in response to a recent wave of shootings.

Comptroller Stringer has held at least one town hall in each borough, according to his office. Stringer held a "Sandy Oversight Hearing" in each borough other than the Bronx, which was the borough least damaged by the superstorm.

A spokesperson for the comptroller, Eric Sumberg, said that Stringer "believes that listening to constituents and meeting with them in their communities is one of the best ways to learn how he can use his office to root out waste and fraud and fight for working families."

Hinton, the de Blasio spokesperson, told Gotham Gazette that representatives of the administration are "out in neighborhoods across the city every single day, working directly with New Yorkers and bringing that feedback to City Hall to further shape our work. We are continually looking for additional opportunities to hear directly from New Yorkers across the five boroughs."

Highlighting efforts by the Community Affairs Unit, Hinton cited "dozens of town halls" organized around informing small business owners, improving city services for LGBTQ New Yorkers, and providing information on the city's handling of the recent Legionnaires' Disease outbreak in the Bronx.

To New Yorkers who feel good, bad, or iffy about the mayor, though, those efforts may not be enough. "Sometimes people want to see the mayor, not his proxy," says Dr. Greer, Fordham political science professor.

This, in part, is why the mayor marches in many parades, speaks at churches, and appears at a variety of other community events. There may be nothing quite like the unfiltered town hall, though, to move the public image of de Blasio, as Weiner points out.

In May, de Blasio was asked about plans to hold town halls on at least two different occasions. On May 11, de Blasio said he hears from New Yorkers all the time. "[I]t's amazing how many conversations I have with people every single day because they're not shy about coming up and starting a conversation, I assure you – every time I'm on the subway, every time I'm walking down the street and whether it's the Upper East Side or Park Slope or anywhere else. But beyond that, I talk to people who represent a whole host of communities all the time."

On May 18, de Blasio said of holding town halls, "I don't have a specific plan, but, you know, what I do all the time is go out around different communities in different settings...people just come up and talk about things, and offer their views, raise concerns...I go around all over the place – and the subways, and walking down the street – talk to everybody."

A spokesperson for Public Advocate James wrote Gotham Gazette that the public advocate has "worked aggressively to bring government to every corner of this city" and that the best way to connect constituents and government "is by reaching the people where they are."

It is certainly not a sentiment de Blasio would disagree with, and the mayor often highlights that he's bringing government to those who need it most, whether or not he is holding the type of open evening events his colleagues are. On Thursday, de Blasio held a ground-breaking in Far Rockaway for what will be 154 affordable housing units for low-income seniors.

At the mid-day press conference, de Blasio said affordable housing is the number one thing brought up to him by New Yorkers "on the subway, on the street - wherever I go."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

Suing the Hand That Feeds You


Tish James rally via her office

Public Advocate Letitia James


Capitalizing on a boost to a historically anemic budget, Public Advocate Letitia James has emphasized the use of litigation in her capacity as the city’s elected gadfly, often suing the city that funds her.

 

James is utilizing her office’s limited funds in accordance with her own background as an assistant attorney general and public defender, hiring additional attorneys to her team and filing several suits against the de Blasio administration— a mayoralty with which she is politically aligned. Since taking office in January 2014, James has filed over a dozen suits, amicus briefs, complaints and petitions against the city and its agencies, with mixed results. She is set to announce another lawsuit on Wednesday, according to Politico NY.

 

The public advocate, alongside the comptroller and City Council, is tasked with oversight of city agencies and programs, ensuring good government and good living and working conditions for New Yorkers. The public advocate may introduce legislation in the City Council and will serve as mayor in his or her extended absence.

 

The Office of the Public Advocate has traditionally been limited by budgetary restraints, the result of years of mayors implementing retributive and devastating cuts. But, Mayor Bill de Blasio, the first public advocate to move into the mayoralty, added $700,000 to the office’s budget his first year - a small amount relative to the overall city budget, which totals over $78 billion, but fairly large in terms of the public advocate’s office. The budget bump was an attempt to compensate for budget cuts made during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, according to the public advocate’s office.

 

“The Public Advocate serves a critical role as the City's watchdog - something the Mayor knows firsthand from his own time serving in that office,” a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette. “It's important to our City's democratic process that the office have sufficient resources.”

 

Now, in de Blasio’s second budget, which took effect July 1, Letitia James’ office has $3.27 million for the 2016 fiscal year, according to a spokesperson for the public advocate. To put that in perspective, a newly created Department of Education task force also dedicated to performing an oversight role— rooting out cheating by teachers and administrators in city schools— is likely to utilize $5 million a year.

 

Both Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum, who served as the city’s first and second public advocates before de Blasio became the third, agree that the office suffers from having its budget controlled by the very person it is supposed to be watchdogging.

 

“The structure of the office of the public advocate— it’s something that should be looked at and changed. The mayor…should not be controlling the budget of the person who’s looking over their shoulder. It’s silly, it doesn’t make any sense,” Gotbaum said. “Because [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] would get furious at me and then come June, July, he’d cut the budget.”

 

In 2009, Bloomberg infamously declared the office a “total waste of everybody’s money,” even after he and the City Council nearly halved Gotbaum’s budget from $2.9 million to $1.8 million.

 

That’s a situation that James has not found herself in, Green notes, saying she will likely not suffer at the hands of de Blasio.

 

“Of course, the new mayor has a special appreciation for the budget difficulties of the public advocate since he was the prior occupant of that office,” Green said, “and that increase should help [James] do the kind of long-term investigations that can yield real benefits to city performance and law.”

 

With these new funds, James has molded the role of public advocate into one with an aggressively litigious attitude.

 

The role of public advocate as an ombuds and watchdog has always, somewhat necessarily, been tied to litigation. As public advocate under Bloomberg, Gotbaum sued the city (along with city Comptroller William Thompson and sundry council members) in the lawsuit Molinari v. Bloomberg, opposing an extension of term limits.

 

As public advocate under Mayor Giuliani, Green famously pursued litigation against the city in Green v. Safir, (in which Green won the right to access documents on the conduct of the New York City Civilian Complaint Board after the police commissioner refused to provide them to his office) and Green v. Giuliani (in which Green successfully sought a judicial inquiry into whether the mayor obtained and released information that had been sealed pursuant to state criminal procedure law concerning the criminal record of a man who had been shot and killed by an NYPD officer).

 

As public advocate, de Blasio sued Bloomberg to compel the mayor’s office to turn over data on the city’s revenue from business fines.

 

But James has been particularly robust in taking legal action against the city.

 

“Everyday New Yorkers don't have access to expensive lawyers and fancy lobbyists, which is why they need a Public Advocate who will fight for them,” James said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette. “We've resolved to use every tool at our disposal, whether it's litigation, legislation, or agitation to stand up for working people.”

 

The list of lawsuits, petitions, or complaints James has filed is long and getting longer: her office sued the city’s Department of Finance over a rule change to the city’s rent freeze program; filed and won a lawsuit against the Department of Education, opening school leadership team meetings to the public; filed and won a lawsuit to block co-located charter schools; and petitioned unsuccessfully to unseal the Eric Garner grand jury proceedings, though she continues to appeal decisions in this pursuit. James also petitioned the Board of Corrections to enact rules to protect inmates at Rikers’ Island from sexual assault.

 

Recently, the office filed a class action lawsuit against New York City and state foster care agencies. The lawsuit alleges the city Administration for Children’s Services and the state Office of Children and Family Services fail to protect children from maltreatment, to ensure that services provided are effective, and to ensure appropriate placements. Some have questioned the suit, asking why the city’s usual legal opponents on child welfare issues did not sign on and citing nuances in New York law that explain some of the data cited in the suit.

 

The public advocate’s office employs 44 staff members, including six attorneys (other than James herself) and one legal assistant. Two of the six attorneys were hired this year. According to the office, feedback received by the constituent services unit can spur the litigation unit to file a suit or complaint. After tenants reached out to the unit, the public advocate was compelled to file a lawsuit on behalf of four Bronx residents, asserting that the city’s Department of Buildings is violating the civil rights of people with disabilities by permitting landlords to deprive mobility-impaired tenants of access to means of egress during extensive elevator outages.

 

James’ office also scrutinized the quality of life for children and families and workers in the city, releasing reports on the child care available to CUNY students, the city’s foster care system, and car wash and nail salon workers.

 

In September 2014, almost eight months before The New York Times ran its incendiary “Unvarnished” series, James released a report on the state of nail salons in the city, calling for designated city nail salon inspectors, the implementation of a citywide nail salon safety study, and a healthy salon incentive program.

James finds herself in an unprecedented situation— she is the first public advocate to share the same party affiliation with the mayor (the position has only ever been held by Democrats and existed during the terms of Giuliani and Bloomberg). Some questioned whether her ability to act as a watchdog over the mayor would be compromised by their common viewpoints.

“If you’re the public advocate and you have a lovebird relationship with mayor, what’s the point of the office?” one Democrat who backed James asked the Observer (James once described the mayor as her “political husband.”)

Critics claimed that James left de Blasio largely unscathed in the first year of her term as watchdog, taking “safe” stances on equipping police with body cameras, authoring a bill against campus sex crimes, and completing her work on nail salons.

Gotbaum noted that she often thought the public advocate could be more effective if they had a positive relationship with the mayor.

“I thought it was better for the city that if I found out there was a problem and I called an agency or the mayor himself and it was solved quickly, then I wouldn’t have to have a press conference and I wouldn’t have to jump all over the mayor,” Gotbaum said, adding that the contentious relationship Giuliani had with Green rendered Green the “municipal nag.”

“Giuliani ordered his agencies not to talk to Mark Green, which to me makes the whole thing ridiculous,” Gotbaum told Gotham Gazette. “I thought it was better for the city if [the public advocate and the mayor] had a positive relationship. That’s what you’re there for, you’re there to help people who are desperate, have no place else to turn, and it’s generally allied with some sort of city agency.”

But in recent months, it appears that James has become increasingly comfortable with publicly criticizing the mayor and city agencies.

During budget season, James held a late May press conference advocating for universal free school lunch and condemning the mayor’s opposition to the program.

“I was shocked and disappointed that Mayor de Blasio said during his executive budget presentation that no expansion of free lunch would happen this year,” James said at a press conference outside the Department of Education headquarters. “Mr. Mayor, you’re wrong. Universal free lunch works and the results are in.”

In her report on mayoral control of city schools, James also recommended that the mayor lose his deciding majority on the Panel for Educational Policy in favor of increased parent engagement. The report came after James conducted public town hall meetings on the subject in each borough, a general strategy for constituent feedback that de Blasio has not adopted.

According to James’ office, she has held 27 town hall-style events, with a 28th scheduled for Wednesday evening in Brooklyn - the subject will be public safety.

Green, the city’s first public advocate (who endorsed State Senator Daniel Squadron over James in the 2013 public advocate primary), said that regardless of party affiliation, the public advocate must act as a gadfly and compel reform rather than simply espouse ideals.

“I laud her earlier initiative looking into the problems of nail salons, which is a real home run because it helped inspire others to follow up and now the governor and mayor are in a competition who can clean up this early 20th century sweatshop,” Green said earlier this summer. “I just wish there could be more of that and fewer press releases saying I believe in ‘x.’ The issue isn’t so much what she believes in— which is very similar to what Bill de Blasio believes in— but to blow the whistle on problematic agencies that the mayor won’t own up to.”

Indeed, James’ office frequently issues releases on a variety of topics, including gun control, collision avoidance technology in city vehicles, ending the sale of toy guns, and the one-year anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping in Nigeria among them.

According to Green, James has yet to take full advantage of the uniquely situated role.

“Because the charter gives the public advocate a lot of discretion, this public advocate is somewhat free to contour the office to his or her temperament, values, skills. If the question is has she evolved more toward oversight ombudsman role over city services, I think the only fair answer is ‘not yet,’” Green said. “In my personal opinion, it doesn’t add that much value when a longtime ally of the mayor spends so much of her valuable time either saying ‘yay’ or ‘I wish he could’ve done [something] a little better or sooner.’”

Gotbaum, who at times during her tenure as public advocate struggled to assert the relevance of the office, noted the difficulty of drawing attention to causes and the importance of highlighting substantive ones.

“I think it’s very hard to get traction, there’s so much going on in New York, unfortunately it’s very hard to get publicity,” Gotbaum said. “It’s hard to get attention to some of these issues and the more [Public Advocate James] gets it the better, when it’s on issues of real substance, and she isn’t just attacking the mayor.”

Most recently, the office has lobbied the New York City Employee Retirement System, the board of the city’s largest pension fund, to divest from gun retailers, including Walmart. In response, NYCERS passed a resolution James authored that would commision a study of the board’s investments in gun retailers and would analyze the transitional costs of divestment.

“Any council member or council body can sound off about what they think is a better way,” Green said, “but the public advocate is uniquely situated to do policy and performance audits of city agencies, respond to patterns of complaints in the thousands they receive, do investigative reports way beyond what any individual councilman can do.”

***
by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson 

De Blasio Moves From Media Criticism, Toward Direct Contact


BdB Gibson August 18 willalatriste

Mayor de Blasio at City Hall Tuesday (photo by William Alatriste)


Mayor de Blasio declined to discuss his recent criticism of the media at a press conference on Tuesday. When asked about it, de Blasio said he wanted to stay focused on substance. The choice, along with several other moves, may be indicative of a turn in communications strategy aimed at promoting more positive news from the de Blasio administration and boosting public approval of the mayor, which recent polls show at its lowest level since the mayor took office.

Regardless of his decision to comment Tuesday, de Blasio has been a somewhat regular media critic during his tenure, appearing frustrated by what he sees as a focus on political rivalries and personalities, and a lack of substance. The mayor, his allies, and those who see much good in what he's done during his first nearly 20 months in office are frustrated that the narrative around de Blasio is not more positive. De Blasio has expressed faith, though, that everyday New Yorkers are seeing and feeling real progress under his watch. On Tuesday the mayor said, "a lot of work is being done and done effectively."

"Crime is down, the number of jobs is up, test scores for our schools are up, the amount of affordable housing being created," the mayor cited as examples of the city heading in the right direction.

Still, the mayor and his team must be noting what many outside City Hall are: the public opinion polls, the perception gap, the caricature of the mayor that has formed, and, likely, the need to reevaluate some of the administration's approach to communications.

The mayor said on Tuesday that he is always "figuring out what can help me be as effective as I can be." He said this, though, in specific reference to a question about his exercise routine, which has come under scrutiny because he continues to work out in Park Slope despite having moved to Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side.

De Blasio and aides were responding to renewed questions about the issue on Friday when the mayor went to work out during a "live-shooter" standoff on Staten Island. Among those aides is a new press secretary, the mayor's top liaison with members of the media, who joined his team in June. Karen Hinton has brought a more attentive and aggressive style to the press office and even to de Blasio's public comments. Both Hinton and de Blasio pushed back against media coverage of the mayor's choices Friday.

It's unclear if the mayor has now begun a long break from media criticism, but experts and observers say he should indeed change tack. They say that the mayor and his emissaries need to get the administration message out more, and directly to the public. This shift may be happening.

While it wouldn't hurt the mayor to win some front pages, he has more control over opportunities for himself and members of his team to speak directly to New Yorkers. Cases in point: the mayor is scheduled to appear live Wednesday morning on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. This, after Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen was a guest on NY1's Inside City Hall Monday evening.

On Tuesday the mayor said that "the most important way we get information out is through the media," but this can come in different forms, of course. The mayor has many members of his administration that are strong on radio and television and good at public forums. Among the strongest are Deputy Mayors Glen and Richard Buery, and commissioners like NYPD's Bill Bratton and head of the Department of Consumer Affairs Julie Menin.

While administration officials do make regular public appearances, it may be smart for City Hall to push the pace of such availability. The administration appears to have missed an opportunity to have the mayor and Menin tout drastic reductions in fines on small businesses that were recently announced with little fanfare.

"The stories have been about him and his feelings, not about his policies," says Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. "You want the stories to be about what you're doing for people."

While Greer sees some merit in de Blasio's critiques of media coverage, she acknowledges that going after the press doesn't appear to be working in the mayor's favor. Political consultant Evan Thies agrees, saying, "They need to try something different. Blaming the media is not going to work. Getting the message through surrogates may be a better plan."

Thies says that it's not only time to make sure that de Blasio officials are making public appearances, but to also go outside the administration. "One thing that most elected officials do when their poll numbers are sinking is call on friends that they have various areas of agreement on and ask them to join with them for an event, an announcement, a policy issue, or meeting voters," Thies says. "It may be time to start treating this like a campaign again."

Thies specifically cited powerful allies such as City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. All three have been strong de Blasio backers and can help the mayor stay in good standing with his Democratic base, including people of color who continue to support the mayor in stronger numbers than white New Yorkers.

Greer cautions, though, that "sometimes proxies aren't a substitute for the real thing. Sometimes people want to see the mayor, not his proxy." No matter how many appearances are made by deputy mayors, agency commissioners, and other allies touting the administration's moves, it is likely there will continue to be questions about how often the mayor himself is available for interviews or takes questions directly from members of the public - on the air or at town hall-style events.

The mayor, who is strong thinking and responding on his feet, has not held any town hall meetings himself and has taken only a few call-in questions during sporadic radio appearances on WNYC and other stations, including Hot 97. De Blasio was last on WNYC with Lehrer in early June and took a few questions from callers. He is likely to take a few more on Wednesday morning as he discusses year two of his pre-Kindergarten program, jobs, and housing with Lehrer.

Asked about a shift in approach, Hinton wrote Gotham Gazette that "Mayor de Blasio has been in front of the media speaking to New Yorkers since taking office. Nothing has changed except he has many more accomplishments to report on than his first month on the job."

Whether this week shows a shift of any kind is to be determined, and media appearances are different from in-person contact with constituents. The mayor did visit a senior center in the Bronx last week amid the Legionnaires' Disease outbreak his health, buildings, and communications teams have been dealing with. As de Blasio said to the New York Times over the weekend, his administration "can always communicate things better."

On NY1 Monday evening, Deputy Mayor Glen said, "We're not going to worry about poll numbers" and touted progress on education, jobs, and housing. She said what appears to be true about the administration's accomplishments, though: "maybe we need to share them with the public more."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax



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