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Skelos Conviction Greeted With Calls for Immediate Action on Reform


Skelos Silver Cuomo 2012

Dean Skelos in 2012, via The Governor's Office on flickr 


Sen. Dean Skelos and his son Adam Skelos were convicted on eight federal corruption charges Friday. They were found guilty of a scheme where Dean Skelos used his power as Senate Majority Leader to influence companies to employ or pay his son. The conviction comes only a week after that of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on charges that he illegally used his influence for financial gain of $4 million.

The convictions speak to a larger campaign by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office brought the cases against both Silver and Skelos, to change the culture in Albany that enables lawmakers to hold outside jobs while influencing major policy decisions and a campaign finance system that allows companies to pour unlimited funds into campaign accounts. The juries in both cases return verdicts within only a few days.

"The swift convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos beg an important question – how many prosecutions will it take before Albany gives the people of New York the honest government they deserve?" asked Bharara in a statement following the conviction.

Skelos loses his Senate seat with his conviction. He and his son both face 130 years in prison. Skelos becomes the fifth legislative leader to leave office under ethics troubles since 2000 and is the thirty-third legislator forced to leave office due to criminal or ethical misconduct since then.

Throughout his time as leader Skelos became known as a cutthroat politician, willing to make extraordinary deals to keep himself in power.

Skelos inherited the Majority Leader mantle from the legally troubled and retiring Sen. Joseph Bruno in 2008. In 2009, Republicans were thrust into the minority but Skelos schemed to correct that annoyance. He concocted a deal with Democratic Sens. Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate and created a new ruling coalition with himself as Majority Leader and Espada as Temporary President. The deal eventually fell apart but Democrats lost their majority during the next election cycle thanks to a Republican campaign that focused on "Democratic Dysfunction."

Skelos successfully fought off a major push by reformers for independent redistricting that many thought would thrust Republicans permanently into the minority and when Democrats eventually won a numerical majority again in 2012, Skelos cut another deal. Sen. Jeff Klein and the Independent Democratic Conference partnered with Republicans giving them the majority and Klein the title of co-leader along with a hefty helping of pork and staff funding.

Adam Skelos was caught on wiretap scolding his father, Dean, for allowing Klein to keep his position when Republicans won an outright majority in 2014. Dean assured his son that Klein had no real power. "I'm going to control everything. He's going to get very little. Believe me. Very little. Everybody's going to know," Dean told Adam. He then pointed out the real objective of the exercise was to "Keep [Democrats] separate and fighting and hating each other. That's what's worked for the last six years. Keeping them at each other's throats."

Senate Republicans allowed votes on a number of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's major issues during his tenure as Majority Leader including same-sex marriage and the SAFE Act. He cut also cut deals with Cuomo and Silver on a number of incremental reform packages that included the formation of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an agency regarded almost universally as dysfunctional and impotent.

Skelos' conviction brought a tidal wave of calls for reform from good government groups and reform-minded electeds. Many repeated their post-Silver conviction call for Cuomo to call for a special session on ethics reform.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union said that for Cuomo "not to call now for special legislative session is to aid and abet the rampant corruption in Albany."

"Inaction speaks louder than words," wrote Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group in a statement. "Failure by Governor Cuomo to convene a special session on ethics and inaction by the legislature can only be understood as a defense of Albany's status quo."

Cuomo is under increasing pressure to act on ethics as he shuttered the Moreland Commission that was investigating legislative misconduct in a 2014 deal with Silver and Skelos--a deal that greatly angered Bharara and appears to have sparked a federal investigation.

Cuomo issued a statement putting the onus on the legislature, but indicating he plans to push for reforms:

"There can be no tolerance for those who use, and seek to use, public service for private gain. The justice system worked today. However, more must be done and will be pursued as part of my legislative agenda. The convictions of former Speaker Silver and former Majority Leader Skelos should be a wakeup call for the Legislature and it must stop standing in the way of needed reforms."

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan issued a statement saying that he wants to act "swiftly and completely" to restore the public trust. Last year Flanagan successfully blocked any action reforming the LLC loophole that allows corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions.

Klein, Skelos' former partner in governing, issued a similar statement: "Today's conviction of Dean Skelos should be a call to arms for Albany and the people who serve in government," said Klein.

[Read: How Dean Skelos Thwarted Reform and Maintained Power, Despite the Odds]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

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


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday 

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio signs legislation creating the city's new Department of Veterans' Services, via Joe Bello, @NYMetroVets

BdB vets joe bello

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Skelos Guilty: Former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam Skelos were found guilty on eight counts Friday. They will be sentenced in March. [Read: Tenant Activists Trace Road to Corruption Trials, Eye Elusive Reform]

2. Security Guards for Private Schools: On Monday, the City Council passed a controversial bill to provide public funding to private and religious schools to pay for security guards. $19.8 million will be spent to place at least one security guard at every private school in New York City with at least 300 students that wants one. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill into law.

3. Cuomo’s Common Core Overhaul: A task force created by Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a report Thursday which found that the state made a number of mistakes in its implementation of Common Core learning standards and recommended reducing the tendency to “teach to a test,” giving shorter tests, and not linking test results to teacher evaluations until the 2018-2019 school year.

4. Housing Developments: The Staten Island Borough Board became the fifth to vote against Mayor de Blasio’s zoning amendment proposals on Thursday, adding to the significant criticism the plan has received from community and borough boards. Creating more affordable housing is a signature issue for the mayor determined to make New York City more equal, and de Blasio's administration is now prepared to devise a new strategy to regain momentum and secure support for a plan they believe has been poorly understood. On Thursday, AARP endorsed the mayor’s plans (it has 750,000 members in New York City), adding to two significant union endorsements the plans have recently received. [Read: Mayor & Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote & Next Steps for the Mayor’s Controversial Zoning Proposals]

5. Public Housing Problem: A New York City Department of Investigation report found that the NYPD’s “systematic failure” to communicate required information to the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, is partially responsible for the disproportionately high crime rates that have plagued public housing projects. In response to the report, the NYPD will create an interactive database to improve information sharing about criminal activity in public housing with NYCHA officials.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 4,000-plus inmates are currently in solitary confinement in New York, despite vows by officials to limit its use, the Daily News reports.
  • 4,747 stop-and-frisks were recorded in New York City in July, August, and September - the lowest quarter since the numbers were first released in 2002, according to NYPD statistics.
  • 93% decrease in the number of stop-and-frisks between 2011 and 2014, according to a report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
  • 797 fatal drug overdoses were recorded by the city Health Department in 2014, the most since 2006, the New York Post reports.
  • 20% increase in annual state spending for nonprofits is needed in order to fund a $15 per hour wage floor for nonprofit human services workers, according to a report released by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Fiscal Policy Institute and the Human Services Council.
  • 75% of incidents the FDNY responded to in 2014 were medical-related calls, and only 5% were fire-related, though a vast majority of the FDNY's resources are devoted to staffing fire units, according to a report from the Citizens Budget Commission.
  • $12 million will be added to the city’s budget to increase job training programs for homeless individuals in the shelter system in 31 shelters across the 5 boroughs, the Daily News reports.
  • 6,217,621 people rode the subways on October 29, 2015, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority - about 50,000 more than the previous record reached last year.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for supporters of raising the minimum wage, as a state appeals board upheld Governor Cuomo’s planned increase to a $15 per hour minimum wage for fast food workers, disputing arguments that certain factors weren’t adequately analyzed before making the decision to raise the wage.

It was a bad week for Anthony Mangone, a former attorney whose cooperation aided in the conviction of three New York state senators, who was sentenced to 18 months behind bars this week after a judge said the “dirty lawyer” had committed crimes too serious to escape incarceration.

THE FLASH:

Around this time 40 years ago, on December 9, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a $2.3 billion seasonal loan authorization to prevent New York City from having to default.

Around this time 74 years ago, on December 7, 1941, in the panic that ensued after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese nationals living in New York were rounded up by FBI agents and held on Ellis Island. They were later transferred to internment camps for the remainder of the war.

Around this time 22 years ago, on December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road train, killing six passengers and wounding 19 others. Days later, a New York Times editorial called for stronger gun control laws in response to the murders, pointing to the ease with which Ferguson obtained a handgun in California, which had one of the country's stricter gun laws at the time.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Resignation Highlights City Council Gender Imbalance, by Ben Max

Cuomo Urged to Sign Executive Transparency Bills Before Looming Deadline, by David Howard King

Next Steps for The Mayor's Controversial Zoning Proposals, Christian Zhang

Tenant Activists Trace Road to Corruption Trials, Eye Elusive Reform, by David Howard King

Little-Known Commission Expands Access to City Government, by Meg O’Connor

Hearing to Examine ‘Efficacy’ of City Response to ‘Homelessness Crisis’, by Ryan Brady

In Zoning Amendment, One Size Does Not Fit All, by Council Member Donovan Richards (opinion)

Harmful Legal Reform Is Not an Ethics Solution, by Joanne Doroshow (opinion)

Give Police Tools to Reduce Arrest and Improve Community Health, by Chelsea Davis (opinion)

Public Money Is For Public Schools, by Ayishah Irvin (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Mayor de Blasio spoke with Errol Louis on NY1's Inside City Hall on Wednesday to discuss his first two years in office, and spoke about the city’s homelessness crisis, his affordable housing plan, and more.

An in-depth report by ProPublica’s Marcelo Rochabrun and Cezary Podkul reveals that city and state regulators stood by as developer Two Trees Management disregarded laws requiring rent stabilization in exchange for the large property tax break it received.

Politico New York’s Bill Hammond writes that Cuomo is making excuses about not doing anything to stop Albany’s ongoing culture of corruption, and argues that there are many glaring weaknesses left in New York’s anti-corruption laws.

 

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

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

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

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Tenant Activists Trace Road to Corruption Trials, Eye Elusive Reform


rent protest albany

Tenants sit-in at the Albany capitol


"It's just surreal," said Jaron Benjamin a week after the conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and on the day of closing arguments in the federal corruption case against former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, knowing that those cases may have been bolstered by work he did years ago in the fight to strengthen the state's rent laws.

In the span of less than a year Benjamin went from issuing a report exposing the connections among the real estate industry, holes in New York's campaign finance laws, and major legislation to seeing his work used by the Moreland Commission, only to see Gov. Andrew Cuomo unceremoniously shutter the anti-corruption panel.

Then came the 2015 indictments of Silver and Skelos that many expected would scare Albany into enacting serious reform. But no transformative action has come, leaving Benjamin and other advocates to wonder what kind of impact their work actually had.

"There is still part of me that thinks surely the people charged with enforcing the laws must have known this type of activity was going on," said Benjamin referring to the SIlver and Skelos cases, especially in terms of the involvement of the real estate industry. "Seeing all of this play out has made me question what is pay-for-play and what is business as usual. It's all been blurred, and being involved in Moreland and the 421-a fight made me question what exactly is unethical and what's illegal."

In 2013 Benjamin was looking for a way to get people's attention. Then director of The Metropolitan Council on Housing, he needed a way to get regular New Yorkers interested in the backroom dealing that he saw as having continually allowed the real estate industry power to weaken rent laws every time they were up for renewal.

"We knew we had to start preparing then for the 2015 rent law renewal and I said, 'I want an issue that kind of encapsulates all the talking points, captures the outrage of big real estate's buying power in Albany, something that would rile people up,'" Benjamin told Gotham Gazette.

The report The Met Council released on June 5, 2013, focused on the influence of real estate moguls, like the now infamous Leonard Litwin, and their ability to flood politicians' campaign coffers with cash, subverting campaign finance limits by using the also infamous LLC loophole.

Three years later, looking back, some advocates feel that the report was a turning point for Albany. But things didn't change the way Benjamin and his allies might have expected.

After the report drew the interest of Moreland Commission staff in their investigation of legislative corruption that was later picked up by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Majority Leader Dean Skelos were indicted on federal corruption charges brought by Bharara's office. The Met Council report and the federal charges exposed what many see as the undue influence of the real estate industry on New York State lawmakers and industry leaders' willingness to lavish lawmakers with cash legally and illegally to get what they want.

And yet, with Silver convicted and the Skelos case before a jury, the state legislature and Gov. Cuomo have yet to act to change the system. Cuomo has been the biggest beneficiary of Glenwood Management's largesse, with his campaign accounts receiving over $1 million in donations over the years through many LLCs. Glenwood also gave half a million dollars to Cuomo's Committee to Save New York.

In fact, even after Silver and Skelos were indicted and their relationships with Litwin's Glenwood Corp. revealed, Cuomo and new legislative leaders delivered a blow to tenant groups by enacting what many see as a real-estate-friendly renewal of the rent laws, deflecting pressure from advocates and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, who has been involved in fighting for stronger rent laws in Albany for decades, said he hopes the convictions jolt Albany into action, but he is dubious that it will happen because the indictments weren't exactly shocking to him. "We knew Shelly had sold us out; he sold us out three times," McKee said of Silver, who was touted by many others as the protector of all things progressive in the state legislature. "We knew Skelos was owned by real estate lock, stock, and barrel. We didn't know the details, but it wasn't a surprise."

Neither Benjamin nor McKee were surprised that Silver was receiving payments from Glenwood Management, or that members of Glenwood were helping Skelos' son land no-show jobs. The details were new to them, but the idea that legislative leadership and Glenwood were intimately connected was not at all revelatory. Neither was Skelos' declaration on a wiretapped phone call that he was weakening Senate Democrats by awarding Sen. Jeff Klein and the Independent Democratic Conference token power.

Despite his doubts about active efforts at change, McKee acknowledges that the Albany reform conversation has changed since the Silver and Skelos indictments. The LLC loophole is now a major issue, with increasing pressure from good government groups, newspaper editorial boards and reform-minded lawmakers - like state Senator Daniel Squadron, who, along with colleagues and other allies, just released a report on the loophole.

"It is very gratifying that people are paying attention now," said McKee (pictured below). "They ought to be properly shocked. It's just breathtaking, but some of this corruption is illegal and some of it is still perfectly legal."

mike mckee arrested albany

In June 2013 McKee and Benjamin weren't starry-eyed, but there was a feeling they might spur action in Albany. That month, Met Council released its report titled, "Tax Breaks For Millionaires: How the Campaign Finance System Failed New Yorkers and Helped Luxury Developers." That report examined how a small group of real estate interests used loopholes in the state's campaign finance law to funnel tremendous amounts of cash to politicians in exchange for support of the 421-a tax rebate program, which benefits developers of luxury apartment buildings.

The hope of all hopes was that perhaps public outrage would move lawmakers to close the LLC loophole, "maybe level the playing field so we would have a shot against the real estate industry. At the time we knew that Leonard Litwin was a poster child for the LLC loophole," Benjamin told Gotham Gazette.

Two years later Litwin's name would hang over Albany like a tropical depression, deals with Glenwood potential portals to the U.S. Attorney's office.

The report made waves, gaining the attention of the editorial pages of The New York Times and New York Daily News, and garnering support of liberal activist groups across the state.

Their hope for actual change was stoked when, in July of 2013, Cuomo empanelled The Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption. The commission held public hearings and appeared to be moving to a predetermined outcome. One day Benjamin was approached by commission staffers who wanted research information and addresses for real estate groups they planned to subpoena. "It really seemed like the Moreland staff took it seriously, but then the subpoenas got held back."

The Governor's Office put the brakes on those subpoenas, which may be an ongoing topic of federal investigation itself.

Benjamin's hopes were stoked again after U.S. Attorney Bharara took over the commission's files. "But there was no immediate action, so I thought 'OK, it was worth a try,'" Benjamin recalls.

Now VP of community mobilization at Housing Works, Benjamin watched as the indictments rolled in - indictments that were spurred in part by the very issues he tried to highlight in 2013. It wasn't the change he expected. "I would never celebrate someone else's misfortune, but I am enormously proud of the work I did at the Council and I do feel some of that work did help clean up Albany."

jaron benjamin

Benjamin (pictured above) says he sees indications that both new legislative leaders are more interested in listening to their members and willing to meet with groups that aren't the biggest donors. "It could be that they are both new, but it seems like they are both listening more and their doors are open," he said of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican.

McKee isn't holding his breath for sweeping legislative reforms spurred by the Silver conviction and Skelos trial. "I wish I could say the crap that came out about Shelly and Skelos is enough to get the governor and legislature to do something real on election reform and ethics, but left to their own devices they are going to pass some Mickey-Mouse bill that tinkers around the edges," he said. McKee hopes public outrage will move the politicians to enact real reforms.

Years of frustration appear to have led McKee to conclude that tenants have one real shot left to influence policy in Albany, and that is the 2016 elections.

He told Gotham Gazette that he is dropping all of his lobbying commitments to focus on recruiting and promoting Democratic Senate candidates for 2016, despite disappointments he has had with Democrats in both the Assembly and Senate. He believes the presidential election year offers as ripe an opportunity as Democrats will ever get to seize the Senate, and after that it will be too late for the next rent-law renewal. "I consider next year do-or-die. If we don't do it now we won't do it two years later."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Little-Known Commission Expands Access to City Government


tish james presser childcare

Public Advocate James (photo via @TishJames)


While government transparency can often be a vague concept, one concrete way to see what elected and appointed officials are doing is through live-streamed and archived video of public hearings.

On Tuesday, Dec. 8, the little-known Commission on Public Information and Communication (COPIC) met for the final time this year at John Jay College in Manhattan. The meeting agenda was centered around the commission getting an update on the implementation of Local Law 103 of 2013, better known as the city’s webcasting law, which requires certain agencies to record all public meetings and make them available online.

At the meeting, officials discussed progress on developing programs to provide training and equipment to municipal entities for webcasting; creating a central repository for municipal webcasts; and establishing COPIC’s own website.

The goal of the commission, established by the City Charter in 1989, is to improve public access to City information and to develop strategies for the use of new communications technologies to improve access to and distribution of city data. It is led by the Public Advocate, currently Letitia James, who has revived the commission since taking office in 2014.

According to COPIC commissioners, programs to provide training and guidance to agencies looking to comply with the webcasting law are almost set, with the first “best practices workshop” likely to be held in February. The COPIC website should be operational mid- to late-January. The commission is still looking into better ways to provide webcasting equipment to agencies, and a venue to host a central archive of the city’s webcasts has yet to be determined.

Nicholas Sbordone, a delegate to COPIC from the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, kicked off the meeting by asking Janet Choi, general manager at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, for an update on the plans to provide training resources and technology aids for agencies looking to comply with the webcasting law.

Choi said that since the last meeting, COPIC has explored how to go about “providing the best guidance for all of the organizations and agencies to help them comply with Local Law 103,” and has examined the potential creation of a “lending library” to provide equipment for webcasting.

As of October 20, 2015, under the webcasting law, 45 boards and commissions must webcast public meetings. According to Sbordone, many agencies subject to the webcasting law are either in full compliance or are willing to comply.

“For the most part,” Sbordone said, agencies that are not actively webcasting “have not yet met, or they have particular meetings that they have on specific topics that are not subject to webcasting...For instance, there’s the Master Electricians and Licensing Board,” which holds a number of meetings on “the details of specific licensee information, which would not be subject to public review anyway.”

As for the “guidance” COPIC has been developing to help agencies comply with the webcasting law, Choi said COPIC is “about ready to host or continue to build the agenda and the training for a best practices workshop to be held in February, the first of what we hope will be a couple per year,” Choi said. “This is essentially to give the agencies and organizations who are looking for guidance tips, pointers, and best standards and practices for effective webcasting.”

Given the rapid rate of technological development, Choi said, COPIC has determined that “there is no one best way to do anything. We can’t possibly say [to the agencies] ‘this is the equipment you should use’…we don’t want to give them information that is obsolete.”

“So,” Choi continued, “We have concluded that the best thing we can do is show them what the goals are. We want clear and audible audio, we want a clear visual representation - everything that is needed to best fulfill the spirit of the law. There’s any number of ways you can accomplish this, and all we can do is provide guidance.”

Regarding the creation of a “lending library” for webcasting equipment, Sbordone said COPIC is “culling and trying to refine a list of facilities that have good audio/visual capability and to the extent that they have WiFi or an internet connection.”

“The thought was that if there is a number of places that the city has or has access to, we can put those into one place, a pool, and then have a calendar developed,” Sbordone continued, “so that agencies might have the ability to reserve certain dates and times and then have their webcasting calendar built out, so if agencies have a meeting, they would know the best place and date to go.”

Public Advocate James, chair of COPIC, turned the discussion toward the establishment of a central repository for municipal webcasts and the use of the City Record.

“The newly launched City Record Online has modules in each of the records that are submitted by the agencies, about a public meeting, where and when,” Sbordone said “it has a module that you could add a link to to a webcast version of the hearing.”

Some agencies, Sbordone said, like the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), will add links to their entries on City Record, which will link to their webcasting archives. “Going forward,” Sbordone said, when the Taxi and Limousine Commission makes “submissions to the city record about upcoming commission hearings,” they will add the link to their webcasting archives.

“We have a number of agencies that we’re conducting outreach to,” Sbordone added. “It’s very iterative, but it’s really starting to come together now where we have the new version of the City Record launched, that itself allows for the better proliferation and dissemination of webcasting materials through the actual technology.”

Still addressing James’ question regarding the establishment of a “central portal” and the use of the City Record, Sbordone brought up finding “some type of central repository where all these archive webcast videos would reside. The City Record, ideally, would be a record that the meeting is taking place or has taken place. The link then would link back out to where this central repository is.”

“I think one of the things that we maybe want to begin discussing for next year is how best to present this to the public,” Sbordone said, floating the idea of creating a place online - “for instance, ‘webcasting.nyc’” - where all of these archive records would reside. “So if someone was looking for everything in one place, they could find it, and that would also be the place that was linked out to from various sites.”

“The shape and the form of what that takes is still yet to be determined,” Sbordone added, explaining that it could be something that the city hosts, or even a YouTube channel that contains all of New York City’s webcasting archives.

“I know the last time [we met] Commissioner Toole had suggested that the Department of Records and Information Systems could also be a possible venue” for hosting the city’s webcasting archives, James suggested.

Toole was unable to attend COPIC’s Dec. 8 meeting, though Sbordone said that she had mentioned “she would love to see, to the extent that it made sense, the government publications portal to play a role in this, again, as a central repository for all the reports and white papers, things like that, that are issued by city agencies across the board.”

The discussion then shifted from the creation of a central repository for the city’s webcasts to the progress in updating COPIC’s own website. COPIC meeting announcements are currently available within the Public Advocate site.

Sbordone passed out a mock-up of the website, which is not yet functional, and which, he said, was actually created at the request of a prior public advocate a number of years ago, though he wasn’t sure which. “We stood it up for them and it’s got basic functionality, as you can see, but the content was never updated.”

The next step, Sbordone said, “between now and the next time we get together, is to try to work to get that content updated with recent information.”

“Due to the work of this commission over the past year now,” Sbordone continued, “we have a good amount of stuff to put up - meeting minutes, meeting agendas, what we’ve accomplished, we have information on webcasting, tips, maybe even links to the webcast hearings that we’ve had, so we have quite a bit we can update the site with.”

“The idea is to institutionalize COPIC,” Umair Khan, Deputy Counsel to Public Advocate James, added, “by having a web presence for a body that’s purpose is to provide City information to the public.”

“That is something that we’re eagerly working on and moving forward with. We hope by mid- to late-January to have a fully functioning operational website for people to access all of our COPIC records,” Khan said. “Over time, we can tweak it and adjust it make it more user-friendly, but at least start to get this information out and make it more accessible.”

In addition to webcasting information, the website could also include information on “how [agencies] can get web cameras to use for their own proceedings,” Khan said, and “will have a mailbox, so people can communicate more directly with COPIC.”

James added that the website should include a list of COPIC members with brief bios on each, then adjourned the meeting, with the next meeting tentatively set for February.

Under James, COPIC is more active than it has been in previous years - COPIC held only one meeting during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s time as Public Advocate, according to Politico New York. Though COPIC may have made some strides toward the goal of improving access to City information under the webcasting law, issues remain with both the access to equipment for webcasting, and improving the dissemination of data.

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

Resignation Highlights City Council Gender Imbalance


MMV alatriste young womens initiative

Speaker Mark-Viverito & others announce Young Women's Initiative (photo: William Alatriste)


City Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo recently announced she will resign at the end of the year in order to attend to family matters. In vacating her seat, which she has held since 2005, Arroyo creates uncertainty about who will represent her Bronx district, but also brings to the forefront a larger issue about political representation in New York City: the number of women in the City Council.

The 51-member City Council currently consists of 15 women and 36 men. While the Speaker of the Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and chair of the powerful Finance Committee, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, are both women, it is clear that the Council is not nearly representative of the general public when it comes to gender.

The gender imbalance is of concern to Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017, Ferreras-Copeland, and many others - both inside and outside the Council, female and male.

"The need for women's representation in elected office is unquestionable," Mark-Viverito said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "As our society grapples with issues crucial to a woman's livelihood – including unfettered access to healthcare, equal pay for equal work, and educational parity – it's more important than ever that women are involved, invested, and leading these discussions."

Several times over the past year, Mark-Viverito has made a point to publicly express her worry that the Council will have even fewer female members when the new class is inaugurated in January, 2018. Of eight Council members facing term-limits in 2017, five are women (the entire Council will be up for election in 2017; incumbents are virtual locks for re-election).

The special election to replace Arroyo will give some indication of where things are heading in terms of support for female candidates, especially by official Democratic Party leaders. (The Council has 48 Democrats and three Republicans; Arroyo and all other Bronx members are Democrats.)

"Women aren't naturally ushered into the pipeline of political leadership," says political strategist Alexis Grenell. "The role parties play in pipeline development is key to ensuring fair and equal representation...which means they have to be conscientious about their choices."

Mark-Viverito, Ferreras-Copeland, fellow Council Member Helen Rosenthal, and former Council Members Gale Brewer, now Manhattan Borough President, and Letitia James, now Public Advocate, have all participated in "Why She Ran" events hosted by groups including The Working Families Party and Eleanor's Legacy, which are aimed at encouraging women to run for office. The events have been held over the past few years in locations all over the city and are often well-attended.

At the most recent Why She Ran event, held Oct. 28 in Manhattan, Council Member Ferreras-Copeland said, "We need women in the City Council. I am here today to tell you we are in a crisis." She continued: "It will be an embarrassment if this Council loses more women after 2017."

"We need you to run," Ferreras-Copeland told the audience of mostly women. "Even if you think you're not ready, you're ready." At this and other Why She Ran events, one statistic is frequently cited: on average, it takes seven asks to convince a woman to run for office.

In her statement to Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito said, "New York City is ready for the next generation of strong women leaders, at all levels of government. We need to do everything we can to amplify these voices and ensure that women trailblazers have the tools and platform to make a difference."

Attendees of Why She Ran are encouraged to hear from local elected officials about "the challenges women face in politics — and the importance of tackling those challenges head on." Chief among those challenges are confidence and fundraising, participants say. Essential to the process is often also cracking the "old boys club" of local politics.

"The lack of gender balance is alarming," Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette. "You know, there are various senses in which the City Council is more progressive. We have more LGBT people in the City Council, we have more young people in the City Council, we have a strong caucus of black, Latino and Asian members. The one sense in which we have been regressing is the number of female Council members to the point where I would regard it as a crisis...and a poor reflection on the City Council."

The 2013 city elections saw a net loss of one female Council member - the prior Council included 16 women and 35 men.

While he said gender should never be the lone deciding factor in supporting a candidate, Torres pointed to the fact that "people are a product of our life experiences and we bring those experiences to bear on our governance of the city or the state or the country."

"It's no accident," he said, "that the more women you have in politics, the stronger the commitment to addressing deeply rooted problems that might affect women disproportionately."

Mark-Viverito pointed to the importance of women in elected office during a summer speech at the Young Women's Leadership School Commencement. "The more involved I became, the more I realized that the systemic issues of social and economic justice we battle on the ground in our communities was something we needed to address at the government level, and I knew my perspective could make a difference there as well," she said.

"Because women play pivotal roles in our families, in our communities, and in government," Mark-Viverito said, "our perspective is crucial. We get things done."

In October, Mark-Viverito and the Council launched the Young Women's Initiative, a coalition of public and private sector leaders and organizations, "aimed at supporting young women in New York City and combating chronic racial and gender inequality in outcomes when it comes to healthcare, education, involvement in the justice system and economic development."

In the special election to replace Arroyo, set to occur on a date to be determined in February, there are several rumored and confirmed candidates, including at least two women. One crucial aspect to the race will be the backing of the Bronx County Democratic Party organization - the chair of which is Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, who recently replaced new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Grenell, the political strategist, points to research showing that, particularly in special elections, establishment support correlates highly with outcomes. Grenell says that balanced gender representation "absolutely should be a priority of county organizations."

"Part of developing a pipeline of strong female leadership is parties looking for and cultivating qualified female candidates for office, not defaulting to whoever's 'turn it is,'" Grenell says.

Pointing to a looming "crisis in female leadership in the Council," Grenell says "if county leadership doesn't prioritize female leadership it will compound the problem going into 2017."

"This is not a cosmetic issue," Grenell warns, "women in government prioritize different issues than men, and we see different outcomes."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

The Week That Was in New York Politics, Nov 30-Dec 4


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday December 4, 2015

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Sheldon Silver outside the courthouse, via Zack Fink of NY1

silver via zack fink

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Sheldon Silver Guilty: On Monday, former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was found guilty on all seven counts in his federal corruption trial and now faces prison for abusing his position to obtain $4 million in illegal payments. At the center of Silver's trial was the culture of corruption in Albany, sparking a renewed push by good government advocates for ethics reform. [Read: Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform?]

2. NY vs. AIDS: At an event on World AIDS Day Dec. 1, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced the city will spend $23 million a year on a new plan to fight AIDS. The city has seen a 35 percent decrease in the number of HIV diagnoses in the past decade, though nearly one tenth of people living with HIV in the U.S. reside in the city, prompting the mayor to call for increased efforts to “end the AIDS epidemic here in New York City by 2020.” At the same event, Governor Cuomo said he plans to seek $200 million in new AIDS funding in the state budget.

3. Cuomo and de Blasio’s Dinner Detente: On Tuesday, Cuomo and de Blasio met in midtown for a secret sit-down dinner in an attempt to put aside their differences and potentially resolve their longstanding feud, which intensified last week after a Cuomo spokesperson said de Blasio couldn’t manage the city’s homelessness crisis. Apparently, the meeting "didn't go well," though aides who were with Cuomo and de Blasio at the time said the “conversation was constructive." [Read: Cuomo Increasingly Uses State Power to Undermine De Blasio]

4. Mayor’s Rezoning Plans Face Pushback: Discussions on the mayor's rezoning policies continued this week, with some significant criticism from community and borough boards. On Monday, the Manhattan Borough Board voted against de Blasio’s zoning changes, with conditions they’d like to see used for amendments, and on Tuesday, the Brooklyn Borough Board did the same, with its own set of suggestions. The mayor has acknowledged the pushback, saying it was not unexpected and that tweaks will be made to the plans before they head to the City Council early in 2016. [Read: Mayor & Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote]

5. Cuomo on Gun Control and Hypocrisy: In the wake of Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left at least 14 dead and 17 injured, Gov. Cuomo once again reiterated the need for Congress to take action on federal gun control. Speaking on Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, Cuomo pointed out the hypocrisy of Republicans wanting to close the border to Syrian refugees following the attacks in Paris, while repeatedly blocking the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act since 2007. On Friday on WNYC radio, Mayor de Blasio announced he would be moving to push New York City’s pension funds to divest from gun manufacturers.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

$90,700 a year is the estimated legislative pension former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is entitled to, despite being convicted on federal corruption charges, the Daily News reports.

3,000-plus New York City police officers have been trained so far in so-called active shooter situations, learning how to move through buildings, with just one partner if need be, as part of a new approach, the New York Times reports.

8 school districts are suing New York State over funding inequities, asking that the court declare current school funding levels “so inadequate” they violate students’ rights, Times Union reports.

$90 million in bonds were allotted to the city through the state for funding affordable housing this week, Politico New York reports.

12 communities with limited access to health food have been selected to be part of the new initiative which will build more urban farms, expand school gardens, and establish community-center culinary programs and farmers markets, the Wall Street Journal reports.

2,000 city-owned sedans used by local agencies like the Transportation Department will be replaced with electric vehicles by 2025, in an effort to cut municipal vehicle emissions in half by that time, the de Blasio administration announced Tuesday.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for Westchester County district attorney Janet DiFiore, who was nominated by Governor Cuomo to replace Jonathan Lippman as chief judge of the State Court of Appeals after Lippman retires at the end of this year.

It was a bad week for former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who faces decades in prison after being found guilty on all seven counts of federal corruption charges against him.

THE FLASH:

Around this time two years ago, on December 1, 2013, four people were killed and 61 were injured when a Metro-North train derailed in the Bronx after the engineer fell asleep at the controls.

Around this time 60 years ago, on December 1, 1955, commuting became a little easier for straphangers in Queens when the 60th Street Tunnel Connection opened in Queens, which is used today by the R train.

Around this time last year, on December 3, 2014, protests erupted in New York City after a grand jury decided not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Protests calling for Pantaleo, who is currently on modified duty, to be fired took place once again this Thursday, though NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has said his department is waiting for the federal investigation to be complete before proceeding with any administrative departmental action.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

City Council Submits Testimony to Pay Commission, by Ben Max

Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform? by David Howard King

Cuomo Increasingly Uses State Power to Undermine De Blasio, by David Howard King

Top Ten Corruption Quotes from Silver, Skelos Trials, by David Howard King

City's Rezoning Plans Won't Improve Quality or Affordability, Andrew Berman (opinion)

Ethical Treatment of Our Homeless Neighbors, by  Anne Klaeysen (opinion)

After Silver: Legal Reform is Ethics Reform, by Thomas Stebbins (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Mayor de Blasio appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC Friday to discuss a variety of issues.

On Inside City Hall, Errol Louis discussed the controversy over Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan with Vicki Been, commissioner of the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development and Carl Weisbrod, chairman of the City Planning Commission.

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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!

***
by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Will Silver Conviction Be Tipping Point for 'Real' Reform?


sheldon silver conviction

Sheldon Silver in 2012 (photo via the Governor's Office)


Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, thought to be the most powerful man in New York state government for decades, was found guilty Monday on seven counts of corruption in multiple schemes to monetize the power of his office. During the trial Silver's own defense attorney insisted that Albany itself was on trial and claimed that Silver's behavior was business as usual in Albany, and that even if it felt unseemly, it was in fact legal.

The jury did not agree. And though Silver left the courthouse saying he plans to continue his legal fight, the big question now is whether this startling development will be the impetus for major reform of the rules of the game for Albany lawmakers. With his conviction, Silver is removed from office and becomes the 32nd state lawmaker forced from office due to criminal or ethical issues since 2000.

Silver never took the stand on his own behalf and the defense called no witnesses. Instead, Silver's defense attorney, Steven Molo, argued that the federal government was trying to make Albany's long tradition of backroom dealing illegal. "It makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the system New York state has chosen, and it is not a crime," Molo said on Nov. 3 during opening statements. "The prosecutors are trying to make it a crime, but it's not."

Some advocates and legislators have railed against Silver's influence for years, decrying the concentration of power of the 'three men in a room,' of which Silver was one until he was indicted and resigned his leadership post. Some thought that with Silver all but gone Albany would somehow be redeemed. That redemption has been elusive.

As Silver faces decades of prison sentencing, Albany is still left to write its own rules. The men in charge, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who replaced Silver, have indicated there is currently no appetite for more reform and have rejected calls for special session on ethics.

"We will continue to work to root out corruption and demand more of elected officials when it comes to ethical conduct," Heastie said in a statement responding to Silver's conviction, adding that "accountability and transparency" are of utmost importance to the Assembly Majority. Heastie went on to list previously enacted reforms as evidence of his commitment as well as reform efforts that have been repeatedly stalled in the legislature by Senate Republicans.

"In addition to the enacted measures, the Assembly Majority has independently passed a number of ethics-related bills that were not taken up by the State Senate," reads the statement from Heastie, a Democrat like Silver and Cuomo. "Among these measures is a bill to close the LLC loophole and campaign finance reform measures to limit the influence of big money in politics, including the clarification of housekeeping accounts and independent expenditures, as well as the establishment of a meaningful public financing system."

Advocates hope public reaction to the conviction and the ongoing trial against Silver's former Senate counterpart, Sen. Dean Skelos - which is creating sensational soundbites thanks to wiretaps - will force more systemic change. Charges against Silver and Skelos were brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office.

"A political earthquake has hit Albany," said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group. "This is a stinging rebuke to the 'Albany business as usual' defense and a clarion call to clean up state ethics. Hopefully this will be the tipping point at which New York's political leadership will gets its heads out of the sand. Governor Cuomo must now call a special session devoted to ethics reform."

Good government group Citizens Union, which tracks lawmakers who've left office due to criminal or ethical issues, quickly issued a statement calling for a special session after Silver's conviction. "Citizens Union calls upon the legislature to meet in special session and deal once and for all with the problem of public corruption in state government," the statement reads. "Legislators need to address the problem of using their public posts for private gain."

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been calling for a move away from incremental reform and laid out a legislative package to move the needle and prevent conflicts of interest and corruption.

Good government groups including NYPIRG and Citizens Union recently reiterated calls for sweeping reform, including:

  • Increased legislative compensation, but add greater limits on outside income.
  • "Limit the influence of dark money campaign contributions and end government spending that takes place in the shadows' through measures such as closing the infamous LLC loophole."
  • "Reform ethics oversight and enforcement" by making changes to JCOPE's structure, scope, and voting procedures to increase transparency and independence.
  • "Strengthen financial reporting disclosure requirements for public officers to allow the public to more easily spot conflicts of interest."
  • "Streamline and standardize disclosure of lobbying activity for better analysis and easier evaluation by the public."

Earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo pointed to prior reforms he oversaw that required disclosure of outside income that enabled the case against Silver. "We've passed disclosure laws that, frankly, would have been unthinkable ten years ago," Cuomo said, adding, "For the first time ever, they have to disclose their clients. That's one of the reasons this case is this case, right?"

But the Reform Albany Act that contained the disclosure requirements also created the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a board that has yet to take any major actions and remains paralyzed by infighting between members appointed by legislative leaders (including Skelos and Silver) and Cuomo.

In response to the Silver verdict Monday, Cuomo issued a statement that read, "Today, justice was served. Corruption was discovered, investigated, and prosecuted, and the jury has spoken. With the allegations proven, it is time for the Legislature to take seriously the need for reform. There will be zero tolerance for the violation of the public trust in New York."

There is some indication rank-and-file legislators are looking for larger reforms. Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell issued a statement calling for a full-time legislature to limit the influence of outside income and to raise legislative salaries in conjunction.

"We need to change the way things work in Albany. As today's verdict demonstrates, the ability to earn outside income creates too much potential for impropriety," wrote O'Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat. "To restore respect for the hard work that the New York State Legislature does, we need to make it more like the federal system."

Schneiderman, a Democrat, has called for the creation of a full-time legislature and a few members of the Senate also support the idea.

Several other members of the Assembly and Senate have called for major changes to campaign finance and other laws.

Paul Newell, a Manhattan Democratic district leader who challenged Silver in 2008 and is raising money to run for Silver's seat, called on voters to take action to reform state government.

"This is a sad day for Lower Manhattan and a sad day for New York," Newell said in a statement. "Today's verdict proves it is up to us to reclaim our government. No court will end Albany's culture of corruption and cronyism. If we, as voters and citizens, continue to accept a government that favors those who buy power and influence, then that will be the government we get. But, if we want a government that is fair, transparent, and works for all of us, we must reclaim it ourselves. We can and must do better. The time for us to act is now."

[Read: Top Ten Corruption Quotes from Silver, Skelos Trials]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Top Ten Corruption Quotes from Silver, Skelos Trials


cuomo silver skelos

Happier times: Silver, Cuomo, Skelos in 2011 (l-r) photo via Governor's Office on flickr 


Two former leaders of their respective houses of the New York state legislature are on trial concurrently. In separate cases brought by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, each is accused of using his office for private gain, among other charges. While the case against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was sent to jury deliberation on Tuesday, Nov. 24; the case against former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, continues on.

No matter the outcome of the two cases, the underbelly of New York state politics has been further exposed through the two trials.

As good government groups and fellow reformers call for sweeping changes to the way business is done in Albany and around the state, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and others throw their hands up and say you can't legislate morality, that there will always be bad actors.

The Silver and Skelos trials have provided significant insight into the ways in which legislators use their power and influence for personal gain - and, especially in Skelos' case, the ways in which scheming politicians talk about their "work." While one or both may be found not guilty, there have been a number of comments made or heard during the trials that relate to corruption, whether of the legal or illegal kind.

We bring you top moments of the two trials thus far:

1. "It makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the system New York State has chosen, and it is not a crime," Silver's defense attorney Steven Molo said on Nov. 3 during opening statements. "The prosecutors are trying to make it a crime, but it's not." Molo insisting that prosecutors are trying to criminalize a part-time legislature and lawmakers holding outside employment.

Reform Issues: lawyers as legislators, full-time legislature, quid pro quo

2. "It's OK to be motivated by the money," Steven Molo, defense attorney for Sheldon Silver said during closing arguments on November 23. "Our legislators in the state of New York are part-time. They're able to work and have other jobs."

Issues: part-time legislature, lawyer legislators, conflicts of interest

3. "At the beginning of our relationship, I asked Mr. Silver if he would convince his company to donate funds to [cancer research] and he asked for referrals. That was the pattern," Dr. Robert Taub told jurors on Nov. 4.

Issues: Lawyers legislators, public officers law/self-dealing

4. "You have my cellphone number. It's a privilege to have that number. Now, if you want to utilize my f–king reach and business opportunity, then you call me and I'll set up a meeting," Adam Skelos told a member of a diner association, exploiting the sense of power he felt as his father's son, as captured through federal wiretap Dec. 22nd, 2014.

Issue: public officers law

5. "Let's stop pretending. Guys like you aren't fit to shine my shoes. And if you talk to me like that again, I'll smash your [expletive] head in," Adam Skelos said to his "boss," the head of a medical malpractice insurance firm. Prosecutors contend Skelos was only hired by the firm as a favor to his father.

Issue: public officers law

6. "I was uncomfortable with the arraignment," Richard Runes, lobbyist for Glenwood Management - a real estate firm that is also the state's largest donor to political campaigns (including the governor's) and is involved in the corruption cases against Silver and Skelos - speaking about removing Silver's name from what would have been a publicly disclosed document revealing a fee-sharing arrangement between Silver and a law firm employed by Glenwood. Runes further testified he "did not want to sign a retainer that listed Mr. Silver as one of the attorneys."

Issues: disclosure of outside income, lawyers as legislators, LLC loophole, public officers law

7. "You've been nodding your head up and down and back and forth in what looks like a signal to the witness," Judge Kimba Wood scolded a Senate staffer on Nov. 23 during testimony by an ex-councilman from North Hempstead who testified he gave Adam Skelos a $20,000 referral fee on behalf of Glenwood Management. Wood was addressing Senate staffer Welquis Lopez, a friend of Dean Skelos who remains on the Senate payroll.

"If you nod your head one more time, I'm going to have court security escort you out of the courtroom," Wood added.

Issue: corruption

8."Keep them separate and fighting and hating each other," Dean Skelos said, explaining why he empowered state Senator Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference, during a wiretapped phone call captured Dec. 22, 2014. "It's worked for six years...Keeping them at each other's throat."

The younger Skelos protested giving Klein any role at all. "I can't afford [Sen.] Bill Larkin having a heart attack," Dean Skelos said, referring to an elderly Republican senator and the slim Republican margin in the Senate.

"When your enemy is in a weak state, you don't back off. You destroy them," Adam Skelos said, referring to Klein. "It's going to be co-coalition leader. It means nothing," Dean Skelos responded.

Issues: political control of the Senate; 'Three men in a room'

9. "Ahhh! This day sucks," Adam Skelos said during a phone call with his father, then Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on December 17, 2014. The Cuomo administration had decided not to move ahead with hydrofracking and the prosecution in the trial where both father and son are defendants contends that the younger Skelos used his father's connections to win no-show jobs with companies that stood to benefit from his father's actions. Adam Skelos was employed with AbTech, a group that manufactures water filters that are used in the fracking process. Prosecutors say he stood to gain $1 for each barrel of waste created in the fracking process on top of his $10,000-a-month salary. Skelos and his Senate Republican majority strongly promoted fracking for the state.

Issue: public officers law/self-dealing

10. "I represent only claimants, individual claimants, in personal injury actions," Silver told a reporter during a recorded interview played during the trial. "My clients are little people. I don't represent any corporations," he told another reporter. "I don't represent any entities that are involved in the legislative process." The prosecution provided witnesses and documentation showing that Silver's income came exclusively from referrals set up through his law firm - not from working with clients - referrals he is accused of earning through quid-pro-quo relationships with real estate interests and Dr. Taub.

Issues: outside income, income disclosure, conflict of interest, lawyers as legislators

Silver jury deliberations and the Skelos trial will continue Monday, November 30. All defendents are innocent until proven guilty.

[Related: Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Sweeping Reforms]

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Commission Considers Raises, Reforms for Elected Compensation


de blasio mark-viverito council members

The Mayor, Speaker, & Council members (Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


Attendance was notably sparse at the first public hearing of the commission charged with making recommendations around compensation for city elected officials.

Fewer than fifteen people, about half of whom were journalists, went to Brooklyn Law School on November 23 for the Quadrennial Advisory Commission hearing to collect input from the public. Four people testified to urge the commission to make compensation-related reforms in their recommendations: two leaders from good government groups and two other concerned citizens. No elected officials were present, though Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified at the second public hearing held at CUNY Law School in Queens the next night. City district attorneys had previously sent a letter to the commission arguing for an increase in pay.

None of the three citywide elected officials, other four borough presidents, or 51 City Council members have publicly expressed an opinion about compensation levels.

In September, in a move required by law, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a three-person commission to review the compensation levels of elected officials. Those salaries are supposed to be reviewed by a commission comprised of private citizens generally recognized for their knowledge of management and compensation every four years, but out of reluctance by mayors to make a move that is generally perceived by the public as an attempt to give themselves and their colleagues a raise, the salaries of New York City’s elected officials have gone unchanged since 2006.

At the hearing, Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, reiterated the good government group’s support for salary increases for the city’s elected officials provided that they are accompanied by other reforms. Dadey’s testimony was well-received by the commission and its chair, Fritz Schwarz, Jr., who asked Dadey several questions. Citizens Union argues that salary increases should be prospective, only taking hold in 2018 - after the next city elections; come with elimination of “lulus” (stipends) for chairing City Council committees; and with a cap on outside income to no more than 25 percent of one’s city salary, with full disclosure.

Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, echoed Dadey’s calls for reforms, saying that any compensation increase must also be tied to meaningful restrictions on outside income, ending the practice of awarding lulus to Council committee chairs, and prohibiting retrospective salary increases.

The commission includes Schwarz, Jr., the Chief Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice; Jill Bright, Chief Administrative Officer at Condé Nast; and Paul Quintero, Chief Executive Office at ACCION EAST, Inc. It will likely release its recommendations around compensation levels for the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, City Council members, and district attorneys by the end of the year, though the commission is already passing the initial timeline set in the mayor’s announcement. Public comment is open until December 3.

The mayor may accept, reject, or amend the findings of the commission, sending recommendations to the City Council for a vote on any new salaries before they head back to the mayor for approval into law.

At the hearing, Dadey pointed out that a large majority of Council members said that they think the raises should be prospective in their earlier responses to a Citizens Union questionnaire - a change which Mayor de Blasio also supports.

“37 out of 51 Council members said they support our proposal that any future increase in Council Member salary should only apply prospectively to the next elected class,” Dadey said (there has been some fluctuation in Council membership, but the numbers largely apply to the current Council).

Also noting that no Council members were there to testify and none have publicly voiced an opinion about raiss, Dadey said, “So why give them something that they haven’t asked for, and why give them something that they oppose?”

Schwarz confirmed that no Council member testimony had been received by the commission.

“You have this opportunity to actually come out with your recommendations and change a process that has been flawed for 28 years,” Dadey told the commission regarding the notion that raises should only be for the next class of elected officials. Many current officials will be heavily-favored incumbents running for re-election in 2017, but the point is one of principle and appeared to resonate with the commission.

Though some have said that issues with Council members and the mayor voting on their own salary increases could be avoided by simply pegging salary adjustments to one of a couple of economic measures, like the cost of living, Schwarz expressed dismay with the idea of proposing automatic COLA increases.

“What worries me about that concept are two things: one, ordinary citizens are not guaranteed COLA increase; and two, if a government official’s future raises are automatic, it removes any democratic accountability - so they get their extra pay but they don’t have to go through the rigor and sometimes hard public position of saying there should be more pay for my office,” Schwarz said. (COLA increases were not recommended by Citizens Union or NYPIRG.)

At the second hearing, Borough President Brewer also supported making any salary increase prospective. In the testimony she submitted to the commission, Brewer said, “I believe this commission should strongly urge the Mayor to do two things: First, commit now to empanel another pay raise commission in 2019; and second, to introduce legislation that contains an effective date of January 1, 2018 -- the first day of the next term of office for all New York City elected offices.”

In his testimony, Dadey pointed out that eliminating stipends for Council committee chairs is supported by 31 members of the Council. These stipends, known as lulus, currently range from $5,000 to $25,000 and, Dadey says, have contributed to the creation of unnecessary committees. With 38 committees, six subcommittees, and two task forces, nearly every Council member receives a stipend in addition to their $112,500 salary.

The large number of committees, Dadey said, allows “the speaker to use the lulus as a way in which to extract loyalty on particular issues which they would not otherwise do.” Only truly senior leadership positions like the Speaker and Majority Leader should receive stipends, Dadey added.

“We have more committees in the City Council than in the House of Representatives in the US Congress,” Dadey said, adding that the number of committees Council members serve on restricts their ability to focus on certain issues. These points raised Schwarz’s eyebrows.

In her testimony, Brewer, who was a Council member before being elected borough president, also expressed support for eliminating stipends. “Lulus should be abolished,” she wrote. “I think lulus have become a way of giving all but the least favored Council Members added compensation.”

Schwarz agreed that the lulus “can completely mislead people.” Due to public pressure, eleven Council members have refused to accept lulus this year, according to the Daily News editorial board.

During her testimony, Bronx resident Roxane Delgado pointed out that “City Council members voted against an amendment eliminating lulus as recommended by the commission in 2006.”

Since being a member of the City Council is only considered a part-time job, Council members are permitted to earn outside income. Citizens Union recommends outside income should be capped to no more than 25 percent of the elected official’s salary, with full disclosure, since eliminating outside income altogether would detract from the goal of attracting candidates with varied private sector experience, the good government group says.

Currently, fewer City Council members earn income from an outside job than at any time before.

Russianoff also supported meaningful restrictions on outside income, testifying that NYPIRG “strongly favors a congressional model which allows members of the federal government to devote 15% of their time to outside activities.”

Brewer, however, suggested that the job of a City Council member should be considered a full-time job.

At the first commission hearing, Schwarz pointed out the merit in keeping the position part-time, saying “A lawyer who joins the government brings something valuable, as does a community organizer, as does a businessman or woman - it’s important to have people in the Council who have varied life experiences.”

During the hearing, Commissioners Schwarz and Bright gave some insight into their process.

“We’re looking at the benefits, pensions, and compensation relative to the citizens that elected officials represent,” Bright said. “We are looking at the cost of living as a factor, not only the consumer price index, but also how much it costs - rent, food, utilities - what it actually costs to live here for the average citizen.”

“We are considering median household income,” Schwarz said, but added, “I don’t think we are likely to look at the percentage increases for the city’s regular workers in collective bargaining as” a target, referring to new union contracts signed between the de Blasio administration and city workers.

“If we went beyond those for the elected officials, I think we would be in trouble. To me, what they’re relevant to, is to make sure that we’re not going beyond them,” Schwarz clarified of the union contract increases.

According to New York City code, in making its recommendations, the commission must consider the duties and responsibilities of each position, the current salary of the position and the length of time since the last change, and any change in the cost of living, as well as a number of other factors.

The salaries of New York’s 64 elected officials has gone unchanged since 2006, though only 27 have held office for more than one term, and 22 were first elected to their posts just two years ago.

The 2006 commission’s recommendations resulted in a 25 percent salary increase for Council members (up to the current $112,500 per year base)  and a 15.4 percent increase for the mayor, from $195,000 to $225,000.

This year, Brewer has called for a 15 percent increase for all offices. Dadey and Citizens Union also support salary increases, given the demanding responsibilities placed on New York City’s elected officials, and the fact that they have not received a salary increase since 2006.

“The offices of the city’s elected officials need to be well compensated in order to attract individuals to public life who are talented, committed, and well qualified to carry out their jobs as successfully as they can,” Dadey said in his written testimony.

Some elected officials, however, have been seeking raises much higher than what good government groups support. According to the Daily News, a handful of Council members have been discreetly supporting a 71 percent increase. It’s something Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called “ridiculous” and that Dadey, among others, have also panned. Mark-Viverito has not expressed an opinion about raises and says she wants to see the results of the commission's work.

Earlier this November, the Daily News also reported the city’s five district attorneys - who currently make $190,000 annually - wrote a letter to the Quadrennial Advisory Commission requesting a 32 percent increase to their salaries, up to $250,000.

For his part, Mayor de Blasio has indicated through a spokesperson that he would “decline” accepting any pay hike “for the duration” of his current term.

Though the Council and the mayor have approved the commission’s recommended salary increases in the past, recommendations for reforms have gone unheeded.

In its report, the 2006 quadrennial advisory commission suggested “limiting the ability of government officials to raise their own salaries and receive them immediately would improve the integrity of the government and public confidence in it.”

The same commission also called lulus “ripe for reform,” and recommended that either a future Charter Revision Commission or the Council should consider reforming the practice of awarding extra stipends to Council members. 

Yet no changes have been made in nearly the decade since, and as a result, good government groups are demanding that any recommendations for salary increases this year hinge upon the Council’s agreement to enact relevant reforms.

As Russianoff of NYPIRG points out, “the Council has unfettered discretion to act. The Council’s unfettered power remains to pass local laws dictating compensation for City officials." 

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

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Assessing City Library Expansion After Budget Boost


van bramer six day library service

CM Van Bramer celebrates expanded library service (photo via @JimmyVanBramer) 


This June, officials added $43 million in funding for New York City’s three public library systems to the fiscal year 2016 budget, allowing for expansion of branch operating hours and a return to six-day service for the first time in nearly a decade.

At an oversight hearing on Monday, November 30, City Council members will seek an update on the libraries’ progress implementing six-day service, with particular focus on staffing and how the added funds are being allocated, as well as outreach efforts to inform the public of the newly expanded hours.

Just as the added budget funding was much-applauded when it was announced, the hearing will likely be a celebratory affair - according to interviews and information obtained by Gotham Gazette, expansion is moving quickly across the systems. This includes more six-day service, hiring of new staff, and more.

The historic funding increase comes after a push by advocates, City Council members, Public Advocate Letitia James, and others. The city’s three public library systems, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens Public Library, and the New York Public Library (which has branches in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx), operate 217 local library branches and served 37 million visitors in fiscal year 2014 - more than all of the city's professional sports teams and other major cultural institutions combined.

Today, New York’s public libraries are far more than a place to take out a book - they play a critical role in the lives of New Yorkers who are most in need of the services that libraries offer, like early childhood education, job training, technology classes, free tax assistance, and English classes.

As Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer told Gotham Gazette, “Libraries are really the first line of defense when it comes to bridging the information gap and technology gap. Folks who are working class, working poor, they're working during the week, and so many of them can’t get to libraries during the week. Saturdays and Sundays are the only times they can get to the library.”

Which is why, Van Bramer says, it is “really imperative to have libraries open on Saturdays. It’s absolutely essentially to reach every New Yorker and it is essential for every New Yorker to have access to library services, programs, and materials.”

At the upcoming hearing, Van Bramer, Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations, said he “will ask how the three library systems have ramped up, whether every library is at expanded hours at this point, and if not, when will they be expanded?”

Making a few calls ahead of the hearing, which was postponed from an earlier date, Gotham Gazette was able to pull together some of that information.

Since October 19, all of the Brooklyn Public Library’s local branches are now open at least six days a week, while the Queens Public Library’s branches began six-day service November 15. The New York Public Library’s branches already had six-day service, so the added funding is being used to extend hours, bringing the total number of NYPL branches open on Sundays from three to seven.

Van Bramer said he also intends to ask “how their hiring is going - obviously a large part of the funding we allocated to expand days of service goes toward staffing - so how many new librarians and new library workers have been hired? Have they hired everyone they need to hire, or are they still in the process of hiring to get to that staffing level they need for full six-day service? I want to know how much more do they have to do.”

The added funding has “meant a big uptick in hiring,” Queens Public Library Interim President and CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey told Gotham Gazette. “We’ve hired over 100 positions.”

The New York Public Library, meanwhile, has “hired 60 new librarians,” George Mihaltses, head of government affairs at NYPL, told Gotham Gazette. “And we’re planning to hire 36 more.” 

Even one new librarian can make a significant impact. According to the NYPL, in fiscal year 2015, the library used added funds to hire a children's specialist for a branch in the Bronx. As a direct result of the librarian's arrival, NYPL says, children's programming attendance at that branch increased by about 60 percent.

Council Member Andy King, Chair of the Subcommittee on Libraries, co-hosting Monday’s hearing with Van Bramer’s committtee, told Gotham Gazette that the committees want to find out specifics about “how the libraries plan on rolling out six-day service. How are they going to be doing programs in the libraries, what services will be provided on that sixth day? What kind of outreach is being made to ensure people know about six-day service? Will we be having events to promote the rollout together? With the...millions that have been allocated to the library system, how will this money be spent?”

In addition to increasing libraries’ hours of operation and hiring more librarians, those added millions will be used to bring more programs, books, and materials, to the NYPL’s branches, Mihaltses said. For the Queens library system, the added funds will be used enhance early literacy and afterschool programs, and to increase the library’s budget to purchase books, videos, e-books, and other materials by 30 percent, a library official told DNAinfo.

Council Member King told Gotham Gazette “making sure the libraries’ outreach is successful” is what he believed is the most important factor to consider when allocating resources to the many branches of New York City’s library systems. “We need to let people know that our libraries are open,” King said, “and we need to be prepared to receive them as they come into the doors.”

As far as outreach goes, David Woloch, executive vice president of external affairs at the Brooklyn Public Library, told Gotham Gazette that much of their outreach would occur “over the next few weeks. We’re going to be communicating to our patrons at all of our branches, we have a very big email list and we’ll be communicating the new hours to our entire email list, and using social media. There’s a lot of pieces to it - basically on every front we want to be getting the word out there.”

The Queens Public Library system took a more festive route to let the community know about the expanded hours, holding celebrations at about two dozen of its branches on Saturday, Nov. 21. “It’s all about making a big splash,” Quinn-Carey said. Scheduled events included meet-and-greets by eleven City Council members, as well as programs like face-painting, arts and crafts, storytelling, science labs, documentary screenings, and live music and dance performances.

“There will be a lot of promotion,” Quinn-Carey added, “not just this Saturday, but ongoing. We’re encouraging our branches to do a lot of local outreach.”

Overall, Monday’s hearing is a chance for city officials to “get some sense of accountability,” King said, adding he would like to know “what the plans are for the upcoming year, and how we all will profit from libraries being open six days a week.”

For many, the expanded hours of service comes as a much-needed relief, giving struggling New Yorkers with hectic work schedules a chance to utilize helpful programs offered by libraries that they simply couldn’t make it to before.

“Whenever we would go out into the communities to see people,” Quinn-Carey said, “they would always say, ‘We really want Saturday service or Sunday service - we need another day.’ Especially for two-parent working families or single-parent families, there really weren't many opportunities to get to the libraries. it just wasn’t convenient for them.”

“More and more people are relying on the library to be the sole source of their internet connection, they rely on us for basic education classes, or preschool classes, or ESL classes. They have a fundamental need to get into the library and it needs to be convenient for them,” Quinn-Carey continued.

“They want to get help for their children's homework. I think that's what so important - that, thanks to support from the city, we are now able...to open doors for the community. This is one of those things where you think to yourself, ‘the government is working for me,’ because it's a service they can see is being provided by public money.”

Although the $43 million in funding added to this year’s budget has rightfully been lauded by library advocates, Council Members, and others, as Van Bramer points out, “six-day service should be the bare minimum. This should be baselined [in the budget] right away and not subject to any further cuts.”

Large funding deficits to the three library systems beginning in fiscal year 2011 required the City Council and the administration to restore funding, which the city began to do in fiscal year 2014. Van Bramer himself played a key role in securing the increased funds for this fiscal year.

“We need the administration and Mayor de Blasio to baseline this funding,” Van Bramer said. “I do think libraries would love to see some additional funding, but I think, at a bare minimum, we need to baseline this funding and then we can talk about potential increases.”

Even with the newly expanded hours, New York City still lags behind other major cities and even other New York counties in terms of how many hours per week public libraries are open, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future. In Suffolk and Nassau counties, libraries are open 64 hours per week. In Rockland County, 60 hours per week; in Westchester, 54 hours per week; and in Onondaga County, 53 hours per week. Public libraries in San Antonio are open 57 hours per week, while those in Los Angeles are open 53 hours.

Woloch said that by adding hours throughout the system, most Brooklyn Public Library branches are now open at least 48 hours a week. Mihaltses said the New York Public Library’s branches “will be open, on average, 50 hours a week per branch, up from 45 hours.”

The eventual goal, City Council sources say, is to expand to seven-day service.

To Jeanette Estima, a researcher from the Center for an Urban Future who helped put together the report on library hours, this much is clear: “Libraries are used more than ever today. They’re used by people who are learning how to do computer programming, people who want to brush up on skills to make themselves more marketable, and when libraries are open for more hours, they are able to reach more people.”

“Libraries are tied to the development of human capital in New York City,” Estima continued. “Today’s market is a knowledge-based economy, and this is the only free resource to build these skills for New Yorkers.”

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



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