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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]

***
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

Mayor and Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote


mmv bdb via city council twitter

The Speaker & the Mayor (photo via the City Council)


Speaking at separate events over a two-day span, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito acknowledged significant community pushback against the mayor's rezoning proposals and said that those plans will be tweaked before the Council votes on them.

On Monday, de Blasio was asked about the largely negative reaction across the city to the zoning proposals at the center of his affordable housing plans. Many community boards are voting against the two rezoning proposals, which call for changes to how space is used, including allowing more retail and housing density as part of new development with market-rate and affordable apartments.

Both the Bronx and Queens Borough Boards - made up of community board leaders, City Council members, and the borough president - have voted against them. The Brooklyn and Manhattan Borough Boards are expected to vote next week, while a Staten Island vote is not yet scheduled.

De Blasio said Monday that he is "resolute," adding that he is not surprised community boards have objections. "Those objections should be heard and we should think about them," de Blasio said, "and where we see the need to make certain modifications we will."

"But in the end," the mayor continued, "the community boards aren't the final decision makers. The mayor and the City Council make the decisions, in some cases, obviously, with the City Planning Commission. And that's where our process is set up, and that's how it's worked for years."

What de Blasio will need, of course, is City Council buy-in. As the mayor, top administration officials, and his city planning department consider feedback from local leaders and make "modifications" to the rezoning plans, they'll need to convince Council members representing the districts set to undergo the most change that they should vote in favor of the plans. These include representatives from communities like East New York, East Harlem, Flushing, and areas of the Bronx, among others initially targeted for the zoning changes and more housing.

The leader of the Council, Mark-Viverito, also happens to represent East Harlem and part of the Bronx. She abstained as the Bronx Borough Board voted against the mayor's plans and said she'll abstain when Manhattan votes on Monday, Nov. 30. While the community and borough board votes are non-binding advisory opinions, they are indicative of concerns throughout the city about de Blasio's plans. Those concerns include worries about rising prices and gentrification accompanying new development; that new housing won't be accompanied by new schools and transportation infrastructure; lack of parking; and more.

On Tuesday Mark-Viverito said that she is sure the plans will need to be changed in order to pass through the Council. Saying that Council members are listening to their constituents and that the plans will "obviously go back to City Planning," Mark-Viverito said, "The plan that has been presented originally, I can assure you, will not be stagnant and...will not be the plan that comes before us at the Council."

Some of the key changes that may be made based on community pushback include creating more flexibility within the proposals for how area median income (AMI) is determined - instead of using one set of figures for the whole city as the plans do now, AMIs would be set more by local geography so that apartments being labeled as "affordable" would truly be so for local residents, especially the lowest income earners. On the other hand, in some areas of the city, residents are looking for more units to be carved out for middle-income earners. There are also historical and neighborhood preservation concerns in some places.

Other possible tweaks relate to ensuring that affordable housing for seniors is made permanently so; that parking is protected; and that affordable units are required to be built among market-rate units, not off-site or even on separate floors.

"The land-use review process is extensive," Mark-Viverito said Tuesday. When it comes to the two rezoning proposals, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, the speaker said, "We're at only the beginning stages of that debate and that conversation. So yes, community boards are taking a position, some borough boards have taken positions; but we're nowhere near engaging in that level of debate at the Council level."

She promised continued constituent engagement and figuring out how to "make additional improvement" to the plans. Calling some of the community concerns "legitimate," Mark-Viverito said "some communities want greater AMIs, some communities want lower AMIs. It's going to be a very, very heated conversation."

For his part, the mayor said "it's all part of a democratic process," and that the community boards "inform the process." He did remind, though, that community boards are indeed advisory and that the elected officials - who often disagree with community boards - make the final decisions.

"I'm listening. My whole team is listening to them," the mayor said Monday. "We're looking at if we think any of the points raised a need to make any changes." De Blasio and his team will continue to defend the plans, even if they're open to tweaks. They argue that the city desperately needs more housing, especially affordable units, which can only be built in most cases if new market-rate housing is also allowed. They also sell the plans as community development, highlighting new retail space that will created, and with it, employment and shopping opportunities.

"It does have an impact on our thinking," de Blasio said of community feedback. "It does help us figure out things we need to do better."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax
@GothamGazette

Stakeholders Urge Adams to Reject East New York Community Plan


eric adams via twitter bpericadams

BK BP Adams at an event (photo via @bpericadams)


At Brooklyn Borough Hall on Monday, Borough President Eric Adams held a public hearing on the de Blasio administration’s controversial East New York Community Plan. After remarks from City Council representatives at the packed-to-capacity hearing, stakeholders from the affected area urged Adams to reject it.

“What I’m gonna stand here and talk about is you putting yourself in the position of these community members, young and old, who are coming to you and asking you to just look at the mayor’s plan and just understand that it’s crap,” Jasbir Singh, Brooklyn organizer for the advocacy group Faith In New York, said at the hearing, addressing Adams directly.

Though most opinions expressed were less harsh, only two people - officials from the City Planning Department who provided a powerpoint of plan details at the hearing’s start - voiced approval for the proposal, at least in its current form. The plan aims to create affordable housing units, protect existing ones, and strengthen the economy of the area proposed for rezoning, which contains East New York, Cypress Hills, and Ocean Hill.

The area has high poverty rates and is largely populated by people of color. There are limited work and transportation options. It is an area that could be upzoned to allow more retail space, as well as new housing development. The administration’s plan seeks to create new housing that will include “affordable” units, while also fostering new business and jobs as buildings are “mixed-use,” meaning retail on the ground floor with housing atop.

On Monday at Borough Hall, participants urged the city officials present to vote against the proposal. Though it has already been rejected by Community Board 5 (East New York, Cypress Hills, Highland Park, New Lots, City Line, Starrett City, and Ridgewood), Community Board 16 (Brownsville and Ocean Hill) could endorse it when it votes at the end of the month. These votes are advisory, though - the City Council is expected to vote on the plan in 2016. The Council typically follows the lead of the local rep(s), which is this case are Council Members Rafael Espinal and Inez Barron.

The East New York area is one initial proving ground for the de Blasio administration’s larger rezoning and housing plans - plans that are being met with resistance all over the city and are likely to be tweaked before they are presented to the Council.

Most of the concerns expressed Monday were about the proposal’s potential to displace residents of the rezoned area. Around 50 percent of the approximately 6,300 housing units created for the East New York Community Plan are slated to be affordable units. The remainder are market-rate.

During her remarks at the start of the hearing, Council Member Barron held up a sheet of paper with two pie graphs. One showed the current East New York community by percentage of income levels and the other showed the same statistics as forecast after the rezoning, she said.

If the proposal is implemented, Barron said, the majority of East New York residents will earn salaries of $75,000 and up, a group that currently composes only 18 percent of the neighborhood population. (It was not immediately clear where Barron’s data came from.)

“I also want to say that they don't tell you the size of the units. So, we need two and three bedrooms, some of us will obviously need four-bedroom apartments,” Barron said. “But we don't know, of the units that they're going to bring in that they call affordable, how many bedrooms there are going to be.”

Barron reaffirmed her stance on the proposal: as it currently exists, she does not support it. Council Member Espinal, who represents most of the area proposed for rezoning, expressed the same stance in his remarks.

Despite some concerns mentioned about the proposal’s economic plan, which does not require that businesses interested in East New York pay workers a “living wage,” most concerns voiced were about the plan’s potential to displace residents.

“We are deeply concerned about displacement and urge the city to study the impact of rezoning on displacement in other areas such as Park Slope [and] Williamsburg in order to develop an understanding of what rezoning will really mean to low-income East New Yorkers,” Jamal Burgess, Future of Tomorrow youth organizer and Cypress Hills resident, said. “Through the years, we have seen gentrification in Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Harlem, covered up by urban renewal projects.”

In the plan, one of the strategies listed for the protection of existing affordable housing is providing free legal representation from the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force for people facing harassment by landlords. Several who spoke at Monday’s hearing reported that they had personally experienced this type of harassment, and doubted the capability of the legal representation strategy to fight it.

“I cannot accept a legal clinic at face value as being able to solve that problem,” five-year East New York resident Barbara Champion said.

Mayor de Blasio has personally guaranteed such legal help to tenants in any of the neighborhoods he plans to rezone and has dedicated budgetary dollars toward such aid.

East New York is one of 15 areas selected by the de Blasio administration for rezoning. The proposals are part of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, two main pieces of the mayor’s Housing New York plan that are being reviewed by community and borough boards now before some version goes to the Council.

Local reception to planned rezonings have been mixed, largely skewing negative. Community boards in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens have voted in favor of rezoning plans; due to possible overcrowding, a Long Island City community board voted against; and the Movement for Justice in El Barrio advocacy group recently interrupted a Community Board 11 meeting to protest against East Harlem’s proposed rezoning changes. The Bronx and Queens Borough Boards voted against the plans and other boroughs are set to vote soon. Again, these are all advisory opinions.

Brooklyn Borough President Adams did not give a verdict on the city’s proposal at Monday’s hearing. “I did not come into this room with my mind made up,” the borough president said. He encouraged community input, letting participants do the talking as he listened and eyes his Borough Board meeting on Tuesday, December 1, which will include a vote on the mayor's two larger rezoning plans.

As part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the borough president reviews the proposal and has the power to recommend it to the City Planning Commission, the final body that reviews it before the City Council.

Asked about neighborhood and board resistance to his plans on Monday, de Blasio said that it did not surprise him that there would be objections. “Those objections should be heard and we should, you know, think about them, and where we see the need to make certain modifications we will,” de Blasio said. “But in the end, the community boards aren’t the final decision makers. The mayor and the City Council make the decisions, in some cases, obviously, with the City Planning Commission.”

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

This article has been updated to more carefully reflect Borough President Adams' comments at the town hall.

Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts


vance bratton nypdnews

DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews

 


 

In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of 1.3 million open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.

The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “Begin Again.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.

While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won a seventh four-year term, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.

“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at a November 17 press conference launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”

“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”

The success of Thompson’s first Begin Again event, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.

Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.

With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?

Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)

"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.

“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.

“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.

Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”

“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."

Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.

Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.

Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.

It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued each day in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of 359,432 summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.

If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.

That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!”

What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”

Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.

“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.

When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”

About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.

A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, announced a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.

“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”

Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”

Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to what he has called “the peace dividend” approach he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.

“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.” 

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

Rezoning Discussion Shifts to Food Access, At Least for One Breakfast


red hook harvest via greencityforce

Red Hook Houses harvesting (photo via @GreenCityForce)


In the midst of city-wide controversy surrounding two new zoning proposalsconnected to Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s affordable housing plan, health and housing experts gathered to discuss how zoning could impact something else: food.

“I hope that by the end of today‘s discussion,“ said Nevin Cohen, associate professor at the CUNY School of Public Health, “we will see how spatial planning shapes local food environments and, therefore, how critical it is when we make decisions about how to change a neighborhood’s landscape.”

Part of a breakfast series put on by the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, the event, Zoning and the City‘s Food System: Opportunities to Shape Healthier Food Environments in NYC, brought together a full room of interested parties - students, advocates, and others - at the CUNY Graduate Center. They met at a breakfast event as community boards, housing activists, preservations, elected officials, and others consider the de Blasio administration’s ambitious rezoning plans, which have received quite a bit of pushback so far.

While de Blasio’s plans for adding housing stock and density to several city neighborhoods like East New York, East Harlem, Flushing, and elsewhere have received a great deal of attention, food access is almost never part of the discussion.

Cohen introduced and moderated a conversation with three other speakers: Javier Lopez, deputy director of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Center for Developed Equity; Daniel Hernandez, deputy Commissioner for neighborhood strategies at the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation; and Shy Lauris, director of community development at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation.

Zoning plays a large part in shaping food environments, the panelists explained. For all of the opaque jargon--FARs, RCM, RFPs--what zoning laws do is fairly straightforward: set limits on what a piece of land can or cannot be used for. This includes determining what function a building can fulfill (residential, commercial, manufacturing, etc.), the population density that a building can support (think low- or high-density housing), maximum building height, the amount of space various structures can occupy, and the proportional guidelines for different spatial types (i.e. the ratio of landscaped space to traffic lanes or to parking lots).

Each panelist gave an individual presentation focusing on current and possible health-oriented zoning initiatives before the discussion evolved into a more fluid, open forum also including audience members.

Lopez, of DOHMH, spoke about standardizing health requirements in the city‘s neighborhood planning process, creating a sort of health checklist for city planners to incorporate into development.

“Right now it is kind of being done in an ad hoc way,“ he said, “when you have conversations on transportation, on health, on education, all that has to be formalized…We believe that if we formalized it, other agencies could be more responsive to the public health conversations that are taking place.”

He continued saying that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene‘s brand new Community Health Profiles could serve as guidelines to future neighborhood development. The profiles include community district specific statistics on things like citizen supermarket access; resident smoking, eating, and exercise habits; air pollution; and more.

Lopez also talked with excitement about progressive zoning policies from other cities that New York could look to adopt.

In “Transform Baltimore,” for instance, the city‘s zoning overhaul of 2014, Baltimore amended its zoning code to simplify the process of beginning an urban farm and preserving community gardens. “Transform” also adopted a broader array of health-oriented zoning policies that included increasing development around transit hubs, preserving open space, and creating mixed-use housing (buildings that double as residential and commercial spaces).

The last of these measures - mixed-use housing - Hernandez pointed to in his presentation as something the city‘s proposed Zoning for Quality and Affordability text amendment (ZQA) seeks to increase. By raising the maximum building height in certain neighborhoods by five feet, the amendment allows the bottom floors of residential developments to serve as high-quality retail space. This can often lead to new food markets, reducing distances residents and families have to travel from their homes to access a range of food.

ZQA, along with its sister bill, the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing text amendment (MIH), is currently receiving stiff opposition from community boards across New York, but Hernandez thinks this opposition is misguided. Much of the hesitation among New Yorkers surrounds residential affordability and fears of gentrification and rising prices.

“HPD was developing retail buildings with really bad retail space, or bottom ground floor space,” Hernandez said. “So we worked with Design Trust for Public Space to identify how the buildings could increase in height and still be contextual within the existing historic fabric of neighborhoods. To be honest [the plan] is not being received too well, people think that the five foot increase is a way for developers to get additional [floor area ratio], but it’s actually not…[DOHMH is] working with [several city agencies] to bring different types of incentives and programs to small businesses in order to fill the retail space.”

Supermarkets will also move in, Hernandez said. He explained ZQA would enable the city to “more deliberately” pedal its FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health) program, which provides zoning and financial incentives to developers and grocers when they build supermarkets in neighborhoods with a lack of healthy food options.

urban farm via nycfood[an urban farm, via @nycfood]

Shy Lauris is in charge of a development in East New York that serves as a concrete example of what Hernandez speaks about. At the Food Policy Center event, Lauris showed the audience a development located at Pitkin Avenue and Berriman Street that was just beginning construction. The building, a model of what HPD envisions for many other parts of the city, will include 60 affordable rental units, with a FRESH subsidized supermarket on the ground floor. The building will also include a public community garden with private plots for each tenant.

Lauris, however, emphasized the role of financing in the project, saying it could not have happened were it not for the increase in density that the city granted the developer. The greater number of units allowed gave Lauris and her community the revenue to build the type of building they wanted. These decisions are at the essence of the de Blasio housing plan, with its rezoning proposals at the center, which allow for greater density and development incentives in order to spur new units - both market and “affordable” - and new retail.

“In order to have food on that lot, you need to have economies of scale“ she said, “you need to finance construction and it’s very difficult to do...in order to make this work we needed more density.“

Nevin Cohen, who worked with the Design Trust for Public Space to develop favorable zoning policies for rooftop agriculture in the city in 2012, added that financing is also what‘s holding back that movement, which spurs local food sourcing.

As the event drew to a close, where exactly additional financing might come from remained unclear. Hernandez said he hoped the food-friendly-living market will grow similar to the way energy conservation has over the past decade (think solar panels).

“We have an amazing opportunity to effect the marketplace,“ he said. “In previous years when the green building and energy efficiency movement was just beginning, HPD worked closely with [the U.S. Green Building Council] as well as the Enterprise Green Communities program to identify ways to require anything that we financed to be green and energy efficient. Now these standards are a part of all pipelines. We require developers to comply with the green communities program at a minimum, but that often leads to developers competing to build the best building.”

Money does not grow on basil leaves, though, and the financial incentives that tipped developers toward supporting energy efficient practices do not exist for community gardens. Hernandez hopes that food-conscious construction paradigms like Via Verde, which won the New Housing New York (NHNY) Legacy Competition, will push the market to demand healthier construction practices, but the economic hurdles still prove daunting.

Referring to the struggle to get developers to adopt sustainable energy standards, Hernandez said, “It wasn’t until we were able to monetize the savings to the developer that they became interested. But then there was an increase in construction cost we had to manage and it wasn’t until there was more market demand from people that it began to push the construction industry to make changes.”

Pausing for a moment, he concluded, “I am not sure how to monetize health incentives.”

***
by Colin O’Connor for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette
@colinqoconnor93

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, November 23


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Thanksgiving week will see just a few days of political activity, but the beginning of the week is looking busy. Highlights include closing arguments in Sheldon Silver's corruption trial; the continuation of Dean Skelos' corruption trial; the release of the Public Advocate's "worst landlord list"; several City Council hearings and a full-body "Stated Meeting"; two public meetings of the city's commission on elected official compensation; and more. See our day-by-day rundown below.

First, in case you haven't seen some of our most recent reporting, a few highlights:

[To read more of the latest from Gotham Gazette, click here; to subscribe to our newsletters, click here]

Mayor Bill de Blasio had no public schedule Saturday. On Sunday, the mayor, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro, and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson observed "an active shooter drill in Lower Manhattan." After that, the mayor was delivered remarks at Church of God of Prophecy in the Bronx, where he was hosted by City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, among others.

On Monday, de Blasio "will deliver remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony for Hunter's Point South Phase II" at noon; "host a press conference to make an announcement related to mental health" with First Lady Chirlane McCray at 2 p.m. at CUNY Hunter College - Silberman School of Social Work; and hold a media availability at about 3 p.m. nearby the school.

 

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
At the City Council on Monday, November 23:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Transportation will meet to hear the introduction of several bills regarding unmanned aviation vehicles (drones). They will focus on regulation, registration requirements and authorization of use.
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Youth Services will meet to discuss several new bills that would require training for certain employees in treating runaway, homeless, and sexually exploited youths, and amend the requirement date for the annual report on sexually exploited children.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Education will meet for oversight on Department of Education’s efforts to help struggling schools. Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña will testify.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Civil Service and Labor will meet to hear a series of new bills that would require successive employers of buildings to retain workers for a transitional time period and extend protections for displaced building service workers to food service workers.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet to hear a new bill that would require the identification of geothermal systems and buildings eligible for them, as well as registration for the people allowed to install such systems.

On Monday at 8 a.m., The Food Bank for New York will release a new report on the state of hunger and food networks in New York City. The “legislative breakfast” and report will examine the effects of federal cuts to SNAP cuts. Margarette Purvis, President and CEO, Food Bank For New York City; Steven Banks, Commissioner, New York City Human Resources Administration; Triada Stampas, Vice President For Research & Public Affairs, Food Bank For New York City, and “elected officials from throughout New York City” are expected.

At 8:30 a.m. The Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and Business Forward will host a business leader forum to discuss the effects of severe climate change on the restaurant industry.

At 9 a.m. Monday in Long Island City, City Council "Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer will be joined by several New Yorkers who have applied and have not been selected for a variety of the City's affordable housing development lotteries throughout the five boroughs. Together, Council Member Van Bramer and these New Yorkers in need will express why they believe Airbnb needs to be held accountable for allowing tax-subsidized affordable housing units to be posted as illegal hotels on their website."

Later, Van Bramer will join the mayor for the aforementioned Hunter's Point groundbreaking.

At 11 a.m. in Foley Square, Public Advocate Letitia James "will hold a tenant rally and release the 2015 Worst Landlord Watchlist. Following the rally, Public Advocate James will visit Brooklyn Housing Court to ensure tenants are aware of their rights and then tour one of the buildings on the Worst Landlord Watchlist.".

At 11:15 a.m. Monday, State Senator Liz Krueger, together with community leaders and elected officials, will gather at the City Hall for a press conference which will urge Governor Andrew Cuomo to transition New York off of coal power by 2020. Senator Liz Krueger will be joined by State Senator Brad Hoylman; Assembly Members Brian Kavanagh, Rebecca Seawright and Jo Anne Simon; and City Council Members Donovan Richards and Dan Garodnick.
[Read Sen. Krueger's new op-ed on the subject: Time for New York to Cut the Coal]

At 12:45 p.m. Monday, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, joined with Unite Here 100, will rally for food service worker retention, supporting a bill that expands upon the 2002 Displaced Building Service Worker Protection Act to include food service workers from being fired from work after a new owner takes over a business. A Council hearing will take place at 1 p.m.

On Monday at 2 p.m., Gov. Cuomo will be at the Jacob Javits Center to participate "in New York State's Annual Thanksgiving Food Donation Drive with volunteers and members of the New York National Guard."

At 5 p.m. the city’s Quadrennial Advisory Committee on elected officials’ compensation will hold its first of two community hearings to gather public feedback about its work. There is a state pay commission set to convene soon as well, we'll have details on that upcoming. [Read our recent look at the work ahead for the commission and the question of whether New York elected officials deserve a raise]

At 6 p.m. Monday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Red Tape Commission will hold a Staten Island hearing for business owners and entrepreneurs, part of the ongoing initiative to remake the government into a partner to businesses instead of being an “obstacle to growth”.

Also at 6 p.m. the Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will hold a public hearing on East New York community planning.

Tuesday
At the State Legislature on Tuesday: at noon, the Assembly Standing Committee on Agriculture will convene for “Oversight of the SFY 2015-2016 State Budget for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.”

At the City Council on Tuesday, November 24th:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Finance will meet on a variety of topics.
  • At 1 p.m. the City Council Stated Meeting will be held - and as usual, it will be prefaced by the Speaker’s pre-stated press conference, at 12:30 p.m.

On Tuesday, "Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will appear live on CNN's New Day to discuss ThriveNYC: The Mental Health Roadmap for All," at about 6:50 a.m. Later in the morning, "the Mayor will create and deliver food packages with Joel Berg of NYC Coalition Against Hunger." At about 11:45 a.m., "the Mayor will deliver remarks on hunger and food insecurity in New York City." At about 4 p.m., "the Mayor will join bi-partisan local elected officials – including Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Congressman Dan Donovan and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez – to host a press conference to highlight the need for increased federal transportation funding as New Yorkers prepare for holiday weekend travel."

On Tuesday, November 24th, Council Member Andy King will offer Free Healthcare Enrollment and Legal Services to Bronx Residents. In cooperation with MetroPlus and New York Legal Assistance Group the event will help residents sign up for health care and legal services.

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks at "NYC Coalition Against Hunger Annual Flagship Event."

At 5 p.m. Tuesday the NYC Quadrennial Advisory Board will hold another community hearing on compensation for elected officials. [Read our recent look at the work ahead for the commission and the question of whether New York elected officials deserve a raise]

On Tuesday at 7 p.m. Public Advocate Tish James will host an African Immigrant "Talk to Tish" Town Hall in the Bronx; and at 8:30 p.m. James will attend the Bayside Hills Civic Association General Meeting in Oakland Gardens.

On Tuesday evening in Brooklyn, school district 15, which includes parts of Sunset Park, Kensington, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will hold a town hall "from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at P.S. 516...Local elected officials including City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz and State Sen. Jesse Hamilton are expected to attend and answer questions from the public from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.," according to DNAinfo.

Happy Thanksgiving if you’re celebrating. Watch for our latest articles this week and we'll publish a 'Week Ahead' on Sunday, Nov. 29. 

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Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

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by Colin O'Connor, Konstantine Beridze, and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Filing, Tracking City & State Campaign Finance Data Will Become Easier


BOE-CFB

NYS BOE, left, NYC CFB, right


Officials from the New York State Board of Elections and the New York City Campaign Finance Board outlined plans for overhauling their respective financial disclosure tools on Friday.

Though both groups said they wanted to make it easier for campaign staff to file reports and for the public to access filings, a divide was clear between the state BOE and the city CFB in terms of current capabilities and goals. Some of BOE's planned features, such as error-checking and bulk data export, for example, are already present on CFB's platform.

Thomas Connolly, BOE's deputy director of public communications, said the board plans to roll out new finance and tracking systems by early 2017, replacing the current 1990s-era software. "Our goal is to create a state-of-the-art candidate tracking and campaign finance system that is open and transparent," he said to the audience of around 50 at Civic Hall in Gramercy. The event was co-hosted by good government group Reinvent Albany, which often scrutinizes campaign finance data and calls for significant reforms.

Currently, the state BOE operates separate and unintegrated candidate tracking and campaign finance systems—"both old enough to vote," Connolly quipped—that require a lot of manual input. BOE's new systems would integrate the two sides on the web, instead of the current desktop software. Campaign staff will file disclosures on a website—instead of using desktop software—which would also warn users if they enter incomplete or invalid information. The public-facing website will also feature more advanced search and data-export functions than currently available.

Some are disappointed that the BOE will not have its new systems up and running for the 2016 election cycle, during which all of the state legislature is on the ballot again.

In response to multiple questions from audience members about whether or not campaign contributors will be assigned unique IDs in the system - which would allow users to see where else a donor has given, Connolly said that he doesn't foresee that being implemented. He pointed to the difficulties posed by misspelled names, different people with similar names, and inconsistent abbreviations. The new filing system will, however, feature autofill to help minimize those errors.

"Our goal is that we'd rather get you flawed data than no data," Connolly said.

Though the city CFB's filing system, C-SMART, was also created in the 1990s, it has since been updated to run on the web and includes many of the features that the state BOE is eyeing. As campaign staff enter contributor data, they receive prompts and warnings if entries are invalid, incomplete, or ineligible for CFB's public matching funds program. Addresses within New York City are checked against Department of City Planning records.

(The state is at the very beginning stages of toying with a similar public matching funds program, but even a pilot has struggled to get off the ground.)

CFB spokesperson Eric Friedman, assistant executive director for public affairs, said Friday that the board constantly improves its systems because it's required to do so after every election cycle. Some of CFB's upcoming developments Friedman mentioned will address a city law passed last year that requires independent committees to disclose donor information, showing which committees supported which candidates. 2013 was the first city election cycle in the post-Citizens United world, in which independent expenditures were a significant force in city campaigns. The CFB is making its updates leading up to the city's 2017 cycle, while also adapting to new legal requirements.

Other CFB developments are primarily aimed at simplifying and improving the reporting process for campaign staff. One tool, for example, would allow campaigns to directly transfer contributor data from online donations into C-SMART. "A lot of compliance logic is built into it," Friedman said. "So campaigns have a lot of data to ensure their data is compliant."

Still, officials from both boards said that some features requested by good-government groups, like unique contributor IDs and contributors' professional affiliations, will have to be first answered with legislation. And they added that while individual campaigns can and do correct contributor data, there is little that can be done on the software side to resolve issues like false or misspelled names and addresses.

"The requirements of what the contributor is required to disclose is a matter of statues," Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state BOE, said in response to a question about obtaining more data on contributors, including voter registration status. "I don't think either the Campaign Finance Board or the State Board of Elections has authority to go beyond those disclosure requirements in their regulations."

"It's always going to be up to the candidate or the treasurer to update or modify their data," said Daniel Cho, director of candidate services at CFB.

[Read more about the state BOE, city CFB & their roles here]

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by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, November 16-20


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday November 20, 2015

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio, former Mayor Bloomberg, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and others at Friday's tree-planting ceremony, via @NYCCouncil; former Mayor Bloomberg speaks on Friday, via Howard Wolfson, @howiewolf

tree planting ceremony via NYC Council

bloomberg tree planting wolfson

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Mayor Announces Supportive Housing: On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city will invest over $2.6 billion to create 15,000 new units of supportive housing over the next 15 years. Supportive housing is considered by many to be both the most cost-effective and successful method to reduce homelessness among those with acute needs, such as those battling substance abuse and mental illness. The Mayor’s move puts new pressure on Governor Andrew Cuomo, with whom negotiations for greater state support in creating supportive housing have stalled, despite the fact that a bipartisan group of legislators have repeatedly called on Governor Cuomo to commit to the creation of 35,000 units of supportive housing statewide. [Read: Pressure Shifts to Cuomo as De Blasio Announces Supportive Housing Plan]

2. New York Reacts After Paris Attacks: The NYPD stepped up security in certain areas of the city simply as a precaution this week in the wake of last Friday’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. On Monday, the NYPD launched a new counterterrorism unit, known as the Critical Response Command. On Wednesday, following the release of a video by the Islamic State showing images of Times Square and threatening an attack on the city, Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton held a late night press conference to reassure the public that there is no credible threat to the city. Mayor de Blasio said that New York will not be intimidated and encouraged residents to continue going about their daily lives.

3. Cuomo, with Clinton, on Gun Control: At a Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gala on Thursday evening, Governor Cuomo and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton praised one another for their respective actions on gun control. Clinton, who received an award named after Governor Cuomo’s late father at the event, commended the Governor for passing the SAFE Act in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, saying “Congress may have let us down, but Andrew Cuomo did not.” At the event, Governor Cuomo reiterated his strong support of greater gun control, saying “This is a man-made crisis that costs 33,000 lives per year. It is something we can solve. The answer is going to be federal legislation and that is the only way we’re actually going to make a difference.”

4. Albany on Trial: The trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son began this week just as the trial of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver entered its third week. Skelos and his son face eight charges of bribery, extortion, and conspiracy with federal prosecutors alleging that Skelos “abused his power” to “line the pockets” of his son. Silver also faces charges of corruption and abuse of power, and on Wednesday, prosecutors rested their case after almost three weeks of testimony. Silver will not take the stand nor will Silver’s lawyers call witnesses, and Silver’s lawyers have asked the judge to acquit Silver on all counts before jurors get the case, insisting that the government had not met the burden of proof.

5. Rikers Reform: On Wednesday, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Neil Barsky, founder and chairman of The Marshall Project, and several others discussed Rikers Island jails at an event with a panel moderated by Errol Louis at The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. Stringer added his voice to calls for shutting down the dysfunctional jail complex, saying, “Right now, Rikers Island is a case study in poor outcomes.” [Read: Stringer Joins Calls to Shut Down Rikers]

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 51% of New Yorkers say they are struggling economically, just barely making ends meet, if at all, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College.
  • $5.3 million will be paid by the city to settle lawsuits over the deaths of two Rikers Island inmates, The New York Times reports.
  • $112,000 per inmate is how much it costs annually to keep an individual locked up on Rikers Island - a 67% increase since 2007, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer said Wednesday.
  • 49th is New York State's rank in state tax systems in the country by the Tax Foundation’s 2016 Business Tax Climate Index, though the index noted the substantial corporate tax reform package enacted by policymakers in 2014 will likely improve New York’s ranking once fully phased in.
  • $50 million will be spent by New York on efforts to market and promote the state as a destination for domestic and international tourism, Governor Cuomo announced on Wednesday.
  • 14% of the nation's homeless population is in New York City, according to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for supportive housing advocates, as Mayor de Blasio announced Wednesday that the city will invest over $2.6 billion to create 15,000 new units of supportive housing over the next 15 years.

It was a bad week for former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, whose trial on federal corruption charges began and included some damning and embarassing audio from federal wiretaps.

THE FLASH:

Around this time four years ago, on November 15, 2011, the NYPD evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park.

Around this time last year, on November 18, 2014, a giant snowstorm hit many parts of the United States, causing one New York county to declare a state of emergency and killing 13 people in New York.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Pressure Shifts to Cuomo as De Blasio Announces Supportive Housing Plan, by David Howard King

Two New Reps Set to Join the City Council, by Samar Khurshid

Stringer Joins Calls to Shut Down Rikers, by Ryan Brady

As Homelessness Crisis Continues, Shelter Siting Questions Intensify, by Christian Zhang

All Aboard the BRT Express? by Colin O’Connor

Boards to Offer Peek Into New Ways to Access Campaign Finance Data, by David Howard King

A City We All Want to Live In, by Lawrence Mone (opinion)

IDNYC Cardholders Await Assurance Ahead of Year Two, by Lauren A. Haynes (opinion)

Improving CUNY’s Equity and Efficiency: Requiring Some Tuition for All, by Robert Cherry (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Gerald Benjamin, SUNY New Paltz legend and scholar, appeared on WNYC’s “Capitol Pressroom” to provide an update on the trials of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Gannett Albany’s Joseph Spector reports that even as the two former leaders of the state Legislature stand trial on a number of corruption charges, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says he has no plans for new ethics laws, despite calls from good government groups. 

On City & State TV, City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod discussed two zoning amendments and what they mean for the Mayor’s affordable housing program.

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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



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