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Good Government Groups Point to New Evidence of Need for Major Ethics Reform


cuomo silver skelos 2011

L-R: Silver, Cuomo & Skelos in 2011 (photo via the governor's office) 


New York's leading good government groups gathered at Manhattan's Foley Square Wednesday to call on the New York State legislature and the governor to take immediate action to reform public ethics laws. The press conference, held in the shadows of a federal courthouse where one of New York’s most powerful politicians is being tried on corruption charges, came as other recent developments also shine a bright light on the state's insufficient handling of ethics and corruption.

Not only has the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver begun, but the trial of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos is set to begin next week; and, there was the recent release of a report by a state ethics review commission calling for changes as well as a national study assessing state government accountability and transparency giving New York a "D-" grade.

So on Wednesday, Citizens Union, Reinvent Albany, Common Cause NY, the League of Women Voters of New York State, and the New York Public Interest Research Group sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and the two new legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, urging them to come together to enact comprehensive and significant reforms in five ethics categories. To bring further attention to their calls for reform, the groups held a press conference.

“This news conference is the first of many actions our groups are going to be taking in the months to come to really push this front and center, because we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “We want to urge immediate action and if possible even a special session.”

“New Yorkers are so disgusted, they’ve just come to accept that this is part and parcel of how state government operates, and it should not be,” Dadey said. “With the convergence of all these events, there is no better time than now to enact these reforms.”

The reforms the groups are calling to be enacted either in a special end-of-year session or in early 2016 include:

  • Change legislative compensation through upcoming recommendations by a recently appointed pay commission, considering increased salaries and 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."

While the Silver and Skelos trials come just two months after the Senate's second-highest-ranking Republican, Tom Libous, was convicted of lying under oath to FBI agents during an investigation into his son's hiring at a politically connected law firm. New York City just elected two new state legislators to fill vacant seats vacated due to corruption charges.

Silver, charged with five federal counts of theft of honest services, mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion for improperly using his public position to obtain nearly $4 million in illicit payments, and Skelos, charged with six federal counts of conspiracy, extortion, wire fraud, and soliciting bribes in connection with exploiting his public position in order to secure a lucrative no-show job for his son, have both declared their innocence, with Silver’s legal team attempting to paint its client’s dealing as par for the course in Albany.

It is the pervasive culture of corruption - both legal and illegal - in state government that has undermined public trust and yet failed to spur truly meaningful reform, good government advocates and many legislators and other stakeholders say.

“For far too long, state legislators in particular have used their public posts for private gain, and have lined their pockets,” Dadey said Wednesday. “Much of what is happening here in the Silver trial and in the Skelos trial shows how one hand washes another, and we want to see that practice end.”

Decrying a system that is akin to “a perfect storm that would encourage corruption by state lawmakers,” Dadey said “Citizens Union believes we should raise the pay significantly, limit outside income, eliminate stipends, and overhaul the way in which [legislators’] daily expense reimbursements are handled.”

In the past decade, 27 legislators have left office due to criminal or ethical issues. “So far, there is no sign that the arrests of the legislative leaders has changed how Albany does business,” John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said in a statement. At the press conference, Kaehny added, “One big step toward changing that is to see where the money is going. No more secret spending. No more spending in the shadows. Let’s see transparency for state spending, and let’s end the pay-to-play and legal bribery that are on trial here.”

On the same day that Silver's trial began, the New York Ethics Review Commission released an evaluation the current ethics oversight system and recommended reforms to improve the functioning of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC).

The recommendations include eliminating the veto power JCOPE commissioners have over investigations, among several others.

Citizens Union has advocated for all of the aforementioned reforms, and while the changes recommended by the Ethics Review Commission are certainly seen as a welcome first step by good government groups, the recommendations failed to include other reforms advocates have called for, such as making commissioners more independent.

“We want to ramp up the capability and the independence of ethics oversight,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY said at Wednesday’s press conference. “Reform JCOPE, give it more independence, give it more teeth, give it the ability to investigate, and reform the actual number of commissioners so that they don’t deadlock and are not beholden to the people who appoint them.”

Saying that he believes JCOPE can be essential in improving public ethics and integrity, Dadey added, “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver were two of the three architects that created JCOPE. And they created some of the protections that JCOPE is hindered by right now in terms of the voting procedures. With the two of them on trial, and both of them having been authors of this Public Integrity Reform Act that created JCOPE, we have an opportunity to strengthen JCOPE in the coming months.”

dick dadey good govt groups nov 11 presser(Dick Dadey, center; photo by Zack Fink of NY1)

On Monday, the Center for Public Integrity and open-governance group Global Integrity released the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive, data-driven assessment of the systems in place to deter corruption in state government, and gave New York a D- grade, a drop from the previous 2012 State Integrity Investigation, when New York received a D.

Ranking 30th among 49 states, New York failed miserably in several categories, receiving an F on public access to information, electoral oversight, judicial accountability, state budget processes, procurement, and ethics enforcement agencies.

The reforms proposed by good government groups would go a long way in preventing a repeat of New York’s dismal performance on those measures.

“We need absolutely clarity in terms of who [legislators] are getting paid by and what they are getting paid for,” Lerner said Wednesday. “So that someone can’t say ‘I’m a lawyer, I represent ordinary people,’ and then it turns out that his law partners say he doesn’t do any legal work and is solely gaining money from referrals” (as was the case with Silver and is the case with other lawyer-legislators who are “of counsel” at law firms).

“There is something wrong with our disclosure system if that kind of misstatement can exist for years and years and years and it takes a criminal trial to really show what the true situation is,” Lerner added.

New York’s failing grade on state budget processes - for which New York ranked dead last in the nation - comes as no surprise, given New York’s reputation for“three men in a room” (the governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader) deciding on the details of the state’s $142 billion budget behind closed doors.

“The governor can’t reform the legislature by himself,” Kaehny said, “but the governor can lead by example. And right now, we have billions of dollars in spending that are secret, that the public cannot see.”

“Is it corrupt?” Kaehny asked. “We don’t know. But we should know. So can the governor do something about that by taking a lead? Absolutely, yes. The governor could have complete transparency on budget matters - he proposes the budget, he can reveal the budget, that’s up to him.”

The recent release of these two reports and the ongoing corruption trials of two legislative leaders have put the spotlight on New York's dire need for state action on ethics reform, yet as Bob Hardt wrote in a recent NY1 column on the issue, “Never aggressively pushing campaign finance reform or transparency, Governor Cuomo seems content to play the master of Albany's current political game rather than rewriting its rules. A government of one is naturally threatened by an open door.”

When pressed as to whether Cuomo has done enough to fix Albany’s corruption problems, Dadey said, “The governor has been a leader on many of these ethics reforms,” but added, “I wish that he was a more vocal leader on some of these issues that are still left on the table, like legislative compensation, like restructuring JCOPE so that it has a greater authority and stronger voting structures to pursue corruption.”

In 2013, Governor Cuomo established the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption to combat the systemic corruption in Albany. Yet less than a year later, in a deal involving Silver and Skelos, Cuomo disbanded the commission - reportedly just as the commission was preparing to issue subpoenas to several state Senate campaign committees.

Governor Cuomo could, as good government groups have suggested, compel the legislature to return for a special session to overhaul ethics laws, though the governor has made it clear in the past that he has no intention of doing so. “A special session to do what? I mean, we've proposed every ethics law imaginable," Cuomo said in an interview on The Capitol Pressroom in July.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, meanwhile, has previously advocated for a convening a special session on ethics reform, in addition to pushing his “End New York Corruption Now Act,” a sweeping ethics reform package which seeks to drastically reform how business is done in Albany.

“One of the requests that Citizens Union has made for a long time is to give the Attorney General the power to pursue corruption,” Dadey said of one of the elements in Schneiderman’s plan. “He can only pursue corruption right now if the governor consents to granting him that authority.”

“It’s a strange thing that when the current governor was Attorney General, he asked for that same authority when Governor Spitzer was in office, and when he became governor, he was not willing to give that authority to Attorney General Schneiderman,” Dadey pointed out.

A July 15 poll by the Siena Research Institute found 90 percent of New York voters felt state government corruption is a serious problem. An October 26 Siena poll found 74 percent of those surveyed believed Governor Cuomo was doing a poor to fair job reducing corruption in state government.

“New Yorkers have lost faith in state government to make decisions without using the interest and influence of those who do business with the state,” the good government groups said in a statement. “In light of this storm of two trials and two reports, the groups call for immediate action on these widely-supported reforms, and in a special session if possible.”

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

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

Labor Leaders Declare State of Unions Strong, At Least in New York


de blasio uft

Mayor de Blasio at a UFT conference (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Four of New York's top labor leaders assembled recently to give a state of their unions, and to assess the broader union climate in New York and elsewhere.

Each sounding like a determined boxer in the middle rounds of a grueling fight, they decried attacks on unions across the country, but indicated that they are pleased with the strength of the labor movement in New York. They credited intra- and inter-union solidarity for much of the movement's staying power, at times referencing the importance of relationships with community groups and City Hall - making sure to acknowledge the new, more union-friendly occupant of the mayor's office.

While unions have taken legal and membership hits across the country in recent years, labor has indeed remained relatively strong in New York. City union leaders speaking to this phenomenon alternate between sounding hesitantly triumphant and passionately defiant. Never far from their minds, it seems, is that what the labor movement has fought for could slip away any time.

At a panel discussion titled "What is the future of organized labor in New York?" hosted by the government relations practice group of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, the assembled union heads were Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers; Harry Nespoli, President of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association; Gregory Floyd, President of Local 237 Teamsters; and Vincent Alvarez, President of New York City Central Labor Council. They were questioned by two moderators, both Stroock attorneys: Alan M. Klinger and Robert Abrams, who is also former New York State Attorney General.

"The state of unions in New York City is strong," said Mulgrew, of the teachers union, citing "the relationships of the union leaders" as essential to the survival and success of labor.

Time and again, Mulgrew and others referenced the fight that is often characteristic of union work, with the UFT president at one point describing a 20-year "war" with City Hall, referencing his union's relationship with Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. He also noted that public opinion of unions is on the upswing after some decline, saying that the broader population has come to appreciate unions more as they realize corporations and many government officials do not have workers' best interest at heart.

At the Stroock event, the labor leaders referred to lobbyists and corporate interests as out for union demise, with Mulgrew saying, "there's a group who are advocating for what they want for their industries or for their own bottom lines. They want more profit and they don't care what they have to do to get it. And if that is to leverage a state or a local municipality to get breaks the way they want, they'll do it."

Mulgrew's city chapter has been part of a larger, ongoing teachers union feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has aligned himself with an education reform movement that is highly critical of the teachers unions and is supported by wealthy donors. Cuomo has said he intends to break the teachers union "monopoly" on public education.

"I said it, and I'll say it again," said Nespoli of the sanitation workers union, in one of his several segments of animated commentary, "New York, we're the last of the Mohicans. If you look throughout the country, what they did to unions is a disgrace; what they did to the middle class."

The data on union membership and wages support Nespoli's point. Nationwide, about 11 percent of workers belong to a union, indicative of a steady, decades-long decline according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1973, the national rate was 24 percent - which is about New York's current rate. Still, New York's union rate was 35.5 percent in 1964. New York has historically been a place of labor union strength and continues to be so, though union leaders note without prompting that unions continue to feel under threat and in a perpetual fight to survive.

For evidence, union bosses, especially Mulgrew, need look no further than the ongoing legal challenge to teacher tenure laws. A case in New York is modeled after a successful California case (set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court) alleging that tenure rules violate students' civil rights because they lead to weaker teachers with strong job protection in disadvantaged schools.

There are currently about 2 million union workers in New York State, with about 877,000 union members in New York City, according to the Joseph Murphy Institute at CUNY Graduate Center. New York City has about 25 percent union membership, about the same as the state overall. Albany has the highest metro area union membership rate in the state, about 36 percent of the capital's workforce is union. In the city, about 70 percent of government employees are union; whereas private sector workers are about 18 percent unionized.

More than 100,000 of the city's union workers are UFT members (the union also has many thousands of members who are retired, of course). Mulgrew said that 40 years of attacks on unions did some damage, but that things are trending up. "We're part of the solution," Mulgrew said, "I know that the teacher unions, the city and state teacher unions, are trusted more than the elected officials. When's the last time that happened?"

Key to this trend, he said, is partnership with community-based groups. Unions, Mulgrew asserted, were in the past too myopic, only focusing on their members and their issues. It is essential, he said - and others agreed - that individual unions support each other, while also partnering with community and advocacy groups. "That's what makes New York different, the fact that we communicate with each other," Nespoli said of leaders of different unions.

Floyd said, "Well, it's important for us to understand that we not only represent our members, but we represent the community. Because, without the labor movement, there would be no middle class."

A different approach has produced results.

"It starts in New York City," Mulgrew told Gotham Gazette after the panel, "I mean, for my union, you could just see in all the polls - when it was us against Bloomberg, by the end [the public] trusted us much more than they trusted the mayor. Now, the same thing's happening with the governor." Adding that it is on education issues, but also throughout the city and state, "the whole idea of unions is trending upwards."

Indeed, a September Quinnipiac poll found that "voters statewide trust the teachers' unions more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo to improve education in New York State 54 - 31 percent." Quinnipiac did note, though, that that margin was slimmer in New York City (47 - 43 percent).

There has been a stark contrast between public sector unions' relationship with Mayor de Blasio and with Gov. Cuomo. But the disparity in positivity has been shrinking as Cuomo has championed a higher minimum wage.

"And let's not make any mistakes about it, the $15 an hour wage increase that the governor has put forth is because the union movement had it on its agenda," Floyd said of union impact on public policy.

As much as de Blasio and Mulgrew have praised each other, coming to a much-needed new contract for city teachers that also set the bargaining pattern for others, it is not all rosy between labor and city government, of course.

The Policemen's Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file NYPD officers, did not agree to the pattern the de Blasio administration established with the UFT and then uniformed unions, and is now in arbitration with the city. The proceedings are not going well for the PBA and it may come around to accept what other unions have gone with. (The UFT contract announced May 1, 2014 covers nine years, some retroactive, expiring October 31, 2018. The PBA may be able to pursue a deal akin to what firefighters have inked with City Hall, more in line with the uniformed worker pattern that is slightly different from the non-uniform one.)

Some have called the union deals inked by de Blasio too generous. Meanwhile, Nespoli is among those who think that those contracts were not as good for labor as they could or should have been. At the Stroock panel, he said the public should know that labor made concessions.

"We sat down, we made adjustments and we got the contract done and we saved a ton of money," Nespoli said. "This city right now is in great shape financially. Don't ever let anybody tell you they're not because they're all full of it. They have the money. They have it. And thank God that the tourists are still coming in here. And that's thanks to the city workers that actually take care of this city to make it safe, clean, and teachers, and custodians and sanitation workers, police, fire - that's the backbone here."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

First Report Under New Law Will Give Key Data to Coming Veterans Department


sutton presser new dept

Tuesday's celebratory press conference (photo: @nylag)


On the eve of Veterans Day, the City Council passed a much-celebrated bill to create a new Department of Veterans Services, which will replace the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs in serving New York City’s large military veteran population. While the new department will still be under the mayor’s administration, it will now have access to more resources and be the subject of sharper Council oversight.

And, thanks to a previously passed bill sponsored by Council Member Paul Vallone, who sits on the Council’s veterans affairs committee, the new department will have important data to help it direct resources for veterans.

“It really is historic, creating a full-blown agency,” Vallone said Monday in a phone interview as the bill heads to Mayor Bill de Blasio for his signature. Vallone hopes that the mayor, who expressed his support for the bill after having been against it for some time, will be quick to sign the bill into law so the agency can be set up in time for preliminary budget discussions early next year. 

paul vallone william alatriste june 2014(Council Member Paul Vallone (William Alatriste))

Veteran advocacy groups and the City Council have been pushing for a separate agency for years, arguing that the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs has been underfunded, understaffed, and unable to effectively serve more than 200,000 veterans who call the city home. The new agency will provide for increased accountability. “Now we can really play a direct role,” Vallone said of City Council oversight and influence on the department’s budget.

Veterans and veteran advocates are overjoyed at this victory. “(MOVA) was primarily symbolic all these years,” said Kristen Rouse, a veteran and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance. Insisting that MOVA has historically relied on the whims of the mayoral administration, Rouse said the new department will have the staffing and resources necessary to truly coordinate services for veterans.

The new department will also be bolstered by fresh data generated by the city on use of services by veterans in seven key categories. Mandated by the Vallone-sponsored bill passed by the City Council in February, the data is supposed to help determine the degree to which veterans avail themselves of existing services designed to help them secure income and housing, and to identify areas where city government should strengthen or modify services to meet the needs of city veterans.

The report, the first edition of which was presented to Council Member Vallone and his colleagues in time for Veterans Day and was viewed by Gotham Gazette, contains data related to certain housing applications by veterans and their spouses, as well as vending license applications and permits, and civil service exams.

“Earlier there was a void of information and now we have the data,” said Vallone of the report, which will help the city determine to what extent veterans are taking advantage of city services and may indicate where gaps in communication lie.

“It’s the beginning of being able to use facts to solve problems,” said Rouse. “The more the city knows, the more they’re able to do.”

The seven data points the administration must report under the law and the number indicated in the first report, which covers calendar year 2014:

  • The total number of Mitchell-Lama housing applications received from veterans or their surviving spouses and total number approved by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development: 71 and 66, respectively.
  • The total number of fee-exempt mobile food vending licenses and food vending permits issued to veterans by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to veterans: 95 and 65, respectively.
  • The total number of veterans who submitted an application to the Department of Consumer Affairs for a general vending license and the number issued to veterans: 570 and 447, respectively.
  • The total number of veterans residing in the city who utilized a HUD-VASH housing voucher (which help house homeless veterans): 2,268.
  • The total number of civil service examination applications received by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for which the applicant claimed a veterans credit: 3,475.

It will take some time before the City Council or the new Department of Veterans Affairs can do much with this new data, but MOVA and the Council can at least consider it. After celebrating Veterans Day Wednesday, the Council’s veterans affairs committee meets Thursday to look at progress being made in ending homelessness among military veterans.

vallone and presser iava(photo: William Alatriste)

In the meantime, spirits remain high about the coming new department.

“This is a tremendous victory for the veterans movement,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, in a statement. Rieckhoff said the passage of the bill is a “truly historic Veterans Day gift for veteran activists” across the city.  

In a Tuesday Gotham Gazette op-ed celebrating the news, veteran and veterans advocate Joe Bello, of NYMetroVets, thanked the many elected officials and advocates who contributed to the victory.

The bill to create the new department, sponsored by veterans committee Chair Council Member Eric Ulrich and supported by Vallone, traversed a rocky road to reach passage. Until last week, the mayor refused to support the proposal as did his commissioner of veterans affairs, Loree Sutton. But, after Mayor de Blasio reached an agreement with the Council last week, the bill sailed through with unanimous support Tuesday and is sure to be signed by de Blasio, who in all likelihood will name Sutton the commissioner of the new department.

“I liken it to how fifteen years ago, people would’ve thought that an agency dedicated to emergency management was duplicative,” Rouse said of OEM, reflecting. “Now we take for granted a separate agency which is absolutely essential.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurhsid

'Peace Dividend' Approach Continues, Bratton and De Blasio Say


de blasio bratton nov 9

De Blasio & Bratton Monday (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is not blinking when it comes to public safety in New York City. Despite a shooting Monday morning near Penn Station and a rise in murders this year, Bratton said at an afternoon news conference that "The city is very safe and getting safer all the time."

"There will be incidents, as we saw this morning," Bratton added, taking his usual approach to focusing on crime over time, not allowing isolated incidents to be evidence of any trend as he and Mayor Bill de Blasio continue to criticize media outlets and others who are less constrained by responsible use of data.

Bratton and de Blasio insisted Monday that New Yorkers are not more comfortable committing crimes or carrying guns because of their policies. They point to numbers showing major crimes down three percent this year to last, which was a historically safe year, and to a rise in gun arrests despite the fact that overall arrests are down significantly.

This decrease in total arrests, as well as in other "negative interactions" between police and civilians, is symbolic of what Bratton calls a "peace dividend," an approach the commissioner said will continue.

The peace dividend, which Bratton said Monday is of "great benefit" to his officers and to the public, and de Blasio said allows the NYPD to "move resources where the need is greatest," is itself the product of a safer city. As Bratton has explained it, the peace dividend that his NYPD is yielding to the public is the use of more discretion - a less punitive approach to broken windows policing - even while staying vigilant about crime.

It includes encouraging people committing low-level offenses to 'move along,' issuing summonses instead of arrests in some instances, fewer stop-and-frisks, coordinating mental health services, and NYPD officers taking a more friendly approach to interacting with the public.

"We project that by the end of this year there will have been one million fewer what I would describe as negative interactions – enforcement actions by members of my department," Bratton said Monday at a press conference outside City Hall. "We are making a concerted effort to have our officers act appropriately when dealing with what they understand is a crime being committed, or has been committed, so that peace dividend, which I talked about, I think is of great benefit to my officers. They're not needlessly getting engaged in negative interactions with the public – of great benefit to the public, certainly, that was complaining very loudly about them."

Meanwhile, the city has become safe enough that virtually every murder is accounted for with alarm in the media. Heightening scrutiny and alarm is the fact that four NYPD officers have been killed while on duty in the past twelve months. And, "Homicides are up about 19 against last year's record-low number," Bratton said Monday (there were 333 murders in the city in 2014, so the city is on pace for about 350 this year). Rape is also up this year, and in combination with a homelessness problem that City Hall has not been able to mitigate, these incidents and increases have led some - including Governor Andrew Cuomo - to say that the city is slipping backwards.

Yet, shootings and several other major crimes are down year-to-date, leaving the seven major index crimes down slightly overall. "I think the statistics speak for themselves," Bratton said Monday, adding that New York "will end this year with the safest year in the history of this city." Bratton can also point to the fact that over many years the homicide rate has been dropping, but that during occasional years there have been slight increases from the year before.

Asked by Gotham Gazette if incidents like Monday's shooting near Penn Station or media coverage of crime in the city had led him to rethink the peace dividend, Bratton said no. After mentioning reductions in arrests, stops, and other "negative interactions," Bratton also cited a decrease in complaints by New Yorkers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB. "And that's what it's all about," Bratton said, "improved citizen satisfaction."

"I think we're very much on the right track to not only bridge the gap between the public and the police, particularly that portion of the public that really feel that the police have not been responsive to their concerns, I think we have the real ability to close that gap, not just bridge it," the commissioner said.

The NYPD is in the process of hiring the additional 1,297 police officers that the mayor announced the city would fund beginning in Fiscal Year 2016, which began July 1 of this year. De Blasio explained that his decision to support an increase in the NYPD headcount, despite his previous objections to City Council calls to do so, was the result, in part, of Bratton's plan for deploying additional cops. Along with counterrorism, the main pillar of Bratton's plan is a neighborhood policing model that is meant to continue to pay the peace dividend by increasing positive interactions and pre-empting negative ones by building stronger community relationships.

After Bratton expressed enthusiastic support for the peace dividend approach Monday, the mayor took the chance to comment on the subject. De Blasio said that the "time and energy freed up through that peace dividend is going to fighting more serious crime. Look at the seven percent increase in gun arrests. Look at the decrease in shootings. There's a direct correlation and I think this commissioner and his team have done a fantastic job of continuing to, in the spirit of CompStat, move resources where the need is greatest."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, November 9


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Wednesday is Veterans Day, with parades, resource fairs, and events to honor and aid veterans taking place before, on, and after the day itself. Mayor Bill de Blasio will hold a breakfast reception to honor the military veterans Wednesday morning. On Thursday, the City Council will hold a hearing on veteran homelessness, which the mayor vowed to end by the end of this year as part of a national pledge.

The mayor and the City Council agreed last week to create a new Department of Veterans Services, removing the agency from the Mayor's Office and making veterans affairs its own city department, which will give it more resources and Council oversight. There will be a celebratory rally outside of City Hall on Tuesday at 11 a.m., then the veterans affairs committee of the Council will vote through the department bill, followed by the full Council.

Could this be the week that First Lady Chirlane McCray unveils her much-anticipated "Mental Health Roadmap"? The week of Veterans Day would make sense considering the mental health challenges many veterans face. There's been no indication this is the week, but the 'roadmap' has been slated for release this fall. [Read our extensive preview of McCray's mental health roadmap]

According to Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), the City will release its first quarter modification to the FY2016 budget this week. "In advance of that release, CBC compares the Mayor's budget savings agenda, called the Citywide Savings Program, or CSP, with the Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) in fiscal years 2010 to 2015."

After a marathon Friday press conference at which de Blasio answered dozens of questions from assembled reporters on a wide variety of subjects, the mayor had a quiet weekend. De Blasio continues to be scrutinized for his approach to the media, his administration's transparency, and several policy areas in which he is having the most challenges, such as homelessness, policing, and education. We'll see what this week holds other than a focus on veterans and the budget. On Monday morning the mayor is set to meet with members of the city's congressional delegation and then hold a media availability - at which he'll take both on- and off-topic questions.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***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:

  • At 10:30 a.m. the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will convene to discuss several Land Use Applications in Brooklyn.
  • At 11 a.m. the Committee on Land Use will meet.

On Monday at 10 a.m., Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams "will honor Brooklyn's military heroes at his "Start Strong, Finish Strong" resource fair for veterans...Additional speakers will include Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Loree K. Sutton, a retired Army brigadier general, and USAG Fort Hamilton Command Sergeant Kevin Fauntleroy. Borough President Adams will speak about Brooklyn's commitment to its veterans, including his efforts to restore the Brooklyn War Memorial and to address mental health challenges facing the community."

On Monday at 11 a.m., New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, along with Hetrick-Martin Institute CEO Thomas Krever and the LGBTQ Caucus of the City Council will unveil “HMI Goes Citywide For LGBTQ Youth,” a new initiative to address the challenges LGBTQ youth face in New York.

"On Monday, Mayor de Blasio will meet with members of the New York Congressional Delegation at City Hall to discuss a number‎ of issues impacting New York City. This meeting is closed press. After, [at 11:30 a.m.] the Mayor and members of the Congressional Delegation will hold a media availability on the Zadroga Act on the steps of City Hall," according to his public schedule.

At noon Monday, Crain’s New York Business will host its “Crain’s Business Hall of Fame Luncheon” to celebrate businesspeople who have transformed the city through their philanthropic and professional lives. The list of honorees include Ms. Pamela Brier, President and Chief Executive Officer, Maimonides Medical Center; Mr.Laurence Fink, Chairman and CEO, BlackRock; Ms. Shelly Lazarus, Chairman Emeritus, Ogilvy & Mather; Mr. Alan Patricof, Managing Director Greycroft; The Honorable Richard Ravitch, Former Lieutenant Governor, New York; Ms. Emily Rafferty, President Emeritus, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Mr. Steven Roth, Chairman and CEO, Vornado Realty Trust. EisnerAmper will sponsor the event.

At 12:30 p.m. on Monday, Public Advocate Letitia James will “announce measures to expand affordability of NYC child care.” Joined by parents, advocates and other stakeholders, James will hold a press conference about the costs and accessibility of child care in New York City, releasing a report and outlining five policies to help increase accessibility, capacity, and affordability.

At 1 p.m. Monday at City Hal, the correction officers union will hold a press conference "following the vicious attack on a correction officer by two Rikers inmates."

At 6 p.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will deliver remarks at a pre-K family forum at the Children's Museum of Manhattan.

At 7 p.m. Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal will co-host a town hall meeting at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center on West 65th Street.

Also at 7 p.m. Monday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will speak at New York Historical Society’s “Debt of Honor” program.

TUESDAY
Tuesday is a “Fight for $15” day of action, with many events planned to bring attention to wage issues and push for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Unions, advocacy groups, elected officials, and others will participate. Worker strikes, rallies, and marches will take place throughout the day all over the city and the country.

At 6:30 a.m., Mayor de Blasio "will deliver remarks at a Fight for $15 rally to raise the minimum wage...Immediately following his remarks, the Mayor will appear in several one-on-one interviews with local television networks to discuss the need to raise the minimum wage." At 2:15 p.m., the Mayor will appear live on WBLS 107.5 and at 2:30 p.m., on NY1. "In the evening, the Mayor will attend the 70th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner."

State Senate Republicans will convene in Albany on Tuesday to discuss their 2016 agenda. (A week later Assembly Democrats will meet in the capital, according to Politico New York.)

On Tuesday at 8 a.m., Chancellor of the State University of of New York Nancy Zimpher will speak at the Citizens Budget Commission breakfast at the Harvard Club. Zimpher will discuss SUNY projects and priorities.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday the Board of Corrections will hold a meeting.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Council Member Eric Ulrich, who chairs the Council’s veterans affairs committee, military veterans, and advocates will celebrate the imminent creation of a new City Department of Veterans Services.

At the City Council on Tuesday, the City Council will convene for a full-body Stated Meeting, which, as always, will be prefaced by a press conference hosted by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at 12:30 p.m.

Gov. Cuomo will make an announcement Tuesday at 4:15 p.m. in Manhattan at Foley Square, likely at a Fight for $15 event.

At 6:30 p.m. the Committee on Drugs and Law of the New York City Bar Association will host a discussion on marijuana policy in New York. Panelists will include City Council Member Rafael Espinal, state Senator Jeff Klein, Vocal New York’s Alyssa Aguilera, and others.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, “Trans-Pacific Partnership: Who Wins and Who Loses in This Secret Deal?”, a panel event presented by the Big Apple Coffee Party and moderated by Zephyr Teachout, Fordham law professor and CEO of Mayday PAC.

The only City Council Participatory Budgeting event of the week is on Tuesday: Council Member David Greenfield (District 44, Brooklyn), 6:30 p.m.

WEDNESDAY
Wednesday is Veterans Day. At 8 a.m. Mayor de Blasio will hold a breakfast reception to honor and remember military veterans.

On Wednesday evening, many New York politicos, policy wonks, and others will gather to celebrate the 25th anniversary of City Journal, the Manhattan Institute policy publication.

THURSDAY
On Thursday at 8 a.m. Association for Better New York will host a breakfast with Congressional Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who will speak about the  projects, as well as her other priorities.

The next public meeting of the New York City Campaign Finance Board will be Thursday at 10 a.m.

At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Public Land Use Hearing.

At 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Politico New York hosts New York Playbook Lunch, a discussion with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, hosted by playbook writers Azi Paybarah, Jimmy Vielkind, and Mike Allen.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Transportation will meet for an oversight hearing on transportation deserts. The Committee will hear two bills: one to mandate a DOT study looking at the feasibility of a light rail system; another to mandate a study on transportation deserts. It will also look at resolutions calling on the MTA to allow commuters to pay the metrocard fare on commuter rails and to conduct a study on unused railroad rights.
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Parks and Recreation will meet to hear CM Mark Levine’s bill that would create a taskforce to study the effects of building shadows on parks.
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Aging will meet for oversight on DFTA’s home care program.
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet to discuss a bill that would require residential buildings to have photoelectric smoke detectors.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet to discuss two bills aimed at reducing noise by sightseeing helicopters.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will convene for oversight of DSNY’s 2016 snow plan, and the introduction of two bills that would identify pedestrian bridges and create plans for de-snowing and de-icing them and make exemptions for senior citizens and persons with disabilities from being penalized for failing to remove snow from on sidewalks.
  • At 1:30 p.m. the Committee on Veterans, jointly with the Committee on General Welfare will meet for oversight of the City’s efforts to end homelessness among military veterans.

Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at New York Law School: Law and the Lives of Young Black Men, "featuring Richard Buery, Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives; Alphonso B. David, Counsel to the Governor; and Nicholas Turner, President and Director, Vera Institute of Justice. Moderated by Professor Mercer Givhan, New York Law School."

Thursday evening, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries is holding a campaign fundraiser, a reception with Gov. Andrew Cuomo as the honorary guest.

At 6 p.m. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the Bronx Borough Board will host a public hearing regarding the Zoning for Quality and Affordability and the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing proposals of Mayor de Blasio through the City Planning department and toward his housing plan.

Mayor de Blasio will host a town hall meeting focused on education in Jackson Heights, Queens, Thursday evening. Council Member Daniel Dromm, who chairs the City Council education committee, will welcome de Blasio and his team to the district.

At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, the New York City Department of Records and Information Services and WomensActivism.NYC will host the celebration of the 200th o birthday of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Women's Suffrage Centennial. Sponsored by the City of New York, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC, The Cooper Union, and Lebenthal Asset Management, the event is expected to be attended by elected officials including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

FRIDAY
On Friday at 8:15 a.m. Vicki Been, the Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development, will speak at the latest New York City Law School CityLaw breakfast event.

On Saturday: "Newly appointed New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia will give her first public address in New York City on Nov. 14 at the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators' (CSA) 48th Educational Leadership Conference...Elia will deliver the keynote at CSA's Professional Development Plenary."

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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

The Week That Was in New York Politics, November 2-6


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday November 6

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and others participate in solidarity march in Puerto Rico, via the governor's office on flickr; "Belongings of homeless individuals removed from Soho. Homeless outreach team offered social services," tweeted de Blasio press secretary Karen Hinton (with photo below) in response to CBS2 reporter Marcia Kramer's inquiries.

cuomo de blasio puerto rico march

hinton photo homeless encampment soho

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Election Results: After Tuesday's elections, New York City has two new City Council members, two new District Attorneys, two new Assembly members, and one new state Senator. See the results.

2. Silver Trial: The trial of former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver began in New York City this week, with Silver, who had been Assembly speaker for 21 years, facing federal corruption charges. Dr. Robert Taub took the stand on Wednesday under a non-prosecution agreement, and testified that Silver had requested that the doctor refer Mesothelioma patients to his law firm because the cases were lucrative. Taub said he had asked Silver if his law firm could donate to aid the doctor’s research, and, after writing the state a request for grant money, received a $250,000 grant. Taub also testified that Silver had asked him to keep the arrangement quiet. Prosecutors allege Silver acted out of greed and abused his power for personal gain. [Read: As Sheldon Silver Heads to Trial, A Democratic Challenger is Poised to Run]

3. Politicians in Puerto Rico: Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio marched together at a rally calling for improved healthcare funding for Puerto Rico in San Juan on Thursday. The mayor, the governor, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and many others were/are in San Juan this week to show solidarity with the island territory as it faces a debt crisis, to attend the annual Somos El Futuro conference, and to put pressure on Congress to aid Puerto Rico with its financial crisis.

4. Calls for Voter Reform: Voter turnout was low as usual for this week’s elections, and on Tuesday, the “Vote Better NY” coalition, led by NYC Votes, the voter outreach arm of the city’s Campaign Finance Board, along with other advocacy and good government organizations launched a petition drive to highlight the importance of election reform and call on lawmakers to pass legislation to modernize elections in New York. The reforms call for early voting, better ballot design, and comprehensive online and easier voter registration in order to increase voter turnout.

5. MTA Criticism: City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Mayor de Blasio, members of the state Assembly and Senate, City Council members, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and others criticized the MTA this week over its decision to delay construction on the northern end of Second Avenue subway and cut $1 billion in funding to the project. Elected officials called for the MTA to put the money back into their 5-year capital plan, with Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez saying the move to cut funds “screams of transit inequality and economic injustice.” MTA CEO Thomas Prendergast responded in a statement, saying if they could speed up the schedule, they would pursue a capital program amendment to do so.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 17% drop in the number of suspensions at New York City public schools last year.
  • $41,000 is the median income of African American households in New York City, roughly half of the median income of $80,200 made by white households, according to a report from members of Congress detailing the growing wealth gap between white and black Americans.
  • $900 million is how much New York plans to spend on capital improvements by 2020 on the state park system, in an investment that includes 215 parks and historic sites.
  • 20,000 new industrial and manufacturing jobs in New York City will supposedly be spurred by new investments and actions by the de Blasio administration and the City Council announced this week.
  • 1.3 million freelance workers could be afforded similar protections to those enjoyed by full-time employees under the package of laws the New York City Council is developing.
  • $2.3 million paid to political consultants advising Mayor de Blasio during the first year and a half of his term, according to the New York Times.
  • 37% of New York City’s population is made up of immigrants, and those immigrants account for nearly 1/3 of the city’s economic activity.
  • 11.6% decrease in the number of financial grievances against the NYPD in the 2015 fiscal year, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer's office. The drop comes after over a decade of steady increase in the number of legal claims against the NYPD.
  • $170,000 per year former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos made at “his own no-show job” at the Ruskin Moscou Faltischek law firm starting in 1994, new court filings suggest.
  • $1 billion surplus for New York entering its next fiscal year, state officials projected this week.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for the election winners, including soon-to-be new City Council Members Barry Grodenchik and Joseph Borelli; District Attorneys Darcel Clark and Michael McMahon; and others.
  • It was a bad week, of course, for those who did not win the elections held Tuesday.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time 22 years ago, on November 2, 1993, Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins to become New York’s first Republican mayor in nearly three decades.
  • Around this time 5 years ago, on November 2, 2010, Andrew Cuomo became governor of New York after winning the race by a wide margin.
  • Around this time 6 years ago, on November 3, 2009, Michael Bloomberg was elected to a third term as mayor of New York City after winning a battle to overturn term limits.
  • Around this time 2 years ago, on November 5, 2013, Bill de Blasio was elected Mayor of New York City in a landslide victory.
  • Around this time 15 years ago, on November 7, 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York, becoming the first First Lady to win public office.
  • Around this time 98 years ago, on November 6, 1917, New York State adopted a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in state elections, three years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the vote in national elections.
  • Around this time 121 years ago, on November 6, 1894, voters narrowly approved the consolidation of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island into the Greater City of New York.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

City Council Developing New Protections for Workers in ‘Gig’ Economy, by Samar Khurshid

Citing 'A Violence Problem,' Cuomo Calls on New Yorkers to 'Respect the Police', by David Howard King

East Harlem Tenants Group Rejects De Blasio Housing Plan, Offers Its Own, by David Howard King

As New Yorkers Go to the Polls, Activists Launch 'Vote Better' Campaign, by Ben Max

2015 General Election Results, by Samar Khurshid

In New De Blasio Heath Care Plan, Limited Coverage for Undocumented Immigrants, by Sarah Betancourt

With Risks, P3s and Design-Build Seen as Beneficial to Infrastructure Planning, by Ryan Brady

Prison Alternatives Enhance Public Safety & Must Be Left in Place, Lisa Schreibersdorf (opinion)

Wall Street Doesn’t Work for New York, Let’s Create a Bank that Will, Matthew Rigney & Evan Casper-Futterman (opinion) 

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

[Video] Gotham Gazette Executive Editor Ben Max participated in a discussion about this week's election results and New York efforts to reform voting access, on BRIC-TV.

[Video] Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch joined Errol Louis on NY1's Inside City Hall to discuss her position at the center of a polarizing debate over standardized testing, as well as her decision to leave the office next year.

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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

East Harlem Tenants Group Rejects De Blasio Housing Plan, Offers Its Own


East-HarlemMovement

A Movement for Justice in El Barrio rally


An East Harlem tenants group is gearing up to battle Mayor Bill de Blasio over his housing plan, saying that the plan will see local mom-and-pop stores bought out by chains, further incentivize landlords to push tenants out, and destroy the culture of Spanish Harlem.

The group, Movement for Justice in El Barrio, is countering the de Blasio rezoning proposal that they call a "luxury housing plan" with a 10-point agenda of its own designed to preserve current housing stock and protect the community from gentrification. It hopes to push the local community board to vote against the mayor's two rezoning proposals and wants a face-to-face meeting with de Blasio to discuss concerns.

Movement for Justice, an immigrant-led community organization formed in 2004, plans to make its opposition and proposals public at a Friday afternoon press conference at the corner of East 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue.

The tenants' decision to oppose de Blasio's sweeping affordable housing plan didn't come easily or quickly, they say. "We spent a lot of time analyzing the plan, yet we understand lots of people in the city haven't opened their eyes. We are very hopeful we can make our case to the public and convince them we are on the moral high ground," said Josefina Salazar, a founding member of the group and 20-year resident of East Harlem.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio held a series of community meetings and workshops starting this past spring that its members say involved thousands of Harlem residents. Only after formulating their position, creating a plan of their own, and reaching out to the mayor's office did they decide to take their position public.

Tenants' biggest concerns, which mirror those being seen in other neighborhoods around the city where de Blasio is first looking to rezone to create more density, are led by the administration's plan calling for all new residential development to set aside 25-30 percent for "affordable" housing units, but with affordability rates they say are too high.

"Affordable" as defined in the de Blasio plan is incomes between $46,620 and $62,150 for a family of three. According to census data the current average median family income for an East Harlem family of four is $33,600, according to 2010-2012 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Remaining units in new construction would rent at the real estate developer's discretion, also known as market-rate housing. Developers must agree to the administration's terms in order to build in areas being rezoned by the city.

In order to meet de Blasio's ambitious affordable housing goals, maintaining or building 200,000 affordable units over ten years, the administration argues that it must increase density in underdeveloped neighborhoods. The administration is starting with places like East New York, Flushing, and East Harlem. El Barrio is particularly interesting because it is represented in the City Council by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, largely an ally of the mayor.

Supporters of the plan note that the affordable housing would be mandatory for developers to include in their projects and it would be permanent. But the group fears that their current apartments and those of their neighbors will not be protected and as the neighborhood gentrifies landlords will be motivated to push them out to rent to higher-income tenants.

Community boards across the city have to decide whether to approve the mayor's Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability plans. City Limits recently reported that while most of the boards have yet to vote on the proposals, the majority of the ones that did rejected them and that there are widespread concerns about the plans as tenants and small business owners worry about being squeezed our of their neighborhoods.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio plans a series of protests and continued community education to push back against the zoning plans before they comes to a vote at Community Board 11 on November 17. The Community Board is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter on Nov. 9.

"When we watch TV we see de Blasio promotes this plan as an affordable housing plan," said Salazar. "But this is pure propaganda. We did the math and we realized after reading the report on housing and his ten-year plan that this is not truly an affordable housing plan. It favors the creation of luxury housing that we don't consider affordable."

The group has put together its own ten-point plan members want to see adopted to preserve existing affordable housing in their neighborhood.

The plan calls for independent oversight of the city's Housing Preservation Department; establishing a public education campaign to inform tenants about HPD's role; empowering a new body or building inspectors to collect fines against landlords; having HPD make repairs not completed by the landlord in the specified amount of time and then billing the landlord; making inspectors carry citations in multiple languages and send out reports in multiple languages; forcing landlords to make repairs within 24 hours of emergency violations; establishing an East Harlem HPD oversight team as a pilot for other areas with at-risk low-income housing; providing inspections 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week; and improving HPD's follow-up on violations.

Zorayda Aguirre, a member of Movement for Justice who has lived in East Harlem with her husband and three young children for 16 years, said she fears for the community she has grown to love. "This plan will destroy our culture and change the face of East Harlem," she said of the mayor's proposals. "Not only that but the landlords will become more aggressive and try to drive us out. We will see our small businesses replaced by large ones that cater to the rich and it will become very expensive to live here."

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer shares some of the group's concerns."The history of New York City is one of constant change, but that change can't leave current residents behind – it needs to benefit and complement existing communities," Brewer told Gotham Gazette. "I will be working hard throughout this process to ensure the existing community is at the heart of the discussion. Any rezoning in East Harlem needs to address the full range of neighborhood issues like housing preservation, schools, and community-based small business."

In response to de Blasio's plan, Brewer called for an inclusion of even more affordable housing, a reduction of luxury housing included in deals with developers, increased vigilance by HPD to make sure existing affordable housing units are not lost, that there are tenant education clinics (with no income restrictions) in areas where upzoning is proposed. Brewer has also focused on helping mom and pop shops stay in business as major chains move in.

"We will never have enough affordable housing if we are not able to help tenants remain in existing affordable units. HPD must help prevent evictions by coordinating with the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) to ensure rents are legal and to enforce housing codes," Brewer wrote in a Febraury response to de Blasio unveiling his housing plan.

Amy Varghese, spokesperson for Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, said that the speaker encourages the community to get involved in the discussion of the city's housing plan.

"The East Harlem rezoning is an opportunity for all residents and stakeholders to engage in a community-driven, neighborhood-based planning process that addresses real local needs and concerns," Varghese said in a statement. "We need to have diverse voices at the table having meaningful conversations around these issues, from housing to transportation to open space and more. True to her grassroots leadership, Speaker is committed to facilitating these discussions in an empowered, productive environment and strongly encourages all residents to get involved, participate and harness this opportunity to make a difference in the neighborhood we are so proud to call home."

Members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio say they will do just that, making their voices heard in the coming weeks as community boards across the city consider the plan.

"This is a David versus Goliath type of battle," said Salazar. "The mayor is very powerful and has a propaganda machine. We really want a face-to-face meeting with the mayor. I think we can change his heart," said Salazar. "We want to tell him that we don't think his plan will preserve the simple, humble people of El Barrio."

The mayor's office did not return request for comment.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

City Council Developing New Protections for Workers in ‘Gig’ Economy


lander car wash workers

Council Member Lander with carwash workers (photo: William Alatriste)


There are more than 1.3 million freelancers working in New York City and with the help of the City Council, these workers may soon be afforded certain protections on par with full-time workers.

Initially focused on wage protection and health benefits, Council members and advocates are also looking at legislation to expand collective bargaining rights to certain groups of workers in the “gig” economy.

The on-demand economy of such workers has mushroomed in the city with Uber and Lyft drivers, Handy.com cleaners, and the more traditional writers, graphic designers, and other artists. These temporary, “for-hire” workers largely perform their various efforts without the benefits of job security, health insurance, pension buy-in, or paid sick leave. Even their wages are regularly not guaranteed. Eight out of ten freelancers have complained of being victims of late payment or non-payment of wages according to reports compiled by the Freelancers Union.

With the City Council aggressively tackling workforce issues, Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat who represents part of Brooklyn, has taken the lead in developing legislation to help people in the gig economy.

Lander is working with the New York City-based Freelancers Union to create a legislative framework for wage protection for freelance employees. In September, He appeared at a Brooklyn town hall hosted by the Freelancers Union to launch the #FreelanceIsntFree campaign, seeking to raise awareness and push for legislation.

“It has very real dark sides to it,” Lander said in a recent phone interview with Gotham Gazette, referring to freelancing and the company payment cycles that cause hardships for freelancers. “The rent is due and you still gotta put groceries on the table,” he said.

Lander believes that the best possible scenario would be a “cutting edge,” enforceable administrative solution, similar to protections guaranteed by the state Department of Labor and the Attorney General. Currently, the only legal recourse freelancers have is civil court, an expensive and time-consuming option. Lander wants to introduce a bill within the next two months.

But worker protections go beyond simply wages and Lander has found support from his colleagues for other ideas. Lander and Council Member Corey Johnson are working closely with the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance on a “drivers benefit fund” that would use a small fare surcharge to provide health benefits to for-hire drivers. After wage protections for freelancers, drafting this legislation is Lander’s next priority; and with the city looking at rules reform for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, he said this “is a good time to move it forward.”

Inevitably, workforce issues revolve in some important way around organized labor. On-demand gig workers are by their very nature unorganized. That’s where the Freelancers Union stepped in and now the City Council is moving toward creating new worker protections.

Eyeing Seattle, where a City Council member is pushing a bill to allow taxi drivers, for-hire drivers, and those from ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to unionize and exercise collective bargaining, Lander is considering a similar path in New York.

Uber’s success in the city, and its disruption of the long-standing taxi/black car marketplace, has garnered the for-hire industry new attention. The ability for drivers, who are seen as independent contractors, to unionize would change the game for thousands, and the company, of course.

Uber has added more than 20,000 cars to their service in the last three years and also handled more than 100,000 rides each day in July, four times its record from last year.  During a summer face-off between city lawmakers and Uber, the Mayor de Blasio and the City Council brought about a temporary detente by landing on a four-month study of the effects of ride-sharing companies like Uber (and no cap on the growth of the industry). The results of that study are due soon and will likely play an important role in the future of ride-sharing in the city.

An Uber representative declined to comment for this story.

The city’s efforts to create space for independent contractors to unionize may run up against federal law. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects the right of employees to collectively bargain with their employers. It lays down specific definitions for employees and employers which could preempt local jurisdictions from taking action since independent contractors do not qualify under the law’s criteria.

A class-action lawsuit brought by three drivers in California against Uber highlights this basic issue. The drivers are arguing for benefits as employees of the company while Uber maintains they are independent contractors who are not eligible for these benefits, and therefore should not have received class-action status. 

“Seattle’s leading the way,” said Council Member Lander. The proposed legislation in Seattle would create a precedent and likely face numerous legal challenges. Lander recognizes this fact. Even though the NLRA preempts the City Council from legislating, he believes there is room for cities to take action for workers not covered under the federal legislation. Currently there is no draft legislation but Lander said any proposal would attempt to protect workers across the on-demand economy and not just specific companies.

(He also talked of changes to the city’s human rights laws to clarify the workers covered. He said this could happen in the next few months after these initial bills.)

The Council recently took controversial action to help car wash workers unionize, but that is being challenged in court.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller is firmly in support of any proposal that would help on-demand drivers organize. As a former labor union leader, Miller’s perspective on the issue is decidedly pro-labor, and his position as chair of the Council's civil service and labor committee puts him at the front lines in addressing it. 

“The whole concept of the shared economy has to be put into perspective,” Miller told Gotham Gazette. “I don’t think it’s a sustainable model.”

He said the “irony” of the situation is that the shared, gig economy is contributing to its own demise and disempowerment -- a younger generation with few responsibilities finds flexibility and mobility attractive and then later on when people want security, they find themselves left out in the cold.

For the system to work, he said, there need to be checks and balances in the form of collective bargaining and the right to organize.

“I’m less inclined to create public policy legislation around this,” he said about the issue of unionization, perhaps recognizing the challenges involved. “We’ll let them do their job and give them the tools to support them. We’ve got our finger on the pulse of organized labor.”

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by Samark Khurshid
@GothamGazette

2015 General Election Results


Cuomo voting Nov 2015

Gov. Cuomo votes on Tuesday (via the Governor's Office on flickr)


Although there weren't many high-profile races in yesterday's election, New York City now has two new members of the City Council (one in Queens, one on Staten Island), two new District Attorneys (Staten Island and the Bronx), two new Assembly members (Queens and Brooklyn), a new state Senator (Brooklyn), and a few new judges.

On Staten Island, former Congressional Rep. and City Council Member Michael McMahon, a Democrat, defeated Republican Joan Illuzzi to become District Attorney. The seat was left vacant when former DA Daniel Donovan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats now hold the DA position in all five boroughs. 

The Bronx got its first new DA in 26 years as Darcel Clark was elected to the seat. Clark, a New York Supreme Court judge, replaced Robert Johnson who resigned to run for Supreme Court justice.

A Democrat also won the City Council seat from Eastern Queens. Former Assembly Member Barry Grodenchik beat his Republican opponent, Joseph Colcannon, a retired police captain. The seat belonged to Mark Weprin, a Democrat who left the Council to join Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration. The Staten Island City Council seat went to Republican Joseph Borelli, an Assembly member who ran unopposed to replace Vincent Ignizio, who had resigned for a job as a nonprofit leader. Borelli joins the Council's Republican minority, returning it to three members in the 51-seat body. Both Grodenchik and Borelli will have to run in 2017 to retain their seats.

As was the case with the two Council seats, the three special elections for New York City-based seats in the state legislature remained with the same political party. All three state legislative seats stayed Democrat. With a whopping majority, Democrat Assembly Member Roxanne Persaud won a Brooklyn Senate seat over Republican Jeffrey Ferretti, owner of a real estate company. The seat was left vacant when former State Senator John Sampson was convicted in July on federal charges of obstruction of justice and false statements.

The two Assembly seats were also won by Democrats. Pamela Harris, a retired corrections officer, defeated Republican Lucretia Regina-Potter to become the only African-American to represent a majority white district in the city. The district covers parts of southern Brooklyn and the post was left vacant when the former rep resigned to take a private-sector job.

In the special election to complete the term of Democrat William Scarborough -- who was forced from office after accepting a plea on corruption charges -- Democrat Alicia Hyndman beat her opponent with a wide margin. Hyndman, Harris, and Regina-Potter will all have to run for re-election next year, in 2016 when all of the state legislature goes up for election, to retain their seats.

In one of many unopposed races, Democrat Richard Brown won the seat of Queens DA for the seventh consecutive term.

***
by Samar Khrushid
@GothamGazette

With Risks, P3s and Design-Build Seen as Beneficial to Infrastructure Planning


MTA MetroNorth garage

A new MTA MetroNorth facility (photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


At an Urban Land Institute conference last week, two panels of transportation experts – one from the public sector, the other from the private sector – discussed the issues plaguing tri-state transportation systems and the potential of public-private partnerships to address them.

“Transportation agencies are great at delivering state-of-good-repair projects, delivering normal replacement projects,” former New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald said during the first panel. “I’m not so sure that transportation agencies are the entities best-suited to do some of these mega projects that are not just about transportation.”

With transportation infrastructure, a public-private partnership, or P3 agreement, is used most often in a design-build contract - design-build is a method of project-delivery in which a private contractor wins a bid to design and construct a project. Ongoing regional public-private infrastructure projects include the construction of a new Port Authority Bus Terminal and an MTA project to build a Long Island Rail Road station beneath Grand Central Terminal (known as East Side Access).

Organized by the Urban Land Institute’s New York, New Jersey and Westchester/Fairfield chapters, the forum was hosted at Shearman & Sterling’s East Midtown headquarters, drawing a crowd of around one hundred.

During the panel of current and former public officials, moderated by CityLab New York bureau chief Eric Jaffe, the speakers disagreed on the role of public-private partnerships in terms of their potential for improving transportation infrastructure.

“The bigger you get, when you have many more stakeholders, many more local zoning laws, then it becomes more difficult,” Steve Santoro, New Jersey Transit's assistant executive director of capital planning, said of expansive P3 projects.

All agreed, however, that area transportation infrastructure is in a state of crisis.

“The term 'transportation Armageddon' has been used,” Jaffe said, referring to Senator Chuck Schumer's remarks about the potential results of the damaged Hudson River tunnels. If the existing New York-to-New Jersey tunnels close - a plausible scenario given their age, deterioration and the fact that they have reached current capacity - it would be disastrous for commuters and the regional economy.

In remarks after the panel, Drew Galloway, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor chief of planning and performance expressed openness to working with a private sector contractor on the Gateway Project, a proposed high-speed rail corridor planned to help solve a potential crisis with the tunnels, which are used by NJTransit and Amtrak and bring many commuters into New York City.

“We absolutely intend to consider [public-private partnerships] and will welcome the proposals as it goes forward,” Galloway told Politico New York.

After the conference’s 15-minute networking break, the private sector panel convened to discuss the best P3 business practices globally, as well as the potential hazards and benefits of P3s.

“You have competition among entities of the private sector to come up with the best and most cost-effective design,” Karen Hedlund, national P3 advisor for Parsons Brinckerhoff, said at the panel, which was moderated by Urban Land Institute's senior vice president, Rachel MacCleery.

For underfunded tri-state transportation agencies, design-build can be an attractive method of cutting project costs. As Mike Parker, of Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors, LLC, pointed out, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimated that it saved ten percent by using a P3 for the Goethals Bridge reconstruction versus a public plan.

In the case of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, Hedlund explained, its dire need for infrastructure repair may repel potential private partners.

“Would they be willing to accept the cost of bringing the Northeast Corridor up to a state-of-good-repair?” Hedlund asked. “It's a much more complicated question than sometimes some politicians would like you to believe.”

Last year, P3s, especially as design-build, were recommended by the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, a team of 24 local, regional, and international transportation experts. In July, New York State Budget Director Mary Beth Labate again endorsed their use in a letter to MTA Chair Thomas Prendergast, calling design-build and other P3 tools a means of reducing the agency’s capital program costs and achieving “faster project delivery."

Certainly, the MTA needs faster project delivery - a recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a nonpartisan watchdog group, estimated that MTA repair and upgrade projects will be finished by 2067 at their current rate. The Second Avenue Subway extension is notoriously behind schedule and beyond budget.

But though public-private partnerships are recommended for MTA repair projects, the CBC report warns that a “P3 can leave public agencies at risk when private parties fail to perform adequately,” as they did in the early 2000s with a London Underground repair project.

“The London experience showed that there’s some problems with P3s that dealt with a lot of maintaining existing assets and bringing existing infrastructure up to a state-of-good-repair,” Jamison Dague, the report’s author, told Gotham Gazette. “And that’s not to say that you can’t have a P3 that does those things successfully, but that was one challenge that they saw there.”

Meanwhile, design-build contracts for New York infrastructure, Dague added, have proven successful in the past. The newly approved (and controversial) MTA five-year capital plan was reduced by billions of dollars after the agency accounted for increased use of design-build and other cost-saving strategies.

From a policy standpoint, measures can be taken to prevent private sector malfeasance when engaging companies in major infrastructure projects. In his remarks, Galloway emphasized the need for transportation officials to independently estimate a project’s cost before private sector involvement.

“Otherwise, they will price their own investment in such a way to cover that risk,” Galloway said. “And you very quickly lose some of the advantages that you would otherwise see in a public-private partnership.”

Transportation officials and others have suggested oversight mechanisms as a means of preventing similar problems before. Independent evaluation of projects before private-sector involvement was recommended by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in a 2013 report, which also calls for the creation of an oversight entity for public-partnership agreements and other changes to the state's P3 policies.

Jaffe mentioned the ongoing concern: “The fear is always that in the long run, the public will end up paying more than they said they would pay up front.”

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette 



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