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Measuring the Mayor’s Education Agenda


de blasio parents school brooklyn

De Blasio at a parents' night (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office via flickr)


There are three main data points by which New York City mayors are usually judged on their management of city schools: state standardized test scores; and rates of student graduation and college-readiness. As Mayor Bill de Blasio is now in his second year at the helm of the city’s 1,800 schools and 1.1 million students, his ability to improve these numbers is coming under intense scrutiny - from parents, pundits, and Albany lawmakers, among others.

To boost school and student performance and produce college- and career-ready graduates, de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have unveiled a series of new education initiatives, led by the much-heralded rollout of universal pre-kindergarten. The effectiveness of these programs and the pair’s stewardship of the city’s schools will largely be determined by the three aforementioned data points. Of key relevance within those larger statistics is also the outcomes for subgroups of students, like those with disabilities, and the so-called “achievement gap.”

In a recent speech called “Equity and Excellence,” de Blasio outlined a series of new education plans aimed at improving the opportunities and outcomes for city students. Many applauded the mayor’s announcements, which included more algebra, computer science, and reading coaches. Others, however, say benchmarks for student success are being set too far off and that more robust and immediate change is needed. Some continue to push de Blasio to close underperforming schools and embrace an expansion of charter schools.

“Our vision for the New York City public schools is that every school is going to be brought up to the point of excellence. We are putting an unprecedented level of resources in – that’s how we achieved full day pre-K for every child in this city - and that’s going to have a huge impact on the future of our children and our schools,” de Blasio said last week on 1010 Wins radio.

Over the course of two years, de Blasio and Fariña have put together an extensive education agenda. Progress, or lack thereof, will be a key to de Blasio’s 2017 re-election bid. More importantly, the success of the de Blasio/Fariña era of city school control will be key to the future of many young people. Parents and guardians of the city's 1.1 million students are seeing firsthand every day whether their children's schools give them confidence in those in charge.

As stakeholders and watchers keep tabs on the mayor’s education agenda and its impact, Gotham Gazette takes a detailed look at de Blasio’s major programs and how they fit into the assessment of this mayor’s education leadership.

First, the latest data on the three main metrics mentioned above:
TEST SCORES: The most up-to-date numbers say that about one-third of New York City students in grades 3-8 are proficient on state math and English-Language Arts tests. For math, it’s 35.2 percent proficient; for ELA, 30.4 percent. These numbers, released this summer, show a slight increase from the year before. (They also indicate performance on recently rewritten tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards - tests and standards that are the source of much controversy.)

GRADUATION RATE: The most recently published graduate rate, from 2014, shows 64.2 percent of high schoolers graduated in four years (including August graduates, the percentage rises to 68.4). Indicative of a long-term upward trend, this also shows an increase, with the August rate up 2.4 percent from the year before.

COLLEGE-READINESS: In 2014, 32 percent of students tested high enough to be considered “college ready.” The college-ready metric, initially introduced by the state, is determined by percentages of students who attain a score of 75 or higher on the English Regents and 80 or higher on the Math Regents (Regents exams are state standardized tests for high school students). This signifies that students will not require remedial classes to attend four-year CUNY universities.

Bill de Blasio, Education Mayor
To ring in the new year and quiet some of his critics, Mayor de Blasio gave a wide-ranging September speech to unveil several new education initiatives. Announcements of new efforts to ensure all students are reading at grade level; offer more algebra, advanced placement, and computer science courses; and individually guide the system’s most vulnerable students were mostly met with praise from officials, advocates, parents, and others.

Though all agree with the mayor’s expressed principles of “equity and excellence” in all New York City public schools, there are skeptics who question if the mayor is going far enough or fast enough, and those who question how well his programs, new and otherwise, will be implemented. After all, if one-third of grade 3-8 students are proficient in math or ELA, that means that two-thirds are not.

The numbers become even more frightening when looking at the city’s lowest performing schools, often in its poorest neighborhoods and populated by children of color, where there are in some instances grades full of students who do not meet the state standards.

De Blasio and others do question the new state tests and caution against using standardized test scores as the end-all. They also point to high poverty rates and the challenges faced by students that impede their ability to learn.

Still, the mayor consistently acknowledges there is a great deal of work to be done to make all schools good schools. He has little choice but to confront that reality. A new report from pro-charter school organization Families for Excellent Schools shows that black and Hispanic students beginning high school in New York City are one-fourth as likely as their white and Asian counterparts to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Much of the mayor’s wide-ranging education agenda - beginning with pre-K - is aimed at increasing opportunity and fostering greater equity.

Many ask how de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plan to measure progress on their signature changes to the city’s education system, looking for both what metrics and what benchmarks are in place to assess and ensure success. They and other top city officials are often hard-pressed to give data points other than the big three mentioned earlier, though they cite things like attendance rates and Advanced Placement course access and enrollment.

In de Blasio’s most recent announcement, he outlined several goals set a number of years down the road - such as increasing the proportion of high school graduates deemed ‘college-ready’ from less than half to two-thirds by 2026 - leading many to wonder about more immediate effects and goals. Some note that even a goal set that far into the future leaves one-third of city graduates not deemed ready for college.

Some schools and students must see immediate progress. Each of the city’s 94 “renewal schools,” the city’s persistently low-performing schools up against the prospect of state takeover, will have set benchmarks to meet, which usually include attendance and test score improvements.

De Blasio is banking on his pre-K initiative to be a game-changer. And it may be, but time and again de Blasio and others are asked how the program is being evaluated and there are few concrete answers, though a consultancy has been hired to track it. Much of the program’s efficacy will be pegged on the third-grade test scores of the students who have enrolled in the program (third grade is the first year of state standardized tests and seen as a key year for assessing whether students are reading at grade-level).

On the first day of school this year, in September, Mayor de Blasio celebrated the progress of programs implemented thus far in his tenure, including the expansion of UPK to enrolling more than 65,500 four-year-olds across the city; 130 new community schools; 126 PROSE schools, which are schools working with unique models and outside of some typical union rules; and free after-school programs for all middle-schoolers. Most of the celebration, though, involves their launch, and with much of it still new, like de Blasio as mayor, there is little else to measure yet.

The following week, de Blasio announced the roll-out of another wave of education programs buttressed by a vision of public schools running on the “twin engines of equity and excellence.”  Programs outlined included computer science and Advanced Placement courses for all; universal second grade literacy; “Single Shepherd,” by which at-risk students are provided individualized counselors; and college campus visits for all before ninth grade.

“Excellence and achievement cannot, and should not, discriminate...As we increase the number of student success stories, we have to make sure success is as common in East New York as it is on the Upper East Side,” said the mayor, striking the central theme of his campaign and his mayoralty.

Changing the largest school system in the country does not happen overnight, of course, and some defend the mayor’s extended timelines. City Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the Committee on Education and a former teacher, told Gotham Gazette, “I applaud the mayor for not allowing people to think [these reforms] can be done overnight. It takes awhile to change things, to change cultures, and to have real results.”

Along with Dromm, Gotham Gazette consulted several education experts and advocates to discuss the mayor’s education agenda and related metrics.

Pre-K
“In principle, [universal pre-k] is an extremely good idea, but in practice, it will depend on the caliber of the program,” David Steiner, executive director at Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and former New York State education commissioner, told Gotham Gazette.

“Research shows that teacher quality is the single greatest determinant of a student’s performance outside family background and context. So it’s the greatest in-school influence on student performance,” Steiner said, underlining the importance of “the caliber of instruction.”

As Steiner considers pre-K, he wants to know if teachers have “been prepared to handle the work that needs to be done to ensure that these young children can learn to read effectively.”

Suggesting a teacher residency program model in order to equip teachers with the clinical skills they need to ensure preparedness and high-quality instruction in the classroom, Steiner is among those who want to see systemic focus on teacher preparation and quality.

Along with teacher quality, Steiner cites sufficient socialization, play-time, and acquiring skills such as “phonemic awareness” for the students as critical to building the foundation for reading and long-term success in learning.

The de Blasio administration has indeed highlighted the significance of teacher instruction, offering the city’s first-ever “Citywide Professional Development Training specifically for pre-K,” with 6,000 educators participating at the launch of the program in 2014. It is not the residency system Steiner recommends, which would be more robust and expensive.

The mayor and others have continually stressed that pre-K is “high-quality,” but it is unclear exactly how prepared the teachers are and how strong the curriculum is - which is where internal and external evaluation will come into play.

There will, of course, also soon be those third grade test scores for the first class of pre-K participants. One major question about pre-K is whether initial gains that participants show last through third grade.

In the city’s implementation plan for UPK, a core feature of the model is “ensuring recruitment and retention of high-quality UPK lead teachers with early childhood certification.”

Instructional coaches from the DOE are placed in schools to provide professional development - which, generally speaking, has been a major focus of Chancellor Fariña, a former teacher and principal herself.

“As we move forward with this expansion, we must renew our focus on supporting our pre-K teachers and assistant teachers and creating an atmosphere of engaging and fun learning and play that puts our youngest learners on the path to success in kindergarten and their continuing education,” said Fariña at the initial pre-K launch, in 2014.

De Blasio spokesperson Wiley Norvell told Gotham Gazette that the first wave of pre-K metrics will be released this fall.

Norvell described skill acquisition as essential, along with classroom interactions, and available activities. Pre-K participants are, after all, four-year-olds. When asked about ensuring quality in pre-K, the mayor has often stressed that the curriculum involves establishing key learning basics, such as those needed to become a successful reader, as well as plenty of play, which also builds skills.

Norvell stressed that enrollment itself is key to the success of the program, especially among disadvantaged families. "This is a two-year expansion, and the first year was heavily focused on low-income communities that benefit most from high quality pre-K. In the ten lowest-income communities, enrollment more than doubled last year. And that focus continued this year, where we pushed and successfully enrolled more than 1,000 children whose families were in homeless shelters,” Norvell told Gotham Gazette.

Moving children from under-resourced and unstable environments into school a year earlier can have significant effects in terms of their socialization and language acquisition.

In a recent defense against accusations that pre-K success is being measured by enrollment and not quality, Norvell wrote on Twitter that a “focus on quality” is the “reason we spread expansion over [two years],” adding that there has been a “huge focus on [professional development] and pedagogical oversight.”

Community, Renewal, PROSE, & Charter Schools
Community schools and renewal schools -- at the heart of the mayor’s education reforms -- provide striking examples of divergent policy from de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

De Blasio has promised to close schools only as a “last resort,” focusing rather on providing more and better resources to schools which may be struggling. The city’s most-struggling schools are the renewal schools, almost all of which are part of the community schools program, which means these schools become hubs of services, such as providing health care for students or English classes for parents.

“Labeling schools ‘low-performing,’ labeling them ‘failing’ makes everybody in that school community feel like they’re failing,” David Bloomfield, professor of education leadership at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, told Gotham Gazette. “We have to get away from this notion of a failing school; it’s an incorrect description and an obstacle to reform.”

In this regard, Bloomfield appears aligned with de Blasio, who has decided that instead of closing schools and reconstituting them as smaller schools with a remade faculty, that he would flood struggling schools with resources.

Bloomfield believes rigorous testing implemented during the Bloomberg years showed itself to be a “disaster” and “misunderstands the educational situation of students. It ostensibly equates short-term test performance with long-term educational proficiency.”

Assessment of “student learning across multiple measures,” not simply discerned through testing, as well as “professional observation” to determine teacher quality would give a more accurate portrayal of student and teacher performance, Bloomfield says.

“We are investing in tools that we know help students catch up and succeed – more learning time, extra tutoring, coaches to help teachers improve instruction,” said the mayor at a press conference with students and faculty of Richmond Hill High School, one of the 94 renewal schools.

“We have a plan to fix long-struggling schools, and we’ll hold ourselves and these schools accountable for results,” de Blasio said. When discussing his stewardship of city schools and the mayoral control system that New York City mayors are allowed through state law, de Blasio has repeatedly said that he has the education system on the right track and that closing school doesn’t solve the problems facing the students in them. He says he will be judged by voters come 2017.

Still, critics believe that the community and renewal school school approach of extra resources is not the answer, but that closing schools and opening more independently-run charter schools is a better general alternative path.

De Blasio has been a vocal opponent of the expansion of charter schools, though his rhetoric on the subject has cooled of late. The mayor and others have talked of partnering with charter schools as an opportunity to increase the quality of education in public schools.

A controversial recent advertisement by Families for Excellent Schools, the pro-charter group, slamming de Blasio for “forcing kids into failing schools” is indicative of a long-running dispute. Prior to that ad, which is being followed by another critical of the mayor’s education leadership, and a large pro-charter, anti-de Blasio rally, the mayor announced a new program to fund 50 formal partnerships between district schools and charter schools.

The administration cites that it will be similar to the Learning Partners Program, matching “host” schools with “partner” schools for collaboration on areas of demonstrated need by the partner schools. Drawing from individual strengths, schools will apply and be matched in pairs “to learn from each other's best practices” creating District-Charter Learning Partnerships.

Moreover, another DOE effort to support struggling schools is the Progressive Redesign Opportunity for Schools of Excellence (PROSE) initiative. Led by the Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships (OSDCP), the initiative aims to design and develop new schools, overhaul under-enrolled schools, and support school flexibility.

While de Blasio and Fariña’s teams track multiple measures, and have revamped the system by which schools are graded to show a diversity of metrics instead of a single letter grade, much of this can be seen as alphabet soup by those who simply want to know: are schools improving or not? There’s no getting around the fact that schools will largely be judged by state leaders and others through their standardized test scores, seen by many as the best objective measure.

Clara Hemphill, senior editor of InsideSchools.org, a publication of The Center for NYC Affairs at the New School, says that “Tests tell you where a school has been, but not where a school is going. There is other data that is predictive of where a school is heading.” She described “improved attendance, increased enrollment, and increased satisfaction by parents, teachers, students” as evidence for “signs of a flourishing school.”

Universal 2nd Grade Literacy
Every elementary school will receive support from a reading specialist to ensure students are reading at grade level by the end of second grade, Mayor de Blasio announced, noting that early intervention determines long-term success for young children and the importance of early literacy.

The Mayor’s Office cites that “students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers.”

Hemphill is pleased to see the initiative: “The plan for 700 reading specialists is long overdue,” she says. “It’s the one thing that’s really been shown to work in helping kids who may have some difficulties to read get the skills they need.”

“Learning to read is critical,” Hemphill continues. “There are a large number of kids who don’t learn easily even with good instruction. Reading specialists are teachers with master’s degrees specialized in how to teach reading. Putting one in an elementary will go a long way.”

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, suggested “process-based metrics” in which a student is evaluated over time to gauge improved reading skills for grade-level proficiency by the end of second grade. This would create stronger tracking and assessment well before those third grade tests scores come back.

“Our goal is to have all second graders reading with fluency by 2026. Teachers will track students’ progress through nationally-recognized assessments, and provide the right kind of additional support to those kids who need it,” announced the Mayor.

Clearly, the success of this initiative will mostly come down to student scores on the state ELA tests all students take in third grade. One especially important subgroup to watch will be English-Language Learners, or students whose first language is not English. While this is true throughout all grade levels, it is important at younger ages that students show they are beginning to master the official language of most of their schooling.

Algebra for All
“For New York City public high school students, algebra 1 represents either the gateway to advanced math or a huge, even insurmountable, stumbling block in their education,” begins an August 2015 report prepared by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. Why is that so? The report states that the vast majority of students can fulfill math requirements for graduation by passing the Regents exam for the algebra 1 course.

However, according to the Center’s analysis, of the estimated 75,500 students who entered high school as the prospective Class of 2014, more than 22,000 failed the Integrated Algebra Regents on their first attempt. “Those who failed the first time went on to retake the exam an average of twice more in later years in order to graduate,” and among the students repeating the exam, “the pass rate plummeted to as low as 20 percent.”

And the test has only become significantly more difficult. A new exam was introduced in June 2014, aligning with the tougher academic standards of Common Core, as required in New York State. The test now consists of material that used to be on Algebra 2/Trigonometry Regents exams.

The difficulty of the exam has elicited reactions ranging from concern to outrage given the high stakes for students who may not graduate on time - or even not at all - depending on exam results. Part of the issue at play with algebra, like in other instances, appears to be access.

De Blasio announced the Algebra for All initiative to ensure algebra courses for all eighth-graders citywide by Fall 2021, along with “academic supports in place earlier in middle school to build greater algebra readiness.”

Today, less than 60 percent of public middle schools offer some algebra coursework.

Computer Science for All
By 2025, every student in elementary, middle and high school will receive computer science education. Funded through a public-private partnership, city money will be matched by New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education (CSNYC), Robin Hood Foundation, and AOL Charitable Foundation for a total of $81 million invested over the next 10 years.

Tim Armstrong, CEO and chairman of AOL, said that these contributions will, “allow children of all backgrounds to share equally in the future of a software-driven economy and continue to bolster New York’s position as one of the leading technology cities in the world.”

Speaking with Gotham Gazette, Natasha Capers, parent leader and Coordinator of Coalition for Educational Justice, shared in the praise saying “giving [students] this education [will] build the workforce” of the future.

An initial pilot program during the 2014-15 school year, the Software Engineering Pilot (SEP), has implemented computer science classes in 18 middle and high schools, enrolling 2,700 students for courses about web design, coding, robotics and more. Computer science classes will expand significantly in other schools beginning in Fall 2016.

Some do not see computer science coursework as necessary for every student. De Blasio and others who support the initiative say that it will have multiple positive effects, including engaging students in school, preparing students for the workforce, and enhancing thinking schools. If it is part of improvement in college-readiness and workplace success rates, de Blasio will get credit.

AP for All
Today, nearly 40,000 students are enrolled in high schools, grades 9-12, that do not offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Low-income students and black and Latino students are particularly affected, with only 44 percent enrolling in AP. Full implementation of AP for All is projected for Fall 2021, by which AP courses and prep classes will be available in all schools.

Again here, some may point to a far off goal. Progress will be measurable each year in terms of additional offerings, but it is a multi-year expansion plan, and one aimed at improving college-readiness, but also college graduation rates.

This initiative builds on the AP Expansion program created in 2013 by the NYC Department of Education which has implemented AP courses in over 70 schools since its launch.

A report reviewed by Inside Schools determines that “taking even one CUNY College Now or AP course reduces the likelihood that students will need remedial classes in college.”

Kim Nauer, education project director at Center for New York City Affairs, notes that statistically it is true that more students of all income levels are attending college but many are not completing their degrees. Taking AP courses in high school often serves as effective preparation for college course loads.

In fact, “we know students who take AP classes are twice as likely to graduate college in five years, compared to those who don’t,” noted de Blasio.

Students are also more likely to be prepared for college and careers with individual support from school guidance counselors.

However, in 2013, 61 percent of guidance counselors faced caseloads of 100 to 300 students -- far too many, critics say, to substantially help students individually prepare for college or career, much less navigate key aspects of their current schools. (The remaining counselors faced caseloads even higher.)

Thus, in addition to expanding AP course selection, the College Access for All program de Blasio announced will guide students through the college application process, in which “every student will have the resources and individually tailored supports at their high school to pursue a path to college.”

College campus visits, assistance in completing applications, mentorships with college students and strategies for family financial planning to afford college tuition are all resources which will be available for students, sixth-twelfth grade, launching in Fall 2016.

In increasing the focus on college preparedness and college goal-setting, de Blasio may be taking a page from the charter school book. Supporters often note that many charter schools have a college-going culture in place, talking with students about college from kindergarten onward.

Single Shepherd
The Single Shepherd program pairs counselors with specific students from sixth grade through their high school graduation and college enrollment, and is being piloted in District 7, in the South Bronx, and District 23, in Central Brooklyn. The program will launch in Fall 2016.

“Districts 7 and 23 have among the lowest graduation and college readiness rates in the city, and each serve high poverty, high needs students. We selected two districts with high need, in different areas of the city, and of varying size to serve as proof-points for the initiative so that with evidence, it can be scaled to other communities,” said Department of Education spokesperson Devora Kaye, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“The Single Shepherd role will focus explicitly on high school graduation, college readiness and on building a long-term relationship with their students,” Kaye continued. “Starting day one of implementation, we’ll be monitoring the progress of this program, and will expand it as we see progress.”

Students in the program, and the program itself, are sure to be measured in terms of improvements in attendance, grades, and test scores, along with graduation and college-readiness, as Kaye mentioned.

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director at the Alliance for Quality Education, also said it is important to watch suspension rates. Ansari, whose group is largely aligned with the mayor and the teachers union, highlights the importance of looking at graduation rates and college placement for students, but also said more schools should be implementing “restorative justice practices,” referring to an approach to school discipline and community building that strays away from suspensions in most cases.

The social and emotional well-being of students and parent and community engagement are “crucial” for student success, Ansari said. De Blasio and Fariña have devoted new resources to restorative justice and believe that keeping students in school when suspension is avoidable will give students a greater shot at success.

Students for which restorative justice is an alternative to out-of-school suspension are likely to be candidates for the shepard program, though that program is only seeing a small pilot in the next school year. Still, the shepard program is another example of the de Blasio administration infusing significant resources toward addressing education problems.

School Segregation
Professor Bloomfield brought up one key for any big city mayor, the differences in learning experiences and outcomes of students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. There has been a renewed focus of late on New York City’s segregated schools - the city’s schools are among the most segregated in the country, some of which has to do with the city’s housing, which largely determines elementary school enrollment.

There are enrollment and admissions policies that many want to see changed. Others, still, want to see the expansion of charter schools - less so to reduce segregation and more so to reduce the so-called achievement gap between black and Latino students on one hand and white and Asian students on the other. Many charter schools have proved to be more successful alternatives to nearby district schools when it comes to student test scores, and charter schools in New York City are almost exclusively attended by children of color.

This past summer, de Blasio signed the School Diversity Accountability Act, which tracks demographic data relating to grade levels and programs within schools, but lacks a mandate for actionable steps to reduce segregation.

Bloomfield says, “The way to address [the achievement gap] is not simply through remediation, which is more or less what the mayor’s laundry list of [new] reforms [are].” It is necessary, he says, “to make sure that all students have access to resources by making sure affluent and low-income students are educated together and all students are educated in integrated environments because all students benefit from that.”

“I want to include the shameful inequity in our competitive high schools Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech,” Bloomfield adds. “The mayor promised he would change that and he hasn’t come up with any proposals.”

Bloomfield refers to the admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools. De Blasio said as a candidate and repeated as mayor, though not lately, that he wants to see the admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools change away from a single test. On the issue of school integration, de Blasio has been cool to innovative admissions models, instead saying that his pre-K and affordable housing programs would foster more integrated schools.

Lori Podvesker, a parent-advocate and manager of disability and education policy at INCLUDEnyc, also discussed the problem of segregation in New York City public schools. Podvesker cites the lack of initiatives for District 75 students, who primarily have significant disabilities.

“It feels like students receiving [special education] services are getting lost in this conversation --  and the overall education conversation --  because everything is being applied to all kids and it’s really not true,” said Podvesker, who also sits on the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

“A lot of students in District 75 don’t take standardized testing and are not going to college. So, the new ‘shepherd’ program -- what does that look like for those kids?”

She believes, “special education is siloed,” in the general public conversation on education. “Under Chancellor Fariña it’s getting better,” she says, “but I still feel like it’s an afterthought and it’s not part of decision-making from the beginning.”

Though disappointed the mayor has not been more proactive on special education, Podvesker noted the initiatives that have been announced are “amazing.”

As de Blasio seeks an extension for mayoral control next year from the state legislature and Governor Cuomo, he faces tremendous pressure to ensure that others see his vision for education as his supporters do. He must present immediate results beyond pre-K enrollment, and the mayor and his team know it. This summer, de Blasio took great pains to tout small increases in state test score results for students in grades 3-8, and will bring those gains to Albany, as well as his list of programs and any data he can to support their initial successes.

In Albany in 2016 and then at home in New York City in 2017, de Blasio will be forced to present data - have test scores continued to rise? Are they rising fast enough? Have graduation and college-readiness rates improved?

The mayor will also have to contend with the impressions of parents, each of whom has a personal experience with the school system.

De Blasio will surely use whatever numbers he can to make the case that he has the city’s students on the right track. He’ll also make his equity argument, spelling out opportunity and access, if not yet excellence.

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

Discussion of New York's 'Broken Bail System' Comes to Brooklyn


de Blasio Lippman

Mayor de Blasio testifies in front of Judge Lippman (photo: Demetrius Freeman, Mayor's Office)


New York's “broken bail system” puts an estimated 50,000 people behind city bars each year simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. These people are accused of low-level, non-violent offenses, many of whom wind up not even seeing trial or being convicted of a crime. But, they do not have the means to pay bail, part of system being questioned by many of late, including the state’s chief judge, elected officials at various levels, activists, and the experts who spoke on a panel Tuesday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The panel was titled, “Why New York? Our Broken Bail System.”

"Money bail fails to distinguish between those who are the most dangerous and those who are low risk,” said panel moderator Shaila Dewan, of the New York Times, “but it easily distinguishes between those who have money and those who don’t. New York State’s own chief judge has called this system ‘ass backwards.’”

Tuesday’s discussion occurred just days after Jonathan Lippman, the very New York State chief judge Dewan referened, announced a series of initiatives aimed at addressing what he called the “unsafe and unfair bail system,” including an automatic review of all misdemeanor cases in which the defendant cannot pay bail within ten days of arraignment, and new training for judges to encourage them to use some of the other types of bail that are already available, rather than predominantly using cash bail for defendants.

The purpose of bail is to ensure that defendants return for their court dates, but for various reasons, in New York bail has overwhelmingly become something that keeps poor people in jail as they await their trials.

Panelists in Brooklyn discussed the human, economic, and criminal impacts of the way the system is being run.

Kicking off the conversation, Dewan said, "The Supreme Court has said, ‘in our society liberty is the norm, and detention without trial is the carefully limited exception.’ It has become, unfortunately, in practice, the norm."

Dewan pointed out that there are several different bail options available, such as allowing defendants to pay ten percent of the bail to the court up front and sign a paper promising to pay the rest later, or simply releasing defendants pending trial.

One key issue criminal justice reform advocates have with the cash bail system is the fact that those who are held in pretrial detention tend to have worse outcomes to their cases. "They get longer sentences, they get less favorable plea deals, they’re more likely to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit," Dewan said, "and - perhaps most importantly - they are more likely to commit new crimes. So, we think we’re holding people in jail before trial to protect the public, but in fact we may be increasing the crime that’s out there."

Judge George Grasso, a panel member, said now is the perfect time to evaluate "the issues impacting the fairness of our criminal justice system. I think Judge Jonathan Lippman really hit the heart of this bail issue this past Thursday, I think he used the term ‘Alice in Wonderland’ - referring to the fact that we have a system that metes out punishment first."

"There are far too many people in jail who are really pretrial and who pose no threat to society," Judge Grasso continued. "Without waiting for state legislature to act, we can and we must make substantive changes to this system."

To that end, New York City officials recently announced new measures to assist nonviolent offenders stuck in the city's bail vice. In late June, the City Council approved Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito's proposal to set aside $1.4 million of the city's budget for a citywide bail fund to help pay bail for low-level defendants whose bail is set at $2,000 or less.

Though some taxpayers may rebuke the idea of their money being used to bail people out of jail, Mark-Viverito argues that the bail fund would actually save the city money, given the fact that it costs the city a little over $450 a day per inmate to keep people locked up. According to Mark-Viverito, a defendant who cannot afford bail stays in jail for an average of 24 days for nonviolent offenses, like jumping a turnstile or marijuana possession.

Similar initiatives, like the Bronx Freedom Fund and the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, have had excellent results.

Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, told the crowd gathered at the Brooklyn Historical Society, "In the past five months, the bail fund has paid for 133 clients, at a cost of about $110,000. Ninety-seven percent have made their court dates, even though they had no financial incentive to return. These are individuals who would have been jailed, perhaps for months, for the lack of a few hundred dollars. Out on bail, they’ve had significantly improved case dispositions. Fifty percent have had or will have dismissals. Not a single client has been sentenced to additional jail time. Clients who are out have not been coerced to plead guilty."

In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a separate $17.8 million initiative to reduce unnecessary jail time for those awaiting trial. The program aims to help roughly 3,000 low-risk defendants per year by substituting cash bail with a "supervised release" program, which would allow poor defendants to be released and supervised until their trial, rather than detained on Rikers Island.

Judge Grasso, speaking of his own involvement in the development of city-wide initiatives to reform the broken bail system, said, "We are in the process right now of expanding supervised release for indigent defendants tried with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. They will use a risk assessment instrument and focus on linking defendants with appropriate services, and a contact regime in lieu of cash bail, to release people on their own recognizance. That’s what we’re working on expanding right now through Mayor de Blasio’s task force - I happen to be a co-chair of the subcommittee that recommended that."

When asked why judges don’t use the many alternative forms of bail that are available more often, Judge Grasso’s answer made a solution to the problem sound shockingly simple, “Frankly we need more training in the court system. Not only do the judges need to be trained, but the court clerks who prepare the paperwork for the judges and the court need to be trained in that.”

“There’s about seven other types of bail,” Judge Grasso continued, “What we really need to do is embark upon top-to-bottom training, so the paperwork is available, clerks know what’s going on, and the judges are trained in how to use different types of bail for different types of situations. That’s something that Judge Lippman said this past Thursday that he’d make a top priority.”

As Dewan pointed out during the question and answer portion of the discussion, typically, judges set bail for two reasons: “one, so that person will return to court; two, to protect public safety in the meantime.” Yet “in New York State, the law says you can only consider their likelihood of returning to court; you can’t consider public safety?” Dewan asked.

“One of the problems in the state of New York is the fact that we’re not supposed to take public safety into consideration [when setting bail],” Judge Grasso said. “You can consider community contacts, you can consider the strength of the charges, but can’t consider public safety directly.”

As a result, wealthy, dangerous people may get out of jail to await their trial, while nonviolent, poor people must remain behind bars until their day in court. “It’s been a real serious problem in the State of New York,” Judge Grasso said. “Judge Lippman has been proposing legislation to change that, and so far it has stalled.”

Some criminal justice reform advocates want the city to entirely do away with money bail for low-level offenses, which officials in Washington D.C. did in the 1990s, opting instead for a system in which most defendants are either detained because they are considered a flight or safety risk, or let go without bail.

However, in New York, such an overhaul would need to be approved by state lawmakers in Albany, where legislation to change the bail system has gone nowhere time and again.

When asked by the Brooklyn Historical Society crowd what the obstacle to ending money bail in New York City is, criminal justice reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA Glenn Martin, who was previously incarcerated on Rikers Island, remarked, “the bail bondsmen have a very strong lobby, and they give money to our elected officials in New York State, which influences their decision making.”

Speaking to the larger issue of mass incarceration, public defender Josh Saunders told the crowd on Tuesday, “Let’s not forget that we are the world leader in incarceration - the United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Are there people who need to be incarcerated? Sure, but are we also all participating in this kind of diseased fiction that the way we solve problems is to put people in cages? I think we’re doing that too.”

With 50,000 people - the population of Hoboken, New Jersey - locked up annually on Rikers awaiting trial solely because they cannot afford bail, the human cost of putting those “people in cages” can easily be forgotten. Panel member Miguel Padilla spent over a week at Rikers because he did not have the $1,000 he needed to buy his freedom. While driving his intoxicated brother-in-law home from a family gathering, Padilla was pulled over for a broken tail light, then arrested for driving with a suspended license. Desperate to see his wife and three children again, Padilla said he pleaded guilty “just so I could come home.” As a result of his brief stint in Rikers, Padilla lost both of his jobs and gained a criminal record, which in turn left him struggling to find a new job for over a year.

"We should ask ourselves,” Judge Gasso said, “what is the primary purpose of our criminal justice system? Do we want a system that is based primarily on the concept of punishment, or primarily on the concept of justice?

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

The Week That Was in New York Politics, October 5-9


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday October 9

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio pitches his rezoning plans in East New York, via Chang W. Lee for the New York Times; charter school supporters rally in Brooklyn, via Eva Moskowitz; Gov. Cuomo and former VP Al Gore celebrate a climate change-prevention announcement, via the governor's office

BdB East NY Chang W Lee NYT

charter rally

Cuomo Gore climate change

 

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Cuomo On Climate Change: On Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with former Vice President Al Gore, announced four actions to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions across New York State. Cuomo signed the Under 2 Memorandum of Understanding, reaffirming his pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. By signing the ‘Under 2 MOU,’ Cuomo committed New York to the global effort to keep the earth’s average temperature from rising two degrees. The governor reiterated several measures that will make up New York’s efforts to do so, including an increase in the cultivation and use of solar power.

2. Charter School Politics: A large pro-charter school rally led by Families for Excellent Schools was held on Wednesday; bolstered mostly by Eva Moskowitz, who closed her Success Academy Charter Schools so that students, parents, and staff would attend. Moskowitz accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of going back on his word to find space for seven new elementary charter schools in time for them to open in August. Generally, charter supporters are upset with the mayor for being against the expansion of charter schools. Then, on Thursday, Moskowitz announced that she will not be running for mayor in 2017, despite speculation that, as one of Mayor de Blasio’s biggest critics, she was going to run.

3. New Info In Deadly Brooklyn Explosion: On Thursday, fire marshals eliminated natural gas as a possible cause of the explosion in Brooklyn last Saturday that destroyed a three-story building, killed two, and injured thirteen. Investigators are now looking into whether some type of accelerant or fuel was involved in the blast. FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said information from the investigation and “examination of the building gas meters, found that there was no natural gas flowing to the second-floor apartment (where the fire originated) since June 26.”

4. MTA Funding Feud Continues: Governor Cuomo again took issue with Mayor de Blasio over funding the MTA in a WNYC interview on Tuesday. Cuomo and the head of the MTA, the governor’s appointee, are demanding the city contribute about $3 billion more. De Blasio is apparently offering over $2 billion, a major increase from previous commitments, but is saying he wants assurances that Cuomo will not remove any money from the MTA budget as he has done repeatedly in the past. The sniping continues.

5. Staten Island Family Justice Center Finally Breaks Ground: After years of delays, Mayor de Blasio, First Lady Chirlane McCray, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, and others gathered on Monday for the groundbreaking of The Staten Island Family Justice Center, largely focused on domestic violence prevention and response. The center is the first of its kind on Staten Island, following the lead of every other borough in the city, each of which already has such a center dedicated to providing comprehensive civil legal, criminal justice, and social services free of charge to victims of domestic abuse, sex trafficking, and elderly abuse.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 1.5 million New Yorker City residents live in overcrowded (more than one occupant per room) or “severely overcrowded” (at least 1.5 occupants per room) situations, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer
  • 282,000 domestic violence incidents were filed by the NYPD in 2014 - roughly 800 per day.
  • $11.7 million in earmarks have been awarded to State Senator Jeff Klein over the last three years - more than triple the amount of any other senator.
  • 32% of the newest class of NYPD officers are Latino, the highest ever percentage ever. The new class of NYPD recruits hail from 36 countries, speak 22 languages, and are 20% women.
  • 68 is how old NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton turned this Tuesday. Commissioner Bratton has 45 years of policing under his belt as of this week.
  • $155 million will be spent by the city over the next year to fix up more than 35 parks in high-poverty areas.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time four years ago, on October 7, 2011, the NYPD busted a Queens-based identity theft and retail crime ring, arresting over 110 people - the largest identity theft ring in the history of the United States at the time, making an annual profit of over $13 million.
  • Around this time two years ago, on October 9, 2013, a 'Times Square Elmo' was sent to jail for a year for trying to extort $2 million from the Girl Scouts of the USA.
  • Around this time last year, on October 7, 2014, the family of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died after an officer put him in a chokehold while wrestling Garner to the ground in order to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes, filed a claim to sue the city over his death.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Progressive Critics Largely Convinced by Cuomo's Wage Push, by David Howard King

Buffalo Billion Boss Offers, Cancels Interview; Claims 'Threat of Jail', by David Howard King

City Council Takes Aggressive Role in Workplace Issues, by Samar Khurshid

A Better Way to Fund the MTA, by Assembly Member Dan Quart (opinion)

Klein's 'Newspaper' Touts His Ability to Bring Home the Bacon, by David Howard King

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

  • The New York Times' Liz Harris looks at the city's dual-language programs
  • WNYC's Beth Fertig reports from a "renewal school" in the Bronx
  • The Daily News' Harry Siegel writes about police-community relations in East New York

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

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

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

***
by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

City Council Takes Aggressive Role in Workplace Issues


Miller UFCW

Council Member Miller & union workers (photo: @IDaneekMiller)


A slate of recent bills introduced in the New York City Council have a lofty objective indicative of the progressive streak running through city government and raising eyebrows in the business community. Through legislation, the Council is addressing the city's widespread economic disparities by incrementally tackling workforce issues such as wages, workers rights, and access to employment.

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito both came to power, there has been one big picture aim: to address income and other forms of inequality. Headline-making moves such as an expansion of paid sick leave came within a few months. Less flashy yet crucial bills followed. In August 2014, the Council passed the mayor's proposal to supplement the wages of school bus drivers employed by private contractors.

De Blasio and Mark-Viverito have both been called anti-business, and there have been claims of overreach by the mayor and the Council. Business leaders are often loathe to see the hand of government reach further into industry.

In recent months, the Council's formidable progressive caucus has done just that, pushing bills that address large-scale and nitty gritty workplace issues, including others in specific industries. The Council recently heard a bill aimed at regulating personnel decision in the grocery industry.

Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, has been closely involved. He is currently working with the Freelancers Union to develop legislation that would protect freelancers, and by extension other workers in the on-demand "gig" economy, from wage theft. Modelled on similar protections provided by the state Department of Labor and the Attorney General, this "administrative solution with an enforcement option" would protect the likes of writers, graphic designers, Uber drivers, and Handy.com cleaners from being denied their wages and having to go to court to redress grievances.

"The economy is constantly evolving," Lander told Gotham Gazette. "Unfortunately it's doing so in the direction of inequality. And it's not only the Council but also the State which is fighting to level the playing field and lift up the floor in terms of wages for workers." (Governor Andrew Cuomo recently came out with a plan for an eventual $15 per hour minimum wage.)

At the city level, Lander called the Council's efforts a "thumb on the scale" to help workers have paying jobs. Of course, Lander expects this rebalancing of the relationship between employers and workers to be debated and contested. But he insists that the Council wants to be responsible in implementing changes rather than run roughshod over industry and business interests.

For instance, in April this year, the Council passed a bill co-sponsored by Lander that bans employers from discriminating in hiring decisions on the basis of credit checks. But the Council did make accommodations, Lander said, after consulting with business owners and advocates.

From a business perspective, however, the Council's efforts have uncomfortable connotations of government intervention in private enterprise.

Late last month, two bills were discussed at a hearing of the Council's Committee on Civil Rights but received little attention. The bills aim at prohibiting employment discrimination based on a person's status as a caregiver and at clarifying reasonable accommodations that businesses could make for applicants with disabilities.

At the hearing, President and CEO of Partnership for New York City Kathryn Wylde provided written testimony opposing the bills. She stated that the Council was proposing more mandates on employers, driven by special interest advocacy groups that argue based on anecdotal evidence that discrimination and mistreatment of employees and applicants is widespread.

"There is no data that justifies new and costly laws and regulations that make it even more difficult to create jobs and grow a business in New York City," Wylde wrote. She also asserted that the bills would drain resources from businesses and make the city less competitive, and that additional Council mandates would accelerate the loss of middle class jobs (she said the city lost 100,000 middle class jobs in the last five years).

Data consistently shows that inequality has only risen in the city over the last many years. A report last year by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York showed that there was a significant uptick in the concentration of wealth among the richest 20 percent of New Yorkers between 1990 and 2010. According to the study, the median income of the upper one percent of all household income earned in New York City jumped from $452,000 in 1990 to $717,000 in 2010 while the lower 20 percent of New York City households' earned median income rose from $13,000 in 1990 to $14,000 in 2010.

James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, approaches any analysis of labor markets from a historical perspective. He said changes in the labor market in recent years have been unproductive and harmful to workers and to the economy. So there is definitely a need for regulation, he believes.

Ideally, he said, regulation would be at the national level and enforced by federal compliance officials. But, with federal action being hampered by an inactive Congress, it has fallen to state and local governments. He called the Council's bent in addressing these issues "reasonable and appropriate."

"Businesses tend to oppose any regulation at all. But a lot of history and analysis shows us that informed regulation is good for businesses," Parrott said, insisting that it keeps the competition honest as well.

In particular, he referenced the Grocery Worker Retention Act (GWRA), introduced by Council Member I. Daneek Miller. Miller, a former labor union leader, is now chair of the Council's civil service and labor committee. The bill would require large grocery chains to at least temporarily retain the workforce when an ownership change occurs, and then handle any personnel moves on an individual basis after three months.

Parrott testified years ago when a similar bill (Local Law 39 from 2002) dealing with building service workers was passed. "I don't see how one could oppose doing that in concept," he said, referring to the opposition from industry representatives who argued feverishly against the GWRA at a hearing two weeks ago.

For Council Member Miller, a Queens Democrat, the bill is just another of many measures to remedy an economic imbalance created by three successive Bloomberg terms.
"To a certain degree, we have come through 12 years of an administration that for all intents and purposes undermined the value of workers," Miller told Gotham Gazette.

His bill mandates personnel practice and grants workers legal remedies against unfair termination. It would help both union and non-union workers, he says, and create transparency and protect employees in an industry with a history of exploitation.

"Organized or unorganized, in order for the middle class to thrive, we need for people to have a voice," Miller said. "Without that, we see the wage disparity and wage suppression that we've seen in the last decade or two."

As expected, industry officials criticized the proposed bill for what they see as an overreaching mandate and even questioned the legal implications of the Council's intervention. But Miller said these objections are not supported by certifiable data and that he is confident the bill will be voted out of the labor committee and brought to a full Council vote.

(On a related note, Miller also sponsored a resolution that was approved by the Council in June calling on the state legislature to extend labor protections to farm workers statewide.)

"My personal preference is that we can educate and we don't have to legislate," he said.

Most of the workforce measures have received wide support from Council members and the mayor. Some have even come from de Blasio or Mark-Viverito themselves.

Last year, de Blasio issued an executive order that expanded the city's living wage law to thousands of individuals. Mark-Viverito successfully sponsored a bill that passed in June this year requiring car wash businesses to operate under licenses and enforcing stronger safeguards for employees. Another employment bill goes into effect by the end of October: the Fair Chance Act prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants based on their arrest record or criminal convictions.

But wide support does not mean unanimous. There are concerns even within the Council about the scope of legislation. Council minority leader Steve Matteo, a Republican from Staten Island, shares his colleagues' interest in improving working conditions but worries about possible harmful unintended consequences.

Matteo said he is a "firm believer" in the free market's ability to self-correct and adapt whether in response to consumer demands for healthier food or safer products, or to compete for better employees with higher pay, more benefits, and a better work environment. "Over-reaching government mandates, on the other hand, as many economic studies have shown, can be financially devastating to small businesses and lead to job cuts and fewer new hires," he said.

On the other hand, some question how easily workers can adapt to the free market.

"Businesses have a better ability to shift their economic resources to adapt to changing economic conditions, more so than workers, especially low-income workers who lack access to education, child care, the basic necessities of life," said Christian Gonzalez-Rivera, research associate at the Center for an Urban Future, who believes that the balance of resources has tilted towards businesses.

Gonzalez-Rivera said more people than ever before are working low-wage jobs in the city; even those working full-time are not able to make ends meet and are being treated as if they are expendable.

Gonzalez-Rivera praised the City's increased support for worker cooperatives. The Council announced in its budget this year that it will invest an additional $2.1 million in its Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative and create 22 new worker cooperatives.

"Government does need to step in and provide protection," he said. It's a sentiment that Council Member Lander echoes: "Looking to give people a fair shot is part of our job," he said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

Klein's 'Newspaper' Touts His Ability to Bring Home the Bacon


klein riverdale record

Sen. Klein's "newspaper"


The latest edition of the "newspaper" being published by state Senator Jeff Klein features frontpage news celebrating his ability to bring cash home to his Bronx district.

"UFT, educators herald Klein's $1.5M support for community schools," reads one frontpage headline.

Another: "Community applauds Klein for securing $250K for Hudson River Greenway study."

The timing is interesting given that the latest edition of "Riverdale Record" - circulation 37,000 - hit mailboxes just as Klein and the large sums of funding he secured have come under scrutiny by the press and good government groups.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once railed against member items and pushed to abolish them but this year they returned with a vengeance, given Cuomo's approval, and Klein, an ally to both Cuomo and Senate Republicans, appears to be the biggest beneficiary by far.

The leader of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, Klein has been in a unique bargaining position over the last several years. Klein has brought home over $11.7 million in earmarks from the State and Municipal Projects Fund over the last three years, more than three times that of any other Senator, Politico New York reported on Monday. That funding is allocated through the Dormitory Authority to projects like building basketball courts, improving parks, and installing security systems in public places.

The funding Klein touts on his new front page do not appear to be from that allotment of cash, nevertheless it fuels Bronx-based critics who say Klein has been leveraging his largesse to combat or silence local media outlets. Those critics say Klein's "newspaper" is just another weapon that allows him to avoid scrutiny and damage the legitimate Bronx press.

klein paper

Klein's Democratic critics say his take home in pork projects is a reward from Senate Republicans for helping them keep their thin majority instead of enabling Democrats to seize the chamber.

Good government groups say the current member item system is ripe for corruption and political abuse. "It is stunning that the process of handing out legislative pork was restarted during the most disastrous session in history after the two most powerful Senators and the most powerful Assemblyman were toppled by corruption inquiries," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, referring to Tom Libous, Dean Skelos, and Sheldon Silver. "To restart the process now shows utter obtuseness to the corruption that is going on."

Klein broke from Senate Democrats in 2011 after Republicans won the majority, creating the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). Klein said the move was motivated by dysfunction in the mainstream Democratic caucus, but Democrats and advocates have since accused Klein of creating the party simply to increase his power and ability to bargain with Senate Republicans.

Klein did in fact partner with Senate Republicans to give them a majority in 2012 when Democrats won a numerical majority. The IDC has enjoyed increased staff funding and more legislative input. Even after Republicans won an outright majority, they have continued to try to keep Klein happy as an insurance policy against future Democratic victories.

Now critics have even more ammunition against Klein's motives as the cold hard numbers are available. To put Klein's State and Municipal Projects Fund awards in perspective you just have to look at what the most senior members of the Senate Republicans were awarded. Former Majority Leader Dean Skelos won $3.6 million, Sen. George Martins, $3.5 million, and former Sen. Tom Libous, nearly $3 million.

A spokesperson for Klein defended the member items to Politico New York, saying it "funds important government projects throughout New York State."

Many legislators argue member items are important because they allow politicians to deliver for the most worthy causes in their districts. The Bronx has traditionally been underserved by state government, but Klein is not the only representative of the area and according to the list of member items released by Senate Republicans, only Republicans and members of the IDC were able to deliver this type of funding for their districts.

Good government groups note that the process has been abused many times and has led to embezzlement and corruption. Some groups call for depoliticizing the process by giving members discretionary funding based on the population of their districts.

Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, said he believes if the state insists on giving out member items it should follow the model created by the New York City Council under Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

In 2014, the Council overhauled its member item process after a number of members were caught directing funds to projects that benefited them or their friends and family. The old process was also routinely criticized because it allowed the council speaker to punish and reward Council members. Now members bring home nearly equal funding to their districts, with some variance based on poverty levels.

[Related: In Battle with Local Bronx Media, Klein Starts Own 'Newspaper']

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

Buffalo Billion Boss Offers, Cancels Interview; Claims 'Threat of Jail'


Cuomo Kaloyeros Buffalo

Cuomo and Kaloyeros, both pointing (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


In response to a recent profile of him, Alain Kaloyeros, president of SUNY Polytechnic and the man Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose to administer his Buffalo Billion program, invited Gotham Gazette to meet him for a tour of the SUNY Poly campus. In doing so, Kaloyeros explained that he faces "the threat of jail" if he discusses the U.S. Attorney's investigation into the Buffalo redevelopment program, an investigation that is creating headaches for the governor and thrusting Kaloyeros into the spotlight.

After setting up a date and time for the tour, Kaloyeros' office abruptly canceled a few days later, without providing a reason.

A number of sources and other news outlets have confirmed that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office is investigating how contracts were awarded in the Buffalo Billion initiative, where concerns arose that some requests for proposals were tailored only to fit specific Cuomo campaign donors. Cuomo has denied that he or his staff have been subpoenaed and SUNY Polytechnic has denied Kaloyeros is the subject of any inquiry.

Kaloyeros contacted this reporter by Facebook messenger in response to an article published on September 29 that detailed how a number of officials and observers are concerned with a lack of checks and balances over Kaloyeros and the feeling that he operates with complete impunity and little regard to the fact that he is a public employee handling major sums of taxpayer money.

"Ooo...so you're the one who thinks I act like a teenager...cute," Kaloyeros wrote, referring to mention in the article of his predilection for Facebook posts of bathroom selfies and complaints about slow drivers accompanied by photos of traffic that he appears to take while driving.

After a back-and-forth Kaloyeros suggested that a tour and chat about oversight of the Buffalo Billion project might rectify his concerns with the article. When this reporter pointed out having reached out to SUNY Poly before publishing the article, Kaloyeros responded:

"The issue we have is confidentiality. We were instructed in no uncertain terms not to comment on the inquiry from down South with the threat of jail which is being interpreted as we are the target of an investigation. So that part we cannot comment on beyond what we were authorized to say publicly. The rest is not a problem."

Kaloyeros did not reply when asked if he had a particular issue with the article or thought an individual part of the investigation was being misrepresented in the press.

Gotham Gazette reached out to Kaloyeros via an official email address he provided and a spokesperson set up a meeting and tour for October 19.

In the days following, Kaloyeros continued to post to Facebook traffic photos with clear view of his dashboard and radar detector in the windshield along with complaints. This reporter tweeted one of those photos and Kaloyeros' complaint which apparently caught Kaloyeros' attention (even though he does not appear to be a public Twitter user).

"Since you seem so fascinated with my traffic posts and deem them newsworthy, here's one for you to post," Kaloyeros messaged this reporter over Facebook on Wednesday, October 7 at 11:39 a.m., with another photo included.

Later that day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo took a number of questions from the Albany press on the Buffalo Billion investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Cuomo was asked if he looked into the project after hearing reports of an investigation and he said he hadn't and wouldn't.

Cuomo appeared to waver when asked if he or his staff had been subpoenaed in the case. He denied that he had been, but declined to answer questions about his staff. "Well, you said, 'and staff.' I have not, but I don't want to get into commenting on a U.S. attorney's investigation," Cuomo said before repeatedly telling reporters to ask Bharara's office.

Later, Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi issued a statement saying, "Just to be clear, neither the Governor, nor his staff has been questioned or subpoenaed on the Buffalo Billion project. Going forward any questions should be referred to the U.S. Attorney."

Around that time this reporter responded to Kaloyeros' message that included a picture of traffic and asked who had warned him he could face jail if he spoke to the press.

Shortly after, Gotham Gazette received an email from Kaloyeros' spokesperson saying the tour and meeting set for the 19th had been canceled. Gotham Gazette reached out to both Kaloyeros and the spokesperson asking why, but neither responded. Kaloyeros appears to have now blocked this reporter on Facebook.

Bharara's office declined to comment on anything regarding the Buffalo Billion investigation when Gotham Gazette asked whether it had threatened Kaloyeros with jail if he spoke out on the investigation.

Jennifer Rodgers, a former prosecutor who served as deputy chief of Bharara's appeals unit, told Gotham Gazette that it was extremely unlikely that the U.S. Attorney's office would warn Kaloyeros not to speak to the press. Rodgers is now executive director of Columbia University's Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity.

"I don't know what was said in this particular case, but generally prosecutors don't tell witnesses or suspects what they should or shouldn't say to the press," Rodgers told Gotham Gazette. "Usually they have a lawyer who would advise them on those matters."

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

The Week That Was in New York Politics, Sept. 28-Oct. 2


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday October 2

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio does some road repaving on Staten Island, via the Mayor's Office; Gov. Cuomo checks out the beer at the Anheuser Busch brewery, via @NYGovCuomo; Public Advocate Tish James welcomes Ahmed Mohamed to City Hall, via @TishJames

de Blasio Staten Island repaving

Cuomo beer check

tish james ahmed

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. NYPD Use of Force: On Thursday, the NYPD announced a set of new guidelines and a tracking system to document officers' use of force. Officers will be required to detail every instance when force is employed, not only during arrests but brief detention-and-release incidents. The NYPD will also track use of force against officers. The announcement comes after City Council members have introduced legislation to require an "early warning system" be put in place to identify officers who use force inappropriately and on the same day as a new NYPD Inspector General report on use-of-force was released.

Read: Next Steps After Eye-Opener NYPD Inspector General Use-of-Force Report by Council Members Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander

2. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion Under Federal Investigation: Federal investigators are looking into how contracts were awarded in Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo economic development program. The Buffalo Billion program is intended to infuse $1 billion into the upstate economy and create 14,000 jobs, but has become the focus of a corruption investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has issued subpoenas to major entities involved.

Read: Alain Kaloyeros, Powerful Centerpiece of Buffalo Billion, Could Become Household Name

3. Chief Judge Takes On Bail: On Thursday, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced a series of initiatives aimed at addressing what he called the “unsafe and unfair bail system,” including automatic review of bail for misdemeanor cases.

4. Debate Over Rezoning of Brooklyn Schools: The Department of Education came under fire on Wednesday at a hearing on the rezoning of two Brooklyn schools. The DOE’s proposal is intended to ease overcrowding one school, but the proposal has sparked debate over race, school equity, school quality, and school desegregation and integration. The de Blasio administration has done little to explicitly address school segregation, but the rezoning at play in Brooklyn is at least somewhat inadvertently moving the issue.

5. Movement on MTA Funding: The de Blasio administration appears to be moving toward meeting more of the funding requests made by the MTA, a state agency, even as the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations continue to spar publicly about responsibility, funding levels, and other aspects of the issue.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • $1.8 billion is how much prosecutors are investigating Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials for diverting from the Hudson River rail tunnel. The funds were spent on state-owned roads instead.
  • 18% decrease in the number of incidents where New York police officers fired their weapons thus far in 2015 compared with the same period last year.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for Staten Island commuters, as the city's ongoing repaving efforts continued, with some help from Mayor de Blasio, under the supervision of Borough President James Oddo; and the official start of expanded Staten Island ferry service, by which the ferry will run every half-hour all the time.
  • It was a bad week for gun control advocates, in New York and elsewhere, whose frustration continues to grow amid news of another mass school shooting, this one in Oregon. Governor Cuomo has had especially harsh words for federal officials who refuse to act on gun regulations such as expanded background checks.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time last year, on September 30, 2014, Mayor de Blasio signed an executive order to expand New York City's living wage law to cover thousands of previously exempt workers and to raise the hourly wage itself for workers who do not receive benefits. The move was criticized by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Report Shows Need for Elementary After-School Expansion, by John Spina

Cuomo Takes Additional Executive Action on Criminal Justice, by David King

Alain Kaloyeros, Powerful Centerpiece of Buffalo Billion, Could Become Household Name, by David King

Absent from Cuomo's New Education Task Force: A Student, by Ben Max

Do New York Elected Officials Deserve A Raise? by Meg O’Connor

Will New York Be Last to 'Raise the Age'? by David King

Amid Federal Brinkmanship, New York City Officials Redouble Support for Planned Parenthood, by Meg O’Connor

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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

Amid Federal Brinksmanship, New York City Officials Redouble Support for Planned Parenthood


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NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray at a Planned Parenthood rally (photo: @Chirlane) 


In the face of federal debate and brinksmanship over funding for Planned Parenthood, many in New York City have doubled down on support for the women's health care organization.

In the past month, the city has seen the opening of a Planned Parenthood health center in Queens (expanding the organization's presence into all five boroughs), two large rallies during which numerous elected officials championed the importance of Planned Parenthood’s health care services, and one leading Assembly Democrat calling for the state to boost its financial support for the clinics if conservatives in Congress were to cut off the organization's federal funding.

“The attacks against Planned Parenthood, we all know, are attacks against women and, in particular, low-income women and women of color who rely on Planned Parenthood for vital services - medical services that are comprehensive,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said at a large rally in Manhattan Tuesday. The speaker and others rallied in support of Planned Parenthood, repeatedly attacking conservative Republicans for their efforts to defund the organization.

The city government’s strong support for Planned Parenthood, seen at Tuesday’s rally, which featured several elected officials, and in budget dollars that go toward supporting the organization, help cement New York City’s national reputation as a liberal capital.

On Wednesday, Congress avoided a government shutdown by passing a temporary spending bill that will keep federal agencies operating through December 11. The threat of a potential shutdown over funding of Planned Parenthood loomed for weeks, spurred by the release of secretly filmed videos this summer which showed Planned Parenthood officials casually discussing the preservation of fetal tissue for medical research.

The Center for Medical Progress, the anti-abortion group that filmed the videos, claims that they show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the illegal sale of aborted fetal tissue. The videos have prompted an ongoing investigation by Congress into Planned Parenthood’s practice of donating fetal tissue for medical research. A forensic analysis of the videos commissioned by Planned Parenthood found evidence of manipulation, "intentionally deceptive edits, missing footage, and inaccurately transcribed conversations," according to Politico, which obtained a copy of the report.

Four states - Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Utah - have ordered state agencies to cut off federal funding to local Planned Parenthood chapters, leading those branches to file lawsuits. According to the Associated Press, in court documents, the Utah branch said the governor's decision to cut off funding is based solely on unproven allegations that took place in other states, by other arms of the national group.

New York City government sends approximately $850,000 a year to the city’s central Planned Parenthood branch in the forms of various grants, namely for health care services and sex education, according to an official from PPNYC. The city also allocates capital awards to Planned Parenthood each year, which have ranged from $75,000 to $400,000.

Speaking about the services that Planned Parenthood provides for New York City residents, PPNYC CEO Joan Malin told Gotham Gazette, “Roughly 85 percent of our services are preventative care - birth control, cancer screenings, HIV testing, STI testing, annual exams - we do the full range of reproductive health care services for women and men.”

Malin explained that Planned Parenthood New York’s funding comes from a combination of “private donors, public funding from the city, state, and federal government,” and an endowment, “but for our patient services, we rely overwhelmingly on Medicaid and Title X family-planning grants, which allows us to provide services for anyone who needs our care regardless of their ability to pay. Out of a $44 million budget, $9 million is federal funding. If that were to go away we would be sorely challenged to continue to provide our services."

Mark-Viverito, joined on stage at Tuesday’s “Pink Out NYC” rally by fellow Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Brad Lander, said, "We are proud as Council members to ensure that we direct your taxpayer dollars and invest your taxpayer dollars in Planned Parenthood, to make sure that they are able to provide vital services throughout the City of New York. We expect the federal government to continue to do the same thing."

The rally on Tuesday in lower Manhattan was one of nearly 300 events held in 90 cities across the country in support of Planned Parenthood’s work, organized as negotiations continued in Washington, D.C.

"Congress should be ashamed!" New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray shouted to the crowd of some 500 pink-clad supporters, just hours before it was announced that government funding would be extended until mid-December. "Congress should be ashamed to punish women who have no other health care options. I know firsthand that Planned Parenthood provides excellent services!"

McCray continued, “Planned Parenthood provides services to "2.7 million women, men, and young people....Did you realize that? We need Planned Parenthood and we will not allow the funding to be taken away!"

McCray, Mark-Viverito, Rosenthal, and Lander were joined at the rally by Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and state Senators Daniel Squadron and Liz Krueger.

"Our bodies will not be used as an organizing strategy for the right," Public Advocate James shouted, eliciting cheers from the crowd. "This is nothing more than a distraction from the issues that we care about — a need to educate girls, a need to end income inequality, and a need to end poverty in this country."

James pointed out that the bulk of services Planned Parenthood provides have nothing to do with abortion, despite the national conversation being focused on the abortion issue. "Let me tell you the facts,” James said, “80 percent of Planned Parenthood clients receive services to prevent unintended pregnancies. Planned Parenthood provides nearly 400,000 pap smears, and 500,000 breast exams every year. These tests detect life-threatening cancers. Planned Parenthood provides nearly 4.5 million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and Planned Parenthood educates and provides outreach to 1.5 million young people."

On Thursday, Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues, emailed Gotham Gazette to call Planned Parenthood of New York City a long-time “staunch advocate, educator, and provider of reproductive health care to 50,000 patients annually.” PPNYC “has received funding from the New York City Council to expand services to support family planning, curb teen pregnancy and STDs through education.”

When asked what might happen next for Planned Parenthood, even with a temporary compromise in Washington, PPNYC CEO Malin replied, "This issue is going to remain in the public discussion, unfortunately. As all of our speakers said, there are so many issues that we need to be talking about - greater access to health care, immigrant reform, Black Lives Matter - there's so many issues we need to be talking about. Focusing on reproductive health care is important, but the way [opponents are] talking about it is a distraction. I would say that that distraction is going to continue throughout this election, and Republicans are going to look for ways to keep this issue at the forefront."

Not all Republicans are looking to keep the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood in the spotlight, however. Republican strategist and president of Somm Consulting, Evan Siegfried, told Gotham Gazette, “Until we know what the facts are, the calls to defund are premature.”

Congressional investigation is ongoing, and as analysis of the incendiary videos showed the footage had been drastically altered, Planned Parenthood Federation of America CEO Cecile Richards testified before Congress just this Tuesday. Richards defended the $450 million in federal funding that goes to Planned Parenthood, explaining that 87 percent of it comes from Medicaid and Title X family planning monies. “We, like other Medicaid providers, we are reimbursed directly for services provided,” she said.

“No federal funds pay for abortion services, except in the very limited circumstances allowed by law. These are when the woman has been raped, has been the victim of incest, or when her life is endangered,” Richards explained (abortions account for just three percent of Planned Parenthood’s services nationally, according to the organization’s most recent report).

Hard-line conservatives like Texas Senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz are committed to defunding Planned Parenthood to the point that they would rather plot to shut down the government than allow the organization to continue its work through federal funding.

Cruz recently decried the state of his divided party, saying that the more socially liberal Republicans, specifically the “New York billionaire” donors who insist candidates are pro-choice, hate the base and hold the party back from really fighting on key social issues. It’s part of the intra-Republican conflict that led to House Speaker John Boehner’s recent resignation announcement.

Speaking anonymously with Gotham Gazette, New York Republicans have indeed expressed frustration with the far right wing of their party, with one saying it is “on a crazy quest that will kill [Republicans] with the swing voters in 2016.”

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

Will New York Be Last to 'Raise the Age'?


Cuomo inmates raise the age

Gov. Cuomo meets with young inmates (photo: Governor's Office)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo is fond of calling New York a "progressive leader," declaring the state trailblazing on issues that matter, like marriage equality and gun control. It is a tenet of the governor's new push for an eventual $15-per-hour minimum wage.

However, New York lags so far behind other states on one criminal justice issue that it could soon be the only state in the nation to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults - a practice that advocates and criminal justice experts say does irreversible damage to youth who are merely charged with a crime, much less convicted.

In declaring October "National Youth Justice Awareness Month" earlier this week, President Barack Obama pointed to the fact that just two states prosecute all 16-year-olds as adults regardless of their crime, and said, "Involvement in the justice system -- even as a minor, and even if it does not result in a finding of guilt, delinquency, or conviction -- can significantly impede a person's ability to pursue a higher education, obtain a loan, find employment, or secure quality housing." A total of nine states prosecute all 17-year-olds as adults, the president wrote.

Raising the age of adult criminal responsibility has been something Gov. Cuomo has been pushing, but unless the governor can soon cut a deal with the state Legislature, especially Senate Republicans, he and his Democratic allies will find themselves watching North Carolina become the 49th state to move to at least 17 as the adult age of criminality. There appears to be bipartisan agreement among North Carolina legislators on a plan to stop the practice of trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in their state.

Bipartisan agreement on criminal justice issues has been particularly elusive in the New York state Legislature, despite Cuomo's attention on raising the age and other related matters.

After including funding for "Raise the Age" in his most recent budget, Cuomo was unable to reach a deal with the Legislature. Then, Cuomo made raising the age a major priority during the waning days of this year's legislative session, even visiting an upstate correctional facility to speak to young inmates about life behind bars. Yet, Senate Republicans balked at Cuomo's plan to redirect most 16- and 17-year old offenders to family courts, while some Democrats worried his plan wouldn't actually improve how teens are treated by the justice system. Cuomo's original push stemmed from reports about abuses at Rikers Island jails.

With session over, Cuomo announced he would take "executive action" to at least remove 16- and 17 year-olds from a situation he had described as "intolerable."

"We did not reach an agreement on something called "Raise the Age," which is a proposal that I had made in the State of the State. The executive will on its own raise the age of people in state prison," Cuomo said in June. "Right now 16- and 17-year olds are going to state prisons and that, I believe, is an intolerable situation. So by executive action we will take 16- and 17-year olds out of state prisons and put them in separate facilities which will be designed and managed by the Department of Corrections and OCFS."

Advocates were initially pleased by the move until it became clear the administration had no concrete plan on where to house the 16- and 17-year-olds it promised to remove from adult prisons. They were further disappointed when it became clear the administration would have no say over county jails and therefore the number of youths separated from adult populations would be relatively small - all taken from state-run facilities.

With the year coming to a close the administration appears to be admitting they have hit a wall.

"We are in the process of engaging with a few agencies, the relevant agencies, to determine how we can do that," Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David, said during an interview on Capitol Tonight earlier this month when asked about the process of relocating 16- and 17-year-olds. "There are operational issues that you can anticipate that we have to address. We're hoping to do that in the near future."

A Cuomo administration official acknowledged to Gotham Gazette that they are aware of the legislation advancing in North Carolina and that they hope to work on the challenges faced in finding alternative housing for the teens currently serving time while negotiating a broader bill with the Legislature. "We are hopeful that the Legislature will take another look at this," said the official.

Paige Pierce, executive director of Families Together New York, told Gotham Gazette that regardless of the fate of the governor's "executive action," the bigger issue remains how being processed as an adult can permanently damage the futures of thousands of young New Yorkers, whether they are found guilty or not.

"The larger issue is that every 16- or 17-year-old arrested is treated as an adult and therefore lacking access to support from family services, their parents don't have to be notified, and their records aren't sealed," Pierce told Gotham Gazette.

Members of the "Raise the Age-New York" campaign point out that youth in adult prisons face high rates of sexual assault and are much more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities. "New York has failed to recognize what research and science have confirmed: adolescents are children, and prosecuting and placing them in the adult criminal justice system doesn't work for them and doesn't work for public safety," the campaign emailed.

Advocates say that there was some hope at the end of last year as a few Senate Republicans were involved in discussions with Assembly Democrats on a compromise. That last-minute compromise may have died, but it gave indication that there may be room for negotiation when the clock is not ticking. It's unclear what kind of pressure moves by President Obama and North Carolina might exert on the governor and other New York lawmakers.

In his September 30 proclamation, Obama writes that trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults "continues despite studies showing that youth prosecuted in adult courts are more likely to commit future crimes than similarly situated youth who are prosecuted for the same offenses in the juvenile system." He also points out that it is not cost effective to hold so many young people in state facilities.

Republican Sen. Patrick Gallivan, former sheriff of Erie County, told Gotham Gazette earlier this year that he is interested in discussing increasing alternative sentencing and other diversions for teen offenders. "We need to continue this discussion," he said. "Youth courts and other alternatives should be looked at as models."

How much influence Gallivan might have with his conference on the issue is unknown. However, both he and Cuomo have said that an agreement was in reach last session but was snuffed out by time constraints.

That isn't necessarily good news for the issue in the coming session. Advocates are quick to point out that 2016 is an election year and while the issue might be good for most Democrats, being seen as tough on crime is never bad for electeds, especially Senate Republicans who will be looking to defend and grow their majority.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Do New York Elected Officials Deserve A Raise?


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Mayor de Blasio along the parade route (photo: @BilldeBlasio)


What should the mayor of New York City be paid each year? How much should City Council members be paid? Do elected officials deserve incremental raises each year?

Or, maybe elected officials are overpaid as it is?

Some, like New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, think higher government salaries would entice “better” people into public service, meaning smarter and more honest officials.

A host of questions have popped up in New York of late as controversy swirls over corruption in Albany and the pay of state legislators - with some, like Schneiderman, calling for pay increases in order to help prevent corruption. Meanwhile, in New York City, these questions are again relevant as Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a move required by law, has called a pay commission to evaluate city elected officials’ salaries.

“Lawmakers need to come up with adequate compensation where you don’t detract people from running for office because salaries are too low, but on the flip side, not too high that the taxpayers who pay those salaries are incensed,” Blair Horner, Legislative Director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, told Gotham Gazette.

De Blasio appears to have called the commission reluctantly, as it is always tough public relations for politicians to move toward giving themselves and their colleagues raises. In the announcement of the three-person panel, de Blasio’s only statement is to praise the commissioners. The mayor currently makes $225,000 per year.

Pay dynamics at the city and state levels are very different in New York, though members of the state Legislature and City Council are all considered part-time and able to earn outside income. There are no term-limits at the state level, while there are in New York City. The mayor is required to call a compensation commission, yet the state is only just moving to such a framework in 2016. Thus, city officials last received a pay raise in 2006, while state officials haven’t seen one in over 15 years.

Pay is higher in New York City than at the state level (the governor makes $179,000 annually), though the cost of living is, of course, higher in the city than any other place in the state. This discrepancy doesn’t help state legislators who live in the five boroughs, of course, which is part of the reason we often see state Assembly members seek City Council seats (and earn money from a second job). Members of the state legislature currently earn $79,500 per year, while a City Council member earns $112,500 annually.

As always, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many New Yorkers calling for increasing the salaries of elected politicians. With wages stagnant or too low to get by on for so many, elected officials are also reluctant to pursue pay increases, as exemplified by de Blasio’s delay in calling the pay commission he recently assembled and the mayor’s pledge to not accept any recommended increase until his second term, if he is re-elected.

Not long ago, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, took $1 a year to run the city for twelve years. Bloomberg was also reluctant to call a pay commission, which he did leading to the 2006 raises, but refused to do again while in office.

Where do the wages of New York electeds stand now, how do city salaries stack up to those of officials elsewhere, and where may they be heading?

New York City Analysis & Background
The salaries of the mayor, Council members, district attorneys, and other elected officials have not been changed since 2006. Since the cost of living in the city has increased by about 18 percent since then, the commission is all but certain to recommend increases.

One of the factors the commission will take into consideration is what similar positions in the private sector pay. By that standard, many elected officials may be considered underpaid – for example, the average salary for first-year associates at private law firms in New York City is $160,000, while New York City’s five district attorneys each make $190,000.

Elected officials can reject salary increases, and the acceptance or rejection of the commission’s recommendations typically takes into account the state of the city’s economy and budget at the time. While the city’s revenues are quite strong and the budget has been growing rapidly, Mayor de Blasio and many other elected officials have decried income inequality and may be reluctant to exacerbate differences between their salaries and the earnings of lower-income constituents.

In 1991, as reported by The New York Times, both Mayor David Dinkins and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. agreed that elected officials should not receive pay increases due to the city’s budget crisis.

In 1995, everyone except Public Advocate Mark Green accepted the raises that were approved by the Council and the mayor. Green said that he could not “in good conscience accept a large salary increase” at a time when he was being forced to fire members of his staff and cut services for those in need.

Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire from his private sector success, accepted just $1 a year during his time as mayor of New York City, 2002-2013. De Blasio is of much more modest means than Bloomberg, and has two children in college and two mortgages. According to The New York Post, when asked whether Mayor de Blasio believes raises are justified, a spokesperson said he would “decline” accepting any pay hike “for the duration” of his current term.

Other Cities
At $225,000 a year, the mayor’s salary is more than four times greater than median household income in New York City, which is $52,259.

According to the City of Los Angeles salary database, the title of highest-paid mayor in the country belongs to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, who makes $239,993 annually. Although Mayor Garcetti makes roughly $15,000 more per year than Mayor de Blasio, he is responsible for approximately 4.6 million fewer people. (2014 Census estimates put the population of New York City at 8.5 million, and Los Angeles at 3.9 million.)

In New York, City Council members currently make $112,500, plus stipends, with salaries part of the regular commission review. In Chicago, council members – called aldermen – make approximately $115,000 annually, and their salaries have been pegged to changes to the cost of living for the past eight years. Since aldermen can reject taking a salary increase (or decrease, should the cost of living go down), there is an $11,000 difference between the highest and lowest salaries of Chicago’s 50 aldermen. (Though they are paid similarly, each of those 50 aldermen are responsible for far fewer constituents than New York’s 51 City Council members, given population differences.)

In Los Angeles, the salary for Council members is higher – at $184,610, Council members make a little over four times the $49,497 median household income in LA. However, members of LA’s City Council are not allowed to earn income from outside jobs, nor do they receive stipends.

On the state level, meanwhile, at $79,500 New York state lawmakers have the third-highest salaries in the country compared to their peers. Lawmakers in California earn the most with a salary of $90,526 annually, while Pennsylvania’s legislators make $84,012 per year. Still, state legislators, especially many from New York City, are seeking an increase as the cost of living increases.

De Blasio’s Commission
Albeit a bit late, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently followed the law and appointed an advisory commission to review the compensation levels of elected officials, including mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, City Council members, and district attorneys. The three-person commission will recommend changes to those compensation levels, if warranted, in November.

The salaries of elected officials in New York City have not been reviewed since 2006; former Mayor Mike Bloomberg declined to appoint a commission in 2011. The appointment of an advisory commission in 2006 was itself the result of postponement, since a commission was supposed to be appointed in 2003, but Bloomberg opted to delay appointing a commission since the city was already facing budget cuts.

The 2006 commission’s recommendations resulted in a salary increase of 25 percent for Council members, bumping their compensation levels from $90,000 to $112,500, and increased the mayor’s salary by 15.4 percent, from $195,000 to $225,000.

New York City law requires the salaries of elected officials to be reviewed every four years by a trio of private citizens who are generally recognized for their knowledge of management and compensation. This year, the commission includes Fritz Schwarz, Jr., the Chief Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, who will chair the Commission; Jill Bright, Chief Administrative Officer at Condé Nast; and Paul Quintero, Chief Executive Office at ACCION EAST, Inc., a nonprofit that works to empower low- to moderate-income business owners with access to capital and financial education.

According to §3-601 of the New York City code, in making its recommendations, the commission will take into consideration: “the duties and responsibilities of each position; the current salary of the position and the length of time since the last change; any change in the cost of living; compression of salary levels for other officers and employees of the city; and salaries and salary trends for positions with analogous duties and responsibilities both within government and in the private sector.”

Requiring regular commissions and placing the responsibility for recommending salary increases on private citizens are means to quell discontent around the inherently contentious issue of raising the pay of elected officials. Ultimately, the mayor may accept, reject, or amend the findings of the commission, and the City Council votes on any new salaries to approve them into law.

State Level Compensation and Corruption
In April, the state Assembly included the creation of a commission on legislative, judicial, and executive compensation in a budget bill. It calls for a commission to review the compensation levels of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches to be established every four years. The first, though, will be convened in 2016, and pay raise recommendations could be passed that would go into effect for the new class of legislators come 2017.

The commission will consist of seven members: three appointed by the governor; one appointed by the Senate majority leader; one appointed by the speaker of the Assembly; and two appointed by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals.

Previously, a special commission on compensation had to be empanelled when agreed upon.

However, given the overwhelming unpopularity of any mention of potentially increasing the salaries of government officials, especially given the consistent parade of corruption cases coming out of Albany, their salaries often go unchanged for long periods of time. New York state-level officials have not had their salaries increased since 1999 – a duration that would be uncommon in the private sector and in many public-sector jobs.

A 2014 Quinnipiac University poll found that a vast majority of New York State voters (82 percent) oppose a pay raise for state legislators. Yet, many experts agree a review of the compensation levels of elected officials is much needed, not only because good compensation levels are necessary to attract skilled people to the positions, but also because it may help deter corruption.

“Compensation, of course, affects the recruitment pool,” said Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science and director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz. “You want to attract and retain people of ability, and honest people, therefore the whole compensation question is linked to the corruption question. ‘Why are you stealing from your campaign fund?’ ‘Well, I’m not paid enough.’ If we want to have greater probity we also have to consider greater compensation.”

Former state Assemblymember William Scarborough, a Democrat from Queens, was recently sentenced to thirteen months in prison for submitting at least $40,000 in fraudulent state travel vouchers for days he had not actually traveled to Albany. In a statement, Scarborough, who was first elected in 1994, apologized for his actions, blamed “severe financial problems,” and pointed out that state legislators had not received a raise in sixteen years.

Members of the Senate and Assembly currently make a base government salary of $79,500 per year. (The positions are considered part-time, though, and many legislators make outside income.) The governor of New York makes $179,000, the attorney general and the comptroller each make $151,500.

In January, then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who has been in office for several decades, was charged with five counts of fraud and corruption. Federal investigators allege Silver exploited his position to rake in millions in bribes and kickbacks. And in May, then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican from Long Island, was indicted on charges of wire fraud, extortion, conspiracy, and bribe solicitation. Both face trial beginning in November.

Aside from major, and even minor, corruption scandals, there is a perpetual flow of questions about campaign donations, pay-to-play dynamics, and legislators earning outside income and how their non-governmental work may affect their work for the state.

These ongoing questions and the recent spate of corruption in Albany prompted Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to propose a sweeping ethics reform bill, the End New York Corruption Now Act, which seeks to drastically lower and restrict campaign contribution limits, end outside employment income for legislators, expand terms to four years, and increase legislators’ salaries to $174,000 annually.

Yet the final legislative package at the end of the 2015 session came and went without including any of Schneiderman’s reforms.

Some good government organizations, like the New York Public Interest Research Group, don’t agree with all of Schneiderman’s propositions. Horner told Gotham Gazette, “We have not endorsed the Attorney General’s proposal that state legislators should get the same pay as city lawmakers. Our view is, there’s a process. Their salaries should be determined by independent people using basic objective measurements as much as possible, making independent determinations on what is an adequate compensation level for elected officials.”

City v State
Two major differences between New York City law and state law are that in New York City, both the mayor and the City Council need to approve the recommendations made by the compensation commission in order for any raises to go into effect. This means that the Council and the mayor are effectively voting to increase their own salaries, since the raises can be retroactive to the date of recommendations. Mayor de Blasio, however, has promised not to take a salary increase until the start of his second term, if he is re-elected to one.

Whereas in the state, the pay commission’s recommendations for legislative pay raises will automatically become law and go into effect for the next class of lawmakers, on January 1, 2017, unless the Legislature specifically votes against the increases. The commission’s recommendations are due November 15, 2016. To be sure, many of the same officials will be in office in January of 2017 as are in office now, but it is still a difference.

While city officials are not supposed to have control of the regular establishment of a compensation commission, they are able to vote in retroactive salary increases, an ability that has raised eyebrows. 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.”

Lulus
The compensation levels of New York City Council members in particular has been hotly debated, since Council members can earn an additional $5,000 to $25,000 a year in stipends, or “lulus,” for leadership positions, including heading committees and subcommittees. What’s more, Council members are the only elected city officials among those included in the commission review that are considered part-time and allowed to earn outside income from another job.

The Speaker of the Council controls the amount and distribution of lulus, which can result in lulus being used to “reward allies and enforce discipline,” as former Council Member Walter McCaffrey stated before the 2006 Quadrennial Commission.

In its report, the 2006 Commission 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.

“There's no question that lulus should be done away with. Lulus are a terrible idea.,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, told Gotham Gazette. “People should be paid an appropriate base salary, and there should not be increases or stipends or special favors given out at the discretion of the speaker. It's a politicized situation and it has all too frequently been used in the past as a way of punishment and reward. It has another negative aspect, which is the creation of committees unnecessarily. It interferes with the well thought out committee structure. We see that in a much worse way in Albany.”

According to The New York Times, the 2006 advisory commission found that “Outside of New York, almost no other city council or state legislature distributes such stipends.” Even in Congress, every representative earns the same pay regardless of responsibility or seniority.

In 2014, $376,000 in stipends was doled out to Council members. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito received $25,000, while Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer was awarded $20,000 (though he turned it down).

Ten council members were offered $15,000 apiece and thirty-four others $8,000 each. Eleven council members have refused to accept the money this year (including Van Bramer), according to the Daily News editorial board, which continues its own ongoing crusade against the lulus.

Upon Mayor de Blasio’s recent announcement of a new compensation commission, Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, told The New York Post that he supports elected officials getting raises since “eight years is a long time to go without one,” but pointed out that “the real question isn’t whether they get raises, it’s the size of the raises and whether the commission will look at limiting [elected officials’] outside income and banning ‘lulus.’”

The controversy surrounding stipends for elected officials in New York is not specific to the city, as Horner told Gotham Gazette: “At state level, there are a lot of stipends being divied out, many for positions for which there's not obvious work being done. The stipends are increasingly being used as a way to reward loyalty and seniority and are less about the workload. We don’t object to a stipend being offered if somebody has to do real additional work, but we think there should be a limit on it.”

Professor Benjamin told Gotham Gazette, “Regarding additional compensation, lulus in Albany, I think that this process grew up to compensate leaders in part to make salary adjustments. So, in a small body like the Senate you can give every committee chair something more. In the Assembly, you can reward a lot of people, but not all people. There should be some increment of compensation for leadership positions, but I prefer to have salary equity and less in the way of special payments, with periodic salary adjustments, which would be fair and better.”

Next Steps
Blair Horner, of NYPIRG, told Gotham Gazette that pegging salaries to cost-of-living changes could “unnecessarily exacerbate public citizens. They don’t get to choose if their salaries go up and down. And if what they see in their lives is that their salaries are stagnant but elected officials are going up, they’re going to resent that. It's hard to do that because it's a politically charged topic. If you’re going to make changes, it needs to be done in a delicate matter. One way to do that is to maximize independence of who makes the call and focus on publicly defensible metrics.”

Professor Benjamin, who is also currently part of a compensation commission in Ulster County, expressed a similar point of view: “I think having a commission is a good idea.” Benjamin believes, though, that it is important that “sometimes the commission says ‘we won’t increase the pay.’ In my current commission in Ulster County, because the positions are part-time, I advocated for the legislature giving up its health insurance coverage for a significant salary increase. And the effect of that was to link the consideration to the total compensation package.”

“Simple constitutionality requires that policy-makers make the decision about things that government spends, and one of the things that government spends is on their salaries,” Benjamin added.

This year’s New York City advisory commission will report back with its recommendations in November. While it’s clear that the compensation levels of elected officials need to be reviewed from time to time, the announcement of a review commission is generally seen as unfavorable – in this case prompting the New York Post to print a headline declaring, “Bill de Blasio moves to give himself a raise.”

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOconnor13
@GothamGazette



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