Gotham Gazette

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Stated Meeting: Cell Phones, Yes, Markers, No

In muted gesture of defiance of the Bloomberg administration, the City Council last week approved legislation guaranteeing a student's right to take a cell phone to and from school, despite a Department of Education ban on the devices inside school property.

The legislation, however, does not address what occurs inside schools. And despite its overwhelming approval, many question whether the bill will have any effect on the department's policy.

At its stated meeting on July 25, the council also targeted graffiti by restricting the possession of certain markers, etching acid and spray paint and approved several bills that continue the effort to modernize the city's building codes.

A Call for Safety

The overwhelming approval of the cell phone bill (Intro 351) comes after more than a year of hearings and complaints from parents about cell phone confiscations. Under current policy, if a student is found with a cell phone, school officials will take it and return it only to a parent or guardian.

It remains unclear whether the legislation, sponsored by 39 members and spearheaded by Councilmember Lewis Fidler, would change that. The bill may guarantee students' rights to carry a cell phone while en route to school, which they can already do under the current law.

The cell phone frenzy was ignited not when the ban was initially approved, but when the department began enforcing the long-standing rule in 2006. In light of a new security initiative, the city started conducting random screenings at middle and high schools. While searching for weapons, they found the most popular contraband was none other than a cell phone.

School officials contend that cell phones in classrooms can be used to cheat on tests and otherwise serve as a distraction. Following the council vote, the Department of Education released the following statement: "Our policy prohibiting cell phones in schools has not changed. Whether used for talking, messaging, surfing the Web, or taking photos, cell phones inevitably disrupt a school's learning environment."

The legislation is likely to set up a confrontation between the mayor and the council, because Bloomberg is a staunch supporter of the cell phone ban and plans to veto the legislation. That could bring about the sixth veto override in Council Speaker Christine Quinn's tenure.

"The City Council does not have the authority to even pass the law that would change how we do things in the schools," Bloomberg told The Post. "So this doesn't really change anything."

The Bloomberg administration and the City Council have clashed repeatedly over oversight and power sharing in the city's school system since the mayor took over in 2002.

The legislation was approved by a vote of 46 to 2 with council members G. Oliver Koppell and James Sanders dissenting. In supporting the bill, Councilmember Peter Vallone said, "It is not an education issue. It is a public safety issue."

The department's cell phone policy recently landed in court when a group of parents also claimed the prohibition of cell phones in schools was a public safety concern. The state Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the ban. The parents are reportedly appealing the decision.

Vallone said the council's action could bolster the parents’ position in court because it states that any person prevented from carrying a cell phone to and from school "shall be entitled to seek equitable relief in any court of competent jurisdiction."

As for compliance, Quinn said the issue now rests with the Department of Education. "Yes, they can say no cell phones in the classroom. They can say cell phones shouldn't be on in the classroom," Quinn said. "This bill puts an onus on the Department of Education to make sure that children can have cell phones coming to and from school."

The legislation's approval also comes as the Department of Education prepares to launch a pilot program that would install lockers outside of about 16 schools in the city specifically for storage of cell phones.

Can I See Your ID?

In an effort to suppress graffiti, the council also passed a bill (Intro 576) prohibiting the sale of etching acid (or hydrogen fluoride), broad tipped indelible markers or cans of spray paint to people under 21 years old.

Similar legislation was approved in 2005, but several artists, who contended it violated their first amendment and equal protection rights, successfully challenged it in court.

To try to address the court's concerns, the new legislation, which was sponsored by Vallone and passed by a vote of 46 to 1 with council members Alan Gerson dissenting and Melissa Mark Viverito abstaining, includes several exemptions. People can possess the substances if the tools are used for educational or professional purposes, if they are locked in a sealed container or if the individual has consent from the property owner where the substance is possessed or used.

Building a Better Building's Department

As part of the continuous modernization of the convoluted and confusing code of the city's Department of Buildings, the council approved several bills that create better administrative oversight and include broader safety measures for construction in the city.

The bills, all of which were approved 48 to 0, require general contractors for one, two and three-family homes to register with the department, impose civil and criminal penalties for the illegal conversion of manufacturing buildings to residential use and implement a staggered timetable for building façade inspections.

Currently, according to the bill's (Intro 33) sponsor, James Oddo, the city does not regulate or calculate the amount of single, two or three family homes being constructed in the five boroughs. Under this legislation, contractors would be required to submit information to the buildings department, including their chief officers as well as proof of insurance.

The department will electronically publish the information and include suspensions or revoked registrations that the contractor has incurred, thus warning individuals of contractors who habitually violate the city's construction code.

The illegal conversion of warehouses to lofts is common in areas of the city, like Williamsburg.

The death of firefighter Daniel Pujdak, who fell from an illegally converted warehouse during a fire in Brooklyn last month, focused the city's attention on the hazardous conditions of these conversions. In addition to safety concerns, the conversion of certain buildings to residential use depletes the availability of industrial space, which eventually drives up costs for the manufacturing sector, council members contend.

"We are facing terrible times in the arena of industry, where there was industrial and manufacturing space at one time is no longer the case," said Councilmember Diana Reyna, the bill's main sponsor. "To replace all of the square footage we have lost, it would cost $100 million."

Under the legislation (Intro 34), an individual who illegally converts such a space could be subject to a year in prison and up to $5,000 for the first offense. For subsequent offenses within 18 months, an individual could pay up to $20,000 per conversion.

The council also approved legislation (Intro 550) introduced by Councilmember Daniel Garodnick, which staggers the time of inspections for building facades six stories tall or higher. The mandatory inspections currently are conducted in mass once every five years. Staggering the inspections, would allow engineers and architects to better manage the workload.

Zoning for Preservation

The council also approved rezoning in several neighborhoods, specifically 99 blocks in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, 159 blocks in Dyker Heights and Fort Hamilton also in Brooklyn and 64 full blocks and 70 partial in the Bronx neighborhoods of Wakefield and Eastchester. The zoning, which passed by a vote of 48 to 0, attempts to preserve the character of these neighborhoods and protect against overdevelopment.

Bloomberg commended the rezoning approvals for keeping within the sustainability goals of PlaNYC. "Specifically, these plans will catalyze growth on key corridors near transit hubs, fostering nearly 900 units of new housing and strengthening local retail activity," the mayor said in a statement. "At the same time, they protect the scale and character of these lower density neighborhoods."

In response to the mega-development Atlantic Yards, part of the rezoning addresses preserving the commercial corridors of Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street, but also keeps nearby areas of low-rise and historic residential rowhouses intact. The rezoning, according to Councilmember Letitia James, will ensure historic residential properties do not immediately abut gargantuan developments.

Historic Crown Heights

The council also approved a historic district for the North Crown Heights area of Brooklyn by a vote of 48 to 0.The blocks feature Neo-Grec-style homes and Romanesque Revival residences. The designation will help preserve the architectural style of the residences dating back to the 1860s.


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