Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Open Government

Prayer or Violation? The City Council's Invocation

All eyes focused on the Rev. Joseph Tolton as he stood at the head of the City Council chamber and took over the microphone on a recent Wednesday just before the council passed a series of bills beefing up oversight of city construction.

"We pray God that wisdom will guide these women and men as they convene to legislate what will optimize the resources of this great city," said Tolton. "We pray God that mercy will guide these women and men as they convene to legislative in the interest of creating laws that are just and equitable."

After another two minutes of similar pleas, the reverend said: "And those who agree, say 'Amen.'"

Mere moments later that response reverberated across the chamber; It appeared that most members answered in the affirmative. Councilmember Vincent Ignizio made the sign of the cross as he took his seat.

Tolton was leading the City Council in a routine tradition: the invocation or prayer that precedes every official meeting of the body. Similar to the rituals of Congress and many other legislative bodies across the nation, stated meetings of the New York City Council open with a prayer, usually presented by a different religious leader every meeting.

Recently, an overwhelming percentage of those leaders have been of Jewish or Christian faith.

Rarely questioned, the invocation is just one example of how non-secular influences can trickle into the City Council’s policies, procedures and rituals. Some say this particular practice should be banned, while others argue it inspires members to respect one another, but without offering an endorsement of any particular denomination.

Separation or Not?

From Washington to Albany to City Hall, interpreting the separation of church and state can be tricky. Should the city fund faith-based groups? Should the council have an opening prayer before its meeting?

All of this has sparked a fluctuating debate across the city.

It’s really all about interpretation –- one that can be extremely ambiguous and ambivalent no matter how many decades it’s discussed, according to Douglas Muzzio, professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College.

Even after the country adopted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (the foundation of the separation of church and state which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”), our early political leaders continued to OK state sanctioned religion. At one point, Muzzio said, there were religious qualifications for office.

Obviously, these policies were discarded long ago. But, Muzzio added, the council’s funding of religious groups and its own invocation prior to meetings can fall in this tricky category.

For the most part, the city has accepted certain restrictions to deal with this. A Supreme Court decision from 1983 affirmed the right for legislative bodies to host prayers before they conduct business, but more recent court opinions require these prayers be non-sectarian. The use of Jesus, under a recent decision, would violate the First Amendment.

To address this, pastors who have performed invocations at the council said they are urged to be general and to refrain from specific religious references.

Elsewhere, the city has established guidelines for the funding of non-secular groups. Funding cannot go to any missionary or conversion work but only community-based services.

Even with these guidelines, sensitivity remains.

A Legislative Prayer

According to a City Council spokesperson, the council has not received any complaints on its invocation practice. They offer all council members an opportunity to bring in a religious leader from their districts, and members do not have to wait longer than a month to get their pastor, rabbi or imam on the list.

Despite offering the opportunity, for the most part invocations are done by those of monotheistic faiths, specifically Christian or Jewish leaders. Though it is the city's third most popular religion, Islamic leaders have not been seen conducting an invocation at City Hall in more than a year.

Hindu or Buddhist leaders are rarely seen, if ever, at the front of the council chamber.

Because all religions may not be represented, Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said those left out could feel disenfranchised. His group argues for banning invocations nationwide.

“When you have a government body opening its meetings with a prayer that sends a message to the members of the community that the government endorses religion,” said Luchenitser. “It sends a message to members of the community that don't believe in God that they are second class citizens.”

While Luchenitser sees it as divisive, some city religious and political leaders see it as “unifying and comforting.”

“People should not fear a few moments of reflection,” Councilmember Jimmy Oddo, who is a product of 18 years of Catholic school, said. “If they are so put off by it, they can excuse themselves and take a walk around the building.”

At least one member, Councilmember Simcha Felder, who is an Orthodox Jew, attempted to ban the invocation under a previous speaker, but was unsuccessful. He called it “very dangerous” and said he would still support doing away with the ritual.

“It doesn’t belong there,” Felder said. “I don’t see the purpose.”

In response to Felder, Shirley Limongi of the New York City Council press office released this statement: "Invocations are a longstanding tradition in legislative bodies across the country, just as they are for our colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, the State Senate, and Assembly legislatures."

Religious leaders don’t see the invocation as sanctioning any religion.

“I very much value the constitutional safeguard for the separation of church and state. I also recognize it was intended to protect the individual from the imposition of religion by the state,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “The offering of an invocation in no way offends that standard, because it’s not saying that the state is speaking religiously for any individual.”

Offering general comments and thoughts, like Potasnik did earlier this year at the City Council, causes no harm, he said.

General comments aside, some religious leaders do think it’s important to ensure all religions are represented during the ceremonies.

“If you are going to take the initiative to invite a clergy to come or a minister to come and do the invocation, let's be diligent enough that over the course of four years make sure as many religions are incorporated,” said the Rev. Mitchell Taylor of the Center of Hope International. Taylor has performed several invocations at the council, including one earlier this year.

Funding Religious Groups

The invocation is not the only City Council practice that brings the body closer to endorsing religion.

More recently, the council’s funding of nonprofit groups with religious affiliations for community programming has raised questions. Most council members say they see nothing wrong with doling out funds to groups or private schools that are affiliated with some faith. They argue these groups do good work.

Oddo, for instance, has funded private Catholic elementary schools, the Jewish Community Council, Young Israel and the Council of Jewish Organizations – just to name a few.

“Lots of people from various communities, atheists too, have been served by these groups,” Oddo said.

Recently, the city’s Law Department has taken a stricter interpretation when approving appropriations for private organizations slated to receive capital funding.

One group was experiencing difficultly receiving their funding for a new treatment facility after the city raised questions about Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that independently took place there. The meetings called the group's religious affiliation into question.

The Law Department says every agency vets each appropriation to a private organization to make sure the funding does not violate the constitution’s Establishment Clause.  

Lost in the PDFs: Getting City Data


NY Map's new tech-offering, New York CityMap, helps New Yorkers to find basic services like firehouses, libraries, subway stations, senior centers, museums, and even Wi-Fi hotspots around a particular address.

Whatever else it does or does not do to keep construction safe in New York City, the Department of Buildings offers New Yorkers concerned about the projects in their midst a wealth of information. Simply typing in an address produces an array of material about the location, including certificate of occupancy, landmark status, number of complaints against the site and facts about its boilers and elevators.

This kind of sharing of information would seem to be exactly what Mayor Michael Bloomberg expects of agencies in his administration. Bloomberg has frequently stated he wants to use technology to make New York City's government more open. "More than 500 different measurements from 45 city agencies [are] all available with a few clicks of the mouse," he said in his 2008 State of the City address. "Good government is about transparency and accountability. We are doing everything we can to make them both permanent."

Meanwhile, the City Council has attempted to write online information sharing into law. In 2003, City Councilmember Gale Brewer, chair of the technology committee, authored a bill requiring that all city documents submitted to the Department of Records and Information Services be posted to the city's Web site within 10 days. The bill, Local Law 11, was the first legislation in the country to require a city government to use the Internet to provide access to official documents.

Providing this kind of access to government documents and information has been one of the important democratizing accomplishments of the Internet. New York City has been a leader in this area, but we are falling behind as a lack of standards and uneven performance across different agencies have left us with a confusing jumble of formats and numbers.

Five years after its passage, we are starting to see the limitations of Local Law 11. With no method for enforcement, compliance has been spotty. A survey of the Web sites of agencies suggests they are following Bloomberg's directive unevenly. Along with this, changes in technology have created new opportunities to make online information more accessible and useful. It might be time for an upgrade.

Opening the Government

The city puts out a lot of information that residents can use to monitor the performance of local government - so much information that, unless you know exactly what you're looking for, you will quickly drown in it.

As required by the City Charter, the mayor produces a report card for city services, called the Mayor's Management Report or MMR. Each mayor has done the report in his own style. Bloomberg's approach has been to trim it down to a list of indicators with totals or percentages, highlighting positive shifts and leaving negative one's unaddressed.

The mayor's Office of Operations has undertaken impressive efforts to craft a more user-friendly presentation for the information in the report. With its My Neighborhood Statistics Web site, visitors can sort the information by community board, or police precinct.

A separate mapping tool, NYCityMap allows New Yorkers to find basic services like firehouses, libraries, subway stations, senior centers, museums, and even Wi-Fi hotspots around a particular address.

Unfortunately, these tools present data in formats that are difficult to convert into other formats, limiting their usefulness. So, for example, if you want to sort the neighborhood statistics into council districts so you know who to complain to, you're out of luck. The map could allow you to merge it with other maps, an increasingly common online process known as a mashup. That could help apartment hunters, pizza hunters or anyone searching for information that you might want to see in a context of what city services are available.

Look But Don't Touch

The most common format across the city's Web portal is the PDF, which takes information and turns it into a two-dimensional document that cannot be manipulated or transformed into other kinds of data. An online PDF is definitely an improvement over going to the records department to get a printed copy of a document, but that's about it. Free PDF readers allow users to search within each document, but combining data from multiple documents has to be done manually.

For example, not only did the Office of Management and Budget publish the New York City's 2009 capital budget more than a week after the 10-day deadline mandated by Local Law 11, but when it did post the spending plan online it was as a 421-page PDF document.

Receiving the city budget as a PDF means that even the deftest programmer has to reverse engineer it to find such timely data such as which council members had requested what items.

Along with the mayor's budget every year, the Office of Management and Budget publishes an accompanying message filled with budget analysis. This too is a PDF, making it difficult to examine expenditures across departments or in some way other than how the mayor has presented the information. For example, the format provides no easy way to tally the expenditures on health programs not under the department of health. Getting that kind of information would require expensive data entry. If the city provided its budget in any number of more accessible formats, that data entry wouldn't be necessary.

In contrast, the state comptroller manages a Website called Open Book New York that provides easy access to New York State's financial information. It allows New Yorkers to search for individual state expenses across 113 agencies.

Ironically, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications is using inadequate technology for sharing its information, including 311 call center data.

Community boards, for example, have wanted information on noise complaints, The department of information technology is required by law to provide the boards with complaint data, but the Local Law 47 reports on 311 calls come in PDFs, which make it difficult to analyze trends in noise complaints or neighbors calling in construction violations.

"I've been working with the Community Boards endlessly to get them the 311 data in some form that they can manipulate. So far, we only have PDFs," Brewer said.

Some individual city departments have gone further with sharing information online. Along with data on individual sites, the Department of Buildings makes its weekly reports available in spreadsheets that can be searched and filtered for specific data and information.

The Department of Finance allows site users to subscribe to individual RSS feeds. RSS feeds provide automatic update notifications to other Web sites or applications so users get an alert in their inbox or web browser whenever there is new information. Combined with XML, a Web language that helps facilitate Web site data sharing, users can stay in constant contact with Web sites they subscribe to. New Yorkers who subscribe to the Department of Finance's Web site can receive data feeds with information on property, business taxes, or parking and vehicle news.

Importantly, XML feeds also allow people with sight or other impairments to access information through text readers and other helpful technologies. Publishing information as a PDF shuts that community out from their government.

Looking at Crime

The police department's data, on the other hand, is difficult to interpret. The department's weekly Comp Stat report breaks citywide data into seven broad categories and is only available to the public as a PDF. The department provides the information by precinct, but city residents cannot search for crime statistics by their ZIP code, neighborhood or even borough. Additionally, this link for "Department Statistics" was down at the time of researching for this article. The department did not respond to requests for comment.

Law enforcement agencies in other cities are much more forthcoming. The police department in Charlotte, N.C., for example, provides statistics for police calls requesting service by neighborhood, ZIP code and district, sorting the information in more than 20 different categories., which compiles information from agencies of several cities and presents it in a friendly format, has been trying to provide New York City residents with detailed information about crime. To get the statistics for New York, EveryBlock's "people person," Daniel O'Neil, has had to make phone calls and develop relationships.

In Chicago, where EveryBlock got its start, residents wanting to know what crimes have occurred in their area simply type in their address or neighborhood and receive a list of reported offenses. Clicking on the crime brings more information, including a locator map. This comes directly from the police department's records. By contrast, all the New York Every Block site offers is a weekly compendium of crimes by precinct, with no details on the reports and no indication of where in the precinct the alleged offense occurred.

While EveryBlock has not been able to persuade New York City's police department to make that information accessible, EveryBlock does provide access to New York restaurant inspections and building violations. The information is much more accessible on EveryBlock where anyone can search for violations in a particular ZIP code or by the name of a facility.

O'Neil says it is absurd that city agencies leave it to third party projects like his to provide information access. "It's unethical for cities to say that some external service is going to be essential to displaying city service requests," he said.

Making records accessible is not just a matter of honest government, O'Neil said; it's a matter of being cost effective. "The city spends an enormous amount of time and energy and human resources and technical resources to create reports that are practically worthless," he explained.

Opening the Information Portal

There are mechanisms intended to address this. The Commission on Public Information and Communication was created by the 1989 charter revision and is chaired by the public advocate. It is supposed to "make the administration more transparent to the citizens it serves and would encourage the public to become more actively involved in government," as Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum said in a 2003 statement on the revival of the commission. Unfortunately, this revival never happened. The last meeting, of the commission according to the public advocate's Website was in September 2007.

"There are existing structures to handle this issue, but they've never functioned," said Thomas Lowenhaupt, who is promoting a .nyc top-level domain (the ending of a web address) to better connect people to information about the city.

The mayor continues to make improvements in its information-sharing practices, launching a Citywide Performance Reporting system earlier this year. The data for CPR are drawn from hundreds of indicators from agencies citywide, updated monthly. As Nicholas Sbordone from the information technology department explained, this "lets users really drill down into each indicator and compare trends across the past five fiscal years."

Some experts have questioned the indicators the administration has chosen to list. The Bloomberg administration could go further by adopting the best practices from other cities and using open standards across all agencies. That would help residents conduct their own analysis or convert it into the format that works best for them. And it would streamline City Council's job of oversight.

For its part, City Council could update Local Law 11, or at least be more vigilant in seeing that all agencies comply. "The office of operations needs to be involved in pursuing agencies that don't go on the web as they should," says Brewer. "I don't think you can fine agencies, but you have to have some carrot internally."

For now, though, we'll have to keep searching.

Joshua Breitbart and Kristofer Rios run the Digital Expansion Initiative at People's Production House.

Whistle While You Work

Lifeguards at Orchard Beach on City Island
Photo by Courtney Gross


Touring the Urban Riviera:
An audio slide show of New York's public beaches.

The Bronx's Secret Shore:
Unbeknownst to the vast majority of its residents, the Bronx serves as home to a number of private beach clubs.

Coney Island Roller Coaster:
The fight over how to develop the famed beach continues.

Urban Riviera?
New York's beaches offer surf and sun without a long drive on the Long Island Expressway. But how safe and clean are they?

New York's Best and Worst Beaches:
They are both on Staten Island but there the similarities end.

On a bright sweaty weekday in mid-July, some of the suits making a morning commute on the N train were bathing suits.

No day in a cubicle for these subway riders. For the nearly 1,200 workers who sit in the sand and are charged with overseeing New Yorkers' aquatic safety, lifeguarding can be the ideal summer employment.

"At the pool you see the same people every day," said Coney Island lifeguard Mike Zuska, a 20-year-old student at Kingsborough College who also lifeguards there every semester. "Here you get tan, you get paid better, and there are tons of women."

In recent years, a shortage of lifeguards on city beaches has led to sands dotted with red flags -- the disappointing symbol that a beach is off limits for swimming. This year, though, city officials say they are far closer to reaching their recruitment and employment goals of filling 1,200 positions. Thanks to greater public outreach and a salary boost, the city's sands, some say, are staffed better than ever before.

In the wake of this week's drownings, though, that optimism may hit rough waters.

A Better Job

In the eyes of Chad Cantelmo, 22, and his buddy Zuska, who were perched on their iconic orange pedestal on a recent day, working life doesn't get much better then being paid to sit in the sun and watch the surf.

This summer there are about 1,140 lifeguards on duty at New York City public beaches and pools, according to parks department Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh. Most are between 17 and 23 years old, although there is also a cadre of people in their 30s and 40s who return each summer, Kavanagh said. The minimum age for lifeguards in the city is 16.

Thanks to a recent pay increase, first-year lifeguards are getting a minimum of $12.55 an hour -- up from $11.72 an hour last years -- which has made the jobs more appealing than in previous years.

A report from New Yorkers for Parks last year urged the city to double the lifeguard wage on an experimental basis to ensure that every section of city beach would be under the eye of a city lifeguard. Sheelah Feinberg, director of government and external relations for the group, identified lifeguard recruitment and staffing as the ultimate priority for beach safety.

Though the city did increase salaries, it did not adopt the group's proposal. The standard city lifeguard wage had been $10.08 an hour for several years, less than what public lifeguards received in many other parts of the country. The current wage is competitive. For example, lifeguards at Jones Beach, a state park not far from the city's borders only make a penny an hour more than city guards, according to New Yorkers for Parks.

The wage increase came only after the parks department consistently faced complaints about beach safety following drownings. The city saw its first drowning of the summer last week, when a 16-year-old girl was lost in a rip tide off of Rockaway Beach. A spokesperson from the parks department said Rockaway Beach was "fully staffed" at the time of the incident, and, in general, that waterfront has been "close to" fully staffed so far this season.

In addition to the 16-year-old's death, two presumed drownings occurred on Coney Island and off of the federally-overseen Jacob Riis Park in Queens on Saturday. These drownings could spark further scrutiny of the city's lifeguard program. Reports attribute the presumed deaths -- neither body has been recovered yet -- to strong rip currents.

In 2007, there was one drowning -- a decrease from four in 2005, the highest number in a decade.

Finding a Guard in the Sands

In return for that pay, lifeguards have to fulfill a number of requirements. "Are you whistle worthy?" the Department of Parks and Recreation asks in its 2008 lifeguard recruitment campaign.

The qualifying test for aspiring lifeguards to enter the municipal lifeguard training program requires applicants to swim 50 yards in 35 seconds or less. Once in the program, lifeguards must get in shape, learn skills, including CPR, and face more challenging tests.

Such requirements keep some jobseekers away. Most work programs area delgued with applicants. The city's Summer Youth Employment Program, for example, had to turn away more than 50,000 of the 93,750 teens who applied last year.

In contrast, the city cannot fill all of its vacancies for lifeguards. It has taken amajor effort for the parks department to build up a strong lifeguard force, which still falls short of the annual goal of 1,200 summer hires.

New York children do not always have the same opportunities to learn to swim as those who grow up in non-urban areas, making it harder to find teens in New York City with the skills to pass the lifeguard tests.

Many New York kids have access to pools, but that doesn't mean they are up to the task. "I had to practice really hard to pass the [initial] test," Cantelmo said.

Zuska, who was on the swim team all four years he attended Abraham Lincoln High School, still found he had to put in plenty of extra practice to pass that challenging first exam.

New Yorkers for Parks have pressed for better training and swimming classes for adolescents, so they can grow into great city lifeguards. So far, the group has not heard back from the department on its training proposals.

Building the Force

Despite such obstacles, the city's lifguarding troops have been steadily growing, according to New Yorkers for Parks. In 2001, 898 lifeguards patrolled the sands. That increased to 1,008 in 2005.

"It [the lifeguard roster] has been building gradually in the last few years," said Kavanagh. "The more [lifeguards] you start with, the more you have because many return."

Kavanagh said the department sent materials to every high school, created online campaigns, placed ads in papers and expanded the number of places where people can take the initial test for the municipal lifeguard training program. "We have a pretty good network in the public school system," Kavanagh said. "We've been going to pools, speaking to coaches, speaking to competitive swimmers."

The parks department doesn't fill its beaches just by fishing in the pool of New York City teens, though. The lifeguard recruitment page of the department's Web site features a special "International Lifeguards" section as well as a section titled "Living and Working in New York City."

Cantelmo said he has noticed a number of lifeguards from Poland-- two on Coney Island that day alone--but that they do not necessarily return to city beaches year after year.

According to Kavanagh, there are fewer foreign lifeguards this year than there have been in the past: Nine joined this year in addition to the more than 20 from previous years who returned.

For some New Yorkers, a daily commute to the city's shore by public transportation is only slightly less of a schlep than coming all the way from Europe. While most lifeguards seem to live near the beach where they work, Kavanagh said some lifeguards feel working at a beach, rather than a pool, is worth the long commute because beach season is longer and they like the atmosphere.

Staffed Shorelines

The New York City lifeguard shortage has made headlines every summer in recent years, but New Yorkers may have to find something else to criticize other than under-supervised beaches this summer.

This doesn't mean, however, that red flags won't occasionally mark a section of the city's 14 miles of public beach off-limits for swimming.

"We don't have full compliments every day because people have days off or can't work," Kavanagh said. He also pointed out that sometimes swimming is not worth the risk. "Places with rough areas, like there are in Rockaway, can be dangerous even for lifeguards sometimes. We're not going to endanger anyone's safety."

From Yesterday's Supper to Tomorrow's 'Black Gold'

Compost Goodies
All photos by Olivia Warren
Tossed salad fixings make great compost fodder.

From falafel and hot dogs from street vendors to farfalle and chorizo from fine restaurants, New York offers abundant food choices.

Residents, though, have few options when it comes to how to dispose of what is left over from all that food. As eagerly as New Yorkers eat, they dispose of food waste-about two pounds per household per day. One million tons of food from New York City is carted off to landfills every year.

Finding space for the waste in already overflowing landfills poses one problem. Pollution is another. While the roughly 30 percent of residential waste made up of discarded food slowly rots in landfills, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas estimated to have a warming effect 23 times that of carbon dioxide.

Across the country, cities looking to reduce waste and pollution have turned to composting. In the process they have developed a valuable resource for area parks, gardens and farm.

Black Gold

Gardeners often refer to compost as black gold. Though the name might sound like something out of the Pirates of the Caribbean, compost offers very real benefits. The mineral-rich product of decomposed organic waste, it helps restore soil nutrients, prevent erosion and compaction, and conserve water.

Backyard composting, in which residents combine yard waste with food waste themselves to create compost at home or in community gardens, is the cheapest way to manage organic waste. Many New Yorkers, though, do not have backyards.

To enable people in more densely populated areas to compost, larger composting facilities in or near cities to can process food waste and other organic matter. Municipalities can organize food waste collection or permanent drop-off sites. The resulting product can be sold to nearby farmers or used in lieu of expensive fertilizers in public parks.

Composting municipal organic byproducts instead of putting them in a landfill can save local governments from $9 to $38 per ton, according to a 2000 paper written at the University of Wisconsin. This could mount up, given that food and yard waste accounts for almost 30 percent of New York City's almost 3 million tons of garbage a year.

Aurelia Kaelin collects organic waste in the freezer and drops it off in Union Square with the NYC Compost project.

Compost Country

Intentional composting is nothing new. References to it have been found as far back as the Roman era, and George Washington's diaries revealed him as an avid composter.

Today cities across the country are following in his footsteps. Seattle provides curbside compost collection to over 90 percent of its residents. Residents of King County, which includes Seattle and the surrounding area, can put food waste, food soiled papers and yard waste into organic waste bins which they put out with their other sorted recycling to be collected and taken to large composting facilities. Even meat, fish, poultry, bones and pizza boxes too saucy for the paper bin can go with the organic waste; almost everything but pet waste and fryer grease is welcome. The finished product enriches the soil of local farms, gardens and parks. Seattle's food scrap recycling program will become mandatory for all single family homes in April 2009.

The effort is paying off. The city diverts 44 percent of its total waste stream to recycling and composting programs. Seattle hopes to divert 72 percent by 2025.

While Seattle's program is just beginning to reap rewards, San Francisco's programs, which began in 1996, contribute to the city's 69 percent total recycling rate, the highest in the nation. Like Seattle, San Francisco provides curbside pickup of food waste and organic matter. The city provides small green trash containers to collect organic waste indoors. The material then goes to a green curbside bin. The city even subsidizes compostable liner bags to help hesitant residents get started. Local businesses and restaurants also participate: Almost 2,000 enterprises contribute to San Francisco's composting efforts. The nitrogen-rich finished compost is sold to vineyards in nearby counties.

San Francisco should meet its goal of a 75 percent recycling rate by 2010, due in large part to their composting efforts.

Los Angeles plans to launch a 10,000 family curbside compost pilot program later this year. It hopes to eventually expand to all residents. From Cambridge, Mass., where businesses participate in food waste recycling collection, through Omaha, Neb., which produces and sells its own compost called "Oma-Gro," compost initiatives are catching on.

New York's Efforts

New York City has had a compost program since 1993, when the NYC Compost Project was founded by the New York City Department of Sanitation. With the project's support, staff members of the city's botanical gardens and the Lower East Side Ecology Center encourage residential and institutional composting. They hold demonstrations and classes in every borough, and operate a "rotline"-a composting hotline residents can call for help and advice. The projects workers provides information at community events, operate compost drop-off locations and offers residents can take finished compost to take back to their gardens. They also provide technical assistance to the dozens of community gardens that offer community compost programs.

Aurelia Kaelin was collecting compost for the Lower East Side Ecology Center at Union Square on a Wednesday morning. "Oh, they show up," she said of Manhattan composters, explaining that she has regulars from all over the island. Most people who collect food waste regularly in their apartments come bearing compost about twice a week, although she added, "We always have a lot more the few weeks after Earth Day."

Other New York Programs

New York has several other small food and organic waste management programs in effect. The correctional facilities at Riker's Island operate a composting program that handles much of the 30 t0 40 tons of food waste produced daily by kitchens that feed the 20,000 inmates. A compost facility created in 1996 processes the waste into compost, which is used for landscaping and inmate gardening projects.

Every fall and winter, New York's Department of Sanitation collects discarded Christmas trees and fall leaves in certain city districts to be turned into mulch. The "Leave it on the Lawn" education programs encourage residents to leave grass clippings on the ground where they can serve as natural fertilizer instead of bagging them for the landfills. The city also operates two yard waste compost facilities, which process a combined 72,000 cubic yards of yard waste each year.

The vast majority of New York's organic waste still ends up in the trash can, though.

Room to Grow?

PlaNYC 2030, New York City's sustainability blueprint, makes no mention of compost beyond the collection of yard waste. Currently, New York has no plans for its tons of food waste.

The Department of Sanitation has said they do not think a plan would be successful and point to previous pilot programs as evidence. The city's largest curbside food scrap collection pilot was conducted in 1991 in Brooklyn's Park Slope. Just under 4,000 residents were asked to separate organic matter from other trash and recyclables. The following year, 600 Starrett City residents were added to the pilot.

Many residents were reluctant to participate, citing concerns about odor, vermin, and rodents. Not enough organic waste was collected to outweigh the cost of adding additional trucks, according to the department, and the program was terminated.

As the budget tightens, cost will continue to be an issue. The Department of Sanitation reports that it is less expensive to truck food waste to landfills than to compost it. In its most recent study, conducted in 2004, the department found that while 50 percent of the waste is organic and compostable, only yard trimmings -- making up just 4.2 percent -- could be collected and composted cost effectively on a citywide scale.

To make composting cost-effective, the city would need to construct centralized state-of-the-art composting facilities and establish efficient collection methods and routes. A public education campaign would have to convince skeptical New Yorkers to overcome fears of smell and vermin and realize that composting is environmentally sound, clean and economical.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center fills up 20 bins with food waste at the Union Square Greenmarket

Rot Right There

Many New Yorkers have already gotten that message. According to a report by Consumers Union, nearly one third of New Yorkers, or 930,000 households, have backyards. Of these, 70 percent have agreed that backyard composting should be considered a waste management tool. Even if only 10 percent of these households diverted just half of their food waste a week, the city could save well over $4 million in collection and disposal costs annually.

For New Yorkers without backyards, there are other options. Food waste can be brought to the NYC Compost Project collection sites as well as many community gardens. For a map of these, go here. Independent volunteers at Fort Greene Park's Greenmarket estimate that they collect 800 to 1,000 pounds of food waste every Saturday. The Lower East Side Ecology Center fills over 20 55-gallon bins a week through their collections at the Union Square Greenmarket on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Committed apartment dwellers can try their hand at indoor vermicomposting. Red wrigglers, which munch through their weight in organic waste every day or two, turn food scraps into high-quality compost quickly, working away in discreet bins that are free of odor.

Other alternatives exist as well. Despite various assurances, Chris Mosier was uncomfortable with hosting worms through vermicomposting and worried about the smell if she saved rotting food in her small Midtown apartment. Now, she collects organic waste in the freezer and drops it off in Union Square with the NYC Compost project. To Mosier and others like her, composting represents a key part of a "green" lifestyle

"I feel it's great that New Yorkers recycle," she said. "The next step is composting, and it's easier than we think."

For More Information:

Waste management in the city is a highly complex issue. To manage your household waste and the city's tons of trash, play Gotham Gazette's Garbage Game.

To learn more about how you can compost or take part in the city's composting programs, go to:

The New York City Compost Project
Wasted Food (a blog)

Check out Gotham Gazette's Calendar of NYC Events for listings of local composting workshops and events.


Stated Meeting: Construction Legislation Moves Forward

The City Council approved three additional construction safety items last week in an effort to improve conditions at works sites across the city.

The legislation, which includes clamping down on "housekeeping" violations, was announced as part of a package of proposals from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council following several fatal accidents this year.

In addition to the constriction proposals, the council approved legislation to overhaul the city's Environmental Control Board to make its adjudication process easier and more user friendly.

Construction Safety

Two devastating crane accidents and the chief inspector's subsequent arrest sparked increased public outrage this year over the Department of Buildings, a city agency with a long history of dysfunction.

In response, the council and the administration announced more than a dozen proposals to further revamp the way the buildings department does business. Several passed in June, and last week the council added three more bills to the record. All were approved unanimously.

The first (Intro 763-A) classifies "housekeeping violations" -- which can cover anything from loose materials to tripping hazards -- as immediately hazardous. This designation would create stricter penalties for work sites that tend to be sloppy and require they be fixed promptly. Sites that do not comply with the legislation, which was sponsored by Councilmember Annabel Palma, could face a penalty of $5,000.

The council also approved legislation (Intro 687) requiring the annual inspection of structurally compromised buildings. Buildings recently involved in a fire or that have been threatened structurally by other means will have to be inspected by a professional engineer annually. Inspections must continue annually, according to the bill, until the building is found to be in sound condition.

The bill's sponsor, Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito, said it would assist the city in "red flagging" buildings for further inspection.

In addition, the council approved legislation (Intro 793) requiring the more stringent inspection of retaining walls.

Three years ago, a retaining wall spilled onto Riverside Drive and Henry Hudson Parkway in Upper Manhattan causing millions of dollars in damages and bringing the neighborhood to a standstill. An investigation in 2007 revealed the adjacent property owners had not kept up with maintenance and knew the wall was at risk of collapsing.

Under this legislation, retaining walls must be inspected at least every five years, and private property owners will be responsible for monitoring their conditions. The Buildings Department must also monitor any repairs that are completed.

Environmental Control Board

For Harry Feitelson of Big City Automotive the city's Environmental Control Board was more than a nuisance. It was a detriment to his business.

Feitelson was asked to pay multiple fines for the same violation or issued inaccurate tickets. He said he was given a ticket for failing to complete a boiler inspection in a building without a boiler.

All of this, he added, was one aspect of a labyrinthine process at the Environmental Control Board -- the city's regulatory body overseeing quality of life issues, like sanitation violations.

"I don't think you can be in small business in New York City and not deal with the bureaucracy of the ECB," Feitelson said.

Last week, the City Council unanimously approved legislation (Intro 777), sponsored by Councilmember James Gennaro, revamping the board. In addition to limiting the number of times a hearing can be adjourned, the legislation also requires translation services be provided to those accused of a violation.

The legislation also attempts to streamline the process by transferring jurisdiction over the board from the Department of Environmental Protection to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. The council is also requiring that the board implement technological improvements to allow for online adjudication and electronic case scheduling .

"One of the things you hear is, 'I have to take a day off from work,'" said Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "If you're a small business owner, that's money out of your pocket.'"

Carroll Gardens Narrow Streets

After a community campaign against oversized buildings, the City Council approved a zoning revision for Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn to restrict building height. The revision gave the neighborhood a narrow street designation, which limits the height of buildings. The neighborhood had had a wide street designation due to its deep front yards.


In Flatbush, Running with Baggage

senate 21 Kevin Parker, Kendall Stewart, Simcha Felder

Update: After a three-way Democratic primary, Kevin Parker, the incumbent, clinched just over 10,000 votes to beat out council members Kendall Stewart, who had 2,651 votes, and Simcha Felder with 6,686 votes.

Now that is over, Parker, 41, faces a challenge from Republican Glenn Nocera. Nocera, 33, is a campus police officer at Brooklyn College and was born and raised in Brooklyn.

Parker, according to his latest campaign finance filings, has $15,803 left in his account. Nocera has $1,911.

Listening to the funk trio play at the Newkirk Avenue Block Party on a recent Saturday, Mannix Gordon fondly described Flatbush. "We're a very diverse area, and we're open to all views, all walks of life, and we're all about supporting people who have come from all over the world. We're about supporting diversity," said the Flatbush Development Corp.'s director of economic development as a group of giggling elementary-school girls -- two black, one white and one Hispanic -- scampered past him.

This fall, residents of Flatbush and the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods will choose from a diverse array of Democratic candidates to represent them in the State Senate. Each of the three contestants carries a distinct heritage -- and worrisome baggage.

Three-term incumbent Kevin Parker, an African American who serves as minority whip in the State Senate, once was considered a promising young star among Democrats in Albany. Then Parker's anger management issues became tabloid fodder when he punched a traffic agent who was ticketing his car in 2005. An old political rival and a former aide have also alleged that Parker assaulted them, although the senator denies these claims.

Kendall Stewart, the Caribbean-American City Council member who represents parts of Flatbush and East Flatbush in the 45th Council District, decided to challenge Parker last year, then watched as two of his own staffers became the poster children for the City Council's slush-fund scandal. Chief of Staff Asquith Reid and aide Joycinth Anderson face federal charges for allegedly taking $145,000 in city funds, some of which they purportedly used to pay for Stewart's campaign expenses. Both have pleaded not guilty. Stewart denies any knowledge of the deeds, but the initial momentum that, according to the Daily News, had earned him support from Brooklyn's Democratic establishment seems to have faded.

Then there is Simcha Felder, an Orthodox Jewish City Council member representing Borough Park and Kensington, who surprised almost everyone when he opted to enter the race for Parker's seat rather than run for city comptroller in 2009. An array of donors who had assumed Felder would run for the high city post helped him collect approximately $1.5 million in campaign funds before he announced his Senate candidacy . (Stewart's and Parker's campaigns in January reported balances of $52,817.25 and $14,097.83, respectively.) While Felder has a huge edge in funds, questions persist over whether a relatively conservative white Democrat can win in a district with so many black and Hispanic voters.

Felder and Stewart are among the many City Council members who will be forced out of office by term limits in 2009 and are seeking seeking other political jobs.

A Race on Race

The candidates agree on some issues but they differ over which of them would best serve the district and what a state senator should focus on. Many observers believe ethnicity could turn out being key.

The black majority -- 57 percent of residents, according to the latest available statistics -- is split between African Americans, who Parker says largely support him, and Caribbean Americans, who, based on interviews, appear to continue to back Stewart. Most of the white residents, approximately 22 percent of the district's population, are Jewish. A Hispanic minority of roughly 11 percent and a smaller Pakistani population help to round out the rest.

"At the local level, it takes too long" to learn about the candidates' positions on the issues, Flatbush resident Adrian Roberts said. "Whoever votes probably doesn't know anything about the candidates." What most people vote on, Roberts thinks, is race. "That's the first thing people pay attention to," said Roberts, an African American who has not been following the State Senate campaign.

Millisent Myers, a Jamaican American, says that Stewart will have a fighting chance thanks to the 21st district's Caribbean population. "I'm from Jamaica -- we vote. Black Americans don't vote" as consistently as Caribbean Americans, she said.

Drawing a significant number of votes from a different demographic could be difficult, according to Matt Ides, a Flatbush resident who serves as community liaison and legislative assistant to Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger. Ides doubts Felder's ability to "reach out" to blacks from Flatbush. "When I saw he was running, I was like, no. He'll sweep his part of the district and that's it," Ides said as he relaxed at the Newkirk Avenue Block Party.

Felder disagrees. "It doesn't matter what [an] elected official looks like or who he prays to. The issue is accountability to the people he represents," he said.

Stewart and Parker could split the black vote, helping Felder. Parker says he's already seen this movie, though, and likes how it ends. "I have run this race before, in 2004, with a Caribbean candidate and a Jewish candidate. In three straight elections people have chosen my leadership," Parker said. He defeated Caribbean-American Wellington Sharpe and Noach Dear, an Orthodox Jew, in 2004.

A District of Immigrants

Ask Flatbush residents to name the political issue that most concerns them, and there is no telling what you'll hear. Leon Garrido said he most wanted to see the government find "jobs for the kids -- the kids need something to do." Gordon, the Flatbush Development Corp. staffer, pointed to "assistance for small businesses."

But the issue of immigration is near the top of many people's lists in a district that, according to Kevin Parker's Web site, includes the country's largest concentration of native Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Guyanese. Parker leads the Immigration Committee in the Senate, and Stewart chairs the Immigration Committee in the City Council.

Stewart, born on the island of St. Vincent, has sponsored successful bills on immigration, such as Intro 223, intended to prevent immigration consultants from exploiting customers, and Intro 38, which mandated that city agencies providing healthcare, food stamps and other services offer translations in six languages, including Spanish and Haitian Creole.

Stewart was not available for comment, but spokesperson Michael Roberts cited immigration as one of the candidate's strong points. In 2002, when Stewart took office, the city allocated $4 million for community groups and programs dealing with immigration, according to Roberts. "By the year 2003 he was getting $9 million," Roberts said.

Calling Stewart "a champion of immigrants' rights across the city," Roberts said Parker had not shown the same commitment to this issue. "What has he done in respect to immigration? What legislation has he passed on the state level?" Roberts said.

Indeed, Parker has yet to pass a bill he has written on any issue. But he blames this on being a Democrat in a State Senate controlled by Republicans. "That is a function of the fact that we are in the minority," Parker said, adding that he is "one of [Senate Republicans'] prime opponents." Parker last year introduced an immigration bill similar to Stewart's, requiring that the state issue licenses to consultants who provide assistance to immigrants, and has proposed legislation to grant immigrants who attend high school in New York the state-resident tuition rate at public colleges and universities.

Stewart has angered some Caribbean Americans. In 2003, it became known that an apartment building he owned has 144 violations, ranging from peeling lead paint to a lack of heat and hot water. Stewart blamed some of his tenants. "It's a cultural thing," Stewart said, according to the Daily News. "The Haitian folks, because of their poverty, will have five to eight people living in an apartment, and they will break the locks if one doesn't have a key."

Parker is ready to remind voters of the controversy. "Kendall has a problem because Kendall is a slumlord," Parker said. "People will look at his record, and part of his record is how he has behaved and the things he's said in this community."

Felder has not been a leader on immigration issues, but has sided with the City Council's Democratic majority on all votes relating to the issue. Felder said his own résumé extends beyond district-centric legislation. As a council member, he has chaired the Government Operation Committee. He is a primary sponsor of Intro 777, which would streamline the operations of the environmental control board; the bill recently passed the Governmental Operations Committee, but the Council has yet to vote on it. Felder was one of two primary sponsors of Intro 651-A, which tightens restriction on campaign donations from businesses that deal with the city. This bill, which Felder introduced at the mayor's request, became law last year.

State Senator, or Constituent Servant?

Parker paints himself as a reformer in Albany, noting "the things we've been able to change in the state government because of my presence. When I came, the state government had gone 21 years without a budget on time, and after one year we got a budget in on time."

He added, "We have made universal pre-K really universal for every child in the state. We've insured every child in the state. And this year we put more money into public education than ever was done before."

For their part, Felder and Stewart charge that Parker has neglected the more mundane concerns of his district. Parker has "a dismal record of delivering services to the community," said Felder, "and issues of transparency and accountability are certainly lacking." Felder said district residents needed a senator who is "going to pass laws that are going to help them in their everyday lives, not deal with the flooding in China."

Stewart takes a similar tack. A recent campaign flyer that earned online infamy promised Stewart would focus on "Bringing Home The Recourses" [sic] if elected -- language that, besides the misspelling, conjured uncomfortable memories of the slush-fund scandal.

Putting that aside, Roberts said Stewart played a key role in spurring construction of a mall at Nostrand and Flatbush avenues that created "250 jobs for young people."

Gordon thinks Parker could do more to help economic development in the district. "I would say [Parker's level of involvement] is okay ... not outstanding," Gordon said.

Parker, though, said he has served the district. "I'm not a city councilman so it is not my responsibility constitutionally to fill potholes," he said. "But my office does a lot of those things. My office is responsible to address the needs of the district and the city and the state.... You tell me what's more important than education for our children."

Mayor Mike and Questions of Conservatism

The Working Families Party, which frequently endorses Democratic candidates, has thrown its weight behind Parker. Spokesperson Dan Levitan said the senator has proved himself. The United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1500 labor union agrees; it cites Parker's "strong history of support for working families." Stewart has not nabbed any major endorsements.

Meanwhile, Felder's moderate and conservative leanings on some issues, such as regulating businesses, have helped him win backing -- and money -- from Bloomberg. Felder voted against a bill -- one of a number on which he has been the only Democrat to vote no -- to force grocery stores and large outlets like Wal-Mart to contribute $2.50 an hour toward employees' health insurance. Bloomberg vetoed the legislation, but the Council overrode him. Felder also said that his religion prevents him from supporting gay marriage or voting for the openly lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whom he supports.

Felder brushes aside the suggestion that such occasional conservative leanings could hinder him in the upcoming election. "As Ed Koch once said, pick 12 issues," Felder said in an e-mail. "If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist. I believe with my record on quality of life legislation, campaign finance legislation and sanitation legislation, most of the district would agree with me on nine out of 12 issues."

Felder touts Bloomberg's backing as an asset. "I think that the mayor's support is invaluable. In fact, he won every [voting] district in this Senate district" in 2005, Felder said. "That's a testament to the fact that whether it's African Americans, Jamaicans, Italians, Jews, people see in the mayor a no-nonsense individual who's determined to do the right thing."

Felder hopes he can connect across racial lines as well. "When I got into office, somebody asked me, 'What is the most critical issue facing the city?' and I said race relations," Felder said. "And that's because [former Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani created an atmosphere where racial tensions were about to explode. The mayor, however, has done the opposite."

Pointing to Felder's opposition to abortion rights and support for parochial school vouchers, Parker calls Felder "out of step with this district.... Look at how much money he's gotten from the mayor on special projects," Parker said. "Simcha is a ... subsidiary of Bloomberg."

Parker has gone so far as to claim that Felder's candidacy is part of a Republican scheme, suggesting that, if elected, Felder would switch parties and sit with Senate Republicans. This is an especially volatile accusation in a year when New York Democrats hope to reestablish a senatorial majority. Felder flatly denies the charges.

Flatbush resident Pieranna Pieroni says she could care less about the conspiracy theories and ethnic politics. "Here's the question: are they talking to each other, or are they talking at each other?" said Pieroni, the coordinator of College Now Program at Brooklyn College. "We need somebody who can make everybody feel listened to and not somebody who's going to emphasize the differences among us. They should be starting that conversation."

For More Information

Simcha Felder

Kevin Parker

Kendall Stewart

New York State Board of Elections

Ditmas Park Blog

Sustainable Flatbush

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A Tougher Year for Incumbents


A Battle Over Reform in Manhattan and Brooklyn

new york senate district 25 Martin Connor and Daniel Squadron

Update: As originally written, this article incorrectly described Daniel Squadron's views on Brooklyn Bridge Park. Squadron has said he supports construction of a park but opposes any private housing development in it. The article below has been corrected.

In 2006, developer Ken Diamondstone came within 2,000 votes of defeating State Sen. Martin Connor in the Democratic primary, delivering one of the biggest scares of the 30-year incumbent's political career. The result seemed to signify that reform-minded voters held senior Democrats partly responsible for Albany's lamented political gridlock.

This year, Daniel Squadron, a 28-year-old political consultant and former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer, is trying to build on Diamondstone's near-success by unseating this elder of the New York Senate in a district that spans a swath of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. In his effort to topple an incumbent -- always a long shot in New York -- Squadron has lined up support from his former boss, as well as some labor unions, and raised significant amounts of money.

Connor, though, has no plans to leave and talks about what he would do next year in Albany when, he hopes, Democrats will take control of the State Senate. "The overriding issue is that the Dems are going to win the State Senate," says Connor. "The kind of progressive changes I've been pushing for are finally going to get to the floor of the Senate."

Running Against Albany

Squadron's campaign needs to convince Democratic activists that the system in Albany is broken enough to justify the removal of a Connor, the former Senate minority leader. The challenger's quest has taken on the narrative of a young progressive taking on an older entrenched leader.

"I look at the way business is done in Albany and the effect it has on our neighborhoods, and it is broken," said Squadron. His plan for fixing the system involves striving for "increased accountability." He has offered such specifics as changing arcane Senate rules that prevent bills from getting out of committee. Squadron supports term limits because he feels the Senate has turned into an "ossified body" without them.

In Connor's view, Albany is "broken" only because a Republican Senate has blocked crucial Democratic legislative measures, and he dismisses implications he is part of the problem in the Capitol. He said he has sponsored measures on such issues as environmental regulation and tenants' rights, only to see them stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. "It amuses me that people think anyone over 40 is not a progressive" he said. "I've been fighting those battles for years."

The Key Issues

Both candidates cite the need for affordable housing and legalizing same-sex marriage as top priorities.

The 25th District includes parts of the Lower East Side, Alphabet City, the Financial District, Tribeca, Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn. It is home to two of the largest and most controversial development projects in the city: the World Trade Center site and Atlantic Yards. These and other developments, along with gentrification in the district's Brooklyn neighborhoods, have spurred concern about the diminishing supply of reasonably priced housing.

Under state housing law, if a landlord spends over $2,000 upgrading an empty apartment it can be considered a "luxury" unit and so become exempt from rent regulation. Squadron and Connor believe this rule plays a key role in the housing crunch.

"If we don't repeal [luxury decontrol]," Squadron said, "we are going to wake up in a city that doesn't have living, breathing neighborhoods."

Connor is currently co-sponsoring a bill that would repeal the decontrol loophole. It faces little chance of success in the Republican-controlled Senate, but housing advocates hope their prospects will improve if Democrats take the Senate.

Looking at the Records

Other development issues, along with transportation, also have figured in the campaign. Squadron was the communications director in the successful effort to win voter approval for a bond issue to fund transportation improvements, including the Second Avenue Subway. He sees a need for longer-term changes to transportation infrastructure and supports the development of bus rapid transit lines in Manhattan. "All you need are cameras on the front of buses [to catch people who enter bus lanes] and more sequestered bus lanes," he said.

The two men endorse congestion pricing. Squadron has faulted Connor for not being enthusiastic enough about charging drivers to enter parts of Manhattan during peak hours. Connor said he endorses the concept, but was not enthusiastic about the mayor's proposed plan, which, he said, would have included exemptions on corporate limousines driving within the congestion pricing zone.

Squadron agrees that the original plan was flawed, but says that the mayor's push for congestion pricing represented a "historic opportunity." Both believe that it should be a priority if the Democrats retake the Senate.

Garnering Support

Many downtown and Brooklyn Democrats believe that the Democratic conference in the Senate has not stuck to its commitments. Squadron, though, also must convince power brokers and ordinary voters that his politics signal a real departure from Albany's status quo and that he can deliver on his reform agenda.

He has hailed some successes on the campaign trail. The Working Families Party views Squadron as part of a potential wave of young, reform-minded State Senate candidates, according to party spokesperson Dan Levitan. The Communication Workers of America, Hotel and Motel Trades Council and the Metropolitan Area Joint Board, Local 23-25, a garment workers union, have also backed him, while some large unions have yet to weigh in.

The influential Downtown Independent Democrats -- a reform-minded club with a membership of several hundred-endorsed Squadron on May 29. "Squadron came to us very early," club president Sean Sweeney said. "He had the free time to call people, ring doorbells, meet people, and come to club meetings." According to Sweeney, Squadron, who has been campaigning full-time since February, knocked on almost every door in the massive Independence Plaza apartment complex, at a time when Connor said his legislative obligations kept him off the campaign trail.

Every Democratic club in the district, though, has endorsed Connor, including the Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, of which Diamondstone is a member.

Progressive or Not?

Neither candidate reached the 60 percent threshold needed for an endorsement from the progressive advocacy group Democracy for New York City. Club financial director Louis Cohen cited Connor's handling of congestion pricing as one reason. "Some thought Connor hadn't been outspoken enough on congestion pricing," he said. Cohen added that the group would "rather not endorse if there isn't someone who's an 8 or a 9 on the progressive end of the agenda."

Progressives have criticized Connor on other issues as well. They cite his 1999 vote to kill the city's commuter tax. Connor said that the tax was going to expire within four months of the vote anyway and that suburban constituencies resented the tax, which had been in effect for almost 30 years.

Connor's support of the construction of condos and a hotel in Brooklyn Bridge Park has also been an issue. Advocates of the project say the private property in the park would provide needed funds for recreational facilities and open space. But Squadron claims that it represents a veiled attempt to hand parkland over to developers and said he opposes any housing development in the park. He charges that Connor "has failed to muster the funds and focused political will to get a real park built."

Progressive allied with Democracy for America have qualms about Squadron as well -- notably his ties to Schumer. Citing the senator's support for the Iraq war and the death penalty and his opposition to same-sex marriage, Cohen said, "Schumer wouldn't necessarily be voted progressive poster boy of the year." Squadron co-authored a book with Schumer and received his endorsement this past April.

For more information

Martin Connor's Web site

Dan Squadron's Web site


Let the Challenges Begin

Photo by Viva Antartica
Just how hard is it to get on the ballot in New York?

By the stroke of midnight on July 10, candidates for office in New York City had to submit literally hundreds of carefully documented signatures to get a place on this year's September primary or November general election ballot. The filing at the Board of Election on lower Broadway ends one chapter of Campaign 2008 and starts another: the challenge phase, a part of campaigning in New York that one prominent election lawyer has likened to "a blood sport."

For the next week, election lawyers and campaign organizations will pour over rivals' petitions in the hopes of finding fatal flaws that could knock an opponent off the ballot. The Board of Elections will review challenges starting July 29 and going until Aug. 1 if necessary. If past experience can serve as a guide, some candidates will then take their cases to the courts, which will have to review them -- both charges and countercharges -- in advance of the Sept. 9 election.

It is all part of a system designed to benefit party organizations and incumbents and leave it so the "voter has little or no choice," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. "There is a persistent pattern that results in no competition" in many districts.

Looking for Signatures

To get on the ballot, a Democrat in a typical city Assembly district must collect 500 signatures; a Democratic State Senate contender 1,000. People hoping to be the candidate of other parties generally need fewer names. A Republican in the overwhelmingly Democratic 58th Assembly District (Brownsville) would have to garner only 112 signatures, and a candidate hoping to land on the ballot as the Conservative Party's pick there needs merely seven names.

The people signing must live in the district and be members of the party in question. They can only sign one petition for each office.

Then there are rules about the format of petitions. If the petition has more than 10 pages, for example, it must also include a cover sheet with information about the candidate, the office and a statement that the petition includes the required number of signatures.

To make the game more interesting, the state also demands the players beat the clock. This year, candidates could not begin circulating petitions until June 3 and had to hand them in by July 10.

New York's laws are particularly strict. In 2001, the state attorney general's office observed, "No other state imposes such hurdles on ballot access."

Unlike many states, New York does not allow candidates to pay a filing fee in lieu of getting the signatures. And it requires more names: California has demanded only 65 signatures of gubernatorial candidates, about half the number a Republican candidate would need to run for State Assembly from a part of Harlem.

Navigating the Process

Facing this process, some candidates give up before they even get started. Candidates who want to try to beat the odds pay people to go out and try to collect an excess of signatures and then hire lawyers to defend them, adding to the expense of campaigns.

Daniel Squadron, who hopes to defeat incumbent State Sen. Martin Connor in the Democratic primary has announced that his campaign collected 8,000 signatures, or more than eight times the needed number. In a release Squadron said he did this because Connor is "an election lawyer who has knocked countless candidates off the ballot and has pursued legal challenges against every serious opponent he has faced since 1980." (For the record, Connor denies he plans a challenge.)

Those who do manage to make it through then face the challenges. The political parties and their lawyers "lie in wait " to contest signatures and knock any challenges off the ballot, Lerner said.

In 2005, it was reported that six of the 11 candidates running for a City Council seat on Manhattan's Lower East Side faced challenges from the Coalition for a District Alternative, a political club that actively supported outgoing Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Rosie Mendez, her protégé who was seeking the seat (and won).

In 2006 Juan Pagan, a Democratic candidate for Assembly District 74, submitted 1,000 signatures -- twice the number required. He was challenged anyway, and the Board of Elections discarded hundreds of names on the grounds that some of his petitions spelled out his middle name, while others used only his initial. The courts eventually sided with Pagan, but he complained at the time that the challenge cost him time and resources. He lost.

Not all challenges revolve around signatures. Under state law, candidates for the State Senate or Assembly must live in the district they seek to represent for at least 12 months immediately prior to the election (interestingly no such requirement exists for members of Congress).

Connor, for example, alleged that his 2006 opponent, Ken Diamondstone, did not meet that requirement. The Board of Elections sided with Connor. Diamondstone prevailed in court but lost the primary.

In Queens in 2006, the Democratic Party organization's candidate for an open Assembly seat, Ellen Young, charged that rival Grace Meng did not meet the residency rules. Meng left the race, even though she said she did live in the district. "Although I believe I have the required proof, i.e., tax forms, driver's license, etc., I do not want my family, friends, neighbors and supporters to go through a lengthy trial. I also do not want my contributions to be used toward a legal battle," she said in a prepared statement.

This year, Meng has filed again to run against Young. No word, yet, on whether she will provoke another challenge.

Obstacles to Change

New York's ballot requirements have long had their critics. In 2001, then Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office issued a report calling for cutting the number of signatures required by half, lengthening the amount of time it would take to collect them and letting citizens sign more than one petition per office. Such changes, the report theorized, could help provoke greater voter interest in elections by giving people more choices at the polls.

The system though, has resisted change. A proposal offered by Gov. George Pataki in 1996 to make it easier to get on the ballot faltered in the legislature.

"When you have as dysfunctional a system as we have [where] the whole process is controlled by the legislature and the legislature is controlled by the parties, how likely is it that we can change that," Lerner said. "The people who we are looking to make this change are the people" who benefit from the existing system.

Take Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In 2004, he assailed the rules and the challenges. "You don't have to beat the other guy based on positions or your ability to serve, all you gotta do is beat him because you got a better lawyer who can get him thrown off the ballot," Bloomberg said. "It's time to end this 'gotcha' kind of technique, where lawyers comb petitions to find some technical violation.

A year later, Bloomberg's campaign workers combed through signatures filed by Thomas Ognibene, a Queens politician who was seeking to challenge the mayor in the Republican primary. They got Ognibene thrown off the ballot.

The mayor's staff denied any contradiction. "I don't think it's a game of 'gotcha' to make sure the minimum number of signatures is valid," Bloomberg aide William Cunningham told the Times.

One person has managed to get a modicum of change to New York's election rules: Sen. John McCain. In 2000, this year's Republican candidate was challenging George W. Bush for the GOP nomination. A technical error threatened to keep the Arizona senator off New York's ballot, casting a temporary spotlight on New York's arcane election procedures. Eventually a judge ordered that McCain's name appear -- and Bush won the primary anyway.

The furor prompted adjustments in rules that make it far easier for Republican presidential aspirants to qualify for the state's primary. The rules for lowlier office, though, remain unchanged.


Measuring Constituent Complaints: Round One

A pillar of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's last two state of the city addresses, the complaint measuring service, called CouncilStat (similar to the Police Department's Compstat), is supposed to catapult the council into the digital age, measuring what irks residents across the five boroughs.

As part of the service, the council committeed to issue monthly reports detailing the types of complaints in council districts and citywide. The first of those reports was released last week not only four months late, but some constituents say, the stats in CouncilStat are disappointingly absent.

A New System

The council's new system, which received some criticism at its onset for being redundant of the mayor's 311 non-emergency hotline, tracks and registers constituent complaints across districts in one database.

Last year, Quinn has said, most district offices were still pushing paper. Councilstat was not only meant to update offices' technology, but give districts a venue for intra and inter borough communication and make complaint records more accessible.

"I think it gives council members and their staff a temperature of what is happening in their respective districts," said Councilmember Letitia James. "It's also instrumental in assisting you in drafting and guiding policy decisions."

By pooling constituent data, council members could track what problems persisted beyond one's district and legislate possible solutions. All of the data would allow the council to see patterns throughout the city and enable them to enact better legislation, said Quinn in a prepared statement at the data's release last week.

After the initial announcement last November, the council slated the release of this data in March, along with every month thereafter. Delays persisted -- some attribute them to the budget scandal and fiscal negotiations in general -- and the first batch of statistics was released last week.

The Data

According to the council, CouncilStat has lodged more than 24,000 complaints so far covering more than 280 district issues. The data it released last week covers only June -- or 2,500 calls that month.

According to the handful of graphs the council released, housing and buildings issues are the source of constituents' largest complaints citywide, about 29 percent. That category could span anything from an eviction to a search for affordable housing. A breakdown of what particular issues were included in each category -- categories range from transportation to public safety -- was not provided in the documents released by the council.

District by district snapshots also were not in the documents, though members said they had received detailed reports.

Housing and buildings accounted for 24 percent of complaints in Brooklyn, 32 percent in Manhattan, 24 percent in Staten Island and 16 percent in Queens. It was the top issue in every borough, except Queens where parks issues ran supreme at 17 percent of logged complaints.

Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo of the Bronx, where housing issues comprised 29 percent of constituent complaints in June, said the data did not tell her office anything it didn't already know: Housing is an issue in New York City.

"We understand the nuances of the issue surrounding housing," said Arroyo, who recognized the category could cover a vast array of topics. "It just confirms something we already knew. It helps us confirm it in a more formal way."

Elsewhere, environmental issues came in second for both Staten Island and Queens, while transportation complaints were the runner-ups in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Missing Pieces

While the council's data confirms that housing and buildings issues run paramount for New Yorkers, some remain disappointed by the data.

Arthur Springer, a resident of the Upper West Side, sees the release of CouncilStat data, or lack thereof, as a sign of diminishing constituent service in New York City. He has logged several complaints via CouncilStat and seen nothing more than an automated response -- not service improvement.

"Government responsiveness to constituents was assumed in my generation and it no longer is, because legislators at all levels tend to be responsive to their contributors and campaign supporters," said Springer.

Several council members said there was a "learning curve" and since the project was just started improvements will inevitably follow its first release.

A council spokesperson said the council is "proud" of the CouncilStat service, recognizes that it's still in its infancy and expects improvements every month.  

On to the Primary

New York Primaries Campaign 2008
Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

This year's crop of political hopefuls in New York City went through their first official winnowing last week. It was filing deadline for New York candidates for the state legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and some judgeships.

After months of fulminations and exploring, possible candidates had to determine whether they were serious about running for office this fall. If they were, they had to collect signatures and file petitions. Those who were not in earnest will have to wait until next year -- or the year after that. Although filing does not guarantee a candidate a place on the ballot, it represents a necessary step in a candidacy for incumbents and challengers alike.

This year, all the state's legislators -- in the State Senate and Assembly -- and its members of the U.S. House of Representatives, along with candidates for various judgeships, must face the voters.

To keep you informed on the latest in an election year that could bring change to Albany as well as to Washington, D.C., Gotham Gazette features:


Who’s Running for What: Our listing of candidates for state office this year and city office in 2009 now reflects who actually filed for office last week. Based on Board of Election records, this is the most current list of who will appear on the September primary and November general election ballots for Congress and the legislature. We have also added judicial races along with some photos and links to campaign Web sites -- and campaign finance information (look for the latestfilings soon). And we continue to update the lists of candidates for city office in 2009.

Just type in the office that interests you, the name of the incumbent or the name of a candidate to find out who represents you now -- and who wants your vote.


Between now and the elections, Gotham Gazette will offer original reporting on some of the key races to represent New York City in Congress, the State Senate and the State Legislature.

NY State Senate Dist 21

In Flatbush, Running with Baggage (21st Senate District): Ethnic politics could play a key role in this campaign where incumbent Kevin Parker will face off against two term-limited City Council members in search of their next political job.

NY State Senate Dist 25

A Battle over Reform (25th Senate District): Longtime incumbent Martin Connor faces a challenge from Daniel Squadron in a campaign where both candidates call for change in Albany but disagree over how to deliver it.

NY State Assembly Dist 64

Running Against Albany on Manhattan's Lower East Side (64th Assembly District): One of the state's most powerful men -- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- faces two political novices bidding for political history in his rapidly changing home district.

NY State Assembly Dist 72

A House Divided in Washington Heights (72nd Assembly District): At Manhattan's northern tip, term-limited City Councilmember Miguel Martinez is taking on his one-time political mentor, longtime incumbent Adriano Espaillat.


Let the Challenges Begin: Now that the petitions have been filed, the legal maneuvering starts as candidates take advantage of New York's complicated election laws to try to knock rivals off the ballot.

Donkey Con Game

Donkey Con: Just how hard is it to take on an incumbent politician in New York? Play Gotham Gazette's version of a video arcade classic to find out.

A Tougher Year for Incumbents?: With Democrats on the verge of taking the State Senate from Republicans and a host of term-limited City Council members looking for a new job, this year's legislative elections could be far more competitive than usual. A preview of some of the key state contests.


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