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Open Government

One Person's Vandalism Is Another One's Art


Photo by Lenore Costello
(c) 2008 Lenore Costello for Gotham Gazette

Some call it a menace and an eyesore; others consider it an expression of their first amendment rights. Some of it has deep political meaning, while some is a word or two scribbled in permanent marker. And it can be found all over the city: on rooftops, bridges, the walls of dilapidated buildings.

Graffiti and street art have been highly controversial forms of expression in New York for decades, disdained by art snobs and building superintendents alike. The people who disparage it the most, however, are the city officials who clash with artists and taggers over their creations. Interestingly, this battle has done nothing to diminish street art's popularity. And now, some experts say, that popularity could do what city official couldn't: threaten the very essence of this ephemeral work.

The Eye of the Beholder

What exactly are street art and graffiti? For the graffiti artist, the goal is to "tag" the most places. Extra respect goes to those who manage to emblazon their trademarks on hard-to-reach spots, like billboards and the tops of high buildings. "If there are two graffiti artists, they will compete for fame. They might never meet, but they compete because they see each others names so much," said graffiti artist BG 183 of Tats Cru, a group of Bronx-based professional muralists.

Street art, on the other hand, usually has a political or social message and aims to encourage the viewer to think. Although like graffiti, street art is usually illegal, many consider it an alternative art form, valuable to the community at large.

"Street art will only hit certain areas - rich areas-- next to museums or galleries where people with money will see and notice it. They don't go to tunnels, or the side of a highway. They won't risk getting caught," said BG 183.

"Graffiti is used in the broader sense, and street art is sometimes classified as a subset of graffiti," said Dave Combs, co-creator of the street art "Peel Magazine." But, he continued, "some people who do graffiti have an element of their motive being destruction or vandalism. For the most part, people who do street art do it to create something new and meaningful and beautiful for the person viewing it."

The Official View

City Council, though, does not share that view or distinguish much between street art and graffiti. Some members claim both are a "public nuisance that degrades the quality of life in neighborhoods and communities across the city." To fight it, the council passed legislation in July, 2007, forbidding anyone under 21 years old to carry materials that might be construed as graffiti instruments. These include aerosol spray paint and broad-tipped indelible markers.

Some saw this as blatant age discrimination. The council rejected that claim, citing studies that show most people believes those aged 18 to 21 are disproportionately responsible for graffiti. Further, council members noted, there are other restrictions placed on those under 21, including not allowing them to purchase and consume alcohol.

A chalk drawing by Ellis G. in Carroll Gardens
Photo (cc) Sam Teigen

The legislation is not the only movement toward a crackdown on graffiti. In October, Ellis Gallagher, a Brooklyn-based chalk artist, was arrested for drawing on the sidewalk in chalk, something he had been doing for years. Gallagher's arrest came only days after a summons was sent to a family in Park Slope, demanding that they remove the graffiti from their sidewalk or pay a fine of $300. The graffiti in question was also a chalk drawing, and the culprit was their six year-old daughter.

According to New York State penal law, graffiti is the "etching, painting, covering, drawing or otherwise placing of a mark upon public or private property with intent to damage such property," a police department spokesman told a Brooklyn Paper reporter. Given the impermanence of chalk drawings, they are a gray area in graffiti law but can still qualify as criminal mischief.

Into the Mainstream

While the city's effort to combat street continue, its acceptance seems to be growing in the cultural world -- perhaps to the detriment of "real street art. As its acceptance has grown, so has its proliferation.

There are books about the topic, and it is the main focus of magazines like "Overspray" and "Peel Magazine." Blogs, like The Wooster Collective and Streetsy display daily photos of street art from places all over the world.

<align=left>Work by Swoon at 11 Spring Street.
Photo (cc) Sam Teigen

Some artists have stopped limiting themselves using the streets as a canvas and begun using actual canvases, which then sell in galleries for thousands of dollars. Artists, such as Swoon, have been featured in world-renowned museums like the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum.

Certain major companies even commission graffiti artists to do advertisements for them. Tats Cru has been commissioned by several name-brand companies, including Snapple and Nike, to create advertisements. One of the artists, BG 183, stated "For us, the way I look at it, we're getting our name where regular artists can't go. We've been [featured] in museums, given lectures in college and traveled the world because of what we do. I can teach other graffiti artists, but I don't have to get caught and arrested. How many people can say that they're graffiti artists and make money from it?"

James Cade (professionally known as James Top), a former graffiti artist, currently teaches a 19 -week seminar at Hostos Community College in the Bronx entitled "Graffiti: The Art of Hip Hop." While many students were excited at the prospect of learning more about the taboo art form, Councilmember Peter Vallone claimed such a class would encourage vandalism. Vallone, a leading opponent of graffiti, has introduced various bills concerning street crime and vandalism, including one to double the penalties for anyone convicted of graffiti. Nonetheless, the class proceeded.

Artists vs. Street Art

As street art move more into the mainstream, some critics fear it will lose its essential edginess. "The Splasher," an unidentified person or group of people, splashed paint on a number of works by famous street artists from late 2006 to 2007. Next to the obliterated art they posted a wheat-pasted manifesto, whose awkward wording proclaimed street art to be a "fetishized action of banality" and that "representation is the most elemental form of alienation. Art by representation is no exception." Believing that street art had become too commercial and mainstream, the Splasher felt the only way to counter it was through destruction.

Although no one is certain of the Splasher's identity, 24-year-old James Cooper was arrested for lighting a stink bomb at the gallery opening of well-known street artist Shepard Fairey on June 27, 2007. The police and many street art enthusiasts suspect Cooper of taking part in the Splasher's doings. Two days after his arrest, a group gathered at another gallery opening and handed out 16-page booklets, entitled "If we did it, this is how it would've happened," which indirectly claimed responsibility for the stink bomb. The booklet's wording was similar to that of the Splasher and included the various manifestos that the Splasher had posted. There has been no sign of the group since.

"Street Art Blows" chooses pieces of street art it deems unworthy and places a sticker over them. It states in bold red letters "Keep Your Art to Yourself Next Time." The group's Web site elaborates on this idea, claiming that street art and graffiti have great potential that is being squandered by the masses. The site states: "Street art should be outside because it is necessary. Street art shouldn't be important because it is outside."

One of two Shepherd Fairey posters
commissioned by the Obama Campaign

But Street Art's movement toward the mainstream shows no sign of abating. Consider the following: Shepard Fairey, one of the world's most influential street artists, was recently commissioned by presidential candidate Barack Obama to design campaign posters. The posters were sold at Barack Obama's online store and quickly sold out. In a letter to Fairey, Obama wrote: "I would like to thank you for the use of your talent in my campaign. The political messages involved in your work and encouraged Americans to believe that they can help change the status-quo."

As Combs stated, in reference to the poster: "There's a kind of validation in that."

 

The Council and Congestion Pricing: Part II


If legislation has the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, some City Hall observers say it is guaranteed to pass.

That is, unless that bill is a proposal to implement congestion pricing in Manhattan, charging drivers $8 to enter the borough below 60th Street during the workday.

In the next two weeks city and state officials might have to come down on either side of the congestion pricing cliff, and the City Council will be the first to step up to the ledge. Given the vast number of term limited officials eyeing the 2009 race and those looking to swap seats with state legislators later this year, some say officials might hesitate to take any politically risky position.

More than six months ago, Gotham Gazette polled all of the City Council's 51 members on the congestion pricing plan -- which then included a zone cordoned off at 86th Street. A vast majority declined to take a stand -- nearly half would not say whether they were declaratively for or against the transportation proposal.

Since then, other media organizations, including the New York Times, which conducted a survey earlier this month, have taken polls. And it seems the political tide is turning against the mayor.

What's Next

Both the State Legislature and the City Council must approve the recommendations of the Congestion Mitigation Commission , which came down with a congestion pricing proposal (See related story here ) in January.

Once a bill has been introduced in Albany and is assigned a bill number, the City Council must draft a state legislative request, otherwise known as a home rule message, urging the State Legislature to approve the measure. It is not required to hold a hearing on the message nor let the procedural legislation age -- meaning the council can introduce, approve in committee and OK the bill on the chamber floor all in one day, according to city officials.

Once Albany has the message in its hands, said city officials, then it can vote on the legislation.

All of this -- after multiple deadline revisions -- must be done by April 7 in order for the city to receive $354 million in federal funding that is slated to go toward mass transportation improvements.

With the clock ticking and renewed support from Albany with the endorsement of Gov. David Paterson, the City Council is likely to vote on congestion pricing within the next two weeks. The body has a meeting scheduled for this week, though officials said it's unlikely they would consider the matter then.

A Shifting Stance

Our August poll found that 13 members of the City Council, including Quinn, were in favor of the mayor's congestion pricing proposal and seven members leaned toward supporting it.

On the other hand, 10 members were against the proposal and one was leaning against. We found that 16 members were undecided.

Earlier this month, the New York Times found some members had made up or changed their minds: 12 were in favor, 20 opposed, 11 were undecided and 8 did not respond.

Comparing the two surveys, we found seven members who were undecided or leaning toward the proposal have now come out against it. That includes the entire Staten Island delegation and the chair of the Environmental Protection Committee James Gennaro.

And one member says the media still hasn't gotten his position right. Councilmember Alan Gerson, whose district is one of three that is entirely within the congestion pricing zone, says he is actually undecided, not against the measure, as both the Times and Gotham Gazette described him.

"I am undecided as it now stands," said Gerson. "I have had several very productive meetings with the Department of Transportation, the mayor's office and the speaker's office. We have raised several very legitimate concerns, relating to the Canal Street-Holland Tunnel corridor to bus management and issues of equity."

With officials coming out for or against the new proposal every day -- even its most stringent supporters have raised questions on fairness and equity -- congestion pricing seems to be a difficult issue to see in only two colors.

While it isn't black and white, members of the City Council could soon be faced with an up or down vote, which obviously does not come in shades of gray.

A Reason to Change or A Position Renewed

Much has changed since the summer. The congestion pricing zone has shrunk from 86th Street to 60th. The new proposal also eradicates a congestion pricing toll exemption for vehicles on the FDR Drive.

And more and more members have questioned whether it is fair for drivers from New Jersey to pay no more than the $8 toll already doled out to get through the Lincoln or Holland tunnels, while those in the outer boroughs are faced with a brand new fee.

Councilmember Simcha Felder, who told us he was for the plan in the summer, is now against it, said his Director of Communication Eric Kuo. The devil's in the details, said Kuo. Until Felder knows exactly where transportation funding would be directed, he is going to withhold support.

"At this point he's definitely against it, and there hasn’t been a plan to vote for," said Kuo.

Others credit the looming election with positions that have ebbed and flowed. (Though Felder is considering a run for city comptroller, his communications director said the upcoming election is not a factor in his decision.)

Councilmember Lewis Fidler, who is a staunch opponent of the plan, said some of his colleagues are watching what side potential political opponents may come down on. If a member knows his or her opponent in an upcoming State Senate race opposes congestion pricing, he or she is unlikely to vote in contrast to that position to avoid political vulnerability, he said.

"The fact that we are voting first, you can't avoid it," said Fidler. "You can't take the politics out of this unfortunately."

A Compromise Here and There

Given the authority and power behind the Bloomberg administration, some city officials have confirmed that council members might wait to see what they could get for their districts before they take a firm position on congestion pricing.

The congestion pricing funding will be geared toward mass transportation improvements, which could primarily be outlined in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's capital plan. But because the authority's capital plan is grossly underfunded and projects are revised every year, some officials say promises on certain projects, from increased ferry service to increased service on the G, are not set in stone. A member could be basing their vote on an empty pledge, officials said.

But whether the vote is for politics or premise, city officials say congestion pricing will likely go down as the most divided vote in the history of the City Council -- which is usually characterized as a rubber stamp of the mayor.

"I think the mayor, up until recently, has taken passing in the council for granted," said Fidler. "I would say if everyone walked in today, for those of us that are committed, it's going to go down by a 2 to 1 margin."

 

Follow the Count, Super Tuesday Votes Revisited


The presidential primary election campaign has moved on to other states, as the country watches to see how the hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination will play out. But in a race where every delegate is precious, New York's "Super Tuesday" primary raised concerns about how the city counts votes and how accurate are its unofficial tallies.

As expected, Hillary Clinton, New York's junior senator, won the state's Democratic primary. The question is by how much? Last month, the New York Times reported that in many districts where her opponent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, was thought to have strong support, the unofficial election night tally reported that he got no votes -- not a single one. The findings created a stir. Election officials blamed human error for the inaccurate totals but skeptics and critics of the New York City Board of Elections were not all easily convinced.

Votes Called Into Question

A little more than a week after the February 5 primary in New York, the New York Times conducted a review of the unofficial votes tallies reported on primary night. Among over 6,000 election districts, the Times found 80 where Obama received zero votes and several others where Clinton received none. As the New York City Board of Elections conducted its official canvass of the vote, the Times found that in one district, where the results were initially reported as 141 to 0 in favor of Clinton, the election night count was actually 261 for Clinton to 136 for Obama. Instances similar to this were found in districts in Harlem and parts of Brooklyn where Obama had strong support.

In the wake of the article, other media sources weighed in. Mayor Michael Bloomberg referred to the instances as "voter fraud," an allegation he later recanted while still maintaining that the Board of Elections needed a major overhaul. The board attributed the problem to human error and emphasized the discrepancies inherent in unofficial counts. On February 26, it released the official canvass of the primary results, and while corrections provided Obama with a higher total vote count, he still came out on the losing end.

Human Error on Election Night

As New York State law requires, the Board of Elections releases unofficial results to the press on election night. This unofficial tabulation happens after the polls close, when inspectors at each election district open the backs of the city's Shoup lever machines-soon to be replaced by electronic voting machines-and record the vote tallies for each candidate. Poll inspectors, among the 30,000 poll workers that serve on Election Day at voting places, write the results by hand after already having put in a 17-hour long day, leaving, some say, plenty of room for mistakes to be made.

The inspectors record the vote totals on Return of Canvass sheets and hand the sheets to the police officer at that poll site. That officer then takes the sheet to his or her respective precinct office, where a police department employee enters the results into a computer. The computer records are then sent out to the Associated Press, which reports the numbers to the public that same night.

Each stage of this process provides an opportunity for error. Poll inspectors, many tired and strained after their long day, may incorrectly record vote totals on canvass sheets and police staff can make mistakes as they enter results into the computer system.

Some people theorize that in the primary this year, the design of the ballot may have added to the confusion. Clinton was first on the ballot, and while only three candidates were in the race at the time of the primary, six candidates remained on the ballot. Obama appeared fifth, just between John Edwards, who had dropped out, and Dennis Kucinich. At both stages, there is speculation that zero results intended for other candidates may have been mistakenly placed as Obama's count. There may have been fewer mistakes in recording Clinton's vote because of her position at the front of the line.

Official Results

After each election the New York City Board of Elections recanvasses all of the votes, to come up with an official tally. This can take a few weeks to complete.

Teams from the Board of Elections, with members from both major political parties, open each machine and record the results to be tabulated. Representatives of all the campaigns are notified and may attend the recanvassing process on behalf of their candidates, intended to provide further oversight of the official tabulation.

In addition, the official count includes all the absentee ballots voters sent in to the Board of Elections, and affidavit (paper) ballots that are reviewed for validity by board staff. Campaign representatives also are allowed to monitor the counting process for all paper ballots.

Ultimately the official results from New York's primary didn't change the overall outcome. Clinton won the state with 1,068,496 votes, while Obama received 751,019 votes. Clinton was awarded 139 of the 231 delegates, tied to the primary results, which New York will send to the Democratic Nation Convention in August. New York's superdelegates will also vote at the convention. Though they are not bound to either candidate, most have pledged their support to Clinton.

She clearly carried New York City on primary day. Both unofficial and official counts show Clinton beat the Illinois senator by more than 100,000 votes. Vote totals changed after the official canvass, from 492,724 for Clinton and 380,008 for Obama on election night to Clinton's 527,941 votes against Obama's 413,898. Both Obama and Clinton gained over 30,000 votes after the official count, including all paper ballots that were counted, was completed.

A Counting Disconnect

The discrepancies in the unofficial results that were reported the day of the primary captured the attention of the media, the mayor and some good government organizations. Good government organization, Citizens Union (whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette) wrote to the governor to call for an investigation by New York's attorney general into the event and is still awaiting a reply. In response to media inquiries, the Board of Elections conducted its own investigation of the jurisdictions that recorded zero votes for Obama. The investigation attributed 35 of the zero counts to errors made by the poll inspector while recording the votes directly from the machines and 20 to errors made by police employees incorrectly entering numbers from the Return of Canvass sheets into the computer system. In the remaining 27 cases where Obama received zero votes, that count was correct: No one voted for him.

At a City Council Government Operations Committee hearing, Board of Elections representatives discussed how unofficial vote totals are tabulated. Asked how the number of errors this year compared to other years, the representatives acknowledged that records of those discrepancies were not available but that their "gut instinct" told them discrepancies this year did not appear to be more frequent than in past elections.

While unofficial counts are just that -- preliminary results, which are issued to the public through the press on election night -- many voters and others now seem suspicious of vote tallies provided by their governments. Some advocates argue that inaccurate vote tallies, even in unofficial counts, undermine the integrity of and public confidence in the voting process.

With more frequent reports of elections gone awry, Americans, including New Yorkers, may be paying more attention to what happens to their votes at different stages. While some may view the complaints by critics of the Board of Elections as misinformed or even overzealous, they are indicative of growing public concern about the election process and the need to provide the public with as much accurate and comprehensive information as possible. Recent election history has done little to boost voters' confidence in the voting process. As many states have switched to new methods of voting -- and with New York preparing to make a change -- voters remain skeptical of the system.

Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.  

And Now: The Paterson Administration


The Paterson Era Begins
Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

Call the community board in the Harlem district David Paterson used to represent, mention his name and on the other line comes a chuckle and the word "comedian." Ask a political observer what the new governor is like and they say "amiable," "charismatic" or "conciliatory." Wonder how the city could fare under a Paterson administration and some New York City officials say they have high hopes.

So who is this Albany veteran, besides being the state's first black and legally blind governor and a so-called ally to the State Legislature?

Paterson represented the 30th State Senate district, which comprises most of Harlem and parts of the Upper West Side, for more than two decades. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up on Long Island, graduated from Columbia in three years and then from Hofstra Law School in the 1970s. Following in the footsteps of his father -- longtime politician Basil A. Paterson -- Paterson ran for the State Senate in 1985 and eventually became the body's minority leader.

He held onto the seat until joining Spitzer's ticket as a candidate for the mostly ceremonial post of lieutenant governor in 2006, shocking some Albany observers since he was in line to become the Senate's majority leader should Democrats take back the body.

Aside from citing his congenial, amiable outlook, some say the new governor -- who is scheduled to be sworn in at 1 p.m. today -- is more progressive than Spitzer and more likely to get things accomplished given his good relationship with the legislature's leaders.

"You'll see a savvy guy that gets along with the legislature and will be able to put through more of an agenda than Spitzer, because he has a better relationship (with the legislature)," said George Arzt, president of George Arzt Communication, a political consulting firm.

So far many of Paterson's priorities remain a mystery. Faced with a budget deadline two weeks away, Paterson said he would first concentrate on getting Albany back to business, which includes compromising on a budget with the State Senate and Assembly by April 1.

A New or Old Agenda?

An advocate for the disabled and minorities, Paterson was a member of the State Senate's minority for his entire tenure, which met legislation he proposed had little chance of passing.

Paterson's "speeches, which rely on facts and humor rather than decibels to score points, and his appreciation for the Senate's courtesies have won him wide respect," wrote Newsday's James Madore in 2002. But, the article continued, "For all Paterson's personal clout he still has few concrete results to show."

Despite that, his stands and actions pleased many progressive groups. The Working Families Party backed his successful bid to become minority leader earlier in the decade. In general, Paterson favors liberal positions on a range of issues, from opposing the death penalty to supporting gay marriage.

Whatever his ideology, some expect that under the circumstances Paterson will tread cautiously for a while. "He is not going to come in after a period of such damage and brooding and run down the gantlet," said David Birdsell, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. "It may look like a less ambitious agenda, but he may come in with a more realistic agenda."

Meeting the Budget Deadline

Barring any major unforeseen events, the budget will be the first item on Paterson's agenda. The governor and the legislature have until April 1 to hammer out a balanced budget for the 2009 fiscal year. Although the state has missed that deadline in the past, Paterson made it clear he intended to try to meet it this year. "We have a budget that's due and a deadline to meet," he said.

The process is already well under way. Assemblyman Herman Farrell Jr., chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, told the Times that the Senate and the Assembly have passed their modifications to the governor's budget plan and will now meet to reconcile their differences.

Paterson, though, may have to play a bit of catch up. "I'm coming into a budget process where I have not been innately involved," he said on a radio program Thursday. "So I kind of feel like the student getting ready for the final exam, but they haven't attended any classes."

Even without the abrupt change in governors, the government faces a daunting task. "Since the state fiscal year ends March 31, it was going to take tremendous focus and determination to resolve a $4 billion budget gap under the best of circumstances," said James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist for the Fiscal Policy Institute.

"It's particularly important," Parrott said, "to try to balance the budget in a way that doesn't cause further harm to the economy," such as by instituting steep budget cuts or increasing "regressive fees and taxes."

One issue that might be back on the table is an increase in the state income tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers. The Assembly has proposed such a hike.

"We want to try to do this (job) without raising anybody's taxes because that's what's driving people out of this state. We're pretty much the highest taxed per capita state in the union with the exception of Hawaii," Paterson said in a radio interview Friday. However he has not completely ruled out such a move, saying at his press conference, "We have a huge economic problem in this country, and I don't necessarily know when that [raising taxes] might become an issue, but I'm hoping that it won't be in the near future."

E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute has urged Paterson to resist the increase. "If he accedes to more tax hikes, the new governor would send economic decision-makers the worst possible signal at the worst possible time. It would also invite a bigger budget battle with Senate Republicans," McMahon wrote in the New York Post.

The Reform Agenda

If one single issue was responsible for Spitzer's landslide victory in November 2006, it was reform. He promised to root out corruption and to wake New York from what Spitzer himself likened to years of slumber. To address this, Spitzer had planned to dramatically reduce the state's sky-high campaign contribution limits and backed an independent redistricting commission that would have been charged with redrawing the lines for state legislative districts, which have long been designed largely to keep incumbents in office.

Both of those proposals may or may not become part of a Paterson agenda.

At his press conference last week, Paterson said he has a history of supporting campaign finance reform and would look to make a compromise with the legislature over the specifics. Since the state has some of the least restrictive campaign laws in the country, a compromise may not be what good government groups are aiming for.

"We want to not dictate campaign finance," said Paterson. "We want to really persuade legislators that this [current system] really is the root of a lot of the dysfunction we have in Albany."

Though Spitzer made a hallmark of good government proposals, some advocates contend the combative, steamrolling executive could have never seen them through anyway. Such controversial plans -- a stretch for even a compromising chief - would have fallen victim to the war between Spitzer and the legislature.

Paterson might be more successful at creating transparency and government reform because he has allies in the Assembly and the State Senate, said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

"He comes in with a reputation for having a real ability to work with people in a real bipartisan way," said Lerner. "The truth of the matter is it seems to me that Eliot Spitzer had some real commitments to some important ideas, and I think that both he and Mr. Paterson ran on the same platform."

Though confident, Lerner said Common Cause is looking for Paterson to clarify his reform agenda quickly.

The new governor backed reform measures, including public financing of campaigns, during his tenure in the State Senate. As a result, Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government group and the sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher, said he expects Paterson to be a proponent of campaign finance changes.

The fate of other reforms is more difficult to discern. "His position is less clear on redistricting reform," said Dadey. But he added that Paterson "more than anyone knows how dysfunctional the state has been. I would hope he would continue the reform."

Others are more skeptical. "While he's been many things in his quarter-century of public life, reformer isn't one of them," Fred Siegel and Harry Siegel wrote in the Sun.

Issues for City Residents

In the coming months, Paterson and the people he appoints to his administration will face a broad range of issues of particular concern to New York City residents. Here are a few:

Congestion Pricing

If congestion pricing is to become a reality and the city is to get the millions in federal funds, the state legislature, along with the City Council, have until the end of the month to approve a plan to charge people to drive in Manhattan. Spitzer supported the idea, though some have described that backing as "tepid."

And Paterson? At his press conference Thursday, he said, "We're taking a look."

According to Streetsblog, which supports the congestion fees, people are divided as to whether the change in the governor's mansion will help or hurt the embattled plan.

Gotham Gazette will take a closer look at this issue in our March 24 Issue of the Week.

School Spending

In 2007, the legal battle over state funding for city schools seemed to come to an end as Spitzer announced changes in the funding formula and additional aid for New York City schools. But in the face of the budget deficit, he scaled back the increase for next year. This angered some education advocates as well as the Bloomberg administration.

City Councilmember Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, said he hoped the money would be restored. "The children of New York City have been denied an adequate education for decades," Jackson said. "So the word is to David Paterson and to Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno keep the promise to the children of New York City."

Jackson said this might be more likely under Paterson than it would have been under Spitzer. In his press conference, Paterson cited improving an educational system downstate that has failed many children in New York City as one of his two top concerns. (The other was the upstate economy.)

In what could come as a surprise to people who see him as a kind of knee-jerk liberal, Paterson supports charter schools, schools that are privately run but publicly funded. In a 2006 interview, he said he favored lifting the cap on the number of such schools allowed in New York State. A pro-charter school group, Democrats for Education Reform, has scheduled a rally on Thursday to honor Paterson for "his early and strong support of education reform and charter schools."

Health Care

The issue of health care did not come up at Paterson's press conference, but he will have to deal with it. "Governor Spitzer had set in motion a broad examination of how to achieve universal health coverage, and while a concrete plan wasn't expected to pass this year, there was hope that the outlines of a plan would begin to emerge," Parrott said. The fate of that now remains anyone's guess.

Spitzer had also proposed expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program to cover children in families whose incomes are below 400 percent of poverty level, or nearly $83,000 a year for a family of four. (It currently covers families below 250 percent of poverty level.) The Bush administration had rejected the idea and Spitzer planned to use state funds to cover the costs. "The question reamins how you pay for it" in light of other spending priorities, Parrott said.

Development

A number of major development projects in the city remain at critical junctures: Moynihan Station, Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, Willets Point, the Javits Center Expansion and so on. The state plays a major role in many. Recently, for example, Spitzer proposed selling parcels of the land near the Javits Center, thereby scrapping plans for a substantially larger convention center. This brought sharp opposition from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, among others.

It is unclear whether anyone knows Paterson's position on every individual mega project slated for the five boroughs -- or even whether he has a position -- but as soon as Spitzer resigned, if not before, the real estate industry began fretting that Paterson might not be as friendly to them as Spitzer had been.

Paterson "is an unknown quantity in real estate circles," Crain's wrote on Wednesday. "That's in sharp contrast to Gov. Spitzer, who was considered pro-development and a friend of the industry, and whose father is a wealthy real estate developer."

Some of the unease about Paterson in the development industry springs from his stated opposition in 2005 to using eminent domain -- the government seizing of private property -- for economic development projects. "He stood with me and proposed some legislation and I am very hopeful that the lieutenant governor and soon-to-be governor will honor his commitment and will either issue a moratorium or review the abuse of eminent domain across New York City," Letitia James, a City Councilmember and opponent of Atlantic Yards, said in an interview with the Sun.

People on the other side of the issue expressed hope that Paterson's new role might prompt him to change his mind. "I don't believe he has a built in prejudice against economic development or development. It is still premature to try to figure out what he is going to do, but he is somebody we have been able to work with for 20 years when he was in the state Senate," Steven Spinola, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, has said.

Crime

Paterson has a fairly high profile position on issues related to crime and punishment. The bill restricting the use of deadly force by police officers would have overturned the city's current shoot-to-kill policy by requiring officers to try to wound a suspect. A spokeswoman for the governor told the Times that Paterson had introduced the measure, which was widely denounced by law enforcement, as a way of "restoring confidence in law enforcement at a time when confidence was very low.” Paterson has opposed the death penalty and was arrested for protesting outside police headquarters in 1999 following the shooting death of Amadou Diallo.

Paterson was also arrested outside then Gov. George Pataki's New York City office in 2002 for protesting the state's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. "David Paterson has supported meaningful change in the Rockefeller drug laws," said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association, which works on prison issues. "We are very hopeful that, unlike Spitzer, he will be outspoken now that he is chief executive."

In particular, the group wants to give judge's more discretion in sentencing drug offenders, letting them decide whether someone should be sent to prison or to a treatment program.

According to Gangi, while Spitzer supported a major overhaul during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, "he did not address the issue in any significant way after he became governor."Regarding Paterson," Gangi continued, "if the positions he's taken over his political career are any indication, it's a higher priority for him."

Civil Rights

While Eliot Spitzer supported legalizing same-sex marriage, proponents of gay marriage said that the new governor might well be an even stronger ally than Spitzer had been. On the night the State Assembly voted to allow gay marriage in New York last year, Paterson "worked the floor... encouraging and cajoling Assembly members to support the bill and, importantly, making the crucial point that gay rights are fundamental civil rights," activist Ethan Geto told Gay City News.

In general, advocates hope that Paterson's experiences as an African-American and a person with a disability will lead him to reach out to various groups in the state and treat them with respect.

POLITICS

Of course, governing in New York is not only about budgets and passing laws, but also about politics and power. Boasting of being a steamroller, Spitzer vowed to exert control over the legislature and end Republican control of the State Senate, putting an end to the informal agreement in New York where the Democrats get the Assembly, the Republicans the Senate and the governor's job is up for grabs.

Weeks before Spitzer's resignation, he seemed tantalizingly close to achieving his goal. With their recent victory in a special election in an overwhelming Republican State Senate district upstate, the Democrats were only a seat away from capturing the Senate. Spitzer's resignation immediately restored the GOP edge: Since the position of lieutenant governor remains vacant, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno will be able to vote to break ties, meaning the Democrats now need two additional seats.

Some question whether Paterson will share Spitzer's zeal to defeat Republican senators. Paterson became minority leader in 2002, ousting State Senator Martin Connor of Brooklyn, largely on a pledge to challenge Republican dominance. But when asked Thursday about whether he would continue that fight, Paterson demurred, saying it was not the time to talk about it.

Of course, it is far too early to tell what effect the Spitzer scandal -- to say nothing of the ongoing federal investigation of Bruno -- will have on either parties' chances in November's legislative elections.

Like any political upheaval, Spitzer's sudden fall -- and Paterson's rise -- has fueled frenzied speculation. What will this mean for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid? (Both Paterson and Spitzer back her candidacy.) Will State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo run for governor in 2010? What about Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who unsuccessfully challenged Spitzer in 2006? And Bloomberg?

Here's a favorite one, for its sheer gaudiness if nothing else: Clinton will become president. Democrats will take the State Senate, making State Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens next in line of succession to Paterson. Paterson will name himself senator to replace Clinton. And Smith will become governor.

 

 

Stated Meeting: Budget Cuts and E-Waste


Following the Bloomberg administration's lead, the City Council approved a 4.3 percent cut in its operating budget for fiscal year 2009 in response to a looming budget deficit and trying fiscal times.

At its stated meeting Wednesday, the council also approved legislation requiring the parks department to prune trees that block intersections and a bill that requires the transportation department identify and work to improve the city's most dangerous intersections.

And in response to a veto threat from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the council reintroduced legislation requiring manufacturers recycle certain electronics, dividing the bill into two separate pieces of legislation so the mayor could sign elements he agrees with.

Bringing Down the Budget

In just a handful of months, the Bloomberg administration has called for the city's departments and agencies to slash at their budgets not once, but twice. At the end of 2007, the mayor directed agencies to cut 2.7 percent from this fiscal year's budget and another 4.4 percent from next year's, which begins in July.

Earlier this month, he requested all city department's cut another 3 percent to address revenue shortfalls and a reduction in aid from the state. Now, as promised in her State of the City address, Council Speaker Christine Quinn is requiring the council reduce its operating budget by similar proportions.

The council's operating budget -- which covers its day-to-day costs including staffing for its central and district offices -- has been reduced by $2.3 million. The reduction is the most significant in the history of the modern City Council, said city officials. The budget was approved unanimously by a vote of 46 to 0.

The reductions, said Quinn, will be divided approximately between personnel services and other services. Staffing reductions are from attrition, she said.

"It would be wrong if we in the City Council didn't lead by example," said Quinn. "We are saying if we have to look at agencies in the eyes and tell nurses and teachers and social workers that they have to do more with less, we to the penny will do more with less."

Quinn said the cuts would not affect members' district offices, but instead its central staff, which is primarily the speaker's office. The City Council is the only city entity, which passes its budget before the administration comes out with its executive budget.

Cutting Down on Crashes

The City Council also unanimously approved legislation that requires the Department of Transportation identify and study locations with the mot traffic accidents and take action to remedy their conditions. The legislation was unanimously approved by a vote of 46 to 0.

The legislation (Intro 567), which was introduced by Councilmember Vincent Gentile, requires the department conduct annual safety audits of crash locations involving pedestrians, including those areas with the highest crash volumes or locations that have acquired a pattern of incidents. The analysis would be based on state data.

If found necessary following the analysis, the city would make appropriate traffic safety fixes within a 180-day period.

Pruning Trees

When Councilmember Jessica Lappin got into a minor car accident last summer, it was because a tree was blocking a traffic light. In response, the councilmember introduced legislation (Intro 674) that requires the Department of Parks and Recreation inspect and prune vegetation that blocks traffic signals or signs. The bill was approved unanimously.

"Drivers can't obey traffic signs and signals if they can't see them," said Lappin.

Tree pruning and replacement is the number one 311 call within the purview of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said Lappin.

Under the legislation, the department will have to inspect a site within four days of a complaint. If pruning or cutting is needed, the department must trim a tree within 10 days if it blocks stop, yield or do not enter signs as well as traffic signals. For other signs, the department will have 20 days.

E-Waste

To compromise with the administration, the City Council rescinded its previous e-waste legislation approved earlier this year and reintroduced two separate bills. The new measure splits the initial proposal in half - one bill (Intro 728) the administration favors, while the other (Intro 729) it opposes.(For more on electron recycling, play our Garbage Game.)

Quinn said this way the city could move forward and begin to implement part of the initial legislation, which mandates manufacturers come up with their own recycling plans.

"My administration and the council share the same goal of ensuring that thousands of tons of electronic waste are recycled instead of thrown into landfills, and we largely agree on how to achieve it," said Bloomberg in a prepared statement. "We are separating the issue into two bills so we can move forward on the broad areas where we have reached consensus, instead of letting our differences stop all progress."

The second bill, which is destined for the mayor's veto, has specific requirements, including benchmark percentages the manufacturers would have to meet and a fee structure. The standards would increase incrementally, eventually requiring a manufacture recycle 65 percent of its electronic merchandise, by weight, by 2018.

Bloomberg opposes the measure and says it is unconstitutional to require a manufacturer recycle when it is a wholesaler that sells it to the public. He has said he would not enforce the measure.

Quinn said she and the council would continue to work with the administration to see that the second bill would move forward. She would not say whether the council would take legal action against the administration to enforce it.  

Stated Meeting: Green Carts Come to Town


Though it scaled back a bill to create green carts, the City Council approved legislation Wednesday creating this new class of street vendor.

In neighborhoods where residents have little access to fruits and vegetables, carts with produce from lettuce to bananas will be allowed to offer residents healthier options. The bill raised fierce opposition from produce and supermarket associations throughout the city.

In addition to the green cart legislation, the council unanimously approved legislation providing a tool for tenants to sue landlords for harassment.

Fruits on the Streets

The green cart legislation (Intro 665) was spearheaded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and introduced by Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Despite that support, the bill was approved by a vote of 37 to 9 – a relatively divided vote for the City Council.

The bill also was scaled back since it was introduced in December. Initially it proposed to increase the city’s vending permits by 1,500. Now the legislation adds 1,000. There are currently about 3,000 food vendor permits in the city.

The approved version of the bill decreased the number of police precincts where the permits can be used in from 43 to 34. Most of the districts that were dropped are in Queens.

Quinn said the reductions would make the bill being more targeted, and were not indicative of opposition to the carts in certain council districts. The bill had initially applied to neighborhoods where 12 percent of the population or more had not had a serving of fruits or vegetables in the last 24 hours based on a survey by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The legislation increased that cap to 15 percent, thus reducing the number of areas affected by the bill.

Business groups and grocery associations, including the National Supermarket Association and the Korean Produce Association, opposed the legislation because they said it threatened small businesses. If green carts were permitted to set up like other vendors – who can go within 20 feet of a any business – many would lose customers, they argued.

Such conflicts would arise, they say, because the legislation is not based on the number of stores offering produce in these neighborhoods, which are mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but on the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Other business associations argued the city’s street vendor permits are not enforced already, and that adding a new class would complicate the system and threaten established businesses.

Members who voted against the legislation voiced similar concerns. “You have to open the entire city’s streets,” said Councilmember Melinda Katz, who voted against the bill. “My issue is enforcement is impossible.”

Some also claimed the legislation was fast tracked through City Hall to avoid opposition groups. Quinn said the city gave the bill ample review, and they wanted to ensure green vendors could be on street corners by this spring and summer – the height of the fruit and vegetable season.

Tenant Harassment

Though the city’s tenant harassment legislation, (Intro 627) which was introduced by Councilmember Daniel Garodnick, was approved unanimously, it also caused controversy at City Hall Wednesday.

Since the bill was introduced in December, Councilmember Leroy Comrie introduced legislation, which would have allowed landlords to take tenants to court for harassment. Though that bill had little chance of receiving widespread support within the City Council, some members wanted to ensure landlords were protected from frivolous lawsuits from tenants.

Comrie said he voted in favor of the tenant harassment legislation out of respect for other members of the City Council. He still questions the absence of an independent third party who can verify whether harassment really occurred.

According to the legislation, a Housing Court judge would have to approve a harassment claim in order for a tenant to file a suit against a landlord who has had three suits dismissed within the last ten years. The measure would also qualify landlords for attorney fee reimbursement if the claim were thrown out.

Supporters of the legislation say it provides protection for tenants and answers, at least in part, the critical housing crisis in the city. Garodnick said over the years the city has seen an increase in such tactics, and the legislation hopes to reverse the trend.

Tenants could bring a landlord to Housing Court for harassment for the following violations: interruptions of essential services for an extended period, damaging locks or doors, using frivolous court proceedings or other measures aimed at encouraging or forcing a tenant to vacate an apartment.

If found guilty of harassment, a landlord could pay between $1,000 and $5,000 in civil penalties.  

Counting Down to the Great Television Turnover


photograph
Photo Courtesy of barcoder96 / Lee Gillen

One year from now, a New Yorker's television will suddenly stop working. More likely, a great many New Yorkers' televisions will stop working. It's hard to say who they will be, but they will probably think they are alone. They are likely to be older residents, with limited formal education, living on low fixed incomes, who do not speak English. Some will be residents of cavernous blocks, on lower floors in the shadow of a large building or behind a thick tree cover. We don't know who they will be, but some of the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who get free television over the airwaves will lose their signal.

Though many New Yorkers don't yet know it, the clock is ticking on their television reception. The federal government has set Feb. 17, 2009, as the date on which television broadcasters must switch from an analog signal to a digital one. This change means anyone with a television set more than a couple of years old who wants to keep getting free broadcasts over the air needs to take action.

The transition to digital television, which was mandated by Congress in 2005, will free up portions of the airwaves for new uses (digital transmission uses narrower slices of the spectrum than analog) and enhance data services like closed captioning. Viewers who make a smooth transition to digital television (DTV) should see more channels with clearer reception.

To make a smooth transition, however, any television set that relies on analog signals will need a converter installed between the set and the antenna. Using money from the sale of portions of the newly freed up airwaves, Congress has set aside $1.5 billion to subsidize the purchase of digital converters with coupons that will make the cheapest converters nearly free. Converter coupons won't be enough to keep everyone's television working, however.

Two recent, independent reports suggest that the government-mandated transition process will leave many viewers without a signal. The reports suggest that there are many places where this transition could go wrong. While they lay the blame on the government, at this point individual consumers need to take action.

Weak Signals

To get converters, though, consumers have to know they need them. Many, though, don't know that the transition is coming. For all of the money the government is spending on coupons, they plan to spend just $27.5 million on public education. The United Kingdom, by contrast, has budgeted $400 million to inform a population one-fifth the size. "The federal government is relying very heavily on industry to educate consumers and that's resulting in a large amount of confusion over what consumers should do to prepare," says Joel Kelsey, Grassroots Coordinator for Consumers Union. Consumers Union's publication Consumer Reports recently launched a comprehensive guide to the transition.

If you have seen a public service announcement about the digital television transition, it was probably sponsored by the DTV Transition Coalition, a consortium of cable, broadcast and consumer electronics industry groups. The industry-sponsored effort, valued at $697 million, does not explain all of the issues though.

Nielsen Data assessed by Consumer Reports ranked the New York City metropolitan area sixth in the country in terms of sheer number of households currently getting their only television signal free over the airwaves: Almost 357,000 New York City households depend entirely on over-the-air television signals. Though these households comprise less than 5 percent of those that own televisions in the city -- much lower than the national average of 15 percent -- they are overwhelmingly low income, elderly and isolated: They are both vulnerable and hard to reach.

Among the issues not being fully addressed: what happens to cable or satellite subscribers whose service goes out or gets shut off? Consumers Union found in their polling that many pay television consumers indicated they would be very concerned if they were unable to receive an over the air signal during an emergency. If a storm knocks out cable service in your neighborhood, anyone with only an analog television will be left without a signal until the cable company repairs the lines. Households that might be thinking of cutting the expense of cable out of already tight budgets won't be able to turn off their service and still watch the news if they don't get a converter.

Even if every American television viewer gets the message and acquires and installs a converter, some will still have technical difficulties. "It's a systems issue," says Barry Goodstadt, senior vice president of research for Centris, which conducts independent telecommunications research and recently released a report on gaps in digital television coverage. Centris found as many as 580,000 households in our region that stand to be affected by the transition, homes that have and use multiple televisions, some of which rely on the airwaves for their signal. Moreover, as Centris points out, the converter box is just one piece of the puzzle. "The problem," Goodstadt says, "is that the converter box is only as good as the antenna it's hooked up to."

Straight Signals

photograph
Photo Courtesy of barcoder96 / Lee Gillen

Unlike analog signals, which can bounce down different paths to your TV or fade out over long distances, digital signals don't go static; either you see it or you don't. Traditional television-top "rabbit ears" may not be able to pick up the digital signal. Centris' phone surveys found that nearly 80 percent of Americans who receive their television signal free over the airwaves have only set-top antennas. This could create large gaps in digital television signals' reach, though it remains hard to know how many households will be affected. Centris will be conducting surveys and tests in New York and other cities over the next two months. The Federal Communications Commission and industry groups have disputed Centris' conclusions, offering somewhat rosier alternative assessments.

No matter who you believe, some households will need both a converter box and to upgrade from rabbit ears to a rooftop antenna. In some cases, existing rooftop antennas will need upgrades. Installing or upgrading a rooftop antenna means running electricity and coaxial cable to the roof. However, as the Centris team points out, the public education campaigns do not even mention the word "antenna."

photograph
Photo courtesy of doegox / Philippe Teuwen

"That is why we brought this stuff up," says Goodstadt. "We don't want consumers to have a horrible experience going through this transition. And if we ignore the antenna issue, some people will. There are some costs and issues that the government simply is not recognizing."

Potential for Abuse

If the process is bungled, it could turn into a boon for cable and satellite providers as long-time holdouts give up trying to tune in free TV. Anyone who sells or installs antennas or converter boxes should also fare well. But whether households switch to cable, upgrade antennas, replace their television sets, or acquire converter boxes, the money for all of these solutions is ultimately going to come from the consumer. As Kelsey puts it, "Consumers who didn't ask for a switch to digital television are now being required to spend a huge amount of money on a box and an antenna to watch free TV broadcast over public airwaves."

A situation where people know they need to spend money, but not exactly on what, is ripe for fraud. New Yorkers who don't speak English may miss most advertisements, and those who are afraid to interact with the government will not be able to claim their converter box coupons. An unscrupulous landlord could also acquire the coupons for all of his tenants and then sell the cards or use them to buy converters to sell. Cable subscribers who don't need a converter, could do the same thing.

Added Costs

One potential cost will be to the environment. A Consumers Union survey found that nearly a quarter of consumers who are aware of the transition believe they will need to throw out their analog televisions after 2009. "This would mean thousands of perfectly good televisions getting kicked to the curb," Kelsey worries, "resulting in an immense amount of dangerous electronic waste" -- something New York City already has enough of.

There is another option: one survey conducted by the cable industry in November found that many households plan to keep their obsolete televisions for DVD watching or to give up television entirely.

Are NYC Broadcasters Ready?

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Photo courtesy of jek in the box / Jessica Wilson

The final link in the DTV transition chain is the broadcasters themselves. Some smaller broadcasters are asking the FCC for a waiver that will allow them to shut off analog broadcasts before the deadline, which would mean that viewers without a digital setup would lose those channels early. Smaller, low-power TV stations do not have to meet the deadline and may not have a digital signal come next February; viewers will lose those channels unless they have a "pass through" converter box that can handle both kinds of signals.

New York's major broadcasters are already transmitting digital signals and will continue analog broadcasts until the cutoff, but some have complicated plans to switch channels over the course of a couple of days or even minutes.

"We're ready to go," said one engineer at WNYW, the local Fox affiliate that broadcasts from the top of the Empire State Building. Though he's certainly the station's expert on this topic, he's not an official company spokesperson so he asked to remain anonymous. He thinks some of the city's stations are further along in their preparations than others, but "by the time we get to February '09, New Yorkers will be alright."

The WNYW engineer and his colleagues have been from midtown to Long Island testing reception. He's found newer digital TVs to be much better at picking up a signal than the first generation of digital TVs that are three or four years old now, but he sees the transition as a government-mandated process of trial and error. He's concerned that the regulators and politicians won't respond quickly to the feedback from the engineers. No amount of preparation or technological enhancement can ensure that no New Yorkers lose their signal and do not know what to do about it.

So, What Are You Waiting For?

Goodstadt and Kelsey both offer the same advice to New Yorkers who are concerned that they might lose their television signal: Don't wait. Get your coupons, get your converter box, set it up, and see if it works.

Joshua Breitbart is policy director for People's Production House.

 

A Permanent Address: Regulating Residency Requirements at the City Council


Last year, Councilmember Mathieu Eugene was elected three times: Once in February, once in April and once in November. The reason: his address.

When the seat became vacant in January of 2007, Eugene lived in Canarsie, far beyond the Central Brooklyn district's borders. He later moved to a leased apartment in Prospect Park South, well within the district's borders. The question was whether he moved in time.

The controversy over his residence sent Brooklynites to and from the polls, elicited advice from the state attorney general and sparked a discussion on how long elected officials should live in their district before seeking office.

Different offices, from local to state to federal, have different requirements. And ironically, said some advocates and elected officials, it is the municipal level in New York City - the most local form of government - that has the most lenient rules.

Because of last year's confusion, residency requirements are now back in the spotlight and in front of the City Council this week. Several members want the state to require that municipal officials reside in their district for one year before an election. Others think a stringent rule could hinder a voter's choice - it is, after all, up to them.

A Variety of Rules

Anyone looking to run for the City Council must reside in the district on the day voters head to the polls. Prior to the marathon special elections in Brooklyn last year, however, even that was not clear.

When Eugene's residency was called into question, Council Speaker Christine Quinn sought guidance from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to interpret the state's Public Officer's Law. Once Cuomo determined a candidate must reside in the district on the day of the election, Quinn required Eugene sign an affidavit affirming he resided in the district on the day of the election, and she announced that the City Council would no longer swear in new members until after the Board of Elections certified the results.

All this surprises some members of the City Council.

"I never knew that you could run for the City Council and you didn't have to live in the district," said Councilmember James Vacca, a co-sponsor of a resolution urging the state to take up the matter.

The rules are convoluted and not spelled out clearly, said officials and City Hall observers.

For most other offices, the requirements are quite clear. To run for statewide office, like governor, a candidate must be a resident of the state for five years. To run for the State Assembly or the State Senate, a candidate must reside in his or her district for a year.

To run for Congress a candidate must live in the state, but not necessarily the district. (Some city officials attribute this to history - specifically westward expansion, when there was barely a way to find transit to the Wild West, let alone legitimate candidates.)

A Reason to Reside…

What's in an address, anyway? To some City Council members it can be the difference between knowing your constituency and an underhanded motivation.

That’s why Councilmembers Kendall Stewart, Tony Avella and Vacca have signed onto a resolution (Reso. 1232), which calls for a one-year district residency requirement for all those seeking municipal office. (The City Council's residency requirement is a state statute, and thus cannot be changed at City Hall. Any revision would be decided in Albany.)

Those who have signed onto the legislation thus far say anyone who wants to seriously represent a community must be immersed in it - from the scents wafting from local restaurants to the shouts of playgrounds at local schools.

"If someone tells me they live in the 2100 block of Cruger Avenue, I know that block will need additional trees," said Vacca. "I will tell you that some buildings are nicer than others."

Knowing a neighborhood inside and out is crucial to representing its interests, said sponsors.

Avella said a lack of requirements breeds carpetbaggers, who may not have the best motivations, he said.

"If you really want to run for office for the right reasons, why would you run for office in a district you don’t live in?" asked Avella.

Several good government groups have voiced support for a residency requirement. Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, said the group had not taken a formal position on the resolution, but would likely support a one-year residency requirement. Lerner said there should be exceptions during redistricting years to ensure gerrymandering was avoided.

Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group expressed a similar concern over redistricting, especially following the upcoming 2010 census.

"The notion of residency requirement is a great idea, (but) if improperly implemented, it can also be used to target or potentially disenfranchise candidates by gerrymandering them outside of a district," said Rosenstein.

…And Not To

One good government group disagrees with the requirement. Citizens Union, the sister organization to Citizens Union Foundation, which is Gotham Gazette's publisher, opposes the one-year rule. The group argues it would hinder voter choice. Instead the group would like to see candidates disclose current addresses honestly, regardless of whether they are in or outside of the district being sought.

Officials, though, should reside in the district when they are sworn in, according to Citizens Union.

"Instead of winnowing the field of candidates, let the voters decide who they want to represent them," said Executive Director Dick Dadey.

Other officials were hesitant to endorse a year requirement just yet, but admitted that the current regulations were not up to par. Councilmember Simcha Felder, chair of the council's Governmental Operations Committee that is holding a hearing today on the issue, said the regulations need to be tweaked. How, he wouldn’t say.

"It's a problem, and it's not a small one," said Felder. "Even if it only occurs infrequently, it really disenfranchises voters when they hear about these situations."

 

 

Signs of a Sea Change In Voting


The campaigns for presidential nominations have been close this year, but for many New York State voters, the hardest thing about elections isn't in keeping up with the latest political gossip or even deciding between the candidates. Rather, just casting a ballot can be the most difficult part of voting for some of the three million disabled citizens in New York State.

The passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) should have been a triumph for these New Yorkers. Passed in 2002, it mandated that every poll site have at least one accessible voting machine, and that every poll site be handicapped-accessible by January 1, 2006. Yet, slow progress of New York State's implementation of the law and selection of new voting machines has delayed the advances HAVA offered disabled voters. This fall's primary and general elections will mark the first time in the state that disabled voters will be able to vote privately and independently, without the help of a friend or poll worker.

Disability Voting At Present

Photo of NYC Lever Voting Machine
Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik.

The first lever machine was used in New York state in 1892, but they do not accommodate handicapped voters and are thus considered not to comply with federal law HAVA. In place of the levers, the counties of New York must now choose between optical scanning machines-and their ballot marking device (BMD) companions-and direct recording electronic (DRE) machines.

Optical scan voting systems count and tabulate the vote from paper ballots marked by the voter. DRE machines operate using a touch screen that allows the voter to make their selections, much like an ATM.

Under HAVA, New York was required to provide at least one accessible voting machine in each poll site by 2006. The State Board of Elections has yet to complete the process of certifying voting machines, needed in order for county offices to purchase and implement the new voting systems across the state. As a result of this inaction the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state in 2006 for non-compliance and ordered it to institute an interim plan to avoid disenfranchising handicapped voters while testing and certification of new voting machines was completed. The interim plan, in place since 2006, allowed for one location in each borough to be equipped with BMDs on election days.

In November 2007, the U.S. District Court overseeing the ongoing lawsuit required the State Board of Elections to come up with a revised plan for implementing HAVA. Gridlocked and unable to agree, Republican and the Democrat commissioners submitted separate proposals. Both parties called for one BMD to be placed in each poll site by September 2008, while voters not requiring the devices would continue to use the lever machines. The Democrats, though, called for implementation of a completely new voting system by 2009, as the Republicans set no timetable for full implementation of the new system.

The court order gave the elections board one last chance to reach an agreement and move forward toward replacing the state's old lever voting machines. In early January, the board submitted a plan to place one BMD at each poll site by this September and completely replace the lever machines by 2009.

Approval Tug of War

On January 23, the State Board of Elections released a list of approved ballot marking devices from which each county must select the ones it purchases. Three ballot marking devices were approved: the Sequoia Image Cast, ES&S Automark and Premier Automark - all of which used paper ballots, and would be read by optical scanners or counted by hand. The two Automarks were approved on the condition of required adjustments.

Two weeks later the board rescinded its approval of the two Automark systems in a split vote. By that time Liberty, the vendor that proposed the use of its DRE machine as possible option for a ballot-marking device, had already sued the Board of Elections for not including them in the initial list.

This month, a judge ordered that the Liberty DRE machine be included in the board's initial list of approved ballot marking devices. Not long after, ES&S and Premier were also ordered back on the list just in time for counties to make their selections of BMDs on February 8.

New York City voted 5 to 4 to purchase the ES&S Automark. Queens commissioner Anthony Como broke ranks and voted for the ES&S machine, while the other four commissioners voted for the Sequoia Image Cast.

Around the state an overwhelming majority of counties opted to purchase the Sequoia Image Cast. The machine has yet to be used in the United States. Three other counties-Albany, Schenectady and Rockland-will go with the Premier Automark. Hamilton County was the only one in the state that selected to purchase the Liberty DRE.

What Can They Do?

Ballot marking devices (BMD) are used to allow disabled voters to mark paper ballots independently and privately. BMDs do not count votes. They simply mark a voter's ballot, which is then transported through a "privacy sleeve" to the poll site's scanner or box. This year poll sites will deliver those ballots to their borough office to be counted along with other paper ballots such as, absentee, emergency ballots, affidavit ballots and military ballots.

To use a BMD a voter can listen to the options through an audio recording with headphones, or view the options on a touch-screen, which somewhat resembles an ATM screen. There are a number of different ways to for voters to make their selections, and the BMD is designed to accommodate variety of disabilities. For example, voters with visual impairments can use features that allow the contests on the screen to be enlarged or view using a two-tone display. Headphones can also be plugged into the device, and voters can listen to the ballot choices, making their selections using a Braille keypad. Voters with limited mobility can identify their selection using a sip and puff device, rocker paddles.

Those viewing the options on the screen can make their selections using any of devices mentioned above or can use the touch-screen itself. The machine can also accommodate voters with limited English proficiency. It can display ballot races in the languages required in some jurisdictions by federal law, which include Chinese, Korean, and Spanish in parts of New York City. Audio recordings of the ballot in these languages can also be recorded to allow visually impaired voters the opportunity to vote in the language of their choice. At the end of the process, the voter can review his ballot aurally, through an audio device, or visually, by printing out the ballot.

This year, disabled voters will be able to use the devices in their own polling sites for the first time. All other voters will cast their ballots on the lever voting machines, which will still be employed in 2008.

If the BMDs are used next year in conjunction with an optical scan voting system throughout the city, disabled voters who are not disabled will mark their ballots by hand. However, there are no limitations to who will be allowed to use the ballot marking devices. Some disability advocates are, in fact, encouraging the use of the machines by all voters, as a way to avoid segregating disabled voters and stigmatizing use of the machines. Others fear, however, that unnecessary use of the machines might create long lines for disabled voters.

It Takes More Than Machines

Although ballot-marking devices are a huge advance toward enfranchising disabled voters, purchasing the machines is only the first step. Voter and poll worker education is also imperative as New York City makes the transition to a new way of voting. Poll workers will be required become intimately understand ballot marking devices and long term solution voting machines over the next two years, and their ability to operate and demonstrate new voting technologies will be crucial. Furthermore, all voters will also need to be adequately prepared for what these changes will mean for them as they enter their poll sites this fall and next year.

"The State Board of Elections needs to have information about BMDs available in an accessible format. There needs to be materials available in large print and Braille," said Aaron Belisle, voter education and access coordinator at the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY. For now, though, he notes, that the PDF format the city Board of Elections Web site uses is not compatible with screen-reading software. By getting information out to voters about the new ballot marking devices and their proper usage, the City BOE can work to prevent confusion at the polls amongst disabled and non-disabled voters alike.

Andrea Senteno is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette. Lenore Costello is an intern at Gotham Gazette.

New Bills: Ringing in the New Year With Legislation


In the first month of the New Year, 23 bills were introduced at the City Council. From the regulation of sex offenders to the study of vacant properties, here is a sampling of the legislation members of the City Council will be pushing for this year.

Vacant Properties

Sparked by a survey by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, several bills were introduced at the City Council that regulate vacant buildings.

Councilmember David Yassky is calling for the mandatory registration of vacant buildings, which will detail whether a property is intended for a particular use or demolition. The bill (Intro 693) would also include a $1,000 registration fee. Another bill (Intro 694), also introduced by Yassky, calls for an annual survey of all vacant buildings. Some officials have said if they city tallied all of its vacant buildings it could better capitalize on this wasted resource.

Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito introduced legislation (Intro 687) last month that mandates all vacant buildings be inspected every five years. A bill offered by Councilmember Alan Gerson (Intro 681) would require the city’s Department of Administrative Services to conduct an inventory of all city-owned properties. For vacant properties, the department must submit an annual report detailing the location and best use for such property.

Sex Offenders

Between 1986 and 1995, nearly 50 percent of the sex offenders released from prison returned for violating their parole, according to a report from the state Department of Correctional Services.

Based on that, Councilmember Joseph Addabbo introduced legislation (Intro 672) banning any level-three sex offender -- those considered at a “high level of risk” for a repeat offense -- from living within 1,000 feet of a park or school. Under the legislation, a violator would be subject to six months in prison or a fine of no more than $500.

Recycling in Parks

Councilmember Jessica Lappin is calling for the introduction of a recycling program in public parks. Under legislation (Intro 673) introduced in January, at least 30 parks would start the pilot program in May and collect recyclable materials, including glass, paper and plastic, and monitor the contents. The program must be spread throughout the five boroughs.

Glass on the Beach

Legislation introduced by Councilmember Joseph Addabbo would prohibit the sale of materials made of glass or glass packaging within 150 feet of a city beach. Under the bill, (Intro 677) a violator would be subject to a fine from between $100 and $500.

Residential Segregation

Councilmember Letitia James introduced a bill that would require several city departments address racial and ethnic segregation in the city. Among its provisions, the bill (Intro 685) would require the Department of City Planning to analyze the impact of zoning changes on residential racial segregation 30 days prior to any public hearing.

Voting Registration

A bill ( Intro 690) introduced by Councilmember Darlene Mealy would require the Department of Education to distribute voter registration cards to all students within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

AIDS Services

Under current city law, those infected with HIV are eligible for city benefits and services only if they exhibit symptoms. Legislation (Intro 691) introduced by Councilmember Annabel Palma, would expand that definition to anyone who is HIV positive.

Fingerprinting at the Department of Aging

Legislation (Intro 692) introduced by Councilmember James Vacca would require all candidates for employment at the Department of Aging to be fingerprinted in order to determine whether they have a criminal background. The bill also would apply to any employee of an agency that has a contract with the department.  



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