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Assessing City Library Expansion After Budget Boost


van bramer six day library service

CM Van Bramer celebrates expanded library service (photo via @JimmyVanBramer) 


This June, officials added $43 million in funding for New York City’s three public library systems to the fiscal year 2016 budget, allowing for expansion of branch operating hours and a return to six-day service for the first time in nearly a decade.

At an oversight hearing on Monday, November 30, City Council members will seek an update on the libraries’ progress implementing six-day service, with particular focus on staffing and how the added funds are being allocated, as well as outreach efforts to inform the public of the newly expanded hours.

Just as the added budget funding was much-applauded when it was announced, the hearing will likely be a celebratory affair - according to interviews and information obtained by Gotham Gazette, expansion is moving quickly across the systems. This includes more six-day service, hiring of new staff, and more.

The historic funding increase comes after a push by advocates, City Council members, Public Advocate Letitia James, and others. The city’s three public library systems, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens Public Library, and the New York Public Library (which has branches in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx), operate 217 local library branches and served 37 million visitors in fiscal year 2014 - more than all of the city's professional sports teams and other major cultural institutions combined.

Today, New York’s public libraries are far more than a place to take out a book - they play a critical role in the lives of New Yorkers who are most in need of the services that libraries offer, like early childhood education, job training, technology classes, free tax assistance, and English classes.

As Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer told Gotham Gazette, “Libraries are really the first line of defense when it comes to bridging the information gap and technology gap. Folks who are working class, working poor, they're working during the week, and so many of them can’t get to libraries during the week. Saturdays and Sundays are the only times they can get to the library.”

Which is why, Van Bramer says, it is “really imperative to have libraries open on Saturdays. It’s absolutely essentially to reach every New Yorker and it is essential for every New Yorker to have access to library services, programs, and materials.”

At the upcoming hearing, Van Bramer, Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations, said he “will ask how the three library systems have ramped up, whether every library is at expanded hours at this point, and if not, when will they be expanded?”

Making a few calls ahead of the hearing, which was postponed from an earlier date, Gotham Gazette was able to pull together some of that information.

Since October 19, all of the Brooklyn Public Library’s local branches are now open at least six days a week, while the Queens Public Library’s branches began six-day service November 15. The New York Public Library’s branches already had six-day service, so the added funding is being used to extend hours, bringing the total number of NYPL branches open on Sundays from three to seven.

Van Bramer said he also intends to ask “how their hiring is going - obviously a large part of the funding we allocated to expand days of service goes toward staffing - so how many new librarians and new library workers have been hired? Have they hired everyone they need to hire, or are they still in the process of hiring to get to that staffing level they need for full six-day service? I want to know how much more do they have to do.”

The added funding has “meant a big uptick in hiring,” Queens Public Library Interim President and CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey told Gotham Gazette. “We’ve hired over 100 positions.”

The New York Public Library, meanwhile, has “hired 60 new librarians,” George Mihaltses, head of government affairs at NYPL, told Gotham Gazette. “And we’re planning to hire 36 more.” 

Even one new librarian can make a significant impact. According to the NYPL, in fiscal year 2015, the library used added funds to hire a children's specialist for a branch in the Bronx. As a direct result of the librarian's arrival, NYPL says, children's programming attendance at that branch increased by about 60 percent.

Council Member Andy King, Chair of the Subcommittee on Libraries, co-hosting Monday’s hearing with Van Bramer’s committtee, told Gotham Gazette that the committees want to find out specifics about “how the libraries plan on rolling out six-day service. How are they going to be doing programs in the libraries, what services will be provided on that sixth day? What kind of outreach is being made to ensure people know about six-day service? Will we be having events to promote the rollout together? With the...millions that have been allocated to the library system, how will this money be spent?”

In addition to increasing libraries’ hours of operation and hiring more librarians, those added millions will be used to bring more programs, books, and materials, to the NYPL’s branches, Mihaltses said. For the Queens library system, the added funds will be used enhance early literacy and afterschool programs, and to increase the library’s budget to purchase books, videos, e-books, and other materials by 30 percent, a library official told DNAinfo.

Council Member King told Gotham Gazette “making sure the libraries’ outreach is successful” is what he believed is the most important factor to consider when allocating resources to the many branches of New York City’s library systems. “We need to let people know that our libraries are open,” King said, “and we need to be prepared to receive them as they come into the doors.”

As far as outreach goes, David Woloch, executive vice president of external affairs at the Brooklyn Public Library, told Gotham Gazette that much of their outreach would occur “over the next few weeks. We’re going to be communicating to our patrons at all of our branches, we have a very big email list and we’ll be communicating the new hours to our entire email list, and using social media. There’s a lot of pieces to it - basically on every front we want to be getting the word out there.”

The Queens Public Library system took a more festive route to let the community know about the expanded hours, holding celebrations at about two dozen of its branches on Saturday, Nov. 21. “It’s all about making a big splash,” Quinn-Carey said. Scheduled events included meet-and-greets by eleven City Council members, as well as programs like face-painting, arts and crafts, storytelling, science labs, documentary screenings, and live music and dance performances.

“There will be a lot of promotion,” Quinn-Carey added, “not just this Saturday, but ongoing. We’re encouraging our branches to do a lot of local outreach.”

Overall, Monday’s hearing is a chance for city officials to “get some sense of accountability,” King said, adding he would like to know “what the plans are for the upcoming year, and how we all will profit from libraries being open six days a week.”

For many, the expanded hours of service comes as a much-needed relief, giving struggling New Yorkers with hectic work schedules a chance to utilize helpful programs offered by libraries that they simply couldn’t make it to before.

“Whenever we would go out into the communities to see people,” Quinn-Carey said, “they would always say, ‘We really want Saturday service or Sunday service - we need another day.’ Especially for two-parent working families or single-parent families, there really weren't many opportunities to get to the libraries. it just wasn’t convenient for them.”

“More and more people are relying on the library to be the sole source of their internet connection, they rely on us for basic education classes, or preschool classes, or ESL classes. They have a fundamental need to get into the library and it needs to be convenient for them,” Quinn-Carey continued.

“They want to get help for their children's homework. I think that's what so important - that, thanks to support from the city, we are now able...to open doors for the community. This is one of those things where you think to yourself, ‘the government is working for me,’ because it's a service they can see is being provided by public money.”

Although the $43 million in funding added to this year’s budget has rightfully been lauded by library advocates, Council Members, and others, as Van Bramer points out, “six-day service should be the bare minimum. This should be baselined [in the budget] right away and not subject to any further cuts.”

Large funding deficits to the three library systems beginning in fiscal year 2011 required the City Council and the administration to restore funding, which the city began to do in fiscal year 2014. Van Bramer himself played a key role in securing the increased funds for this fiscal year.

“We need the administration and Mayor de Blasio to baseline this funding,” Van Bramer said. “I do think libraries would love to see some additional funding, but I think, at a bare minimum, we need to baseline this funding and then we can talk about potential increases.”

Even with the newly expanded hours, New York City still lags behind other major cities and even other New York counties in terms of how many hours per week public libraries are open, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future. In Suffolk and Nassau counties, libraries are open 64 hours per week. In Rockland County, 60 hours per week; in Westchester, 54 hours per week; and in Onondaga County, 53 hours per week. Public libraries in San Antonio are open 57 hours per week, while those in Los Angeles are open 53 hours.

Woloch said that by adding hours throughout the system, most Brooklyn Public Library branches are now open at least 48 hours a week. Mihaltses said the New York Public Library’s branches “will be open, on average, 50 hours a week per branch, up from 45 hours.”

The eventual goal, City Council sources say, is to expand to seven-day service.

To Jeanette Estima, a researcher from the Center for an Urban Future who helped put together the report on library hours, this much is clear: “Libraries are used more than ever today. They’re used by people who are learning how to do computer programming, people who want to brush up on skills to make themselves more marketable, and when libraries are open for more hours, they are able to reach more people.”

“Libraries are tied to the development of human capital in New York City,” Estima continued. “Today’s market is a knowledge-based economy, and this is the only free resource to build these skills for New Yorkers.”

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

Mayor and Speaker: Rezoning Plans Will Change Before Council Vote


mmv bdb via city council twitter

The Speaker & the Mayor (photo via the City Council)


Speaking at separate events over a two-day span, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito acknowledged significant community pushback against the mayor's rezoning proposals and said that those plans will be tweaked before the Council votes on them.

On Monday, de Blasio was asked about the largely negative reaction across the city to the zoning proposals at the center of his affordable housing plans. Many community boards are voting against the two rezoning proposals, which call for changes to how space is used, including allowing more retail and housing density as part of new development with market-rate and affordable apartments.

Both the Bronx and Queens Borough Boards - made up of community board leaders, City Council members, and the borough president - have voted against them. The Brooklyn and Manhattan Borough Boards are expected to vote next week, while a Staten Island vote is not yet scheduled.

De Blasio said Monday that he is "resolute," adding that he is not surprised community boards have objections. "Those objections should be heard and we should think about them," de Blasio said, "and where we see the need to make certain modifications we will."

"But in the end," the mayor continued, "the community boards aren't the final decision makers. The mayor and the City Council make the decisions, in some cases, obviously, with the City Planning Commission. And that's where our process is set up, and that's how it's worked for years."

What de Blasio will need, of course, is City Council buy-in. As the mayor, top administration officials, and his city planning department consider feedback from local leaders and make "modifications" to the rezoning plans, they'll need to convince Council members representing the districts set to undergo the most change that they should vote in favor of the plans. These include representatives from communities like East New York, East Harlem, Flushing, and areas of the Bronx, among others initially targeted for the zoning changes and more housing.

The leader of the Council, Mark-Viverito, also happens to represent East Harlem and part of the Bronx. She abstained as the Bronx Borough Board voted against the mayor's plans and said she'll abstain when Manhattan votes on Monday, Nov. 30. While the community and borough board votes are non-binding advisory opinions, they are indicative of concerns throughout the city about de Blasio's plans. Those concerns include worries about rising prices and gentrification accompanying new development; that new housing won't be accompanied by new schools and transportation infrastructure; lack of parking; and more.

On Tuesday Mark-Viverito said that she is sure the plans will need to be changed in order to pass through the Council. Saying that Council members are listening to their constituents and that the plans will "obviously go back to City Planning," Mark-Viverito said, "The plan that has been presented originally, I can assure you, will not be stagnant and...will not be the plan that comes before us at the Council."

Some of the key changes that may be made based on community pushback include creating more flexibility within the proposals for how area median income (AMI) is determined - instead of using one set of figures for the whole city as the plans do now, AMIs would be set more by local geography so that apartments being labeled as "affordable" would truly be so for local residents, especially the lowest income earners. On the other hand, in some areas of the city, residents are looking for more units to be carved out for middle-income earners. There are also historical and neighborhood preservation concerns in some places.

Other possible tweaks relate to ensuring that affordable housing for seniors is made permanently so; that parking is protected; and that affordable units are required to be built among market-rate units, not off-site or even on separate floors.

"The land-use review process is extensive," Mark-Viverito said Tuesday. When it comes to the two rezoning proposals, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, the speaker said, "We're at only the beginning stages of that debate and that conversation. So yes, community boards are taking a position, some borough boards have taken positions; but we're nowhere near engaging in that level of debate at the Council level."

She promised continued constituent engagement and figuring out how to "make additional improvement" to the plans. Calling some of the community concerns "legitimate," Mark-Viverito said "some communities want greater AMIs, some communities want lower AMIs. It's going to be a very, very heated conversation."

For his part, the mayor said "it's all part of a democratic process," and that the community boards "inform the process." He did remind, though, that community boards are indeed advisory and that the elected officials - who often disagree with community boards - make the final decisions.

"I'm listening. My whole team is listening to them," the mayor said Monday. "We're looking at if we think any of the points raised a need to make any changes." De Blasio and his team will continue to defend the plans, even if they're open to tweaks. They argue that the city desperately needs more housing, especially affordable units, which can only be built in most cases if new market-rate housing is also allowed. They also sell the plans as community development, highlighting new retail space that will created, and with it, employment and shopping opportunities.

"It does have an impact on our thinking," de Blasio said of community feedback. "It does help us figure out things we need to do better."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax
@GothamGazette

Stakeholders Urge Adams to Reject East New York Community Plan


eric adams via twitter bpericadams

BK BP Adams at an event (photo via @bpericadams)


At Brooklyn Borough Hall on Monday, Borough President Eric Adams held a public hearing on the de Blasio administration’s controversial East New York Community Plan. After remarks from City Council representatives at the packed-to-capacity hearing, stakeholders from the affected area urged Adams to reject it.

“What I’m gonna stand here and talk about is you putting yourself in the position of these community members, young and old, who are coming to you and asking you to just look at the mayor’s plan and just understand that it’s crap,” Jasbir Singh, Brooklyn organizer for the advocacy group Faith In New York, said at the hearing, addressing Adams directly.

Though most opinions expressed were less harsh, only two people - officials from the City Planning Department who provided a powerpoint of plan details at the hearing’s start - voiced approval for the proposal, at least in its current form. The plan aims to create affordable housing units, protect existing ones, and strengthen the economy of the area proposed for rezoning, which contains East New York, Cypress Hills, and Ocean Hill.

The area has high poverty rates and is largely populated by people of color. There are limited work and transportation options. It is an area that could be upzoned to allow more retail space, as well as new housing development. The administration’s plan seeks to create new housing that will include “affordable” units, while also fostering new business and jobs as buildings are “mixed-use,” meaning retail on the ground floor with housing atop.

On Monday at Borough Hall, participants urged the city officials present to vote against the proposal. Though it has already been rejected by Community Board 5 (East New York, Cypress Hills, Highland Park, New Lots, City Line, Starrett City, and Ridgewood), Community Board 16 (Brownsville and Ocean Hill) could endorse it when it votes at the end of the month. These votes are advisory, though - the City Council is expected to vote on the plan in 2016. The Council typically follows the lead of the local rep(s), which is this case are Council Members Rafael Espinal and Inez Barron.

The East New York area is one initial proving ground for the de Blasio administration’s larger rezoning and housing plans - plans that are being met with resistance all over the city and are likely to be tweaked before they are presented to the Council.

Most of the concerns expressed Monday were about the proposal’s potential to displace residents of the rezoned area. Around 50 percent of the approximately 6,300 housing units created for the East New York Community Plan are slated to be affordable units. The remainder are market-rate.

During her remarks at the start of the hearing, Council Member Barron held up a sheet of paper with two pie graphs. One showed the current East New York community by percentage of income levels and the other showed the same statistics as forecast after the rezoning, she said.

If the proposal is implemented, Barron said, the majority of East New York residents will earn salaries of $75,000 and up, a group that currently composes only 18 percent of the neighborhood population. (It was not immediately clear where Barron’s data came from.)

“I also want to say that they don't tell you the size of the units. So, we need two and three bedrooms, some of us will obviously need four-bedroom apartments,” Barron said. “But we don't know, of the units that they're going to bring in that they call affordable, how many bedrooms there are going to be.”

Barron reaffirmed her stance on the proposal: as it currently exists, she does not support it. Council Member Espinal, who represents most of the area proposed for rezoning, expressed the same stance in his remarks.

Despite some concerns mentioned about the proposal’s economic plan, which does not require that businesses interested in East New York pay workers a “living wage,” most concerns voiced were about the plan’s potential to displace residents.

“We are deeply concerned about displacement and urge the city to study the impact of rezoning on displacement in other areas such as Park Slope [and] Williamsburg in order to develop an understanding of what rezoning will really mean to low-income East New Yorkers,” Jamal Burgess, Future of Tomorrow youth organizer and Cypress Hills resident, said. “Through the years, we have seen gentrification in Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Harlem, covered up by urban renewal projects.”

In the plan, one of the strategies listed for the protection of existing affordable housing is providing free legal representation from the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force for people facing harassment by landlords. Several who spoke at Monday’s hearing reported that they had personally experienced this type of harassment, and doubted the capability of the legal representation strategy to fight it.

“I cannot accept a legal clinic at face value as being able to solve that problem,” five-year East New York resident Barbara Champion said.

Mayor de Blasio has personally guaranteed such legal help to tenants in any of the neighborhoods he plans to rezone and has dedicated budgetary dollars toward such aid.

East New York is one of 15 areas selected by the de Blasio administration for rezoning. The proposals are part of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, two main pieces of the mayor’s Housing New York plan that are being reviewed by community and borough boards now before some version goes to the Council.

Local reception to planned rezonings have been mixed, largely skewing negative. Community boards in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens have voted in favor of rezoning plans; due to possible overcrowding, a Long Island City community board voted against; and the Movement for Justice in El Barrio advocacy group recently interrupted a Community Board 11 meeting to protest against East Harlem’s proposed rezoning changes. The Bronx and Queens Borough Boards voted against the plans and other boroughs are set to vote soon. Again, these are all advisory opinions.

Brooklyn Borough President Adams did not give a verdict on the city’s proposal at Monday’s hearing. “I did not come into this room with my mind made up,” the borough president said. He encouraged community input, letting participants do the talking as he listened and eyes his Borough Board meeting on Tuesday, December 1, which will include a vote on the mayor's two larger rezoning plans.

As part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the borough president reviews the proposal and has the power to recommend it to the City Planning Commission, the final body that reviews it before the City Council.

Asked about neighborhood and board resistance to his plans on Monday, de Blasio said that it did not surprise him that there would be objections. “Those objections should be heard and we should, you know, think about them, and where we see the need to make certain modifications we will,” de Blasio said. “But in the end, the community boards aren’t the final decision makers. The mayor and the City Council make the decisions, in some cases, obviously, with the City Planning Commission.”

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

This article has been updated to more carefully reflect Borough President Adams' comments at the town hall.

Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts


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DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews

 


 

In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of 1.3 million open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.

The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “Begin Again.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.

While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won a seventh four-year term, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.

“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at a November 17 press conference launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”

“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”

The success of Thompson’s first Begin Again event, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.

Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.

With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?

Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)

"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.

“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.

“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.

Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”

“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."

Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.

Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.

Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.

It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued each day in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of 359,432 summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.

If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.

That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!”

What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”

Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.

“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.

When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”

About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.

A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, announced a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.

“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”

Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”

Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to what he has called “the peace dividend” approach he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.

“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.” 

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

Rezoning Discussion Shifts to Food Access, At Least for One Breakfast


red hook harvest via greencityforce

Red Hook Houses harvesting (photo via @GreenCityForce)


In the midst of city-wide controversy surrounding two new zoning proposalsconnected to Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s affordable housing plan, health and housing experts gathered to discuss how zoning could impact something else: food.

“I hope that by the end of today‘s discussion,“ said Nevin Cohen, associate professor at the CUNY School of Public Health, “we will see how spatial planning shapes local food environments and, therefore, how critical it is when we make decisions about how to change a neighborhood’s landscape.”

Part of a breakfast series put on by the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, the event, Zoning and the City‘s Food System: Opportunities to Shape Healthier Food Environments in NYC, brought together a full room of interested parties - students, advocates, and others - at the CUNY Graduate Center. They met at a breakfast event as community boards, housing activists, preservations, elected officials, and others consider the de Blasio administration’s ambitious rezoning plans, which have received quite a bit of pushback so far.

While de Blasio’s plans for adding housing stock and density to several city neighborhoods like East New York, East Harlem, Flushing, and elsewhere have received a great deal of attention, food access is almost never part of the discussion.

Cohen introduced and moderated a conversation with three other speakers: Javier Lopez, deputy director of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Center for Developed Equity; Daniel Hernandez, deputy Commissioner for neighborhood strategies at the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation; and Shy Lauris, director of community development at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation.

Zoning plays a large part in shaping food environments, the panelists explained. For all of the opaque jargon--FARs, RCM, RFPs--what zoning laws do is fairly straightforward: set limits on what a piece of land can or cannot be used for. This includes determining what function a building can fulfill (residential, commercial, manufacturing, etc.), the population density that a building can support (think low- or high-density housing), maximum building height, the amount of space various structures can occupy, and the proportional guidelines for different spatial types (i.e. the ratio of landscaped space to traffic lanes or to parking lots).

Each panelist gave an individual presentation focusing on current and possible health-oriented zoning initiatives before the discussion evolved into a more fluid, open forum also including audience members.

Lopez, of DOHMH, spoke about standardizing health requirements in the city‘s neighborhood planning process, creating a sort of health checklist for city planners to incorporate into development.

“Right now it is kind of being done in an ad hoc way,“ he said, “when you have conversations on transportation, on health, on education, all that has to be formalized…We believe that if we formalized it, other agencies could be more responsive to the public health conversations that are taking place.”

He continued saying that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene‘s brand new Community Health Profiles could serve as guidelines to future neighborhood development. The profiles include community district specific statistics on things like citizen supermarket access; resident smoking, eating, and exercise habits; air pollution; and more.

Lopez also talked with excitement about progressive zoning policies from other cities that New York could look to adopt.

In “Transform Baltimore,” for instance, the city‘s zoning overhaul of 2014, Baltimore amended its zoning code to simplify the process of beginning an urban farm and preserving community gardens. “Transform” also adopted a broader array of health-oriented zoning policies that included increasing development around transit hubs, preserving open space, and creating mixed-use housing (buildings that double as residential and commercial spaces).

The last of these measures - mixed-use housing - Hernandez pointed to in his presentation as something the city‘s proposed Zoning for Quality and Affordability text amendment (ZQA) seeks to increase. By raising the maximum building height in certain neighborhoods by five feet, the amendment allows the bottom floors of residential developments to serve as high-quality retail space. This can often lead to new food markets, reducing distances residents and families have to travel from their homes to access a range of food.

ZQA, along with its sister bill, the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing text amendment (MIH), is currently receiving stiff opposition from community boards across New York, but Hernandez thinks this opposition is misguided. Much of the hesitation among New Yorkers surrounds residential affordability and fears of gentrification and rising prices.

“HPD was developing retail buildings with really bad retail space, or bottom ground floor space,” Hernandez said. “So we worked with Design Trust for Public Space to identify how the buildings could increase in height and still be contextual within the existing historic fabric of neighborhoods. To be honest [the plan] is not being received too well, people think that the five foot increase is a way for developers to get additional [floor area ratio], but it’s actually not…[DOHMH is] working with [several city agencies] to bring different types of incentives and programs to small businesses in order to fill the retail space.”

Supermarkets will also move in, Hernandez said. He explained ZQA would enable the city to “more deliberately” pedal its FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health) program, which provides zoning and financial incentives to developers and grocers when they build supermarkets in neighborhoods with a lack of healthy food options.

urban farm via nycfood[an urban farm, via @nycfood]

Shy Lauris is in charge of a development in East New York that serves as a concrete example of what Hernandez speaks about. At the Food Policy Center event, Lauris showed the audience a development located at Pitkin Avenue and Berriman Street that was just beginning construction. The building, a model of what HPD envisions for many other parts of the city, will include 60 affordable rental units, with a FRESH subsidized supermarket on the ground floor. The building will also include a public community garden with private plots for each tenant.

Lauris, however, emphasized the role of financing in the project, saying it could not have happened were it not for the increase in density that the city granted the developer. The greater number of units allowed gave Lauris and her community the revenue to build the type of building they wanted. These decisions are at the essence of the de Blasio housing plan, with its rezoning proposals at the center, which allow for greater density and development incentives in order to spur new units - both market and “affordable” - and new retail.

“In order to have food on that lot, you need to have economies of scale“ she said, “you need to finance construction and it’s very difficult to do...in order to make this work we needed more density.“

Nevin Cohen, who worked with the Design Trust for Public Space to develop favorable zoning policies for rooftop agriculture in the city in 2012, added that financing is also what‘s holding back that movement, which spurs local food sourcing.

As the event drew to a close, where exactly additional financing might come from remained unclear. Hernandez said he hoped the food-friendly-living market will grow similar to the way energy conservation has over the past decade (think solar panels).

“We have an amazing opportunity to effect the marketplace,“ he said. “In previous years when the green building and energy efficiency movement was just beginning, HPD worked closely with [the U.S. Green Building Council] as well as the Enterprise Green Communities program to identify ways to require anything that we financed to be green and energy efficient. Now these standards are a part of all pipelines. We require developers to comply with the green communities program at a minimum, but that often leads to developers competing to build the best building.”

Money does not grow on basil leaves, though, and the financial incentives that tipped developers toward supporting energy efficient practices do not exist for community gardens. Hernandez hopes that food-conscious construction paradigms like Via Verde, which won the New Housing New York (NHNY) Legacy Competition, will push the market to demand healthier construction practices, but the economic hurdles still prove daunting.

Referring to the struggle to get developers to adopt sustainable energy standards, Hernandez said, “It wasn’t until we were able to monetize the savings to the developer that they became interested. But then there was an increase in construction cost we had to manage and it wasn’t until there was more market demand from people that it began to push the construction industry to make changes.”

Pausing for a moment, he concluded, “I am not sure how to monetize health incentives.”

***
by Colin O’Connor for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette
@colinqoconnor93

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, November 23


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Thanksgiving week will see just a few days of political activity, but the beginning of the week is looking busy. Highlights include closing arguments in Sheldon Silver's corruption trial; the continuation of Dean Skelos' corruption trial; the release of the Public Advocate's "worst landlord list"; several City Council hearings and a full-body "Stated Meeting"; two public meetings of the city's commission on elected official compensation; and more. See our day-by-day rundown below.

First, in case you haven't seen some of our most recent reporting, a few highlights:

[To read more of the latest from Gotham Gazette, click here; to subscribe to our newsletters, click here]

Mayor Bill de Blasio had no public schedule Saturday. On Sunday, the mayor, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro, and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson observed "an active shooter drill in Lower Manhattan." After that, the mayor was delivered remarks at Church of God of Prophecy in the Bronx, where he was hosted by City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, among others.

On Monday, de Blasio "will deliver remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony for Hunter's Point South Phase II" at noon; "host a press conference to make an announcement related to mental health" with First Lady Chirlane McCray at 2 p.m. at CUNY Hunter College - Silberman School of Social Work; and hold a media availability at about 3 p.m. nearby the school.

 

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
At the City Council on Monday, November 23:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Transportation will meet to hear the introduction of several bills regarding unmanned aviation vehicles (drones). They will focus on regulation, registration requirements and authorization of use.
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Youth Services will meet to discuss several new bills that would require training for certain employees in treating runaway, homeless, and sexually exploited youths, and amend the requirement date for the annual report on sexually exploited children.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Education will meet for oversight on Department of Education’s efforts to help struggling schools. Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña will testify.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Civil Service and Labor will meet to hear a series of new bills that would require successive employers of buildings to retain workers for a transitional time period and extend protections for displaced building service workers to food service workers.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet to hear a new bill that would require the identification of geothermal systems and buildings eligible for them, as well as registration for the people allowed to install such systems.

On Monday at 8 a.m., The Food Bank for New York will release a new report on the state of hunger and food networks in New York City. The “legislative breakfast” and report will examine the effects of federal cuts to SNAP cuts. Margarette Purvis, President and CEO, Food Bank For New York City; Steven Banks, Commissioner, New York City Human Resources Administration; Triada Stampas, Vice President For Research & Public Affairs, Food Bank For New York City, and “elected officials from throughout New York City” are expected.

At 8:30 a.m. The Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and Business Forward will host a business leader forum to discuss the effects of severe climate change on the restaurant industry.

At 9 a.m. Monday in Long Island City, City Council "Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer will be joined by several New Yorkers who have applied and have not been selected for a variety of the City's affordable housing development lotteries throughout the five boroughs. Together, Council Member Van Bramer and these New Yorkers in need will express why they believe Airbnb needs to be held accountable for allowing tax-subsidized affordable housing units to be posted as illegal hotels on their website."

Later, Van Bramer will join the mayor for the aforementioned Hunter's Point groundbreaking.

At 11 a.m. in Foley Square, Public Advocate Letitia James "will hold a tenant rally and release the 2015 Worst Landlord Watchlist. Following the rally, Public Advocate James will visit Brooklyn Housing Court to ensure tenants are aware of their rights and then tour one of the buildings on the Worst Landlord Watchlist.".

At 11:15 a.m. Monday, State Senator Liz Krueger, together with community leaders and elected officials, will gather at the City Hall for a press conference which will urge Governor Andrew Cuomo to transition New York off of coal power by 2020. Senator Liz Krueger will be joined by State Senator Brad Hoylman; Assembly Members Brian Kavanagh, Rebecca Seawright and Jo Anne Simon; and City Council Members Donovan Richards and Dan Garodnick.
[Read Sen. Krueger's new op-ed on the subject: Time for New York to Cut the Coal]

At 12:45 p.m. Monday, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, joined with Unite Here 100, will rally for food service worker retention, supporting a bill that expands upon the 2002 Displaced Building Service Worker Protection Act to include food service workers from being fired from work after a new owner takes over a business. A Council hearing will take place at 1 p.m.

On Monday at 2 p.m., Gov. Cuomo will be at the Jacob Javits Center to participate "in New York State's Annual Thanksgiving Food Donation Drive with volunteers and members of the New York National Guard."

At 5 p.m. the city’s Quadrennial Advisory Committee on elected officials’ compensation will hold its first of two community hearings to gather public feedback about its work. There is a state pay commission set to convene soon as well, we'll have details on that upcoming. [Read our recent look at the work ahead for the commission and the question of whether New York elected officials deserve a raise]

At 6 p.m. Monday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Red Tape Commission will hold a Staten Island hearing for business owners and entrepreneurs, part of the ongoing initiative to remake the government into a partner to businesses instead of being an “obstacle to growth”.

Also at 6 p.m. the Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will hold a public hearing on East New York community planning.

Tuesday
At the State Legislature on Tuesday: at noon, the Assembly Standing Committee on Agriculture will convene for “Oversight of the SFY 2015-2016 State Budget for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.”

At the City Council on Tuesday, November 24th:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Finance will meet on a variety of topics.
  • At 1 p.m. the City Council Stated Meeting will be held - and as usual, it will be prefaced by the Speaker’s pre-stated press conference, at 12:30 p.m.

On Tuesday, "Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will appear live on CNN's New Day to discuss ThriveNYC: The Mental Health Roadmap for All," at about 6:50 a.m. Later in the morning, "the Mayor will create and deliver food packages with Joel Berg of NYC Coalition Against Hunger." At about 11:45 a.m., "the Mayor will deliver remarks on hunger and food insecurity in New York City." At about 4 p.m., "the Mayor will join bi-partisan local elected officials – including Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Congressman Dan Donovan and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez – to host a press conference to highlight the need for increased federal transportation funding as New Yorkers prepare for holiday weekend travel."

On Tuesday, November 24th, Council Member Andy King will offer Free Healthcare Enrollment and Legal Services to Bronx Residents. In cooperation with MetroPlus and New York Legal Assistance Group the event will help residents sign up for health care and legal services.

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks at "NYC Coalition Against Hunger Annual Flagship Event."

At 5 p.m. Tuesday the NYC Quadrennial Advisory Board will hold another community hearing on compensation for elected officials. [Read our recent look at the work ahead for the commission and the question of whether New York elected officials deserve a raise]

On Tuesday at 7 p.m. Public Advocate Tish James will host an African Immigrant "Talk to Tish" Town Hall in the Bronx; and at 8:30 p.m. James will attend the Bayside Hills Civic Association General Meeting in Oakland Gardens.

On Tuesday evening in Brooklyn, school district 15, which includes parts of Sunset Park, Kensington, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will hold a town hall "from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at P.S. 516...Local elected officials including City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz and State Sen. Jesse Hamilton are expected to attend and answer questions from the public from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.," according to DNAinfo.

Happy Thanksgiving if you’re celebrating. Watch for our latest articles this week and we'll publish a 'Week Ahead' on Sunday, Nov. 29. 

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Colin O'Connor, Konstantine Beridze, and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Filing, Tracking City & State Campaign Finance Data Will Become Easier


BOE-CFB

NYS BOE, left, NYC CFB, right


Officials from the New York State Board of Elections and the New York City Campaign Finance Board outlined plans for overhauling their respective financial disclosure tools on Friday.

Though both groups said they wanted to make it easier for campaign staff to file reports and for the public to access filings, a divide was clear between the state BOE and the city CFB in terms of current capabilities and goals. Some of BOE's planned features, such as error-checking and bulk data export, for example, are already present on CFB's platform.

Thomas Connolly, BOE's deputy director of public communications, said the board plans to roll out new finance and tracking systems by early 2017, replacing the current 1990s-era software. "Our goal is to create a state-of-the-art candidate tracking and campaign finance system that is open and transparent," he said to the audience of around 50 at Civic Hall in Gramercy. The event was co-hosted by good government group Reinvent Albany, which often scrutinizes campaign finance data and calls for significant reforms.

Currently, the state BOE operates separate and unintegrated candidate tracking and campaign finance systems—"both old enough to vote," Connolly quipped—that require a lot of manual input. BOE's new systems would integrate the two sides on the web, instead of the current desktop software. Campaign staff will file disclosures on a website—instead of using desktop software—which would also warn users if they enter incomplete or invalid information. The public-facing website will also feature more advanced search and data-export functions than currently available.

Some are disappointed that the BOE will not have its new systems up and running for the 2016 election cycle, during which all of the state legislature is on the ballot again.

In response to multiple questions from audience members about whether or not campaign contributors will be assigned unique IDs in the system - which would allow users to see where else a donor has given, Connolly said that he doesn't foresee that being implemented. He pointed to the difficulties posed by misspelled names, different people with similar names, and inconsistent abbreviations. The new filing system will, however, feature autofill to help minimize those errors.

"Our goal is that we'd rather get you flawed data than no data," Connolly said.

Though the city CFB's filing system, C-SMART, was also created in the 1990s, it has since been updated to run on the web and includes many of the features that the state BOE is eyeing. As campaign staff enter contributor data, they receive prompts and warnings if entries are invalid, incomplete, or ineligible for CFB's public matching funds program. Addresses within New York City are checked against Department of City Planning records.

(The state is at the very beginning stages of toying with a similar public matching funds program, but even a pilot has struggled to get off the ground.)

CFB spokesperson Eric Friedman, assistant executive director for public affairs, said Friday that the board constantly improves its systems because it's required to do so after every election cycle. Some of CFB's upcoming developments Friedman mentioned will address a city law passed last year that requires independent committees to disclose donor information, showing which committees supported which candidates. 2013 was the first city election cycle in the post-Citizens United world, in which independent expenditures were a significant force in city campaigns. The CFB is making its updates leading up to the city's 2017 cycle, while also adapting to new legal requirements.

Other CFB developments are primarily aimed at simplifying and improving the reporting process for campaign staff. One tool, for example, would allow campaigns to directly transfer contributor data from online donations into C-SMART. "A lot of compliance logic is built into it," Friedman said. "So campaigns have a lot of data to ensure their data is compliant."

Still, officials from both boards said that some features requested by good-government groups, like unique contributor IDs and contributors' professional affiliations, will have to be first answered with legislation. And they added that while individual campaigns can and do correct contributor data, there is little that can be done on the software side to resolve issues like false or misspelled names and addresses.

"The requirements of what the contributor is required to disclose is a matter of statues," Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state BOE, said in response to a question about obtaining more data on contributors, including voter registration status. "I don't think either the Campaign Finance Board or the State Board of Elections has authority to go beyond those disclosure requirements in their regulations."

"It's always going to be up to the candidate or the treasurer to update or modify their data," said Daniel Cho, director of candidate services at CFB.

[Read more about the state BOE, city CFB & their roles here]

***
by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, November 16-20


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday November 20, 2015

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio, former Mayor Bloomberg, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and others at Friday's tree-planting ceremony, via @NYCCouncil; former Mayor Bloomberg speaks on Friday, via Howard Wolfson, @howiewolf

tree planting ceremony via NYC Council

bloomberg tree planting wolfson

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Mayor Announces Supportive Housing: On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city will invest over $2.6 billion to create 15,000 new units of supportive housing over the next 15 years. Supportive housing is considered by many to be both the most cost-effective and successful method to reduce homelessness among those with acute needs, such as those battling substance abuse and mental illness. The Mayor’s move puts new pressure on Governor Andrew Cuomo, with whom negotiations for greater state support in creating supportive housing have stalled, despite the fact that a bipartisan group of legislators have repeatedly called on Governor Cuomo to commit to the creation of 35,000 units of supportive housing statewide. [Read: Pressure Shifts to Cuomo as De Blasio Announces Supportive Housing Plan]

2. New York Reacts After Paris Attacks: The NYPD stepped up security in certain areas of the city simply as a precaution this week in the wake of last Friday’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. On Monday, the NYPD launched a new counterterrorism unit, known as the Critical Response Command. On Wednesday, following the release of a video by the Islamic State showing images of Times Square and threatening an attack on the city, Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton held a late night press conference to reassure the public that there is no credible threat to the city. Mayor de Blasio said that New York will not be intimidated and encouraged residents to continue going about their daily lives.

3. Cuomo, with Clinton, on Gun Control: At a Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gala on Thursday evening, Governor Cuomo and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton praised one another for their respective actions on gun control. Clinton, who received an award named after Governor Cuomo’s late father at the event, commended the Governor for passing the SAFE Act in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, saying “Congress may have let us down, but Andrew Cuomo did not.” At the event, Governor Cuomo reiterated his strong support of greater gun control, saying “This is a man-made crisis that costs 33,000 lives per year. It is something we can solve. The answer is going to be federal legislation and that is the only way we’re actually going to make a difference.”

4. Albany on Trial: The trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son began this week just as the trial of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver entered its third week. Skelos and his son face eight charges of bribery, extortion, and conspiracy with federal prosecutors alleging that Skelos “abused his power” to “line the pockets” of his son. Silver also faces charges of corruption and abuse of power, and on Wednesday, prosecutors rested their case after almost three weeks of testimony. Silver will not take the stand nor will Silver’s lawyers call witnesses, and Silver’s lawyers have asked the judge to acquit Silver on all counts before jurors get the case, insisting that the government had not met the burden of proof.

5. Rikers Reform: On Wednesday, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Neil Barsky, founder and chairman of The Marshall Project, and several others discussed Rikers Island jails at an event with a panel moderated by Errol Louis at The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. Stringer added his voice to calls for shutting down the dysfunctional jail complex, saying, “Right now, Rikers Island is a case study in poor outcomes.” [Read: Stringer Joins Calls to Shut Down Rikers]

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 51% of New Yorkers say they are struggling economically, just barely making ends meet, if at all, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College.
  • $5.3 million will be paid by the city to settle lawsuits over the deaths of two Rikers Island inmates, The New York Times reports.
  • $112,000 per inmate is how much it costs annually to keep an individual locked up on Rikers Island - a 67% increase since 2007, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer said Wednesday.
  • 49th is New York State's rank in state tax systems in the country by the Tax Foundation’s 2016 Business Tax Climate Index, though the index noted the substantial corporate tax reform package enacted by policymakers in 2014 will likely improve New York’s ranking once fully phased in.
  • $50 million will be spent by New York on efforts to market and promote the state as a destination for domestic and international tourism, Governor Cuomo announced on Wednesday.
  • 14% of the nation's homeless population is in New York City, according to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for supportive housing advocates, as Mayor de Blasio announced Wednesday that the city will invest over $2.6 billion to create 15,000 new units of supportive housing over the next 15 years.

It was a bad week for former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, whose trial on federal corruption charges began and included some damning and embarassing audio from federal wiretaps.

THE FLASH:

Around this time four years ago, on November 15, 2011, the NYPD evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park.

Around this time last year, on November 18, 2014, a giant snowstorm hit many parts of the United States, causing one New York county to declare a state of emergency and killing 13 people in New York.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Pressure Shifts to Cuomo as De Blasio Announces Supportive Housing Plan, by David Howard King

Two New Reps Set to Join the City Council, by Samar Khurshid

Stringer Joins Calls to Shut Down Rikers, by Ryan Brady

As Homelessness Crisis Continues, Shelter Siting Questions Intensify, by Christian Zhang

All Aboard the BRT Express? by Colin O’Connor

Boards to Offer Peek Into New Ways to Access Campaign Finance Data, by David Howard King

A City We All Want to Live In, by Lawrence Mone (opinion)

IDNYC Cardholders Await Assurance Ahead of Year Two, by Lauren A. Haynes (opinion)

Improving CUNY’s Equity and Efficiency: Requiring Some Tuition for All, by Robert Cherry (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Gerald Benjamin, SUNY New Paltz legend and scholar, appeared on WNYC’s “Capitol Pressroom” to provide an update on the trials of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Gannett Albany’s Joseph Spector reports that even as the two former leaders of the state Legislature stand trial on a number of corruption charges, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says he has no plans for new ethics laws, despite calls from good government groups. 

On City & State TV, City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod discussed two zoning amendments and what they mean for the Mayor’s affordable housing program.

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

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

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

***
by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Two New Reps Join the City Council


borelli grodenchik council

CMs Borelli, right, & Grodenchik are sworn in next to the Speaker (photo by William Alatriste) 


The New York City Council has two new members, each with prior experience in elected office and bringing to the 51-member body the perspective of New Yorkers living in the city's outer-reaches. Both districts being represented by new members are populated by many car- and single-family-home-owners.

One new representative - Barry Grodenchik of Queens - brings a fairly moderate Democratic viewpoint to the Council's majority, while the other new Council member - Joseph Borelli of Staten Island - brings an outspoken style to the Republican minority. Both Grodenchik and Borelli were sworn in on Tuesday, November 24, and participated in their first official Council business at that afternoon's "Stated Meeting."

Earlier this month, the two former Assembly members were chosen through special elections to fill Council vacancies created by members who resigned to take other jobs: Mark Weprin left to work for Governor Andrew Cuomo and Vincent Ignizio to lead Staten Island Catholic Charities.

The New York City Board of Elections counted all absentee and military ballots and officially certified the elections, and the two members took office. They were given a standing round of applause by their colleagues when they were announced into Council Chambers at City Hall.

Grodenchik, most recently a deputy Queens borough president after his time in the Assembly, prevailed in a crowded Democratic primary and went on to defeat his Republican opponent, retired police captain Joseph Concannon. Grodenchik will now serve the remainder of Weprin's term through 2017.

No stranger to elected office and political work, Grodenchik says he's ready to hit the ground running: "My learning curve is much shorter than a new Council member's would usually be," he said. "I bring experience in government. This is what we campaigned on and obviously people responded to that."

While Grodenchik says he's excited to work with his new colleagues, many of whom he knows well, and about the progressive direction of the Council, he also represents a district that largely differs on some of the policies of Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, many Council members, and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Borelli, meanwhile, represents a district whose residents have even less affinity for the progressive direction the city is heading and the people leading that charge, starting with the mayor. Borelli is expected to bring a strong dissenting voice to the Council as he joins what will be a three-member Republican minority led by his Staten Island neighbor Steven Matteo and also includes Queens Council Member Eric Ulrich.

Coming from the Assembly minority, though, Borelli may actually have more opportunity to influence the policy discussions in the Council.

"I think it's a great time to be a member of the City Council because the spectrum of opinion is so wide," Borelli told Gotham Gazette. "I'm excited from a policy advocacy standpoint just to be able to present my opinion."

Besides their obvious disadvantage, he said the Republican minority is "a small but stalwart band."

Both Borelli and Grodenchik plan to make an impact over the next two years, as they described to Gotham Gazette in recent interviews, and will then be up for reelection in 2017, when the entire Council is on the ballot, including 11 seats where the current members are term-limited - chief among those being the speaker.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito said, "Council Members-elect Barry Grodenchik and Joseph Borelli staunchly represented Queens and Staten Island in the New York State Assembly and now bring their strong records of public service to the City Council. I look forward to working with our incoming members to deliver results for New Yorkers across the five boroughs."

Gotham Gazette spoke at some length with both incoming Council members, Grodenchik and Borelli, about their experience and their priorities:

Barry Grodenchik, Queens Democrat, District 23
"I knocked on close to 5,000 doors in the course of the campaign. The two complaints that I heard over and over was water and sewer rates and property taxes going up each year," Grodenchik told Gotham Gazette. "Taxes on condos and co-ops are unfair. There's no question about it. That's something I'm going to gauge my colleagues on," he added.

Along with these issues of home ownership and affordability, Grodenchik cited transportation as a key concern. Situated on the edge of Queens, District 23 lacks much of the mass transit infrastructure in other parts of the city. There are no subway or Long Island Rail Road stops. "We live in what has been rightly called a mass transit desert," he said. "It can take an awfully long time to get from my district to the downtown business district," he said.

While he did not say he has any specific legislation in mind, Grodenchik is gathering a policy agenda and continuing to talk with constituents. He's been attending community and private meetings across the district, which covers Queens Village, Bayside, Douglaston, Fresh Meadows, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park and Little Neck. One week this month he had more than a dozen meetings with representatives from community boards, civic, and cultural organizations, he said.

Grodenchik also has plans to visit every public school in his district over the next few months to familiarize himself with school officials and parent-teacher associations to "make sure they're getting what they need to be the best schools in the city," he said.

As a "good Democrat," Grodenchik has a strong contingent of progressive colleagues, some of whom he has known for years. He admires the progressive direction that the Council has taken in the last two years and says he will likely see eye-to-eye with them on most issues, but not all. "I think people can disagree without being disagreeable," he said, stating his ardent opposition to congestion pricing proposals as an example. "I see it as a tax, particularly for people in Queens. It's a non-starter as far as I'm concerned," he said.

But he looks forward to being a part of a Council that has become more equitable, he said, under current Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with resources allotted to members and districts in a clear, fair fashion.

Grodenchik has a long history of serving Queens. He worked under Queens Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn; he was Chief Administrative Officer for Borough President Claire Shulman for more than ten years. He was also a deputy borough president under Helen Marshall. In 2002, he was elected to the New York State Assembly where he served till 2014 (Grodenchik ran an abbreviated campaign for Queens BP in 2013 before dropping out of the race during the primary - he went on to become eventual winner Melinda Katz's director of community boards.)

Government, at any level, is complicated, Grodenchik says, but "You have to be able to come to the table with people you like and people you don't like to craft a solution that works for both community and the city...to move the city forward in the best possible way."

Joseph Borelli, Staten Island Republican, District 51
Borelli, a state Assembly member, ran unopposed for District 51 on Staten Island, winning the seat formerly held by Vincent Ignizio. The district covers the southern end of the borough including neighborhoods such as Arden Heights, Bay Terrace, Oakwood, Great Kills, Richmond Valley, Huguenot and Princes Bay. Like Grodenchik's, it is also seen as a transportation desert.

For Borelli, the transition to the City Council is relatively easy. "The district is pretty much the same so I'm just sort of moving my bullseye over a bit," he said. With a strong idea of the work ahead, Borelli is making the rounds of the district. He has spent time during the last two weeks in meetings with his predecessor about issues to pursue and with city agencies to discuss capital projects in the district.

In setting his agenda, Borelli already has a few concrete priorities. "There are some major land use issues here that are especially important to us," he said of the construction of an outlet mall in Rossville at a massive liquefied natural gas storage site.

"These are big projects in this, some would say, backwater of New York City that require the same attention from the city planning and building department as some of the higher-profile projects in Brooklyn or Manhattan," he said.

He also hopes to improve the city's solid waste plan for e-waste which, he said, seems to work better in areas with high-rise buildings than it does in his community. "Why should it be more difficult for my community to get rid of a TV?"

A Republican, Borelli is not particularly on board with the Council's liberal bent, expressing his concern for many of the proposals recently put forward such as those to reform the NYPD and Riker's Island, and the decriminalization of minor offenses like public urination and open container violations.

"Some of the new proposals don't jive well with a bedroom community like Staten Island," he said, citing a bill recently introduced by Council Member Mark Levine which would prohibit credit checks for renters.

Borelli believes that "progressivism" doesn't speak to many people who live in the outer boroughs, who aren't represented by "these squeaky-wheel groups" who lobby the Council on issues and who feel the movement has lost touch with middle class New Yorkers.

"What group out there hopes for more public urination?" he asked rhetorically. "I'm against progressivism and in favor of restoring some rational thought to policies like that."

In doing so, he firmly believes he has his community's support. "My constituents really have my back," he said, "and it's very empowering when you feel like that."

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

This article has been updated to reflect the two new members officially taking office - it had originally been published in the lead up to their formally joining the Council.

Stringer Joins Calls to Shut Down Rikers


rikers stringer new school

Stringer at The New School (photo via @scottmstringer)


Giving keynote remarks at an event focused on Rikers Island jails, city Comptroller Scott Stringer added his voice to calls for shutting down the troubled complex.

“Right now, Rikers Island is a case study in poor outcomes,” Stringer said, presenting data analysis by his office on large screens behind him. Stringer went on to point to court-mandated and other reforms being implemented at Rikers, but added that while changes are made, he believes the city must “plan for the day when Rikers Island can be safely and responsibly closed. Because part of the problem at Rikers is Rikers itself,” Stringer said to a crowd and panel of experts who appeared largely in agreement.

At the New School's Center for New York City Affairs on Wednesday, criminal justice experts and stakeholders discussed Rikers Island, home of the city's massive jail complex, where about 11,000 inmates, many of whom are awaiting trial, are held. Introductory remarks were made by Glenn Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, who said that he had made a personal plea for shutting down Rikers to Mayor de Blasio on the mayor’s inauguration day. After Stringer spoke, a panel discussion ensued, with the organizing question of whether Rikers should be reformed or shut down.

Overwhelmingly, panelists favored the latter.

“You can’t reform something that’s that sick, that has that much inequity, that’s that bigoted as a system,” Khary Lazarre-White, executive director of Harlem youth organization Brotherhood/Sister Sol, said. To applause, he continued: “It has to be almost, like, crushed to the ground and reimagined.”

Other panelists included Neil Barsky, founder and chairman of The Marshall Project; Martin Horn, of John Jay College and formerly commissioner of the city’s correction department; Ann-Marie Louison, a co-director at CASES; Charles Nunez, a community advocate at Youth Represent; and Carmen Perez, a co-founder of Justice League NYC. It was moderated by NY1’s Errol Louis.

The discussion took place following the presentation of striking data from Stringer: Riker’s cost per inmate (now $112,000 annually) has risen by 67 percent since 2007. And while the inmate population is historically low, use-of-force incidents by uniformed Rikers employees increased by 27 percent and the number of assaults on guards by inmates by 46 percent in fiscal year 2015.

Reforms are currently being implemented by the Department of Correction under Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Mayor de Blasio. They are, in part, the result of a settlement between the city and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who had joined a class-action lawsuit about Rikers, Nunez v. City of New York.

“As we implement the consent decree, I believe we must also plan for the day when Rikers Island can be safely and responsibly closed,” Stringer said of the settlement. Calling for a shutdown of the complex, Stringer noted that one of the settlement details - the appointment of a federal monitor - has happened at Rikers before.

“By the late 1990s, a federal monitor had been appointed to supervise solitary units and staffing decisions,” the comptroller said. “There were significant reductions in violence but the improvements were just short-lived.”

Shutting the ten-jail complex down, Stringer added, would take “years of planning.” The mayor's office did not indicate there is any current consideratoin to begin that process in response to the Daily News.

In his remarks, Horn said that finding space to replace Rikers would be difficult, but that it was truly a matter of political will.

“The impediment is simply politics,” Horn said. “The way it works in New York City is if the City Council person whose district the facility is located in objects, then the City Council will not approve it,” Horn said. “And that’s the final step of the city’s land-use review process.”

Horn outlined a plan for how to replace Rikers, but noted that any such planning would be at the mercy of about three Council members as it calls for modifying detention centers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.

But such solutions are not often politically popular. As he mentioned at the panel, Horn met resistance when, as DOC commissioner, he tried to reopen the Brooklyn Detention House to some inmates from Rikers. Former City Comptroller Bill Thompson successfully blocked the plan in court.

In addition to New Yorkers preferring correctional facilities isolated, the political value of being seen as “tough on crime” could also impede a Rikers closing.

“I think ultimately closing Rikers is about two things. It is about the politics, and it’s about the politics of fear,” panelist Neil Barsky, of the Marshall Project, said. “It’s all about the demagoguery that exists around this issue.”

Barsky said that the killing of police officer Randolph Holder (posthumously promoted to detective) made the progressive mayor “go to war” with a judge who followed what Barsky called a proper legal process. The politicized reaction to Holder’s death, according to Barsky, is a “horrible thing, in my opinion, for what lies ahead because this is not gonna be easy politically.”

In addition to that, Barsky said, the support of the major New York newspapers would be crucial to shutting down Rikers. Occasionally, local press has been highly critical of Rikers; 129 incidents of severe injuries to inmates were reported in a New York Times Rikers investigation last year.

The New Yorker was highly praised for a piece on Kalief Browder, the teenager who killed himself after languishing for years on Rikers on charges of stealing a backpack that were later dropped.

Rikers’ culture of brutality is viewed as central to Browder’s tragic tale. He is not alone in terms of inmates, as well as corrections officers, who are severely damaged by time on Rikers.

“When you’re there, you’re not considered a person,” said Charles Nuñez, a community advocate who said he spent six months on Rikers himself. “You’re more acknowledged from your bed number or from your cell number,” he said.

“I had to put on this face everyday and make sure that I wasn’t approachable because I knew that every situation was able to lead to a confrontation of violence,” Nunez said, his voice trembling. “And I was under that once you encounter those things, you have to be able to talk to someone about it.”

Mental health treatment on Rikers, the city’s bail system, and the age of criminal responsibility being 16 in New York State were also discussed as major problems at the panel.

Even for those visiting Rikers, it can be a nightmare. “Just the way in which you’re treated, regardless of your title, right?” Carmen Perez of Justice League NYC said.

“You’re really stripped down of your humanity,” Perez said, discussing protocols for making female visitors change their clothes.

In some quarters, the idea of closing Rikers has gained traction: City Council Member Daniel Dromm, of Queens, has said that closing Rikers should be a goal. Demonstrators voiced the demand last month, and it has become a popular hashtag.

But no hope for its closure in the immediate future was expressed at the panel.

“Can we envision Bill de Blasio running for office and saying ‘We’re going to close down these big out-of-date, poorly designed, dehumanizing factories of despair in Rikers Island and we’re going to build smaller jails for fewer people in Kew Gardens and Brooklyn Heights?’” Horn asked.

Many in the audience laughed. Even if the mayor did, there would almost certainly be significant resistance in the neighborhoods targeted for new facilities: as Horn mentioned, there was an outcry among parents at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights when a federal pretrial services building moved near it.

“I mean, society doesn’t want this to happen,” Horn said. “And I’m just not very optimistic that any serious politician is going to do what needs to be done.”

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette 



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