Every freshman member of the Assembly — including five from the Capital Region from both parties — signed on to a bill that would strip public officials convicted of felony corruption of their pensions, the bill's sponsor said Wednesday.
The broadening support for the bill among those who traditionally have the least influence in the Legislature, while symbolic, is far from a guarantee that it will ever become law.
But the renewed push among members of the Legislature's lower chamber comes as yet another one of their own, Democratic Brooklyn Assemblyman William Boyland Jr., awaits a verdict in his federal bribery trial.
And it may also signal that the body's newest members — those with the least ties to the Legislature's scandal-stained status quo — feel greater pressure from voters to be seen as part of the solution.
"I don't think we're as jaded yet," said Assemblyman Dan Stec, a Queensbury Republican among the freshmen backing the bill. "(We) don't have that corporate memory of how we got here."
The other local sponsors include four freshman Democrats — Angelo Santabarbara of Rotterdam, Patricia Fahy of Albany, John T. McDonald III of Cohoes and Phil Steck of Colonie — as well as two-term Schaghticoke Republican Steve McLaughlin.
Broadly, the bill would clear the way for voters to amend the state constitution to block "any state or local officer" from collecting a public pension if he or she is convicted of "a felony involving a breach of the public trust."
That would apply to a wide range of both elected and non-elected state and local officials.
If passed, the measure would dramatically expand on a pension forfeiture provision of a 2011 ethics reform package that only applied to public officials not already in the state pension system at the time — that is to say, no sitting lawmakers.
The problem, said Assemblyman David Buchwald, a Westchester Democrat and the bill's lead sponsor, is that even many new state lawmakers are exempt from that reform because they have been in lower elected office for years.
"The reality is the vast majority of New York state public officials entered the public pension system well before then and therefore continue to operate under the old rules," Buchwald said.
Buchwald's proposed change requires an amendment because public pensions are constitutionally protected.
As a result, the bill would need to pass two consecutive Legislatures before heading to the statewide ballot.
Dueling Senate versions of the legislation also leave its future uncertain. State Sen. Neil Breslin, a Bethlehem Democrat, is sponsoring the Senate version of Buchwald's bill.
A competing Senate bill sponsored by Long Island Republican Sen. Carl Marcellino would apply only to elected officials and only to pension credits they amassed while in they office they disgraced, not any benefit accrued before then.
That bill is co-sponsored by Halfmoon Republican Kathy Marchione as well as several members of the Independent Democratic Conference, which shares power with the GOP in the upper chamber and thereby controls the flow of legislation.
While the details differ, Buchwald said the core message is that there is broad, bipartisan agreement that lawmakers convicted of felonies shouldn't continue to profit from the offices they betrayed while behind bars.
Breslin said he has no doubt that if the constitutional amendment did ever reach the ballot, "it would pass by much greater margin than it would pass in either house" of the Legislature.
Stec noted that he and Assembly's other minority Republicans have offered their own bills seeking to seize corrupt politicians' pensions.
"We're in conceptual agreement," he said. "Good — so let's get something done."
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Just after noon Tuesday, New York's two most powerful Democrats were separated by three city blocks, the political desires of their respective audiences, and several dozen degrees Fahrenheit.
As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stumped at the Washington Avenue Armory for his plan to fund universal prekindergarten education with a tax surcharge on the wealthy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo addressed a chilly but enthusiastic outdoor crowd of charter school supporters in East Capitol Park.
The governor's decision to appear at the rally came just days after de Blasio earned the ire of charter advocates by canceling three "co-location" arrangements that would have sited charters in city-owned property.
In a spirited five-minute speech, Cuomo vowed to help protect the schools without explicitly identifying what threat they faced.
"We are going to save charter schools, and you're making it happen," Cuomo roared from a platform set up on the steps of the Capitol.
The governor repeated his frequent criticisms of the state's education spending. "Education is treated like an industry," he said. "But what you're saying today is ... we have to change that culture. Because education is not about the districts, and not the about the pensions and not about the unions and not about the lobbyists. ... Education is about the students and the students come first!"
Cuomo said he was "committed to ensuring charter schools have the financial capacity, the physical space and the government's support to thrive and to grow."
At the armory, de Blasio spoke to a smaller group made up predominantly of union members, a constituency that backed him strongly in his election last year.
"We are closer than ever to opening next school year with 54,000 full-day pre-K seats in New York City," de Blasio said.
He repeated his contention that the proposed income tax increase on those making more than $500,000 a year was the only way to reliably fund the program as well as expanded after-school offerings.
"I've said time and time again, asking those who have done very well, asking those who are wealthy ... to give just a little more so our children can succeed, just a little more so we can have a stronger city in the future — well, that's just plain fair, and the people know it's fair," he said. " ... The facts are on our side, the people are on our side — now we have to get Albany on our side."
Cuomo and the Republicans who co-lead the Senate remain unmoved by his appeal. The governor has proposed funding pre-K statewide through state funds and without the tax hike, which would have to be approved by the Legislature in this election year.
At the armory, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate co-leader Jeff Klein — both Democrats — reiterated their support Tuesday morning for de Blasio's plan.
Klein said that those outside of the five boroughs should "butt out" of the city's plans to expand education.
But speaking at the charter rally, Republican Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (who hails from Long Island) insisted he would not budge in his opposition to the proposed surcharge. Without the mutual consent of Skelos and Klein, the necessary home-rule legislation won't reach the Senate floor.
"I've said it on numerous occasions; the governor has said it: The income tax increase is not going to be voted on. It's not going to be part of this budget," Skelos said.
He continued: "There's no support for the income tax in ... the Republican conference. It's unnecessary. The governor has shown that the money's there to fund pre-K, and I don't think you tax just for the sake of taxing, and that's what Mayor de Blasio wants to do."
Speaking earlier before a crowd of hundreds of public-sector workers represented by AFSCME, Silver was just as adamant that the tax remains an option.
"There are a lot of options on the table," Silver said. "Unfortunately, Sen. Skelos unilaterally has determined that he wouldn't consider one of the options. We need recurring, sustainable and significant money for the pre-K program."
After both rallies had ended, de Blasio had a private meeting with Cuomo that lasted more than an hour. When the mayor emerged, he emphasized that the men agreed on almost every other issue surrounding the relationship between the city and the state.
"I would characterize it as a very productive meeting," de Blasio said.
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The state organizations that represent mayors, counties, towns and school boards crossed a line on Tuesday from expressing concerns about Gov. Andrew Cuomo's property tax freeze proposal to opposing it as "flawed."
Cuomo's plan — estimated to cost the state $1.4 billion over the next two fiscal years — would provide homeowners with an income tax rebate check for the amount of increase in their property tax bill if a taxing entity manages to keep its annual tax increase within the state's current tax cap (2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower). In the second year of the freeze, the taxing entity would have to stay within the cap and come up with a plan to achieve structural savings. For the ensuing three years, that plan would have to achieve annual reductions in the size of the tax levy.
Tim Kremer of the state School Boards Association said the drawbacks of Cuomo's plan include its complexity and potential administrative costs, as well as the fact that current consolidation efforts won't count in a locality's favor — that is, the plan could have the unintended consequence of giving localities an incentive to hold off on savings initiatives until it's most beneficial to them under Cuomo's multiyear time line.
"We believe it ignores crediting those taxpayers who live in communities that, quite honestly, have already exhausted most of their cost-containment options," Kremer said, warning of "drastic budget cuts" that could contribute to higher unemployment.
Cuomo Secretary Larry Schwartz — a former deputy county executive in Westchester County — said that all but a tiny minority of municipalities had taken full advantage of the full range of opportunities to achieve savings.
"It's clear that some local officials don't want to be held accountable by taxpayers for staying within the cap and taking action to share services, reduce costs and lower property taxes," he said in a statement. "Under the governor's plan, local governments and schools will be responsible for taking the right steps to get their fiscal houses in order, much like the state has already done."
Kremer noted that recent proposed school district mergers have been voted down. "What we have found is a few bucks on the table is not something to entice most taxpayers and voters" if it requires significant program cuts.
Peter Baynes, executive director of the state Conference of Mayors, sketched out a proposal the advocates dubbed the "Clean & Simple" plan: providing the rate of increase within the cap directly to the local taxing entity to keep the property tax levy flat.
"The taxpayers would get immediate relief; they wouldn't get contingent relief where they have to pay the tax and then wait to receive the taxes back," Baynes said.
This plan would, however, freeze property taxes without mandating the structural savings Cuomo's scheme would demand. "We think local governments, working with their communities, their local elected officials, will find a way — if they deem it appropriate — to get to the cap," Baynes said.
Local lawmakers — including several Assembly Democrats in the Capital Region — have expressed concern about Cuomo's freeze proposal, though it's unclear if such opposition is sufficient to derail it with a month to go before the deadline to complete the state budget. A recent Siena Research Institute poll showed Cuomo's plan was favored by almost three-quarters of those surveyed.
The groups announced the creation of a "municipal innovation exchange" to serve as a clearinghouse of ideas on savings strategies.
Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties, said the groups are "hopeful" that the Assembly and Senate would reject Cuomo's freeze proposal in the one-house budgets that are expected next week, "and then we can begin to negotiate something that's in the best interests of all parties.
"I think the governor is open to a modification," Acquario said. "His ultimate interest is to prevent people from moving to Florida; his ultimate interest is to help people stay in New York state and afford to live in New York state. I believe he's a reasonable man and he'll listen to our concerns."
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The state Senate on Tuesday approved Hobart and William and Smith Colleges President Mark Gearan as the chairman of the New York State Gaming Commission. Before the vote, he promised to honor the intentions of the legislation authorizing casino development in upstate.
"Would you try to fulfill the spirit ... to help distressed regions?" asked Senate Racing and Wagering Committee Chairman John Bonacic, a Republican who has been working for years to get casino development in his Catskills district.
"Yes," Gearan said. "Economic (impact) is a key driver. I respect that."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Gearan in January, and has set a speedy timeline to get casinos developed upstate. Gearan's commission, which includes four other Cuomo appointees, is expected to install a siting committee to review projects and consider granting up to four casino licenses for three upstate regions.
Cuomo wants the commission to identify winning casino bidders so that construction can begin in early fall.
The four upstate casinos are the first phase of development authorized by New Yorkers in November in a constitutional change that allows up to seven gaming halls statewide. Gearan said he would not try to guess what might happen with the three other casinos that could be allowed in years to come.
"My pledge to you is to bring integrity to the process, to bring transparency to the process," Gearan said.
Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, gave Gearan a copy of the 317-page Inspector General's report on the bidding by Aqueduct Entertainment Group when it tried to win the rights to build a racino at Aqueduct Race Track. Those efforts were depicted as scandalous by the office in a report that Krueger said was mandatory reading.
In response to concerns raised by Sen. Bill Perkins, D-Harlem, Gearan offered to look into bringing "best practices" to programs that worked to combat gambling addiction.
Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, asked no questions during the hearings.
A member of the Racing and Wagering Committee, she has declined to discuss her opinion on a Krueger-backed bill that would give potential host communities for a casino the right to block such a development.
"I wanted to see the application, to see what's going to be built," she said. "Let's just see how it goes forward. Obviously, I want to see the city represented."
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses plans to offer college courses to prison inmates during a church service for the Black, Puerto Rican & Asian Legislative Caucus. Photo by Governor's Office.
Albany, N.Y. – Years of boozing, coke snorting, drug dealing and petty crime came to a head for George Chochos in 2001, when he was convicted of robbing five banks in Upstate New York.
His sentence: 14 years in prison. He served the first 10 months in Rensselaer County Jail, but soon found himself in one of the most notorious maximum security facilities in the country – Sing Sing.
Chochos quickly realized that Sing Sing was no place for someone who had even the slightest inclination to better himself. The prison was a stark reminder of how far he had fallen and what he had to do to reclaim his life.
Today, Chochos can be found at Yale Divinity School, where he pours over the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Immanuel Kant in his studies toward a masters degree. He credits his transformation to the Bard Prison Initiative – a privately funded program administered by Bard College that offers prison inmates an opportunity to earn undergraduate degrees.
Bard has become a touchstone for inmate education programs across the country as it has been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism. It attracted media attention recently when Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his plan to have the state finance college education for inmates.
Cuomo noted that the state spends $60,000 a year to keep one person incarcerated and that inmates in New York State have a 40 percent chance of winding up back in prison after being released. Only 4 percent of inmates who have earned degrees in the Bard program have re-offended. It would cost the state $5,000 a year to educate a prisoner and a degree can be earned in about 2 to 3 years.
"Albert Einstein had that famous definition of insanity, which is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But for years, my friends, we have been doing the same thing over and over, and we have little to show for it. It's time we try something new," Cuomo said last month while outlining his plan before a group of state legislators.
The state plans to invite proposals from universities interested in participating in the programs, which will be offered at 10 prisons.
Cuomo’s proposal ignited a firestorm of controversy Upstate where several of the prisons that would host the programs are located. Some county supervisors in those areas oppose the governor’s plan and argue that it is unfair to give criminals a college education that many law-abiding citizens cannot afford.
A group of Republican state legislators have blasted the plan and launched petition drives to block it. Sen. Greg Ball, R.-Patterson, drafted a petition titled “Hell No to Attica University.” Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R.-Schaghticoke, coined the Twitter tag #kidsbeforecons.
“We should not be funding college tuition for convicts on the backs of our taxpayers when our schools are under-funded and our education system is in disrepair,” McLaughlin complained n a statement.
Sen. Mark Grisanti, R.-Buffalo, tripled his goal of obtaining 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plan. Grisanti said the state should instead spend money on increasing the availability of tuition assistance to needy college students.
Perhaps the most sensational response to Cuomo’s proposal came from Assemblyman Jim Tedicso, R.-Glenville, who said he is afraid the goverrnor’s program will create an educated class of super-criminal.
“This is definitely ‘Breaking Bad’ by potentially turning a bunch of Jesse Pinkmans into Walter Whites – all on the taxpayer’s dime,” Tedisco said, referring to the hit television series about a chemistry teacher with cancer who joins forces with a small-time drug dealer to create a methamphetamine empire.
“Soon we will be the only state where honesty and hard work are trumped by being a bad criminal," Tedisco said in a statement. “When can New Yorkers wake up from this nightmare?”
Cuomo’s proposal has massive support from Democratic lawmakers from New York City. Sixty percent of the state’s prison population is from the five boroughs.
For Chochos, the controversy is a reminder of how lucky he was to have been accepted for Bard’s program.
Sing Sing is a dangerouis environment and Chochos knew he had to get into a safer facility if he was to survive his prison term. He managed to get transferred to Eastern Correctional Facility in 2002 and said it was a revelation.
“It seemed like everyone was studying there,” he recalled, “It was this educational hub for the state.”
Eastern Correctional is a maximum security prison and home to the Bard Prison Initiative. Getting into the program is a competitive and challenging process, Chochos said.
“It was a very intimidating process – only 15 students are accepted each year out of 100,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared with my education. Some of us got or GEDS or barely got out of high school and here we were being asked to write a four-page paper. It was daunting and grueling.”
Chochos describes his first college class as an epiphany.
“My first class was philosophy and informal logic,” he said. “That class was so important because it was about learning how to think in a structured philosophical way. It was helping us be stakeholders in society and make ourselves better. That kind of education also has an impact on the facilities themselves. It makes them safer.”
Although he is grateful for all that Bard has allowed him to do, Chochos said he cannot be totally at peace with the education he received. He is mindful that some resent the education he received in prison.
Whenever he speaks to groups about his transformation and journey from Sing Sing to Yale he is struck by the same thought: “If I were the victim, what would I think of this.”
Cuomo’s proposal is by no means a novel idea. In fact, New York State had a prison higer-education program for several years until Gov. George Pataki pulled state funding from it.
Donnell Hughes witnessed the change after being sent to prison in 1997 for manslaughter and sale of a controlled substance.
“Before Bard came in we only had a few programs and we had a lot of time on our hands to find ourselves in trouble,” he said. “When Bard came in it changed the culture of the institution.
“Guys who were in the yard who were involved in illegal activity – they got accepted into the program and they came back and told us about Bard. We saw these guys carrying books around the yard and it changed our mindsets. We saw that these guys are becoming more educated, they are promoting conversation, it is no longer about drugs and violence.”
Hughes is now working toward a bachelors degree at Baruch College in Manhattan.
“I think the governor is doing a wonderful thing by bringing back something that was already there,” he said “Pataki took college out of prisons. I was a young guy there to see that change. For him to restore this, it creates a gateway for prisoners back into the community so that they can create something for themselves.”
RICHMONDVILLE (AP) — Authorities say a man who was gored by a bison at the Grumpy Buffalo Farm has been released from an Albany hospital.
The Schoharie County Sheriff's Office tells local media outlets that the 34-year-old man suffered a wound to his abdomen on Saturday while trying to herd buffalo into a pen at the farm in rural Richmondville, 40 miles west of Albany.
The man, whose name hasn't been released, spent a couple days at Albany Medical Center Hospital before being released.
Deputies say the man was injured while he and others were preparing to load about 10 bison onto a cattle trailer for transportation to New Jersey. One of the animals charged the man and impaled him on one of its horns.
With four weeks to go before the state budget is due to be finalized, advocates for increased spending on education came to the Capitol on Monday to show their work.
The Alliance for Quality Education and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity met with sympathetic members of the Assembly Democratic conference, who heard the results of the advocates' statewide tour through 14 hard-pressed districts, including several in the Capital Region.
The report listed "educational resource deficiencies" that were familiar to the platoon of school leaders — ranging from increased class size and libraries being repurposed for classrooms to staff cuts and the reduction of pre-K programs from full-day to half-day. The tour began with stops in Hoosick Falls, Cohoes, Schenectady and Amsterdam.
"The state is systematically underfunding the schools," said Billy Easton, executive director of AQE, a group that receives funding from unions including New York State United Teachers.
Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan of Queens, chair of the chamber's education committee, said the Democratic conference would push to increase the amount of funding outlined in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget plan, which calls for almost $700 million in added formula-based aid and $100 million as an initial investment in universal statewide full-day prekindergarten.
"Politics is supposed to be the sweet spot between what you absolutely need (and) what you absolutely have," said Nolan, who said she thought the state could move ahead with the pre-K expansion despite the inventory of woes Easton had just described.
David Sciarra of the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, which has taken over the CFE's legal efforts, said the tour also provided evidence for potential use in a sequel of sorts to the original CFE lawsuit, which was thought to have been resolved by the 2007 establishment of a state foundation aid formula.
Advocates argue that the state has failed to live up to its end of that agreement, resulting in an estimated $5 billion gap in funding.
A flurry of lawsuits related to school aid is already in motion: An action brought by so-called "small-cities" districts is scheduled to go to trial in September. A recent ruling in that case, Maisto v. New York, cleared the way for suits that involve claims of "palpably inadequate" funding.
"We're hopeful that the Legislature, in response to this report, substantially increases the amount of funding through the formula in this budget," Sciarra said. "But I'm here to tell you that we're going to continue gathering this evidence, and if necessary there can be additional litigation that could be brought to address what are clear constitutional inadequacies in many of the school districts that we visited."
Schenectady City Schools Superintendent Laurence Spring has filed a federal complaint that argues the state's aid formula discriminates against poor and minority students. At Monday's news conference, Spring said his district received roughly 54 percent of the aid due to it under the formula — a shortchanging of more than $62 million per year.
"That results in significant overtaxing of the citizens of Schenectady," Spring said. "It also means that in one of the poorest cities in the state, children are dramatically under-served."
Spring said the impediments presented by the "intense poverty" suffered by a disproportionate number of his students was exacerbated by the lack of resources at their schools.
Spring said the district is trying to bridge a $10 million budget gap this year. "We're having to consider whether or not we can continue to offer kindergarten," he said. "We have to consider whether or not we need to cut back on our social workers and our guidance counselors. We've already begun cutting back on our remedial services."
"This is an extraordinarily needy community. The patently unfair nature in which school aid is distributed is choking the city, and it's destroying the lives of kids."
While the annual budget negotiation frequently involves a certain amount of haggling that invariably results in a politically popular increase in school aid, this year's debate is especially sharp due to the governor's desire to use a projected budget surplus to fund tax cuts in an election year.
Cuomo has frequently pointed to New York's highest-in-the-nation spending per pupil, and argued that more money isn't always the answer to education challenges.
Easton suggested gaining $400 million for additional school aid by scrapping Cuomo's proposed property tax freeze and $100 million by preserving the 18A surcharge on utility bills. None of the lawmakers on hand chimed in to agree with him.
Expect more heated education rhetoric at the Capitol on Tuesday, when advocates for pre-K, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are scheduled to lobby lawmakers the same day representative of charter schools make their case. De Blasio and Cuomo, both Democrats, are currently at odds over the best way to fund pre-K, while the mayor last week earned the ire of charter supporters by vetoing three "co-location" agreements, forcing those charter programs to search for new homes this fall.
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The new chief of investigations for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Moreland Commission on public corruption has spent the last seven years working for entities controlled by the governor: Robert Addolorato worked as an investigator for Cuomo during his years as attorney general, and in 2011 jumped to the Inspector General's office.
Danya Perry, whose departure as the panel's investigations chief was first reported by Ken Lovett of the Daily News on Friday, came to that position after more than a decade at the U.S. Attorney's office, where she worked most recently under Preet Bharara.
The Daily News report cited unnamed sources who said that Perry's exit was prompted in part by her frustration over gubernatorial meddling with the panel. After initially declining comment, she released a statement denying such frustration.
Addolorato has worked for the commission since its creation by Cuomo last July. It's scheduled to release its final report at the end of 2014; a preliminary report in December made recommendations nearly identical to reform proposals Cuomo floated last spring that failed to prompt action by lawmakers.
Those proposals have now returned as elements of the executive budget proposal.
The Moreland panel recently issued a new set of subpoenas to various entities related to spending by campaign committees. Last week, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said the commission was engaged in "a fishing expedition to intimidate legislators" that was costing taxpayers in two streams — for the panel itself, and for legal fees to support the Legislature's resistance to its efforts.
Before joining the attorney general's office but after his retirement as a New York City detective, Addolorato worked for the exoneration of two men who were convicted of the 1990 murder of a club bouncer. His ally in that effort was Steve Cohen, the ex-federal prosecutor who would also join Cuomo at the attorney general's office and the executive chamber. (Cohen is now in private practice, but maintains close ties to the administration.)
The two men, David Lemus and Olmedo Hidalgo, were eventually paid some $4 million to settle lawsuits related to their wrongful conviction.
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Osama bin Laden's son-in-law was introduced to prospective jurors on Monday at the start of his trial on charges that he conspired to kill Americans and support terrorists in his role as al-Qaida's spokesman after the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan asked Sulaiman Abu Ghaith to turn and face the potential jurors before asking if any of them knew him. None did. The judge drew silence as well when he asked if there was anyone who had never heard of al-Qaida.
A few prospective jurors were dismissed after acknowledging they would have trouble being fair because they knew people killed in the 2001 World Trade Center attack.
The trial began a year after Abu Ghaith was captured in Jordan. The judge told prospective jurors they would need to decide whether Abu Ghaith conspired to kill Americans, conspired to provide material support and resources to terrorists and then supplied material support and resources to terrorists.
— Associated Press
Arrests of peddlers and panhandlers in the subway have more than tripled over the past two months, compared to the same period last year. Officers have made 274 arrests. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton included the reduction of panhandling in the subway as a top priority in his inauguration speech. In a similar fashion, arrests at public housing for such violations as drinking beer in public and riding a bike on the sidewalk have increased to 21 percent from the same period last year. Such data is now available under Bratton, and was kept under wraps by the previous commissioner. Bratton sees the crackdown on low-level offenses as a way to deter more serious ones. Stop-and-frisks in the transit system, however, have dropped 96 percent.Other Stories We're Following
Assemblyman Boyland Found Guilty Of Bribery (Wall Street Journal)
Moskowitz To Keep Fighting Mayor Over Nixed Charters (Daily News)
Mayor Insists He’s Not Out To Destroy Charters (Politicker)
Full-Day Kindergarten Lost In Pre-K Debate (NY Times)
Mayor's Approval Rating Hits 39 Percent In Poll (Wall Street Journal)
Legislators Want Money For Pedestrians, Cyclists (Associated Press)
Governor's Race Starts With A Whimper (Crain's)
Martin E. Sullivan, the former director of the State Museum who presided over the landmark return of a dozen wampum belts to the Onondaga Nation 25 years ago, died last week at his home in Maryland, according to the museum. He was 70.
Sullivan, a Troy native and Siena College graduate, ran the Madison Avenue museum for seven years before leaving in 1990 to lead the Heard Museum of American Indian Art and History in Phoenix and, until 2012, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Sullivan, who had been ill for some time, died Feb. 25 in Piney Point, Md., of kidney failure, according to the Associated Press.
Perhaps the high point of Sullivan's tenure in Albany came near the end of it when the museum agreed in 1989 to hand over the 12 sacred wampum belts to the Onondagas, citing their deep cultural significance.
That agreement, which Sullivan described as the most significant in the country at the time, came as Native American tribes across the United States were ramping up the pressure on cultural institutions to return artifacts that were either stolen or sold by people with no authority to do so — and a year before Congress intervened to require it.
Tremendously controversial at the time, the move put Sullivan in conflict with other museum executives hesitant to confront the delicate issue, recalled Carole Huxley, the state's deputy commissioner for cultural education at the time.
"It was a very big deal, and it's a law now. Not (just) here, but across the country," said Huxley, who first worked with Sullivan at the National Endowment for the Humanities. "People in other museums didn't want to have to think about it. Do we own these things? Did we not take them away from (these) people properly?"
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed the following year.
"There's always somebody that says, 'I don't want you to do this,'" Huxley said. "And Marty would stand right up to them. He was very brave and very strong, and he never did things without thinking them through."
The wampum belts, made of white and purple beads, recorded significant events in the Onondagas' past. Four of them were willed to the state in 1927 by the widow of former Albany Mayor John Boyd Thacher, who had purchased them for $500 in 1893, according to the Times Union archives.
"There is increasing recognition that in addition to our primary duty of preserving and interpreting objects, we also have a related duty to help preserve and nurture the cultures from which those objects come," Sullivan told the New York Times in 1989.
Sullivan, who earned bachelor's degree in history from Siena and a master's and Ph.D. in American history from the University of Notre Dame, would go on to serve on the national Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee and as chairman of the president's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property.
He also presided over the opening of the State Museum's Native Peoples of New York Hall, which chronicles the cultural history of the native tribes that once populated the vast expanse of the state.
Joseph Heath, general counsel for Onondaga Indian Nation, called the return of the belts "a good act toward healing some of the harm" and a notable departure from the attitude among many "old-school" archaeologists at the time, which "was that we can handle these things better than you."
But Heath said Monday that the Iroquois, of which the Onondaga are one of six nations, continue to fight the state over the return of cultural items and even human remains.
"I don't want to seem unappreciative of the return of those belts," Heath said, "but there's so much more that they should be doing.
Mark Schaming, the museum's current director and a colleague and friend of Sullivan, said the repatriation efforts that gained steam under Sullivan are an ongoing and often complex process that can involve competing claims. He also credited Sullivan with assembling the museum's first modern educational team.
"Marty was as kind as he was a brilliant leader — just a wonderful guy," Schaming said.
Huxley echoed that point, adding: "Even the grouchy people in the museum liked him."
Schaming said Sullivan was plain-spoken and proud of his Troy roots, which endeared him to colleagues who bid him farewell back then over corned-beef sandwiches and beer at the South End Tavern.
"He was a real local guy," Schaming said, "which was part of what you just liked about him."
Sullivan is survived by his wife, Katherine, and three children.
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Oh, now it's on: The Assembly and Senate return Monday through Thursday for the first of four weeks of four-day sessions counting down to the March 31 deadline for passage of the state budget. (The only other four-day legislative work weeks will come at the end of this year's session, in June.) As time runs out, expect the volume of advocacy and lobbying to increase by lots of decibels. Here are some of the week's action in and around the Capitol:
• The Alliance for Quality Education and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity offer the results of their 16-school tour investigating the needs of fiscally strapped districts at 1 p.m. in Room 836 of the LOB. Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine Nolan will be on hand.
• The newly appointed members of the START-UP NY Approval Board, which will have the power to approve plans for tax-free zones submitted by private universities and colleges, holds its first meeting at 11 a.m. in Room 131 of the Capitol. The event will be webcast at http://www.esd.ny.gov/webcasts/
• The state Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers joins lawmakers, people in recovery and more at an 11 a.m. news conference at the Capitol calling on the state to do more to fight heroin and prescription drug addiction.
• Tuesday is lobby day for two hot-button education issues: universal prekindergarten education in New York City and charter schools. Advocates for the the latter cause plan to bring more than 2,000 parents and students to a Capitol rally at 12:15 p.m.
• The Broadway League holds a 10 a.m. news conference to push for a state tax credit for shows that decide to hold technical rehearsals at upstate theaters such as Proctors in Schenectady — the live-theater equivalent to current state credits for film and television production.
— Casey Seiler and NYSNYS.com
Connecticut and New York have found a way around federal budget cuts that played a central role in the massive farm bill passed this month: bump up home heating assistance a few million bucks in return for preserving more than a half-billion dollars in food stamp benefits.
The moves by Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — with the possibility that more governors could follow — cheer social service advocates who say the deep recession and weak economic recovery have pounded low-income workers and the unemployed who rely on heating assistance and food stamps.
The $100 billion per year farm bill cut $800 million annually in the food stamp program by ending some state practices that give recipients minimal heating assistance — as low as $1 per person — to trigger higher food stamp benefits. Compromise legislation requires states to give recipients at least $20 in heating assistance before a higher food stamp benefit could kick in.
Connecticut and New York have both moved to bump up heating assistance in order to preserve the food stamp benefits, a decision panned by critics who say it's just a way to circumvent the point of the bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 7.
"The extra money being spent is an artificial boost of an amount that a household is receiving, but they're doing so though a scheme, basically," said Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
As much as 95 percent of food stamp funding is from Washington and "states don't have a concern about increased food stamp costs," she said.
"We need to be sure that money spent goes to those most in need rather than states using a loophole to boost money they're receiving," Sheffield said.
Anne Foley, an undersecretary of the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, said increasing heating assistance is "absolutely not a loophole."
"It's a way in which we identify households that have extraordinary needs and legitimately ought to have additional federal funding for nutrition assistance," she said.
An order by Malloy will spend about $1.4 million in federal energy aid, increasing benefits for 50,000 low-income Connecticut residents from $1 to $20 so they do not lose $112 in monthly food stamp benefits. It will preserve about $67 million in food stamp benefits. New York will spend about $6 million more in federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding to maintain food stamp benefits totaling $457 million.
"The state has intervened on behalf of these low-income New Yorkers to make sure they can get food for themselves and their families," Cuomo said in announcing his decision.
Federal officials have seized an ancient Roman sarcophagus lid from a New York City storage facility on behalf of Italian officials who say it was looted from Italy decades ago.
A marble statue of a reclining half-clad female is carved in the lid of the funeral box.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents said Friday the statue appeared at a public exhibition in New York as recently as last week. Authorities don't know when it entered the U.S.
Federal prosecutors said in court papers filed Thursday the statue is believed to be one of the antiquities illegally obtained by Italian art dealer Gianfranco Becchina.
Becchina was convicted in 2011 of trafficking in plundered Roman artifacts. He ran an antiquities gallery in Basel, Switzerland.
The city will drop a lawsuit challenging the new law making it easier to bring racial profiling cases against police officers, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced yesterday. The suit was initiated by the Bloomberg Administration. The move is expected to be made officially on Monday. Last month de Blasio also withdrew Bloomberg's challenge to court ordered reforms of stop-and-frisk practices. The police unions supported the Bloomberg challenge, and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association filed its own suit. Union officials will use the suit as a bargaining tool in contract negotiations.Other Stories We're Following
What Can Cuomo Do To ‘Save’ Charters? (Capital)
Council Gushes Over de Blasio's Budget (Crain's)
Fed: NYC's Economy Off To Cold Start (Crain's)
Cuomo's Approval Ratings Drop Sharply In New Poll (Wall Street Journal)
Mayor's Allies Press Him On Housing (Wall Street Journal)
Metro Area's Economy Almost As Large As Australia's (The Atlantic Cities)
Kerry Kennedy was swiftly acquitted Friday of drugged driving in a case that her lawyers said would never have been brought if she were simply "Mary Housewife" rather than a member of one of America's most glamorous political families.
After four days of testimony, a six-person jury took a little over an hour to find Kennedy not guilty of driving while impaired. She was arrested in 2012 after swerving into a tractor-trailer on an interstate highway in her Lexus.
The 54-year-old human-rights advocate — the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, niece of President John F. Kennedy and ex-wife of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — testified she mistakenly took a sleeping pill instead of her daily thyroid medication the morning of the wreck.
If convicted, she could have been sentenced to a year in jail, unlikely for a first-time offender.
Her lawyers made sure that the jurors knew all about her famous family. But after the acquittal, they said she should have been treated like "Mary Housewife." And they accused prosecutors of giving her special treatment by refusing to drop the case.
The district attorney's office denied the accusation. And Kennedy herself said she wasn't angry about being put on trial.
In a show of the Kennedy clan's famous loyalty, the defendant's 85-year-old mother, Ethel Kennedy, attended the trial daily. Nearly a dozen other members of the family came by, including three brothers, two sisters, a sister-in-law and three daughters.
Laurence Leamer, who has written three books about the Kennedys, said: "The Kennedys are very loyal to each other in a crisis. ... It's one of the most admirable things about them." He said there's no way to gauge the effect on the jury, but "Kennedys or not, it's Defense 101 to have family members sitting there for the jury to see."
Tobe Berkovitz, a political media consultant and professor of advertising at Boston University, said: "The Kennedys saw this as a DA overreaching, making a big case out of a silly mistake. So they absolutely played every Camelot trump card they had in the deck. They had the family. They had questions about her losing her father as a young girl."
He added, "When the legacy is being challenged, they all step up and fight."
The trial drew so much attention that it was moved from a small-town courtroom to the county courthouse in White Plains.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the charter school movement a day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ignited a controversy when his administration decided to cancel "co-location" agreements with three charter schools that would have allowed them to use public school facilities.
The co-location deals had been approved by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a booster of charter schools. De Blasio has approved the vast majority of the city's co-location agreements.
Asked about the controversy by Susan Arbetter on WCNY's "Capitol Pressroom," Cuomo sidestepped.
"You know, I don't intend to be an expert on the specifics of this co-location decision — I haven't really gone through that," he said. "But in general, I think this charter school movement ... is healthy for education writ large. I think the innovation of it is productive."
"The public education system, obviously, needs to work better — we all know that," he said. "And the charter schools pose a different philosophy, a different approach. Some have worked tremendously well. Some have not worked. If they don't work they should be closed, certainly. ... I think that movement should continue."
Cuomo, who has been at odds with de Blasio over the funding of universal pre-kindergarten education, said that mayoral control of the schools in New York City is, like the charter school movement, a fairly recent reform.
"The mayor has authority (over co-location arrangements), there's no doubt about that," Cuomo said. "And there's also no doubt that Mayor Bloomberg was a champion of charter schools, and his administration worked very hard to advance the movement and they did. And I think the reason the movement is where it is is in large part to Mayor Bloomberg's credit. I think ... the movement itself has been a net positive."
Arbetter asked if it was fair that educators at charter schools weren't subject to teacher evaluations that are required of public school teachers.
"Different issue; good question," he said. " ... I haven't formed a hard opinion on it, but it is a good question and it is a valid topic."
The governor said he'd be willing to discuss making charters subject to the process.
On Tuesday, advocates for de Blasio's pre-K plan — which involves a surcharge on the city's wealthiest residents — will rally in Albany the same day charter advocates will be at the Capitol rallying for their cause.
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The state authority charged with building the proposed downtown convention center agreed on Friday to pay $4.05 million for four properties that make up the bulk of its roughly 1.3-acre construction site off Eagle Street.
The Albany Convention Center Authority's board signed off on a pact with Columbia Development Cos. that, once finalized, will hand over a shovel-ready site where construction of the $66.5 million Albany Capital Center could begin as soon as this summer or early fall.
Not only will the deal put virtually all of the project's proposed footprint under the authority's control, it also marks the first land deal since plans to build a $220 million facility off Broadway — where the authority already owns roughly seven acres — were shelved last year amid the state's unwillingness to pay for the much larger project.
Demolition work at the site bounded by Eagle, Howard and Wendell streets would start much sooner with Columbia Development cleaning up any environmental hazards and razing an 11-story building and parking garage this spring and summer. Some clean-up work has already begun.
The sale price falls on the lower end of two independent appraisals, authority Chairman Gavin Donohue said. The higher appraisal, he said, put the value at $5.2 million, the lower at about $3.9 million.
Both appraisals were for the properties in their current conditions — including the existing buildings, the asbestos inside them and at least four underground fuel tanks that need to be removed. The average of the two appraisals was $4.56 million.
Authority consultants estimated that demolishing the buildings and preparing the site for construction would cost as much as $1.4 million.
That means the authority will get the land clean and ready to build for $1.25 million less than the combined costs of the lowest appraisal and the amount that would have been required to prepare it for construction, Donohue said, calling it "a very good deal for the taxpayers."
"I feel very confident and very comfortable with the decision we're making today as an authority," Donohue said.
The deal will be staggered such that Columbia will receive the money in installments pegged to certain clean-up and demolition milestones, officials said. The sale won't formally close until the environmental review and necessary permits are in place — expected to be some time around May, Donohue said.
It initially appeared as though the authority would have to strike deals with two property owners — Columbia and a limited liability company, Wellington Garage Associates, linked to the State Street lobbying firm Hinman Straub. The firm uses the parking garage and an adjacent parking lot for its employees.
But in what officials described as an attempt to simplify the transaction and the logistics of the demolition, Wellington Garage Associates is selling its property to Columbia, which will prepare the site and sell it to the authority.
Columbia President Joseph Nicolla said the complexity of demolishing his building without affecting the neighboring garage, or vice versa, was the "sole factor" that motivated the other owner to sell to him.
Directly across Howard Street, Columbia is about to start a $48.5 million rehabilitation of the vacant DeWitt Clinton Hotel into a Marriott Renaissance Hotel. While not officially part of the convention center project, the hotel would be the closest to the new meeting hall and would stand to benefit substantially from conventioneers.
The firm is also building corporate office space and luxury condos on a nearby section of State Street just below the Capitol known as Wellington Row.
Nicolla said neither project "was the determining factor for us" in the convention center land deal.
"Every deal has to stand on its own," he said. "Any deal that you do, everybody has to be happy with it. Gavin believes he got a good deal, and we believe we got a good deal."
It was not immediately clear how much Columbia paid Wellington Garage Associates for its two parcels — 54 Howard St. and 9 Wendell St. Columbia already owned 60 Howard St. and 41 Eagle St.
The sale will leave just one property left to acquire — a roughly 0.3-acre parcel owned by Albany County and adjacent to the pedestrian walkway linking Times Union Center to Empire State Plaza. The County Legislature could vote to transfer that parcel to the authority as soon as next month, officials said.
Assemblyman John T. McDonald III, a member of the authority's board, abstained from the vote on the land deal citing the lobbying firm's involvement and a campaign contribution from Nicolla during his 2012 Assembly campaign — before he was appointed to the board.
McDonald said he did not want the appearance of a conflict of interest to overshadow what he said should otherwise be an exciting development.
"In this situation, principals of the lobbying firm are benefiting, and I want to make sure that there's no appearance of any impropriety," McDonald said.
The bulk of the 82,000-square-foot meeting hall's construction costs will be funded by the state and by a percentage of the tax on hotel stays in Albany County.
Construction is set to be complete in July 2016.
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The Cuomo administration has proposed extending out-of-network coverage requirements for emergencies and specialists to all health insurers in New York in what it says is an effort to protect consumers from big surprise medical bills.
The requirements currently apply to health maintenance organizations and 16 insurance plans in New York's new health exchange, according to the state Department of Financial Services. When a network lacks an available specialist, or in emergencies, patients could get treated elsewhere and pay their usual insurance fees.
Legislation that Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed as part of a budget for the fiscal year starting April 1 would apply those consumer protections to non-HMOs, which provide most health coverage in New York.
If approved by the Legislature, it would also require advance disclosures by hospitals and doctors to patients about who's actually in their insurance networks. Payment disputes would go to arbitration between the providers and insurance companies, leaving the patients out.
The protections wouldn't apply to consumers who simply opt for providers outside their networks.
The New York Health Plan Association, an insurers' group, and the Medical Society of the State of New York, which represents doctors, have expressed respective concerns about high doctor billing and low coverage amounts.
Concert pianist Claudia Knafo, whose four-hour disc surgery two years ago left her with $97,000 in bills and dunning notices, visited the Capitol on Thursday to advocate passage.
"I was concerned that to get through this I would have to declare bankruptcy," she recalled.
According to Knafo, the surgeon said he was in her insurance plan but wasn't. Her insurance initially paid almost $67,000, then demanded back all but $3,500. She tried for months to resolve it and hired a lawyer.
The company finally dropped its claim after she called DFS Superintendent Ben Lawsky.
She declined Thursday to name the doctor, the hospital that misidentified the doctor as a member of her insurance plan, or the insurer.
Lawsky's department issued a report two years ago examining unexpected medical bills, saying that it received 2,105 reimbursement complaints in 2011 and that insurers reported another 1,310 that year.
Advocates for the legislation said there are certainly many more patients who've had similar problems and didn't know where to complain.
"These are just the tip of the iceberg," said Chuck Bell, program director for Consumers Union.
Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said corrective legislation has been stalled so far by two big powerful interest groups, the insurers and the medical providers.
City Councilman Dan Garodnick and Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito chat prior to a webcast of a Council meeting.
A law requiring all city agencies, commissions and task forces to webcast their public meetings and hearings took effect this week, but most of those entities are failing to comply.
While the Mayor Bill de Blasio administration works to change that, the City Council is moving forward with a bill that would expand the law to cover the city's 59 community boards.
Neither the existing law nor its proposed expansion faces any organized opposition – both have been heralded as a step in the right direction for government transparency – but there are concerns about the nuts and bolts.
Big questions remain about Local Law 103, commonly referred to as the webcast law. It’s unclear which agencies must comply, when agencies will actually start webcasting and who is going to pay for it. New Yorkers also wonder what it's all going to look and sound like.
Representatives of many of the city's community boards are in favor of more transparency and showcasing what they do to an online audience, but the boards don't want to be forced to pay for the webcasts.
Though not known as a bastion of transparency, Albany has had a webcasting law on the books for seven years. On his first day in office in 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed an executive order requiring all state agencies to record video of public meetings (those that fall under the state's Open Meetings Law) to be streamed and archived online. The broadcast quality varies among agencies, but overall the system has been relatively successful.
A few months after Spitzer's executive order, then-Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who was recently elected Manhattan borough president, introduced a bill that would require New York City to follow the state's lead. The bill never made it out of committee.
The Council, however, started webcasting its meetings in 2010. That same year, Brewer introduced another version of her bill, which languished until last year when it was unanimously approved. Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed it into law in his final month in office.
The webcast law requires "each city agency, committee, commission and task force and the council" to record video of its public meetings to post online within 72 hours and, "where practicable," live-stream the video online.
Before the bill passed last year, the Council's Finance Division based its Fiscal Impact Statement on the proposal on “18 City entities that do not currently webcast open meetings.” The number seems to be far greater than that.
At an oversight hearing last month, Jeffrey Merritt, a senior advisor to the mayor, said that less than 5 percent of more than 200 city boards and commissions webcast their meetings.
Good government group Citizens Union found that 54 city boards and commissions conduct regularly scheduled public hearings or meetings, but only 14 webcast their proceedings.
The de Blasio administration says it is committed to seeing that agencies comply with the webcast law.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us to make the city more transparent and accessible and I'm confident that our city agencies are up for this challenge," Merritt said.
The law does not name an agency in charge of compliance, which explains some of the confusion.
Merritt said the administration is working with the Law Department to determine what entities are supposed to comply. However, a Law Department spokesman told the Gotham Gazette that the city Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications will handle all compliance issues.
According to DoITT, there is no single enforcement agency, but it is working with the Law Department and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment to help agencies with compliance. All city entities subject to the state Open Meetings Law are subject to the webcast law, according to the DoITT.
That's news for some governing bodies.
A spokesman for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said their office is unaware that their board meetings are subject to the law and are reviewing it. Board meetings are videotaped and aired by BronxNet, but the recordings are not posted online within 72 hours.
The cost of webcasting city government will depend on who must comply with the law. The Council's Finance Division estimated it would cost $180,000 to equip and train staff for the 18 city agencies mentioned in its report and an additional $100,000 in annual expenses. Costs would escalate if more than those 18 agencies are subject to the law, as the de Blasio administration and Citizens Union suggest.
Reinvent Albany, an organization that promotes open government, urged the de Blasio administration to focus on 30 agencies and commissions that hold regular meetings in the same venue. It estimates that retaining a vendor to get those 30 agencies up and running would cost between $110,000 and $150,000 per year.
The administration is reviewing equipment at various agencies to take inventory of what needs to be purchased, Merritt said. The city could opt to solicit bids from private companies for a webcasting system for all agencies subject to the law.
The Council webcasts its meetings with a high-end system that cost $1.5 million, financed with cable franchise money. The city's Campaign Finance Board, one of the 14 agencies that already webcasts its meetings, pays an online video service, Livestream, $350 per month to air its webcasts.
Brewer estimates it would cost about $20,000 to purchase equipment to record Manhattan Borough Board meetings. She argues that the benefits of webcasting "far outweigh the costs," particularly because many meetings occur while the average New Yorker is working.
"This provides an important level of transparency and oversight, and should also lead to a better-informed electorate," Brewer said, adding that agencies should be offered financial help to offset the costs of webcasting.
It's difficult to gauge how many New Yorkers would tune in to webcasts. The Campaign Finance Board says nearly 3,000 viewers have logged in to watch meetings on its webcast since 2011. By comparison, the state Department of State posts its meeting videos on YouTube and last year attracted a range of 11 to 119 views.
Such low numbers of viewers might not reflect the impact of posting the videos online, said Rachel Fauss, research & policy manager for the Citizens Union. For example, a single viewing by a journalist or blogger could spark a story in a newspaper or website.
"The numbers, even though they may seem small, are actually much, much bigger in terms of the ultimate reach," she said.
Among those exempted from the webcast law are the city's 59 community boards. But the Council might change that.
A bill requiring community boards to live-stream meetings or post recordings online within 72 hours was introduced in January.
Manhattan Community Board 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman described the proposal as an "unfunded mandate" inflicted on cash-strapped boards and agencies.
"You can change the charter to mandate that community boards perform brain surgery, but you'd be setting us up to fail. It's unwise and unfair," he said.
Official NYC Council photo by William Alatriste