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
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.
NEW YORK — An armed motorist who led police on a chase through Brooklyn before crashing into a truck and running through a residential neighborhood was shot by an officer Wednesday after the man reached for his weapon when the officer confronted him, police said.
An officer in a marked patrol car saw a man in a 2015 Ford Mustang GT driving recklessly in the Crown Heights neighborhood around 12:30 p.m., police said. They said the officer followed the car and tried to pull it over, but the driver refused to stop, speeding through traffic instead. Investigators believe the driver, in an attempt to evade the officer, crossed into oncoming traffic, where he slammed into a truck that had parked in the middle of the road to make a delivery and nearly collided with a city bus.
The driver, identified only as a 24-year-old man, took off from the car with a gun in his hand, leading the officer on a foot chase, police said.
Investigators said the man had the loaded semiautomatic Ruger firearm in his hand as he ran for several blocks before stumbling and dropping the gun.
The man, who has a lengthy arrest record, reached for the gun even as the officer repeatedly told him not to, authorities said. When the man continued to reach for the gun, the officer shot him, a police spokesman said.
The man was shot once in the torso and was taken to a hospital. He is expected to survive. Police said charges against him were pending.
— Associated Press
In late October, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics issued a draft advisory opinion that if adopted could have a major impact on campaign giving to New York's three statewide elected officials.
In the weeks since, attorneys from the offices of those very politicians — Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli — have provided input to JCOPE that could well end up narrowing the impacts of the opinion, which was intended to prevent politicians from potentially using their legal powers to coerce campaign contributions.
At a JCOPE meeting on Tuesday, JCOPE counsel Monica Stamm said she had collected input on the draft regulations from the offices of Cuomo, Schneiderman and DiNapoli, among others, and heard concerns the regulations had been written in an "overbroad" way.
Only DiNapoli's office provided a formal, written comment to JCOPE outlining its concerns in an eight-page letter. It's not clear exactly what advice came from the camps of Cuomo and Schneiderman, and neither office would provide more information to the Times Union.
The draft JCOPE opinion, as initially proposed several weeks ago, would bar statewide elected officials and legislators from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions from "any person or entity" being targeted by that elected official's office through an investigation, prosecution or audit. If ultimately approved by JCOPE's commissioners, it also would bar soliciting and accepting campaign contributions from targets of an official's lawsuit.
No further official action was taken by JCOPE on the draft opinion on Tuesday, and it remains under consideration.
JCOPE spokesman Walter McClure said it was not unusual for the ethics agency to seek input from elected officials impacted by its proposed policies. He noted that lobbyists were routinely consulted for comment on policies concerning that industry. "It's normal to get the opinion of the people it would have an effect on," McClure said. "We work with the covered communities to make sure it makes sense."
This particular opinion could be especially sensitive, and not only because it impacts issues concerning potential pay-to-play politics.
At the time the draft opinion was released in late October, David Grandeau — the state's former top ethics official and generally a strident JCOPE critic — praised the draft advisory opinion as "the greatest thing I've seen done in ethics enforcement in the past 10 years." As written, Grandeau said, it appeared the opinion would cover matters involving New York's banking, insurance, real estate, unions and casino industries — all major campaign donors – because various state agencies have the powers outlined by JCOPE draft opinion.
In other words, it would cover agencies under the purview of Cuomo and not just the separately elected officials with whom he has sometimes frosty relations: DiNapoli, who has audit powers, and Schneiderman, who has investigatory powers. If so, the regulations would impact the governor's own fundraising.
Six of JCOPE's 14 commissioners are gubernatorial appointees, and many of its top staff have worked at one point for the governor. Good-government groups have expressed concerns about the body's independence from the Cuomo administration.
On Tuesday, DiNapoli's office provided a copy of the letter it sent to JCOPE citing concerns about the draft opinion. DiNapoli's office echoed Grandeau's belief that as first written, the draft opinion would indeed cover the "activities of all executive branch agencies" headed by Cuomo appointees.
"The opinion casts an incredibly wide net over government operations, covering all statewide elected officials and their respective offices and the investigative, prosecutorial and audit powers exercised by those offices," wrote Nancy Groenwegen, DiNapoli's governmental general counsel.
Groenwegen later added that the comptroller's office presumed "such far-reaching results are not intended" by JCOPE staff.
The opinion comes at a time of transition for JCOPE, which is currently conducting a national search for a new executive director. One of the candidates is Kevin Gagan, the body's current chief of staff and special counsel, and a former Cuomo aide during his term in the attorney general's office.
One group has formally called for JCOPE not to narrow the opinion's scope, but to go even further: The New York City Bar Association sent a letter on Monday to the ethics watchdog calling on the panel to limit contributions from those with pending legislative matters before a state politician.
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The state Board of Regents on Monday discussed what will be a request for an additional $2.4 billion in state funding for education funding, including $2.1 billion more in base, or operating, aid.
The request contains several pots of money, including one to help restore some of the aid withheld after the 2008 financial crash. Additionally, board members and state Education Department staffers pointed to the desire to help local school districts because many cannot raise their local property taxes due to the state's property tax cap.
Under the cap, districts can raise their levies by 2 percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. But with the CPI expected to be zero due to low inflation, the cap may be zero as well. To exceed the cap, districts need a 60 percent supermajority vote on the budget.
However, school districts' labor contracts have built-in raises, and they face rising employee health insurance rates, making it difficult to maintain flat budgets.
"Even in the years of the recession, the school district costs were increasing and they continue to increase," Brian Cechnicki, the state Education Department's director of education finance, told members of the Board of Regents on Monday.
He explained that many district costs are expected to rise 3 percent next year.
The $2.4 billion request that the Regents are finalizing should be completed in December, said board member James Tallon.
At that time, experts in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget division will be finalizing its proposal for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which starts in April. Once that is offered in January, the Assembly and Senate will weigh in with their own school spending plans.
This year's state school funding level is about $23.5 billion. With the additional funding, it's $25.9 billion.
When local property taxes and federal aid is added, education spending would top $60 billion.
In a survey released by the New York State School Boards Association on Monday, 38 percent of more than 600 respondents said they would consider asking voters to override the cap if that cap was zero percent. Moreover, two-thirds believe the cap will come in at zero percent, especially because the CPI so far has been flat.
"With no growth allowed in their tax levies, we expect more school boards to attempt a tax cap override in order to meet their rising expenses," School Boards Association Executive Director Timothy Kremer said. "We'll know more in 2016 when school boards begin the budgeting process in earnest and share various budgeting scenarios with their communities."
Since the tax cap took effect in 2012, an average of about 30 districts, or 4 percent, have sought overrides each year.
Last year it was 18, or just under 3 percent.
While the education lobby has said the cap puts schools in an economic bind, others have noted that New York has the nation's highest per-pupil spending level, more than $21,000— which is twice the national average.
Among the items the Regents are looking at is a $75 million allocation for "career"-oriented classes such as those found in vocational programs and a doubling of the $75 million allocated this year for the 20 "persistently struggling" schools that are in receivership or under the sole control of their local superintendents. If those schools don't markedly improve, they are set to be taken over by outside entities, such as charter schools or colleges, next year.
The Regents would want extra funding for the 124 "struggling schools" that have two years to improve before facing an outside takeover.
Additionally, the Regents want another $400 million for "expense-based" items such as transportation and building costs, which are distinct from regular operating costs, which are largely salaries and benefits.
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